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The Palm and the Spring: Jesus’ Birth between Islam and Christianity

How the Quran’s account of the Nativity echoes both the Bible and certain non-canonical Eastern Christian texts

 

 

 

Merry Christmas! Millions of Christians across the world will celebrate the holy day with these two words. Bells will ring, presents will be shared, and while many will enjoy family time together, the more devout will keep in mind the religious meaning beneath all this fun: the miraculous birth of Jesus of Nazareth — later also called Christ or the Messiah — some two millennia ago; a remarkable event that, by giving rise to the world’s largest religion to date, changed the course of history.

Yet there is something captivating about this remarkable birth of which many Christians may not be aware: It is also esteemed by the adherents of the world’s second-largest religion, Islam.

That is because Islam’s scripture, the Quran, venerates Jesus (“Isa”) and his mother Mary (“Maryam”) as holy figures who preceded the Prophet Muhammad. Jesus is praised not just as a prophet but also as the Messiah. He is even honored as the “word” of God — a curious phrase that has intrigued Christian theologians, as it sounds similar to the status of Jesus as the “divine logos” in their own doctrine. In the Quran, Mary is also praised as a pious and a chaste woman blessed by the angels, who tell her, “Mary, God has chosen you and made you pure: He has truly chosen you above all women.” In fact, Mary is the only woman in the whole Quran mentioned by name. There is even an entire sura (chapter) named after her.

In this chapter, we read about how Mary conceived her blessed son, miraculously, without any man touching her:

Mention in the Book [the story of] Mary. … We sent Our Spirit to appear before her in the form of a perfected man.

She said, “I seek the Lord of Mercy’s protection against you: if you have any fear of Him!”

But he said, “I am but a messenger from your Lord, [come] to announce to you the gift of a pure son.”

She said, “How can I have a son when no man has touched me? I have not been unchaste.”

And he said, “This is what your Lord said: ‘It is easy for me. We shall make him a sign to all people, a blessing from us.’”

And so it was ordained. She conceived him. (Quran 19:16-22)

Christians who know their Bible may find this Quranic passage familiar, perhaps even biblical, because it has clear parallels with the Gospel of Luke, one of the four canonical gospels of the New Testament. Here, we also read that God sent an angel to Mary, foretelling her: “You will conceive and give birth to a son.” Again, Mary is shocked, asking, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And again, the angel proclaims a miracle: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

Such parallels between the Christian and Islamic scriptures have their limits, to be sure. Most importantly, while it confirms one pillar of the Christian faith — the virgin birth of Christ — the Quran also emphatically rejects the very crux of that faith: the divinity of Jesus. In the Quranic view, Jesus was miraculously born, but this did not make him “son of God” — let alone “God the son.” Instead, he was “nothing more than a messenger of God” who “would never disdain to be a servant of God” (4:171-72).

That theological gap between Christianity and Islam may be no secret to any of their believers. Yet there is also another gap, a more subtle one, in their accounts of the Nativity, the birth story of Jesus, which Christians celebrate as Christmas. This discrepancy concerns not who Jesus was but rather where exactly he was born and with what kind of accompanying miracle.

The Nativity story in the New Testament, as narrated in the gospels of Matthew and Luke with some nuances, is well known: Jesus was born in the city of Bethlehem. His virgin mother, Mary, according to Luke, wrapped her newborn baby in swaddling cloths and “laid him in a manger.” This description has defined Christian imagination for centuries, with countless works of art depicting the baby Jesus lying in a barn, surrounded by hay, sheep and cows. Also in the scene is Joseph, the old man who had betrothed Mary, to take her under his protection.

The gospels also tell of certain miraculous events related to the holy birth. “Wise men from the east” came looking for baby Jesus, “for they had seen his star at its rising.” And “angels announced his birth to a group of shepherds who worshiped him as Messiah and Lord.”

The Quran provides a significantly different account of the Nativity. Jesus is born not in Bethlehem but in an unspecified “distant place.” While giving birth to him, Mary is all alone, and there is no Joseph or anyone else to help her. Remarkably, she is said to give birth under a palm tree, next to a miraculous spring:

[Mary] withdrew to a distant place and, when the pains of childbirth drove her to [cling to] the trunk of a palm tree, she exclaimed, “I wish I had been dead and forgotten long before all this!”

But a voice cried to her from below, “Do not worry: your Lord has provided a stream at your feet and, if you shake the trunk of the palm tree towards you, it will deliver fresh ripe dates for you, so eat, drink, be glad.” (Quran 19:22-26)

Why is the Quran’s Nativity scene so different from that of the New Testament?

The answer is more complicated than these simply being two different scriptures with distinct sources, for the Quran’s account actually has similarities with two ancient Christian texts that did not end up in the New Testament, remaining apocryphal, or doubtful.

The first of these is the Protoevangelium of James, a second-century Christian text that was popular among the Eastern Christians. The text is called a protoevangelium (“pre-Gospel”) because it focuses mostly on the miraculous birth and upbringing of Mary, in contrast to the New Testament, which primarily concerns the life and mission of Jesus. (Some themes of the protoevangelium are beautifully illustrated on the walls of the Chora Church, a fascinating medieval Byzantine shrine in Istanbul that was controversially converted into a mosque in 2020.)

In the protoevangelium, we read that Jesus was born not in Bethlehem but in a “cave,” somewhere in the “desert,” some “three miles” outside of Bethlehem. This coheres with the Quranic account that Mary “withdrew to a distant place.” Again in the protoevangelium, as in the Quran, Mary gives birth all alone, with no one to help her. A third parallel between the two texts is Mary’s upbringing in the Jerusalem Temple, as narrated in the Quran’s Al Imran sura.

Yet the protoevangelium says nothing about two noteworthy details in the Quranic Nativity scene: the palm tree from which Mary ate dates and the miraculous spring of water from which she drank.

Nonetheless, both these details do appear in a second apocryphal Christian text: the Infancy Gospel of Matthew, also known as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which appears to draw heavily from the protoevangelium. Here, as in the Quran, we find Mary eating from a palm tree and drinking from a miraculous spring of water. There is, however, one baffling difference. In the Infancy Gospel, the incident takes place not during the birth of Jesus but later, during the holy family’s famous flight into Egypt, when they escape after King Herod’s cruel order to kill all male children who are 2 years old. On the way to Egypt, the exhausted Mary wants to rest under a palm tree, and then:

The child Jesus, with a joyful countenance, reposing in the bosom of His mother, said to the palm: O tree, bend your branches, and refresh my mother with your fruit. And immediately at these words the palm bent its top down to the very feet of the blessed Mary; and they gathered from it fruit, with which they were all refreshed …

Then Jesus said to it: Raise yourself, O palm tree, and be strong, and be the companion of my trees, which are in the paradise of my Father; and open from your roots a vein of water which has been hid in the earth, and let the waters flow, so that we may be satisfied from you. And it rose up immediately, and at its root there began to come forth a spring of water exceedingly clear and cool and sparkling. And when they saw the spring of water, they rejoiced with great joy, and were satisfied. (The Infancy Gospel of Matthew, 20)

We notice, then, a puzzling intertextuality: The Quranic account of the birth of Jesus resonates with two apocryphal gospels. Yet the details of the palm tree and spring of water seem “misplaced.” Small wonder that critics of Islam have long presented this as evidence that Muhammad “misunderstood” Christian sources and “mixed” them in his own scripture.

But then came an archaeological discovery that offered a new and compelling explanation for this enigma.

In 1992, the Israeli authorities widened the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which are only 5 miles apart. As they were doing so, they unexpectedly came across the remains of an ancient church buried under ground half way between the two cities. Five years later, the ruins were carefully excavated by the Israel Antiquities Authority, whose archaeologists realized they had found a famed yet lost Byzantine church: Kathisma of the Theotokos (“Seat of the God-bearer”).

Now, it is well known that “God-bearer” was a title given to Mary in Eastern Christianity. This showed clearly that the church was related to Mary. But how exactly?

Stephen J. Shoemaker, a professor of religious studies at the University of Oregon, probed this question in his academic article “Christmas in the Qur’an,” which may be the most detailed study on the Kathisma church and its connection with the Quran. Shoemaker noted that the church was called “the seat of Mary” because “liturgical, hagiographical, and pilgrimage texts from the sixth and seventh centuries” identified it with “the place where the Virgin Mary sat to rest before giving birth nearby, as is described in the Protoevangelium.”

In other words, some early Christians believed that Mary gave birth not in Bethlehem but nearby in the desert, just as the protoevangelium says — and as the Quran seems to echo. They even built the Kathisma church to honor that memory.

And there is more to the Kathisma story. In a Christian pilgrimage guide written sometime between 560 and 570, an anonymous writer known as the “Piacenza pilgrim” wrote about the Kathisma church, adding a crucial detail. At that time, next to the church, there was also a spring of water:

On the way to Bethlehem, at the third milestone from Jerusalem … I saw standing water which came from a rock, of which you can take as much as you like up to seven pints. Everyone has his fill, and the water does not become less or more. It is indescribably sweet to drink, and people say that Saint Mary became thirsty on the flight into Egypt, and that when she stopped here this water immediately flowed. Nowadays there is also a church building there.

That is notable when we recall the Quranic account of Jesus’ birth: that next to Mary, when she was about to give birth, there appeared a spring of water.

The Israeli archaeologists who unearthed the ruins of the Kathisma church also discovered its well-preserved ancient mosaic floors. One of these revealed a remarkable image: a large date palm, flanked by two smaller palms, all of them laden with dates — all too reminiscent of the Quranic account of Mary’s childbearing under a palm tree.

In other words, the Kathisma church revealed an exceptional fusion of two different Christian traditions — Jesus’ birth in the desert and Mary’s spring of water and palm tree — which the Quran also combines. As Shoemaker writes, the Kathisma church is “the sole place outside of the Qur’an where these two traditions intersect.” From this fact, he reasons that the Kathisma traditions must have “influenced the formation of the Qur’anic traditions.” Yet one could posit the reverse too. One could take “the correspondence of the Qur’an with the traditions of the Kathisma shrine,” in Shoemaker’s words, as “a happy coincidence.” Muslims, with faith in the Quran’s divine origin, may even see it as an archaeological “confirmation” of the divine revelation.

Meanwhile, from an objective point of view, it is clear that the Quranic story of the birth of Jesus resonates deeply with certain Eastern Christian texts that do not form part of the New Testament canon. For Christians today, then, reading the Quran may be a worthwhile exercise in excavating some of the oldest traditions of their own faith.

Finally, I think it remarkable that the birth of this exceptional man, Jesus of Nazareth, has found so much veneration not only in the scriptures of the religion that worships him but in Islam as well. Regardless of the divergent theological meanings and other important differences attributed to this event, Islam honors Jesus’ birth almost as much as Christianity. The Quran even highlights his birthday, quoting Jesus saying, “Peace be upon me the day I was born” (19:33).

Perhaps Muslims, then, can see Christmas as the Christian version of what they themselves honor as “mawlid al-nabi” (the birth of the prophet), widely celebrated among Muslims today as Muhammad’s birthday. Yet, since both Muhammad and Jesus were holy messengers of God, according to Islam, both of their birthdays must be holy. Ultimately, perhaps both their birthdays can be celebrated with a beautifully simple veneration from the Quran:

Peace be upon the messengers, and praise be to God, the Lord of all the Worlds. (37:181-182)

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