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What Does Christmas Mean to Muslims?


In the Muslim world, Christmas is not celebrated publicly, except in the minority Christian communities in the Middle East. And in North Africa not at all. To a Western Christian living there, the absence of the usual sights, sounds, and practices of Christmas, which are such a part of our culture, is most striking -- and can even be depressing. Go out into the streets and stores, but you will see no Christmas trees or decorations. Go into the homes on Christmas day, but you will not have a Christmas dinner or listen to the reading of the Christmas story, unless you are in the home of one of the few Christians. Turn on TV or radio, but you will find no Christmas programs and few if any signs that it is Christmas. There is no "Christmas Spirit" at all!

It is not that Muslims are ignorant of Christmas. Their understanding of it often leaves something to be desired, however. In North Africa, for example, it is commonly viewed as a "European" holiday. Based on what they have observed, to many it represents a big party, with feasting, drinking (and getting drunk), and similar behaviour -- very much like the pagan festival it started out to be back in ancient Rome. The Biblical message of the Incarnation, which Christians have proclaimed to be the real meaning of Christmas, does not seem to be getting through. The problem is not just with us who claim to be Christians, however.

Significantly, the story of the birth of Christ is actually related in the Qur'an, in Sura 19:16-35. Some of the facts are the same, but, what is most important, the story is given a very different slant. The virgin Mary is told by an angel that she will give birth to a "pure" son, "as a sign unto men and a mercy from Us." She withdraws to a desert place to give birth, alone, under a palm-tree, then returns with the infant to her people. When they chide her, supposing she has been unchaste, Jesus speaks up from the cradle in her defense, announcing himself to be a prophet. The passage concludes by denouncing the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, misinterpreted in gross polytheistic terms: "Such is Jesus, son of Mary, the statement of truth about which they dispute. It is not befitting for God to father a Son, Glory be to Him! When He determines a matter, He only says to it 'Be' and it is."

Thus, although Muslims acknowledge Christ's miraculous birth of a virgin, they do not celebrate Christmas because the Qur'an misinterprets the Incarnation. The hope of salvation which the Incarnate Christ alone brings us is what they need, however. Perhaps this message would get through better if we as Christians would forgo the more superficial trappings of Christmas, innocent though they may seem, to make Christmas more an occasion to worship and praise God for this "inexpressible gift."

Arab World Ministries

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