I was once sitting through a lecture given by a well-known Iranian thinker/dissident in the vain attempt at hearing something refreshingly controversial and possibly scandalous. It’s not always the easiest thing to do as while he is a nice guy and is blessed with an original mind, he is also rather dry, esoteric and can be quite boring.
I wasn’t the only one waiting for a scandalous morsel to debate and pretend to be shocked about, as when the speaker did finish, an Iraqi man launched into a scathing attack on the fact that he had congratulated us on the birth of Jesus Christ. Christmas day had just passed a few days earlier and his remarks, at the beginning of his talk, seemed pretty innocuous. The attack was probably borne out frustration from a talk bereft of any controversy that the man could suitably get worked up about, but this now seemed like rant that we uncomfortably had to sit through.
This wasn’t an isolated case however, as a lot of us seem to get really worked up about supposedly Christian or secular celebrations. Any engagement with them seems to signify a surrender of our Muslim values and identity. I get mildly amused reading emails warning me about the evils of celebrating Valentine’s day with my wife or sending a present to my mum on Mother’s day from the well-intentioned. If they did go back and scratch beneath the surface of a lot of our supposedly Islamic rituals and festivals they may not like what they see.
This is because Islam, during its breath-taking expansion, absorbed many of the ideas and rituals of the great variety of cultures and beliefs it interacted with invariably due to its solid self-confidence. Rather than weakening the faith, this open interaction actually embedded the core beliefs of Islam within new societies it came across. Unfortunately we are in a directly opposite situation at the moment and confidence in our religion is at a very low ebb, and thus our inherent fear is of being absorbed rather than absorbing new ideas.
All religious and cultural festivities have a moral thread embedded within them. Identifying them and celebrating them within an Islamic framework is very possible. Furthermore, joining our fellow Christians, Jews and others in celebrating what is in common may do more to enhance mutual religious and communal understanding than handing out Ashura leaflets from random masiras through central London. So enjoy Easter, feast on egg-laying rabbits and do whatever else they’re supposed to do, within an Islamic framework of course.