How Muslims in the suburbs view Jesus, Mary and Christmas traditions
Abiha Khan is no stranger to Christmas.
It was an annual observance at the Catholic school Khan attended while growing up in Karachi, Pakistan.
Many Muslims like Khan attend Catholic schools for the quality of their education. But it wasn't until Khan had children of her own that she began to appreciate the more cultural aspects of the Christian holiday.
"We put up a tree every year ever since I had my kids," said Khan, 30, of Barrington Hills. "Basically, we do it in the spirit of the holidays."
Khan's children -- Kabir, 5, and Hussain, 4 -- get excited every year around the holidays. They believe in Santa Claus and make wish lists for presents. Khan puts up stockings for them, leaves out cookies and milk for Santa, and puts presents under the tree before Christmas morning -- none of which she views as religious.
"It's a fun family thing. It's just a happy time for all of us," she said.
Muslims don't celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. Yet many Muslims share a deep reverence for certain principal characters of the Christian faith.
Jesus is exalted as a notable prophet in the Islamic tradition, and an entire chapter in the Quran -- Islam's holy book -- is dedicated to his mother, Mary. Muslims and Christians also have shared beliefs in past prophets, such as Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses, as well as Jesus' virgin birth, his performing of miracles, and his prophesied return in the end of days.
"Jesus is considered one of the greatest prophets in Islam," said Rachid Belbachir, resident scholar for the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America based in Park Ridge. "As part of the faith, we have to believe in all the prophets."
Mary is the only woman named and honored in the Quran with an entire chapter.
"It just shows you the level of respect of how Muslims view her," Belbachir said. "For us, Mary, peace be upon her, exemplifies the perfect pious woman."
While Muslims really don't celebrate the birth of prophets, Christmas is an opportunity to remember their legacies and contributions to mankind.
"Jesus is exemplary in how he was kind in taking care of his mom. At Christmas, it's a reminder for us to be kind to our parents as Jesus was," Belbachir said.
Azam Nizamuddin, an adjunct professor of Islamic theology at Loyola University of Chicago, emphasizes these commonalities in interfaith work for the Islamic Foundation of Villa Park.
"We consider Mary to be one of the seminal women figures in Islamic history," he said. "Mary serves as a role model for piety."
Aside from the religious ties between the Abrahamic faiths, the sensory overload of festive songs, holiday decorations and store sales this time of year also make Christmas unavoidable, Nizamuddin said.
"That's just a cultural phenomenon that you can't really escape unless you are really not a part of society," he said.
Participating, even nominally, in these holiday festivities is becoming more common among some religious and secular Muslims, second- or third-generation immigrants, Muslim converts whose family members celebrate Christmas, and those who are part of interfaith marriages or want to indulge in the spirit of the season through gift-giving and spending time with family and friends.
The desire to be included prompts others to join in.
Abiha Khan's elder son, Kabir, is the only Muslim kid in his class. "I don't want him to feel left out," she said of holiday parties and activities.
Christmas has become such a cultural holiday that many Muslim families are putting up Christmas trees, exchanging gifts, gathering for family dinner, yet not celebrating the religious aspects, said Shazia Khan of South Barrington.
"There are still a lot of Muslim and Jewish families who don't celebrate Christmas," Shazia Khan said. "We do feel a lot of pressure for our kids that we don't celebrate Christmas because it's all around us."
Kiran Ansari Rasul of Elgin said she gives gifts to her three children's schoolteachers as well as mail carriers and housekeepers at Christmas, just as she would for the Islamic celebrations of Eid, which occur twice a year.
"Living here and the kids being born and brought up here, we can't just pretend that nothing is happening," Ansari Rasul said. "Each family draws their own line. This is how we choose to celebrate. We talk more about community and respecting others ... reminding the kids to just be extra kind."