By Tina Shah
Tribune staff reporter
December 20, 2007
The day after Thanksgiving, Ali Khan drove his two sons to the neighborhood Home Depot to pick out a Christmas tree.
At home on Chicago's Northwest Side, Khan eagerly placed a silver-coated menorah, purchased at a decor store, under the tree. On top went a sequined emerald crescent bought on a trip to Morocco.
While few will go so far as to put up a decorated tree, many Muslim-American families cannot help but confront Christmas at this time of year. Their children are inundated with Christmas customs at school, in stores, at restaurants and on television, inspiring questions about Santa and presents.
This year brings a special challenge because the Christmas excitement is peaking just as Muslims prepare to celebrate the holiday of Eid al-Adha. Tied to the Islamic lunar calendar and the phases of the moon, Eid is expected by many to begin Thursday and last three days.
The holiday commemorates the willingness of Ibrahim, called Abraham in the Bible, to sacrifice his son at the request of Allah. It also marks the end of hajj, a period in which Muslims make pilgrimages to the holy city of Mecca.
Of course, many Muslims -- particularly recent immigrants -- choose to focus exclusively on Eid customs, which include prayer, family visits, festive food, sweets and gifts for the children.
But others say they are taking advantage of the close timing to clear up misconceptions, reiterate the significance of religious holidays and explain why they choose to partake in or refrain from activities associated with other faiths.
Khan, national director of the American Muslim Council, said he decorated a tree because he believes studying and understanding the teachings of Judaism and Christianity will help his sons become more faithful to Islam.
"You can isolate your kids, lock them up and say negative things, which is going to make them kind of be resentful," said Khan, 42. "Or you can embrace it. Let's study it and find out why we should be celebrating Christmas."
Mohammed Sahloul, president of the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview and vice president of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, said there is a need for Muslims in the U.S. to celebrate Islamic holidays as equal to non-Islamic ones.
That means taking days off work on those days, explaining their significance to children and exchanging gifts as Christians do on Christmas, he said. Muslims also should push to have Islamic holidays recognized in workplaces and particularly in schools so their children "don't feel like second-class citizens," he added.
"Parents have to stress the significance of their own holidays," said Sahloul, an Oak Lawn pulmonologist.
In the La Grange home of Jihad Shoshara, there is no Christmas tree to be found but rather a banner that reads "Happy Eid."
Shoshara said he grew up with a Muslim father and Catholic mother, was confused about his religious identity and does not want the same for his children. So he sends his children to an Islamic school in Des Plaines and seeks an active role in forming their identity as Muslims.
The pediatrician does not hesitate to take his two sons and daughter into Chicago to see the Christmas tree in Daley Plaza and the decorated windows at Macy's, but he stops there.
"We want our kids to meet all kinds of people, but when we are forming their identity, we don't want to confuse them," said Shoshara, 38.
Eiman Abdel Moneim and Asma Akhras, of Darien, said they have tried to find a "middle way" for their children, to mold an experience that is both American and Muslim.
The couple are part of a team of second-generation Muslim-Americans who formed the Mohammed Webb Foundation, a group that aims for all Americans to gain knowledge and experience of Islam. Their children attend the Muslim Educational Cultural Center of America in Willowbrook, where Akhras also teaches.
Like Shoshara, the couple take their children to see Christmas decorations in the city, but tell son Yousef, 9, and daughter Maaria, nearly 6, that Eid is their religious holiday.
The parents go out of their way to elevate the Eid spirit at home. They wait until the night before Eid to decorate the house with ornaments and streamers and buy presents for the children. One year, Akhras made crescent-shaped cookies for Yousef's classmates and helped decorate the lunchroom with Eid decorations.
This year, they said, the spirit has doubled with the close timing of Eid and Christmas.
Moneim, 35, said the two holidays add up to a season of joy. For Akhras, 33, the timing opens up doors. "The calendars coinciding eases up the differences and allows a platform for discussion," she said.
Religious side of Christmas
The executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations' Chicago chapter, Ahmed Rehab, agreed with her. He said most Muslim children see Christmas as an American celebration rather than a Christian one, so this is a chance for parents to explain the holiday's religious significance.
"Muslim Americans can take this opportunity in order to show children other faiths can have holidays that bring them closer to God," Rehab said.
Many African-Americans who are Muslim don't feel the need to shield their children from Christmas, whose rituals are usually familiar, said Seth Ibrahim, imam at the Mosque of Umar Inc. in Roseland.
But parents find themselves busy explaining the role of Christmas in Islam, he said, which is to respect the holiday without celebrating it.
A convert who has vivid memories of Christmases spent with family and friends, Ibrahim said he asks children at the mosque questions of his own: Do you feel left out? What is the Christmas message? Who is the key figure in Christmas?
"We don't celebrate it at all," said Ibrahim, 60. "We educate our children in what it is now and what it was then."
As Khan fields questions such as, "What is Santa going to give me this year?" from his sons, he said, he tries to teach them about the differences and commonalities between religions.
Khan does not send his sons to Islamic school, saying he seeks not to cloud their beliefs. The Muslim also prays Sundays at Armitage Baptist Church, across the street from his home.
Khan usually gives his children gifts on Christmas but this year will present them on Eid because the holidays are so close together. Although he wants to expose his sons to multiple religions, he said he is confident that in the end they will choose Islam.
"When you sow the seeds early, in terms of intellectual curiosity, hopefully they will start expanding and learning further on their own," he said.
While purchasing his Christmas tree, Khan even found an opportunity to teach his 6-year-old son, Imran, a quick lesson in modesty -- a quality valued in Islam. He deliberately picked one on the cheaper side.