December 25th was an an average day for the majority of the world’s Muslims, but for some, it signified Christmas along with its variety of associated meanings. Muslim beliefs related to Christmas and its celebration vary considerably–from a fun-loving holiday, to a dangerous heretical practice. The majority of the world’s Muslims don’t give the 25th of December much thought at all, but with increasing numbers of Muslims living in the predominately Christian West and Christians living in the predominately Muslim Middle East, it’s difficult not to have some kind of opinion or interpretation of Christmas.
A growing number of Muslims around the world see Christmas as an opportunity to display their love and generosity to family, friends, and work colleagues through gift giving. Christian reformist resistance to attaching religious significance to Christmas during the 17th Century encouraged its growth as a secular holiday. The subsequent commercialization of Christmas, especially in the US and Europe, opened the door for many Muslims to feel more included in the holiday. Many Muslim Americans see December 25th as a time to celebrate their American identity, joining a host of other non-Christians who celebrate the day.
But opinions on the degree of recognition and celebration of Christmas vary widely. While Christmas cheer gains steam among many Muslims living in the West, there are those, both in western and non-western countries, who see aspects of Christmas, or all its forms as bid’ah, or a religious innovation, forbidden in Islam. Some western Muslims contend that saying “Merry Christmas” is like saying “happy disbelief.” In response to other Muslims’ viewing this position as a lost opportunity to build community with their Christian neighbors, non-Christmas-observing Muslims suggest that neighborly love be enacted all the time, and not just once a year.
Interestingly, while debates over the religious appropriateness of singing Christmas carols, gift giving, and stories of Santa Clause heat up, the recognition of December 25th is anything but new in many majority-Muslim countries. Honoring the birth of Jesus–the second of three prophetic messengers in Islam–has been a tradition for hundreds of years among some Muslims living in the Levant (Jordan, Syria, Palestine, Israel, and Lebanon).
In Iran, where hundreds of thousands of Christians live, the celebration of Christmas is commonplace for even non-Christian residents of Tehran. An Iranian Christian pastor recently suggested that “Iranian Muslims have put Jesus back in Christmas.” A few years ago, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad even sent an open message to the world’s Christians and congratulated them on the birthday of the “messenger of love and friendship.”
But some Christians see the recognition of Jesus’ birthday and celebrations of Christmas by Muslims as disingenuous. One listener during our recent Inside Islam Radio Show, The Muslim Jesus, suggested that Muslims talk about Jesus in order to placate Christians. While that may be true for some Muslims, it is clear that there are a variety of ways that people around the world recognize and celebrate Christmas.
Do you celebrate Christmas, and if so, how? If you are a Muslim who chooses not to celebrate Jesus’s birthday, do you celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday? Does the celebration of Christmas by multiple faith traditions say anything about interfaith harmony?