In a skillfully worded NYT op-ed piece appearing Dec. 23rd, Turkish Muslim Mustafa Akyol contends that Muslims have every right to wish their Christian neighbors “Merry Christmas!” Unfortunately, not all fellow Muslims agree with him.
Akyol’s argument is that since the Qur’an also teaches the miraculous birth of Jesus to the virgin Mary, Muslims can join in the Christmas cheer, although not in quite the same way as Christians. With refreshing candor, he admits that Islam rejects the core Christian teaching that God became a human being in Jesus (a sine qua non of Christianity), but then sweeps that difference aside by saying we nonetheless have much in common! That seems a bit like saying, “Though human beings and rats are different creatures, we share much in common (living beings which eat, breathe, reproduce, inhabit cities…), and so we should focus on those commonalities.” Unfortunately, surface similarities cannot surmount essential differences, nor should they. We learn more from facing such differences squarely rather than dismissing them from thought.
Here are some elements of the biblical Christmas accounts that Akyol leaves out. The angel appearing to Joseph commands him to name the coming child “Jesus”, which means in Hebrew “God saves,” because, in the angel’s words, “He will save his people from their sins.” Jesus is also to be known as “Emmanuel,” which translates as “God with us.” Islam categorically rejects the idea that there is any Savior sent for sinners, much less the idea that this Savior is God Incarnate.
Matthew tells us that magi from the East come seeking Jesus, and upon finding him, “fell down and worshiped him.” Such an act, while wholly appropriate based on Christian assumptions concerning Jesus’ divine nature, is an act of shirk (idolatry) according to Islam, punishable by death in this world and eternal fire in hell.
When the angel Gabriel appears to Mary to inform her that she will bear this unique child into the world, he refers to Jesus as “Son of the Most High,” whose Kingdom will have no end, and again as the “Son of God,” who will be called “holy.” The Qur’an, on the other hand, rejects as anathema the notion that God could have a son, and that any kingdom can stand for eternity other than Allah’s Kingdom. In Islam, the angel Gabriel would lose his head over such declarations.
On the night of Jesus’ birth, the angelic address to shepherds on the hill outside Bethlehem speaks of the one born as “Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” This announcement is punctuated by a multitude of angels praising God’s glory in song. According to Islam, this could not have happened – how could such a heavenly host be so misguided?
If the message of Christmas that God became human in Jesus is not true, then the religion of Christianity crumbles into irrelevancy. If it is true, then Islam lies exposed as a false revelation. Both claims cannot be true.
The reason many Muslims shy away from wishing Christians a merry Christmas is their concern that in doing so, they are giving the impression they affirm what Christmas celebrates: that Jesus is not merely a prophet sent to the Jews, or even a great miracle-worker, even a word from Allah, but in his essence he is fully God and fully human, the one and only Savior of the world, sent for all peoples in every time and place, the One to whom full allegiance and worship is due. Or in the words of the hymn, “….for with blessing in his hand, Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.”
Saudi religious scholar Muhammad al-‘Arifi sent out a fatwa by tweet on 12/23/15 (ironically, exactly one year before Akyol’s op-ed piece) addressing this issue:
“It is permissible to greet a kafir (infidel) on his happy occasions [e.g., promotion, graduation, etc.]…but it is forbidden to greet him on religious occasions. If he celebrates the birth of the son of God and you greet him, then that is an affirmation of his beliefs.”
A few days ago on Christmas Eve, Zakir Naik, considered a “rock star” among contemporary Muslim preachers, tweeted, “Wishing ‘Merry Christmas’ to Christians is Worst Evil, Worse Than Fornication or Murder.” He went on to label it a form of “shirk”, Islam’s one unforgivable transgression.
These are merely two among a slew of Muslim scholars and conservative believers who disagree vehemently with Mr. Akyol on the subject. Of course, there are multitudes of more liberal Muslim thinkers who would line up on the other side.
As much as the non-Muslim world would like to believe Mr. Akyol’s reassurances, the dissonant voices of traditional Muslims warn us otherwise. For now, we can manage without the well-wishes of Muslims for a “Merry Christmas,” if only they will stop bombing our churches, driving trucks into holiday crowds, plotting mall massacres, banning Christmas decorations and the like. Maybe then they can take up the pressing question of whether Muslims can wish Christians a merry Christmas without facing the wrath of Allah. I believe I speak for many Christians in saying, “We are willing to wait for the latter while you get around to the former.”
(For an article I wrote on this same question last December, please see this link.)