Muslims celebrating Christmas in Detroit

nativityOf the many routine Christmas-themed stories that local reporters could take on, The Detroit News picked a difficult story Monday that is not quite so predictable. Reporter Catherine Jun looked at what is perceived to be an increasing trend of Muslims in southeastern Michigan celebrating Christmas. The headline of the story is vague: "Muslims warm to Christmas spirit." Exactly what "spirit" is being warmed to is fleshed out in the article, but the reader gets the sense that it has less to do with anything spiritual and more to do with cultural aspects of the holiday. But that doesn't make it a bad story. In fact, it delves into a few of the religious issues that come up when one discusses Christmas, Jesus Christ and Muslims:

Some Muslim leaders with more purist views see celebrating Christmas as straying from Islamic practice that can result in losing Muslim identity, said Imam Aly Lela of the Islamic Association of Greater Detroit in Rochester Hills.

But Lela himself sees it differently. To him, decorated evergreens and a jolly Santa are all harmless fun, since neither is viewed as integral to the Christian faith.

"For American Muslims, if they take it as an American cultural thing, it's not contradictory to the teachings of Islam," he said. "Of course, we don't participate in the religious part of it, just like we don't expect non-Muslims to celebrate our festivals, like the Jewish community don't expect others to celebrate Hanukkah."

[Fatma Muge Gocek, a sociologist at the University of Michigan] agrees. Christmas has taken on nonreligious significance for many, as holidays and traditions do take on new meanings over time and in different households, she said.

"(Christmas) becomes a civic thing and not a religious thing," she said.

Gocek also noted that Christmas has non-Christian origins dating back two millennia when European civilizations threw grand celebrations around the winter solstice and the end of the harvest season.

The story unpacks a number of issues. Namely: What are Americans actually celebrating on Christmas? While it is appropriate to see Christmas as a "civic thing" as opposed to a "religious thing" in some areas of American society, where do the civic and the religious "things" touch, and how significant is that for a Muslim? Is this story primarily about Muslims or about how Americans celebrate Christmas? Or is it a little bit of both?

The article spends a lot of time explaining the cultural challenges of Muslim families trying to fit in with their Christian neighbors, but at the very end of the story, the reader is rightly told that Muslims and the celebration of Jesus Christ aren't exactly oil and water. Actually, they could go together historically and theologically for a Muslim:

Though many Muslim scholars are hesitant to place Jesus above the rest of the many prophets revered in Islamic text, given what Christmas means to believers, the story of Jesus' birth should remain the focus on Dec. 25 rather than Santa or presents, said Eide Alawan, director of interfaith outreach at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn.

"Christ belongs not just to Christians but to all mankind," he said.

How interesting that it took a Muslim to explain that Christmas is not just about the tree, a "sleigh-riding St. Nick," presents and other Christmas fanfare.

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