“Whoever imitates a people is one of them”

As a former conservative Muslim, I still receive emails from time to time that hark back to my past. (Part of the issue is having ended up on various mailing lists….) Among the emails that I have recently received has been one from ISNA (no, not the Intersex Society of North America, unfortunately).

Give this season to ISNA…

Most of us are familiar with the concept of the “giving season,” which arrives toward
the end of each year. People find ways to be more generous and kind to others, try
to make a positive difference and contribute to organizations they believe in. For
Muslims, this is often emphasized in Ramadan, but fortunately, this time of year
allows us another similar giving opportunity.

Our wonderful supporters enable us to continue working diligently to promote a more
harmonious society, through community development, interfaith collaborations and
education. Without your support, we could not succeed.

Although 2013 is ending soon, our work continues as we set new and higher goals
for ISNA, in order to reach and impact communities further.

We need you! If you want your donation to be tax-deductible for 2013, you must make
your gift by midnight on December 31st.

Well, when I read that you could have practically knocked me over with a feather.

Because, for the last several decades, the Christmas season has basically been utilized by North American immigrant-dominated orgs in several predictable ways: (1) To remind us of all the ways that our beliefs differ from (and are superior to) those of the Christians. (2) To remind us that we absolutely must not get sucked into celebrating Christmas in any way, shape or form. Don’t put up a tree or lights, avoid work Christmas parties, try to even avoid wishing anyone a “Merry Christmas.” (3) To provide alternative, sternly pious ways for the youth especially to spend their time, by holding Islamic camps or gatherings over the holidays. (4) To rant about the empty materialism of Christmas and especially to “expose” the pagan origins of Christmas trees, Yule logs, Santa Claus, etc in shocking detail.


The idea that Christmas might have some redeeming aspects… that maybe we might even allow ourselves to get involved in, say, charitable giving linked to the season, was not a view that I encountered from such Salafi-influenced orgs. That is, not until now. Because you know, “Whoever imitates a people is one of them.” So allowing yourself to get involved in or even to be influenced by other people’s religious holidays is unacceptable.

So… is this email a sort of “well, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” kind of thing? That they have realized that no amount of preaching is going to make Christmas invisible to Muslims, so they might was well take advantage of the possibility that Muslims too might be moved by the spirit of altruistic holiday giving? Because after all, wouldn’t it be better for Muslims to donate to a conservative Muslim org than to the Salvation Army or something like that? What Muslim org worth its salt would want to miss out on the possibility of donations, at any time of the year??

Or is this a genuine attempt to move beyond the whole us/them, Muslim/non-Muslim, rightly guided/needing us to guide them mindset?

Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

Which is fine. And I know that I should probably be applauding any sign that the rhetoric around holiday observances is becoming less polarized. But I can’t help but remember how much pressure was put on us as converts to avoid any “kafir” holiday celebrations whatsoever and to get into enthusiastically celebrating Eid instead… and of course, to impose this mindset on our kids.

I remember the anguished questions: What were we to do if your non-Muslim relatives sent us or our kids Christmas gifts? Or invited us to attend Christmas dinner? Could we accept the gifts/attend the dinner? Were we allowed to give them Christmas gifts in return?? All the family drama and the bad feelings and alienation that predictably resulted from us piously trying to carry out the ridiculous religious advice we received on such questions… would take another post, but it would be too painful to write.

And worse yet, I eventually found out the hard way that childhood holiday experiences are pretty much a part of me that couldn’t be removed. Sinner that I was, I still had fond memories of a Christmas assembly at my elementary school in which all the students and teachers sang carols. For some reason, one time that we all sang “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” stubbornly stuck in my memory. I still knew all the verses to that song. I couldn’t stop loving that carol.

But even that paled before my memories of carols sung in a language spoken by one side of my family, that I did not grow up speaking. Pretty much all that I knew of that language was a whole bunch of carols. Believing that I could not listen to or sing those carols, could not even hum them, and that I should simply look upon them as jahiliyya and shirk or at best, as mistaken and false theological ideas (and that I could not of course expose my children to them) had the effect of cutting me off from a whole dimension of my heritage and identity. As well as caught in an endless cycle of lying to myself and others about what I genuinely liked and didn’t like.

We were of course “supposed to” love listening to the sound of the Qur’an being recited, and were permitted to like nashids (accompanied only by a daff). Some very very liberal Muslims I knew would even concede that it was perhaps ok to like classical or folk music (whether traditional Muslim or “western”), as long as the content didn’t promote anything haraam. But openly admitting that you loved Christmas carols was beyond the pale.

We sincerely did our best to reorient our aesthetic tastes in order to bring them into line with what we were told is “Islamic.” We went to great lengths to try to learn how to recite the Qur’an melodiously, despite the fact that we didn’t know Arabic then, tajwid classes for sisters were practically nonexistent where we were living, and we faced a lot of criticism for why on earth we even wanted to learn this.

As for the whole deck-the-halls aspect of Christmas, I and my convert friends worked hard at displacing our urges to do that onto… Muslim holidays. We strove to make Eid special for our kids, making decorations, rolling out and decorating star and crescent shortbread cookies, and hanging miniature colored lights. And of course, we got laughed at a lot by immigrant Muslims, who could see quite clearly what was really going on (even though we had almost managed to convince ourselves that no, we weren’t really making up for Christmas by making Eid festive).

Anyhoo… people have moved on. The anxiety around music has faded a great deal, with even Muslim boy bands being celebrated as some sort of “halaal alternative.” Eid has been an increasingly festive, tinsel-festooned affair in communities I know in North America for some years now. Now ISNA’s fundraising at Christmas (whoops… “the holiday season”). And experiences such as mine are passed over in silence, and we and our kids are left to sort out the fall-out as best we can.

And oddly enough, I find that I enjoy reciting and listening to the recitation of the Qur’an a lot more now that I have given up trying to convince myself that “music” (whether Christmas carols or otherwise) doesn’t move me. And also, now that I no longer have many dealings with those who employ verses from the Qur’an as deadly offensive weapons in order to browbeat others into doing what they want.

So, what’s the takeaway from all this, I wonder. It’s easy for me now to realize that I should have never succumbed to pressure to try to shoehorn myself into someone else’s ideas of what I should be, even though they were invoking God and the Prophet in every other word they said. That I never, ever should have been foolhardy enough to believe that self-deception will lead to anything but regret (and many hours of therapy).

And that the louder people shout about how this is what God commands, and there is no other way to interpret this, and that anyone who doesn’t agree is astray or giving in to their nafs or ignorant or a sell-out… doesn’t mean anything except that its all about control. Social control, psychological control, under the guise of religion. Which is why when it suited their interests, they could change their approach to questions such as holiday celebrations. And which is why the impact of years of trying to align ourselves to what they were saying is so deep. Because ultimately, it was mostly about control.

, , , , ,

  1. #1 by ayasmom on January 1, 2014 - 10:27 pm

    I read your blog regularly and identify with it in many ways although my experience has not been quite so horrible as yours. After reading this post I am left considering what is it about us that we actively participate in this type of personal transformation? What is it about our mental and emotional selves that allows us to search so diligently for an answer to all of life’s most difficult questions, find it in Islam, be so strong to adopt this very other cultural and religious identity, and then take it too far, so far that we inflict more self harm than we possibly faced before conversion? It’s like we leave the religion of our pasts because of the dogma we find unsuitable, but then inadvertently swap it for another. Sure we can all commiserate about the horrible patriarchal system that is perpetuated by traditional Islam, but being converts, we were ever really traditional to begin with? I think the patriarchy of religion is universal, not novel to Islam. I’m thankful for spaces like this where we can hash out all these experiences, thoughts, feelings and ideas. Thank you for sharing.

    • #2 by xcwn on January 1, 2014 - 11:07 pm

      Great points–I’ll deal with this in a post.

  2. #3 by threekidsandi on January 2, 2014 - 2:29 am

    I remember the pressure to stay far away from other holidays, and I, too, find the ISNA email to be a shocking departure.

    • #4 by xcwn on January 2, 2014 - 3:17 am

      Yes, it is very surprising, to say the least.
      I suspect that it has a lot to do with… well… money and power. Back when groups like that wanted support from the Saudis and rich Arab Gulfis, they had to stay fairly close to the Salafi line. But in a post-9/11 world, they need to project themselves as being part of America, and they need American Muslims to really step up and donate.

      Which is fine, of course. But what gets me is how we were being told that we had to act in certain ways and believe certain things because this was the only right way, and that our salvation depended on it. To now realize that people in leading positions were either just shooting off their mouths and not knowing what they were talking about, or that they were acting in ways that maximized the interests of their organizations without caring what the impact was on some real live human beings is just… really disillusioning.

  3. #5 by Quills and Bonex on January 2, 2014 - 4:41 pm

    I’m not surprised in the least by this Holiday Pitch, because when it comes to fundraising, all traditional cultural norms are out the window in name of the All Mighty Coinage! Down with the partitions (because some of those sisters might give!), no more downward gaze (because you might miss out on a potential donor holding a crisp $20 in the air!), no more modest speech (let’s turn the masjid into a auction house, who’ll give me $500 for the new building fund, come on brother, I know you just got a raise at work).

    If they thought a belly dancing Santa Claus would get people to invest in their endowment fund, then you’d see Santa shakin’ it, encouraging people to tuck fivvers in his belt, maybe some personal lap dances. We need to encourage people to be charitable, sister. It’s for the masjid!!!

    • #6 by xcwn on January 3, 2014 - 12:47 am

      LOL at the idea of a belly dancing Santa in the masjid. 🙂

      Though, when it comes to the rhetoric I’m used on Christmas, the issue wasn’t really “traditional cultural norms” so much as zealous born-again immigrant (though sometimes convert) Muslim Salafi-Puritans, and those influenced by them.

  4. #7 by rosalindawijks on April 7, 2014 - 2:33 pm

    Funny as it may be intended, Oriental dance is not about stripping or lap dance, but about beauty, emotion and art.

    Here is one of the greats, the Egyptian whos name is Tahiya Karioka: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SEGH1hCu3yc

    • #8 by srishti on November 8, 2014 - 4:04 pm

      I don’t think the term ‘Oriental’ makes sense since it was brought by slaves to Egypt and has v little to do w/ the orient.

  5. #9 by rosalindawijks on November 17, 2014 - 1:27 pm

    NOT true. The dance is native to Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Turkey and Iran.

    It is a folk and social dance, danced by the peoples in that country on weddings, parties and other joyous occasions. It has nothing to do with slavery. The Egyptians THEMSELVES, from whom this dance comes, call it “Raqs sharqi” or “Oriental dance”.

    We don’t know for certain when or how the dance originated, but considering the movement vocabulary it probably came from a mix of Black African influences (the hip work) and Central-Asian elements (the arm and head gestures)

    @ SSL: Sorry for throwing this topic offtopic, but I had to correct some phallacies here. 🙂 Dancing is also a way to express one’s emotions, also the negative ones and to cope with them/get over them. I also had PTSS and a depression and dancing helped me to heal.

    For more sensible info about Oriental dance, one can visit: http://www.casbahdance.org/


  6. #10 by rosalindawijks on February 19, 2015 - 11:21 am

    The famous Egyptian dancer Tahiya Karioka (God rest her soul) on the qualities an Oriental dancer must have: “Each decent Oriental dancer must express life, death, happiness, sorrow, love and anger… but above all she must have dignity.”

    And the also renowned Lebanese dancer Nadia Gamal (May God have mercy on her soul): “I am NOT a belly dancer. I have never been one, and never will be. What I do is not what Hollywood vulgarly calls “belly dance”, but it’s art. I have traveled the world to prove that my dance is not a dance of the belly but a refined, artistic dance full of tradition, of dreaming and beauty. Oriental dance is primarily an expressive dance, in that resides the beauty.” –Nadia Gamal, in an interview with Scoop magazine, page 70.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: