By Layla Abdullah-Poulos
Christmas has an unavoidable presence in the Ameican Muslim experience. The holiday season encapsulating it infuses every facet of society, and Muslims recieve various requests to participate in celebrations.
Every year, Muslims decide in what ways the will be a part of Christmas festivities for varying reasons. I recently read a post by lawyer Joe Milburn about attending Christmas Mass with his parents and was intrigued. I asked him to share his reasons for attending the ceremony, and he graciously agreed to an interview.
Do you participate in any religious rites? If so, why?
I will grudgingly attend Mass with my parents (who are Catholic) but I will not participate. This means that while I will sit there in the church respectfully and silently, I will not sing with them, kneel when the Catholics kneel or recite any prayers with them.
However, my parents do insist that I physically enter the church with them and I will out of respect. I don’t agree with overtly participating in religious acts of other faiths but I do believe in being tolerant and respectful to the beliefs of others.
If I was to bring a non-Muslim to a mosque, I wouldn’t expect said non-Muslim to pray with us but I would expect him to be respectful and quiet. Likewise, I will show to others the same respect I expect from others.
Do your relative reciprocate in participating in any Islamic holidays?
No, they do not. I have no intention or desire to push my beliefs on others as well.
Can you describe any spiritual or personal satisfaction you get as a Muslim in celebrating Christmas?
I am personally indifferent to it. I psychologically see it as just another day that society happens to be off from work just like I would view other Federal holidays such as Thanksgiving or New Year’s! Concerning Christmas, I see it as a day when Christians do believe Jesus was born (despite historical facts and Biblical passages suggesting he wasn’t born in the winter) and I respect the intentions they do have in celebrating Christmas. I am however thankful that I can as a Muslim love an honor Jesus in a way that doesn’t constitute idolatry.
How do you respond to people who say Muslims should not celebrate Christmas?
I agree with them in part and I disagree with them in part.
I definitely don’t agree with the idea of Muslims setting up Christmas trees, exchanging gifts on December 25th, or to teach their kids the narrative about Santa. When I see Muslims do that, I cannot help but feel that they are “trying too hard” to fit in with society.
December 25th is a day when the vast majority of individuals living in what is known as “the West” are off from work. Is it haram in of itself for Muslim families to get together on a day that happens to be convenient? Absolutely not.
Concerning how it applies to converts, I have had some scholars (whose names I will not mention) tell me that for converts with non-Muslim relatives it is important to maintain ties of kinship. The reason I kept the names of such scholars redacted is because in many cases, fatwas are specific to individual circumstances and individuals with different circumstances shouldn’t apply the fatwas towards others (on an individual basis) towards themselves. Those scholars who have admitted this leniency for converts have told me to not mention their names lest someone misconstrue their fatwa as permission in of itself to celebrate Christmas (as commonly done by the non-Muslims) as opposed to just maintaining ties.
When I personally have attended Christmas gatherings I do such not with the intention to celebrate Christmas but to see relatives.
Similarly, if I happen to have kids, I wouldn’t put up a Christmas tree in my house for example but I would take my kids to see their non-Muslim relatives on Christmas.
That said, I must emphasize that I hold no ill will towards Muslims who do choose to celebrate Christmas in a way as commonly done by the non-Muslims. I do understand the argument some Muslims do make concerning how Christmas has become a secular holiday and is therefore no longer associated with Christianity. I understand that argument and how the proponents of that argument came to that conclusion as I personally see no issues with celebrating holidays that have no specific religious overtones.
For example, Nowruz is a holiday that has origins in Zoroastrianism but is celebrated by Iranians, Kurds, and Afghans of all faiths. Those who are not Zoroastrian who do celebrate Nowruz typically remove the elements of the holiday that are explicitly associated with Zoroastrianism. Perhaps such an argument could be made to celebrate Christmas in a way that doesn’t involve religious overtones.
That said, I personally don’t feel comfortable with the idea of celebrating Christmas as is commonly done not just for religious reasons but I also hate excessive materialism which even many devout Christians admit has become associated with Christmas. I also am not a scholar so the things I just said shouldn’t constitute a fatwa. I am of course just an average Joe!