What American Muslims Do On Christmas: New Traditions Emerge

Dec 23, 2015
Originally published on December 23, 2015 10:04 am

For many American Jews, Christmas Day means Chinese food and movies. But how do American Muslims spend their time on Christmas?

Jesus is also revered as a prophet in Islam. "Muslims and Christians believe that Jesus is the only messiah," explains Hisham Mahmoud, an Arabic teacher at Harvard University. He points out that Jesus' mother, Mary, is considered by Muslims to be a saint. "In fact, there's an entire chapter in the Quran called 'Mary,' and the story of Jesus' birth is recounted in that chapter," he says.

On Christmas Day, Mahmoud and his devout Muslim family fast.

"We also relate the story of Jesus and Mary," he says. "We read those passages in the Quran and we make sure the holiday is focused through and through on Jesus — peace and blessing be upon him — as opposed to feeding into the commercialization of this holiday."

That's not to say that some American Muslims never participate in the more commercial side of Christmas: "All the Persians in my community went full-blown Christmas the first year," says comedian Zahra Noorbakhsh. "I mean, my cousins even had a guy come over dressed as Santa."

Then there's the not-much-going-on approach; no one did anything in the home of comedian Fawzia Mirza, whose parents came from Pakistan. She says she remembers feeling like: "OK, here we are. Ours is the dark house on the block. Everywhere else was lit up, and then there was us."

Mirza's Christmas often involved what she calls "auntie and uncle" parties with other U.S. South Asians. And also — bowling. "The favorite Muslim pastime is bowling," she says. "Not on the day itself, but it's like everyone else is visiting family and opening presents — we're going bowling."

Mirza's girlfriend, Nabeela Rasheed, is a lawyer who is very into Christmas. Rashid is also Pakistani-American and Muslim, and she loves the holiday's message of peace, light and love.

"I see nothing but beauty in the season," she says. "You should see my Christmas tree — it's lovely."

That Christmas tree will be a real change for Mirza's mom, who's visiting the couple this week. "She will be staying with us," Mirza says. "And more than meeting my girlfriend, I'm [wondering], like: What's she going to think of this 13-foot-tall tree in the living room?"

People who've been in the U.S. for a while often pick up the trappings of Christmas, though many wrestle with the idea of sending mixed messages to their kids. Zahra Noorbakhsh co-hosts the Good Muslim Bad Muslim podcast along with Tanzila "Taz" Ahmed. Noorbakhsh's Persian-American family now celebrates Christmas, but Noorbakhsh had never heard of it when she arrived from Iran as a kindergartner in the 1980s.

"This little girl asked me if I believed in Santa, and I said, 'What does he look like?' " Noorbakhsh recalls.

When the girl replied that he was a kindly old man with a big white beard who loves children, Noorbakhsh immediately remembered a few textbooks she'd seen back home: "These textbooks were issued by the theocratic government of Iran for kids, and they had these pictures of Khomeini kissing babies and playing with kids and he had a big white beard," she says.

So it was with great pride she informed the girl — that's the Ayatollah Khomeini!

The little girl replied, "Well, we call him Santa Claus."

Noorbakhsh couldn't wait to get home to share the news. "I was so excited," she says. "I said, 'Dad! Everyone in kindergarten is Muslim — they know about Imam Khomeini but they call him Santa!' "

Her dad then explained that the former Supreme Leader of Iran was not a jolly sleigh-driving figure from European folklore.

Harvard lecturer Hisham Mahmoud says still, it's important to keep commonalities in mind, especially during a fortuitous point in the Islamic lunar calendar.

"This is quite a special year because the birth of the Prophet Muhammad — peace and blessings be upon him — happens to fall on Christmas Eve, which is a beautiful, beautiful sign," Mahmoud says.

It's a beautiful sign on a holiday that begins with the story of one, in the sky over Bethlehem.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

There's a well-known Jewish tradition on Christmas, Chinese food and movies, because what do you do if you don't celebrate this big holiday. Lots of people skip Christmas, and NPR's Neda Ulaby talked to some American Muslims about the day celebrating the birth of Jesus.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Jesus is also revered as a prophet in Islam.

HISHAM MAHMOUD: Muslims and Christians believe that Jesus is the only Messiah.

ULABY: Hisham Mahmoud teaches Arabic at Harvard University. He points out that Jesus' mother, Mary, is considered by Muslims to be a saint.

MAHMOUD: In fact, there's an entire chapter in the Quran called Mary, and the story of Jesus' birth is recounted in that chapter.

ULABY: On Christmas Day, Mahmoud and his devout Muslim family fast.

MAHMOUD: And we also relate the story of Jesus and Mary, we read those passages in the Quran, and we make sure that the holiday is focused through and through on Jesus - peace and blessings be upon him - as opposed to feeding into the commercialization of this holiday.

ULABY: Which is not to say American Muslims never do, says Zahra Noorkbakhsh.

ZAHRA NOORKBAKHSH: All of the Persians in my community went full-blown Christmas the first year.

ULABY: No one did anything in the home of comedian Fawzia Mirza, whose parents came from Pakistan.

FAWZIA MIRZA: My memories were, OK, here we are. Ours is the dark house on the block, you know (laughter). Like, everywhere else is lit up, and then there was us.

ULABY: Mirza's Christmas often involved what she calls auntie and uncle parties with other U.S. South Asians. That and...

MIRZA: The favorite Muslim pastime is bowling. I mean, not on the day itself, but it's like, oh, everyone else is visiting family and opening presents (laughter).

NABEELA RASHEED: (Laughter).

ULABY: That other laugh belongs to Mirza's girlfriend, Nabeela Rasheed, a lawyer who's way into Christmas. Rasheed's also Pakistani-American and Muslim, and she loves the holiday's message of peace.

RASHEED: And light and love, I see nothing but beauty in the season. You should see my Christmas tree.

MIRZA: (Laughter).

RASHEED: It's lovely.

ULABY: That Christmas tree will be a real change for Fawzia Mirza's mom, who's visiting the couple this week.

MIRZA: More so than meeting my girlfriend, I'm like, what's she going to think of this 13-foot tall tree that's in the living room (laughter)?

RASHEED: (Laughter).

ULABY: People who've been in this country for a while often pick up the trappings of Christmas, although many wrestle with the idea of sending mixed messages to their kids. Zarha Noorkbakhsh co-hosts a podcast called, "Good Muslim Bad Muslim." Her Persian American family now celebrates Christmas, but, Noorkbakhsh had never heard of it when she arrived from Iran as a kindergartener in the 1980s.

NOORKBAKHSH: And this little girl asked me if I believed in Santa, and I said, you know, what does he look like?

ULABY: A kindly old man with a big white beard, the girl said. He loves children. Noorkbakhsh immediately remembered a few textbooks she'd seen back home.

NOORKBAKHSH: These textbooks were issued by the theocratic government of Iran for kids, and they had these pictures of Khomeini kissing babies and playing with kids. And he had a big white beard.

ULABY: So with great pride, she informed the girl that's the Ayatollah Khomeini.

NOORKBAKHSH: And she said, well, we call him Santa Claus. So I went home. I was so excited, I said, dad, everyone in kindergarten is Muslim. They know about Imam Khomeini, but they call him Santa.

ULABY: Leaving her dad to explain the former supreme leader of Iran was not a jolly sleigh driving figure from European folklore, Hisham Mahmoud says still, it's important to keep commonalities in mind, especially during a fortuitous point in the Islamic lunar calendar.

MAHMOUD: This is quite a special year because the birth of the prophet Muhammad - peace and blessings be upon him - happens to fall on Christmas Eve, which is a beautiful, beautiful sign.

ULABY: A beautiful sign on a holiday that begins with the story of one in the sky over Bethlehem, Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.