First things first. We are Muslims. We don’t believe that Christ is God, the very thought of this is abhorrent to us. We don’t believe that Christ is the literal and begotten Son of God. We do, however, believe that Jesus (may peace be upon him) was a Divinely inspired Prophet and Messenger of God, a devoted and absolute servant of a Just, Merciful and Loving Lord. Like most historians and Christian historians, we know that Jesus wasn’t born on 25th December. We know that celebrations on 25th December were originally a pagan festival upon which Christianity grafted the birthday of Christ on. So, we can safely assume that all of these things we reject out of hand. What we don’t reject is the actual event of the birth of Isa (Jesus) alayhi salam. For Muslims it is as joyous and blessed an occasion as it is for our Christian brethren. It does not matter to us what day it is celebrated upon because the event itself is momentous.
As Muslims, most of us celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and grant him peace) even though the exact date is not agreed upon, it is commonly assumed to be the 12th of the Islamic month of Rabi al-Awwal. What our scholars have said is that the Mawlid, the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, should be celebrated throughout the year as well as on the date commonly believed to be the day the Prophet was born. We find in many Muslim cultural traditions, spontaneous celebrations of the Mawlid on joyous occasions such as the birth of children, marriages or any event that was of good fortune. Islamic dates are based upon the lunar calendar so the Islamic months drift across the solar calendar and seasons, so for me, the argument over the date is a very minor issue.
So with this in mind we can proceed.
As a Muslim living in the West, I interact with people of all faiths and traditions. I also interact with people of no formal faith as well as atheists. In most cases our relationships are cordial and civil and many of my acquaintances respect my religious views. In other cases we make very meaningful friendships with people of other traditions and beliefs and share in each other’s occasions of happiness and grief. When Ramadan or Eid come around my neighbours, friends and colleagues go out of their way to wish me a happy Eid or Ramadan. Wishing someone a Merry Christmas no more makes me a believer in their ways than them wishing me a Happy Eid or Eid Mubarak makes them a believer in Islam, to suggest or think otherwise is ludicrous. It is common courtesy and good manners, is it not, that when my friends, colleagues and neighbours have their moments of joy and happiness that I reciprocate? Can you imagine the impression it would give of Muslims and Islam, if, when such occasions came around for them, I remained silent and mean spirited and not acknowledge their occasion of joy and happiness?
What occasion is more “religious” than a funeral? Did our Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) not stand out of respect for a funeral procession of a Jewish man and acknowledge it? Additionally, the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and grant him peace) adopted the fasting of Ashura when he observed that the Jews were fasting in order to commemorate the deliverance of Moses and the Children of Israel from the tyranny of the Pharaoh. He said that we had more right to this commemoration than the Jews did and the fasting of Ashura was instituted.
I can say that in my personal life, non-Muslims friends and acquaintances have always shown me and my faith respect, they have go out of their way to help me. When I was working for a large pharmaceutical company, I used to use a conference room for prayer. I asked the department secretary to block book 10 minute slots for me so that I could offer my prayers. She did this without hesitation and always notified me of any changes and would accommodate me. The conference room was later turned into offices and I lost my prayer space. I mentioned this to one of the managers, she was an atheist, and I also mentioned it to one of the directors in our building, he was a Christian. Both of these wonderful people went above and beyond the call of duty to find me an alternative space to pray in. They could have turned around and said “sorry Masud, we can’t help you” and that would have been that, but no, they considered it a duty to help me. They eventually found for me a very small area, just large enough to accommodate a prayer mat and they apologised profusely for not being able to find me a space a little larger and a little better. I was, and still am, utterly grateful to them for this incredible generosity of spirit and respect they showed me and my faith. How then can I not have a magnanimity of spirit to people of other faiths?
Many Muslims, in their religiosity, seem to dispense with common sense. This is not as big an issue that many make it out to be. Every year, come Christmas time, we get the usually sombre and stern messages from people warning us not to wish anyone a merry Christmas. In reality though, it boils down to manners and being civil with people and this does not mean that we accept their beliefs, rather, we accept that people have beliefs different to ours and we wish them happiness on their occasions of happiness.