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December 16, 2010

The meaning of Christmas for a Muslim

Dr. Mohammed Shokr

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It is true that Christmas is largely about Jesus. It is equally true that Jesus, in Islam, is perceived very differently than Jesus in the mainstream Christianity.

In Islam he is one of God’s prophets though he was miraculously conceived without a father.  This is unlike the Christian belief in that he is neither divine nor the savior of human beings.

However, aside from its theological considerations, Christmas is also about reviving human values that reinforce the bond between people in our society.

Christmas celebrations encourage such values as sharing with one other, caring for friends & family as well as neighbours, and reaching out to the needy in the community.

In Islam these values are shared despite the difference in core beliefs between the two religions.

Much like in Christianity, Islam does not discriminate between people on the basis of faith when it comes to fundamental moral principles of equality, justice, giving and human rights.  Every person deserves help, if needed, and all people should work together to reassure their social bond.  Christmas should be viewed as an inspiring opportunity to reach this goal.

Within this view, Muslims should contribute to available Christmas charities and social programs.  Donations of money, food, clothing, toys and gifts are all forms of giving that can make those less fortunate in our community share this occasion.

Engaging in the Christmas spirit is about carrying out such acts of kindness towards each other – sincere greetings, cheerful smiles, gift exchange and prayer.  In that sense, Christmas becomes an opportunity to understand each other better and reinforce social bonding in our multicultural social mosaic.

Many faith groups in Christianity advocate for human rights, especially the rights of non-privileged people, here and abroad.  Muslims should join these efforts and use the opportunity of Christmas to share thoughts and coordinate work with their fellow Christians.  That should also bring followers of both faiths together to contribute to the development of our inclusive and pluralistic society.

The question about the meaning of Christmas to Muslims is very much connected to the question of the relation between Muslims and Christians from theological point of view.  The stand of the Qur’an (the Holy Book of Muslims) on this question is expressed in several verses.

"...and nearest among them in love to the believers will you find those who say, 'We are Christians,' because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant" (5:82).

"O you who believe! Be helpers of God -- as Jesus the son of Mary said to the Disciples, 'Who will be my helpers in (the work of) God?'  The disciples said, 'We are God's helpers!'  Then a portion of the Children of Israel believed, and a portion disbelieved. But We(God) gave power to those who believed, against their enemies, and they became the ones that prevailed" (61:14).

These commands were demonstrated in a historical account between the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, and the Byzantine Christians.  A delegation of sixty Byzantine Christians from Najran (in Yemen) came to the city of the Prophet (Al-Madinah) to discuss a few issues about Islam with the Prophet.  They asked him for a permission to perform their prayers in the mosque.  The Prophet allowed them and said “conduct your service here in the mosque. It is a place consecrated to God.”

Christmas should also be an occasion for Muslims to educate their children, in a non-dogmatic manner, about Jesus Christ according to the teaching of Islam. The Prophet Jesus is considered in the Qur’an to be honored in this world and in the Hereafter (19:30-33).  He is one of those brought nearest to God (3:45). 

It should also be viewed as an occasion to promote morals of multiculturalism in our multi-faith society where people should be valued based on their moral stands rather than their religious affiliation.  That way, ideas that foster cohesiveness will flourish and ideas that lead to “clash of civilization” will be restrained. 

No faith group is expected to compromise on fundamental tenets of their belief but every group is expected to build bridges of communication and understanding with others.  This is particularly crucial as we live in a world with increasing tension and conflicts.

Christmas is not an occasion to emphasize the differences between Christianity and Islam.  Instead, it should be an opportunity to celebrate the common teachings promoted by both faiths; especially those elements regarding social justice and welfare of human beings.

The two noble prophets of Christianity and Islam were so involved in helping and saving others.  And that is what their believers should be doing today.

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