The Spirit of Christmas and the Spirit of Islam

William Kilpatrick,

How much do Christians and Muslims have in common? Plenty of clues can be found in the celebration of Christmas.

“The man that hath no music in himself/ Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds/ Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.”
–William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

Every year around this time, Ibrahim Hooper, the spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), sends out a Christmas message to Christians. The gist of the message is that Christians and Muslims have much in common because “Muslims also love and revere Jesus as one of God’s greatest messengers to mankind.” And to prove it he quotes from chapter 3, verse 45 of the Koran:

Behold! The angels said: “O Mary! God giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him. His name will be Jesus Christ, the son of Mary, held in honor in this world and the Hereafter and in (the company of) those nearest to God.

The Catholic authors of Nostra Aetate probably had this verse in mind when they declared that Muslims “revere” Jesus and “honor Mary.” Statements like this, along with the fact that Muslims esteem prophets and martyrs and engage in prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and pilgrimage, are seen by many Catholics as proof that Islam and Christianity are very similar religions. Christians would do well, however, not to take too much comfort in these apparent similarities. Although Christians and Muslims share some similar texts and similar practices, the two faiths are separated by a wide gulf.

A close examination of texts will reveal the chasm, but another way of grasping the crucial differences between Islam and Christianity is to note that the two faiths have a completely different “feel.” When we talk about a “gut feeling” or “getting a feeling” for a new activity, we mean that we understand something in an intuitive, experiential way. It’s one thing to read an instructional manual on tennis, and another thing to play it.

Christmas: A Point of Reference

One way to appreciate the different “feel” of the two religions is to think about Christmas. It means a lot to Christians. They decorate Christmas trees, set up mangers, exchange Christmas cards, sing carols, and celebrate solemn yet joyful liturgies. On the other hand, although Muslims celebrate a number of religious holy days, Christmas is not one of them—which, when you think about it, is a bit strange. Muslims, according to Hooper, “love and revere Jesus,” but they studiously ignore his birthday.

Muslims have the Christmas story (or, at least, a truncated version of it), but they don’t have Christmas. Why? Well, essentially because there’s nothing to celebrate. To Muslims, Jesus is not the redeeming savior of the world, but simply a prophet whose main job, it seems, was to announce the coming of Muhammad.

Not only does Islam lack Christmas, it lacks many of the humanizing elements that we associate with Christmas. The central image we identify with Christmas is that of the Holy Family. The fact that God became a member of a human family immeasurably elevated the importance of family, marriage, and motherhood. But there is no corresponding elevation of the family under Islam. According to Nonie Darwish, who grew up in Egypt, “Muslim weddings are more about sex and money. They do not convey the holy covenant of marriage.” The standard Egyptian marriage contract, she says, comes with questions about the bride’s virginity, the amount of the dowry, and three spaces for the husband to record the names and addresses of wife number one, wife number two, and wife number three. And although Muslims supposedly honor Mary, this hasn’t translated into a high regard for women in general. In the Koran, women are described as inferior beings, and they are treated as such in most of the Muslim world. The elevation of women was mainly a Christian achievement. It stemmed from the belief that all are equal in Christ, from the high status assigned to Mary, and from the elevation of marriage to a sacrament.

And then there’s music. The wonder of Christianity is captured in the great Christian hymns and chants, but especially in the traditional carols sung at Christmas time. They seem to come from another world and, although some of them are centuries old, they seem to remain imperishable. The message they convey is joy: “joy to the world,” “let nothing you dismay,” “tidings of comfort and joy,” “love and joy come to you,” “joy, joy, joy”…

Christianity is repeatedly attacked as restrictive and repressive, but these songs suggest something else, something immensely liberating. Once again, there is nothing like this in Islam. Beyond the chanted call to prayer, Islamic spirituality has little place for music. In fact, there is some debate among Islamic scholars about whether or not music is forbidden by Islamic tradition. But the anti-music forces seem to have the stronger case. In one of the hadith, Muhammad is quoted as saying, “Allah mighty and majestic…commanded me to do away with musical instruments, flutes, strings, crucifixes, and the affair of the pre-Islamic era of ignorance. On the Day of Resurrection, Allah will pour molten lead into the ears of whoever sits listening to a songstress.”

As historian Jamie Glazov points out in his book United in Hate, there is a deep suspicion of music in Islam. Sayyid Qutb, the chief architect of modern Islamism, “reviled” music: “Like Lenin, he deemed music a distraction from the raging hatred necessary for destruction.” Throughout Islamic history, says Glazov, there have been numerous attempts to ban music. In our time, “the Taliban illegalized music completely in Afghanistan, and Ayatollah Khomeini banned most music from Iranian radio and television.”

Khomeini’s puritanism seems to have extended beyond music to a rejection of any form of good cheer. Here he is on the subject of jokes:

Allah did not create man so that he could have fun. The aim of creation was for mankind to be put to the test through hardship and prayer. An Islamic regime must be serious in every field. There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humor in Islam. There is no fun in Islam. There can be no fun and joy in whatever is serious.

No jokes? You may be tempted to laugh. Just don’t do it in the wrong place. This past summer, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister declared in a speech on “moral corruption” that women should not laugh in public in Turkey.

For most Christians, Christmas holiday cheer also includes partaking of the good cheer provided by alcoholic drinks. With the exception of some (mostly American) denominations, Christians have lived fairly comfortably with liquor. Indeed, wine is at the heart of the Catholic liturgy, and orders of Catholic monks did much to develop the art of winemaking. Although the Gospels decry drunkenness, Christian tradition does not condemn drinking in itself. Islam does. According to the Koran, wine is an abomination devised by Satan.

The difference between the Christian and Islamic views on drinking may not appear to be crucial, but it provides a clue to a crucial difference. It’s not just wine versus no wine that’s at issue but two entirely different ways of looking at life. You could call it balanced versus unbalanced. Islam sees one side of alcohol—the destructive, dangerous side—and comes up with a one-sided solution: ban it. Christianity sees that alcohol is both subtle and complex—just as the label on your wine bottle claims—and suggests that it be enjoyed in moderation.

Islam’s suspicion of wine, just like its suspicion of music, seems overly severe. Wine, like music, is one of the great human comforts, and to suppress it, as Islam does, strikes the Western consciousness as slightly inhuman. By contrast, the Church has always followed the maxim that grace doesn’t destroy nature but fulfills it. In this view, the supernatural doesn’t replace the natural but completes it, raises it up, redeems it. So Jesus Christ raised bread and wine to the supernatural level, and did the same for marriage by making it a sacrament. One of the beauties of Christianity is that it adds layers of meaning to ordinary human activities, giving them a specialness beyond what is ordinarily assigned to them. Despite, or perhaps because of its call to participate in the divine life, Christianity had a humanizing influence wherever it spread.

Good Cheer vs. Great Fear

Christians theologians who scour the Koran for bits and pieces of text that seem to harmonize Christianity and Islam might do well to pay attention instead to the different “feel” or “spirit” of the two faiths.

The distinctive spirit of Christianity, like the spirit of Christmas, is a spirit of good cheer. The good cheer comes from knowing that we are freed from our sins, but it also comes from the knowledge that we are sons and daughters of God. That concept—adoption as children of God—brings with it much responsibility, but it also provides us with good reason to rejoice.

The distinctive spirit of Islam, by contrast, is a spirit of fear. The Christian idea that God is a father who takes a personal interest in his children is alien to the tenets of Islam. The Allah of the Koran is as remote and capricious as any caliph. Humans are his slaves, not his sons and daughters. And he sends no Holy Spirit to comfort his people. Although the Koran borrows the title “Holy Spirit” from Christian scripture, the Holy Spirit in Islam remains just that—a borrowing: a term torn from context and signifying nothing more than Muhammad’s penchant for name-dropping.

Islam, with its thousand-and-one laws and corresponding punishments in this world and the next, is a religion of the letter rather than the spirit—the perfect illustration of what Saint Paul meant when he said “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”

CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper ends his Christmas message with the usual boilerplate about “shared religious heritage” and “building bridges of interfaith understanding.” Given CAIR’s past involvement in terrorist funding and its recent designation as a terrorist organization by the United Arab Emirates, one might be justified in questioning his sincerity. However, even on the assumption that he means every word, the deeper problem remains. Hooper concludes his message of reassurance to Christians by saying “We have more in common than we think.” Well, yes, if you think that having a common bond is just a matter of drawing up a list of shared vocabulary, then maybe that’s so.

But on a deeper level, the claim is not convincing. Whatever superficial similarities there may be, the spirit of Christianity is radically different from the spirit of Islam. Like so many other Islamic PR men, Hooper knows the words, but he doesn’t hear the music. Unfortunately, a good many well-meaning and eager-for-dialogue Christians suffer from a similar tone-deafness. They fail to realize that Islam marches to the beat of a decidedly different drummer.

Reprinted from