Bosnian Muslims Celebrate an Islamic Christmas
by Stephen Schwartz
Most of the world's Christians—as well as many non-believers—celebrated the birth of Jesus on December 25. Members of the Egyptian Coptic, Ethiopian, most Slavic Orthodox, and Georgian Orthodox churches, with some Greek Orthodox faithful, will mark the festival on January 7. The fourteen-day difference reflects the retention by certain Orthodox congregations of the Julian calendar, which was replaced by Gregorian reckoning in the majority of Orthodox societies early in the twentieth century.
Non-Muslims may be unaware that Islam honors the prophets and sages of Judaism and of Christianity, including Jesus and John the Baptist. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is considered by Muslims to be the greatest of all women, and to have given birth as a virgin. Muslims do not, however, believe that Jesus was God's son or was crucified. In Islam, Jesus, known as Prophet Isa, Peace Be Upon Him, is said to have risen to heaven, rather than dying on the cross.
Still, Muslims believe Jesus will return during the Last Days of mankind, although Jesus is not identical to the Islamic messiah, or mahdi.
In the Balkan Muslim communities, on the border between Christendom and the Islamic lands, shared customs between Muslims and Christians remain widespread, notwithstanding the horrors of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. While the opposed combatants in Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, and Kosova often belonged to different faiths, the bloodshed of those years did not reflect interreligious rivalries. Serbs are almost entirely Orthodox; Croats are mainly Catholic. The Bosnian war pitted Muslims and Catholics, sometimes ambivalent about one another, against Serb aggression. In Kosova, Albanian Muslims form an overwhelming majority, but Albanian Catholics have played a major role in national culture and identity. The Yugoslav wars were about political power, not theology. Religious customs bring the differing Balkan communities together, if in a manner barely perceptible to the outside world. Sulltan-Nevruz, the Central Asian, Iranian and Kurdish new year, which falls on March 21 by Gregorian reckoning, appears as a holiday on the Bosnian Islamic calendar, but is commemorated by Albanian Bektashi Sufis as the birthday of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad and progenitor of the Shia sect.
St. George's Day (the Gregorian May 6) is observed by Balkan Muslims who identify the Christian saint with Al-Khidr, a mystical companion of Moses beloved among spiritual Sufis.
A Muslim religious calendar is called a takvim. Because most Muslims follow the hijri or Islamic lunar count of the days, its months begin about eleven days earlier each year. Further, in most Muslim countries, dating is based on physical sightings of the moon. For these reasons, a takvim is carried by numerous Muslims to record the changing times and dates of religious obligations.
The Bosnian takvim now includes the Orthodox Christmas, on January 7, designated as "Milad Isa, a.s." or "Sacred Birthday of Jesus, Peace Be Upon Him." This is not a minor detail. The birthdays of the prophets are a matter of controversy in Islam, with Sunni fundamentalists prohibiting it as an "impermissible innovation in religion." Thus, for example, while Muhammad's birthday is honored as an official holiday in all Muslim-majority countries and many with large Muslim minorities (including Russia and India), it is permitted only in private in Saudi Arabia, Muhammad's birthplace, because of disapproval by Saudi Wahhabi clerics. By contrast, in Egypt and other Muslim societies, it is embodied in joyful public events.
Bosnian Muslims are devoted to Muhammad's Birthday, which is called mevlud in their language. At the mevlud of Muhammad, Muslims do not sing tunes comparable to Christmas carols, but recite or read out extensive poems in praise of the Prophet of Islam. They consume mevlud sweets and engage in other convivial practices.
After the Bosnian war, the country's Muslim territory was flooded with Wahhabi preachers who argued against the mevlud of Muhammad. Sometimes they claimed that it was unacceptable because it was not mentioned explicitly in the Koran, although it is found in the hadith, or oral commentaries of Muhammad. Indeed, Muhammad himself celebrated his birthday. Otherwise, the Wahhabi fanatics condemned mevlud as an imitation of Christian devotions to Jesus. My colleague, the British-based Muslim historian Irfan Al-Alawi, has defended the right of Muslims to commemorate the birthdays of all three primary monotheistic prophets: Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad—although Jews do not date or celebrate a birthday for Moses.
Throughout Islamic history, traditional Muslims have been encouraged to offer their non-Muslim neighbors greetings on their holy days. In the Balkans, Muslims and Christians alike mention often that they celebrate each other's religious festivals, especially Christmas and Ramazan Bajram, the latter a three-day feast to conclude the fasting month of Ramazan (or Ramadan).
By including both the birthday of Muhammad, which begins on the evening of January 2, and that of Jesus, on January 7, in their calendar, the Bosnian Muslims have demonstrated their appreciation for the common Abrahamic tradition. In addition, by adopting the Orthodox Christian holiday in remembrance of Jesus, they have demonstrated goodwill toward their Serbian neighbors. In this month, when the two birthdays nearly coincide, and when news about Islam often seems undiluted in its tragedy, the generous action of the Bosnian Muslims is worthy of praise.