As Christmas Day draws closer SWL spoke to one of the UK’s youngest Imams about his family’s Christmas plans and interfaith celebrations.
Every year, 26-year-old Imam Sabah Ahmedi and his wife Melissa Ahmedi travel up to Manchester to spend Christmas with Melissa’s parents.
Sabah, an imam at Morden’s Baitul Futuh Mosque, was raised as an Ahmadiyya Muslim and began training as an Imam nine years ago.
Melissa grew up in a non-religious family and converted to Islam 10 years ago, although she already found faith at age 13.
Whilst the couple and their young daughter and son, Jaweria and Jibrael, don’t celebrate the religious meaning of Christmas as Muslims, they explain that Christmas with Melissa’s parents is an important gesture to their inter-faith family.
Sabah said: “I take part in sharing the happiness of my in-laws during the time of Christmas as it’s a festival which they celebrate.
“I spend Christmas day with them because Islam teaches to respect the religious beliefs of others and treat everyone with love and respect.
“Honestly I am so grateful to God for blessing me such great in-laws who are so loving, respectful and understanding. We all respect each other’s beliefs, it’s a very beautiful thing.
“They allow us to pray as we do every day, even if it’s on Christmas day, and they’re always respectful and cater to our religious beliefs.”
The couple, both born and bred in Manchester, met through an arranged marriage four years ago and travel up north with their children every Christmas from near Hampshire.
Melissa, who is a religious education school teacher, said: “The festive period is something I look forward to as it’s a time the whole family comes together.
“The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) taught that paradise lies under the feet of your mother, so I try my best to do my bit in the kitchen and take her off her feet literally!”
Christmas Day at the in-laws
The day for Sabah begins with a Fajr prayer, the first of five daily prayers.
Once everyone is awake, Melissa’s parents open their presents from Sabah and Melissa and the children open gifts from their grandparents.
The Christmas lunch features a roast with halal meal and the British classics: Yorkshire puddings, lots of roast potatoes, veg and of course, gravy.
Whilst this year’s Christmas plans will still go ahead, Melissa explains that because of the pandemic they haven’t seen her parents since September.
She said: “Covid has perhaps drawn attention to the fact that this life is short and fragile, and what truly matters is looking after others, loving thy neighbour (no matter near or far) and the value of being present rather than the number under the tree.
“My favourite thing about Christmas is everyone sitting around the table at my parents’ house and having a laugh whilst eating our roast dinner.
“My sister makes a mean slow-roasted lamb (not the traditional Turkey I know, but so good with mint sauce)!”
She adds that the family also exchange Christmas presents and play games together.
She said: “My parents and in-laws gift and receive presents for both Christmas/New Years and the Islamic Festivals of Eid. Although Sabah needs no more bright coloured socks it’s more than a mutual gift, it’s shrouded in respect for one another’s beliefs. I think this relationship of understanding is the greatest gift that can be given.”
As Christmas falls on a Friday this year, Sabah, Melissa and the children will watch the Friday sermon of the Caliph of their community, followed by offering the Jummah prayer.
It’s not just at Christmas!
Whilst it’s Christmas with the in-laws, Melissa’s parents celebrate both Eid’s with Sabah, and the family.
He said: “They come over to our house and bless them, they bring us gifts not only for me, Melissa and the kids, but also for my mum, dad and my two brothers.”
While Sabah and his family don’t celebrate Christmas he explains that it’s still an important time to come together.
He said: “At a time where people are moving away from religion and divisions are increasing within societies, interfaith respect and understanding is crucial so that we are able to live in a tolerant, respectful and loving society.”