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For Muslims celebrating Christmas, it's a holiday, not a holy day

COLUMN ONE

At a time when Christmas is being pulled in different directions, it's not unusual for Muslims to use the occasion as an entry into American culture — no different from signing up their kids for Little League. But most clerics frown on the practice.

December 24, 2011|By Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times
  • Sahira Traband, here with her sons Teo, 10, left, and Mikail, 6, is a Muslim who decorates her house for Christmas, hangs stockings and puts gifts under the tree. She views the holiday as a happy time that doesn't conflict with her faith in Islam. The magic of Christmas is the part we celebrate, said Traband, 45. We didnt get into the whole religious thing.
Sahira Traband, here with her sons Teo, 10, left, and Mikail, 6, is a Muslim… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

With Christmas comes tradition in the Traband household: A plate of cookies for Santa and carrots for his reindeer. A stocking full of treats for Omar, the family dog. A noble fir decorated with golden garland and keepsake ornaments.

But there is no angel atop the tree.

Sahira Traband feels that would conflict with her family's faith.

They are Muslims.

"The magic of Christmas is the part we celebrate," said Traband, 45. "We didn't get into the whole religious thing."

At a time when the holiday is being pulled in different directions — some people replace "Merry Christmas" with "Happy Holidays" so as not to offend, while others campaign to "Keep the Christ in Christmas" — it's not uncommon for Muslims to use the occasion as an entry into American culture, no different from signing up their children for Little League.

Just how many Muslims do observe the holiday is unclear, since it is a personal choice fellow faithful might criticize. But if they were to ask, Muslims might discover they know a family or two who put up trees or send letters to Santa.

That fact may come as an even bigger shock to those outside the community who regard Muslims and their faith as being at odds with Western lifestyles.

"To me, Christmas, unless you're going to go to church, is a pop culture holiday," said Maha Awad, a producer and media consultant who is working with the TLC reality show "All-American Muslim."

Though Jesus is regarded as a prophet in Islam, celebrating Christmas "is not a religious practice," Awad said.

In her San Fernando Valley home, much of the holiday revolves around her 4-year-old daughter, Sarah, who attends an Islamic school on Sundays and is memorizing parts of the Koran. Awad takes her to visit Santa; they put up a tree and decorate the house with lights and stockings.

"Islam is our religion and Christmas is just a fun holiday we partake in," said Awad, whose father is Palestinian and mother Egyptian. Growing up in Los Angeles, "it was absolutely part of assimilating," she said.

Most clerics, however, will argue that followers of Islam should not participate in the Christian holiday, despite its commercialization. A small number of Muslims even go so far as to say that wishing someone a "Merry Christmas" is tantamount to blasphemy.

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Still, many Muslims — as well as Jews, Buddhists and other non-Christians — celebrate the day. The act of putting up some tinsel, said Emil Ali, a Muslim, doesn't conflict with their religious beliefs.

The lawyer, who works at the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C., remembers having to defend himself when he was 12 years old and another Muslim boy told him that celebrating Christmas was forbidden. He responded that the Koran doesn't forbid having a tree.

Now some of his more conservative friends jokingly say he's becoming Christian.

"I don't think Christmas is very religious," said Ali, 26, whose mother is from Pakistan and father from Tanzania. "When you're in an American country, you want to blend in and assimilate."

For Ali, sending out holiday cards and decorating his house with lights is just part of being a good neighbor. Not doing it, he said, would be akin to keeping his empty trash cans by the curb.

Andrew Walther — a spokesman for the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic charitable group that regularly sponsors "Keep the Christ in Christmas" campaigns — is much more concerned with Christians who have lost sight of the holiday's religious origins. He sees no harm in people of other faiths taking part in the holiday.

"The message of Christmas, of having peace on Earth and goodwill, is a very broad message … that resonates with many people," he said.

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Shanaz Khan, a mother of two in West Los Angeles, said she tries to put a Muslim spin on what she sees as the Christian-holiday-gone-secular.

On the "holiday tree" in their home, along with Christmas ornaments, hang decorations wishing everyone a "Happy Eid" — a Muslim holiday that comes twice a year, most recently in early November. On Christmas Day, Khan prepares a traditional holiday meal, making sure the turkey is halal, or slaughtered according to Islamic law.

The Christmas celebration "is what makes a community," she said. "It doesn't deter me away from being a good Muslim or following my faith."

As a child growing up in England, Traband said, her family celebrated Christmas. When they moved to the United States when she was 9, her parents started to become more religious.

"One year, we just didn't get any Christmas gifts and we never spoke about it. It was like this shameful thing," she said.

When Traband left home at 18, she re-embraced Christmas. She and a roommate got a small tree and decorated it with jewelry because they had no ornaments.

One recent evening, Traband was sitting on a comfortable sofa in her South Los Angeles home. Behind her was a framed calligraphy that read: "There is no victor but Allah."

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