Having lived in the UK since I was less than two years old, Christmas has been part of my life for over six decades. Despite being a Muslim household, and being very poor, my parents indulged this primary school pupil by putting up Christmas decorations, and I remember once visiting Santa’s grotto. I have vague memories of a minor role in the school nativity play, but the details are lost in the mists of time.
We got our first television when I was about seven, and from then on Christmas primarily meant movies such as “It’s a Wonderful Life” (my all-time favourite Christmas film) and “Miracle on 34th Street.”
When our own children were young, my wife Tahara and I took the same path as my parents had with me. You cannot play Scrooge with your children by denying them the childhood magic of Christmas on the grounds that “We are Muslims and we don’t do these things.” Apart from anything else, that risks inculcating the view that Muslims never have any fun; something that sadly all too many Muslims seem to believe these days.
Being a cost-conscious accountant, we had a plastic Christmas tree, which got used each year until the children grew out of wanting one. Also, from my first encounter with Milton Friedman’s philosophy, Christmas (and birthday and Eid) presents always consisted of cash rather than presents chosen by me or Tahara. (Joel Waldfogel reported in his paper “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas” that, on average, the recipients of presents valued them at about 66 per cent – 90 per cent of the cash spent on them. Accordingly between a tenth and a third of your money is immediately wasted if you give presents instead of cash.)
At work, I always attended the office Christmas party, both because it was fun and because it was good for team building. I still remember one year a cherished female colleague rescuing my attempt at a karaoke rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “My way” by making it into a duet! My brain had proven unable to recall the words while on stage, and the karaoke system being used did not supply lyrics.
Today Christmas for me is primarily a chance to have some quiet time, when the rest of the world shuts down, people stop sending me email, while our daughters practice their turkey or goose or duck cooking skills on us.
It’s about Jesus
As a free question for your next pub quiz, ask them “Which prophet is mentioned most often by name in the Quran?” I counted by searching the Tal Itani translation, chosen simply because I have a PDF copy and the counting is not affected by the existence of footnotes. The results were: Moses 136, Abraham 72, Jesus 25, and Muhammad only 12.
There is an entire Surah in the Quran, number 19, Maryam (Mary) which, in particular, affirms the virgin birth. Indeed, Mary is the only woman mentioned by name in the Quran.
At the same time, the Quran is categorical that Jesus was a man; the miracle of a virgin birth does not make you divine.
Globally, Christians at 2.2 billion significantly outnumber Muslims at 1.6 billion. However belief in the literal truth of religious texts is declining faster amongst Christians than amongst Muslims. Accordingly, I expect that in the not too distant future there will be more Muslims who believe in Jesus’s virgin birth than Christians; indeed the crossover point may have been reached, although I have not seen any data.
Against this background, why do you hear so few Muslims talking about Jesus?
I believe that the explanation lies in identity competition. For centuries, the Muslim ruled states of the Middle East and North Africa and the Christian ruled states of Europe saw themselves in competition. In that situation, it is understandable that many Muslims felt, and still feel, reluctant to talk about the keystone of their opponents’ religion. However I regard such prioritisation of politics over theology as fundamentally flawed as it mistakenly converts a religion into an ideology.
Instead, Muslims need to re-engage with Jesus, just as some Jews are rightly re-engaging with Jesus the Jew.
Is Christmas drowning out Jesus?
Given the importance of Jesus, it is no surprise to find that Google reported 749 million instances of his name on the internet. However I was somewhat dismayed to find 1.7 billion instances of Christmas, with eight of the first eleven (non-advertising) results being commercial ones.
With the emphasis given to Christmas at school, I grew up with the understandable belief that Christmas was the most important Christian festival. The internet obviously “agrees” since a search on Easter produced only 286 million instances.
It was only when I learned about Christian theology properly that I realised I had been completely misled by the behaviour of our school, and of the TV channels. Theologically, Easter trumps Christmas by a mile, but our society, despite its deep roots in Christianity, fails to teach that to its children.
Practical advice for fellow Muslims
Since each of us is individually accountable to God, each of us has to reach our own theological decisions. However my own view is that wishing your Christian neighbour “Happy Christmas” or sending him or her a Christmas card should get you a brownie point rather than a demerit on the Day of Judgement. We should have good relations with all of our fellow citizens even when we disagree with them theologically.
So from me, Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year.