ISTANBUL — Billions of Christians around the world are excited to celebrate Christmas this weekend. Those in the world’s second-largest religious community, Muslims, don’t share quite the same excitement. In a few Muslim-majority countries, like Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Somalia, Christmas celebrations are banned. In Turkey, my country, they are not illegal, but some Islamist groups still organize annual protests against Christmas trees and Santa Claus costumes, which they consider Western impositions.
Meanwhile, many other Muslims around the world are rightly respectful to their Christian neighbors and even share in their holy day. They include the owners of a Turkish restaurant in London that decided to offer a free Christmas meal to the homeless and the elderly, and a Muslim businessman in Baghdad who erected a Christmas tree in solidarity with Christians persecuted by the self-declared Islamic State.
These Christmas-friendly Muslims are right, but not simply because respect for other religions is a virtue. They are also right because Christmas is the celebration of the miraculous birth of Jesus, which is a powerful theme not just in the New Testament, but also in the Quran.
Two chapters of the Muslim holy book give detailed accounts of the birth of Jesus, which partly resemble the account in the Gospel of Luke.
Both chapters — one is named Maryam, or Mary — feature this admirable Jewish woman whom God has “purified” and “chosen above all other women.”
Neither the Bible nor the Qur’an (Koran) has a lot to say about homosexuality, and what they do say relates only indirectly to contemporary discussions about gay rights and same-sex marriage. Like pre-modern scholars of law and ethics, these books assume heteronormativity.
As a concept, homosexuality is relatively recent, even if there is plenty of evidence for homoerotic pleasure in the past – albeit illicit in religious terms.
Scriptures and later writers usually referred only to particular sexual acts and did not raise the issue of personal sexual orientation. For religious conservatives, though, both Muslim and Christian, the occasional derogatory reference to same-sex acts is enough to prove their inherent sinfulness in all circumstances.
More liberal interpreters point to broader ethical considerations such as compassion and empathy. They argue that the condemnations of scripture do not apply to committed relationships founded on love.
Such a perspective, however, is inevitably more common among believers concerned with human rights, influenced by gender theory, and trained in contextual and holistic methods of interpretation.
Join author Safi Kaskas ( The Qur’an: A Contemporary Understanding) this coming Saturday (December 3) at 10:00 am Eastern Time (US) for a live webinar on Understanding Islam.
Many people are asking questions about Islam. Is Islam inherently violent? What does the Qur’an actually say? Does ISIS represent true Islam? Should we be fearful of Muslims?
These are a few of the topics I’ll be discussing this Saturday at 10:00 a.m. Eastern with Muslim author and speaker Safi Kaskas. You can join the conversation with comments or questions by clicking our AnyMeeting link here.
Safi is an American Muslim strategic management executive with a wealth of knowledge about Islam. As a co-founder of East-West University in Chicago, he’s a big proponent of education. Safi travels the globe to deliver talks about Islam in the modern world. He has spoken multiple times at the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast and serves on the board of the peacemaking organization Bridges to Common Ground.
Safi has translated the Qur’an twice. His first translation is called The Qur’an: A Contemporary Understanding. His second translation, written with a Christian friend, is called The Qur’an – with References to the Bible: A Contemporary Understanding. This is the first translation of the Qur’an that has references to the Bible. Interestingly, Safi found 3,000 biblical references in the Qur’an.
WASHINGTON — “The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures From the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts,” at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery here, is the first major United States display of handwritten copies of Islam’s holy text. It’s a glorious show, utterly, and like nothing I’ve ever seen, with more than 60 burnished and gilded books and folios, some as small as smartphones, others the size of carpets.
Flying carpets, I should say. This is art of a beauty that takes us straight to heaven. And it reminds us of how much we don’t know — but, given a chance like this, will love to learn — about a religion and a culture lived by, and treasured by, a quarter of the world’s population.
The manuscripts, most on first-time loan from a venerable museum in Istanbul, date from the seventh to 17th centuries, and come from various points: Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey. Some volumes are intact; others survive as only single pages, though so great is the Quran’s spiritual charisma that, traditionally, every scrap is deemed worthy of preserving. And the Sackler curators, Massumeh Farhad and Simon Rettig, give the material all the glamour it deserves, with a duskily lighted installation in which everything seems to glow and float, gravity-free.
The word Quran (or Koran) is derived from an Arabic verb for speaking from memory or reading aloud. And the book originated with the sound of a voice heard by a man named Muhammad ibn Abdullah near Mecca, the city in what is now Saudi Arabia. A trader by profession, he was in the habit of spending periods of reflection in a cave outside of town. On one visit, in A.D. 610, when he was 40, he heard a command, seemingly coming from nowhere, in Arabic:
Recite! In the name of thy Lord,
Who taught by the pen,
Taught man what he knew not.
JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — It is incumbent upon every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so to travel to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Islam’s holiest site, at least once in his or her lifetime. The annual pilgrimage is known as the hajj, and it is one of the five pillars of Islam, prescribed in the Quran:
And proclaim to mankind the hajj. They will come to you on foot, on very lean camel, they will come from every deep and distant mountain highway.
This year, 1437 according to the Islamic calendar, I am making my first hajj. I will be joining two million Muslims from around the world — though the writer Abu Muneer Ismail Davids joked that it may feel more like 10 million people. During the hajj, we must not swear, cut our hair or nails, have sex or crush a plant.
I will be chronicling my journey for The New York Times and on social media. To better follow along, here’s a glossary of terms, names and places that help explain the rites and rituals Muslims will participate in during the six days of the hajj, which begins Saturday.
I recently attended and spoke at an interfaith iftar at Peninsula Temple Sholom, as the Burlingame synagogue opened its doors to celebrate Ramadan. Iftar is the evening meal at which Muslims end their daily fasts during Ramadan, and this event was packed with people from the synagogue as well as from nearby churches and mosques.
Conversation at my table was filled with questions about Islam that I hope I answered to the satisfaction of the guests. Based on feedback from my tablemates and others I chatted with, people were grateful that they were able learn more about Islam and Muslims, and they appreciated our sharing of ourselves.
Many of them left committed to continuing to work toward peace and harmony in our communities while fighting all forms of bigotry, including that which results from Islamophobia.
In turn, I am eternally grateful to Jewish communities and organizations that have consistently spoken out against Islamophobia and bigoted policies calling for banning Syrian refugees or Muslims from entering the United States. Their courage to speak out has given much comfort to American Muslims, showing them that they’re not alone in their fight against the onslaught of bigotry and hatred by politicians and religious leadership.
I am also grateful for the many churches and other Christian institutions, as well as interfaith councils, who have reached out to Muslims to host similar interfaith events or who have attended mosque open houses that have now become regular events during Ramadan and throughout the year.
I remain proud of my American Muslim community for its resilience, courage, openness and ability to adapt, change and improve constantly in its response to growing Islamophobia. I have never in my experience seen such rapid change and growth in such a short span of time — between 9/11 and the present — by any minority community that is under siege as the American Muslim community is.
Once this idea that Muslims are foreign to America is put to rest, I look forward to the time when American Muslims will regularly reciprocate by inviting Jews and Christians to mosques to learn about Christianity and Judaism and to understand better the traditions, practices and values of our neighbors.
I know many Muslims believe that they already know those other religions, since Islam comes after them in chronology of revelation. I, too, thought the same thing until I had the opportunity to actually read the Gospels and parts of the Torah.