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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