Before I became a Muslim, I was invited to an iftar (the evening meal that breaks the fast during the month of Ramadan). I didn’t even know that non-Muslims could attend something like that. I have to say that the experience made me feel more comfortable about becoming a Muslim, because I’d seen what real Muslims acted like when they were doing something “Muslim.” It was easier to imagine myself as one of them.
It also made them seem less foreign and forbidding. Even if I hadn’t converted, I would have forever held that memory close to me and felt warmer toward Islam as a result.
Thanksgiving is not a comparable moment to an iftar, although there are some similarities. It is an opportunity for family and friends to come together. It does make you more grateful for all your blessings. But it is not a Christian holiday, or it would be celebrated all over the world on the same day, in the same way (except for regional differences).
I can understand why some Muslims would steer clear of celebrating Thanksgiving, but it is not like Christmas. Thanksgiving is not organized around the idea of Jesus being the son of God. And being invited to celebrate it isn’t a sneaky way to get us to look at Christianity more positively. It isn’t geared toward trying to convert non-Christians to Christianity. It wasn’t designed that way and it was never meant for that purpose.
We need to stop worrying that non-Muslims are trying to convert us whenever we have contact with them. If I’d thought that my Muslim friends were trying to convert me by inviting me to the iftar, I might have hesitated about going. But I saw it for what it was: a friendly gesture. When we had the Thanksgiving luncheon where I work yesterday, it was also a friendly gesture. My coworkers and I wanted to make our foreign doctors feel more welcome. And we wanted them to know how grateful we are for the opportunity to get to know them. (We also thought that they would enjoy trying some traditional American food. And boy, did they! The turkey was picked clean. One doctor even asked for my recipe for cooking it.)
When you invite someone to break bread with you, what you’re really saying is: I see you as a person and I want to get to know you better. I also want you to get to know me better. Muslims should be familiar with that sentiment. Of all religions, Islam is known for its hospitality. We are called to welcome the traveler. And, as per Muhammad’s example, we are to accept the hospitality of others.
I couldn’t have had a better Thanksgiving than the one I had at work yesterday. It was amazing to feel the camaraderie in the room as we ate together. I was and am extremely grateful for the opportunity to show hospitality to others and for them to extend their hands of friendship in return.