Q. I have long heard that is unlawful in Islam to celebrate or participate in holidays. Is this true and if so, where is it written? For example, as you know, Christmas is celebrated by many Christians (for the birth of Christ, even though many know that this is not the true birth date), but it is also celebrated by many non-Christians (and even some Jews that I know) as a totally secular holiday and it is a time of giving and charity. Would it be wrong for a Muslim to attend a non-Muslim's holiday party even if the host and many of the guests know that you are a Muslim? How about Halloween or the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving?

A. There is not always a clear written proof to substantiate what a jurist or other authority rules as being correct. We say "clear" because we assume that in the process of ijthihad, the proofs or adductions that the jurists use are after a complicated process, and their sources may often still be incomprehensible to the untrained. In the matter of holidays, the matter is one of later controversy. Let us examine two hadith on the subject:

(1) Anas reports: "When the Prophet came to Madinah they had two days of sport and amusement. The Prophet said: "Allah, the Exalted, has exchanged these days for two days better than them: the day of breaking the fast and the day of sacrifice." This is related by an-Nasa'i and Ibn Hibban with a sahih chain. 'Aishah says: "The Abyssinians were preforming in the mosque on the day of 'Id. I looked over the Prophet's shoulders and he lowered them a little so I could see them until I was satisfied and left." This is related by Ahmad, al-Bukhari, and Muslim.

Ahmad, al-Bukhari, and Muslim also record that she said: "Abu Bakr entered upon us on the day of 'Id and there were some slave girls who were recounting [in song the battle of] Bu'ath in which many of the brave of the tribes of Aus and Khazraj were killed. Abu Bakr said: "Slaves of Allah, you play the pipes of the Satan!' He said it three times. The Prophet said to him: 'O Abu Bakr, every people have a festival and this is our festival." In al-Bukhari's version, 'Aishah said: "The Messenger of Allah entered the house and I had two girls who were singing about the battle of Bu'ath. The Prophet lied down on the bed and turned his face to the other direction. Abu Bakr entered and spoke harshly to me, "Musical instruments of the Satan in the presence of the Messenger of Allah!" The Messenger of Allah turned his face to him and said: "Leave them." When Abu Bakr became inattentive I signaled to the girls to leave. It was the day of 'Id and the Africans were performing with their shields and spears. Either I asked him or the Prophet asked if I would like to watch them [I don't recall now]. I replied in the affirmative. At this the Prophet made me stand behind him and my cheek was against his. He was saying: "Carry on, O tribe of Arfadah," until I tired. The Prophet asked: "Is that enough for you?" I replied: "Yes," so he said: "Leave [then]."

Ibn Hajar writes in Fath al-Bari, "Ibn as-Siraj related from Abu az-Zinad on the authority of 'Urwah from 'Aishah that the Prophet said that day: "Let the Jews of Madinah know that our religion is spacious [and has room for relaxation] and I have been sent with an easy and straight forward religion."

Ahmad and Muslim record from Nubaishah that the Prophet sallallahu alehi wasallam said: "The days of tashriq (i.e., the days in which the 'Id is celebrated) are days of eating and drinking [non-alcoholic drinks] and of remembering Allah, the Exalted."

(2) Al-Tirmidhi Hadith 2068: Narrated by Umm Salamah Allah's Messenger (peace be upon him) used to fast on Saturdays and Sundays more than on other days, and he used to say, "They are days of festival for the polytheists, and I like to act contrary to them." Ahmad transmitted it.

Now we are not going to discuss the actual veracity of the hadith, especially the second one, meaning that we are not going to investigate if the Prophet (s) actually said it. This is because there are certain problems from within the text that arouse suspicions. But the tone and timbre of the hadith, like the first, gives the philosophy of a certain outlook of Islam, which we may term as the "reactive outlook."

In the first place, Islam does not recognize a fissure between state and religion. And we therefore seek to live our religion constantly, not seeking particular days to celebrate certain things, unless clearly ordered or seen as logical (as in the case of the two Eids). On other holidays, such as the Saturday and Sunday, clearly being the Jewish and Christian holy days, it may be that the hadith came into being as those two ummas -- at least the rank and file -- would leave aside the moral exhortations of their teachings, and then on Saturday and Sunday go to the synagogue and church respectively to give God some quality time. This was objectionable to the Muslim doctors and so they disparaged this type of selective piety.

There are Muslims who celebrate what they term "Mawlid al-Nabi," but this has no precedent from the early companions. Despite our fellow Muslims trying to pinpoint a date for the Prophet's (s) birth, we do not have any proof for its precise dating, and this puts us in the same boat as the Christians with Christmas. The Prophet (s) too, humble as he was, did not, and would not have condoned any celebration of his birthday, as he was extremely cautious that the people did not deify him as they did Jesus. After several other peoples merged into the umma, they brought their customs with them, or the Muslims began to react to other festivals, and so the tradition of the Mawlid was born.

Are we saying that the celebration of any festival is wrong, if it is not one of the two Eids? No. What is problematic is what is meant by "celebration." And as your question pointed out, when a celebration becomes secular, then it becomes totally removed from its purpose. Take Christmas as an example -- forgetting about the accuracy of dating, which is not important at this point -- wherein most people will get drunk, commit all acts of indecency, all to commemorate the birth of one of God's prophets, who was the epitome of morality and righteousness. This is a gross dichotomy, is it not?

That being said, we as Muslims are enjoined to honor the other prophets and act in a manner that is conducive to good societal relations. Christmas, when observed in a manner that is in accordance with Islamic conduct, is allowable. By this, I mean that we obviously do not engage in certain riotous behavior, nor do we ascribe any accuracy to the dating, but we know why the day is holy to many, and so we let them know that we too honor Jesus, and yes, in his name, we may do any charity or good deed.

Now you specify some holidays which in my personal judgement, as a Muslim, I cannot celebrate. I specify "personal judgment" as the matter must be decided on your own consciousness. Thanksgiving to me represents the time when the native Indians' suppression was given the garb of a good deed, and this to me is foreign to Islam. However, I am aware that people look at the holiday not for the reason I mentioned, but use it primarily as a time to get together with their families, some travelling long distances just for the occasion, and this is something that is obviously commendable.

The Fourth of July, depending on how you feel as an American, may be a different item. Unless you are a native, I see nothing wrong with it, as Islam allows one to take pride and joy in one's freedom, ancestry, nationality, etc. as long as these do not lead to disparaging other people. Halloween is, in my opinion, and the opinion of all the jurists as far as I know, absolutely haraam for reasons that are self-evident.

Would it be wrong for a Muslim to attend a non-Muslim's holiday party? Depending on what it is, the general principle is allowability. Does a Christmas party mean employees getting together just to have a good time, as is part of the job protocol in many companies? There is nothing wrong with that. Are you going to a pastor's house for Christmas dinner? As long as s/he knows your Muslim views on Christ, and that you would prefer s/he not consecrate the food to Christ, then there is nothing wrong with that.

I am aware that there is a hadith that says we should not sit at a table where wine is being drunk, and that at the Christmas parties, there is often drinking going on. The hadith seems a later creation with the right intention in mind. However, we as mature Muslims ought to know how to conduct and separate ourselves from what may be unlawful at those parties, knowing full well that avoidance in some cases may be the best choice.

As for birthday parties, again, Islam allows for different customs, and we see nothing wrong in attending a birthday party or giving someone a gift. There is no "shirk" involved, except in the eyes of the most fanatic jurists, and their opinions do not count since they are not based on the allowability that Islam fosters, but on a narrow general prohibition of anything that smacks of humanism. May Allah guide us.

Posted September 5, 2000