The Christian Negus and the Stick: A Reflection as a Muslim at Mass
By: Emna Baccar
January 12, 2015
At the advent of Islam, as is common with new faiths, many adversaries tried to stifle Islam’s spread by violently persecuting its followers. Worried about the weaker members of society, the Prophet Muhammad urged his followers to migrate to Abyssinia, where the new Muslims would find a Christian king who ruled his kingdom with kindness and justice. Just as they expected, the Negus, as he was called, welcomed them warmly and promised them a peaceful life in his kingdom.
However, the persecutors were not very happy about this escape, and so they sent a man to convince the Negus to hand over the Muslims. The man desperately told the Negus that the Muslims slander Jesus and his mother Mary in their faith. So, the Negus awaited the Muslims' defense. The Muslims replied that they only say of Jesus what they were told about him by the Prophet, that he was a servant and messenger of God, His Word, and His Spirit, which He breathed into the Virgin Mary. The Negus smiled and picked a small stick off the ground saying, “By God, Jesus does not exceed what you have just said by the length of this stick.”
As a Muslim, this is the story that came to mind as I reflected on my experiences of going to Georgetown’s Advent Mass. When Father O’Brien began speaking at the entrance of Dahlgren, he told us to reflect on the pilgrimage on our symbolic trip to Gaston Hall from the quad, reminding us to repent and “prepare the way for the Lord.” I had no idea what he was talking about at the time, but I went with it and enjoyed the beautiful singing of the choir and those in attendance as I made my way up through Healy.
Upon arriving in Gaston Hall, what struck me is how ceremonial Mass was. How fragrant incense was used, and was swung over (what I’m assuming was) the altar and the Bible, among other things. Here I would like to focus on the similarities between Christianity and Islam. For instance, how both Father O’Brien and Father Michael kissed the Bible at certain times in the ceremony, reminding me of how many Muslims kiss the Qur'an after reading it. Or how Father O’Brien would raise his arms up, with hands out to the sides during prayer, so similar to the way Muslims raise our cupped hands to make our own personal prayers. Other than these rituals, I also found so many similarities in the content of what was being said. The frequent references to God’s love and mercy, for example, which fills the content of the Qur'an and begins every Muslim prayer, “In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.”
When Father Michael delivered the homily these similarities increased, including the idea of a God of peace. Or the emphasis on taking the straight path to God, which he said is from the book of Isaiah, a phrase which Muslims repeat at least 17 times a day in our daily prayers, asking God to guide us to the straight path. Father Michael even referenced Islam in his homily, quoting the Qur'an, which states that God is closer to humans than their jugular veins. Lastly, towards the end of Mass Father O’Brien encouraged us to greet each other with peace, which two of my neighbors so graciously did saying, “Peace be with you,” reminding me of how Muslims extend this greeting towards each other at every meeting.
Returning to the story of the Negus, maybe it is something special about Georgetown that I would feel welcome at a religious service other than my own. Or maybe it is because our faiths have their similarities, as the Negus so cleverly pointed out. This is not to ignore the major differences of course. The mention of Jesus as God’s son or Mary, mother of God during Mass would make most Muslims flinch. On the same note, the Eucharist involving drinking from silver chalices and eating bread is also completely foreign. These radical differences may seem too large to be represented by the tiny stick held up by the Negus in the story. However, perhaps the stick does not show that in reality these differences are small, but that our perspectives should sometimes render these disparities in religion as small.
As I observed, while doctrines and theologies may be different between Islam and Christianity, the core is the same. We believe in a loving and merciful God, a God of peace whom we pray to, we all believe in Jesus (albeit in different ways), in heaven, resurrection, etc. These are the similarities that allowed the Christian Negus to grant asylum to a group of foreign Muslims in his kingdom, allowing them to live peacefully. In the same way, the key to peaceful coexistence today is the same: by focusing on the similarities of almost all world faiths (and even non-faiths), which in a deeper core share the purpose of promoting peace, self-transformation, and morality.
Thinking back to Advent Mass, the attitude of the Negus is an important one. It is an attitude of tolerance that allowed a very visibly Muslim woman, wearing a headscarf, to attend Catholic Mass without receiving any harsh gazes. It allowed those two people next to me to greet me with peace, instead of awkwardly looking over me because I don’t really belong. Lastly, it allowed me sit comfortably in Gaston Hall and enjoy Mass without being offended by the differences in our faiths. Moreover it is an attitude I sincerely hope can be extended past just this instance and to the rest of the world as it is in great need of it today.