Bethlehem: The symbol of tolerance in Islam

Middle East Contributor
© Romolo Tavani |

The little city of Bethlehem has been the subject of Christmas carols and nativity plays. But, if we really look into the history of the heavily guarded town (as it sits at the heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict), it is much more interesting.

Bethlehem is the town which is famous for being the alleged birthplace of Jesus Christ. The Christians around the world consider it one of their Holy abodes. Pilgrims visiting the city within the 200 years of Jesus’s birth already believed it as Christ’s birthplace. Little did the world know that the Islam cherished Christ and he is honoured in the Quran is one of the greatest prophets. In fact, in the nascent years of Islam, he was the constituent part of the uprising Islamic identity.

‘Messiah, Isa, son of Marium, worthy of regard in this world and the hereafter and of those who are made near (to Allah).’ [Quran 3:45]

Bethlehem and birth of Christ

For Muslims, Christ is Isa (Alayhi al-Salam), one of the greatest and mightiest messengers of Allah. Unfortunately, there is no authentic proof of the place where Isa (Alayhi Al-Salam) was born.

‘So she conceived him, and she withdrew with him to a far place (i.e. Bethlehem valley about 4-6 miles from Jerusalem). And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a date-palm. She said: “Would that I had died before this, and had been forgotten and out of sight!” Then [the babe ‘Iesa (Jesus) or Jibrael (Gabriel)] cried unto her from below her, saying: “Grieve not! Your Lord has provided a water stream under you; “And shake the trunk of date-palm towards you, it will let fall fresh ripe-dates upon you. So eat and drink and be glad. And if you see any human being, say: ‘Verily! I have vowed a fast unto the Most Gracious (Allâh) so I shall not speak to any human being this day.’” [Quran 19, Verse 22- 26]

The Quran devotes more to the story of Isa( Alayhi Al-Salam)’s virginal birth. According to this holy book, Isa’s birth is profoundly symbolic of the birth of spirits and souls in the Muslims.

‘And (remember) she who guarded her chastity [Virgin Maryam (Mary)], We breathed into (the sleeves of) her (shirt or garment) [through Our Ruh – Jibrael (Gabriel)], and We made her and her son [‘Iesa (Jesus)] a sign for Al-‘Alamin (mankind and jinns).’ [Quran 21:91]

Therefore, Bethlehem is one unique city which is full of rich histories from both Islam and Christianity. It is situated in the occupied West Bank of Palestine, which is about 10 kilometres south of the holy city Jerusalem.

The word ‘Bethlehem’ means ‘House of Meat’, it is taken from the Arabic word ‘Bayt Lahm’. One of the main source of attractions of this city is the Church of Nativity. It is the oldest site which is used as the place of worship for Christians. In the year 326-328 CE, Byjantain Empress Helena initiated to build this church. Later it was destroyed in a Samaritan revolt in 529. Emperor Justinian I ordered to rebuild it again.

Islam in Bethlehem

Islam came to the lands of Palestine in 637 CE. It captured the heart of the indigenous people and transformed their social and spiritual life profoundly. Under the rightly guided leadership of Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb (RA), the Muslims conquered both Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb was one of the most influential Muslim Caliphs in history. In fact, he was a senior companion of the great prophet Muhammad(SAW).

Umar promised both the Church of Nativity and Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem that nothing would happen to these holy places. However, he refrained from praying in these churches in a fear that he would set precedents for his followers.

Arab Scholar Ibn Khaldun reported the great Caliph’s visit to both of the churches

“ʿUmar entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The patriarch said, “Here is your place of prayer,” but Umar said no, and instead he prayed upon the staircase near a door apart from the church. After finishing his prayer, he said to the patriarch, “If I prayed inside the church, the Muslims after me would take it and they would say: ‘Umar prayed here.”

The great caliph selected a place for praying which is just opposite of the Church. Today we find the Mosque of Umar in Jerusalem and the Mosque of Umar in Bethlehem. The second mosque is the city’s only mosque. The interesting part of this Mosque is, two giant palm trees were planted there as an explanation of the Islamic narrative of the birth of Isa (Alayhi Al-Salam). The explanation is simple. It recounts how Maryam(Alayha Al-Salam) grabbed the trunk of a palm tree to endure the pain of childbirth.

Islamic the rule was unhindered in the city until the Crusaders conquested it in the year 1099. They dethroned the Greek orthodox clergies with their Latin ones. That mayhem was subdued by Sultan Salah al-Din in the year 1187. He was the ruler of Egypt and Syria and led the Islam Ayyubids to conquer Bethlehem from the Crusaders. The Greek clergies returned with the peace.

Bethlehem finally got passed it Ottomans around 1517 CE. But in World War II, with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the British administration started in the city. Presently, it is a part of the Occupied Territories of Palestine.

In conclusion, it can be said that the city of Bethlehem is not only associated with Christianity. Nor it should be. We should not forget it is the symbol of profound worth to Muslims. Bethlehem is the epitome of tolerance of Islam.


(Written by freelance journalist Shreya T)