Religious holidays such as Christmas present a serious challenge for Muslims living in Christian-majority societies. Should you assimilate by ‘celebrating’ this holiday or distance yourself from it?
It is not only Muslims who face this question but also Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Agnostics, and all other non-Christians. In fact, even today some Christians face a similar challenge because they consider Christmas to be an unbiblical practice with pagan roots. In the past, even Christians banned Christmas celebrations in England in 1647, in Scotland in 1640, and in Boston in 1659.
What makes Christmas difficult for Muslims? It is a religious holiday rooted in Christianity. It claims to celebrate the birth of Jesus, who is considered to be a god. The word ‘Christmas’ actually comes from the words ‘Christ’s Mass’. Mass is a ritual in the Catholic Church where bread and wine are presented to people as becoming the body and blood of Jesus, and are then consumed. There is a clear religious connection.
Then why would a non-Christian want to participate in a Christian celebration? One reason would be the desire to simply ‘have fun’ and ignore the truth value of the holiday. Another reason might be the pressure to conform to the dominant culture by your friends, school, or coworkers. There are millions of people who celebrate Christmas throughout the world who do not care for Jesus at all.
Christmas and the symbols and rituals connected to it have their roots in both Christianity and Roman paganism. It was not a cultural celebration but a clearly religious one. Therefore, Muslims should avoid celebrating Christmas in any way, shape, or form. This means that a Muslim should not buy a Christmas tree, sing carols, put a wreath on their door, decorate their house (or their mosque) with Christmas lights, or even purposely wear red or green colors.
Why not? Why is Islam so strict on this issue? It is because Islam teaches us to differentiate ourselves from other religions and religious symbols. Promoting a unique religious identity prevents people from mistakenly confusing one religion with another.
When the Christian ʿAdī ibn Ḥātim accepted Islam, he went to visit the Prophet Muhammad. He was wearing a golden cross around his neck, like several Christians do. 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. This meant he had already abandoned the idea that Jesus is divine. For him, the cross was only a symbol now. Maybe he liked the way it looked. Maybe he was so used to wearing it and didn’t want to change his fashion style. 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 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. It was not proper for a Muslim to be associated with that.
Christmas is similar. There are aspects of modern day Christmas celebrations which are not religious in nature. Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between a religious element and a non-religious. Muslims need to avoid things connected with religion but there is no harm in participating in purely cultural aspects of winter celebrations.
Christmas Greetings and Gift Giving
Another challenge Muslims face is how to respond when a person says “merry Christmas”. This phrase was coined and popularized by Charles Dickens in his novel ‘A Christmas Carol’.
There are many people in the world who do not celebrate Christmas and may rightfully take offense to such a greeting, despite the intention of the greeter. For true religious pluralism, it is better to use a more universal phrase such as “season’s greetings” or “happy holidays”, since this is a greeting not connected with any religion.
Giving gifts like candy canes or sending Christmas cards falls into the same category. Giving a gift that is unconnected to Christmas such as food or clothing is fine. It is preferred to give the gift either before or after the actual holiday so it is not directly connected to the religious celebration.
A Fine Line Between Celebration and Courtesy
Often, there can be a lot of pressure on Muslims to participate in a Christmas celebration either from the company they work for or their friends and family. This can put you into the difficult situation of trying to avoid partaking in a religious festival that you do not believe in or want to associate yourself with. How to act in this circumstance depends on the harm resulting from your 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. 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.
Shaykh Mustafa Umar
 The problem with saying “Merry Christmas” revolves around what the intended and applied meaning of the phrase really entails. In Islam, words are not judged by their literal meanings but by the intention of the speaker and the meaning understood by the listener. For example, when a person says “I’ll be back in a second”, the literal meaning of the words is not taken into consideration, otherwise the person would be lying. However, it 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 non-Christian speaker is telling the listener, “I hope you enjoy your celebration of Christmas”. If you intend the second meaning it could be taken as 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. 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.