Sr. Annelle Fitzpatrick continues her reflections on unsuspected opportunities for dialogue with our Muslim neighbors. She engages almost daily with Muslim students in her classes at St. John’s University and is struck by how much they engage with the story of Vincent’s captivity in Tunisia.
This third reflection on unsuspected opportunities for dialogue with our Muslim neighbors. focuses on an event recorded in both the Quran and the Bible – the Visitation.
The Visitation in Christian Tradition
One of the most tender stories contained in Christian Scriptures is “The Visitation” found in the Gospel of Luke. The story recounts the meeting of two women – both swept up in the mystery of God’s call –and both keenly aware of that God was leading them into a mysterious and uncertain future. The story tells us that as the two women embrace, Elizabeth, who is three months pregnant, mysteriously senses that Mary is also with child. Mary is astounded that Elizabeth is aware that she is pregnant and Mary asks “How did you know”? Elizabeth response – “The moment I heard your voice, the child within me lept for joy”. (Hadiths Al Tabari – earliest major running commentary of the Quran)
The Visitation in Muslim Tradition
Not many Christians are aware but the story of the Visitation is also part of the Muslim tradition. However, I believe the passage recorded in the Muslim tradition is much more profound. Mary asks the same question – but Elizabeth responds by saying – ‘The moment I heard your voice, I felt the child in my womb bow to the child in your womb” (Hadiths Al Tabari – earliest major running commentary of the Quran)
The gesture of bowing to another person is not part of western culture. However, within other cultures, the significance of bowing to another person has profound meaning. The deeper the bow and the length of time one holds the bow is also fraught with symbolism (the longer one stays bent before another – is an indication of the esteem with which the other person is held – and the person of higher rank must break the bow first)! In certain situations, such encounters can be quite humorous as individuals often try to humble themselves by bopping up and down for several minutes – attempting to show that the other person is of higher
In Asian cultures, such as Vietnam, Korea, China, Taiwan, Japan, bowing is more than a gesture of greeting. It is a recognition that another person is superior in rank or accomplishment. Bowing is an essential component of the Japanese tea ceremony. In Japan, students bow to teachers before class begins. Even within the martial arts, as one is about to inflict pain and defeat one’s enemy, the contestants bow to each other as a gesture of mutual respect and admiration for their opponents skill.
In the Islamic tradition, the act of bowing is reserved for God alone!
It is considered a serious sin to bow to anyone or anything other than God alone! A Muslim bowing to another human is guilty of the sin of “SHIRK” – that is the sin of worshipping or giving praise to someone other than Allah alone! Thus, when John the Baptist bows to Jesus, it is an indication of the profound respect that
John the Baptist (recognized as a Prophet in the Quran) has for Jesus.
Several Tafsir masters (experts in Islamic scriptures) believe that this subtle difference in the account of the Visitation is profound in that it reflects the incredible esteem given to Jesus in the Muslim tradition.
While Muslims vehemently reject the notion that Jesus is the Son of God, they do, however, recognize Jesus both as a Prophet and a special Messenger of Allah. To me – that’s a great starting point for dialogue!
Perhaps if groups of Muslims and Christian could come together and jointly reflect on the encounter of these two holy women, we might come up with unbelievable synergy as Catholic and Muslim neighbors discuss questions such as:
1) If one looks today’s popular culture and reflects on how Americans spend both their time and money, what would you say Americans worship?
2) As parents, how do we keep our children from being swept up by the materialistic and secular mentality inherent in today’s world?
Footnote: In the Hindu traditions people show deference by bowing or kneeling down and touching feet of an elder or respected person. Traditionally, a child is expected to bow down to their parents and elders during certain formal ceremonies.