Birth of Jesus and Prophet Muhammad celebrated together in Fresno

Illustration of stained glass window with Christian, Jewish and Muslim symbols.
Illustration of stained glass window with Christian, Jewish and Muslim symbols. MCT/The Kansas City Star

The birthdays of Jesus Christ and Prophet Muhammad are being celebrated together Saturday in Fresno – a reminder that the “similarities are huge” between the prophets, said Reza Nekumanesh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, which is sponsoring the event.

The Christian celebration of Christmas, marking the birth of Jesus, and the Muslim celebration of Muhammad’s birth are around 10 days apart this year, Nekumanesh said.

Muslims count Jesus among their faith’s five most important prophets.

“Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad – they brought laws to humanity, to teach us about God,” Nekumanesh said. While Muslims count Muhammad as the final prophet and founder of Islam, they don’t see him, or any of their prophets, as a literal son of God, but rather as a messenger of God.

The Rev. Chris Breedlove of Community United Church of Christ in Fresno focused on similarities between the way Jesus and Muhammad treated others when he spoke during last year’s joint-birthday celebration at the Islamic center.

The center decided to have a similar celebration again this year, since it will be more than 30 years before the birthdays are this close again, Nekumanesh said, determined by the lunar calendar Muslims follow, which is about 11 days shorter than the solar calendar. National Geographic reported the birthdays of Jesus and Muhammad fell on the same day last year – the first time that has happened in 457 years.

Breedlove connected Jesus and Muhammad by sharing stories of Muhammad’s compassion, like when the prophet showed respect for a Jewish funeral passing near him (“Is this person not a human soul?” Muhammad explained to someone who questioned him) and how Muhammad once happily ate an entire bunch of grapes given to him instead of sharing them as he normally would because the grapes were sour, and Muhammad was concerned that others might show displeasure about the sour taste, and that would hurt the feelings of the gift-giver.

“Stories have a way of staying with us longer than propositional statements. … The story (about the sour grapes) encapsulates what compassion looks like,” Breedlove said.

Breedlove is the recipient of the Islamic center’s 2016 Spirit of Abraham Award, given to those leading the way in “bringing about a better understanding of our multicultural and pluralistic Valley, as well as helping in the understanding of the faith of Islam.”

Saturday’s Jesus and Muhammad celebration also aims to bring about that kind of understanding. Author and George Mason University associate professor Maria Dakake will discuss the mother of Jesus to connect the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Known as the Virgin Mary among Christians, Muslims refer to her as Maryam but also believe she gave a virgin birth. While the story of Jesus isn’t part of the Jewish faith, Judaism counts Mary as a devotee of their temple.

“Additionally,” Nekumanesh said, “using a woman to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday is just another gesture of the need for us to understand our roles not just through the examples left to us by great men, but also by great women.”

Nekumanesh hopes Saturday’s event promotes “cultural literacy.”

“The most important thing any of us will learn is cultural literacy because all of us will work with people, all of us will have to understand people.”

If people can do that, Nekumanesh said, “hatred won’t be as prevalent.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge

Jesus and Muhammad birthday celebration

Author and George Mason University associate professor Maria Dakake will present, “The Story of Maryam: Transcending Religious and Gender Boundaries” at 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 17, at the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, 2111 E. Nees Ave., Fresno. There is no cost for the event, which includes dinner.