The Holiday Season in a Multi-Faith Environment


Around this time last year, as a Muslim community, we held our monthly interfaith event with a local rabbi and priest.  The topic was holidays. The rabbi spoke about Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, which is about the traditional Jews taking back the Holy Temple from the Hellenistic Jews in the second century. He went on to explain that this is not a scriptural holiday; it was a celebration founded by their Rabbis and incorporated into the Jewish calendar. He also noted that the Jewish calendar is just like the Islamic calendar in that it is based upon the lunar phases. When I inquired into how Hanukkah always falls in December, he explained that at some point the rabbis also decided – not because of clear text but as a rabbinical inference – that they must add a leap year to the Jewish lunar calendar to keep up with the solar-based Gregorian calendar.

Similarly, the priest explained that Christmas is not something taught by the Bible, nor do any Christian historians believe that December 25 was the birthday of Jesus (peace be upon him). To the amazement of most of those present, the priest went on to admit the true origin of Christmas, which is a result of the compromise the Catholic Church made in trying to assimilate Christian doctrine into the Roman empire. They took the festival celebrating the birth of the son-god Mithra, who is related to the sun-God Shamas (notice son/sun god), and switched it to celebrate the birth of Jesus (pbuh). Add Santa Claus and his flying reindeer and we have a whole slew of lies surrounding this celebration.

Christmas is still rejected by many puritanical Christian groups as a Catholic innovation and a compromise between paganism and Christianity. It was banned by the protestant movement in England in the seventeenth century; the early Americans also rejected it for its pagan roots.

By the time it was my turn to speak, I was on a rush of faith when I explained Eid al-Adha and what it’s about and how it is in complete accordance with the preserved scriptures and has always been the same and will always be. With all due respect to our brothers in humanity from the people of the book, they are plagued with the lies and corruption of men. The corruptive elements of religious innovation have been a disaster for those who received scripture before us. This is clear through the period of Hellenism and Rabbinical edicts in the history of Judaism as well as the changes Christianity underwent as a result of the mixing of the Roman Empire and the Nicene pronouncement of Christian dogma in the 4th century CE.

This is a result of the test that God placed upon their shoulders in the following verse,

“Indeed We sent down the Torah which was filled with guidance and divine light. The Prophets who submitted to God judged the Jews by it as did the rabbis and priests as they were entrusted with the book of God and were made witnesses thereof…” (Quran, 5:44)

This verse means that the previous nations were made responsible for both following the teachings as they were revealed, as well as preserving the scripture. Historically we see they have had a very hard time with both of these tests. The final revelation which will have no prophets or scripture revealed after it has been preserved by Almighty God as it says in verse 9 of soorah al-Hijr. That being said, we were also tested with preserving the authentic application of our scripture with the following verses,

“Whoever opposes the messenger after guidance has been clear to him and follows a path other than that of the believers will be made responsible for his choice and we will burn him in the Hellfire…” (Qur’an, 4:115)

“The first forerunners in faith from among the Muhajireen and the Ansar and those who followed them to the best of their ability have the pleasure of God upon them and they are pleased with Him.” (Qur’an, 9:100)

The Prophet has clearly said in a narration that has been transmitted in many of the soundest chains of narration, “Whoever introduces something in this affair of ours that which is not from it will be rejected.” (Bukhari)

This hadith is understood to mean that – other than what the Prophet ﷺ practiced – it is forbidden to introduce new ritual worship as a standard done at specific times and in specific manners. Some Muslims claim that we believe in Jesus and therefore to celebrate his birth is good. It is just a matter of intentions since we obviously don’t believe that he was God incarnate or the literal son of God. The problem is that to celebrate his birth is showing reverence to a Prophet which is a form of worship which can be done at any time according to any manner whether reading verses, hadith or poetry about him or otherwise holding random events. The problem is in setting a certain day for it very year thus it becomes an innovation.

He also said, “Whoever imitates a people is one of them.” (Abu Dawood) This text is understood as a general reality, but in the context of religious worship it becomes a condemnation if in fact a Muslim is imitating other religions in their religiously symbolic dress, worship or festivities. So some Muslims say well I will just get a tree and lights and celebrate the folklore secularized portion of it which doesn’t have to do with Christian worship. The problem is that the two are interconnected and part of the same thing and societal custom generally assumes that if you are taking part in one part of the secularized side of it then you are also involved in the other thus why the vast majority of Jews and Buddhists don’t take part in any Christmas festivities. The fact is that this day is celebrated as the day they believe God was born into a man named Jesus and millions of Christians worship him on that night every year. If you are not convinced by that then as a Muslim you should at least be concerned about teaching your child a lie about Santa Claus that will crush his heart when he comes to know the truth later (I know from personal experience).  In the end it is an identity issue and we need to preserve our own identity.

This brings us to the most important point of this article. How do we deal with this bombardment of the Christmas culture her in the west?

  1. We are failing in making Eid a truly cool and desirable event among our youth. There needs to be a major emphasis first of all in understanding Ramadan and Hajj and why there is a holiday thereafter and where it came from. Secondly, we must make a much bigger celebration in our homes and even out as an act of da`wah. Banners, lights, candy presents and the works. This is from what we call tahseeniyat or decorating the revealed teachings of the deen. This comes from the hadith when the Prophet praised a man for putting lamps in the Mosque. In adding to that we now see carpet, ceilings, Qur’anic Calligraphy etc… We really need to make Eid a super cool event that suffices our youth.
  2. We need to teach our kids our faith and what makes us different from our fellow Americans of different faiths with tolerance and dignity.
  3. If someone says merry Christmas you have three possibilities. If you have no time and are just passing good manners dictate that you smile and respond with a “happy holidays” meaning that you hope they enjoy their holiday that they believe in while you have your own. If you have a few more moments then you should smile and say, “As a Muslim I don’t celebrate Christmas, but I wish you and your family have a happy holiday.” If you have even more time and have a relationship with that person you might tell them about our love and belief in Jesus (pbuh) as well.

And God knows best.

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13 Comments

  1. Tahmid says:

    Salam, Interesting article, Can somebody please explain to me what’s the ruling on throwing a party on Christmas Eve in a muslim country and cutting “Christmas” Cake? I was asked by one of my relatives who told me there is nothing wrong with it since they are not celebrating the supposed Birthday of Jesus but it’s just to build better relations with christians

    • Abu Majeed says:

      I would advise against this. Especially in Muslim countries, we should always keep good relations and make the non-Muslims feel comfortable and welcome on a regular basis. Don’t allow your gatherings to be simply on special occasions rather make the occasions companionship and for them to experience Islam and if you build good ties you might be able to teach them about it. While in Kuwait I saw tons of conversions from local businessmen and military personnel. Most was through a cultural center for Arab American understanding.

  2. abu zakariya says:

    Salam – great article. One practiccal question. We invite all these non muslims to our eid events and we put on a real show. It is excellent for dawa. The issue is these same guys say to us every year. We always come to your eid celebrations and we take part and we really enjoy ourselves so why is it not ok for you to come to ours when we come to yours…tough one!

    • Abu Majeed says:

      As hamza said below, Eid al-Adha is about Abraham which is an interfaith point. Eid al-Fitr is just celebrating thanks for the blessing of Ramadan and that after completion we may eat regularly again whereas Christmas are celebrating things which we don’t believe in.

  3. Marcello says:

    For many (perhaps most) Christians, the celebration of Christmas is not a “compromise”. It is central to Christian doctrine that the secular can be transformed into the sacred. For these Christians, the transformation of the mid-winter pagan celebration into the sacred celebration of the birth of Christ reinforces, and does not contradict, Christian doctrine.

  4. Charles says:

    “He also said, “Whoever imitates a people is one of them.” (Abu Dawood) This text is understood as a general reality, but in the context of religious worship it becomes a condemnation if in fact a Muslim is imitating other religions in their religiously symbolic dress, worship or festivities.”

    I keep wondering about this. It makes a lot of sense, but I wonder if the time and place and people make a difference. For example, Richard Dawkins is a well-known atheist who attacks religious beliefs. At the same time, he enjoys celebrating Christmas (see http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1100842/Why-I-celebrate-Christmas-worlds-famous-atheist.html). Yet no one would think that he is imitating or trying to be like Christians.

    Elsewhere, an American Buddhist quoted his teacher: “When I asked one of my teachers recently how he feels about Christmas, he said, “When I’m at the temple, we celebrate Buddha’s Enlightenment Day [the first week of December]; when I’m with people celebrating Hanukkah, I celebrate that; when I’m with people celebrating Christmas, I celebrate Christmas.”” Again, no one would think the Buddhist was becoming Jewish or Christian or accepting the teachings associated with these religions. Most would just think that he was showing respect to those he was with.

    And as Abu Zakariya mentioned, although I imagine that some are curious about Islam with the intention of learning more, others are likely being friendly and polite to an invitation. No one mistakes them for imitating Muslims or being a Muslim. That requires the shahada.

    It would seem that by participating in a celebration, to a certain degree, that there is an acceptance of the meaning that accompanies the celebration. But what is that meaning exactly? There are Christians who do not believe that Jesus is divine, such as Unitarians. I would imagine that they celebrate Christmas more as a celebration of a prophet. In that case, it would be similar to celebrating the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, on which, as noted elsewhere on this site, there is a legitimate difference of opinion as to whether it is permitted or not.

    Back to my original point, I was told some time ago that in Turkey, one could tell a man’s political affiliation by the way he grew his moustache. Obviously, to imitate the style of mustache would be to join that group. In the US, there is no political identification associated with mustache style. On the other hand, in the US, religious identity is associated with hijab, kufi, and yarmulke. So, is it possible that some actions are considered imitation (or part of one’s identity) while others depend on the time, place, and people? And is it possible that for people living in the time of the prophet in Arabia that to imitate was to join while in this time and in the US, it wouldn’t necessarily have that meaning but would be dependent upon the specific action in a particular context?

  5. Hamza21 says:

    @ Tahmid

    I’m not alim but my understanding is having a party ON December 24th isn’t a problem. Having a party FOR Christmas eve is. The former is a just a date the latter is a form of religious celebration.

    As far as “Christmas” Cake” I was raised a Catholic and I never heard of that before. Unless you mean a fruit cake. Which is a traditional food item during the holiday.I can’t see why eating a fruit cake would be deemed haram unless it contains alcohol which many do.

    @ abu zakariya

    You can tell non-muslims that partaking in Eid celebration doesn’t require anyone to believe in anything but gratitude. It’s a celebration of thanks to the creator. Easter,Christmas,etc are celebrations of certain beliefs that Muslims reject. Say to them Our Eids are centered around certain universal VALUES while your holidays are centered around certain BELIEF systems. You can celebrate with us because we share the same values but we can’t celebrate with you because we don’t share the same belief system.

  6. a brother says:

    As salamualaykum

    Very nice article mashaAllah. Glad to see an article of this view on this website.

  7. Hafsa says:

    Great article mashallah, thank you so much for sharing this because as an American i’m sure many of us struggle with this

  8. African says:

    Salam,

    Can someone answer Charles because I would also like to know the answer to his question.

    JAK

  9. US says:

    Would it be so bad to say “Merry Christmas” as opposed to “Happy Holidays”? Doesn’t “Merry Christmas” simply mean “Have a happy Christmas (holiday)”?

  10. Rose says:

    Asalamu’alaykom. I am having a debate with my friend about whether to say merry christmas or nothing more than a thank you. This article I think would make us both agree. My issue is that I would respond to someone merry Christmas just because I believe that is shows respect and toleration and I believe when it is our time to celebrate our Eids I would feel respected if a nonmuslim wished me a happy eid. A simple thank you would be one-sided. Any thoughts? Jazak Allah khair

  11. Kirana says:

    I think this is a very gray area because the meaning of the particular adoptions vary greatly by context. For a Muslim in a Muslim country, where this celebration is not traditional, it is one thing. For a Muslim who has Christian relatives with whom only this event would be when the whole family is brought together in the whole year for the eve dinner, again a different context. For converts who may have left behind the trinity belief but for whom the cultural aspects is a part of their native identity, again a different perspective.

    After all, many pre-Islamic festivals or festival traits/rituals of various races who are today mainly Muslim, are preserved. Malay races commonly light lamps in the last week of Ramadhan in anticipation of the Eid – which is a tradition reminiscent of our pre-Islamic time, but which still brings a beauty to the night in the holiest week of Ramadhan. I’m pretty sure that red is still an auspicious and festive colour for Chinese Muslims.

    Before recent times when this issue is debated to death, in my country the norm was that we wish for someone according to their faith and not ours. I reckon the reason is not that we express support or agreement with their religious festival but merely that we wish them well on the day that means something to them, as we would appreciate the same good timing for us. So one would send Deepavali cards to Hindu friends, who would *not* return the favour but would send you an Eid card for Eid instead. On the other hand, if we get a wish that is inconsistent with our faith, we say thank you on the basis of appreciating their good intention, and if it was due to mistaken assumption, we would clarify that actually we belong to another faith. This is a lot simpler.

    But I also agree that we need to think about our own festivals. There is a good reason why our festivals celebrate effort and sacrifice, and spiritual progress rather than worldly diversions. But at the same time, there is a distinct lack of celebratory feel even when not compared to other religions. It is as though it is wrong to adorn the defining aspects of the two Eids with happy and fun things. The consequence is that little children see Muslim festivals as being unremarkable things – and this is more so in countries where they would inevitably compare it with other celebrations. please remember that to taste the spiritual happiness of the Sacrifice and fasting requires a certain period of practice and inner progress not typically present in children and teenagers.

    I think the main difference between Christmas and our festivals is really the tacit agreement of the culture to devote preparation time to its celebration. For many Christian/Christian-influenced nations, they still devote this time. We do not. Why not and what should be done, I don’t know.

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