This year when I exchanged Christmas and New Year greetingson Facebook, some fellow travelers were upset. "Sir, is it okay to greetChristians?" a bewildered Facebook 'friend' asked.
I chose to ignore him. But that was not the end of it. Therewere similar messages on many WhatsApp groups, warning the believers against"aping the West". The crux of these messages was this – since Christiansbelieve Jesus was the son of God, greeting them on Christmas would becelebrating his birth and thus accepting a calumny against God. I was takenaback by the convoluted logic.
Others questioned the exchange of New Year greetings,arguing it's wrong to mark the beginning of the 'Christian' calendar and thatonly the commencement of the Islamic new year beginning with Muharram should becelebrated. Even if much of the world, including Muslims, for all practicalpurposes follows the Gregorian calendar!
But it was the argument against Christmas greetings thatreally got my goat. It was not only steeped in ignorance about Islam's strongaffinity with Jesus, but it also betrays tolerance – a vital part of ourfaith.
How many of us know that there are as many as 71 verses inthe Quran praising Jesus? Muslims believe in and love Jesus, just as theybelieve in Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Joseph and all other prophets – in fact theirbelief is incomplete without the reaffirmation of all prophets who preceded thelast Prophet.
Although unlike Christians, Muslims do not believe thatJesus (Isa in Arabic) was the son of God, they have a very special bond withhim. According to Islamic belief, Jesus was born to Virgin Mary (Maryam) andwill return to earth to clear it of all evil including Dajjal (antichrist) andrestore justice before the end of the world.
Muslims believe in the virtue of Mary, an entire chapter inthe Quran is devoted to her – the only chapter named after a female figure. TheQuran also says that Jesus performed miracles such as giving sight to the blindand raising the dead. Moreover, since in the long line of Messengers, ProphetMuhammad (pbuh) was preceded by Jesus, the Prophet always had a specialrelationship with him, talking about him with great fondness.
In the early days of Islam, when the new faith and itsfollowers faced great adversity in Arabia, the first country that the Prophetturned to for protection for his persecuted followers was Abyssinia, presentday Ethiopia, ruled then by King Negus (615 CE). He believed that as 'people of the Book' andfellow believers, the Abyssinians would help the Muslims. And they did do it bysheltering Muslims in the face of great odds. King Negus firmly stood with hisguests, rejecting all entreaties by the Makkans to throw out the asylumseekers.
This was something the Prophet and Muslims never forgot.When Islam conquered the whole of Arabia and beyond, the Prophet in turnextended the same protection to Christians when a delegation from StCatherine's Monastery in Egypt sought his help in 626 AD.
Located at the foot of Mount Sinai, St Catherine's is theworld's oldest monastery. Home to a large collection of rare manuscripts,second only to the Vatican, it is a world heritage site and a treasure trove ofChristian history that has remained safe for 14 centuries under Muslimprotection.
In an extraordinary charter granted to St Catherine'sMonastery, the Prophet promised protection to all Christians and obligated allMuslims to observe it:
"This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah as a covenantto those who adopt Christianity, near and far – we are with them. Verily I, theservants, the helpers, and my followers defend them because Christians are mycitizens and by God, I hold out against anything that displeases them. Nocompulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from theirjobs nor their monks from their monasteries.
"No one is to destroy a house of their religion, todamage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims' houses. Should anyonetake any of these, he would spoil God's covenant and disobey His Prophet.Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that theyhate. No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslimsare to fight for them.
"If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it isnot to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented fromvisiting her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They areneither to be prevented from repairing them nor [to disrespect] the sacrednessof their covenants. No one [from] the nation (Muslims) is to disobey thecovenant till the Last Day (end of the world)."
The extraordinary charter imposes no conditions onChristians. This is a charter of rights without any duties. Far ahead of itstime, it clearly protects the right to property, freedom of faith, freedom ofwork and security of people.
In 1517 AD, the Ottoman emperor Sultan Selim I reaffirmedthe charter but took the original letter for safekeeping in Constantinopleafter giving the monastery certified copies of the rare document, bearing thehandprint of the Prophet.
This was not an isolated example. The Prophet offered the same protection tothe Christians of Najran in Yemen. When a 60-member delegation of NajranChristians – 45 of them scholars and priests – arrived in Medina in 631AD tomeet the Prophet, he not only hosted them and asked Muslims to pitch theirtents, he invited them to pray inside Masjid Nabawi – the Prophet's mosque, oneof the three holiest mosques in the world.
As Craig Considine argues in The Huffington Post, this hadbeen the very first example of Christian-Muslim dialogue. Although theChristian delegation left Medina choosing to follow their own path, they leftwith a written assurance from the Prophet that he would protect their lives,their homes, properties and above all, their right to practice their faith. Andyes, they also requested him to send someone as his representative toadjudicate in their matters.
Considine, a Christian scholar, has repeatedly argued thatunlike the modern concept of tolerance, the Prophet believed in genuinepluralism and practiced it in his interaction with all non-Muslims.
Dr John Andrew Morrow, in his book The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad withthe Christians of the World (AngelicoPress, 2013) attaches a great deal of importance to the charter given to SaintCatherine's Monastery, holding it as a model for both Muslims and Christians. Iam sure the Prophet would have offered the same kind of protection to people ofother religious beliefs.
Given this remarkable history, isn't it odd that today evena harmless exchange of greetings with Christians or for that matter with anycommunity is frowned upon?
Since when and why have we become so rigid and small-mindedin our ways? Certainly Islam and itsProphet do not sanction such intolerance. Our faith cannot be so fragile andinsecure that it feels threatened every time we exchange greetings with followersof other faiths.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a commentator on Middle East and SouthAsian affairs. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @AijazZaka