An Interfaith Example for the Holiday Season

Early this year, coinciding with the celebration of Christmas on January 7, by Egyptian Coptic, Ethiopian, most Slavic Orthodox, and Georgian Orthodox churches, with some Greek Orthodox faithful, I wrote in the blog of the religious journal First Things on the adoption of the holiday honoring the birth of Jesus by Muslim religious authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In the United States, the parallel calendars of Jews and Christians have led to an elision between the observances of Christmas and Hanukkah, and salutations for "Happy Holidays" are common. The Bosnian example, however, including Christmas in the Muslim calendar, represents an important step for interfaith harmony. Traditionally, Balkan Muslims and Christians offered each other good wishes on each other's holy days. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Islam is European, the New Year is also included in the holiday season, as it is in the West.

This year, the relation between Jews, Christians, and Muslims during the holiday season is enhanced by Islamic commemoration of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The Islamic hijri calendar, which is lunar, does not correspond to the Jewish and Christian reckonings. Islamic dating lacks the extra days, known as "intercalations," that extend the 360 days of the lunar years to stabilize them as solar years, in parallel with the seasons.

The Hebrew calendar adds an extra month every 19 years to effect this change in time measurement. Christians added five days, and a sixth in leap years, with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar reform in 1582, by Pope Gregory XIII, for which it is named. The Islamic lunar calendar is intercalated, but by only one day, 11 times in a 30-year period. This leaves the Islamic calendar with 354 days, or 11 short, in most years. The Islamic calendar therefore moves in reverse, with major holidays held earlier each year.

Muhammad's Birthday, or "mawlid" will occur twice this year. It was first held on January 3, 2015, and will be celebrated again on December 24, which is the 13th day of the Islamic month of Rabi ul-Awwal, hijri year 1437. And it is controversial. In Mecca, where Muhammad was born 14 centuries before it became part of "Saudi Arabia," the official Wahhabi clerics have banned the celebration of mawlid except in private. Their argument: celebration of Muhammad's birthday is a form of "polytheism" that puts the Prophet on a level with God, and imitates the Christians.

By contrast, the occasion is honored officially in 54 Muslim countries, as well as several others with large Muslim minorities, including Sri Lanka, Fiji, Guyana, Kenya, and Tanzania.

Bosnian Muslims are great lovers of mawlid (called "mevlud"in their language) and look forward to it with the same excitement their Christian neighbors express toward Christmas.

In examining religion in Bosnia during this season it is also relevant to analyze the situation of the small Bosnian Jewish community. Although devastated by the Holocaust, the Bosnian Jews once constituted a "fourth Bosnian nationality" after Bosniak Muslims or Bosniaks, Bosnian Orthodox Serbs, and Bosnian Catholic Croats. Sarajevo was one-fifth Jewish before World War II. Bosnian Jews, today counting less than 1,000, are still prominent in political and cultural life.

An indication of the persistence of Jewish identity in the Bosnian mosaic is the preservation of the Sarajevo Haggadah, a 14th century illuminated manuscript comprising the ritual for Passover. Produced in Catalonia or Provence, the Sarajevo Haggadah was offered for sale in the Bosnian capital at the end of the 19th century, and is now housed in the National Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It had been brought to the Ottoman empire via Italy, by an unknown Sephardic Jewish refugee.

The Sarajevo Haggadah has a history of rescue missions. Saved from the Spanish Inquisition, checked and permitted for use by the Roman Inquisition, it was preserved much later from the German occupiers of Sarajevo in World War II, and again during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. In the last case, the director of the National Museum, Dr. Enver Imamović, removed the Haggadah from the Museum under heavy gunfire.

There are now many editions of the Sarajevo Haggadah, typically with English commentary booklets included, for sale in Bosnia. In September 2015, the National Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had been closed for three years because of a lack of funding, reopened, with its specially-constructed chamber housing the Jewish book intact.

As small as the Bosnian Jewish community is today, its jewel, the Sarajevo Haggadah, is a symbol of mutual interfaith respect and of the wide sense of national identity Bosnians preserved for many centuries - as a separate kingdom, under the Ottomans, ruled by Austria-Hungary, and then as part of Yugoslavia.

The Sarajevo Haggadah stands for a Bosnia-Herzegovina based on diversity and spirituality. Its adoption as a Bosnian national emblem - a Jewish book preserved by Muslims - is of incalculable value, far beyond its immense monetary worth.