I Wish I Had Handled the Holiday Season Differently as a New Convert | SoundVision.com

I Wish I Had Handled the Holiday Season Differently as a New Convert

When I embraced Islam in 2000, it was a source of surprise and confusion for my Catholic family. They knew very little about Islam, and what information they did have was based mostly on stereotypes and misinformation from the media. Alhamdullilah (praise and thanks to God), most of my family members eventually tried to be understanding and supportive of me, even while nursing their private reservations and sadness about my conversion. However, one of the changes that upset them a great deal was when I told them I would not be able to celebrate the holidays with them anymore.

Twenty-three years ago, as an inexperienced Muslim, I usually turned to the “veteran” Muslims in my life for guidance and answers. Back then, there were not nearly as many Islamic resources as there are today. Unless we knew a scholar who could answer our questions, it was difficult to find informed, nuanced answers to complicated Islamic topics. So, I asked my Muslim friends if it would be sinful for me to attend Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations with my family, and they said that it would be because those are not Islamic holidays.

I know that this was their honest opinion and that they, too, had limited access to Islamic knowledge. They were giving the best advice they could, but the fact is, most Muslims are not scholars and have incomplete knowledge. At any rate, because of these conversations, I regretfully informed my family that I could not join them for their holidays anymore. It broke my parents’ hearts and caused a rift in my relationship with my immediate family that continues to this day.

But was that decision necessary? Did I really need to stop visiting my family on Thanksgiving and Christmas? It was not until recently that I heard a lecture by Sheikh Yasir Qadhi on this topic and I realized that perhaps I could have made a different, better decision. In his lecture, Sh. Qadhi explains that a convert to Islam can attend holiday gatherings with his or her non-Muslim family members, within certain guidelines:

  • The convert cannot participate in any rituals that are religious in nature. For instance, she should not attend Christmas mass, sing religious songs, or participate in prayers. However, gathering with family in a mostly secular environment is permissible. 

“What is prohibited, in our religion, is to worship other than Allah SWT,” explains Sh. Qadhi. “The claim that attending a family gathering on the night of Christmas is the same as worshiping other than Allah SWT is a claim that can only come from somebody who is not aware of the cultures we are living in.” We [in Christian-majority nations] all know that gathering with the family on the day of Christmas or the night of Christmas Eve. . . is more of a family event. Generally speaking, there is zero religion, and if there is, there will be one or two religious phrases in the very beginning, and then they’ll move on.”

  • Holidays can be a chance for dawah, to share information about Islam. They might be converts’ only opportunity to gather with their whole extended family. Converts can attend if their niyya or their intention is not to celebrate Christmas, but to honor their family, strengthen ties of kinship, and give dawah. (And by “dawah,” Sh. Qadhi points out, he does not mean “passing out pamphlets” about Islam, but merely being a dignified presence with excellent manners.)  In fact, holiday gatherings can be a wonderful opportunity to show the beauty of Islam to non-Muslim family members. 
  • Avoid consuming anything haraam. This might entail having a conversation beforehand with your family members. Explain that you do not eat pork or drink alcohol. They will most likely be willing to accommodate your preferences, even if that means you sit at the children’s table where no alcohol is served, or you bring your own halal dish to eat (and share). 

I truly believe that if I had known this information 23 years ago, I would have a closer, more positive relationship with my non-Muslim family members today. I could have made an effort to attend some holiday gatherings with the intention of strengthening family bonds and teaching them about Islam through my words and actions. They would have felt less rejected by me and distant from me. It would have saved a lot of grief.

As a result, whenever I get the chance, I try to share this information with new converts. Our situation is special, and yet many fatwas – Islamic rulings are given without consideration to our unique circumstances. Alhamdullilah for scholars like Sh. Qadhi who recognize that converts in Christian-majority nations deserve a nuanced understanding of Islamic law that balances Islam’s indisputable core tenets with the importance of interacting with our non-Muslim family members and nurturing ties with them. InshaAllah (God willing), thanks to Sh. Qadhi’s fatwa, converts will be able to practice Islam and still gather with their non-Muslim loved ones. In fact, the converts’ beautiful character and manners might inspire many more people to embrace Islam, inshaAllah

Laura El Alam is a freelance writer and editor and the author of the book Made From the Same Dough, as well as over 100 published articles. A wife and mother of five, Laura lives with her family in Massachusetts. You can visit her online at www.seaglasswritingandediting.com.

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