Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – The nativity of the Christ child is not solely an occasion of Christian spirituality, but has been celebrated through the ages by Muslim writers and painters, as well. As I have pointed out, the story of the Annunciation and the birth of Jesus is told in the Qur’an:
- Verses 19:17-35:
And once remote from them, she hid behind a screen. Then we sent to her our spirit, who took the shape of a well-formed man.
She said, “I take refuge in the All-Merciful from you, if you are pious.”
He said, “I am but an angel of your lord, come to bestow on you a son without blemish.”
She said, “Will I have a son, when no mortal has touched me, and I was not rebellious?”
He said, “So it is.” He said, “Your Lord says, it is easy for me. We will make him a sign for the people and a mercy from us. The matter has already been decreed.”
So she bore him, and withdrew with him to a remote place.
And the pangs of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree. She said, “I wish I had died before now, and had been forgotten in oblivion.”
But he called to her from beneath her, saying, “Do not be sad. For your Lord has made a stream run beneath you.”
So shake the trunk of the palm tree toward you, and ripe, fresh dates will fall to you. So eat and drink and be comforted. If you see any human being, say, “I have taken a vow to the All-Merciful to fast, and will speak to no one today.”
Many of these details are from material circulating in the late antique Christian community that also reached the Prophet Muhammad. In the Qur’an Jesus is depicted as in a line of God’s prophets, including Moses, Solomon, David, and others, a line that went on to include the Prophet Muhammad as of the early 600s CE.
The tradition of Persian and Mughal miniature painting — of painting leaves intended to go into manuscript books for the libraries of kings or very wealthy notables — flowered in the 1200s and after, in Iran, Central Asia, India and what is now Turkey. It was influenced by Chinese techniques that came in through the Mongol conquests and the Silk Road and sometimes the people depicted look a little Chinese.
In 1519-1687, the Qutb-Shahi dynasty ruled the Kingdom of Golconda, named after their initial capital, a city near Hyderabad in South India. From 1591 Hyderabad itself became the capital. That city today is the capital of Telengana State and is the fourth-most-populous city in the Indian Republic. The dynasty was founded by an adventurer from Hamadan in Iran, who was a Shiite, and so the kingdom had Shiism for its state religion, even though most of its subjects were Hindus and most of its Muslim subjects were Sunnis. In its later decades it became a vassal of the Mughals based up north, and ultimately was absorbed into the Mughal Empire.
During the 1600s in particular there was a lot of contact with European maritime empires and merchants, who brought books and paintings from Europe, and so the Renaissance tradition of depicting the Nativity had an impact on court artists. But these paintings were commissioned by Muslim rulers for Muslim court purposes, as their own celebration of Jesus, whom they considered, as did all Muslims, one of their prophets.
The National Museum of Asian Art at the Smithsonian has a spectacular miniature painting from Golconda, dated to about 1630, of the adoration of the baby Jesus.
Jesus and Mary are both shown with golden halos. Joseph is also there but without a halo.
One of the adorers is, (extremely) anachronistically, a 17th-century European merchant in boots, almost certainly Dutch. He also seems to have brought gold vessels, and he has in his hand what looks to me like fine cloth, dyed purple. Indigo dye was one of India’s trading major commodities. More on all that later.
There are three winged angels, two hovering above and one on the ground in front of the manger. One of the angels above is holding what looks to me like a crown. Since the Muslim tradition doesn’t know about the Gospel language regarding the messiah being the king of the Jews, my guess is that this motif was borrowed from a European artist. Also, gold was one of the gifts traditionally thought by Christians to be brought to the Christ child by one of the 3 magi.
The other angel has a bow. In South India, the crown and the bow were royal symbols. So I think the angels are depicted as exalting Jesus in the way royalty was exalted. These symbols raise the possibility that the royal treatment given here to baby Jesus is not Christian in origin but Hindu Indian. After all, the beloved god Ram was a king. For these Indian artists, who did not know the Bible, the symbols may not be an assertion that he was royalty, only that he deserved the sort of glorification that kings received.
Although in the West of the Muslim world Arab artists were reluctant to depict holy figures, this Indian artist has no problem with it. Most did not, and they painted Muhammad, as well. Mary is shown wearing hijab but with her face visible, and Joseph and Jesus also have their faces depicted.
Shiite Islam puts special emphasis on piety centering on the family of the Prophet, including Muhammad’s son-in-law and first cousin, Ali, Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah, and the two sons of Ali and Fatimah, Hasan and Husayn. Although Sunni courts also produced nativity paintings, it could be that this form of Christian piety especially appealed to the Shiite rulers of Golconda.
As for the Dutch merchant or factor, Sanu Kainikara explains,
“In 1627, the Dutch had a disagreement with the Governor of Golconda, under whose jurisdiction the region fell, regarding the grant of a ‘farming’ permit for Masulipatam (Macchilipatanam). They withdrew to Pulicat and blockaded Masulipatam from the sea. The Qutb Shah dismissed his governor and invited the Dutch to return to Masulipatam. The reason for the Qutb Shahi sultan’s action was that the Dutch possessed a preponderance of naval strength that was able to threaten an adversary from the sea without exposing themselves to any significant danger—a capability that no other European power in India could lay claim to at that time.”
“The Dutch trade from Masulipatam amounted to Rupees 600,000 per year throughout most of the 17th century. In 1660, the Dutch opened a factory in Golconda, whose chief merchant also doubled as the ambassador to the Qutb Shahi king.”
One of the key commodities traded from Golconda to the Netherlands and later to Britain was diamonds.
Map of Hyderabad state, c. 1730, H/t Wikipedia, UM Clement Library .
So that Dutch merchant was almost certainly in Hyderabad seeking diamonds. But maybe also indigo dye and textiles, which he is shown in turn offering to baby Jesus.
And the court painter, having been commissioned by the king to do a nativity scene, obligingly incorporated the trader into the painting, a common practice. It is unlikely that the painting was commissioned by the foreigner– it stayed in India until a British officer purchased it. It just shows that the Prophet Jesus (`Isa in Arabic) had acquired another connotation in the Renaissance period, being associated with the expanding maritime trade empires of the Christian Europeans. The Dutch had just displaced the Portuguese, who can be seen in earlier miniatures.
The painting is a reminder that Christmas is not parochial — not northern European, as it is often conceived in the US, but a global commemoration of a global event. Not only do Muslims celebrate Jesus as a holy figure, but many Hindus also respect him (and more used to before the rise of Hindutva, Hindu nationalism). And Jews who live alongside Christians often have Christmas trees, even if they can’t go along with Christian beliefs about Jesus, who after all was born and bred a Jew. Christmas should be for celebrating rebirth and renewal and hope, in a world that desperately needs all three, for Christians and for everyone.