The UK Bible Students Website
Christian Biblical Studies
A QIBLA CHRISTMAS
All Scripture references are to the King James Version (KJV) unless stated otherwise.
‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’
Luke 2: 14
THE CITY OF BRADFORD receives an average of 34 inches of rain a year. Once a thriving mill town, its wet climate was ideal for spinning and weaving the wool that clothed Britain. These mills gave work to hundreds of immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India when the British government introduced a voucher system for members of the Commonwealth in the 1960s. The city now has the second largest Muslim population in Britain.
Nestled among the green valleys of the Pennines, all routes out of Bradford lead uphill. A short walk from the modernised centre reveals some of Bradford’s old character, where the occasional cobbled side street leads to an old mill, the thickset, smoke-stained stonework of which supports a towering chimney. Come winter, when the wind off the moors gathers up the snow in drifts, Bradford’s Victorian aspect offers a perfect setting for the ‘Christmas Carol’.
Dickens’ novella is credited with helping to revive Christmas celebrations in England. The publication of the book in 1843 coincided with the growing popularity of the Christmas tree, introduced into Britain by Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria. Even before the story of Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim, gifts and public charity had been a staple of the season’s celebrations. The polarisation of human motives that Dickens portrayed in Ebenezer Scrooge became a popular spur to enter into the Christmas spirit, and ever since Scrooge has become a byword for those who would not.
The trappings of today’s Christmas celebrations are a hybrid selection of customs from different ages. Some – like the evergreen holly, fir tree and mistletoe – pre-date the Christian era and are nature’s emblems of immortality. They have become a dressing for the nativity scene, carol services and greetings cards, the season’s most prominent religious icons.
The Christmas traditions of feasting and the giving of presents are not in themselves exceptional; they are an almost universal accompaniment to holy-day celebrations of all ages. In spite of the marketing hyperbole, the Christian finds a rare occasion on this day in the calendar when many, regardless of belief, make a determined effort to show goodwill to all men, and to exchange gifts with one another in remembrance of Christ’s birth.
The Moslem ‘Christmas’
Of course religious celebrations are not unique to Christianity. A common response of Muslims when asked about the festival of Eid is that it is ‘like’ Christmas, although the date for Eid migrates through a lunar year. There are other notable differences: many Muslims are keen to preserve Eid from becoming a commercial brand like its Christian counterpart. The tinselled publicity and ubiquitous seasonal cliché, stamped on everything from the supermarket shelves to the television, dissolve the religious sublimity of why Jesus was in the manger.
In contrast to the Christian holiday, Islam remains jealous of Eid’s religious purity. Those guided by the Qur’an wish to guard its sanctity and keep it free from those secular influences that would debase it. The festival marks the end of Ramadan, a month of obligatory prayer and fasting. During Eid many come together to share a meal and – as with Christmas – to exchange gifts.
But holy days are not the only junctions at which Christianity and Islam converge.
The holiest site in Islam is Kaaba. It is found within the Masjid-Al-Haram mosque at Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Muslims are exhorted by the Qur’an to face toward Kaaba when they pray. This direction is known as Qibla. Similarly, it is common for churches in Britain to be orientated towards the East; the altar and the stained-glass window behind it are situated on the side which faces Jerusalem. So, during church services Christians are geographically aligned when they pray. However, true alignment requires more than architectural tradition.
The first Parliament of the World’s Religions was held in Chicago in 1893. A chief objective of the event, in the words of the Rev. J. H. Barrows when promoting the Parliament, was ‘the unity of the religions’. The movement continues to this day, though any drive towards a unity of belief has been moderated and its purpose is now ‘to promote inter-religious harmony, rather than unity’.[fn1] The reconciliation of the many disparate creeds has proved too difficult, and proselytising is no longer on the agenda. The common denominator on which all of the Parliament’s member religions agree is the second commandment, epitomised by Jesus: to love one’s neighbour as oneself (Matthew 22: 39).
This simple creed of goodwill is so widely accepted that even atheists and theists can unite behind it. But even this universal maxim does not ensure uniformity of behaviour among the world’s religions. And the second commandment is overruled by the first – a supreme love towards God – and the Divine will is discerned differently by each religion. The Christian has the Bible, the Muslim the Qur’an, but within these two groups, there are varying practices and interpretations, all derived from their respective scriptures. The clashes of faith which result cause the secular observer to blame religion in general – a convenient peg on which to hang the blame for the world’s woes.
The first Crusade began in France in the winter of 1095. From a dais on a hillside in Auvergne, before a large crowd, Pope Urban II called upon all Christians to fight for the deliverance of Jerusalem. His words stirred the emotions and men jostled to the fore to join up. History is not clear whether the pope was concerned more with Jerusalem’s holy sites, or with the deterioration of Christian values in France. The words of his speech show that he was not ignorant of the troubles at home:
Let those who have been accustomed unjustly to wage private warfare against the faithful now go against the infidels . . . . Let those who for a long time, have been robbers, now become knights. Let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians.[fn2]
Inspired by a vision taken from the book of Revelation, many saw Jerusalem as the city from heaven, where Christ beckoned the faithful to receive their eternal reward. Framed in holy language, the fight for Jerusalem was presented to the people as following in the footsteps of Christ, and taking up the Cross. The clergy adeptly garnered public opinion with promises of forgiveness of sins and sainthood for the participants.
The ranks of those enlisting in the ‘War of the Cross’ spread throughout the Latin Church; historians number the crusaders in thousands. This was an army of volunteers that accepted rich and poor alike. The departure of men to foreign parts and the possibility of their never returning had a deep and profound effect on the families and communities they left behind. One was the pacifying of domestic troubles.
The war with the Turks became a dominating and defining event of the Middle Ages. In proportion as the Crusade was championed as the most worthy and noble of causes, so the Turks and their religion were demonised and exaggerated as the most barbarous of infidels.
Under the influence of these two opposite themes, a love for Christendom and a hatred of the Turks, the dissenting peasant was transformed into a valiant Christian soldier. He was no longer an underdog, tied to poverty and drudgery, but a combatant in a holy war, a war for the defence of his eternal hope and one rung above the nation of infidels on the ladder to heaven. The Crusade preserved Christendom, not through the deaths of Turkish soldiers, but by a distraction from the injustice and poverty of feudalism.
Crusades in Modern Garb
Nearly one thousand years after the first Crusade, events in the twenty-first century are couched in terms evocative of a new holy war. The ubiquitous ‘war on terror’ and the so-called ‘clash of civilisations’ are often used to describe the various collisions of Christian and Islamic ideology. The cruelty and naivety of the eleventh-century campaign may be lacking from today’s cultural conflict, but the mediaeval motives do still survive in our refined and enlightened society.
Terrorists, in Muslim guise, have shaken the Christian nations. Out of the shock arise the questions Why us? and Why them? The loss of civil liberties consequent on encroaching anti-terror laws, and the related military campaigns in foreign lands have caused the West to attempt to define itself – what, exactly, does it stand for? What are its own ‘values’?
Islam, then, has become the focal point of an American and European ‘identity crisis’.
Debates on radio and television portray Western nations as champions of civil rights, freedom of speech and the emancipation of women, while simultaneously pointing out the Islamic nations of, say, Iran and the Sudan, as examples of oppressive governments, state-run media, and societies rife with oppression of women.
Hue and Cry
Newspaper headlines gave front page coverage to the London Tube bombings and the disaster of September 11, while the civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to have been purposefully glossed over. Political parties of the ‘far right’ stir up fears of a new wave of an ‘Islamisation’ that will bring with it the loss of established Christian traditions. Out of this media storm comes a cry that Christendom is falling, that Christians are under attack. And so the call goes forth, if indirectly, to rally round the Cross. The tumult has stirred many thinking Christians to reconsider their own politics – decisions that press down hard on the conscience.
But this characterising by the media of terrorism and the looming threat of Islamisation is a distraction from the real struggle of Christians in the modern world: how to conform their lives to the Gospel and to bear witness to the truth.
To Be Continued
Citations to Web pages are correct as of the dates retrieved,
but sites may expire or be moved.
[fn1] The Council for a Parliament of
World Religions gives a history of the movement on its website,
which can be found here:
(retrieved 11 January 2011).
[fn2] August C. Krey, The First Crusade (Princeton University Press,
1921), 30. The speech of Pope Urban II
is given using four separate accounts by different men.
The quotation is taken from Chapter 1, page 30, at the top.
page/30/mode/2up> (retrieved 11 January 2011).
Article copyright January 2011 by ukbiblestudents.co.uk
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