Is It Shirk to Wish a Non-Muslim Merry Christmas?

I’m not a scholar, but I don’t think you always have to be to work out how to behave in the world.  Take for example the practice of wishing people “Merry Christmas.” I saw a post on Facebook the other day that said that when we say “Merry Christmas” we are essentially agreeing that Jesus was born on December 25th and because that’s not actual fact, we are committing shirk when we say it.

Does that mean that it wouldn’t be shirk if we knew exactly when Jesus was born and we wished people “Merry Christmas” then? Of course not. I think the real reason some Muslims think it’s not all right to acknowledge Christian holidays is because they’re afraid that 1) they’ll give non-Muslims the impression that they think the holidays are valid; or 2) that they’re acting like, or in danger of becoming, Christians just by wishing someone “Merry Christmas.”

Whenever I have trouble deciding how I feel about something, I look at it from a different angle. Usually that means putting myself in the opposite situation. What if I was a non-Muslim and a Muslim wished me “Merry Christmas”? Would I think, Oh, he must believe in Christmas! or would I be more likely to think that he is being friendly?

Or take it a step further: how do I react when a non-Muslim wishes me a Happy Eid? Do I think he is identifying with Islam or about to become a Muslim? Or do I see it as a friendly gesture, an acknowledgement of my religion and my right to express it?

The way I see it, the only time it’s shirk to wish someone a happy holiday is when they don’t know that you’re a Muslim. If you’re trying to pass as a non-Muslim or even a Christian, then that’s obviously shirk. But if it’s clear that you’re a Muslim, I don’t see any harm in it.

What if someone asks you if you believe in the Christmas Story? Then you would have the opportunity to tell him that while you don’t believe that Jesus is God, you do believe in the virgin birth and that Jesus was one of God’s greatest prophets. But I can’t see any upside to saying to someone, “I’d wish you Merry Christmas, but I think it’s all a lot of nonsense.”

That’s all Muslims need: to be seen as intolerant and dismissive of other religions. Our best witness is to show that we’re proud of being Muslims and to treat others the way God would have us treat them. And Allah is not a God of intolerance and discord.

Shirk is the act of assigning partners to Allah. Recognizing that others may be in error about monotheism is important, but it is our own acts of shirk that we need to be aware of. Belittling or ignoring non-Muslims will not bring them to the One God. It will only push them farther away.




What Christmas Means to Me

The Christmas season is a bittersweet time for me as an American Muslim convert. I cherish my memories of Christmases past. I haven’t forgotten the excitement about Santa’s yearly visit: the letters I mailed to him (usually without stamps), the pictures my mom had taken of me on Santa’s knee, the selection and decoration of the tree, the visits to Secret Santa’s Gift Shop at Lazarus (the forerunner to Macy’s) to buy gifts for my parents and relatives, the cookies and milk we left out for Santa on Christmas Eve (as well as carrots for his reindeer), and the imagined sounds of reindeer hoofs on our roof and the sight of Santa’s ashy boot prints leading to and from our fireplace and the tree.

My parents went all out to celebrate Christmas (consider the boot prints).  The beginning of the season was marked by the trek to the nursery to pick out the tree. Then out came all the Christmas records and sheet music, the time-honored recipes for Christmas cookies, the boxes and boxes of decorations and the invitations to our holiday parties (yes, in the plural). My sister and I were enlisted to implement all my mother’s ideas, which we outwardly complained about, but secretly loved. We knew this was a magical time of the year, especially for children.

But there was also another side to Christmas, one that is far more difficult to give up than the all the excitment about Santa. It was made up of snow-muffled nights when lights twinkled like stars that had come to earth, of sitting quietly in a dark room by the Christmas tree, of Candlelight Services at the church on Christmas Eve, of hymns like  “O Holy Night” that started out quietly and built up to a thrilling crescendo. There was my mother’s childhood manger scene that always sat on our piano with one spare bulb illuminating the manger. There was the sense of tradition and of history and of peace and joy.

My grandfather was a Lutheran minister (which, besides Episcopalians, is the closest you can get to being a Catholic and still be a Protestant). I was baptized as a baby and raised in the Church. When I was in the second grade, my teacher told us the entire story of the Christian Jesus, from his birth to his death and resurrection. I remember being in tears by the end of the story. I couldn’t believe that God would do that for us.  I went through catechism classes, I was confirmed in the Church. My confirmation Bible verse was “Be thou faithful until death and I will give you a crown of life.” (Revelations 2:10)

When I was 21, I re-affirmed my relationship with Jesus Christ by becoming what is sometimes called a “born-again Christian.” I felt a deep connection to Jesus and what he had sacrificed to bring peace and salvation to the Earth. Soon after, I began having children of my own. My husband, and their father, was a minister and also a “born-again Christian.” In our decade-long marriage, we always emphasized the Jesus side of the Christmas story (as in “Jesus is the reason for the season”). We taught them about Santa Claus as well, but always made sure to remind the children that the reason we give gifts at Christmas is to celebrate Jesus’ birthday.

But like all children, it was Santa they focused on.  They understood that we were celebrating Jesus’ birthday, but I’m sure they didn’t understand his significance. It’s easy to get a child to parrot that Jesus is God’s son; but did they really know what that meant? And I’m sure they wondered, like I did when I was a child, why we gave gifts to each other instead of to Jesus. Was it because he was no longer alive?

After their father and I divorced, I continued to celebrate Christmas but it was their father who kept reminding them that Jesus was their Lord and Savior.

There’s no denying that the Christmas story is appealing. Little children can identify with the baby. And it’s made obvious to them from day one that it’s a very special time of the year. It’s not until they become older, when they’re told that there’s no Santa, that they begin to wonder if Jesus is also a made-up character. But by that time, who wants to break the spell?

That’s what becoming a Muslim has meant for me: breaking the spell that is Christmas. Actually, to be fair, that spell was broken long before I became a Muslim. I’m not a stupid person; I could see the contradictions and misconceptions surrounding Christmas. The emphasis on getting gifts instead of giving them. The commercialism. The lack of mention in the Bible about the Trinity. And why in the world do we build up a child’s faith in Santa, only to reveal him as a fake when they get older? What does that teach them about faith in general, but especially about faith in God?

I am so thankful to God that my faith in Him has “survived” Christmas. I no longer believe, or need to believe, that Jesus is God’s son. But I do believe that he existed and that he is one of the greater prophets, even to Muslims. I can accept that God has a special plan for him without feeling like I have to worship him. I value Christmas for what it teaches us about what the Prophet Jesus taught when he was on Earth: That God is Loving and Forgiving, our Creator and thus in a sense our Father, and that He promises us Eternal Life if we only believe in Him, submit to His will, ask for His forgiveness and do all that we can to bring about justice and peace to the world.

That should be the real message of Christmas.


“All-American Muslim” Reality Show and the Lowe’s Controversy

All-American Muslim” is an eight-part reality show on The Learning Channel (TLC) which premiered on November 13, 2011, and ends on January 8th, 2012.  (If you don’t have cable or have missed the airings, the first episode is currently available here on YouTube.)

To say that the show is controversial is an understatement. Lowe’s, the home improvement chain, recently pulled its ads from the show partly in response to Islamophobes like David Caton of the Florida Family Association. The FFA sent emails to all the show’s sponsors threatening to call all “concerned Americans” to boycott their products if they didn’t withdraw their support.

First of all, ads don’t necessarily mean that the companies who are advertising necessarily agree with a show’s premise or content. If that were the case, how did another TLC show, “Sister Wives” (a show about polygamy) get any advertisers? (And why isn’t the FFA protesting that show??)

Second of all, what kind of idiot views a commercial as an endorsement of anything but the product it’s advertising? Let’s be realistic: companies advertise on shows that they think will have a decent viewership. They don’t care why people are watching the shows; they just want the viewers to buy their products. (Remember, this is commercial television that we’re talking about here.)

Lowe’s could have stood its ground and still maintained its objectivity if it had just issued a statement saying that they advertised on the show in the first place in order to reach its audience. They could have said that those who find the show objectionable should write the show’s creators or the networks that present it. In their statement on their Facebook page, they say that they pulled their ads because the show had become a lightning rod for different societal and political views. (Read the statement here.) So? Big deal!

What they didn’t consider is that the controversy may well create a larger audience for “All-American Muslim.” If they were really smart, they’d reconsider their position and start advertising on the show again.

The FFA and other like-minded bigots believe that the show is a “stealth” project to somehow “trick” the American public into thinking that Muslims are not terrorists. Their little brains can’t handle the concept of diversity even within specific groups of people. All they see are stereotypes, as if only Christians (at least the white and conservative ones) safeguard American values. And anyone who knuckles under to their scare tactics is as small-minded as they are.

For more about this controversy, see here and here.