There was a time when just saying “Merry Christmas” would provoke fire and brimstone sermons from Muslims around me. I wasn’t exempt: I also believed Muslims shouldn’t celebrate holidays that weren’t explicitly Islamic, least of all arguably the biggest Christian holiday of the year.
My own positions have changed, considerably. But as Christmas approached, I wondered if only I had changed, or if something more was afoot in American Islam?
What I found surprised me and challenged me. Though there are many Muslims who do not celebrate Christmas (including me), I’ve come to believe that more and more Muslims will take the seasonal plunge. Except on their own, Muslim terms.
How we got here
For many Muslims, Christmas activates all kinds of anxieties. A religious holiday that challenges the Muslim interpretation of Jesus, it’s also a secular celebration—almost impossible to avoid—which is far more influential than any Muslim celebration in the West.
The feeling of marginalization can be a big turn off this time of year. Imam Abdullah Antepli, chief representative of Muslim affairs at Duke University, tells Quartz that “there’s an incredible fear of assimilation for minority religions.” Antepli trained as a chaplain at Hartford Seminary. “This isn’t exclusive to Islam,” he points out. “There is a similar trend in Judaism as well.”
I saw my story in his words. My parents taught me that Muslims did not celebrate any holidays except Muslim ones. We wouldn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, nobody discussed Valentine’s Day, and Christmas was entirely out of the question. Probably, it was easier for them to embrace an interpretation of Islam that legitimated their cultural distance from the mainstream.
And yet, many Muslims here in the US are African American, white, Latino, or otherwise descended from families who have been here for generations. How did these families balance their cultural heritage with their American experience?
My parents taught me that Muslims did not celebrate any holidays except Muslim ones. Imam Ubayd Allah Evans, an African-American convert to Islam and an Islamic seminarian, describes the difficulty to Quartz thusly: “I would have to make a conscious decision not to celebrate Thanksgiving, and the same is true for Christmas. Holidays prove the power of a culture. As a community, we should not underestimate how much people want to be part of a place. The impulse to want to celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Halloween—I totally get that. It’s a very human thing. As soon as Black Friday hits, I feel different.”
But what if you want in—because you’ve never been in?
“Halloween, over time, became an American brand,” Imam Abdullah Antepli said. “It could become an American Muslim tradition.” Going around and terrifying the neighbors? (I held my tongue.) This has happened in the past to Muslims elsewhere: “In Iran,” Imam Antepli recalled, “Nowruz is celebrated by Muslims.” The Persian New Year is not an “Islamic” holiday—the Prophet Muhammad never celebrated it—but it’s integral to Iranian Muslim culture all the same.
So could it happen again? And which holidays would make it in? For some, drawing the line is subjective—and subject to change.
“Christmas was always huge in my family,” Ubayd Allah Evans admits to Quartz, “and converting to Islam and changing my observance of Christmas has been a struggle.” And now? “I still watch all my Christmas movies, but no tree!”
As 22-year-old Libyan-American journalist Noor Tagouri tells Quartz that her family has also had to navigate the holiday spectrum. “I know a lot of Muslim families who just started celebrating Christmas recently and that’s their prerogative. We celebrate Thanksgiving [but not Christmas].” And why not? “At the end of the day it is a religious holiday,” she explains.
The Muslim Jesus
Tagouri’s younger brother and sister embody the tensions inherent to American Muslim existence. “My sister goes to Islamic school,” she said, “and one of the teachers said they aren’t allowed to say ‘Merry Christmas.’” Her family, however, did not agree with this. Her younger brother, however, attends a public school: “My baby brother has all these Christmas things at school: pics with Santa, singing carols, presents for parents. We let him participate so he doesn’t feel left out.”
American Muslim Eids have become more elaborate occasions, but there’s no comparison to Christmas. Add to that a rising mood of anti-Muslim sentiment, which encourages Muslims—consciously or unconsciously—to seek out ways to prove their belonging. Christmas would seem to be a way to speak to the mainstream: After all, Muslims love Jesus, if not quite in the same way.
“He is depicted kind of as a Sufi shaykh,” convert Evans said of Jesus in the Islamic tradition. “Someone who is coming to a people given the Law of Moses, but who had become too legalistic. Jesus is a legal reformer, but to relax the law … He was an itinerant preacher, teaching, healing. Almost like pure spirit.” Christmas would seem to be a way to speak to the mainstream: After all, Muslims love Jesus, if not quite in the same way.
Jesus is a prophet in the Islamic tradition, like Muhammad. Muslims also believe Jesus is the Messiah, and will return at the end of time. But—and here’s the big difference—in the Muslim faith, Jesus is not God, the son of God, or divine in any sense. He may be very special, but he is ultimately very human. Our monotheism is unitarian, like Judaism’s. If I may be so bold, Muslims are Jews for Jesus.
The challenge is that Islam condemns “shirk,” or associating any person or thing with God, as the worst theological sin. In fact, the Quran says Jesus denied ever claiming divinity. To a Muslim, therefore, celebrating Christmas means potentially celebrating a theology at odds with your own, and also ascribing something to Jesus he himself would dispute.
It might seem incongruous to hear Muslim debating such theological questions openly, but in fact it’s quite natural given Jesus’s significant placement in the Quran. “As the American Muslim community is becoming as American apple pie, discussing these Christian beliefs is more common,” Imam Abdullah Antepli said. “Especially because they have relevance and connections to Islam. I see this happening a lot on college campuses, but not in mosques.”
His own position? “As long as people do not take Christmas as a religious ritual, as long as they are not subscribing to the Trinitarian Christian theology, what’s wrong with it?”
“As long as people do not take Christmas as a religious ritual… what’s wrong with it?” Evans alluded to the common Muslim tradition of celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. “What if we treated Christmas like a celebration of Jesus’ birth?” But, he countered, that was not previously part of the Islamic tradition, and could mean giving into a holiday we are too small of a minority to define. “We are losing our uniqueness as a religious community. As an American religious person, I want to fight to preserve my religious uniqueness. This is what,” he insisted, the American founding fathers “were fighting for.”
The tension between the desire to maintain religious cohesion and the desire to build bridges with an America that is dominantly Christian is one of many facing the Western Muslim community. Is Christmas an unmissable opportunity to share the Muslim gospel? Or is it a warning sign we are disappearing into the mainstream?
These are questions Muslims will likely be thinking a lot about this December, and for many Decembers to come. What we do know, of course, is that diversity is good for everyone, as is a healthy discourse on matters of spirituality and faith. Just because I do not celebrate a holiday doesn’t mean I can’t value it, on a cultural and yes, religious level.
All of this is to say take heart, Christian culture warriors: Starbucks may have abandoned you, but more and more of America’s Muslims will happily lend their support.