It is Pollyannaish daydreaming to expect that two aggressively competing, proselytizing faiths such as Christianity and Islam can ever cohabit in perfect harmony, but in the Nigeria I grew up in, interpersonal relations between Christians and Muslims used to be reasonably cordial and respectful— for the most part.
That’s now increasingly becoming a challenge, and no moments dramatize this fact than during the momentous religious festivities of the two faiths. During Christmas celebrations, for example, a band of idle, extremist, self-appointed, not to mention ignorant, Salafist moral police comb social media platforms in search of Muslims who wish Christians a merry Christmas.
When they find them, they troll, attack, shame, and try to ostracize them. They preach that it’s haram to both express any goodwill toward Christians on Christmas day and to eat the food Christians share. There is, of course, no scriptural basis for such odious narrow-mindedness. It springs forth from the wells of bitterness and hate that are dug deep in the hearts of these soulless zealots.
Most Muslim authorities in the world countenance the expression of goodwill to Christians on Christmas. For example, the official Muslim position in Malaysia is that it’s permissible to wish Christians a merry Christmas. A 2019 ruling by the European Council for Fatwa and Research says it is acceptable to say “Merry Christmas” to Christians. In 2014, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) formally proclaimed that it is not inconsistent with Islamic teachings to say “Merry Christmas” to Christians.
“Wishing a greeting as an expression of our friendship to people of other faiths won’t damage our faith,” the MUI said in its official statement. “Islam is not a narrow-minded religion. Greetings are more about culture, not faith.”
And, as the Middle East Media Research Institute reported early this year, “Prominent religious institutions and figures in the Sunni Muslim world, such as Al-Azhar; Dar Al-Ifta, Egypt’s official body for issuing religious rulings, and the Egyptian Grand Mufti, all issued rulings this year stressing that Islam permits to [sic] wish Christians a happy holiday.
“The Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, in fact posted a message on his official Facebook page conveying holiday greetings to Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Church, and to the heads of the other Christian churches and all Christians around the world. He also visited Pope Tawadros in Cairo to convey his greetings in person.”
The position of prominent Muslim institutions and authorities on this issue derives doctrinal inspiration from the fact that the Qur’an does not forbid Muslims from being charitable, benevolent, and polite to non-Muslims. Plus, there is no unambiguous evidence in the Qur’an or the teachings of the prophet against expressing goodwill to Christians on Christmas.
Well, Salafist fanatics in Nigeria have a perfect match in new Pentecostal Christian extremists who also wait for Eid-el-Kabir (“big Sallah” in common parlance or ileya in Yoruba) to preach to fellow Christians to reject the ram meat Muslims share with them. It has now become a yearly ritual to have fierce theological debates over whether Christians should celebrate with Muslims during Eid-el-Kabir festivities and, even worse, partake in the eating of the sacrificial rams they slaughter.
In his August 23, 2021, column titled “Why we should fear the Nigerian Taliban,” Saturday Tribune editor Lasisi Olagunju pointed out that “There are [now] Yoruba Christians who avoid the Muslim Ileya and its delicious sallah meat like sin.” This is a remarkable cultural shift given the famed ecumenical spirit of Yoruba people.
Journalist Femi Philip Morgan, while bemoaning the loss of theological moderation and the rise of extremism among a new generation of Nigerian Christians and Muslims, lamented in a June 2, 2019, reflection on Facebook that “Ileya has become boring. Christmas has become bland.” In other words, what gave these festivities spice was the participation of people of all faiths.
This year, I contended with a fusillade of public and private attacks from a gang of Salafist extremists for wishing Christians a merry Christmas on Facebook. Trust me: I blocked all of them. I have zero tolerance for rude, thoughtless, intolerant rubes.
I wrote: “Merry Christmas to all my Christian fam, friends, and followers here on Facebook and beyond. On this festive day, may the light of love and the warmth of family bring boundless happiness to your homes.
“As a Muslim, I cherish the beauty of our shared humanity and the spirit of goodwill that Christmas embodies. May this day be a reminder of the love and harmony we can share with each other, regardless of our different paths. Let’s celebrate this day with kindness, tolerance, understanding, and hope for a peaceful world.
“Wishing you all a wonderful holiday filled with joyous laughter, infectious mirth, and abundant blessings!”
What’s there in this three-paragraph statement to burst a blood vessel over? When has common courtesy toward fellow humans who share a different faith from you become offensive and a reason to defame someone?
Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto and Premier of the Northern Region who was also a descendant of Usman dan Fodio, never failed to wish Christians a merry Christmas when he was alive. His 1959 Christmas message made the social media rounds this year. Although it won’t change the minds of the extremists among us, it is worth reproducing in full.
“We are people of many different races, tribes, and religions, who are knit together by a common history, common interests, and common ideals.
“Our diversity may be great but the things that unite us are stronger than the things that divide us. On an occasion like this, I always remind people about our firmly rooted policy on religious tolerance.
“We have no intention of favouring one religion at the expense of another. Subject to the overriding need to preserve law and order, it is our determination that everyone should have absolute liberty to practise his beliefs.
“It is befitting on this momentous day, on behalf of my ministers and myself, to send a special word of gratitude to all Christian missions.
“Let me conclude this with a personal message.
“I extend my greetings to all our people who are Christians on this great feast day. Let us forget the difference in our religion and remember the common brotherhood before God, by dedicating ourselves afresh to the great tasks which lie before us.”
That’s not different from my Christmas Day message that got the dander of joyless fanatics up.
I would be a flaming hypocrite and a betrayer of my own background if I align with the bigots from my faith. Although my father was a Sunni Islamic scholar and teacher, his own father (and some of his siblings) converted to Christianity in the 1940s and 1950s in an otherwise over 90 percent Muslim community.
I was born at a hospital that was established by American Baptist Christian missionaries in my hometown. I attended Baptist Christian missionary schools for my primary and secondary education, and my dad taught Arabic and Islamic Studies in a Christian Baptist missionary school for more than three decades.
My wife and my in-laws are Christians, and I live in America, a predominantly Christian country, that accepts me for who I am and allows me to thrive and live my dreams in spite of my Muslim faith. Being tolerant of practitioners of different faiths—and of people who profess none—is the only option for me.
It should be for every Nigerian. Nigeria is a vibrant tapestry of cultures and religions. For as long as we remain one country, learning to live in harmony with each other by sharing resources and celebrating each other’s religious festivities is an ever-present imperative.
No one can intimidate me into embracing bigotry and insularity. If my tolerance toward Christians offends you, you have the option to ignore, unfollow, unfriend, or block me. If that’s not enough, to re-echo Shaykh Azhar Naseer, “please find the nearest wall and run your head into it. Don’t use a helmet.”
And if you are Allah’s monitor on earth who compiles the names of people to be admitted to al-jannah (paradise), exclude mine. I hope that gives you peace. Happy New Year in advance!