Muslims celebrating Christmas in Detroit

nativityOf the many routine Christmas-themed stories that local reporters could take on, The Detroit News picked a difficult story Monday that is not quite so predictable. Reporter Catherine Jun looked at what is perceived to be an increasing trend of Muslims in southeastern Michigan celebrating Christmas.

The headline of the story is vague: “Muslims warm to Christmas spirit.” Exactly what “spirit” is being warmed to is fleshed out in the article, but the reader gets the sense that it has less to do with anything spiritual and more to do with cultural aspects of the holiday. But that doesn’t make it a bad story. In fact, it delves into a few of the religious issues that come up when one discusses Christmas, Jesus Christ and Muslims:

Some Muslim leaders with more purist views see celebrating Christmas as straying from Islamic practice that can result in losing Muslim identity, said Imam Aly Lela of the Islamic Association of Greater Detroit in Rochester Hills.

But Lela himself sees it differently. To him, decorated evergreens and a jolly Santa are all harmless fun, since neither is viewed as integral to the Christian faith.

“For American Muslims, if they take it as an American cultural thing, it’s not contradictory to the teachings of Islam,” he said. “Of course, we don’t participate in the religious part of it, just like we don’t expect non-Muslims to celebrate our festivals, like the Jewish community don’t expect others to celebrate Hanukkah.”

[Fatma Muge Gocek, a sociologist at the University of Michigan] agrees. Christmas has taken on nonreligious significance for many, as holidays and traditions do take on new meanings over time and in different households, she said.

“(Christmas) becomes a civic thing and not a religious thing,” she said.

Gocek also noted that Christmas has non-Christian origins dating back two millennia when European civilizations threw grand celebrations around the winter solstice and the end of the harvest season.

The story unpacks a number of issues. Namely: What are Americans actually celebrating on Christmas? While it is appropriate to see Christmas as a “civic thing” as opposed to a “religious thing” in some areas of American society, where do the civic and the religious “things” touch, and how significant is that for a Muslim? Is this story primarily about Muslims or about how Americans celebrate Christmas? Or is it a little bit of both?

The article spends a lot of time explaining the cultural challenges of Muslim families trying to fit in with their Christian neighbors, but at the very end of the story, the reader is rightly told that Muslims and the celebration of Jesus Christ aren’t exactly oil and water. Actually, they could go together historically and theologically for a Muslim:

Though many Muslim scholars are hesitant to place Jesus above the rest of the many prophets revered in Islamic text, given what Christmas means to believers, the story of Jesus’ birth should remain the focus on Dec. 25 rather than Santa or presents, said Eide Alawan, director of interfaith outreach at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn.

“Christ belongs not just to Christians but to all mankind,” he said.

How interesting that it took a Muslim to explain that Christmas is not just about the tree, a “sleigh-riding St. Nick,” presents and other Christmas fanfare.

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  • Steve

    And why is this news at all? Why are you so wide-eyed about it?

    Don’t journalists understand that Jesus is seen as a great prophet in the Muslim faith?

    Don’t journalists know that the Quran testifies to the virgin birth of Jesus and the immaculate conception of Mary?
    Don’t journalists know Mohammed himself taught that Jesus is going to be the judge at the Second Coming, Doomsday, the Day of Judgement?

    Of course journalists don’t know any of these things.

    They’re JOURNALISTS reporting on RELIGION which means they don’t know any of the basic details about the faith they are reporting on. They have no context, they have no way of distinguishing news from noise.

    Thus, they manufacture a “news item” that isn’t news to anyone who knows anything about the situation.

    It’s six years after 9/11, and the jokers who do the news beats still haven’t bothered to read any books on basic Muslim beliefs, just like they’ve never bothered to read anything about basic Catholic/evangelical/fundamentalist/Mormon/etc. beliefs.

    As a result, they have no way of informing their readers about anything, no way of judging what is really news and what isn’t.

    It’s of a piece with Huckabee getting pilloried for simply stating a basic tenet of Mormon belief – that Satan and Jesus are brothers. Now, I’m no fan of Huckabee… I think he’s an idiot… but there’s no reason to tear the man apart for simply stating a fact.

    Unless you don’t happen to know the facts, in which case you are shocked by them.

  • Harris

    As Alfred Uhry’s Last Night of the Ballyhoo about Atlanta Jews makes clear, the phenomenon of holiday assimilation (and its tensions) has been around for some time.

  • Roberto Rivera

    As Alfred Uhry’s Last Night of the Ballyhoo about Atlanta Jews makes clear, the phenomenon of holiday assimilation (and its tensions) has been around for some time.

    Exactly. The woman who cuts my hair is a Muslim from Afghanistan. A few years ago she told me that her son wanted a Christmas tree, which she was considering doing. I asked her if she knew that Christmas was a Christian holiday. She knew and it didn’t seem to concern her. Mind you, she’s not a nominal Muslim, either.

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    I’m amazed they are celebrating on December 25 and not January 7 (Orthodox). The Orthodox retain that date as it is their December 25 due to their not accepting the papist Gregorian Calendar. They use the Julian Calendar. Or would the reporter then have to do some extra work to explain the two calendars and all the religious ghosts in THAT story?

  • Julia

    How interesting that it took a Muslim to explain that Christmas is not just about the tree, a “sleigh-riding St. Nick,” presents and other Christmas fanfare.

    Recently a blogger said there are lots of bumper stickers that say “Keep Christ in Christmas” or “Put Christ back in Christmas.” He thought it was more to the point to have one saying “Keep (or put back) the Mass in Christmas.” Let folks have their cultural fun and put the religious focus on church services and the home.

    Christmas trees are an imported German cultural custom. And I understand that Dickens had a lot to do with how Christmas looks today. In his time, it was not as showy a public event as is now portrayed in his “Christmas Carol” – meaning the public wreaths, trees and decorations. The invention of sentimental Christmas cards also has a lot to do with our perception of the appropriate Christmas in public areas. Christmas was celebrated in homes and churches, not on the sidewalk – until Victorian times.

    Even when I was a kid, there were almost no decorations on the outsides of people’s homes. Inside homes there was only a tree and manger scene. We went downtown to see the glittery secular holiday stuff at department stores meant to get us to buy stuff.

    Why push the religious stuff on the public square? Who needs a creche at City Hall and courthouses? Is it Christian triumphalism? Frankly, I think it backfires and secularizes the religious meaning of Christmas to push the Christian symbols on the secular and unwilling.

  • joe

    muslims are jsut supporting the “non religious” aspects of christmas which is furthering the liberal view of taking CHRIST out of christmas. They are not observing the REASON for the season. Just the festivities and decor the season has brought about