As in Islam, Holy Days a Balancing Act
Every year since I knew myself as a young Muslim kid growing up in the Gambia, Christians in Africa, in … Continued
By Sulayman Nyang
Every year since I knew myself as a young Muslim kid growing up in the Gambia, Christians in Africa, in Europe and in the United States of America where I have lived for over forty years, Christians have celebrated Christmas with fun and joy.
What was striking to me in my childhood days back in the Gambia, then a British colony, was the fact that Christians were joined by certain Muslims in this festival. Not only did you have young Muslims dressed in masquerades dancing joyously with their Christian friends but local communities in Bathurst (now called Banjul) built lanterns known as Fanal. According to David P. Gamble, the well known British anthropologist who pioneered research in this field in the Gambia over fifty years ago and spent a large part of his life in the U.S., traced the roots of this phenomenon back to the Portuguese influence in the Gambia.
Apparently, though the Portuguese Catholics failed to make significant inroads in terms of conversion of Gambians, their legacy includes part of this phenomenon of Muslim-Christian celebrations during the month of Christmas.
In the United States of America, I have come to see Christmas celebrated between malls and cathedrals and churches. Not only are malls well forested with human bodies and new technical gadgets but the parking lots of these malls are almost always full of cars. Apparently the merchants have become more successful in their advertisement than the preachers in many ways. Yet, one must not rush to conclusions. There are many cathedrals and churches that fare well during these times. Not only have their numbers gone up in these days but their plates do receive more money from believers in Christ.
Among the many moving events that have captured my imaginations during the past Christmas celebrations are the attempts of certain religious groups within the Christian community to preserve the legacies of the gospels and the tradition of the ancestors who tried to keep the faith alive and Jesus at the center of things. Since I have lived for many years in Maryland I could not miss the annual celebrations of the Seventh-Day Adventists. I did not know anything about this annual event. It was a black neighbor who knew I was a Muslim but through personal conversation knew that Muslims too believe in Jesus, although not in the way Christians do. To test my interfaith commitments he and his family urged me to go and witness their annual reenactment of the Virgin birth story at their headquarters off route 29 near Cherry Hill Road. I went and saw what they heard. It was an interesting experience and my neighbor was deeply impressed by my act of goodwill and interfaith experience. As I pointed out to my neighbors, certain kids from Africa, particularly Gambia, Senegal or Sierra Leone, can speak volumes about these matters.
In fact, one of my former student from Sierra Leone wrote a book on this matter.
The Catholics have a head -start on these matters. My first encounter with interfaith on this occasion was in the Gambia when some of us (Muslims who attended Catholic schools) decided to attend a Catholic celebration. It was quite an experience.
Since I settled in the U.S. I have had few other opportunities to witness such gatherings. In the Gambia, certain Christians came to observe the Muslims during their Eid prayers during the end of Ramadan fasting period or the Eid of sacrifice. After many years of studying interfaith relations in Africa and elsewhere in the world, I could now say that what I experienced in the Senegambian region was a phenomenon that is not widely known or celebrated by peoples of other faith communities.
In responding to the English man in charge of equality in Britain, I should say that since the days of Charles Dickens and the hegemony of the Christmas Carol and the exploits of Father Christmas in British society, Christ has been overtaken by secular forces and the power of the shop keepers.
Those who are concerned about the rivalry between Santa Claus or Father Christmas, on the one hand, and Jesus on the other, must find a way of balancing the two theaters of human emotion and energy. Budgeting one’s emotion and balancing one’s credit cards face the British as well as the American.
Those who wish to safeguard and uphold the seriousness of purpose of the religious celebrations must not allow the mall to overwhelm the cathedral. They are distinct entities and those who benefit from them are shuttling between the world of phenomenon and the world of faith and metaphysics.
This dilemma of the modern Christians faced the Muslims as they go through the months of Ramadan and during the hajj season. Mecca during this month is not only a landscape that equals several stadiums for Americans glued to football, but a huge mall of goods and services for Muslims from various parts of the world. This is a difference between the activities of the Muslim merchants and their counterparts here in the West. During the time of prayer they close shops and the rial is laid to rest till prayers are over.
Some may argue that the forces of modernity and secularization have conspired to make the mall more attractive and powerful than the religious centers.
I do not believe this. I think Christmas is a moment in the history of Christians that deserve all their attention. There is no need for political correctness in how they celebrate or enjoy these moments. All Christians have the right to worship and pray the way they choose and those of us who are of other faiths have the right to observe and appreciate.
Through the careful and historically validated separation of church and state Americans have learned to be more Christian-enthusiastic than their European counterparts. For this and other related reasons, I believe Christmas will be discussed more and more and in this age of globalization, the results could be more better understanding of this Abrahamic bridge between the celestial world and the human world.
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Sulayman Nyang December 21, 2007