The Perfect Christmas gift

Religion News Service, USA
December 2003

Commentary: By Akbar S. Ahmed

(Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at
American University in Washington, D.C., is author most recently of "Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World," published by Polity Press.)

Had Bishop John Chane been present when I received his Christmas card, I would have hugged and kissed him with joy in spite of the mixed signals the gesture may have sent to some members of his denomination.

The content of the card needs to be broadcast to the world. It is a powerful Abrahamic message of compassion, understanding and above all unity. It addresses Jews, Muslims and Christians.

First the Jews: "The Angel Gabriel was sent by God to reveal the Law to Moses."

Next the bishop acknowledges Muslims: "The Angel Gabriel was sent by God to reveal the sacred Quran to the prophet Muhammad."

The Oxford dictionary defines sacred as "consecrated or held dear to a deity; made holy by religious association; hallowed, inviolable; sacrosanct." The same dictionary defines prophet as a "revealer or interpreter of God's will; inspired teacher." Chane is acknowledging the sacred nature of the holy book and the prophet of the Muslims. This is as big a theological earthquake as one can imagine.

Of course, the bishop is not alone in accepting Islam as part of the Abrahamic faiths' family. The pope and the archbishop of Canterbury have also done so. So the bishop, who heads the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, is in good company.

But in the context of post-Sept. 11 America, Chane's stand requires not only extraordinary courage but also extraordinary imagination and compassion.

Consider the cultural context: The Rev. Franklin Graham, who offered the invocation at President Bush's inauguration, called Islam "a very wicked and evil religion." Islam's God was not the God of Christianity, he said.

The Rev. Jerry Vines denounced the prophet of Islam as "a demon-possessed pedophile." For Jerry Falwell the prophet was a "terrorist." In a recent controversy, Gen. William Boykin declared Islam a satanic religion of idol- worshippers.

Although there may be a problem for some Christians and Jews who look at Islam and are not prepared to accept its relationship to their religions, Islam has had no such problems. It has always seen itself self-consciously as part of the Abrahamic faiths, indeed in the direct line of Judaism and Christianity, which it acknowledges as "people of the book."

The Quran, which indeed for Muslims is sacred -- and now, too, for those Christians who accept the bishop's lead -- has this to say about Jews and Christians:

"Say: We believe in God, and in what has been revealed to Abraham, Ismail,
Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes, and in (the books) given to Moses, Jesus and the prophets from their Lord: We make no distinction between one and the other among them, and to God do we submit in Islam."

There are numerous references to Jesus and an entire chapter named after Mary. Take the following verses:

"And in their footsteps we sent Jesus, son of Mary, confirming the Torah that had come before him, and we gave him the gospel, in which is a guidance and a light and a confirmation of the Torah that had come before, a guidance and admonition for the God-fearing. Let the people of the gospel judge by that which God has revealed therein. Whosoever does not judge by what God has revealed, such are the evildoers."

There is a well-known saying of the Prophet that underlines the sense of unity in the Abrahamic faiths for Muslims. In the last rite of passage that faces a human being, Muslims are expected to join in the sorrow of Jews and Christians:

"When the bier of anyone passeth by thee, whether Jew, Christian or Muslim,
rise to thy feet."

The traditional acceptance of Jews and Christians by Muslims has been challenged in our times. Men like Osama bin Laden talk of Jews and Christians as the enemy. They preach violence against them. In doing so, they violate the spirit and message of the Quran.

The attacks on Islam from eminent figures combined with the perception of injustices against Muslims help to consolidate support for men like bin Laden. They are able to argue that Christians and Jews are indeed enemies of Islam involved in an attack on their core beliefs.

In the global debate that is now swirling around Islam, Bishop Chane's words will not only act as balm but create bridges of understanding between the Abrahamic faiths. They will help isolate those who argue for confrontation and violence.

The last part of Chane's Christmas card is an inspiring message addressed to
all the children of Abraham:

"We share a common God and
The same divine messenger.
May our celebration of Christ's birth
Empower us all to search diligently
For a common peace that
Passes all understanding."

When I read the bishop's Christmas card, I appreciated the wisdom of a Quranic verse well known to Muslims:

"And you will find the nearest in love to the Believers (Muslims) are those
who say, `Verily, we are Christians.' That is because among them are priests
and monks, and they are not proud."


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David E. Anderson, Editor

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Akbar Ahmed



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