Christmas without the trimmings: the Islamic nativity scene

The Islamic nativity scene, as detailed in the Quran, provides a different account of Jesus’ birth. What does it look like and what messages does it carry?

As a Muslim I am fully aware of the reverence in which both Jesus and his mother Mary are viewed with in Islam.

The Quran states Jesus and Mary are ‘a sign’ of God’s proof for all people (21:91), and I have found myself wondering at this festive time of year, what would an Islamic nativity scene look like, inspired and based on the Quranic account of the birth of Jesus? What signs would this scene provide us with?

The main starting point would be chapter ‘Mary’ (19) in the Quran which details the birth of Jesus. In it we find no Joseph, no donkey, no manger or cosy set up surrounding Mary and her new born. The Quranic account of Jesus’s birth is in stark contrast to all that we have been accustomed to in the West and in particular focuses predominantly on Mary and her journey of faith. Put frankly, it is a harsh and testing narrative.

Heavily pregnant and in self-imposed exile from her community, the Quranic narrative presents Mary alone with no extended support network. We find Mary in the throes of childbirth, who has fled to a ‘remote’, potentially desert-like, place with palm trees. Mary is away from her family and giving birth without any form of support or medical intervention.

At her most weakest point during labour, where she wishes she was dead, God gifts Mary a miracle. She is told by ‘a voice from below’ not to despair and instead to find comfort in a nearby stream below her feet, and also to shake the date palm tree she is resting on which drops dates towards her feet. She is instructed to ‘eat, drink’ and comfort herself on the birth of her child. She is also instructed to take a vow of silence and her narrative, now entwined with that of Jesus, continues when she returns to face her community.

If paused at this point, the Islamic narrative provides much food for thought, if not least for the following reasons:

1. The Quranic account features a ‘Christmas tree’ (a very Middle Eastern one) with dates beneath it.

2. The voice ‘from below’ is interpreted by many to be the voice of Jesus either in the womb or having just been born. Jesus then later goes on to ‘speak to’ Mary’s community who question her during her vow of silence – this is presented as one of Jesus’ many miracles.

3. Nowadays during labour it is common for many women exploring natural pain relief to use a ‘hanging’ and shaking technique from a rope; to use a water birth; and also use small instant energy snacks and drinks to keep up stamina and replenish energy. Ancient wisdom or coincidence? You decide.

With this in mind, how would this Islamic nativity scene look? It would be the image of a single mother outdoors, cradling her newborn, alone in a deserted place and leaning against a date palm tree. There would be a stream at her feet and dates on the ground as well as in her hands. She would most likely have an exhausted smile of relief on her face as she looks at her newborn Jesus, who embodies peace on earth – affirmed shortly after in this Quranic chapter by Jesus himself declaring ‘peace is on me the day I was born, the day I will die and the day I will rise again’ (19:33).

There is much to reflect on with this Quranic account, not least the centering of Mary in the nativity scene (rather than Jesus), the removal of other characters from the nativity story (Christmas without the ‘trimmings’?) and the test of childbirth faced by new mothers with the ensuring – momentary – peace on earth once a newborn arrives.

Despite the harshness of this story, for females, there is much strength to draw from Mary’s example. Some could even call it a feminist account as Mary goes it alone during childbirth, against a suspicious community waiting for her back home whilst relying solely on her faith in God. It is a story of relief from hardship, but with no audience of adoring wise men and angels to celebrate the birth. It is therefore a very private achievement and adoration.

When the nativity story is re-examined from this other, different, religious perspective, I believe it can bring something new to the narrative for everyone. It can anchor and strengthen the nativity’s message and be a bridge between religions where Muslims and Christians can find common ground. Perhaps even all of humanity can be united through the narrative of motherhood, faith in God during testing times and personal triumph.

Seasons greetings and peace to you all.

An earlier version of this blog first featured in On Religion magazine January 6th 2016 to mark when Eastern Churches celebrate Christmas and to explore alternative nativity narratives.