What British Muslims Really Think About Christmas 22 December 2017
It’s that time of year again. The time of the year when websites and social media are buzzing with the words of Muslims expressing their views on how, or how not, to ‘do’ Christmas.
From YouTube videos stressing the severity of uttering the words ‘Merry Christmas’ to your colleagues, to articles highlighting how Victorian Muslims sang yuletide ‘hymns’ about Jesus and invited locals for a meal in the mosque on Christmas day, views about the festive season this year are as divided as ever.
In 2017, this has perhaps been most prominently played out in responses to that supermarket Christmas advert which depicts a Muslim family, house adorned with festive decorations, greeting each other with gifts. While some Muslims were dismayed that they should feel pressurised into celebrating a festival not part of the Islamic tradition – and perhaps accused of not ‘integrating’ into British society if they didn’t – others responded that many Muslims have Christmas-celebrating friends and families and are often involved in the festivities; as such they were delighted to be included in the campaign and to be recognised as part of the fabric of modern British life. (This is not to mention the response from Islamophobes who were disgusted by the mere thought that Muslims could acknowledge Christmas). Of course, this lively debate is probably exactly what Tesco wanted.
A trending hashtag over the last week – #AVeryMerryMuslimChristmas – has caused similar controversy. The Twitter campaign reflects the title of a parliamentary report on the contribution Muslims make through charitable giving. But it has been interesting to see the range of comments about the hashtag and where they are coming from. Muslims, on the one hand, have been arguing whether the hashtag is a way of integrating comfortably with British society or rather sacrificing their principles to pander to wider norms. Similarly, amongst those who are not Muslim, there are those who see the campaign as a positive demonstration of Muslims adapting to British life, and others who see it as a sign of Muslims trying to infiltrate society and ‘take over’ a Christian tradition. It seems nobody can agree on what Christmas means or should mean for Muslims.
Which brings me back to the point; if there are so many disagreements on how Christmas should be approached as a Muslim, what really is the Islamic stance on the celebration? Given the diversity of responses highlighted above, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I don’t think there is one, all-encompassing answer to this question. What do Muslims think about Christmas? Some think it is a festival which foregrounds a false belief that Jesus is the son of God, a belief antithetical to the Islamic world-view, and avoid it at all costs. Some think it is a relatively harmless display of joy and good-will and might join their colleagues or friends for a Christmas bash or engage in festivities in their own households. Others might think it is good to use Christmas as a chance to celebrate the story of Jesus as told in the Quran. And everything in between. Amongst all this, observant Muslims are often faced with negotiating the awkward practicalities of being in environments of lewd behaviour and unrestrained alcohol consumption at Christmas time as well as grappling with the effect that them ‘doing’ or ‘not doing’ Christmas might have on loved ones for whom Christmas is a cherished celebration.
And negotiate they do. The very fact that there is such a lively debate about Christmas amongst British Muslims, in my view, is not a sign that they are an uncivilised group that can’t agree about anything (views I’ve heard expressed from Muslims and non-Muslims alike) but rather a sign that their Islamic identity is important and plays a role in their lives. Whether they choose to reject Christmas or embrace it, that choice is important because, being a traditionally Christian celebration, Muslims’ engagement with Christmas has an impact on how they understand their faith. Similarly, these debates about the festive season show a significant level of reflection about Muslims’ British identity and what that means for them. Christmas is contested so vigorously amongst Muslims because it is an important facet of wider British life, something that British Muslims consider themselves to be an integral part of.
While I don’t believe there is a single right or wrong way of ‘doing’ Christmas as a Muslim, the deliberations on the issue reveal something significant. What Christmas means and how it should be engaged with matters to Muslims, because their religion and the place they call home matter to them.