In the Holy Qu’ran’s version, there was no Joseph, nor a star. There was no gold, or myrrh, or frankincense. Only Jesus and Mary and a palm tree.

By Jesus Peralta

There was a story that arrived on Philippine shores at least 356 years before the arrival of the Spaniards to bring in the initial vestiges of the Christian belief system to the Filipino people. The story was that of the birth of Iesa, the Islamic name of Jesus, as described in the Holy Qu’ran. There was no manger. It was a birth with no magnificent star in the night to lead no three magis, who bore no gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There were no shepherds. There was no Joseph. But there was a tree, a palm tree, and flowing water.

The story started with Maryam withdrawing, in seclusion from her family, to a place facing east. There, the angel Jibrael appeared before her in the form of a man. Appalled, she said that she sought refuge with God. The angel replied he was only a messenger of God, sent to announce the gift of a righteous Son. But she could not possibly have a son, she said, since no man had touched her and that she had not been unchaste. The angel answered that God did this as a sign to mankind, and that this matter was already decreed.

And so Maryam conceived the Child, and went to a far off place. When the appointed time came, the pains of childbirth drove her beneath the shade of a date palm tree, lamenting, “Would that I had died before this, and had been forgotten and out of sight.”

Then a cry from below came—unclear still whether it was the Child or Jibrael—telling her not to grieve, and that the Lord had provided a stream of water under her. And if she would just shake the tree, fresh ripe dates would fall upon her. She was told to eat and drink, and if she would see a human being, she should say that she had vowed a fast unto the Most Beneficent and not speak to anyone that day.

When she finally carried the Baby to her people, they were scandalized and chided her that her father was not a man who would commit adultery and that her mother was not an unchaste woman. Maryam did not say a word but pointed to the Infant so that they would address Him. But aghast, they asked how they could talk to one who was still but a child in the cradle.

But suddenly the Child spoke. “He was a slave of God, that he was given the Scriptures and has been made a prophet; that He was made blessed and had been enjoined to pray and to give alms; to be dutiful to His mother, not be arrogant; and that peace will be upon Him the day he was born, the day of his death, until the day He shall be raised alive again.”

And they believed the words from the mouth of an infant.

The earliest evidence for the presence of Islam in this country was uncovered by the National Museum in the archaeological excavation in the patio of the Sta. Ana Church in Manila. The evidence was in the form of Islamic burials oriented toward Mecca. The date determination extracted from charcoal were carbon-dated 1175 AD, much earlier than even the historical records that placed the date when Karim Ul’ Makdum reached the Sulu Archipelago and Jolo, and, through trade, established Islam in the country to sometime in the 14th century AD.

Be that as it may, both great religions—Christianity and Islam—recognize the birth of Jesus, each in its own way, which brings us to the issues of symbols that are now used in celebrating Christmas. There is the star, the parol, and the birthing place, the belen. We have Santa Claus, the lights, reindeers, and snow, even the ubiquitous evergreen Christmas tree, all of which were not mentioned at all in the story and thus, quite difficult to relate with the celebration of the birth of Christ. If we need a tree, why not a palm tree then?

About the Author:

Dr. Jesus Peralta is an anthropologist, a graduate of the University of California, Davis. He was director III of the Philippine National Museum and the program director of the UNESCO project in safeguarding the Ifugao Epic Chant, Hudhud. Presently, he is a consultant to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts; Intangible Cultural Heritage Committee member; and consultant to the Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan (GAMABA) Committee. He is in the hall of fame of the Carlos Palanca Memorial Award in Literature.

(Essay was published in the Manila Bulletin)