When does a religious festival lose all theological significance and remain as a mere cultural product? There has been amongst some Muslims, at least in the UK, the incorrect and usually inconsistently applied assumption that it is the origin of a contemporary phenomenon that dictates how we look at it, that the religious permissibility of a modern issue is always somehow linked to how it initially came into being. Though we might be able to see how one may come to such a conclusion, it doesn’t hold much weight in Islamic law. In fact, to look at things through such a narrow lens neglects the realities of human history and how many permissible things come into being as well as the role of revelation and phases of legislation in Islamic law. How so?
Well humans have lived on Earth for quite a while, and whilst the Most High intermittently sent messengers to mankind, He left mankind to flourish in ways that naturally came to them; God then commanded mankind with certain guidelines that meant that the cultural practices mankind has come to live by would stay largely the same but adopt an ethical outlook. In the context of cultural exchanges take the case of marriage as a simple example: the pagan Arabs practiced four types of marriage contracts, God outlawed three due to their oppressive nature to women and left one as acceptable. Similarly, the aqiqah was a pagan practice that was know to be manifested as an act of thankfulness to the One true God. The pilgrimage existed in pagan times, and as the celebrated Spanish Maliki exegete (mufassir) al-Qurtubi put it concerning the divine command to perform the Hajj, ‘they were addressed concerning that which they knew of, and obligated with that which they recognised.’
Another cultural product, hot cross buns, have virtually been eaten by all Britons, including Muslims, and although they are claimed to have many religious connotations and superstitions surrounding them, neither are they established nor held by anyone. By and large, society doesn’t seem to have any idea where they come from and nor do people see them as a religious product. Interestingly, a number of former English monarchs banned general production of the buns restricting their consumption to religious days, but most historians hold that cakes and buns, including buns with crosses on them, are cultural practices from ancient times (pre-Christianity). Accordingly, to my knowledge there hasn’t been a suggested prohibition (tahrim) by any scholars. Of course, it must be kept in mind that a number of narrations inform us that the Prophet’s Companions would abstain from practices they deemed to be linked either with polytheism or pagan practices, but the crucial point is that they were wary about the status of those practices in their specific time, not what they may have meant in the distant past.
So to Christmas, what are we to make of it and how do we interact with the end of December every year? To stick our heads in the ground hoping not to deal with it is irrational (unless the apocalypse occurs before the 25th of December), and so western Muslims need to understand Christmas in light of their own faith and then find a suitable way in which to interact with it in a civilised, insightful and tolerant fashion.
There are a number of considerations to be made about Christmas: what does it represent today? What does Islamic theology and prophetic practice suggest our interaction with it should be, and especially in a society where Abrahamic monotheists are a considerable minority and their impact on societal norms non-existent? How do we respond to those aspects of virtue manifested by fellow citizens, such as helping the poor, strengthening family ties, and spreading goodwill?
Given the secularisation of British society, there is no doubt that at least in major cities up and down the country the Christian aspect of Christmas has been diminished, with large numbers of the British population now using the holiday period to get together with family, go on holiday, or meet up with old acquaintances. It becomes an expression of human bonding rather than doctrinal observance. It is this fact that many allude to when discussing the notion of Christmas, with the added dimension that for most there is nowhere else to be, and since the entire country is doing much the same it’s probably the only time in the year when one can truly relax.
But whilst most might not be gathering to determinedly celebrate the birth of Christ, the god-man of Christian theology, there is certainly scope to argue that that’s what Christmas means to most. Were the average citizen to be asked what Christmas is about, perhaps among the first explanations offered would be the marking of Christ’s miraculous birth. In fact, in his annual Christmas message a couple of years ago, the Prime Minister (David Cameron) asserted that millions of people building the ‘big society’ were living up to the teachings of Christ. It is this quintessential association that means, at least within Islamic legal thought, that it can be legitimately argued that Christmas is still very much a Christian festival, regardless of the individual motivations people might use to mark it. One way of looking at it is that until the Christian aspect of Christmas fades from collective memory, we cannot assert that Christmas has lost its religious connotations.
Now, the birth of Christ is undeniably something auspicious for those who venerate the great Prophet and messenger of God: Jesus, the messiah, son of Mary; but to share with our Christian compatriots in venerating a divine Christ on a day that has no significance (nor should the polytheistic act of apotheosising the messiah afford it any) rails against the fundamental idea of Abrahamic monotheism which is the very core of righteous beliefs. That’s not saying that giving gifts and gathering with loved ones on the 25th of December is bad in and of itself, on the contrary such sentiments are praiseworthy, but to single out the 25th as the day of gathering and festivities, or the Christmas period (and here I don’t mean end of year celebrations) one in which gifts are exchanged between believers, is to share in a concept, even if not intentionally indulging in it, that at its core should be considered improper to anyone who distinguishes between God and His creation, and desires some form of rapport with Him. A prophetic practice captures this sentiment well, ‘that the days most frequently fasted by the messenger of God were Saturdays and Sundays, and he would say, “they are the festivals (ayam’l-eid) of the polytheists, and I wish to differ from them.”’ Among many things, the hadith establishes a precedence of demarcating foreign religious practices from those in line with Abrahamic monotheism, and a clear intent of the Prophet, peace be upon him, to distance himself from that which diverges from the essence of revelation.
For some such sentiment is contentious: how are we to respect those of other faiths whilst critical of some of their practices? It’s understandable that within a society host to a number of religions, and in one that rightly promotes social harmony, that to openly criticise other theologies might be seen as anathema since it acts in contrary to the idea of religious pluralism. But we must acknowledge the Quranic sentiment that truth is an objective notion, not one dependent on a subjective point of view, and subsequently the Quran very logically asserts: “whosoever desires other than true subservience to God, it shall never be accepted of him, and in the hereafter he shall be from amongst the failures.” Hence within Quranic doctrine, the idea of religious pluralism – the assertion that variant religious beliefs hold equal veracity is one that contradicts the message brought by Muhammad from God. But that doesn’t mean we’re not tolerant, God tells us: “whosoever wills let him believe, and whosoever wills let him disbelieve.” Toleration is the vanguard of the believer, it doesn’t mean that she agrees with foreign religious practices or even accepts them, but she acknowledges free will whilst seeking moral rectitude in a manner that befits the station of good counsel.
Given our views about the birth of God incarnate in a man, should we, as some unwisely assert, wrangle about the marking of Christmas, and dispute its validity? Well no. Beyond pointing out that those who believe in the One true God should seek to differ from those who have theologically and spiritually veered from His path, the Prophet left others to their festivals. To criticise the actual festival is to utterly miss the point; it is the belief that Christ is God that we seek to reform, to explain that to love God is to single Him out as a supreme entity worthy of all love, and to need Him is to express ultimate reliance (tawakkul) on none but Him – any division of that love (such as a part for Jesus) is effectively perfidious and the beginnings of ruin. For Muslims to be distracted by religious festivities is to miss the bigger picture of promoting Abrahamic monotheism and in its place indulge in trivialities.
Many of the polemic arguments used to denounce Christmas are inaccurate or logical fallacies; to claim that Christmas is a capitalist venture only highlights the way that big business profits from the Christmas spirit, it neither refers to shoppers nor takes into consideration that most shop buying gifts for others, and not for personal indulgences. The argument that Christmas spurs decadent conduct like drunkenness, binge eating and sexual promiscuity is fallacious as these are the practices of individuals that have no connection with theology. In fact, Muslims also binge eat during Eid (and throughout Ramadan), and as part of Eid celebrations, young Muslims often spend vast sums of money on fooleries, all clearly unreflective of Islamic ethics.
If we are to discuss our beliefs during the Christmas season, it need not be with a sense of belligerence or a confrontational attitude, none of which represent prophetic magnanimity. Those Muslims who take no issue with celebrating Christmas, albeit in a secular fashion, often overlook theological considerations or refuse to engage with them, because of seemingly religious brutes unable to articulate themselves beyond the simian grunts of self-righteous censuring. To use the statements of profoundly astute philosophers of law and theology like the Hanbalite masters Abu’l Abbas Ahmad b. Abdul Halim b. Taymiyyah or Muhammad b. Abu Bakr b. al-Qayyim that completely disregards the context of their scholastic offerings is an affront to their profundity and a misrepresentation of their scholastic aptitude. The scholastic discussions often referred to disregard the fact that the aforementioned authors wrote of Muslim societies where Muslims had begun to introduce polytheistic festivals into a monotheistic setting. This context is completely different to one where monotheism is to be promoted to the majority non-believing populace and where monotheists themselves struggle to cogently conceptualise its contextual manifestation.
Given that we vehemently disagree with the apotheosis of Christ and the irrational marking of the birth a divine being, how do we then respond to the virtue manifested by fellow citizens linked to illegitimate beliefs? The Quran tells us that virtue must be lauded – ‘co-operate in righteousness and piety.’ Not only should we commend charity and its like but inspire others to engender openhandedness throughout the year. Similarly, we should promote family and its importance using Christmas as an example of how society positively views the institution of the family as virtuous and a stabilising agent for a cohesive nation.
Those who exhibit good will wishing us a ‘merry Christmas’ should not be left with an awkward silence, it goes against the idea of decency. In general use, the expression isn’t one that conveys a specific theological connotation; it is a wishing of happiness, abundant sustenance, and increased goodness. Ironically, the brilliant legal and spiritual master who is often used to reprimand those who respond to Christmas greetings, Muhammad b. al-Qayyim, discussed in Ahkam Ahl-Dhimmah the idea of responding to the greetings of non-believers opining that they should be responded to in like: if they, as some detractors of the Prophet did, articulate hostility then believers should uprightly respond with “the same to you”. However, if it is known that they greet with sincere wishes, ‘then revelation and the principles of the shari’ah dictate that it is right and just’ that the response be much the same, ‘since God the most high commands justice and rectitude.’ The slight issue that tends to arise is how do we respond to greetings of ‘Merry Christmas’ given its connotation? Allah tells us, ‘if you are greeted with a greeting then respond with better, or at least respond equally.’ So the believer should respond but without getting into the theological quandary of legitimising the birth of God. For those who view the greeting as religious: as a mere suggestion they might express an appreciation for the well-wishing and respond with wishes of a ‘happy holiday’, or alternatively commend non-Muslims on their family gatherings and virtuous undertakings to offer a response in like, and perhaps even more good will than that which was originally offered. Of course, there are other Muslims who neither view the greeting as a religious pronouncement nor connected to theology, and in such a case, disparaging them for returning the greeting is unwarranted. The essence of the matter boils down to whether one is commending, or taken to be commending shirk (associating an equal to God). This is the illah (legal cause) that is to be determined, and the point of consideration for God on the Day of Judgement.
Western Muslims must be taught the principle of infikak al-jihah; that is, separating between distinct aspects of a specific issue, as well as being made to understand that to be a Muslim is to always have the moral high ground, both in word and deed. In those situations where virtue and immorality coalesce, we must learn to isolate the two, lauding and enjoining virtue and counseling against that which is offensive to God (and without conflating things where we inadvertently scorn virtuousness). To do so is to imbue the ethics of courage and be principled, and in the context of Christmas, it is to stand as witnesses for God and as resolute individuals, just as the Prophets were.
In the increasingly politicised realm that is our religious practice, some might say that all this is a bit ‘extreme’. Ceding our conduct to reflect the nobility of the Quran and prophetic example is not to be ‘radical’ or ‘puritannical’; it is actually the only logical conduct of those who claim Abraham’s faith. On both ends of the spectrum that means a strong conviction and commitment to the ideals of Abrahamic monotheism but also being just, humane and civilised – in keeping with prophetic sentiment of makarim’l-akhlaq, that is the highest standards of moral nobility.
 Even then cultural festivals beyond al-Fitr and al-Ad’ha are subject to legal discussion.
 Recorded by Ahmad, al-Nasa’i and Ibn Khuzaimah, related by the Companion Umm Salamah, and deemed sound by Ibn Khuzaimah and Ibn Hibban.
 al-Quran 3:85
 al-Quran 18:29
 al-Quran 5:2
 al-Quran 4:86