Shadia: Muslims view Christmas with more reverence than you may think

I had only been in the United States for about three months when I experienced Christmas for the first time.

It made me long for the excitement of the holidays when they came around back home in Egypt — Eid ul-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, and Eid ul-Adha, which comes toward the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

I'm Egyptian, after all, and celebration runs in our blood.

Although Jesus is a major figure in Islam — he is one of the most important prophets and his name is referenced more times in the Koran than even the prophet Muhammad — we do not celebrate his birth.

Celebrating the birthdays of prophets is generally discouraged because Islam is monotheistic and wants its followers to focus on God and prevent the idolization of people, including revered prophets.

In Islam, we learn from Jesus and Muhammad that there's no middle man, no one between you and God, said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA).

"In Islamic teachings, nothing comes between any person and God," Ayloush said. "The prophets showed and taught us the way to God, but then asked us to glorify God rather than them."

This differs some from my Christian friends, who believe that Jesus is both the son of God and the incarnation of God himself.

Many Muslims celebrate the birth of Muhammad, but these festivities are considered cultural traditions, not religious ones.

I have to admit that as I become more Americanized, I certainly get carried away around Christmastime, especially with shopping, which is woven into America's cultural, though not religious, fabric.

But I also love and look forward to the kindness people tend to show toward others.

And that has a lot to do with Jesus.

Though we don't believe he was born on Dec. 25, nor that he was God or the son of God, he is honored in the hearts of Muslims.

I first learned about Jesus from my "Uncle Beautiful," the man who helped raise me in Egypt, when I was young. I was told that you can't be a true Muslim if you don't love or respect Jesus. When we say his name, it is usually followed by the words "peace be upon him," the same language we employ when we speak of Muhammad.

When my uncle shared with me the miracles of Jesus, his birth to the Virgin Mary and his ability to cure the ill, I was mesmerized. Jesus to me became something of a superhero.

There's a chapter in the Koran devoted to Mary — Mariem in Arabic or Maryam in Persian — who is considered the greatest woman who ever walked the Earth, and another chapter about her family.

Jesus is referred to as the Messiah/Christ in the Koran, and we believe there will be a second coming.

This information tends to surprise my Christian friends.

Though the political world casts the differences between Muslims and Christians in stark relief, Muhammad said that "all prophets are paternal brothers; their mothers are different, but their religion is one."

Muslims are discouraged from celebrating the birthdays of prophets because their teachings shouldn't be remembered on a single day, but every day.

"A true celebration of Jesus, Moses and Muhammad is by appreciating their message and living its values every day of the year," Ayloush said.

I know Muslims and Christians have theological differences when it comes to Jesus. But we agree on some of the most important lessons Jesus taught: love, peace and forgiveness.

So for those of you who are celebrating Christmas this weekend, I want to wish you a Merry Christmas, not the watered-down "Happy Holidays."

May this day bring you peace, love and comfort; may it reinforce your commitment to one another, to your community and to your society; and may it be your best one yet.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for the Huntington Beach Independent. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter: @MonaShadia

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