Being the Muslim at a Christmas Party
Dec 20 2012
As a Muslim from a Christian family, Christmas has historically been complicated for me. Converting to Islam as a teenager, part of what I wanted from my religion was a new identity; the differences between Christians and Muslims held more value for me than the similarities, so I abstained from my family’s Christmas celebration. The boundaries between religions were crucial to my personal reinvention. I believed that there was no way of interpreting Christmas other than through the theological lens in which Christ was the son of God. Because this violated my understanding of Islamic monotheism, tawhid, I had to stay as far from Christmas as I could.
In later years, I gave up on my Christmas boycott. I now join in my family’s annual party – with a discreet trip to Denny’s first, because everything at the family dinner has pork in it and Denny’s is the only thing open – and apparently celebrate the birth of someone’s saviour, but not mine. I’m now confident enough in my own Muslim selfhood to not let it be won or lost by a holiday. Anyway, the boundaries don’t always mean to me what they once did; but for numerous Muslims with Christian families, Christmas can be a difficult choice. Besides the theological question of whether celebrating Christmas means that you join in the worship of a human as God, there’s the matter of what constitutes proper Muslim behaviour. Celebrating Christmas could be classified as bida’a, “innovation”, the corruption of an Islam that’s imagined to be otherwise pure and pristine through mixture with the practices of other communities.
For pro-Christmas Muslims, the esteemed place of Jesus in Islam might offer a rational defence for sharing in a Christian holiday; the Qur’an not only recognises Jesus as a prophet, but also supports the story of his miraculous birth from a virgin mother. Some Muslims might take part in their families’ Christmas celebrations with the intention to honour Jesus as a Muslim prophet. This can even connect to Muslim traditions regarding Muhammad. Not all Muslims believe that it is appropriate to celebrate Muhammad’s birthday, but those who do might consider the celebration of other prophets’ birthdays as well.
There’s also the well-worn “children of Abraham” narrative, in which Muslims, Jews and Christians are all said to share in a common heritage and should therefore see each other as spiritual cousins. This isn’t exactly wrong – certainly, one can derive such a position from the text of the Qur’an – but it’s limited, because constructing an Abrahamic family just performs a new set of exclusions. Bringing Abraham into this is only the “tolerant” option if we assume the entirety of the human race to be comprised of believing Abrahamic monotheists. The “children of Abraham” approach doesn’t help when it comes to my friends and family outside of the Abrahamic tent, both those who grew up as Muslims, Christians or Jews, but no longer identify themselves as such, and those who claim other traditions. Quoting a verse of the Qur’an that praises all who “believe in the last day and do what is right”, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim isn’t going to be the answer every time.
In my first semester at Harvard Divinity School, I took a course called “Christian-Muslim Relations: the Theological Dimension”, or something like that. The course was very div-school: classes began with a Christian student reading from the Bible and a Muslim student reading from the Qur’an, followed by discussions in which we considered possible reconciliations between these traditions. I couldn’t really get into it. Theological reconciliation between Muslims and Christians often seemed to depend on each side believing that either the other side didn’t really mean what it said, or that it failed to grasp the full meaning of its own scripture.
Muslims could hope that perhaps Christians didn’t really worship Jesus in ways that violated Muslim terms of pure monotheism; a particular Sufi reading could be projected onto Christianity to reveal secret Islam buried underneath the Jesus worship. Or Christians could hope that maybe salvation through Christ was extended to people who did not believe in its necessity or even its possibility, as though Christ might stealthfully hide between the words of the Qur’an and smuggle himself into the hearts of Muslims against their own knowledge and intention. Legitimising the Other through this kind of interpretation seemed like it could work for a theologian who sits alone with the books, but it didn’t give me much that I could use in real life, with real people.
I’ve known some pious believers who were also superior bridge builders, but they weren’t theologians or trained scriptural exegetes, though they did assume that their Qur’ans or Bibles would back them up. They just opened their doors and let people in. Examining my own celebration of Christmas as a Muslim, I find my answer with the people rather than the books. I am a Muslim and I observe Christmas with my Christian family. Apart from the idea that honouring my family is a Muslim virtue, I offer no scriptural defence for my choice. There are probably good-hearted Muslims and Christians somewhere doing interfaith work to rationalise their being human to each other, but I’ve stopped asking the question.
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