Does New Year’s Have a Place in Islam?

Yesterday MuslimMatters published the article, “4 Reasons Why Muslims Should Not Celebrate New Years.” The author, Muhammad Wajid Akhter, does not claim to be an Islamic scholar and he does acknowledge that there is a difference of opinion about this even among scholars. However, he did have four reasons that I thought were worth considering, for those of us who are unsure about our obligations as Muslims in a non-Muslim world. (Obviously, if you live in a Muslim country, this won’t be as much of an issue.)

  • Reason Number One: It is technically inaccurate–and pagan.
  • Reason Number Two: What exactly is there to celebrate?
  • Reason Number Three: It usually involves un-Islamic practices.
  • Reason Number Four: It is against the spirit of Islam.

There are a lot of celebrations in the United States that are technically inaccurate. The Declaration of Independence wasn’t actually signed on the 4th of July, for instance. As for paganism, is a holiday pagan just because it doesn’t have its roots in Islam?

If those were the rules, then Muslims wouldn’t participate in any holidays except for the two Eids. There are those, of course, who think that we shouldn’t, but most Muslims at least recognize the existence of holidays that are civic rather then religious. After all, most of us live in civic, rather than religious, societies. (I prefer the word “civic” to “secular” because we are governed by a concern for the common good more than by a desire to be non-religious.)

As Muslims, we do have our own New Year to celebrate, but in non-Muslim societies life is arranged around other calendars, most notably the Gregorian calendar. We go to work and school and conduct our business according to that calendar. The Hijri calendar is invaluable to Muslims in the observance of our faith, but we cannot force non-Muslim societies to operate according to it.

New Year’s Eve and Day are traditionally set aside for celebration and for reflection. Not all celebrants go out to bars and drink. In my family, for instance, we spend New Year’s Day sharing a meal together, reminiscing about the year just past and sharing our hopes for the year to come. That could be done anytime, but New Year’s is the time when we are all reminded to do so. (Since my family is non-Muslim, I don’t expect them to observe the Islamic New Year.)

Holidays are there to make us stop and remember things we have decided, as a society, are important to remember. New Year’s reminds us that we made it through another year, which is no small thing in this day and age. It reminds us that we’re all in this together. And it reminds us that we have more life to look forward to, God willing. How does that go against the spirit of Islam?

Some Muslims are scared to acknowledge cultural traditions other than their own for fear that they will lose their Muslim identity. Well, I’ve got news for you: there’s a difference between culture and religion. Many things that Muslims observe as Islamic are actually cultural traditions that technically have no place in Islam as a religion. Being a Muslim is a state of one’s heart and soul, not a matter of language or food or local customs.

Many new Muslims are confused by the things born Muslims tell them they must do because they can’t see how they have anything to do with the observance of Islam. Because Islam developed in certain cultures, it’s hard to separate Allah’s requirements from people’s traditions. Too often, when a convert comes from a non-Muslim culture, he is made to feel inferior and in danger of going to Hell if he observes his own cultural traditions.

I’d like to make a case for new and born Muslims who find themselves in a non-Muslim culture to find ways to incorporate their faith into their daily lives. What’s wrong with celebrating the Gregorian New Year’s by going to the mosque and making special prayers for the world? Why can’t we get together with our families and friends and tell them that we value the life that Allah has given us?

There’s one more step that we could take to counterbalance the influence non-Muslim society has on Muslims: we can and should be putting more emphasis on our own New Year. Usually it comes and goes with no mention of it anywhere, sometimes barely even in the mosque.

There’s nothing wrong with what New Year’s stands for. It’s how we celebrate it that counts.

Where Are the Bigots When a Muslim Does Something Good?

When Rima Fakih won the Miss USA pageant last year, the media jumped all over the story. OMG! She’s a Muslim! The Muslim community must be horrified!

Pamela Geller of Atlas Shrugs delighted in the notion that Fakih’s  “accomplishment” was “an affront to islam” and a “pox on their house.” She practically nominated Fakih for sainthood for embodying “everything sharia and the Islamic world deplore — free women.”

Burn those burkas, baby, and come on in. The water is just fine. I wonder if the ink is dry on the fatwa …

But when the story broke this week about Saheela Ibraheem, the 15-year-old New Jersey girl who was just accepted to 13 universities, including M.I.T. and six of the seven Ivy League schools she applied to, who got a perfect score on the math portion of the SAT (and a 2340 overall score), who plays three sports, an instrument and sings in her school’s choir, among other achievements, not one news outlet mentioned the fact that this exemplary young woman also happens to be a Muslim. (Full disclosure: most of the articles did mention that she is the daughter of Nigerian immigrants.)

Is there something twisted about this, or is it a sign that the world is beginning to look past someone’s religion to the person beneath the hijab?

I think it’s twisted. If you’re going to be quick to point out Muslims who are behaving “badly” (for Muslims), shouldn’t you be just as quick to point out Muslims who are a credit to their religion? I sincerely doubt that Saheela wanted to hide the fact that she’s Muslim because she clearly wears the hijab in all the pictures I’ve seen of her (including when she’s participating in sports). But she doesn’t mention it either, probably because to her it’s no big deal.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying that one’s religion or race should be mentioned when his or her accomplishments are being touted. What I am saying is, where are the bigots like Pamela Geller when a Muslim does something good? They would have us believe that there is no such thing as a Muslim who is a model citizen. After all, everyone knows that all Muslims are terrorists.  If they acknowledged that someone like Saheela Ibraheem is a Muslim, they would have some explaining to do.

According to Islamophobes, Muslims want to bring down Western civilization and take over the world. Saheela Ibraheem just wants to be a research scientist and study the brain.

See an article and video  about Saheela Ibraheem here.

A Time to Celebrate

One of my best friends had a party last Friday night which I was fortunate enough to be invited to. It was partly a going-away party because she’s moving to another state in three weeks. But it was mostly a party to announce and celebrate her marriage.  She was married a couple of months ago but hasn’t been able to have the big wedding back home because of the situation in Libya right now. So she had a party here so that she can celebrate with her friends, both old and new, here in the U.S.

Other than baby and bridal showers, I’d never been to an all-women party until I was invited to one by my friends from Libya. Not all Muslims are strict about the separation of the sexes, but Libyans definitely are. The first time I went to a party where the men and women celebrated in different rooms, it felt strange. But I’ve become used to it and discovered that I don’t really mind it. Even at mixed parties in the non-Muslim world, men and women tend to split up into separate groups. So it wasn’t all that different.

The party Friday night was unique for me because I got to see my Muslim friends in all their finery. Off came the hijabs and niqabs and abayas and what emerged was dazzling. Everyone looked so beautiful, especially the beaming bride. The atmosphere was festive. Which was wonderful because Allah knows the Libyans have a lot to be worried about right now. But when isn’t a wedding a time of joy and hope?

We visited for over two hours before the meal was served, but it was well worth waiting for. I only took one portion of each dish and I still stuffed myself silly. I would love to learn how to fix Libyan food, but I doubt I could make it as good as Libyans do.

It was wonderful to see all my old friends and meet new ones. My youngest daughter came with me and I proudly introduced her around. The women made over her because she’s pregnant. There were a lot of “Mashallahs” and “Alhamdulillahs” going around!

I love the way Muslim women greet one another. There are the “asalaam alaykums” and “wa alaykum salaams” and a flurry of hugs and kisses. It’s not like anything I’ve ever experienced before. One of the things I’ve been most impressed with about Muslims in general and Libyans in particular is how hospitable they are. You never feel like a wall-flower when you’re invited into a Muslim home or to a party. My daughter and I left feeling very blessed. Alhamdulillah.

It’s not that long before Ramadan will be here again. The fasting is difficult, but the fellowship is amazing. I’m looking forward to celebrating it with my fellow Muslims.

The Laugh in Peace Tour

Noor Islamic Cultural Center of Dublin, Ohio, would like to invite you to a function that will be held at Congregation Terifth Israel on April 10th. It is a new kind of interfaith activity where three comedians representing the three Abrahamic faiths will share with the audience the funny sides of their communities.

Congregation Tifereth Israel’s Spotlight Series presents the Laugh in Peace Tour, starring comedians Rabbi Bob Alper, Azhar Usman and Rev. Susan Sparks, at 7 p.m. Sunday, April 10, at Congregation Tifereth Israel, 1354 E. Broad St.

Sirius/XM satellite radio plays Rabbi Bob Alper‘s comedy bits several times daily. He is an ordained rabbi who served congregations for 14 years and holds a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary.

Trained as an attorney, Azhar Usman is a Chicago-based Muslim comedian, actor, producer, activist and founder of the popular “Allah Made Me Funny – The Official Muslim Comedy Tour.”

A trial lawyer turned stand-up comedian and Baptist minister, Rev. Susan Sparks is America’s only female comedian with a pulpit. She is the Senior Pastor of the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City, and the author of “Laugh Your Way to Grace: Reclaiming the Spiritual Power of Humor.”

Tickets are $35 for adults and $15 for students. To order tickets, call Shelley at (614) 253-8523, or send a check payable to Congregation Tifereth Israel to: Congregation Tifereth Israel, Attn: Spotlight Tickets, 1354 E. Broad Street, Columbus 43205.

Here is some more information about two of the comics from the AEI Speakers Bureau website:

The New York Times declared that they “had the audience convulsing.” And that’s just what to expect when comedians Azhar Usman, a Muslim, and Rabbi Bob Alper (a Jew, of course) take the stage.

There’s a reason why XM / Sirius satellite radio plays Vermont resident Rabbi Bob Alper‘s comedy bits several times daily, often sandwiched between Bob Newhart and Bill Cosby: Bob’s unique background…he’s an ordained rabbi who served congregations for fourteen years and holds a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary…prepared him well for a twenty-three year comedy career with wonderfully unique material presented in a way that’s hilarious, sophisticated, and 100% clean.

Azhar Usman is perhaps the world’s most famous American Muslim comedian. He was the subject of an entire episode of ABC’s Nightline, and was featured on CBS Sunday Morning. He hails from Chicago, with roots from the Indian subcontinent, and has performed throughout the US and in numerous foreign countries with the “Allah Made Me Funny” comedy tour.

Together, Bob and Azhar perform at colleges, churches, synagogues, and theaters in a show that The Detroit Free Press calls “one of the most unusual and uplifting cross-cultural experiences you’ll have this year.”

Rabbi Bob Alper also performs with Nazareth, a Palestinian Christian, and Mo Amer, a Muslim born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, and occasionally he adds a third comedian to the act, Rev. Susan Sparks, minister of the Madison Avenue Baptist Church, NYC, stand-up comic and former lawyer.

If you’re interested in having the Laugh in Peace Tour come to your area, contact the AEI Speakers Bureau at 1-800-44-SPEAK or visit the individual comedians’ websites (see links above).

More Thoughts on Thanksgiving

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.


Share Your Ramadan Story on CNN

CNN is planning a four-week series on modern Islam that will run daily through the month of Ramadan, and they want you to get involved!

The series will look at what it means to be Muslim and how people live as Muslims in 2010.

CNN invites you to grab your camera and show the world how you are embracing your faith. Show and tell what it means to be Muslim today, how Ramadan is observed where you live, what your life is like during Ramadan, including special customs or traditions.

Your story can be told through photos or video. The best images and stories will appear on air or online as part of CNN’s global coverage.

To see others’ stories, or to share your own, go here.

Palin Tweets About the Ground Zero Mosque

On July 18th Sarah Palin tweeted this: “Peace-seeking Muslims, pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in interest of healing.”

I’ll give her credit for one thing: at least she acknowledged that there are peace-seeking Muslims. Nothing makes my blood boil more than people who state that every Muslim is out to kill the infidels. That we’re bloodthirsty heathens who execute people for the merest infractions and love to do so in the most barbaric ways. (Another thing that makes my blood boil is that some Muslims do fit that profile, and that they kill in the name of Allah.)

But her plea for healing is one-sided: both sides need to heal from the events of 9/11. Non-Muslims just can’t seem to grasp the concept that Muslims have suffered as well. They’ve been profiled, reviled, marginalized and blamed for every misstep made by Muslims the world over.

Not only that, but healing only comes with understanding and forgiveness. Eradicating anything that reminds you of your pain doesn’t cause you to heal; it only pushes the pain underground.  (As many have realized after executions of murderers—their deaths don’t make up for or ease the pain of the loss of those who were murdered.)

The only reason a religious center is ever seen as provocative is when there are already ill feelings toward the religion. Those who are protesting against the center may say that the center just doesn’t “fit in,” but what they’re really saying is that “we don’t want to have to deal with ‘those people.'”

What are we to think when Palin says that the mere thought of an Islamic center near Ground Zero “stabs hearts”? Does she feel the same way when she is in the presence of a Muslim? If she had her way, would she ban all Muslims from the area surrounding Ground Zero? Or all mosques from New York City?

What “stabs hearts” is the lack of communication between Muslims and non-Muslims. We fear each other precisely because we don’t understand each other. It’s easier to presume the worst about others than it is to try to see things from their point of view.

I think the Muslim response to non-Muslims’ concerns about the Cordoba House should be empathetic but firm: “We understand your feelings, but we believe that they are based on misconceptions. The Cordoba House is an opportunity to set the record straight: Muslims are not your enemies; they are your neighbors.”

[Side note: Kudos to CBS and NBC for rejecting an ad from the National Republican Trust PAC that crosscut footage of the 9/11 attacks with the sounds of Muslim prayer and this narration: “On Sept. 11, they declared war against us and to celebrate that murder of 3,000 Americans, they want to build a monstrous 13-story mosque at ground zero.”]