Mumbai: By the time this article is published, Hyderabad’s many cathedrals and churches will have completed their Christmas day services. After attending congregations either in person or via streaming, the faithful will ready themselves for resplendent feasts. Most likely roast beef and chicken fry will be prominent on the menu. Christian households in Hyderabad also prepare chicken biryani. In tune with the spirit of celebration, mulled wine will be today’s preferred beverage. And the thought of the delicious desserts: plum cake, rose cookies, and marzipans makes one’s mouth water. The raging pandemic limited Christmas Eve Masses this year. Nonetheless, those emboldened by their faith hauled themselves to their nearest places of worship and sang carols through their green and red masks. The appeal of Christmas is universal; it transcends all boundaries. Legend had it that His Exalted Highness, the Nizam of Hyderabad, attended Christmas Eve Mass at St Joseph’s Cathedral in Gunfoundry every year during the 1950s. While speaking to some members of the church, I learned some interesting anecdotes about the Nizam’s fondness for Christmas. The Nizam and his family members occupied the pews towards the right of the altar. The beautiful painting by a Spanish painter Murillo is the Nizam’s gift to the cathedral in 1953. Sadly, the cathedral’s original chandeliers and furniture, also a gift of the Nizam, are no longer there.
In a humble black frame mounted on the wall of Charminar’s Aza Khana-e-Zahra lies a quatrain penned by the Nizam on Jesus. It reads: What was Jesus’ mission O Osman? Ask them whom he came to guide. Gave his life for their redemption. For his flock he gladly died.
The Nizam was not alone in his reverence for Jesus. After all, over a third of humanity claim him as their messiah. The Holy Quran mentions him by name 25 times. Muslims regard him along with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Mohammed, (peace be upon them) as one of the five most important prophets. While facing trials and tribulations, Prophet Mohammed drew inspiration from Jesus’ life. Both men endured persecution for their beliefs during their lifetime. Jesus’ message was clear: Verily, Allah is your lord and my lord, so worship him: that is the straight path: Al Quran 3.51
Archangel Gabriel (PBUH) breathed his spirit into baby Jesus, thus bestowing upon him the ability to perform miracles. These miracles include healing the sick, bringing the dead back to life and breathing life into a clay bird. Lest we forget the baby Jesus also spoke in the cradle. The circumstances of Jesus’ immaculate birth are well known, but this special baby also had a special mother.
Mary or Maryam, daughter of Imran and Anne, descended from a long line of priests. The Holy Quran mentions her name 34 times and dedicates an entire surah to her. Renowned Islamic scholars are of the opinion that she was a prophet herself. She is said to have a personal correspondence with the angels themselves. An exemplar of faith and virtue, Mary like her son also had a remarkable birth.
Her mother Anne yearned for a child. One day she saw a mother bird drop food into the beak of her newborn chick. She returned home and prayed to Allah for a baby of her own. Allah granted her wish and Anne became pregnant. Overjoyed, Anne vowed to dedicate her child to the service of God and prayed God granted her infant refuge from Satan. The reason newborns cry at birth is that Satan pokes them on their side. Mary, like Jesus, was born serene; Satan’s mischief couldn’t touch the holy mother and child. Anne faced a conundrum only males could serve in the Temple of Aqsa. She needn’t have worried; scribes of the Torah soon recognized that Mary was no ordinary child. They quarreled over her tutelage and cast lots over it by throwing their quills into the River Jordan. But Allah deemed that none but a prophet himself should tutor Mary. Finally, Zachariah, father of John the Baptist, took Mary as his apprentice and oversaw her education.
The elderly Zachariah soon found he had much to learn from Mary. No one but Zachariah had the keys to Mary’s quarters. To his bafflement, summer fruits appeared Mary’s room during the winter and winter fruits appeared during the summer. When he asked her where they came from, she would reply that they were all from God.
When Mary found herself with child, she secluded to a remote place. Wracked with labour pains, alone and desolate, she cried out aloud and even begged for death. But as soon as she gave birth to Jesus, he cried out to her from his swaddle, a halo encircling his head, to shake a palm tree and eat its fallen dates and drink from a near stream.
Now left with no choice but to return to her kinsmen, Mary became subject to much conjecture. But the holy infant spoke from his cradle and ended all speculation with his words. ‘I am the servant of God. He has given him the scripture and made me a prophet. He has made me blessed and has enjoined me to commit to prayer and charity.’
The world into which Jesus Christ was born was in much chaos, not unlike our world today. He was born to deliver mankind of evil and taught us that the kingdom of heaven exists within us all. In times past, church bells used to ring throughout the day. Special bells rang out to announce weddings, funerals, or impending storms. Despite this year’s altered circumstances, churches throughout the world rang bells at the stroke of midnight to herald the birth of Jesus, the messiah. I would like to thank Dennis Powell, Malcolm Taylor, Alponsus David, and Michael Monterio for assisting me with writing this article. I’ll end by leaving you with this marvellous video.
Merry Christmas, peace to all.
Zeenath Khan is based in Mumbai. She writes columns and blogs and is in the process of writing a book on Hyderabad.