• It’s Christmas! Let’s make bonds through celebrations

    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.

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  • Holding out for a hero – published on the Guardian

    Poverty, war and climate change are all indications that individual is not as heroic as we once thought. Do we need a modern-day messiah?

    Click here to read more

    This article has just been published at Comment is Free on the Guardian website

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  • We wish you a merry Christmas, We wish you an Eid Mubarak… Christmas carols like never before

    With the Muslim festival of Eid celebrating the hajj last week, and the celebration of Christmas this week, I couldn’t help myself but to indulge everyone in a little festive humour.

    I have taken some beloved Christmas songs, and re-written the lyrics with a twist, and then had the carols performed by traditional carol singers. The result is an acoustic treat.

    Enjoy the songs, and the festive season. And if you love them as much as I do, leave your comments and encouragement. Please make sure you credit Spirit21 correctly.

    There are two songs, which have been recorded with a live audience:

    We wish you an Eid Mubarak
    A timeless classic, with a bit of modern day multiculturalism

    I’m dreaming of a moonsighting –
    The new moon tells us when Eid is, but when is the new moon?
    (c) All rights reserved

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  • ‘Tis the season to…

    … well, I’m not sure anymore. I do know that being brought up in a nominally Christian school, and in a country that once paused at the end of the year to assess itself, that it used to be the Season of Peace and Goodwill To All Men (which we should now read as ‘to all people’ as gender equality legislation should suggest that women too are permitted peace and goodwill, except not on the big day itself when they have to come up with an enormous and perfect family meal).

    Then it seemed to become the Season To Be Jolly. It’s not quite on a par with achieving global peace, and pushing ourselves to be better people, but in a society of high levels of stress, trauma and depression it was not wholly inappropriate.

    But lately, lately, it’s now the Season to be Gorgeous. According to Boots in their new advertising campaign (and yes, I get that their strapline is about selling cosmetics etc), Christmas is now all about hair, make-up and spangly lycra. Because of course, that is what all we women aspire to (and according to gender equality legislation, probably men too), and what brings (short-term) meaning to our lives. Do I sound cynical? I don’t mean to. Because I really do think that we are indulging in parties and creating delicious good looks for a sense of instant fulfilment and momentary happiness, that masks the fact that we no longer, as a collective, seem to aspire if even for a day or month for the lofty goals of peace and goodwill.

    We dream these days to be good looking and sexy. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s pretty low on the scale of the totality of what human beings can aspire to and achieve. I think we should advocate a return to the Season of Peace and Goodwill as a marker of our aspirations. As they sang in Happy Talk “You’ve got to have a dream, if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”

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  • What’s Christmas all about?

    Only 44% of children aged 7 to 11 believe that Christmas is about Christ, according to a survey carried out by Childwise for the BBC. One in six youngsters felt sad, nervous or left out during the festive season. Youngsters spoke about feeling “cold”, “tired” and “worried” and made comments like: “Scared in case I get a rubbish present.” One in 10 children said that their parents were hard to buy for because they were fussy, awkward or did not use previous presents.

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