CHICAGO (RNS) — The scene is familiar from many Nativity scenes arranged at this time of year: the Virgin Mary, cradling the newborn Jesus.
Then, the baby speaks, defending his mother's innocence and declaring he has been appointed as a prophet.
That might come as a surprise to Christians in the audience of the new play “Christmas Mubarak."
The play, an original production from the Chicago theater company Silk Road Rising, sets the story of the births and lives of both Mary and Jesus from the Quran and Muslim traditions alongside the Christmas music of Christian traditions, in hopes it will illustrate how much the two religions have in common.
“Christmas Mubarak” premiered last weekend in Silk Road Rising’s basement theater at the Chicago Temple, home to First United Methodist Church. The theater company was formed after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, to shape conversation about Asian and Middle Eastern Americans and became the church's company in residence several years later.
With an ensemble cast of four playing all the characters and adding scholarly asides where Muslim traditions interpret stories differently, the show is — in its own words — the story of “a love affair” between Islam and Jesus, who is viewed as a prophet by Muslims.
The songs in the show, which range from a Byzantine Christian hymn to Christmas carols like “Oh Holy Night” to contemporary Christian songs like “Mary Did You Know,” are performed by several members of First United Methodist’s choir.
“This is a love letter to the Muslims we know and who come, that they're going to feel like they're incorporated in the Christmas holiday,” said Corey Pond, a Silk Road member who directed and adapted the play, working with a consultant on Islam to make sure it wouldn’t offend.
Pond, who was raised United Methodist, began working on the play over the summer. He said he wanted to tell the Muslim stories of Jesus’ life chronologically, from the promise of his birth to the promise of his return, and chose stories that, if they weren’t the same in both Islam and Christianity, were similar enough to feel familiar to Christians in the audience.
There's the story of the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary she miraculously will give birth to Jesus, similar to the account in the Christian Gospel of Luke. In Islam, this fulfills a prophecy that was given to her father. Mary then hides away during her pregnancy, revealing it to Joseph, who in Islam is not her fiance, but her cousin.
Like the play's Christmas tree — the date palm under which Mary gives birth to Jesus, alone in the desert — the stories of Jesus' miraculous healings and his temptation, familiar as they are to Christians, come with what Pond called a "twist," or a slightly different moral in Islam.
At one point, God sends a miraculous supper to Jesus and his disciples that may call to mind for Christians the scene of Jesus' Last Supper with the disciples. And the play describes prophecies about Jesus' return, though Muslims do not believe, as Christians do, that Jesus was crucified, died and rose from the dead.
“It's different enough that it feels like a wonderful way for both Muslim and Christian to refresh their understanding of the story and to find something new in the story in this moment that we live in,” said Malik Gillani, executive director of Silk Road Rising.
The idea for the production came from Gillani, who is Shiite Ismaili Muslim, and Jamil Khoury, a Syrian Orthodox Christian, who founded Silk Road Rising.
Khoury, the company's artistic director, said they had been thinking about telling the Muslim and Christian stories of Jesus' birth and life alongside each other for several years. They brought it to the stage, they said, at a time when divisions between the two religions feel heightened.
“Jesus being the central figure in Christianity and Jesus being an important figure in Islam — and also Mary being an important figure in Islam — it just seemed to me that this would be a very useful conversation starter and also a way to illuminate for Christian audiences many of the similarities,” Khoury said.
After a workshop performance on Nov. 30, one audience member described “Christmas Mubarak” as the “Muslim ‘Godspell,’” referring to the Broadway musical of the 1970s based on the Gospel of Matthew. Others called it “a learning experience,” expressing surprise that in the Quran Jesus didn’t die on a cross — or that he appeared in the Quran at all.
In fact, as the play notes in one of its scholarly asides, Jesus is named more often than any other figure in the Quran. And Mary is the only woman explicitly named in Muslims’ holy book, appearing more frequently in the Quran than she is in the Christian New Testament. An entire chapter is named after her in the Quran.
In light of the #MeToo movement, Mary's prominence in the play and in the Quran adds to the show's timeliness, said Gillani, and shows the power of seeing the Christmas story through the eyes of two faiths.
“I think that the moment we're living in is (one) where we all need to take this journey with each other,” he said.