Ifty Rafiq: Being a Muslim at Christmas
AS the build up to Christmas reaches its climax with last minute shopping on the agenda for many this weekend, Ifty Rafiq is prepared for the inevitable question.
“Growing up as a Muslim in Britain I often get asked, frequently with a note of either guilt or trepidation, “what do you do for Christmas?
“As though, upon coming into contact with a bauble or a candy cane, I might shrivel up or turn to dust, like a vampire eating garlic, or the Wicked Witch of the West getting wet. “The short answer is, I celebrate Christmas too.”
He is not the only one. Contrary to what some believe, millions of Muslims around the world will join in the festive celebrations over the coming days, which includes recognising the birth of Jesus.
“Perhaps it’s a lesser known fact that Jesus is mentioned, directly and indirectly, 187 times in the Quran, including in an account of his birth,” said Ifty.
“In Islam, we believe that Christ was the penultimate prophet of God, before Muhammad.
“We have absolute respect and reverence for the life and teachings of Christ, whose messages are a fundamental guide to embracing compassion and tolerance.”
In an attempt to educate Muslims and non-Muslims about Islam and Islamic extremism to enable them to better identify it, Ifty founded the North-East based education programme The Harmony Initiative.
It involves a network of Muslim and non-Muslim people across the country who are keen to ensure that Muslims coexist alongside other faiths and secular beliefs in diverse communities.
“Religion apart, Christmas is an opportunity for people of all faiths, whether believers or non-believers, to unite in the spirit of goodwill, kindness and generosity,” said Ifty.
“And as a Muslim, it is not the religious sense in which we celebrate.”
Those celebrations are also likely to involve typical British traditions including trees, decorations, and an early start on Christmas Day to see if Father Christmas has been.
“Growing up as a Muslim in the North East wasn’t always without its difficulties – that’s– why my parents sought to ensure that we enjoyed a life which was in sync with those of our friends and neighbours.
“Even though it’s not our festival per se, we always put up a tree and decorated the house in December and we woke up on Christmas morning to presents left by Santa.
“Our parents didn’t want us to feel left out or get any difficult questions at school, so we always embraced the festivities, giving cards and gifts to friends and neighbours.
“Now that we’ve all grown up and flown the nest, we continue to celebrate in our own way and above all, to respect the beliefs and traditions of everybody who celebrates Christmas, whether they’re Christian or not, and of all religions and communities.
“Because it’s all too easy for us to make judgements about practices which are alien to ours. To treat with suspicion those who express their views and beliefs in different ways from ours.”
But away from the presents, food, and fun with family and friends, the Muslim spirit of helping others is evident even more so at Christmas.
“Because for people of my faith, Christmas is an optional extra in the year’s festivals, you will find some Muslims choose to work over the festive period – keeping convenience stores open, doing overtime in our hospitals and driving our taxis.
“The message of Christmas is one of hope, peace and “goodwill to all” – there is no reason why any of us, whatever our religious beliefs, shouldn’t embrace the spirit of the season and share in the warmth and wonder of the festivities.
“So with that in mind, I’d like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”
The Harmony Initiative aims to promote the understanding of moderate Islam as compatible with British values and to complement the Government’s strategies to prevent Islamist extremism and radicalisation in prisons, educational institutions and workplaces.
Its educational packages and videos are designed to empower professionals so that higher quality referrals are made to the authorities and to prevent individuals from joining extremist groups by challenging the distorted views on Islam propagated by Islamists and others.