During the winter holiday season five years ago, when his inquiring daughter was a wide-eyed fourth grader, Hassaun Ali Jones-Bey explained the meaning of Ramadan to her by weaving together stories of Muslims, non-Muslims, his own childhood Christmases, and the Qur'an.
An author, convert to Islam, and self-described musical storyteller for peace, Hassaun Ali thought that telling stories about Ramadan through humor would be a positive and creative answer to his daughter's initial nagging question: "Why don't Muslims celebrate Christmas and exchange gifts, Dad?"
The stories came to take the shape of an illustrated novel, titled "Better Than a Thousand Months: An American Muslim Family Celebration," which seeks to tell the story of Ramadan, Laylat-ul-Qadr (The Night of Perfect Measure), and the Qur'an through text and pictures. Hassaun Ali's book has been Amazon.com's most popular book about Ramadan.
Hassaun Ali says it was important for him to make Ramadan "an American Muslim celebration of family, communication, and spiritual meaning" for his children. Frustrated by the lack of cultural symbols for American Muslims, Hassaun Ali says he felt pressured by the dominant Christian and commercial tone to the holidays to explain why his family's holiday was different.
Christened in a Nazarene Protestant church and raised in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., Ali acquired an early taste for spiritual and cultural variety. He says he celebrated his 10th birthday as a Nazarene Protestant, his 20th as a Roman Catholic and an engineer, his 30th as a dancing Sufi and Navy pilot, and his 40th as a Sunni Muslim and writer.
"I asked myself: How am I supposed to express this faith beyond ritual? And what is my own understanding of Islam?" says the Fremont, Cal.-based writer and folk guitarist. "The book is an expression of my approach to Islam. Religion is something I do to myself. We can use scriptures to become peaceful and enlightened or we can use them to deny others and oppress them."
"Better Than a Thousand Months," narrated by the African-American Muslim father of a large family, features an almost Socratic dialogue between the father and his children that occurs from sunset to sunrise.
Inspired by the promise of peace and atonement of the sacred Ramadan night, Hassaun says he felt an almost mystical compulsion to write the book.
"I believe that God's word comes to us," says Hassaun Ali. "Does that mean I'm writing another Qur'an? No, we don't need to do that. It's already been done! But the Qur'an, revealed during Ramadan to the Prophet Muhammad, serves as a template for the world and our lives. How in the heck can we continue fighting after that?"
Passionate about creatively working for peace, Hassaun Ali is particularly excited by the heightened awareness of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish holidays all coinciding this season, which happens every thirty years because of differences in the Islamic and Gregorian calendars. This year, Laylat-ul-Qadr--the most sacred night of the Muslim calendar--may coincide with Christmas itself. Hassaun Ali's book stresses similarities between Ramadan and Christmas.
For Hassaun Ali, the message of Ramadan and Christmas is that "prophets were people like us who opened their hearts to have transformative experiences."
"It's a major coup for me," says Hassaun Ali, "if others open their hearts thinking: `Muslims are [people] just like us.' Every generation needs to light the lamp of peace to cleanse our temples of the defilement of war."
To that end, he is recommending lamp- or candle-lighting ceremonies to commemorate this generational coincidence of holy days and to help kick off a culture of peace.
"The main idea I'm trying to get across is that you can have your own culture or religion and still live in peace with one another," he says.