Accepting Christmas presents

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Some scholars, from various denominations, are of the view that it is not permitted to accept Christmas cards or presents. However, many medieval Islamic jurists – those often cited by such scholars, held no such qualms with accepting presents on Christmas (or its like).

1. In general, there exists no impediment in accepting presents from non-Muslims. Imam al-Bukhari relates, at the beginning of the chapter: “Accepting gifts from pagans”, that the Prophet Abraham and his wife Sara were presented with Hagar by the Egyptian king; and the Prophet Muhammad accepted gifts from: the King of Ailah, al-Muqawqis the Patriarch of Alexandria, and a Jewish woman.

2. Of course, the above refers to gifts, but as with Christmas, accepting presents is not about receiving something, but how accepting it will be perceived. The attitudes engendered by the Prophet’s companions strongly suggest that receiving a Christmas gift is not deemed to be consenting to unbelief or aiding the cause of shirk. Unlike the typical way in which he is portrayed, the famed Hanbali scholar, Ibn Taymiyyah stressed its permissibility in Iqtida as-Sirat al-Mustaqim relating the opinion to Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal and offering the following points:

  • Ali b. Abi Talib, the celebrated prophetic companion and fourth righteous caliph, accepted the gifts of a Zoroastrian on Nowruz.
  • Both Ibn Jarir al-Tabari and Ibn Abi Shaybah reported that Lady A’ishah, the wife of the Prophet, said of presents offered by Zoroastrians on Nowruz: “Do not eat what has been slaughtered for that day, but eat from their vegetation.”
  • Ibn Abi Shaybah also reported by way of Waki’ that the prophetic companion Abu Barzah lived among Zoroastrians who would kindly present his family with foodstuff on Nowruz and the Gahambars, and he would say to his family, “Eat what are from plants, but return that which is something else (i.e. meat).”

Interlocutors will argue that some non-Muslims might take it as Muslims celebrating the ‘birth of God’. This is absurd, and the same sentiment can then equally be said of the Prophets’ acceptance of gifts from those who didn’t heed their call. This perception of non-Muslims towards Muslims accepting Christmas gifts is a conclusion drawn by those (including scholars) who conjecture as observers from a distance and from within insular communities, a conclusion that tends to contradict the direct experiences of those who actually engage with wider society. (Even on a personal note, no one who has ever given me a Christmas present assumed I celebrated Christmas, or alternatively that I’m a Christian. It was always a means to be inclusive and express congenial sentiment.)

Receiving a gift is passive, not affirmative; and in nearly all circumstances it is a show of appreciation towards a person’s generosity and kindness. Some see this issue formulaically and intentionally demote reason, where the acceptance of a present is seen as doctrinally promoting a religious festival (they often see theology as being beyond the purview of reason). Putting aside an explanation on how this is spurious, clearly the Prophet’s companions thought not, and after citing the narrations above, Ibn Taymiyyah concluded:

“all of these indicate that celebrations or festivals play no part in prohibiting the acceptance of gifts. In fact, the ruling for gifts pertaining to religious festivals remains the same as the ruling pertaining to accepting gifts on any other occasion, since the acceptance of gifts cannot be considered aiding the promotion of their religious markers.”

If Ibn Taymiyyah et al, living in the medieval period (which was far more religiously polemical than now, not to mention that he lived during the era of the Christian Crusades and Mongol invasions) concluded that the acceptance of gifts cannot be considered assisting in the promotion of disbelieving religious markers, God knows how some in modern western societies have come to such theological conclusions. In all likelihood, it seems the result of very simplistic religious reasoning and ignorance of the athaar, as well as inaptitude in shar’ī deconstructions between different facets of an issue (an explanation of which is far too lengthy for social media).

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