This holiday season I’m fully embracing Christmas. Those of you who know me know I’m not a little bit Muslim. I’m ardently Muslim. I love dhikr, I celebrate when my kids recite chapters of the Qur’an, I quote from its meaning in conversation, I talk about the meaning and solace I take from it and from the prophetic tradition as if I haven’t fully realized I live in North America in the 21stCentury. Or maybe I talk about those things in a way only someone in North America in the 21stCentury would. Either way, Christmas is in no way, for me, a repudiation of Islam.
Christmas started as a way to let my kids enjoy the lights in a dark season, to participate in the festivities that surrounded them. But as they get older and ask more questions, as my son learns about Prophet Jesus, for whom he is named, it becomes clearer that Christmas is an opportunity for them to know and to live their faith.
The stories of the Abrahamic prophets are often told to emphasize their uniqueness from one another. We imagine Abraham smashing idols, and Noah on his ark; we imagine Joseph dreaming and Moses parting the sea; we imagine Jesus making a feast from five loaves and two fish, and Muhammad as a statesman. But the stories of these men, and the women that weave in and out of their record, acknowledged increasingly as prophetic in their own right, are more alike than they are different.
They are the stories of people driven to solitude, and in their solitude, clinging to the Divine. Abraham and Muhammad are migrants, chased out of their homes for daring to challenge idolatry and corruption. Hagar is a migrant, braving the desert wilderness with infant Ishmael, only faith to guide her. Jacob arrives at the home of Laban with nothing. Joseph is a stranger in Egypt, Moses and Aaron fled Egypt for freedom, Mary and Joseph fled King Herrod.
Jesus rejected and was rejected by his society for a humble life of preaching the Gospel with which he was inspired; Joseph told his divinely inspired dreams from a prison cell, and was elevated beyond his brothers, who disdained him. Moses, stammering, hesitant Moses, believed he could not possibly lead a hungry nation to freedom through the desert. Mary had to argue her chastity and give birth in isolation, in the elements. Rachel and Leah and their sisters suffered the cruelty of their father only to become partners in the love and the labor of Jacob.
These are not stories of ease and plenty. They aren’t stories of acceptance and belonging. They are stories of people driven to rely on faith alone through hardship and grief. To love more and better, to surrender to grace, in conditions that could easily drive one to overwhelming sadness and despair. And they are the stories of goodness and Grace shining in landscapes built of corruption, drought and nihilism.
They are perhaps all shadows of the story of Mary (as told in the Qur’an), a woman as alone as a woman can ever be, birthing a child whose mysterious existence imperils her reputation and her place in society:
|AND CALL to mind, through this divine writ, Mary. Lo! She withdrew from her family to an eastern place and kept herself in seclusion from them, whereupon We sent unto her Our angel of revelation, who appeared to her in the shape of a well-made human being.|
|She exclaimed: “Verily, ‘I seek refuge from thee with the Most Gracious! [Approach me not] if thou art conscious of Him!”|
|[The angel] answered: “I am but a messenger of thy Sustainer, [who says,] `I shall bestow upon thee the gift of a son endowed with purity.'”|
|Said she: “How can I have a son when no man has ever touched me? – for, never have I been a loose woman!”|
|[The angel] answered: “Thus it is; [but] thy Sustainer says, `This is easy for Me; and [thou shalt have a son,] so that We might make him a symbol unto mankind and an act of grace from US. And it was a thing decreed [by God]:|
|and in time she conceived him, and then she withdrew with him to a far-off place.|
|And [when] the throes of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree, she exclaimed: “Oh, would that I had died ere this, and had become a thing forgotten, utterly forgotten!”|
|Thereupon [a voice] called out to her from beneath that [palm-tree]: “Grieve not! Thy Sustainer has provided a rivulet [running] beneath thee;|
|and shake the trunk of the palm-tree towards thee: it will drop fresh, ripe dates upon thee.|
|Eat, then, and drink, and let thine eye be gladdened! And if thou shouldst see any human being, convey this unto him: `Behold, abstinence from speech have I vowed unto the Most Gracious; hence, I may not speak today to any mortal.|
|And in time she returned to her people, carrying the child with her. They said: “O Mary! Thou hast indeed done an amazing thing!|
|O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a wicked man, nor was thy mother a loose woman!”|
|Thereupon she pointed to him. They exclaimed: “How can we talk to one who [as yet] is a little boy in the cradle?”|
|[But] he said: “Behold, I am a servant of God. He has vouchsafed unto me revelation and made me a prophet,|
|and made me blessed wherever I may be; and He has enjoined upon me prayer and charity as long as I live,|
|and [has endowed me with] piety towards my mother; and He has not made me haughty or bereft of grace.|
|“Hence, peace was upon me on the day when I was born, and [will be upon me] on the day of my death, and on the day when I shall be raised to life [again]!”|
And so I celebrate Christmas, in this time that is uncertain, in this world that is unstable, and I let it remind me that faith requires me to treat every suffering as my own, to give more than I can, to dare tell the truth, to love more than I ought, to work for justice and integrity, and to demand it through peaceful struggle, even when it is a hardship.