Since converting to Islam, I have always seen the Christmas season as a reminder of the things that Muslims and Christians hold in common. This year I was reflecting on the important role of the mother of Jesus, Mary has in both Christianity and Islam and in particular her call to establish a just society.
There are striking similarities between the Quran and Luke’s scriptural accounts of Jesus birth. But one aspect of Mary that may be missed is her call to end unjust and exploitative economic systems. The prayer called the Magnificat, the longest set of words spoken by a woman in the New Testament. This prayer by a poor, young, unmarried and pregnant refugee is not only one of obedience and praise of God but a prayer to right unjust systems.
At the time of Jesus, 2 to 3 per cent of the population was rich, while the majority lived a subsistence-level existence. Doesn’t that reflect the world today where 82 per cent of the wealth generated last year went to the richest one per cent of the global population, while the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world saw no increase in their wealth. The global economy enables a wealthy elite to accumulate vast fortunes while hundreds of millions of people are struggling to survive on poverty pay.
- Billionaire wealth has risen by an annual average of 13 per cent since 2010 – six times faster than the wages of ordinary workers, which have risen by a yearly average of just 2 per cent. The number of billionaires rose at an unprecedented rate of one every two days between March 2016 and March 2017.
- It takes just four days for a CEO from one of the top five global fashion brands to earn what a Bangladeshi garment worker will earn in her lifetime. In the US, it takes slightly over one working day for a CEO to earn what an ordinary worker makes in a year.
- It would cost $2.2 billion a year to increase the wages of all 2.5 million Vietnamese garment workers to a living wage. This is about a third of the amount paid out to wealthy shareholders by the top 5 companies in the garment sector in 2016.
Mary articulates an end to economic structures that are exploitative and unjust. She speaks of a time when all will enjoy the good things given by God. “putting forth his arm in strength and scattering the proud of heart; bringing down the powerful from their thrones and raising up the lowly; filling the starving with good things, while sending the rich away empty.”
The God, Mary praises with all her heart is, certainly, the Loving and compassionate God, “ever mindful of his mercy” — and of course the rich and powerful can receive that mercy if they are open to God’s Word and willing to change their ways. But the God of the Magnificat is clearly a God who is on the side of the poor and downtrodden, those pushed aside and oppressed by the rich and the powerful.
Oscar Romero, priest and martyr, drew a comparison between Mary and the poor and powerless people in his own community. Dietrich Bonheoffer, a German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis, called the Magnificat “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.”
Many revolutionaries, the poor and the oppressed, have loved Mary and emphasised her glorious song. But the Magnificat has been viewed as dangerous by people in power. Some countries banned the Magnificat from being recited in liturgy or in public. And evangelicals — in particular, white evangelicals — have devalued the role of Mary, and her song, to the point that she has almost been forgotten as anything other than a silent figure in a nativity scene.
My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour;
Because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid;
For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed;
Because He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name;
And His mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear Him.
He has shown might with His arm,
He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.
Even though Christmas is not an Islamic celebration, it might be an occasion for Muslims to reflect on the Qur’anic chapter dedicated to Mary and honour the message of Jesus (a) to create peace and build cohesive and inclusive societies without fear of the ‘other.’ Let us all like Jesus (a) and Muhammad (s), free ourselves from prejudice, ill will and malice.
Let us forgive and embrace those whom we don’t like and free ourselves from all biases. Let us practice the humility taught by both Christianity and Islam that builds bridges among people. Let Muslims and Christians be inspired by Mary’s articulation of the need to end economic structures that are exploitative and unjust and work together to establish a better world.
Let us work towards the time that Mary speaks of when all will enjoy the good things given by God by His “putting forth His arm in strength and scattering the proud of heart; bringing down the powerful from their thrones and raising up the lowly; filling the starving with good things, while sending the rich away empty.”