Youth leader Aamir Shahzad and his family are Ahmadiyya Muslims and don’t celebrate Christmas, but they will be delivering cards and gifts of home-cooked food to their neighbours and friends.
And they will not be alone, as their community in Huddersfield is known for its generosity and desire to help others.
Acts of kindness towards neighbours are an important part of Islam, says Sabahat Karim, Imam of Huddersfield’s Baitus Samad mosque in Fitzwilliam Street. He added: “We don’t celebrate Christmas as such, but we take part in the happiness of others. We are taught that everything we do is to reform our attitudes and become better people. Islam tells us to help our neighbours and those who are in need.
“Our reward is the pleasure of God.”
The festive season is a busy time for the members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association (AMYA), who work with other community organisations such as the Welcome Centre, Salvation Army and Jubilee Centre to provide comfort and aid to those in need.
They visit old people’s homes, take toys into children’s wards in the area’s two hospitals, and donate to food banks.
Following the serious flooding in Cumbria, groups from the association, including 10 Huddersfield members, have also been visiting the stricken region offering aid and practical help. Earlier this year one Huddersfield member travelled to Nepal to assist in the aftermath of the earthquake. Such actions, says Nadeem Ahmad, regional youth leader for the AMYA and one of the volunteers who went to Cumbria, embody “the true message of Islam”, one that is often submerged when news of terrorist atrocities hits the headlines.
“As Muslims, we are duty bound to always help one another,” he added, “especially when disasters strike. Also I think it’s important that through our actions people can see the true nature of Islam. Recent events have focused attention on young Muslims and their role in British Society. Young Muslims are proud of Britain and go out of their way to make sure they do their bit to contribute.”
Aamir agrees: “There are billions of Muslims in the world and the majority are peaceful. The so-called Muslims (carrying out terrorist activities) are not following the right teaching of Islam. The difference between them and us is the difference between black and white.
“There are so many Muslims in the world doing good, but they tend to be ignored.”
Charitable works by the Ahmadi are not just for Christmas. During the year they have programmes of tree planting, blood donations, street cleaning, inter-faith events and church graveyard tidy-ups.
After the revelries in Huddersfield town centre on New Year’s Eve they will be out in force helping to clean up the streets.
They even take part in the annual Poppy Appeal. As Aamir says: “We know that some Muslims disapprove of this, but we got involved with the appeal because the teaching of Islam is that you should be loyal to the country where you reside.”
The Ahmadiyya community, now 126 years old, sees itself as liberal and peaceful. But while it is a rapidly growing denomination within Islam it is not accepted by other Muslims because its followers believe that their founder Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was the promised Messiah, sent to revive true Islamic teachings and end religious wars. Sabahat says: “We differ from other Muslims, who can sometimes be quite extreme. We are deemed to be quite liberal, and why not?
“Islam is a flexible religion and you should have your own boundaries. We have a spiritual head who guides us.”
Aamir says it’s particularly important at the moment that Muslims are seen to be working in the community. He explains: “People hear things about Muslims through the media, but when they actually meet us and see us helping out then they reform their opinions.”
Nadeem has first hand experience of this following a recent trip to Cumbria. He added: “We want to help get people there back on their feet because they don’t even have a kitchen to cook in. We’ve been packing and distributing food, delivering it with a smile and having heart to heart talks with people on their doorsteps. It’s faith that drives us to do this and it is the true message of Islam.”
Arfan Ahmad, deputy regional youth leader, was heartened to see different groups working together in Cumbria. “It shows unity and brotherhood from the wider community,” he said. But the Ahmadi also accept that terrorism carried out in the name of Islam inevitably damages community cohesion and they need to counter the negative image such events give the religion. In the aftermath of recent attacks, for example, they conducted leafleting campaigns.
As Sabahat explains: “People get agitated after these events. We go door to door distributing leaflets, which give the message of Islam. There are a number of people who are not quite welcoming and tell the members to go away and believe that what happens in places like Paris is Islam. But mostly we haven’t experienced a lot of problems with Islamophobia.”
The Ahmadi motto is Love For All, Hatred For None, and to this aim the members work for a charity called Humanity First, which responds to global disasters and runs longer term projects around healthcare, education, vocational training, water and orphans.
It is just another part of their desire to put their religion into practice.
“Everything we practice is to make ourselves better people and enhance our spirituality,” says Sabahat.
Which, some might say, is also the true meaning of Christmas.