The following chapter is excerpted from ‘A Qur’aanic Odyssey’ which will be republished early in 2016. At the time, Ibrahim and Amna were ages 5 and 2, respectively. In this chapter, they are visiting their non-Muslim grandmother over Christmas, and still learning suwar from the Quran. The chapter touches on several subjects, including Khadija’s career, the relevance of Surah At-Takathur, the spirit of Christmas and Boxing Day. The footnotes go a long way in explaining theological differences and similarities.
Setting: December 2010, the day after Christmas, Nonna’s kitchen, Brooklyn, New York, early afternoon
Characters: Nonna, Khadija, Ibrahim
“Khadija, after six years, I think I can speak to you candidly and you won’t take offense,” says my mother-in-law.
“Of course, what’s the matter?” I respond.
“Dear, you’re a professional. What are you still doing at home?” she asks. After all the activity yesterday, including feeding shut-ins, my mother in law, has decided to stay at home in her pajamas today. She’s leaning up against the counter, coffee mug in hand, and looking relaxed, for the first time in a while. Watching her, I wonder whether I too should have opted to stay in my pajamas.
It’s our first visit over Christmas. Abdurrahman and I thought long and hard about the trip, but when we learned that Geo was going away and Nonna would be alone we immediately made up our minds to visit, despite any religious disagreements. As Abdurrahman explained to the children before we left Houston, “just because we don’t believe that God has a son, it doesn’t mean that we can’t honor your grandmother with a visit on Christmas. It’s clear to me, and I hope it will be clear to you that my mother is still my mother and I owe her everything.” The children seemed to grasp it better than anyone. After all, Nonna was Nonna, super grandmother, and Christmas was, as we had always taught, a reminder to them of Prophet Eesa. We don’t celebrate like Christians but we also don’t need to make any unnecessary distance with our family and neighbors.
My mother-in-law puts her mug down and says “Well?” as if trying to prompt me to respond.
Refocusing, I finally say, “Carmen, I’m trying to set up a home in a new country. It takes time. And I’m also working towards some weighty hifdh goals. I’m aiming to have the last section of the Quran within the next four months insha’Allah.”
“And then?” she probes.
“And then, insha’Allah we’ll move onto the next section. In the meantime, I’d like to follow your lead and pick up Spanish to help bridge some divides. It feels like there’s such a cultural barrier in our new home-state,” I explain, trying to engage her on another front.
“But what’s happened to your career?” my mother-in-law laments.
“It’s on hold for a little while,” I say, very matter-of-factly.
“And are you really managing? Isn’t there a piece of you that is a little unsettled? When Nico and Geo were growing up, I needed the outlet, and the extra income. I’d also attained a certain level where stepping down or scaling back wasn’t really an option. The travel was tough for the kids, but they also learned a lot, even when ‘mama’ wasn’t there. I just wonder when you’re going to reconsider all this homemaking and return to your real roots. For goodness sake Khadija, you did a doctorate in your field, and have ten years under your belt. I think that you might serve humanity a bit better if you get back out there and start working. Your mother could help with the kids, and I am here for you as well.”
“Ammi, are you going back to work?” asks Ibrahim, literally walking into our conversation. He’s wearing his blue ski cap and is bundled up. Taking my hand in his mittened hand, he then continues. “Because if you go back to work now, then I’m going to have a really hard time with the next surah. And Amna will struggle as well. And you’ll also disappoint Hafidha Rabia. Remember she said we could celebrate the end by coming to visit her in Jakarta, in person, not on the phone. You might even lose some of your Quran Club points.”
“Baita, please don’t get upset. Your grandmother and I are just brainstorming here. It’s an open discussion about what’s the best course of life, for now. I loved my work, as you know, but at present, it’s just a little incompatible with the hifdh goals, and all the homemaking,” I explain.
“Papa said you were married to your work once, I remember that,” says Ibrahim, causing me to blush a little.
“Maybe he did, baita. Insha’Allah I will soon be married to my hifdh goals, or perhaps a better way of saying it would be, I’ll be truly committed to them, but also create lots of time for you and Amna and your Papa and all the other important people in my life. And maybe then, we’ll re-evaluate how to integrate the water sector work. By the way, did you finish cleaning the car? Or is it too cold for you out there? And is Amna really ok out in the cold?” I ask.
“Amna is boxing,” responds Ibrahim.
“What?” says Nonna, with surprise.
“Well, first we cleaned the car, but Nonna, it was really dirty. Next time, you need to ask Uncle Geo to help you out, because I don’t think you should have been driving such a dirty car on the highway. Or maybe, Ammi, we could come more often to Brooklyn to clean Nonna’s car?” says Ibrahim looking at me.
“Jee baita, that sounds like a good idea. But why is Amna boxing, and do you think your father needs help with her?” I ask trying to get to the bottom of Ibrahim’s story.
“No, no, Papa is fine and so is Amna. Just wait. Let me explain. After cleaning, Papa said I could recite Surah At-Takathur in the driver’s seat. Remember we did that at Uncle Geo’s house over Thanksgiving, and I think it helped me get Al Kawthar.”
“Ibrahim, why is your sister boxing?” reiterates Nonna now, beginning to get a little concerned.
“Man, you don’t have patience, do you?”
“Ibrahim, remember what I said about not calling your elders ‘man’,” I say, shooting a glance of ‘not acceptable’ in his direction. My expression is much stronger than my words.
“Yes, yes, sorry about that, but it’s just I’m getting to my point and you are both being a little impatient.”
“Bambino, tell us, we’re waiting now,” says Nonna, “but yes, try to always speak gently, especially to us old people.”
“Ok, ok, where was I? Oh yes, I was reciting At-Takathur behind the wheel. And, before that, Papa also reminded me of the translation about all the piling up of stuff. He said we all do this, especially him, and he explained how we compete with each other about how much we each have. And Nonna, you also have a lot in your garage, and that’s before you count all the Christmas presents,” he says, stopping briefly to look at his grandmother, as if concerned that he might have offended her. I too look at her, wondering whether Ibrahim’s words may have been too strong. She thankfully is nodding her head and shows no sign of being offended.
“Bambino, I know, I’ve got an issue, always had. Your late grandfather called it my weakness, packing up momentos. Maybe it’s part of being a journalist, trying to hang on to piece of stories. You may just have to accept that and my full garage and work with me on it. I also know that the real spirit of Christmas is the spirit of giving, and love, not about lots of piling up, if I understand your surah correctly. I might not grasp all the Arabic and I might never be able to do the kind of memorization your sister and you do, but a lot comes through in translation and I believe any person of faith can understand that, and the true message of the holiday,” she says smiling at both Ibrahim and me.
“Ok, so maybe we can help you a little with your garage,” Ibrahim offers. “And maybe it’s not exactly what they were talking about in the surah,” he looks at me for affirmation, trying to make the distinction. “But now let me get to my point. When I was reciting, I saw a punching bag. Don’t worry Ammi, I finished the surah without interrupting myself. Then I asked Papa whether I could play with it. He told me he used to use it in high school. He never buried anger before he met you Ammi, but he did get all of his agre… ss… ion out with the bag. Is that true, Nonna?”
“Yes, sir, your father even had some big black boxing gloves. Suffice it to say, Rocky was a hero for all of us. And of course Muhammad Ali was too.”
“Ibrahim?” I say, also sounding concerned now.
“Yes, yes, anyway, Papa gave Amna and me a demonstration. It was really cool. And then he started to tell me about Boxing Day. Isn’t that amazing? Today is Boxing Day!”
“Yes, pretty amazing, and your sister, Ibrahim?” repeats Nonna.
“Well, she didn’t really care about Papa’s lesson about Boxing Day. She just liked hitting the punching bag. So she’s still out there. I started to get a little cold, standing around watching her punch and so I decided to come in and have another gingerbread cookie. Can I Ammi-Nonna?” says Ibrahim looking at us both and smiling at himself.
Nonna and I look at each other. She starts to say ‘yes’ and I start to say ‘no’ but somehow I change in the middle and Ibrahim manages to get two ‘yes’s’ out of us.
“Grazie,” says Ibrahim, still smiling. “But Ammi, promise me, you’re not going to leave me behind in my suwar. Remember Papa’s Quran contract?”
“Yes, baita, and no, no one is abandoning anyone or anything. By the way, I’d like to see that punching bag. I think it actually might come in handy in Houston. Will you take me out?” I say to Ibrahim and Nonna.
“Let’s go,” responds Ibrahim, grabbing two cookies from the kitchen counter and forgetting that he was cold in the garage. I think about reprimanding Ibrahim for taking the second cookie, but give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he thought we were each consenting to one cookie. I want to focus on boxing, and the garage and yes, a lesson from At-Takathur that I couldn’t have anticipated before coming to visit Nonna over the Christmas holiday. Once again it is clear that we plan, and plan, and yet Allah Subhanahu wa-ta‘ala is always the best of planners and educators.
 Muslims do not believe that Allah (God) has a son, as clearly stated in Surah Al Ikhlas (112th surah in the Quran) and therefore generally do not celebrate Christmas. They do, however, consider Eesa (Jesus) AS to be a prophet. Considerable attention is given to Christ in the Quran and also in hadith. Furthermore, Maryam (Mary), the mother of Christ, has an entired surah devoted to her in the Quran and is revered by Muslims for her piety. Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah‘s Messenger SAW said, “Both in this world and in the Hereafter, I am the nearest of all the people to Jesus, the son of Mary. The prophets are paternal brothers; their mothers are different, but their religion is one,” (Sahih al-Bukhari 3443, In-book reference: Book 60, Hadith 113, USC-MSA web (English) reference: Vol. 4, Book 55, Hadith 652, http://sunnah.com/bukhari/60/113).
 Abu Huraira reported that a person said: “Allah‘s Messenger, who amongst the people is most deserving of my good treatment? He said: Your mother, again your mother, again your mother, then your father, then your nearest relatives according to the order (of nearness),” (Sahih Muslim 2548 b, In-book reference: Book 45, Hadith 2, USC-MSA web (English) reference: Book 32, Hadith 6181, http://sunnah.com/muslim/45).
 Ayat 1 of Surah At Takathur, the 102nd surah in the Quran: “Rivalry in world increase (seeking and then boasting of the acquisition of things, wealth, pedigree, and posterity), distracts you (from the proper purpose of life),” (Unal 2013: 1248).
 As explained by Emerick, “This chapter was revealed to the Prophet after he saw people from two different tribes in Mecca having a shouting match. Each tribe said that it was better and richer than the other. After he received this chapter from Angel Jibrael, the Prophet said that the message of this surah was so important that it was worth as much as a thousand other verses,” (2010: 803). As pointed out in text, however, Christmas, at its core, has nothing to do with competing in worldly goods, even though considerable emphasis is placed on shopping. In essence, Christmas, within a Christian framework, is about giving and love, as Nonna ultimately tries to explain.
 Boxing Day is a public holiday, generally celebrated the day after Christmas, in the UK and in many other English speaking countries, excluding the USA. The tradition may date back to the Middle Ages. The origin of the name appears to stem from ‘box’, namely the gift of a box from one’s employer/benefactor on that day.