Remember: Christ was a Palestinian refugee

Jesus Christ stands as a towering figure of unity in the face of the divisions and hate being sown among us.

Christmas Bethelem Reuters
A view shows the dome of the Assyrian church facing a mosque minaret in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on December 24, 2018 [Mustafa Ganeyeh/Reuters]

“And when the angels said, ‘O Mary, indeed Allah gives you good tidings of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary – distinguished in this world and the hereafter and among those brought near [to Allah]” (The Quran 3:45).

There is something beautifully sacred about the moment in the Quran when the angels inform Mary she is about to give birth to Jesus. Angels bring her the good news. They tell her of how “He will speak to the people in the cradle and in maturity and will be of the righteous.”

The sublime innocence of Mary at hearing this news can hardly be better captured in any scripture: “She said, ‘My Lord, how will I have a child when no man has touched me?” [The angel] said, ‘Such is Allah; He creates what He wills. When He decrees a matter, He only says to it, ‘Be,’ and it is” (The Quran 3:47).

God Himself, according to the Quran, teaches Christ: “And He will teach him writing and wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel” (The Quran 3:48).

Based on these and other Quranic passages, Muslims should have no theological problem marking, celebrating, rejoicing at the birth of Christ as a prophet sent by God.

For every age, a ‘different’ Christ

All of these may appear as strange and outlandish in a world plagued by religious bigotry and historical illiteracy. Generations of European depiction of Christ as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white man have made it difficult for European and North American Christians today to imagine him for what he was: a Jewish Palestinian refugee child who grew up to become a towering revolutionary figure.

In his exquisite study, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (1985), the eminent historian and theologian Jaroslav Pelikan has demonstrated that, throughout history the image of Christ has gone through successive reformations, from a Jewish Rabbi to “Light of Gentiles”, “the King of Kings”, “the Son of Man”, “the Monk who rules the World”, “the Universal Man”, “the Prince of Peace”, to a liberator who inspired Lev Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr to “the Man who belongs to the World”.

In the Latin American context, in particular, and through the emancipatory work of liberation theologians, the figure of Christ emerges as the revolutionary leader of the wretched of the earth.

The Peruvian philosopher, theologian and Dominican priest Gustavo Gutierrez has revolutionised our contemporary understanding of Christ. In my own work on Islamic liberation theology, I have been deeply influenced by the work of Father Gutierrez, who next to the eminent Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas have brought the prophetic voices of Biblical exegesis to bear on our contemporary lives.

For years at Columbia, I have been teaching a book called Don’t Be Afraid, Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from The Heart: The Story of Elvia Alvarado (1989) in which there is a splendid a chapter called: Jesus was an Organizer.

The Nazareth-born Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman has a short film called, Cyber Palestine (1999), in which he presents the story of a modern-day Mary and Joseph as they attempt to cross from Gaza into Bethlehem. As a parable of the Palestinian predicament in their own homeland, “Cyber Palestine” captures the quintessence of the story of the birth of Christ under military occupation of the Romans then and the Zionists now.

Imagine Christ as a Jewish Palestinian labour organiser refugee from Honduras! Donald Trump and his Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen would probably not have allowed him into the US.

Against the grain of history

The dark days of Zionism laying a false claim on Judaism and Palestine alike are happily over. The lies of a gang of European settler colonialists trying to rob Jews of their ancestral faith and Palestinians of their historical homeland have finally come to a crushing defeat when Jews and Palestinians, and Jews as Palestinians, have come together to lay a post-Zionist claim on their ancestral faith and homeland alike. 

The massive propaganda to cast the resistance of Palestinians to the colonial occupation and theft of their homeland as a battle between “Jews and Arabs” was so dominant in the la la land of the US and even Europe that the very idea that Palestinians are Christians, too, and that Jesus was, in fact, a Palestinian Jewish Rabbi scares and confuses the living daylight out of their slumbering ignorance.

The very simple fact that Palestinians have historically been Jews, Christians, and Muslims was hard to digest in that la la land. By extension, also the very simple fact that Christ and Mary are two seminal figures in the Quran has also been seen as a strange proposition in this banality.

Jesus was a Palestinian Jew who spoke Aramaic, a language in the same family as Hebrew and Arabic. He came from the same prophetic tradition as Prophets Moses and Mohammad.

There are, of course, doctrinal differences between the figure of Jesus as he appears in the Quran and his divinity as understood in Christianity. Here it is crucial to remember the manner in which in both Persian poetry and Islamic mysticism, the figure of Christ expands into the far more pervasive icon of divine mercy. The seminal Sufi master Ibn Arabi (1165-1240) has in his works, particularly in the chapter, The Wisdom of Prophecy in the Word of Jesus, in his masterpiece, Fusus al-Hikam/Bezels of Wisdom, sought to bring conceptual harmony between the Muslim and Christian perceptions of Jesus.

Through his doctrine of “Oneness of Being”, Ibn Arabi accommodated the question of sonship in Christian doctrine: Jesus emerges as a “Perfect Man” and “the Seal of Saints”. Ibn Arabi cites the Quranic references to Jesus’ ability to bring a clay bird to life as an indication of the Divine Will.

In the Muslim Sufis’ Christology, we have a solid body of evidence in which we see the current animus presumed between various religions of Palestine as political hogwash. We need literary knowledge, historical consciousness, and intellectual responsibility with all of which to dismantle the thick apartheid walls that ignorant hateful people are erecting among us all.

Merry Christmas everyone! Remember Christ was a Palestinian refugee – a Jewish Palestinian refugee, who is the founding figure of Christianity, and a beloved prophet for Muslims. The rest is commentary.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.