“Merry Christmas”?

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For Muslims, saying “Merry Christmas” has been a particular sticking point for a long time. Every year at December, a dread falls over the western ummah. The Xmas Police are out in force, and the sincerely devout left confused and exasperated. Of course, for many such a mundane issue will sound absurd, and from the outside it certainly is. As time has gone by, for most Muslims this has become a non-issue. But misappropriating certain hadiths, along with interpreting proscriptions made by medieval scholars in a particular way has led to a lack of clarity.

My intent here is to unpick the contentions and conflations whilst analysing variant reasonings people employ. Like with most masa’il, I think it’s a good case study to analyse religious reasoning (the main reason I’ve written this). And as usual, I speak in the context of the UK, although I suspect this post will be relevant to most western believers.

Now to briefly go through the contentions:

Firstly, “The Prophet said that the believers have two Eids.” Yes, he did (related by Anas in Sunan Abi Dawud), so to sit down on the 25th December and mark it in solidarity with Christianity would be unbecoming. But merely greeting people with “Merry Christmas” isn’t celebrating a religious festival, and so applying the hadith here really doesn’t work.

Secondly, “Many mediaeval scholars have said that greeting disbelievers for their festivals is also haram.” This is true, but they’ve also said why they believe that to be the case, which ought to contextualise how we take their general statements. They’ve mentioned that it’s haram where such greetings are an expression of agreement (iqrar) with the theological basis of the festival, or a show of support for such beliefs in order to undermine Islam. Let’s be frank, no one disagrees that these two are highly problematic if they were the case. But neither of these two apply to saying “Merry Christmas” as I go on to show.

Thirdly, some bizarrely assert that a Christmas greeting intrinsically suggests agreement, whether intended or not. This assertion is illogical and makes little sense – agreement is a conscious act that requires intent. And as I go on to show, the term “Merry Christmas” has lost theological significance and denotes well-wishing for the end of year period, so what is it suggesting an agreement with, that would make it haram?!

Fourthly, and something that speaks to a wider point that I anticipate being introduced here although it doesn’t relate to my points, well-wishing non-Muslims as persons on matters that might speak to theology is not wrong. There are various examples of the salaf offering well wishes to disbelievers, including condolences. Disagreeing with disbelievers doesn’t remove a sense of humanity or general decency.

Now in order to resolve the issue, we need to accurately conceptualise what we’re doing when we say “Merry Christmas”: we’re neither agreeing with erroneous theology, nor are we strengthening a theological cause (the contentions of medieval scholars). We’re simply wishing a person well.

Even if we were to say it to an observant Christian, we wouldn’t be greeting him/her *for* the occasion, but *on* the occasion. The first is iqrari (concurrence) but the second is wad’i (circumstantial). An analogy might be of wishing someone well on the occasion of their marriage to someone you don’t think they should be marrying. You wouldn’t be congratulating them for marrying the person, but on the occasion they seek to be happy. However, this is all in the context of those who mark it religiously – which is both rare and not the norm.

In popular usage (the default we resort to in the shari’ah) the word Christmas refers not only to a day but also to a period that denotes the end of the year – we say “on Christmas” to refer to the day, but also “during Christmas” to refer to the period. As usulis put it, the purpose of words is to convey meanings, and compelling way that we might ascertain that saying “Merry Christmas” isn’t an expression of agreement (iqrar) with Christian theology, or supporting its cause is demonstrated with the following, which shows what we take such greetings to mean:

1. When non-Muslims greet us with “Happy Eid” neither do they mean to express agreement with Islamic theology, nor do we understand it as such. We take it as a statement of goodwill to a Muslim, not a statement about the faith. So why don’t we understand “Merry Christmas” in the same vein?!

2. Non-Christians also greet one another with “Merry Christmas” and no one would say they’re expressing an agreement with Christian theology amongst themselves.

3. Muslims already offer such well wishings to one another! It can be common for Muslim colleagues to say to one another on the last day of work: “Enjoy your Christmas” in meaning enjoy your holidays and time off work. Even when a non-Muslim says this to a Muslim, they’re obviously not assuming the believer will now spend the period worshipping Christ.

Some will argue that the statement and time of the year draws its significance from a culture that’s Christian, and since it comes from Christianity, we can’t get away from its theological connotations. Yet their own practices contradict this view. The weekend is taken from Christian views on the Sabbath and wishing someone well for the weekend is not making a statement about the Sabbath, nor accepting the Christian assertion that God ‘rested’ on Sunday. Further, pointing out that Christmas used to be Christian is irrelevant, the hukm (ruling) on something changes when the thing itself changes – we don’t just hold on to something because we’ve become used to it having been that way! Many acceptable practices have come out of things that were previously pagan: aqīqah and ruqyah are two well-known examples where shirk was removed and the practices sanctioned. If that goes for entire practices which isn’t even the case here (I haven’t advocated celebrating the 25th of December), what for simply using a term that doesn’t have theological connotations to the vast majority of folk using it?

A usual response to most discussions on this topic is: “But Christmas is shirk, so it’s best to avoid saying/responding with anything.” This is inaccurate. In Christianity, Christmas is to mark the birth of Christ. We neither deny he was born or that his birth was auspicious, for God says, “He said: ‘I am a servant of God. He has granted me the Scripture; made me a prophet; made me blessed wherever I may be. He commanded me to pray, to give alms as long as I live, to cherish my mother. He did not make me domineering or graceless. Peace on me the day I was born, and will be on me the day I die and the day I am raised to life again.’ Such was Jesus, son of Mary.” (19:30-34)

The birth of all prophets is auspicious. Amongst the reasons Muhammad fasted on Mondays was because he was born on that day (related by Abu Qatadah in Sahih Muslim). And whilst it remains a difference of opinion, many celebrate the final Messenger’s birthday, including a long list of illustrious medieval scholars. So the idea that people might venerate the birth of Jesus the Messiah, son of Mary, isn’t exactly nefarious.

Now what some Christians choose to do and say about Jesus on a day chosen to celebrate his birth is a different matter altogether – what Christmas is, and what they believe about Christ are inherently two different things that we ought not to conflate. And so to assume anything related to the birth of Christ is inherently shirk would be as absurd as saying the same about the Mawlid. Celebrating a birthday has nothing to do with shirk. My point here is to counter the idea that Christmas is inherently polytheistic and that whether religion is intended or not it’s a shirk-based commemoration that renders the word “Merry Christmas” wrong.

As a side point, even much of the antipathy towards Christmas is misplaced and the rhetoric of da’wah folk inaccurate. Shirk has little to do with Christmas and more to do with what Christians believe about Christ. As both logic and our own theology informs us, we can agree with Christians on one thing – here that the Hebrew Messiah’s birth was auspicious – whenever it was, whilst completely rejecting the other – that he was, either entirely or in part, divine.

In ending, please note that I’m not saying we must to go about wishing the world a merry Christmas (although it’s certainly awkward to just walk off if someone’s greeting you), and if you don’t want to that’s perfectly fine. But many Muslims will say it to colleagues and friends, and even just as a response to polite staff at the supermarket. To get polemic about it or view other believers as heretical is misplaced. There’s no need for a moral panic.

Be happy and do you. Happy holidays.

(That one keeps everybody happy!)

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