A Very Muslim Christmas 16 December 2015
Laura Jones reflects on coming to terms with Christmas as a Muslim and explains some of the pros and cons of getting involved in the festivities.
I am a Muslim who celebrates Christmas. Yep, I said it. But before you go thinking I am some loose, syncretic Muslim, let me explain myself.
As most people would agree, I view Christmas as a Christian celebration that has its basis in Christian traditions rather than Islamic teachings and scripture. And I don’t believe there is any religious obligation for Muslims to celebrate Christmas just as I wouldn’t see any religious obligation for them to celebrate Diwali or Hanukkah. For me, there is no Islamic religious significance attached to the 25th December, but I do recognise that it is an important and special time for my Christian, and indeed many non-Christian, acquaintances.
It is for that reason that I ‘celebrate’ Christmas. I was brought up in a household that might have called itself Christian and have some Christian relatives. I only became Muslim later on in life. After I moved out my family home, I have to admit that I initially had some hesitations when I was invited round for Christmas dinner – would God view this as ‘unIslamic’ behaviour? Although I did decide to go, and have continued to go every year, it took me a few years of reflection to become fully comfortable with the idea.
I think the reason I went in the beginning was because I didn’t want to let down my family. Islamic teachings which stress the importance of maintaining family ties seemed to echo my feelings. The Qur’an places good treatment of one’s parents right up there with worshipping God:
“Worship God and associate nothing with Him; and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy…” [4: 36]
However, I still had a niggling feeling in the back of my mind about Christmas.
I think the thing that really settled it for me was reflecting on how I would invite my family around for Eid every year (well, twice a year) and how important it was for me to have them there, even though Eid doesn’t really hold any significance for them. For me, the compassion and empathy shown by the Prophet Muhammad, his love and understanding for everyone, and his teachings of reciprocity such as that one should “love for your brother what you love for yourself” really convinced me that spending Christmas with my family was something he would have approved of.
Now I’m not saying that participating in Christmas is easy or even necessary for Muslims. The abundance of alcohol, which may lead to unruly behaviour at some Christmas parties, can often be highly uncomfortable for practicing Muslims who aren’t used to being in such environments since alcohol and intoxicants are forbidden. The excess of pork products at Christmas (pigs in blankets being a perfect example!) and other non-halal meat may also be a source of concern particularly when dining from shared plates of food. And then there is of course the fear that by attending Christmas events a Muslim might be inadvertently doing something ‘unIslamic’.
Taking all these into consideration, I’d like to offer a few considerations for Muslims and for those who might be inviting Muslims to their own Christmas gatherings.
Firstly, I would encourage Muslims who have been invited to Christmas celebrations to reflect a bit before refusing invitations outright. On the one hand, it might be that there are things about that particular Christmas event that would make you deeply uncomfortable and not able to participate fully and you may make a perfectly reasonable decision to decline the offer. On the other hand, it may be that you are familiar with the people inviting you and that your participation would be really valued and appreciated by them – just as their participation in your Eid celebration might be valued by you. On top of this, sharing in such celebrations is the perfect opportunity for us to learn about each other’s traditions and religions, and develop strong and real relationships with our colleagues, friends and neighbours.
Next, I would encourage those inviting Muslims to their Christmas events to think about their festivities and why Muslims might not want to participate. I am by no means advocating that you should change your events to suit Muslim requirements (since a Christmas without mulled wine might seem as absurd as Rudolph without his red nose!) but I would encourage you to be understanding if Muslims do decline such offers, for whatever reason. Another idea, if you really do want to include Muslims in your festivities, is to have a Muslim-friendly section of your event. For example, a local church near me invites Muslims to their carol service every year but starts the evening with a ‘tea and cake’ session where Muslims can come and find out about Christmas and what it means to Christians.
On a final note, I think it’s important to remember that Muslim attitudes towards Christmas are as diverse as the colours on your Christmas tree (and if my family’s is anything to go by, that is very diverse!). However, with a little reflection on both sides I think we can find a way to appreciate and learn about each other’s traditions whether we choose to participate in them or not.
This article is from Issue 12 of On Religion magazine. To subscribe to the magazine and access our special Christmas gift offer, click here.