By Mariam Sheikh Hakim
In the Islamic nativity, Jesus is born under a date palm tree.
When I was growing up, I always wanted a Christmas tree in our family home but unfortunately for me, this was an idea my parents staunchly resisted. Once, I even offered to make a homemade one but my parents wouldn’t entertain the idea because “we were Muslim.”
We weren’t very strict Muslims, but we were practicing, and a Christmas tree was seen as a contradiction to our religious values back then. I wasn’t alone either; most of my Muslim friends have a similar story to tell. Fast forward years later, and the same parents are now gifting Christmas presents to their grandchildren.
So what exactly was the problem back then with the Christmas tree? Upon reflection, this “no compromise” position is likely to have been wrapped up with the insecurities and identity politics of my parents being new migrants.
In general these attitudes are starting to wane amongst Muslims, as it seems more are enjoying cultural elements of Christmas in the U.K. and in America too, particularly younger generations. Some see the cultural tradition of giving and sharing during Christmas as compatible with Islamic values. Given how huge Christmas is in the West (and practically unavoidable), many do not want to miss out on the fun either.
However, the Christmas tree in particular is still met with resistance by many Muslim families (and non-Muslims too, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, who don’t celebrate any aspect of Christmas) as it is well known that the Christmas tree has European pagan origins. The pagan practice of bringing in something evergreen into the home was thought to ward off evil spirits, and this didn’t gain popularity as an adapted Christian custom until the 17th and 18th centuries.
Because of this pagan history, some Muslims have sought to avoid having a Christmas tree in their home for fear of deifying anything other than God. This coupled with anxieties around maintaining their heritage in a non-Muslim society, means that it is still rare to find Muslims who will put up a Christmas tree.
But can religious literacy in Quranic narratives soften attitudes towards this? What many Muslims don’t reflect on (or know about) is the concept of an Islamic Christmas tree. What I mean by this is the tree featured in the Quranic account of Jesus’ birth in chapter Mary (Surah 19). In this narrative, Jesus is born under a tree, which is an integral part of the Islamic “nativity scene” and story. This is an Islamic Christmas tree of sorts; a tree that can be used to remind us of the story of Jesus’ birth.
If we were to imagine replacing the traditional Christmas conifer with this tree, what would it look like? According to the Quran, the tree is a date palm, which has both Mary and baby Jesus resting beneath it. The tree is bearing fruit at the time of Jesus’ birth. It also features spring water toward its base, which miraculously appears for Mary to drink from.
What strikes me is the Islamic Christmas tree and nativity scene indicate a very non-European cultural setting. This highlights how far current images of Christmas actually are from the real geographical location of the nativity story. Even in Middle Eastern countries, it’s often a European Christmas tree and version of Christmas that is celebrated in hotels or malls during December.
Has Christmas as we know it in the West become disconnected with its Middle Eastern roots? Is this an example of why citizens in Western nations generally lack empathy or solidarity with issues taking place in the Middle East – because Christmas itself has become de-Middle Easternized?
What if celebrations were to reconnect and “turn back” toward the birthplace of the nativity? Perhaps this could serve as a powerful reality check of the cognitive dissonance at work in Western societies during Christmas.
On the one hand, we have Western nations relentlessly bombing this part of the world, adding to the biggest refugee crisis we have seen in decades. These refugees in turn have largely been met with hostility and outright xenophobia. On the other hand, during Christmas, we all engage in celebrating the story of Jesus’ birth, where we commemorate and show empathy with a migrating Middle Eastern family desperately seeking refuge.
If the Islamic Christmas tree and nativity scene can help people engage further with the Middle East – and even specifically in the holy land of Jesus’ birth – this could be a force for good. Geographically, it won’t be seen in Western countries as a detached distant place with problems that are “over there.” The connection would be brought much closer to home, possibly reducing inconsistent outlooks.
I am not arguing here that we should erase any European cultural Christmas practices. Nor is this an argument for Muslims to create their own ritual of getting a Christmas tree. Even the Bible seems to look down on such pagan practices, so people should choose wisely what they want for their families.
What I am trying to convey is that although the “Christmas spirit” can be everywhere, the origins are not in a department store or in snowy Lapland, Finland. The origins are in the Middle East, a place with an ongoing horror story in dire need of the world’s humanitarian assistance. Maybe if Christmas wasn’t so devoid of this identity then my own Muslim parents wouldn’t have seen it solely as a Western cultural celebration, as unrelated to their Muslim background.
Religious literacy of Quranic narratives can help reduce a blindness amongst Muslims around commonalities that we share with others. This can enhance an openness to positively share Islam in a way that is relevant and can bring a fresh perspective to interfaith dialogue and bridge building.
The Islamic narrative of Jesus’ birth can anchor the well-known Christian one and reminds us that the Quran places Jesus and Mary beneath a “Christmas tree.” They are described in the Quran as a “token” or a “sign” for all peoples, so perhaps their embodiment of love and peace for all is Christmas presents to the world.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
Mariam Sheikh Hakim is a Media & communications consultant; writer on faith, gender and parenting issues