I remember how surprised I was the first time a Muslim wished me a 'Merry Christmas'. At the time, I was approaching the end of the fall semester as a master's student at the University of Edinburgh, and a classmate greeted me with this as we finished up our studies and prepared for the break. I knew that Christians and Muslims did not celebrate the same holidays. Was my classmate just trying to be extra culturally and religiously sensitive?
No, I later decided. More likely, it was because she was familiar with Chapter 19 of the Qur'an. The Muslim scholar Mahmoud Ayoub has written that for Muslims, this chapter is "one of the most popular and beloved surahs [chapters] of the Qur'an." (See M. Ayoub, A Muslim View of Christianity, 113). The first 40 verses in that chapter tell the account of the angel's annunciation of John the Baptist's coming birth to Zechariah, his annunciation of Jesus' coming birth to Mary, and the nativity of Jesus. It is the longest sustained narrative about Jesus in the Qur'an; all other verses are rather cryptic about Jesus.
As I do not have space here to reproduce the Qur'anic text, let me at this point suggest you read chapter 19:16-40. Then alongside these verses, read the Nativity account from Luke 1:26-2:7.
In a reading exercise like this, people commonly want to jump to what we see is different between the accounts. But let me briefly review what the accounts in Qur'an 19 and Luke 1 and 2 have in common. First, the angel appears to Mary to announce the coming birth of Jesus. Mary then asks how this can be, seeing that she is a virgin. The angel responds that God is able to do this. Finally, Mary gives birth to Jesus. All of these similarities are significant, none the least that traditionally both Christians and Muslims believe that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus.
Now for the differences. In the Bible, Gabriel appears to Mary in Nazareth, but in the Qur'an, Mary appears to be sequestered in the Temple during the Annunication (in Qur'an 3:37, she was assigned to the care of Zacharias in the Temple). In the Gospel of Luke, Gabriel says that the Most High will come upon Mary and that Jesus is to be the Son of God, whereas in the Qur'an, the angel only says it is easy for God to create Jesus without a father. (Indeed, Qur'an 3:59 states that "The similitude of Jesus before Allah is as that of Adam. He created him from dust, then said to him, "Be," and he was." In other words, Jesus is compared with Adam in terms of how he was created.) Finally, in the Bible, Mary gives birth to Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem with Joseph present, while in the Qur'an, Mary gives birth to Jesus under a palm tree with no one to help her, save God who provides her with dates from the tree.
The Qur'an gives special attention to how the birth of Jesus was received by Mary's relatives, a question which goes unanswered in the Bible. (From Matthew 2:23 & Luke 2:39, we only know that they returned to Nazareth.) What seems clear in the Qur'anic account is that Mary's reputation is on the line, and it takes Jesus miraculously speaking from the cradle to vindicate her as pure before God.
Why is this important? Some Muslim jurists believed Muslim women could be prophetesses, and a prophet in Islam is (or should be) above rebuke. The Andalusi jurist al-Qabri (d. 1015) named Mary as a prophetess, as did his near contemporary Ibn Hazm (d. 1064). Ibn Hazm however distinguished between messengers and prophets, saying that God never chose a woman to be a Messenger like Muhammad.
In Qur'an 19:19, we read that Gabriel promised Mary a 'holy son'. One of the most respected collectors of Muslim tradition, al-Bukhari (d. 870), records the tradition based on this verse that "Satan has pierced the side of every newborn son of Adam with his finger except Isa (Jesus) son of Mary." It is a remarkable tradition, given that Muslims do not believe in original sin and thereby see no need for a Savior. It is yet one more place in which Muslims and Christians can find some common ground.
As we draw this study to a close, we see both the promise and the limits of the Christmas Christians and Muslims share. Clearly, Muslims and Christians do not understand Christmas in the same way. But it's a place to begin, and for that I am grateful. I certainly prefer this kind of dialogue to the annual cultural wars in the West as to whether it is okay to say 'Merry Christmas' in public or whether we can set up a nativity on public land. Instead, how about convening this Christmas some groups of Muslims and Christians to read the Gospel of Luke together with Qur'an chapter 19? Any takers?