Dr. Safiyyah Ally: It's that time of the year again. Christmas is a pretty big deal in Canada, and Muslims have different responses to Christmas. Some Muslims will say, you can't say "Merry Christmas" at all. On the other hand, you have other Muslims who are saying, “Let's buy that Christmas tree. Let's buy presents. Let's party. We're really excited.” So that can leave people a little bit confused about which approach we should take to Christmas. So I thought I'd ask you, Dr. Shabir, the perennial question, what should Muslims do on Christmas?
Dr Shabir Ally: Let’s start with answering the question, “Can we say "Merry Christmas"?”. To me, this one is a no-brainer. There have been scholars who have said not to say "Merry Christmas" because the moment you say "Merry Christmas," that means you are agreeing to everything that Christians do on Christmas, especially with some Christians worshiping Jesus. For Muslims, this is a no-no.
But I say it's a no-brainer because we know that when we say"Merry Christmas" in our environment -- and I can't speak for the rest of the world, but in Canada -- Muslims and Christians are moving towards a better understanding of each other. In Canada, we live in such harmony that Christians will wish us good greetings on our occasions of Eid and other Islamic occasions. If some harm is done to the Muslim community, Christians are there supporting us. If somebody damages a mosque, some Christians gather funds and try to repair the mosque. There’s a lot of sympathy and good feelings between Muslims and Christians.
To wish them "Merry Christmas" would be similar to the Christian wishing Muslims "Happy Eid." When they wish Muslims "Happy Eid," it doesn't necessarily mean that they’re saying, “We believe in you, we believe in your Quran as a book from God, and we believe in your Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, who established these days of Eid for you”. They're just saying we recognize that this is an important day for you, and you're happy on this day, and we're happy for you. So by giving back, Muslims can just simply say "Merry Christmas," meaning: we know that this is an important day for you. You are happy on this day. You have merriment and joy of a good kind, and we're happy for you. That's all it really means and it doesn't need to go beyond that.
So to read that far into it, thinking that means you are agreeing with the worship of Jesus is too far fetched, even though some good scholars in our history have said something along those lines. We should also interpret things in context. Within this context, I don't see any harm in this. We should appreciate that scholars who lived in the Middle Ages, especially soon after the Crusades when the reality of the Crusades was just fresh in the minds of people, saw this sort of enmity between Muslims and Christians. All of that feeds into how they give verdicts of this kind. One can look at a glass half full and one can say that the same glass is half empty. It's the optimism versus pessimism type of thing. So I'm giving an optimistic type of response here to that question.
Dr. Safiyyah: So you've talked about saying "Merry Christmas," what about actually celebrating? Some Muslims might have a problem with that, right? They might think, “we don't celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in the same way, in the sense that he's understood as the son of God.”
Dr. Shabir: Yes, definitely. For Muslims, Jesus, on whom be peace, is a servant, a messenger, he's the Messiah. He's very important to us as a prophet of God. However, we will stop short of saying that he is the son of God. Naturally, if we did celebrate his birthday, it wouldn't be to celebrate the birthday of the son of God. It would be to celebrate the birthday of one of the prophets of God.
Now, to give perspective to this, some of our Christian viewers may be wondering, “so what's wrong with Muslims? Why don't you celebrate the birthday of Jesus?” Well, I hope that our Christian viewers will understand that Muslims generally don't celebrate the birthdays of our prophets. We know of many prophets from the Hebrew Bible and more so in Islamic tradition, it is mentioned that in addition to those prophets of the Hebrew Bible, who are our prophets as well, the Muslim tradition speaks of a total of 144,000 prophets. Naturally, if we celebrated the birthdays of all of these prophets, we would probably have a celebration each day of the year and we wouldn't hold each day specific to a particular prophet.
When it comes to the birthday of our prophet Muhammad, on whom be peace, most Muslims do not observe his birthday, especially those who look back towards the traditions that he established, because it was not established in his lifetime or in the lifetime of the first three generations of Muslims whose practices are considered definitive for later Muslims. In fact, even the date of his birth is not so precisely known. Some Muslims have chosen the 12th of the Muslim month known as Rabi ul Awal based on some traditions to celebrate his birthday. In some Muslim majority countries, that day is even now declared to be a public holiday to give people a chance to celebrate that day. But some of the Muslims say, “no, this is a bid'ah or innovation in our religion. We shouldn't celebrate the birthday of the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him”. So you can see that with this background, Muslims would be even more reticent to celebrate the birthday of Jesus, on whom be peace. However, those Muslims who celebrate the birthday of the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, might be a step closer to thinking about whether or not we could celebrate the birthday of Jesus, on whom be peace.
Yet, then too, we are faced with the old problem of when exactly was his birthday. December 25th, though widely recognized as his birthday now, is acknowledged by historians to have been in the past the birthday of the Son of God. This was just conveniently chosen just to be the celebration of the son of God by Christians when they lived in an environment in which Roman religion was quite dominant. When this was first done, some Christian scholars railed against it, but eventually, the popular voice dominated, and then this became a popular celebration.
When we talk about celebration, Safiyyah, the word celebration can have many meanings. So, one meaning is a kind of ritual practice that is done, let's say in a church or mosque setting, that's called a celebration. Like we celebrate Eid by having a prayer in our mosque. Christians celebrate by having a mass in their church. But, a celebration could have other meanings. For example, when somebody says that they celebrated their wedding anniversary by having dinner together. Celebration in this dictionary sense means something like having some attention to the day. Acknowledging the day as having some importance.
So, if we did something to acknowledge the day, let's say we had a family dinner, if somebody says, “What did you do for the holidays?” We can say that we had a family dinner. That's the same as somebody saying, "What did you do for Christmas?" The answer could be, we had a family dinner on Christmas, even though we are Muslims and generally we don't celebrate other aspects of Christmas. Nonetheless, because it's a holiday and we're all at home, we use this occasion to get together as a family, which is a Muslim thing and I'm sure that's a Christian thing as well. While Christians were having their Christmas dinner, we were similarly having a nice family dinner on the day of Christmas. Putting the matter in this way would show the affinity between Muslims and Christians and would show the similarity of our family structures and our basic human instincts. A Muslim should not come across as being brash in their responses about Christmas, because that could be offensive to our Christian neighbors for whom Christmas is all-important. If they're thinking, it's the season, it's the most... There's a carol that says it's the most-
Dr. Safiyyah: Wonderful time of the year!
Dr. Shabir: Right, it's the most wonderful time of the year! If that's piped into our heads all the time, then eventually we'll believe it too. If we believe this is the most wonderful time, you cannot deny that. One Muslim writing on the web said that he sees beauty everywhere at Christmas time. That's undeniable. Even the snow is beautiful, even though the snow is not necessarily connected with Christmas. It's just the winter season. I know you used to love to play in the snow when you were a kid. You used to love just the sight of snow. I can remember you looking out the window and saying “snow”.
Dr. Safiyyah: Not now that I have to shovel it.
Dr. Shabir: Well, there you go. So we shouldn't give brash responses to, “Do you celebrate Christmas?” Because that is going to mean to our Christian friends that we don't appreciate the most wonderful time of year. It might mean to them that something is odd about Muslims. So, we should give our responses in a measured way.
Dr. Safiyyah: I guess for our children too, if we tell them we don't celebrate Christmas, they might ask “well, why not?”
Dr. Shabir: Yes, and it could be depressing for Muslim kids, if they see joy all around them, and we are telling them that we cannot have any part of that joy. Then it might mean to them that Islam is a depressing religion. In fact, recently I listened to a video clip of a person who became an atheist. One of the things he mentioned is that there was no joy in the religion. I think that's his misperception. But to a certain extent, it is what we create as well in some atmospheres. We make Islam look like something that is against everything that is fun and wonderful. So, we shouldn't give that impression! We should know how our words might be perceived, and measure our words.
Dr. Safiyyah: So we can celebrate Christmas to the extent that we're not actually embracing those beliefs that go against Islam then.
Dr. Shabir: Even if we do not use the word celebrate, if we use more neutral terms like, we can do things during the Christmas season that are Muslim things to do, because we believe in Jesus, on whom be peace. We believe in having fun that is decent and halal. We can do things that are decent, which are halal. We can use that occasion when everybody is talking about Jesus, on whom be peace, to talk about our belief in Jesus, whom we call Isa, who is mentioned in the Quran. So there'll be no harm if, for example, in the mosque, we had a lecture about Jesus, on whom be peace. In that case, we could invite our family and friends, even non-Muslims and especially Christians, who might be curious to know what Muslims believe about Jesus, especially when their attention is focused on whom they refer to as the man behind the season. So, we can use that occasion for us to gain a better insight into our own religious teachings regarding Jesus, on whom be peace, and to help others as well to get some understanding of what we believe. Of course, during the process, they might come to better understand why Muslims are a little bit aloof from some of the things that are connected with Christmas.
Dr. Safiyyah: Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Dr. Shabir.
Dr. Shabir: You are welcome.