Muslim Americans Debate Celebrating Christmas

Muslim Americans Debate Celebrating Christmas

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DEARBORN - The Muslim-American community seems to have adopted several cultural and religious traditions as it has established its presence here. However, every year a debate seems to emerge amongst local residents over how to mark the nationally celebrated holiday of Christmas.

For Americans, the presence of Christmas can be felt nonstop during the month of December, regardless of whether one chooses to celebrate it. Whether it is decorations lighting up a neighborhood, retailers advertising a holiday shopping sale, children waiting in line to see Santa Claus at the mall or the radio playing a Christmas carol, the holiday is inescapable here in the U.S.

How Muslim families seem to handle this situation is where the debate emerges. For many years now, a growing number of local Muslims appear to be engaging in Christmas festivities, whether it be buying gifts for family and friends, decorating a Christmas tree or simply wishing someone a "Merry Christmas."

Then there are those on the opposite end of the spectrum. Many families oppose any celebration of Christmas because they are trying to raise their children with Islamic traditions and want to minimize the amount of influence and exposure they may receive from a Christian-dominated society.

Local Dearborn resident Nadeen Fasi, who was born and raised in the U.S., says that she and her husband do not engage in any Christmas traditions with their three children because they are focused on raising them with the values and traditions of Islam.

"I'm against celebrating Christmas because I don't want to confuse my kids. We do believe that Jesus was a prophet, but at the same time the whole idea of Christmas and the Christmas tree does not fall into our Islamic beliefs," Fasi says.

Fasi adds that it’s not just Christmas that she strays away from, but other nationally celebrated holidays as well, including Halloween. She says her kids were the only students in their class not wearing a costume during a Halloween party this year. Instead, Fasi says she focuses on trying to make the Islamic holidays more festive for her children.

"When Eid comes along, they get a ton of gifts and the house is decorated with lights. I tell our kids that we don't celebrate Christmas because its not our holiday and they completely accept that," Fasi adds. "I'm not against anybody else celebrating each their own. I'm just trying to raise my kids to know their heritage and to know the Arabic culture. How would I expect them to know the Arabic culture if they are conforming to other cultures?"

Another Dearborn resident and mother of two, Amal Hammoud Berry, says she is fed up with local residents judging her for engaging in Christmas traditions with her family. Berry recalls her son getting bullied in elementary school for enjoying Christmas, after his classmates told him that his mom was "going to hell" for taking him to go see Santa at the mall.

"I don't appreciate this mentality that some try to force on us when we've lived with 'Merry Christmas' all these years in Dearborn. I've been celebrating Christmas since I was a child. My parents were immigrants and they barely spoke English, but they took me to see Santa every year. I don't see anything wrong with it. It's supposed to be the birth of Jesus and we consider him a prophet," Berry says.

Berry adds that there have been a number of occasions at her child's school where disgruntled Muslim parents have complained to the administration because their child participated in a Christmas celebration without their consent.

"Is exchanging a Christmas gift really going to set your child off on some wrongful demented road to hell? We live in a predominantly Christian society so we must accept that this is the culture we have to get accustomed to. Would you rather show your child the butchering going on in Syria instead? Let them have Santa for a couple years so they can enjoy their childhood before they have to see the real world," Berry adds.

It appears that local religious leaders could also have varying stances on the subject of Muslims partaking in Christmas festivities. Sheik Abdul Latif Berry, leader of the first Muslim Marja'iya, or religious authority, in the U.S., says that he encourages local Muslims to celebrate the occasion with fellow Christians, as long as they don't break any Islamic rules like consuming alcohol.

"No, it's not haram to have a Christmas tree because we believe in Jesus and we believe in his great message. This was a great messenger who came from God and he anticipated and told people that prophet Muhammad would be the seal of prophets. It is very important to connect these two occasions together," Berry says.

While some Christian sects may debate whether or not Jesus was born around Christmas time, Abdel Latif Berry says Islam's alignment of his birth is in the same time frame of what most Christians believe.

"We believe that Jesus was born around this time or close to this time, but regardless of that debate, it shouldn't be a problem for us. If there is more than one idea out there regarding his birth, we should be able to share it with all sects of Christianity with no problems. I think it's fine if Muslims have a Christmas tree or share this happy occasion with Christians. It is not a problem at all."

Meanwhile Imam Mohammad Elahi, leader of the Islamic House of Wisdom in Dearborn Heights, believes that the actual celebration of Christmas in the U.S. and Europe has turned into a commercial avenue rather than a spiritual one. He feels that Muslims are better off not engaging in Western society's interpretation of it.

"Christmas has lost its spirit and this is why we see that there is more alcohol abuse and accidents during this time of the year. It has become a commercial holiday with over consumption of eating and drinking. If this is the season of Jesus' birth, then we should see more healing and more peace," Imam Elahi says.

He adds that there are Christian sects who oppose the way Christmas has been celebrated in recent years. These groups of people instead focus on making the holiday about spiritual healing and providing charity to the needy. Elahi encourages the community to wish local Christians a 'Merry Christmas,' but says Muslims should be donating money to charitable causes instead of getting caught up in the secular aspect of the Christmas holiday.

"It's okay to take advantage of vacation time and use it to get close to your families and show more love and forgiveness. But to go to the extreme and use it on unnecessary shopping that wastes your money, that is not okay whether it is Christmas or any other season," Elahi adds. "There are so many people suffering in other parts of the world. I think it would be better to turn this season into a season of charity and provide whatever support you can for refugees, rather than waste it on decorations and shopping."

But even as Muslim Americans continue to debate over whether or not they should embrace Christmas traditions, it should be noted that the holiday has been widely debated on a national level as well. Over the last decade, the term "Merry Christmas" has been phased out in favor of "Happy Holidays" to appeal to a variety of religions or even those who chose to only celebrate the new year.

The City of Dearborn, for the first time ever, placed a sign in front of city hall this year that used the phrase "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." Some could see that in a positive light and argue that the City is adapting to a culturally diverse population. Others could argue that the City should stick to traditions established by previous leaders.

Dearborn resident Ayda El-Saghir points out that Christmas is celebrated heavily in the Middle East as well. As a Muslim, she grew up celebrating the holiday in Lebanon as a child around Christian residents, and looks forward to carrying on that tradition in Dearborn because it helps build memories with her children.

"I do respect other people's opinions but I personally feel there is nothing wrong with celebrating the birth of a prophet," El-Saghir said. "I feel the joy and the happiness that Christmas brings to society. I have a Christmas tree in my house and I think it looks very nice. It brings a nice imagination for my kids. Every Christmas day I look forward to them waking up and unwrapping their presents under the Christmas tree."