Sunday 6th Dec is the feast of St Nicholas. For those who don’t know already, the name Santa Claus evolved from St Nick’s Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shortened form of Sint Nikolaas. So the jolly old man in red with a white beard that we all know as Father Christmas is actually St Nicholas.
St. Nicholas was a Bishop who lived in the fourth century AD in Myra in Asia Minor (now called Turkey). He was a very rich man because his parents died when he was young and left him a lot of money. He was also a very kind man and had a reputation for helping the poor and giving secret gifts to people who needed it.
But the thing he is most famous for is punching Arius’ lights out during the Council of Nicea in 325 AD!
Arius was the major player in the Arian Controversy. This controversy centered upon the nature of the Son of God, and his precise relationship to God the Father. Arians do not believe in the traditional doctrine of the Trinity. They did not accept that Christ was God, but instead believed him to be simply a human being, and subordinate to God the Father. They had funny ideas about the Holy Spirit too.
Anyway, St Nick got so peed off with Arius’ ramblings that he sparked him out right then and there onto the floor during the council in front of 300 other Bishops! Arianism was declared heresy, and no-one was aloud to practice it anymore.
However, much of southeastern Europe and central Europe, including many of the Goths and Vandals had embraced Arianism. In the west, organized Arianism survived in North Africa, in Hispania, and parts of Italy until it was finally suppressed in the 6th and 7th centuries.
So what has all this got to do with Islam?
Muhammad was born in Mecca in about the year 570. Muhammad’s father, Abdullah, died almost six months before he was born. According to Islamic tradition, soon after birth he was sent to live with a Bedouin family in the desert, as desert life was considered healthier for infants. Muhammad stayed with his foster-mother, Halimah bint Abi Dhuayb, and her husband until he was two years old.
At the age of six, Muhammad lost his biological mother Amina to illness and became an orphan. For the next two years, he was under the guardianship of his paternal grandfather Abd al-Muttalib until Muhammad was eight years old. He then came under the care of his uncle Abu Talib.
In his teens, Muhammad accompanied his uncle on Syrian trading journeys to gain experience in commercial trade. Islamic tradition states that when Muhammad was either nine or twelve while accompanying the Meccans’ caravan to Syria, he met a Christian monk named Bahira who is said to have foreseen Muhammad’s career as a prophet of God.
When the caravan was passing by Bahira’s cell, the monk invited the merchants to a feast. They accepted the invitation, leaving the boy to guard the camel. Bahira, however, insisted that everyone in the caravan should come to him. Then a miraculous occurrence indicated to the monk that Muhammad was to become a prophet.
It was a miraculous movement of a cloud that kept shadowing Muhammad regardless of the time of the day. The monk revealed his visions of Muhammad’s future to the boy’s uncle (Abu Talib), warning him to preserve the child from the Jews or from the Byzantines – depending on who’s version of the story you read.
Both versions write that the monk Bahira found the announcement of the coming of Muhammad in the original, unadulterated gospels, which he possessed (the standard Islamic view is that Christians corrupted the gospels, in part by erasing any references to Muhammad.)
The thing is, the Christian monk Bahira was an Arian. And after pronouncing to the teenage orphaned Muhammad that he was going to be this great future prophet, he then no doubt did his best to educate the boy with a load of Arian nonsense.
Muhammad of course was illiterate. And so anything that was learned during his formative years would had to have been memorised. He then had a relatively successful life as a traveling merchant until he had his first vision at around the age of 40 years old.
When I visited the Ahmadiyya Mosque a few weeks ago I was really surprised to find how many similarities there are between Catholicism and Islam. But also the stark differences – namely that they do not recognise Christ as Divine, but simply as a prophet.
I began to wonder about the origins of Islam and what influences shaped it. It seems to me that Bahira was a major influence on Muhammad during a rather impressionable stage in his life. I wonder, I just wonder if I looked deeper into Islam I would find an obvious Arian influence? I don’t know.
But I do know one thing: If the Council of Nicea is anything to go by, Bahria’s time in purgatory is gonna be pretty rough.
St. Nicholas pray for us!