“WHAT BUSINESS DO YOU HAVE to comment on festivals that belong to other people’s religion? And that too on the very day that it is being celebrated?” People can very well ask. Well, in the times we live in, it would be sheer folly not to do so. There are numerous reasons for this. The festival in question is celebrated by adherents of the world’s largest faith, while we are the second largest – if ticking of census forms is any measure. Christianity is estimated to be the world’s largest religion, and Islam occupies second place. In view of this, the relationships between two of the greatest religions of the world are certainly of importance to the planet.
Secondly, Islam and Christianity have a special relationship with each other. The central figure in Christianity also happens to be one of the mightiest messengers of God in Islam. The Qur’an happens to be the only non Christian religious scripture that contains narratives on the birth, message and finale of Christ, his mother as well as his disciples. In view of this, it would not be wrong to suggest that Christians do not have a monopoly on Christ. We Muslims have equal right to comment on any commemorations in his name.
Therefore, any religious perspective coming from the Muslims on Christmas should not necessarily be seen as a critique of the common Christian version but an expression of their own religious beliefs. It is very important to understand this.
The Nature Of Inter-Religious Expression
People upon hearing views that are different from their own, on themes that they believe in, sometimes feel that their version is being criticised. As all religions do not say one and the same thing and do not promote the same ideas on the divine, and because one encounters diversity in its full form during the course of religious dialogue, therefore, the expression of divergent religious belief from one group is not necessarily a critique of the other, but simply an expression of what one in his or her own tradition believes in.
So when a Muslim perspective on Christmas is being conveyed, it is what it is, i.e. what Muslims believe about Christmas, and nothing more and nothing less. So no need to worry too much on this one!
The Season For The Birth Of Jesus
On to the subject. Why Christmas matters? It matters to majority of Christians, as they believe that it is the day that Christ was born (although there is a minority that doesn’t). And the day for this is the twenty fifth of December every year. According to them, Christ came into the world during a winter in Bethlehem.
Well, on the other hand Muslims allude to both Qur’anic as well as Biblical narratives on the subject, to say that this is not the case. In the Qur’an, we read about the birth of Jesus:
The pains of labor drove her (Mary) to the trunk of a date-palm. She exclaimed: “Oh, if only I had died before this time and was something discarded and forgotten!” A voice called out to her from under her: “Do not grieve. Your Lord has placed a small stream at your feet. Shake the trunk of the palm toward you, and fresh, ripe dates will drop down to you. Eat and drink, and delight your eyes. ‘” 19:23-25
Important indicator about the season for Jesus’ birth is given in the expression, fresh, ripe dates will drop down to you. When do we have the season for fruiting of dates ? Is it the winter of December? Not at all. It is in the heat of summer. So according to the Qur’an, Jesus was born not in winter, but in summer!
Biblical evidence also points to the fact that Jesus was born when the climate was warmer, and not at the peak of december’s wintery season:
“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” Luke 2:7-8
The shepherds were in the fields watching their flocks at the time of Jesus’ birth. Late December in the middle of the night is not a comfortable time for the sheep to be out and about in the freezing cold, don’t you think?
In the same chapter, it can be seen that Jesus’ parents travelled to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census:
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed….. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:). To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.” Luke 2:1-6
It is very unlikely that they made their Journey during winter when temperatures were below freezing and roads were poor condition.
All this leads to the fact that the time period of Jesus’ birth was not December, but according to the Qur’an it was certainly summer, as this is when dates are ripened, and according to the Bible it was much warmer. So here it is. The Muslim viewpoint. Jesus was not born in December, which means that Christmas day is not Christ’s birthday!
“Listen mate, are you telling me that I got it all wrong?” Our Christian friend asks. “Well, I am not saying you got it wrong. I am merely saying what I believe, just that you know where I’m coming from, so we know each other’s positions and can learn to live together!”. “Does that means you’re not gonna come to my Christmas party?”, he asks again. The Muslim replies, “Now I didn’t say that! I may very well be there, but make sure you have some non alcoholic cola and halaal pie there. And I certainly won’t stand under a mistle toe, when your granny is around!”
Participating In Christmas Festivities
Humour apart, I was once asked by a college manager in England who was organising a Christmas event for her students it is alright to invite Muslim students? This is a very important question. Especially for communities that are mixed, diverse and multifaith.
Whether people of different faiths can join in the celebrations of faiths that are different from their own?
My reply to her was in a yes and a no.
Yes, they can in the sense as observers, to learn about communities, to understand what people believe in and why they do so.
The answer would be a no, if the organisers expect students of other faiths to join and participate in religious ceremonies or to partake in activities that go against their own traditions.
But I would strongly recommend that in faith celebrations people of other faiths and beliefs are invited as well, because not doing so will isolate communities from each other.
When Muslims celebrate Eid, they too should invite people of other faiths to their celebrations, but it would certainly not be expected of their Christian, Hindu, Sikh or Jewish friends to do the ablution and perform the prayer as they do. Non Muslims are simply there to share pleasantries and as observers. Also it should be ensured that food that meets the religious dietary needs of the guests is served. It wouldn’t go down very well if one were to invite Hindus or Buddhists who are vegetarians and serve them halal beef kebabs!
So a very strong yes to the invitation, a yes to careful pre-event preparations, but definitely a no to the religious participation bit.
There we are. It’s Christmas. We say to all who are celebrating it: have a good time. Spend time with your family. Think of the poor, and share with them too.
And remember, go easy on the dessert as it’s a tough job to loose those extra pounds gained during the festivities!
We wish you a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!