Christmas, converts and that fatwa

Just before last Christmas, the Egyptian Muslim scholar (currently Grand Mufti of Egypt), Ali Gomaa (or Ali Jumu’ah) replied to a question from someone whose mother had left Islam, as to whether he and his brother should spend Christmas with her, as she would otherwise have nobody to spend the time with. The mother had continued to serve her sons halaal meat when they visited and greeted them at Eid. The shaikh responded by emphasising the importance of maintaining family ties, including with non-Muslim family members, condemning what he calls “the unauthentic opinions of some self claimed scholars who equate spending time with one’s non Muslim family during Christmas and the like with shirk or polytheism”, and claiming that Islam is “an open system” and that Muslims respect and honour all the Prophets (peace be up on them) including Jesus, and that “there is no legal impediment to participating in celebrating the birth of Jesus (peace be upon him)”. Other scholars have rebutted his opinion, the reply by Shaikh Muhammad Daniel having been shared the most, along with some Hanafi opinions quoted by Abdus-Shakur Brooks.

Shaikh Ali Gomaa’s fatwa was widely quoted on social media as a reason for Muslims to participate in Christmas celebrations with their friends and family. Seldom did they distinguish between Muslim converts who have homes of their own (such as those who are married) and those who do not (i.e. they still live with non-Muslim family, particularly parents). It is the latter group who have particular difficulty at Christmas, because the celebrations are more or less unavoidable and refusing to participate may cause particular offence at a time when they have nowhere else to live. This is just as true where the family Christmas has been purged of most of its religious content as otherwise: it is the season for family gatherings, where most people are guaranteed at least some time off work (almost all businesses, other than filling stations and ethnic food shops and restaurants run by non-Christians, are closed, and public transport does not operate, which is bad news for anyone who actually wants to get away from the whole thing) and so it may be the only time in the year when all the family are together, and they will not appreciate one member of the family deciding they do not want to be there.

The problem is not just the fact that Christmas as we know it has Christian and pagan origins. There is also the issue of there always being haraam going on, and unless your family are teetotal strict vegetarians (which unless your family are Buddhists or Hindus, they are unlikely to be, and if they are, they are unlikely to be celebrating Christmas), that is likely to include much, or most, of the food. It is not only that food is not of prohibited types to begin with (such as pork, meat that is not slaughtered correctly, or alcohol), but is not mixed with food that is. Practising Muslims would not cook food in a bowl that had previously been used for cooking prohibited food, for example, unless it had been washed very thoroughly (and if there are obvious traces of the food that could not be removed, they would not use it at all). Many would not eat in a restaurant that commonly served food they could not eat, because of the very high risk of contamination, even if they ordered the “vegetarian option”. The same reasons why many Muslims would not eat the Margherita in Pizza Hut also apply to the food in any house where pork or other non-halaal meat (or its derivatives) were used. It’s not personal and it is no comment on the quality of the food, but making this point can sometimes be difficult.

That’s when you live with the people who are celebrating Christmas. When you do not, I cannot see any excuse: Muslim scholars have overwhelmingly ruled against joining in or marking non-Muslim religious celebrations, and they did not make an exception for Christmas or other festivals which, in and of themselves, are not polytheistic or otherwise anti-Islamic. Muslims would not think to celebrate any other religion’s festival, such as Diwali, and the recent upsurge in Muslim enthusiasm for Christmas is entirely because of the dominance of Christianity on the world stage as well as the plague of anti-Islamic régimes in various Muslim countries, some of which, thankfully, have now been removed or are in the process of being removed (this is why, for example, the former mufti of Syria told the world that 100% of Syria’s population is Christian, including the Muslims). Muslims never have celebrated the birthdays of Prophets, except our own (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam), and even that commemoration is something that was not marked in the early centuries of Islam, and not all Muslims do it today. Religious Christmases are often full of references to what they believe is his Divine nature; they do not call Jesus (peace be upon him) a prophet or messenger of God, but rather, Son of God, or simply God. Anyone brought up in any Christian church will know all this very well.

In the case of whoever wrote that letter to Shaikh Ali, it does not indicate that the two brothers actually live with their mother, or at least, he does not attempt to establish whether they do or do not, or whether she really has friends she could go to spend Christmas with. If the two brothers have Muslim spouses and/or children, they may also need them there as many of their friends may be unavailable because of the occasion. If the mother is disabled or sick and really has nobody to look after her over Christmas, then their staying with her might be justified, but it may also be a case of emotional manipulation by her. The mother was apparently a convert who left Islam after her divorce; she knew the children would be Muslim from the beginning (they are not converts themselves), so she knows they never were used to celebrating Christmas and were not accustomed to giving or receiving Christmas presents, or otherwise marking the event. The injunction given in the Qur’an and Sunnah is to be respectful towards one’s parents, whether they be Muslim or not, but to be firm on one’s deen and not bend to any demands by them to do things which are forbidden, especially things from the former religion.

Fatwas like these make it more difficult for people to follow Islam properly: they give others the ammunition to make Muslims, especially those in vulnerable positions, bend to their will by saying “your mufti says…”, especially coming from someone in his position. Whatever the status of the two western scholars I mentioned above who strongly disagreed with Shaikh Ali’s position, they are certainly not “self-proclaimed” scholars and the imams they quoted were not either. Anyone tempted to take this opinion at face value should note that it may well contradict things he may have said before his appointment, or may still be saying in private, because although the situation has improved since the fall of Mubarak, nobody in Egypt will be taking it for granted that they can make strong public statements that might be seen as “too Islamic” (for example, by not conciliatory enough with regard to other faiths). It would be interesting to see previous opinions of his on similar subjects, but we can certainly say that other scholars disagree with it.

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