Originally published in the December 2013 issue of the Islamic Society of Kingston’s newsletter, The Bond.
Is trick-or-treating prohibited? Can we offer Christmas greetings and exchange gifts?
These are some of the recurring questions we face as minorities living in a Christian-turned-secular society. With a number of holidays and occasions being celebrated in Canada around the year, such as Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Canada Day, should we Muslims be celebrating them like most of our fellow citizens? Or do we need to shun them altogether? Is there a middle ground?
Like most other issues, this is a debatable topic and a diversity of views can be found within the Muslim community. In an attempt to navigate our way through this issue, we should start off by exploring some of the principles of our faith.
First of all, one of the qualities of Allah is that he is tayyib (pure) and therefore accepts and likes only that which is pure. The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said:
“Verily Allah the Exalted is pure. He does not accept but that which is pure.” [Recorded by Muslim]
Scholars of hadith explain that this means that any action that is spoiled with incorrect elements is unacceptable to Allah. This tells us that any actions that we do must be pure in every way, including the origins of the action or practice, the way it is done, the intention behind it and its consequences and effects.
Truth and falsehood cannot mix. If Muslims are believers in the truth, then there should be no room for falsehood, including actions based on false beliefs, in any part of their lives.
Allah has stated in the Qur’an, “And say, Truth has come, and falsehood has departed. Indeed is falsehood, [by nature], ever bound to depart.” [Qur’an – 17:81]
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) has also stated that:
“Whoever imitates a people is one of them.” [Recorded by Abu Dawood]
“He is not one of us who imitates other than us. Do not imitate the Jews or the Christians.” [Recorded by Tirmidhi]
These ahadith highlight the importance of establishing and maintaining a strong Islamic identity. Muslims and their practices should be clearly distinct from those of other faiths to limit the potential for confusion, especially as time goes on and the chances of innovations and inappropriate changes creeping into the faith increases – something that we have been warned about by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). If Muslims imitate practices that are exclusive to people of other faiths or that are rooted in their faith traditions, they will be considered by Allah to be like the followers of those faiths and will be judged by Him accordingly.
At the same time, we know that there is no dislike or prohibition in consuming foods or wearing clothes that meet the guidelines of what is halal (permitted), even if they are part of a non-Islamic culture but not associated with any particular faith. In fact, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) is known to have worn clothing from non-Muslim lands. The food of the People of the Book that meets halal guidelines is also permissible.
All of this indicates to us that Islam is not against cultural practices as long as they:
- Are not exclusive to or rooted in other faith traditions;
- Do not contain elements of falsehood, especially practices based on false beliefs;
- Do not include, promote or lead to anything that goes against Islamic teachings;
- Are not seen by Muslims as being a part of Islam now and do not carry the risk of being seen as a part of Islam in the future.
If any of the above are found associated with a holiday or custom, then it should not be practiced by Muslims.
When we study the holidays and occasions celebrated in our society today, we find them to be of three types:
- Holidays that are known to be religious in nature, such as Christmas and Easter.
- Holidays that originated from religious beliefs and practices, but are now seen mainly as cultural occasions, such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day (in Quebec).
- Holidays that are not based on any religious beliefs or practices, such as Canada Day, Victoria Day, Father’s Day and Family Day.
Based on the guidelines discussed earlier, the first category of holidays clearly should not be celebrated by Muslims. The question remains though: Is it appropriate to exchange gifts with people of other faiths on their religious celebrations and to greet them with their customary greetings, such as “Merry Christmas”?
Many scholars take the position that if Muslims know that a religious celebration is based on falsehood, it is not appropriate to take part in it or to give it legitimacy in any way, even by giving or receiving gifts on the occasion or offering associated greetings. Others state that gift-giving is Islamically encouraged, so gifts can be accepted but gifts should be given at another time so as not to take part in the celebration. As far as greetings go, some say that if the people of other faiths are known to give greetings to Muslims on their holidays, the Muslims should respond in kind or in a better way, as per the Qur’anic teaching regarding greetings. Some others argue that there is nothing wrong with such greetings as they are merely verbal courtesies practiced socially, with very little religious meaning, if any, and can help in maintaining peaceful relations between faith communities.
Regarding the second category of holidays that began with religious roots but are now seen as being mainly cultural rather than religious, the safer route is to avoid them altogether, as the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) has stated:
“The halal (permissible) is clear and the haram (prohibited) is clear, and between them are matters unclear that are unknown to most people. Whoever is wary of these unclear matters has absolved his religion and honour. And whoever indulges in them has indulged in the haram.” [Recorded by Bukhari & Muslim]
While they may appear harmless today, the fact remains that these holidays were once a part of the religious traditions of others. By taking part, it could be said that one is imitating the people of those times when these holidays were truly celebrated for religious reasons. However, the matter is debatable and it can be argued that one is only taking part in cultural customs associated with the holidays today. In this case, care must be taken though that the customs do not include, promote or lead to anything that goes against Islamic teachings. For example, it can be said that begging others (for candy or anything else) and dressing up as evil characters during Halloween go against the Islamic values of uprightness, decency, goodness and self-reliance.
Undoubtedly, there is immense pressure on our children during the celebration of “fun” holidays, such as Halloween. Some parents look for appropriate alternatives, which has led to “Halaloween” being coined as a term for offering Muslim children an alternative to Halloween. Halaloween normally refers to a party and distribution of candy at home or at the masjid, on or around the date of Halloween.
While the effort to offer Islamically appropriate alternatives is very much commendable, the practice of merely Islamicizing the celebrations of other faiths, especially at the same time as the original celebration, is fraught with danger. If such practices take hold and are not explained to children properly, they have the potential to morph into new “Islamic” celebrations a few generations later. In this case, perhaps it would be somewhat better to just take part, in a limited way, in the original celebration without attempting to Islamicize it, while at the same time, educating children about its history and issues surrounding it from an Islamic perspective. At least this way, children will not be under the impression that it is a celebration that can be made into an Islamic practice.
Finally, the holidays that are not in any way associated with religious beliefs can be celebrated, provided one does not indulge in and does not promote anything that goes against Islamic teachings and does not consider the celebrations to be a part of Islam. For example, celebrating Canada Day and feeling conceitful pride in being a Canadian or wasting money on things that bring no real benefit (such as firecrackers) would be inappropriate. Similarly, considering Father’s Day to be an Islamic celebration or to make it the only day when Muslims respect their fathers, to the exclusion of other days, would also be incorrect.
As Canadian Muslims, we must maintain a balance between being protective about our faith and beliefs while being sociable with our fellow citizens and integrating positively with Canadian society. One of the beautiful things about our country is that everyone here is entitled to freedom of religion, belief, thought, opinion and expression. No Canadian is forced to celebrate holidays or practice customs that go against their beliefs.
It is clear though that these are complex issues and there will undoubtedly continue to be a diversity of views within Islamic scholarship and the Muslim community. May Allah guide us towards the truth and enable us to please Him always, as only He knows best.