By Dr Bilal Hassam
25 December 2018
It’s Christmas time and so it hasn’t taken long for a national newspaper to run a feature implying British Muslims are poorly integrated for “refusing to celebrate a Christian holiday”. The irony of this pernicious Islamophobia, feebly hiding behind the banner of defending the Judeo-Christian values of our country, is that it is bereft of any meaningful understanding of Islam.
You see, the thing is, Muslims love Jesus.
In fact, the Prophet Muhammad said: “The dearest person to me in friendship and in love, in this world and the next is Jesus, the son of Mary.”
It may come as a surprise to many to learn that Jesus is mentioned in the Quran over 100 times, while the Prophet Muhammad, by contrast, is mentioned just five times. Described as the best woman ever to have set foot on earth, there is a whole chapter in the Quran named “Mary” and she is the only woman mentioned by name in the holy book.
It’s not just that Muslims love Jesus – we believe him to be one of the greatest messengers of god. We believe in his miraculous birth. We believe that god gifted him with the ability to bring the dead back to life, heal the leper and bring sight back to the blind and, like Christians, we believe in his second coming back to this world.
Just as Muslims have a deep love and respect for Jesus, so too are we taught to love and respect our Christian friends who have a different view of who Jesus was. Unfortunately, thanks to a handful of extremist nutters, coupled with an all too often Islamophobic media industry, people tend to have this erroneous notion that all Muslims want to do is convert everyone, and violently at that. Well, the Quran emphatically states that “there is no compulsion in religion”, meaning you can’t force anyone to become Muslim.
Across the globe, notably in the heart of Muslim lands, Muslims and Christians have lived side by side for over a 1000 years. Whilst under threat, this spirit of peaceful coexistence can still be found throughout the world today, and it is this spirit of cooperation and sharing that we need to revive in our communities across the country.
Despite the deep theological difference between Christianity and Islam, the two great religious traditions have a lot more in common than people think. Analogous stories of wisdom and wit from the great prophets like Abraham, Moses, David and Noah are found in both traditions, as are descriptions of angels, the after-life and so much more. However, it is the radical message of Jesus that we all; Muslims, Christians, people of all faiths and none, could do well to remember in these confusing times.
Jesus was known for his profound humility, his fighting against injustice and his giving up of his own desires in preference for others. His radical love of the most vulnerable and neglected in society was rooted in his deep connection to the divine. Reflecting on the life of Jesus, we see a dynamic message that seeks to direct our focus away from the vacuous glitter of this world and towards a life of meaning, purpose and service.
Rather than berating Muslims for their lack of “tinsel, balloons and Santa hats”, if Christmas should be about anything, it should be about Jesus, and how his teachings can impact and transform the world for the better. In this spirit, this festive season, as temperatures plummet and we cosy up in our warm homes, multi-award winning British Muslim charity, Penny Appeal, has launched a sobering winter appeal, asking the question and launching the hashtag #WhatWouldJesusDo?
The campaign began last week with the unveiling of five life size ice sculptures of homeless people at Canary Wharf tube station, highlighting the profound financial inequalities in our nation and the plight of the homeless on our streets. Thousands every night will be sleeping rough in freezing cold temperatures, a number that has been increasing year on year. In response, Penny Appeal is recruiting volunteers who will help distribute winter kits as well as host tea parties for the elderly who might be cold and lonely during the winter period.
With more than half of the UK now professing no faith at all it's inevitable that how we as a country celebrate religious holidays will change in the coming years and decades. However, as Christmas becomes more and more about the empty consumerism that Jesus warned us against, perhaps it is no surprise that the festive period also sees a sharp rise in loneliness, depression and overwhelming financial stress amongst a large proportion of the British public.
While most British Muslims might be indifferent to the celebrations underway this season, perhaps we can play a small part in reviving a little of that true Christmas spirit, after all, there is nothing more Christ-like than giving up a little of our pleasures and comforts in service of our neighbours in need.
Dr Bilal Hassam is a writer, broadcaster and creative director at British Muslim TV