One Convert’s Struggle to Surrender Christmas as a Muslim
By Duston Barto
For most Americans, Christmas goes far beyond a religious celebration and becomes a culturally integrated part of the American experience. Many people in America who celebrate Christmas may never go to church the whole year or raise their hands for a prayer “in Jesus’ name.” Nevertheless, they will get a twinkle in their eyes and excitement in the heart as the last two pages of the calendar appear. Christmas as a Muslim, especially as a convert, can be a difficult time indeed. It is hard to know where to put yourself. Insha’Allah in this article I can share my own experience and the pattern that has worked for me.
There’s a holiday song that goes “everyone’s a kid at Christmastime” and the sentiment could not be more right. The bright lights, bright colors and overall sense of joy and merriment that the Americanized Christmas marketing promotes is downright infectious. As a child growing up with the American Christmas, it’s impossible to fully divorce yourself from the nostalgia of waking up extra early on Christmas day and going into the main room to see the tree all lit up, decked out in decorations, candy, tinsel and brightly wrapped packages underneath.
It was hard to divorce myself from the Christmas that I loved as a child. Giving up alcohol was easy, forgetting about bacon was… admittedly difficult, but I could do it. Giving up Christmas? Well, that downright broke my heart. I had the blessing of having parents that converted ahead of me so our journey to understand Christmas as a Muslim was done together. Over the years we whittled down our gift-giving. We quickly shifted our religious focus from the Bible to the nativity story as it is told in the Qur’an. When family came over for our traditional Christmas dinner, they got to hear about Mary (RA) going to the date palm and Jesus (AS) speaking as a baby. It was dawah that connected our extended family to the season and told them a new version of the familiar story.
However, in 2005 I left my beloved North Carolina home to join a Muslim charity organization. This was the first Christmas of my life that I would spend away from my family and with no celebration. I was 30 years old and I still cried for hours.
Those who were raised Muslim cannot understand the sort of connection that converts have to the holiday of Christmas and are often very harsh and cold when giving “advice” to new Muslims about the season. The reaction of those who convert to Islam is either to embrace this cold, harsh attitude against Christmas or to reject it completely and keep doing what they want. Both are extreme reactions to an extreme pressure and both, therefore, are wrong.
Islam is a faith of the middle ground, the middle way of dealing with situations. Going through Christmas as a Muslim doesn’t mean you have to be bitter and cold or to be aggressive at all. After all, the intention of modern Christmas is either secularized to just spending time with family or to genuinely give honor to Jesus. There are ways to honor Jesus within Christmas as a Muslim and to use that as a gentle form of dawah. When family is together then share the Nativity story in Surah Marayam to let Christians be exposed to a different vision of the events. For many Christians, this is all they need to hear to soften their hearts toward Islam. Don’t engage in debate of course, your purpose in joining the family with Christmas as a Muslim is not to push your views, but merely to share.
My advice to converts who struggle with letting go is to simply take it slowly. Islam was revealed over the course of 32 years, you’re not going to perfect it immediately. I advise the following steps:
- Reduce or eliminate any gift buying. Of course it is natural that during a time when people are giving gifts that you will want to give to them. Being generous and giving is definitely a part of Islam, but we have to do it in a proper fashion. Tell friends and family that you would like for them to respect your new faith by not giving you gifts. If this will cause problems or make your parents feel disrespected then I believe it is within the command to honor one’s parents to maintain a non-religious action to keep them happy.
- Explain to any non-Muslim family members what you are doing. Tell them that you love them and that you respect their religion and you ask them to respect yours. Explain that in Islam we do not believe that Jesus (AS) is God or the Son of God and that means you will not be celebrating Christmas as a Muslim in the same way you did before.
- Eliminate all Shirk from your life. Any reference to Jesus (AS) as anything greater than a Prophet must be wholly rejected. That means that you refuse to sing any Christmas songs or participate in anything that has anything to do with calling Jesus the son of God.
- Stop decorating. This can also be done in stages.
- Decorate for Eid ul-Adha and Eid ul-Fitr. Give gifts to your family and friends during this time invite them to dinner on these dates. This will make the elimination of Christmas and Easter from your life a far easier proposition as you are replacing them with something far better as the Eids are ordained by Allah (SWT).
Lastly, don’t be a grump! If someone says “Merry Christmas” then respond with “Happy Holidays,” “You too!” or something else positive. As Muslims we are commanded to return greetings with one that is equal or greater. If you snort back a curt “I’m not Christian!” or “I don’t celebrate!” then you’re responding to a positive greeting with something negative. That’s not sunnah!
What most of us loved about Christmas had nothing to do with the religious side of the celebration anyway. Rather, it had everything to do with the love of family and drawing closer to one another. Last year I talked about this issue with Abraham Kamara, a scholar from Al-Azhar University, who expressed very clearly, “My advice into that would be to go with them [your family], try to make them see Islam through you, through your behavior. But if you leave them, separate yourself from them totally, it’s like you’re not doing dawah.”
You cannot give this dawah if you are hard and spend all the time telling them why Christmas is wrong. Instead, let them witness the beauty of Islam by drinking and eating halal things, by being kind and by showing mercy in the way Jesus (AS) taught.