God is on the side of the poor and downtrodden, those pushed aside and oppressed by the rich and the powerful. Christmas, celebrated by the Western Church on 25 December and the Eastern on 7 January, is a reminder to me of the links between Islam and Christianity and the important role of the mother of Jesus (a), Mary (a) in both faiths.
There are striking similarities between the Quran and Luke’s scriptural accounts of Jesus (a) birth. Even though Christmas is not an Islamic celebration, I take it as a time to reflect on the Qur’anic chapter dedicated to Mary (a) and honour the message of Jesus to create peace and build cohesive and inclusive societies without fear of the ‘other.’
Let us all, like Jesus (a) and Muhammad (s) saw, free ourselves from prejudice, ill-will and malice. Let us forgive and embrace those whom we dislike and free ourselves from all biases and hate. Let us practice the humility taught by both Christianity and Islam which builds bridges among people and knock down rather than build walls.
I am reminded at this time that a Muslim’s faith is incomplete without belief in Jesus (a) and the other prophets who came to bring goodness, peace, compassion, forgiveness and justice to humanity.
Jesus (a), who Muslims call Isa al-Masih (a), the one who heals and one who brought life to the dead is mentioned by name 27 times in the Qur’an and that the name of Mary (a) is mentioned more times in the Qur’an than in the Bible.
One of the 114 Chapters of the Qur’an is dedicated to Maryam (Mary) (a) mother of Jesus (a) and the virgin birth. Although Muslims and Christians differ in their understanding of the role of Jesus (a), Muslims deeply respect him as a Prophet of God.
But one aspect of Mary (a) 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 who is poor, young, unmarried and pregnant is not only one of obedience and praise of God but all a prayer to right unjust systems.
At the time of Jesus (a), 2 to 3 percent of the population was rich, while the majority lived a subsistence-level existence. 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 (a) 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 (a) and the poor and powerless people in his own community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 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 (a) 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.
He has given help to Israel, his servant, mindful of His mercy
Even as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever.