Christmas, like any great anniversary, should by its very nature be of good cheer. And whilst Scrooge, the Grinch, the Kranks and other killjoys have done their best to spoil Christmas, its generosity of spirit has endured.
For Muslims, who have lived cheek-by-jowl with Christians and Jews for over 1, 400 years, the issue is not as much about the authenticity of the date itself, as it is the principle of celebrating the birth of one of mankind’s greatest personalities.
For Jesus is deeply revered by Islam as one of the most distinguished and righteous of prophets. Both Christianity and Islam believe that Jesus was born of Immaculate Conception, and Muslims honour Mary as much as Christians do.
In fact, so revered is Christ in Islam that the prophet Muhammad prophesied Jesus would come back to earth in its troubled end-times to spread peace amongst all nations.
Interestingly, Muhammad also predicted that Jesus – who would return to earth as a man – would be buried next to him in the Arabian Peninsula.
The theological differences between Islam and Christianity surrounding the Godhead, and Jesus’ relationship to it, are really not the issue here. Christians and Muslims have to be consistent in their creed, and it would be unrealistic to expect anything else.
And surely, whilst accepting creedal divergence in the best traditions of tolerance, it should be remembered that universal truths are there to be celebrated. Compromise does not mean capitulation to one’s core beliefs.
In an era where sharp-edged extremism has emerged in all the great faiths (fundamentalism is not the exclusive preserve of Islam) universal truth has been sequestered, if not hijacked, with each cloistered group giving the lie that only it possesses the true “ism”.
In other words, in the grossly reductionist model that serves extremism, bridges of understanding are smashed and belief becomes a question of “them” and “us”, with the chasm between a raging torrent of hostility and ignorance.
In this paradigm – fuelled by blinkered literalism and blind groupthink – “us” is infallibly right and “them” is unfailingly wrong. And in the extremist mindset, where – in its worst form – the blood of an unbeliever is permitted, fear and prejudice reign.
I believe that to rebuild the broken bridges, especially amongst Muslims, we have to remove the humbug of Christmas.
We have to address the absurd notion held by many Muslims (due to the stark influence of extremist sects in the last 100 years or so) that birthdays cannot be honoured or respected. In the light of Christmas, the issue takes on added significance.
This is because the Qur’an quotes Jesus’ as saying (19:33):
“So peace be upon me the day I was born…”
The same is said of John the Baptist, and if one considers further that the prophet Muhammad used to fast on Mondays in celebration of Monday being the day he was born, the question of anniversaries being “forbidden” in Islam becomes highly questionable.
But integral to the idea of Christmas is an issue beyond the idea of a birthday. It is the one of good neighbourliness – or the ethos of loving for your neighbour what you would love for yourself.
The noble companions of the prophet Muhammad have commented that they were told numerous times that their non-Muslim neighbours had rights over them. Kindness, compassion and consideration had to be the hallmarks of a Muslim as a neighbour, said Muhammad.
Ibn Hisham, an ancient historian, cites the instance of Muhammad allowing a delegation of Byzantine Christians led by the Bishop Usquf being allowed to pray in his mosque. “The mosque is a place dedicated to the worship of God,” he told the Bishop.
The prophet Muhammad and his Caliphs also preached that in times of war no church, synagogue or place of worship could be damaged. Nor could their clerics and caretakers be harmed.
So careful were these leaders that the Caliph ‘Umar even refused to pray inside the Holy Sepulchre after the conquest of Jerusalem in the 7th century, this because he feared generations after him might try to convert the church into a mosque.
When it came to interfaith relations, scholars report that Muhammad – the exemplar of Islam – was very particular that other faiths were never demeaned. He had to approach believers of other faiths with the utmost respect, the best of reason and the noblest of manners.
Never could he at any stage talk down to others, and the Qur’an (6:108) even warned him not to revile other beliefs, lest they out of their anger reviled God Himself.
Earlier generations of Muslims were acutely aware of this – as well as the Qur’anic injunction that the “People of the Book” (peace-loving Jews, Christians and Sabians) had to be honoured.
I can remember octogenarian Arabs telling me in my travels to the Middle-East how in their distant childhoods mosques in Syria, Jordan and Palestine would be decorated for Christmas.
Of course, Christmas may not be a religious experience for nominal Christians. But that should not detract in any way from its significance as a vehicle of social goodwill. In a global village where – ironically – families have fragmented, Christmas is often the only time families come together.
And for that reason alone, I feel Muslims should revisit the benevolent ghost of Christmas past, and happily embrace their Christian neighbours on Christmas Day.