Christmas Caught Between Cultures


As John Stewart says, Christmas is everyone’s favorite holiday.  Even as a Muslim you can’t help to be enamored by the twinkling lights and cheerful, giving spirit that sweeps across the US during Christmas.  There is just something about December.

Although both my husband and I are Muslim, we come from very different backgrounds and as usual we have very different points of views particularly regarding Christmas.

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From its modest beginnings, Christmas has evolved into the biggest celebration in the world.  So much so that if you are raising your children a different faith a whole host of issues arises that you probably wouldn’t consider nor pay attention to because it doesn’t affect you.

But for conversations sake, I’ll give you an example.

During Ramadan which is also a month long celebration where families decorate their houses, get together, give charity, exchange gifts and despite the fasting – eat a lot; the only representation that I noticed was a small index sized advertisement in Ralph’s by the Medjool dates indicating that they were a healthy Ramadan treat. Barely noticeable!

Every year our holiday comes and goes with very acknowledgement and is almost un-noticed in the Western world.

Would companies change their tune if they knew that in 2010 the estimated disposable income range of American Muslims was between $107-$124 billion!

I’m not sure.  Maybe Christmas would still be everyone’s favorite holiday?

Nevertheless, despite that fact, it still leaves me and my family in unchartered territory dealing with the Christmas holiday while being Muslim and multi-cultural.

Let me back up for a second.

For those newly initiated into the “Muslims celebrating non-Muslim holidays” fiasco, the general rule in our religion (at least, for those of us that are reasonable) is that any national holidays such as 4th of July, Thanksgiving, etc., are fine.

Any nut job, fundamentalist, wacko that tries to tell you otherwise is, well, a nut job fundamentalist wacko. Refute these loons with one simple fact: All Muslim countries have non-religious national holidays as well; this isn’t something unique to non-Muslim countries.

A few examples for your argument: In Egypt they have Sinai Liberation Day, Labor Day, Revolution Day, and Armed Forces Day. In Saudi Arabia, September 23 is Saudi National Day. May 25th is the “Independence Day” of Jordan, and May 1st is their Labor Day. The Independence/National Day in Malaysia is August 31st. Etc. Etc. You get my point.

And before we start talking about Islam I am warning you of this mysterious thing called “cultural Islam.”  It’s important to double-check everything you hear from an immigrant Muslim, because many of them mix their culture in with the religion.

Unfortunately what has never really been clarified (at least, not in a way that I have been content with) is what, exactly, determines a culturally biased interpretation of the religion.

Personally, I think the confusion lies in one simple fact: There are two types of cultural Islam. One is obvious, and is quite easy to spot and sift through. The particular brand of cultural Islam I’m referring to here is what is referred to as Folk Islam. In a nutshell, this is anything a heritage Muslim tells you is something Islam teaches, but they cannot find a Qu’ran verse or an authenticated saying of the Holy Apostle Muhammad (sallill’ahu ‘aleyhi wa salaam) to back up their claim.

The second type of cultural Islam is much more difficult to ascertain. Here I am referring not to completely baseless additions to Islam (i.e. folk Islam), but rather an interpretation that has some basis in the religion.

Basically, it is a practice that can be backed up by a Qu’ran verse or a hadith, but nevertheless is merely a cultural interpretation of a said Qu’ran verse or hadith, and has no basis in normative Islamic orthodoxy. We’ll call this “cultural interpretation.”

So, where does Christmas come into play?

It’s a little bit more complicated. It IS a religious holiday, there is no getting around that. I don’t really buy the whole secular-liberal Muslim argument that “it’s a consumer holiday” or “it’s a family holiday” or “it’s not really about Jesus” or “people don’t really associate it with Christianity anymore” blah blah blah.

Nativity scenes are everywhere, Religious holiday cards sell out, and people fill the Churches to watch passion plays. It is a religious holiday, and the secularists who celebrate it are just making excuses to get some presents. You know it, I know it. The end.

So, in order to deal with this rigmarole and confusion, the Muslims of our day and age, in predictable fashion, go to extremes. You have two groups: The pedantic pseudo-intellectual fundy-Muslims that denounce the holiday altogether, refrain from visiting family and friends, and seclude themselves in their houses in protest.

And, then you have the inferiority-complex-laden, Starbucks-drinking, fake-glasses wearing, super-expensive-car driving secular liberal Muslims that put up Christmas trees in their own houses and give their own (Muslim) kids gifts, etc.

It becomes problematic for those of us searching for middle ground, especially from a Multi-cultural Muslim, or convert Muslim point of view.

I have lived through the fallout that happens dealing with either of these extremes so let my experience be the wind that guides your sails if you ever have to deal with an issue as complex as this.

Despite its religious overtones, to our families it is a sort of requisite of filial piety to show up and engage them on this holiday. To not do so is, in their mind, to be an undutiful son or daughter.

It’s an aspect of American culture that I don’t think the heritage Muslims fully grasp (and it is CERTAINLY not grasped by some Saudi cleric sitting in KSA issuing English-language fatwas online). And, even though it is a religious holiday, and it’s all about the birth of the God-man version of Jesus, it is ALSO about family.

It’s a lot about family.

So, in order to deal with this confusion here is my interpretation.

The whole question comes down to one dilemma: Are we to obey the Letter of the Law, or the Spirit behind it? Obviously that requires explanation, so allow me to make my thoughts a little less inchoate:

In the Monotheistic tradition, there were, until Islam, only two basic archetypes. The Rabbinical archetype, and the Essene archetype. The Rabbinical archetype is the archetype of the religious fundamentalists who adhere to their Sacred Law most meticulously, often missing and/or ignoring the reasons those Laws were revealed in the first place, which was to heal society and make things better for people.

The Essene archetype is the archetype of the religious people who give significant merit to the spirit behind the revealed Laws, sometimes even going to an extreme in this and ignoring certain aspects of their Sacred Maxims and Statutes to achieve greater empathy and spiritual heights.

We could also call these two phenomena the “Moses” archetype, and the “Jesus” archetype.

Islam is thought to have brought the Sacred Middle Way (Qu’ran 2:143). We have a Sacred Law, and to have scrupulousness with regards to it is highly meritorious. Yet the religion also has certain principles that those Laws came to fulfill, and those principles are so highly valued that our scholars sometimes even use those principles in preference to clear texts if they feel the principle is more strongly conveyed within the religion than an isolated Law or Maxim.

To put it a way a layman can understand: Sometimes the Law itself is more important, and sometimes the basic principles of the religion (the “spirit behind the Law”) is more important, and it depends on which scholar you are consulting as to which of the two “interpretations” you’re gonna get.

The question is, when to use which?

In the case of Christmas, it appears to me (and God knows best), that it comes down to the specific situation of each individual, and each person knows their own circumstance better than an outsider.

If you come from a family that will be deeply hurt and offended that you don’t show up and visit them on Christmas, then to not show up will actually do more harm than good.

We don’t want them to feel like they’ve lost a family member, a person that used to be human, and for them to subsequently feel that they have gained nothing but a rigid, Rabbinical, judgmental automaton in place of the “former you” that they knew and loved.

Rather the goal is to assure them that we are still the same people that we have only underwent a few minor changes embracing Islam.

To compromise a little bit and visit your family on a day that is so special to them is more in keeping with very serious principles and themes of Islam, such as honoring the ties of kinship, dutifulness and honoring of parents, empathy and compassion for our fellow human beings, and being good ambassadors of Islam.

On the flip side of that is, if you come from a family that isn’t very close-knit, that doesn’t make a big deal out of Christmas, or, perhaps that would only be slightly miffed/annoyed that you didn’t show up (i.e., irritated, but not enough to justify you compromising your religion), then it is always best to err on the side of caution, obedience, and assiduousness in following the Sacred Law when it is possible to do so.

But, and this needs to be said, following the more lenient/compromised view of visiting family on Christmas does NOT give us license to fall into the snares of the Secular-Liberal Muslims who celebrate Christmas in their own homes with their own Muslim children.

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We call it a compromise because it is exactly that: A compromise. It is not “giving in” or “selling out.”

Without doubt, we want to be true, practicing Muslims, especially in our own homes and around our own children, even if we sometimes have to compromise certain things outside of our houses for the greater good and in order to live up to the profound principles of our religion.

I believe this is the correct balance, the middle way, as I have come to understand it.  If I have made a mistake in my judgment, then I ask for God to forgive me, as my intention was nothing other than to address my struggling heart while living in the Western world.

So whether you are celebrating Christmas or not, may these holidays bring joy and happiness to you and your loved ones.

Live and Learn. We All Do.

Thanks for reading. Please share 🙂

Please don’t forget to leave a comment. 

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About julia29

Hi. My name is Julia El-Haj. I am a Hall of Fame Athlete, an MBA, Professional Certified Marketer, Certified Youth Fitness Trainer, a Specialist in Sports Nutrition and a licensed Real Estate agent. I gave up my "seat at the table" to be home with my 3 children because that's where I was needed most. I blog about everything with Wellness in mind.
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One Response to Christmas Caught Between Cultures

  1. Ebony says:

    Wow, awesome blog. And I wish you Merry Christmas!

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