This is my weekly column for The National UAE, published today.
I used to love singing Christmas carols, even though I’m a Muslim. As a young child at primary school, we were handed out special booklets once a year and together sang rousing carols that had been passed down over centuries. I loved Silent Night in particular, with its elegant melody and soothing tones. And also because it had no words in it that contradicted my religion as a Muslim.
I had to be more careful with the carol Away in a Manger. As the whole school sang the words the little Lord Jesus, I changed them under my breath to “the little baby Jesus”so I would still be in synch with the Islamic view of Jesus’s importance as a prophet. And in the carol O Come all Ye Faithful, I changed the words “Christ the Lord” to “Allah the Lord”. No harm done, eh?
I didn’t mean any disrespect to my Christian friends, I simply loved the togetherness of the singing and wanted to be part of it, but not compromise my religion.
Although I was only seven, I can see now my efforts were an attempt to connect my own place in the world with a wider universal experience.
We live in a world where our social circle increasingly consists of people from different backgrounds. Secret attempts to adjust the words of Christmas carols is probably not the adult way to connect with others, but attempting to find the common points in our experiences and world views does become ever more important.
For example, for the past few years, the Islamic celebration of Eid al Adha, the festival marking the Haj, has fallen close in timing to Christmas. And this year, two festivals of light, Hanukkah and Diwali, fell close by, too. Much the same tinsel, streamers and wrapping paper can be used in the exchange of gifts, whatever your religious position. But more significantly, lessons of common human experience and morality can also be shared.
As someone who has grown up celebrating Eid, but totally immersed in Christmas culture by virtue of living in a Christmas-celebrating environment, I can see more similarities than people might expect. Both festivals mark individuals of great standing in the Abrahamic faiths – Jesus and Abraham. Both allude to a spirit of sacrifice (although with all the shopping and indulgence we may be inclined to forget this). Both have become a time of sharing and family, and remembering people less well off than ourselves.
Am I painting a cuddly, loving picture of interfaith and intercultural harmony? Yes. And why not? If religious and even secular celebrations teach us anything, it’s to share our love and promote togetherness in the hope of living better lives.
Hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people around the world are celebrating today. It’s true that some people have turned it into an excuse for consumption and gluttony, spending profligately on presents, food, clothes and partying. But let’s also remember that, for many people across the world, Christmas is a time of pious devotion, the gathering of family, or simply a much-needed rest from the chaos of overly busy lives.
As a child, I found something to connect to in the Christmas carols by making some slight alterations. As an adult, I have found the connections in the similarities with my faith. For all those celebrating Christmas, let us rejoice with those who find their own meaning in the message of today.