For Muslims, Jesus wasn’t born in a stable but an oasis. The Koran says that Mary, a young virgin, is told by God she will produce a “pure son.” When the birth pangs come she retires to a palm tree. Suffering alone (Joseph is not mentioned), God tells her to shake the tree, from which fresh dates fall. Again there is a parallel: in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, when the holy family stops off on the way to Egypt, the infant Jesus commands the branches of a palm tree to bend and drop its fruit.
In Islam, Mary is almost a prophetess. As a child, I was told that Bibi Maryam – as she is known among south Asian Muslims – could intercede with God, especially pregnant women and the sick. There are plenty of Persian and Mughal miniature paintings of the Madonna and Child from medieval times. Today Mary’s house in Ephesus, Turkey is a pilgrimage site for both Christians and Muslims. Before we get too dewy-eyed, though, let’s not forget that Jesus is almost invariably referred to as “son of Mary” in the Koran because it wants to emphasise that he is not the son of God – a point of doctrine that puts clear blue water between the religions.
And yet as Navid Kermani argues in his beautifully illustrated and critically intelligent study of Christian art, Wonder Beyond Belief(Polity, £25), we can be imaginatively stimulated by what we find alien. As a Muslim, Kermani has little time for crucifixion scenes, but is fascinated by images of Mary and her son. El Greco’s Christ Taking Leave of his Mother shows them almost as a romantic couple – Mary’s rosebud lips a seductive provocation. Kermani is taken by the Sufi idea of God as lover. Or indeed mother. Stefan Lochner’s superb 15th-century Madonna of the Rose-Bower reminds him of God’s “all-embracing… maternal love”, and Mohammed’s saying that paradise lies at the feet of mothers.
The chapter at the heart of Kermani’s book is not about representations of divine love – but the real thing. He tells the story of Father Paolo dall’Oglio, who in the Eighties re-founded the Mar Musa monastery in Syria. Without watering down his Catholicism, he made an extraordinary effort to respect the religion around him. He welcomed Muslims to his Church and fasted with them in Ramadan; he wove Islamic devotional formulas into his rituals and wrote a book called Love of Islam and Faith in Jesus. When protests against President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011, Father Paolo defied the church hierarchy and sided with his neighbours against the dictator. He bravely, even recklessly, negotiated with jihadists to free hostages. In late 2013 he travelled to Raqqa on a risky mission to meet Isil fighters. He has not been seen since.
Before he disappeared, Father Paolo delivered a lecture in which he replied to accusations that he had gone native. “Do I see myself as a Muslim?” he wrote. “I think so, by evangelical grace and obedience. I am a Muslim because of Jesus’s love for Muslims and Islam.” This is more than mere religious tolerance. It is a vision of love binding two powerful forces, comparable to the way lovers dissolve into one another and yet still retain their essential selves.
We can’t all be saints. But maybe we can, in Father Paolo’s spirit, extend the hand of friendship – especially at this time of year. As Jesus says in the Koran: “Peace was on me the day I was born.” Merry Christmas.
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