Whilst Christmas is meant to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ (AS) for Christians, the origin of the holiday itself is unclear. Elements of the celebration, such as the Christmas tree, are said to have come from a Germanic pagan tradition and more recently, that big, jolly man in the red suit with a white beard — didn’t actually always look that way. In fact, the modern image of Santa was developed by the Coca-cola company in the early 1900s.
With so many parts of the celebration having been influenced over the years by different cultures, traditions, powerful commercial interests and even some Christians themselves denouncing the period as the birth of Jesus (AS), it is quite clear that Christmas has evolved into more than just an exclusively Christian event. It’s a time when people get together with family and friends to spend time with one another regardless of one’s faith. If you happen to be Christan and believe it to be the birthday of Jesus, then yes, it does have that added significance. But for the most part, if you asked someone on the street what Christmas is all about, they’d probably say something about family, presents and probably mention the old man with a white beard.
To what extent, if at all, Muslims can engage in the celebrations is debated amongst scholars. According to some, saying Merry Christmas does not imply approval of the belief that Jesus is the son of God nor does it suggest an acceptance that Christmas is an event that Muslims themselves can celebrate.
Firstly, as stated above, it is celebrated for so many different reasons by so many different people so the idea that the greeting is linked to Christianity itself is diluted. Secondly, like with anything, it is the intention that matters. In the book Towards the Hereafter, the great Salaf Ibn Quddamah talks about the rights of non-Muslim neighbours.
“Even an unbeliever enjoys the rights of brotherhood… And know that the rights of a neighbour are not just preventing harm…. It is also greeting the neighbour with salam.”
Here, it could be inferred that developing a relationship with your non-Muslim neighbour is an Islamic duty and so to congratulate them on events that matter to them with the intention of building a positive relationship is not only not wrong but encouraged. When greeted by a non-Muslim who says “Eid Mubarak” does that not make us feel happy? They don’t say it because they believe in Islam and probably do not even know what is being celebrated, they say it because they understand it is a nice thing to do. And that is it.
That’s not to say that we accept their beliefs or the underlying reason for the celebration. But greet them with it simply to spread goodwill, so their hearts will soften and to create an opportunity for dawah.
Whilst that is the case, it is also true that we should avoid grey areas and there are perfectly reasonable alternatives to the term such as happy holidays.
“The lawful is clear, and the unlawful is clear, and between the two of them are doubtful matters about which many people do not know. Thus, he who avoids doubtful matters clears himself regarding his religion and honour…’’ (Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 52)
You could also argue the greeting compromises Islamic principles of Tawhid (oneness of God) and by the same logic given above, a Pandora’s Box will be opened where explicitly haram actions such as handshaking non-mahram women/men can be deemed acceptable in the name of ‘building relations’.
The key point to emphasise here is ‘explicit’ and where it isn’t explicit, there is room for a variety of opinions with enough fuel for the debate to go on forever. And apparently, it is.
The Muslim community often divides itself over issues that have little importance when so many other matters require our attention. A simple solution may be; those that do not say, do not have to say it. Those that feel it’s beneficial to say it, that’s their right as well. If you wish to advise, then do so in a polite manner. To complicate a greeting with notions of shirk and throwing around accusations of apostasy is what turns people away from Islam and widens the divide that exists today.
So is saying Merry Christmas to non-Muslims a courteous crime? That’s not for any one of us laymen to decide. We respect each other’s views and the opinions of the scholars that each party follows. We assume the best of those who do say it, that it is said with the best of intentions. And those who advise not to say it are also doing so out of sincere concern. Let it not become an unnecessary source of conflict and debate.
Editors Note: I would like to state here that many have made good counter-points to the original article and have pointed out the deficiencies within it which detracted from the intention of the article as a piece to build understanding and unity. The author apologises for the confusion caused and has since edited the piece with the main takeaway being, that regardless of which side of the fence you fall on, we can all agree that such an issue should not divide us and there are bigger things for our community to worry about.