Written by Shaykh Mustafa Umar
Religious holidays such as Christmas [meaning ‘Christ’s Mass’] present a challenge for Muslims living in Christian-majority societies. Should they assimilate by ‘celebrating’ these holidays or distance themselves from them? It is not only Muslims who face this question but also Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Agnostics and all other non-Christians. In fact, even some Christians face a similar challenge because they consider Christmas to be an unbiblical practice with pagan roots. Such a position led Christians to ban Christmas celebrations in England in 1647, in Scotland in 1640, and in Boston in 1659.
The first challenge for Muslims is that Christmas is a religious holiday rooted in Christianity because it claims to celebrate the birth of Jesus, who is considered to be God. Since there is a clear religious connotation to Christmas why would another group of people not adhering to those religious beliefs have any desire to participate in it? One of the reasons for wanting to celebrate such a religious holiday might be the pressure to conform to the dominant culture one lives in. Another reason might be the desire to participate in ‘having fun’ while ignoring the truth value of such a religious event. This is why many people who have no care whether Jesus was born on this day or not still celebrate it.
The second challenge for Muslims revolves around how to socially interact with people that are celebrating Christmas by greeting each other, giving gifts, and having dinner parties.
Christmas and its associated practices have their roots in both Christianity and Roman paganism. This celebration is not founded on merely a cultural practice of Christians or pagans but is deeply grounded in the religion of these people. Since Christmas is a religious celebration, now mainly associated with Christianity, it is incumbent on Muslims to avoid celebrating the day in any way, shape, or form. That means that a Muslim should not be buying a Christmas tree, putting a wreath on their door, decorating their house with Christmas lights, or even purposely wearing red or green colors.
The reasoning behind this prohibition is due to the fact that Islam mandates Muslims to differentiate themselves from other religions and religious symbols. The wisdom behind promoting a unique religious identity is to prevent people from mistakenly confusing another religious belief or practice with Islam.
When the Christian ʿAdī ibn Ḥātim accepted Islam, he went to go visit the Prophet Muhammad with a golden cross around his neck. The Messenger of Allah pointed to his necklace and told him, “ʿAdī, throw this idol away.” It is important to reflect on this statement. ʿAdī had already accepted Islam, which meant that he had already abandoned the idea that Jesus is divine. For him, the cross around his neck was only a symbol now. Maybe he liked the way it looked or had become accustomed to wearing it as a fashion piece. Prior to accepting Islam, that cross symbolized belief in Jesus being God and having died for the sins of all people. The moment ʿAdī accepted Islam, the cross that he was wearing immediately ceased to have this meaning, which is why he continued to wear it. Nevertheless, the Prophet made it clear to ʿAdī that this cross was a clear religious symbol of Christianity and was not proper for a Muslim to be associated with.
Nonetheless, when it comes to celebrations like Christmas which have evolved over time, absorbing different cultural elements, there are aspects of Christmas which are not religious in nature. Sometimes it is difficult to differentiate between a religious element of a celebration and a non-religious, cultural one. Every Muslim must try their utmost best to find out which elements are religious in nature and avoid them, but there is no harm in participating in the cultural ones not connected to religion.
Christmas Greetings and Gift Giving
Another challenge Muslims face is how to respond when a person says “merry Christmas” to them. The term was coined and popularized by Charles Dickens in his novel ‘A Christmas Carol’. The issue of responding revolves around what the intended and applied meaning of the phrase actually entails. In Islam, words are not judged by their literal meanings but rather by both the intention of the speaker and the meaning that will be understood by the listener. For example, when a person says “I’ll be back in a second”, if the literal meaning of the words was taken into consideration then the person would be lying. However, this is not the intention of people who use this phrase nor is it understood by listeners to be taken literally.
Likewise, the words “merry Christmas” can potentially mean two things. First, it could mean that Christmas is a happy day, and this could imply a confirmation of Christianity and the beliefs associated with it. The second meaning could be that the speaker is telling the listener that he hopes he will have a nice Christmas celebration and enjoy the day. When a Muslim speaks and intends the second phrase, he is practicing religious pluralism with Christians. Therefore, if both the intention of the speaker and the general understanding of the listener is clear, there would be nothing wrong with using such a phrase.
Nonetheless, in many societies that celebrate Christmas there are also several people who do not celebrate and may take offense to wishing them a merry Christmas, therefore it is advisable, for true religious pluralism, to use more universal wording such as “season’s greetings” or “happy holidays”, since this is a universal greeting not connected with any faith.
Ultimately, the best response depends on the person you are speaking to and the situation you are in. The sending of greeting cards or presents falls into the same category. You may want to use the greeting or gift as an opportunity to clarify your beliefs by saying something like: “Thank you. As a Muslim, I don’t celebrate Christmas, but merry Christmas to you.”
A Fine Line Between Celebration and Courtesy
Often times there can be a lot of pressure upon Muslims to participate in a Christmas celebration either from the company they work for or their friends and family. This puts people into a difficult situation of trying to avoid partaking in a religious festival that they do not believe in or want to associate themselves with. How to act in these circumstances depends upon the harm that would accrue from their actions. If not participating would result in serious harm, then it would be permissible to participate to the extent that it would most probably avert that harm.
For example, Michael has accepted Islam but his entire family practices Christianity. Every year, they have a family reunion on Christmas Day with a feast. Michael’s entire family will be upset with him if he does not attend and will likely have a negative perception of Islam for his inability to attend. In this case, Michael should attend the gathering with the clear intention to show love and kindness to his family, since there are no other opportunities in the year for that, and because having a family dinner is not an explicitly religious function. However, he should make it clear that he is attending for the family and not to celebrate Christmas. Furthermore, he should avoid partaking in any activities that clearly contradict Islamic beliefs such as praying to Jesus.
Navigating through the Christmas season as a Muslim is quite complicated when living as a minority in a Christian-majority land. The situation becomes even more challenging as Christmas becomes more and more commercialized every year, making it seem that there are no religious undertones to the different celebrations and customs associated with it. Part of the problem lies in poor education about the history and significance of many rituals associated with Christmas. In the end, Muslims must build upon what they already know for sure. Virtually no Muslim would condone wearing a cross, due to the symbolism and connection it has with Christian beliefs. The same should apply to other religious symbols, whether their significance is blurred through the marketing propaganda of greedy corporations or not.
 Shaykhs Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn al-Qayyim held that it is not permissible to congratulate non-Muslims on their religious holidays because that would entail a confirmation of their beliefs. Shaykh Ibn Uthaymin held the same view. However, Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Shaykh Mustafa Zarqa allowed it as long as the intention was to show kindness to people without supporting their beliefs.