"Why don't Muslims celebrate Christmas, Dad?" my daughter asked.
As Nora Maryam spoke, we stopped at a red light. I looked across the front seat of our pickup truck only to see the back of her head. She was gazing wistfully out of the window at the brightly colored Christmas lights and decorations. I smiled. I was also hearing her other question, the one she hadn't asked.
It was a little after sunset, and we were driving past a shopping center near San Francisco. The stores were full of people buying gifts. Even the jazz station on our truck radio was playing Christmas carols. The flatbed of our pickup was full of wood for our fireplace at home. The sunset, the lights, the music. It all felt so ... so ... magic.
When I didn't answer right away, Maryam turned to look at me. She saw my smile and returned it. She knew I was going to tell her a story. And I happen to be a pretty good storyteller. Right about then the light turned green and we continued on our way.
"You've got a point, Sweetie," I said, still smiling. "We Muslims believe that Jesus (Peace be upon him) was a Word from God, just like the Christians do. And the night when God's Word was born was such a good night that we definitely have to celebrate it. No question about it."
"Huh?" she asked, mouth hanging open. I congratulated myself for catching her off guard. It's not easy. We parked the car on our favorite street with a view of the San Francisco Bay and got out for a stroll.
"Do you know how good that night was?" I asked, taking her hand.
"No. Tell me," she said pertly, having fully recovered from her brief moment of surprise.
"It was better than a thousand months," I said. Then I began to recite to her from Muslim scripture, the Qur'an, which Muslims learn to recite from memory in classical Arabic. After each Arabic verse, I explained the English meaning.
In the name of Gd who gives before we ask,
yet if we ask forgives and still gives more.
Surely, We sent it down in a night of perfect measure.
And do you know what the night of perfect measure is?
The night of perfect measure is better than a thousand months.
The angels and the Holy Spirit descend in that night.
With the permission of their Lord on every errand
With peace, until the rise of dawn. (97:1-5)
"Yup," I answered, warming up to the evening magic. "Once upon a time in Arabia, there was a young man who had such a pure heart, and who was so kind, honest and brave that everyone, even his enemies, called him Al-Amin, which means the trustworthy one."
"That's the Prophet Muhammad," she said.
"Not quite," I replied. "He didn't actually become the Prophet until the night of perfect measure. He was 40 years old then, and that's when God sent the beginning of the Qur'an into his heart.
"That was during the month of Ramadan," I continued. "That's when these beautiful words from God that we learn and chant and live by were born into the heart of our Prophet. For the sake of that single night, we give up eating and drinking during the daytime for the entire month of Ramadan. And we think that is a big thing. But in reality that night is greater than a thousand months. That's more than 80 years. It's greater than a lifetime."
She stopped walking and looked at me.
"Did all of the words in the Qur'an come from God?" she asked.
"Yup," I answered. "They came down in the pure heart of the Prophet Muhammad, just like Jesus came down to the pure virgin Mary (May Allah grant them all blessings and peace)."
We started walking again and my attention drifted out over the bay.
Red and white ribbons of head and tail lights chased across the Oakland Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge, while strings of Christmas lights draped the skyscrapers in downtown San Francisco and Emeryville. Navigation lights on airliners approaching the San Francisco airport from the east made me think of wise men approaching a manger. Maryam grasped my hand with both of hers and tugged my thoughts back to her next question.
"Because the Qur'an says so, Sweetie."
"Yes, Daddy," she blurted. "The Qur'an tells us to fast during Ramadan. What I want to know is why the Qur'an tells us to fast. Does it explain that?"
"Patience," I said. How does an 8-year-old formulate such complex questions? I think she'll grow up to be a lawyer. Or better yet, a judge of Islamic law. It's a lot harder to tell a story to someone when it's interactive. Maybe I ought to buy her a computer.
"But why is patience so important, Daddy?"
I looked at her without answering. That was a hard one. My glance drifted back to the vibrant and colorful San Francisco Bay at night. It was as though I could count every one of the thousand spectacular months in this one beautiful night. But exactly where was my peaceful night? I knew that I was standing in it, but I certainly couldn't find it in this jumble of chattering months.
"Is this one of those things that I'll understand when I get older?" she asked in such a mature way that I picked her up and hugged her. She is actually getting a little heavy for me to pick up. But I still like to play the big strong daddy every now and then.
I put her down and dropped to one knee so that I could look directly in her eyes. I smiled like a mischievous old elf (Christmas spirit, and all that kind of thing, you know) and said in a deep and jolly voice, "Maryam, you already know why patience is important."
Of course she looked back at me as if wondering, "What's this nut up to now?" She must have gotten that look from her mother.
"You must have forgotten," I continued, warming up to my part. "Come for a ride in my time machine," I said, standing up and walking towards our truck. "Perhaps we can jog your memory."
Copyright 1996 Hassaun Ali Jones-Bey.