Sunday, December 30, 2007

Christmas time - will you be going to the party?

The school term is coming to a close. The atmosphere lifts as the daily drudgery of school life gives way to the festive season. The jingle of bells and colourful decoration transform the usual drab school corridors. The sound of feet on hard wooden floors gives way to joyous laughter and the humming of Christmas carols. The festive season supposedly heralds a period of goodwill
and an end to hostilities and conflict.

However it is not so joyous for all, especially for the Muslim pupil. Like all the other kids he has received plentiful cards from his friends wishing him a 'Merry Christmas', which he promptly files away in the bin. As in previous years he is also invited to the annual school Christmas party. Last year he couldn't go because he had an urgent appointment at the dentist, or so he told his friends. So what does he do this year? He can't use the dentist excuse again. Does he grab his heart and fake a heart attack? Does he grit his teeth and just go to keep the peace?

This is a dilemma faced by Muslims in all walks of life, from the student at school, to the person in the office. As the season of goodwill arrives so too do the anxiety levels for some Muslims. Emails and greetings received can cause confusion in not knowing how to reply without sounding disrespectful. The invitation 'Hey Ahmad, are you coming to the party' causes discomfort. The Muslim acknowledges the invite with an uncomfortable smile and a mumbled excuse that the questioner cannot make out and assumes he said 'yes'…in Punjabi. Calls on the mobiles from non- Muslim friends are conveniently diverted to voicemail. So what does the poor beleaguered Muslim do?Many of us can relate to this to some degree.

At best, Christmas is a time of discomfort with the thought of going through the annual chore of explaining why you will not be attending the school nativity play or in explaining to Tracey from the accounts department that you will definitely not be seeing her at the staff party!

At the other extreme many Muslims succumb to the Christmas spirit and cannot deal with the feeling of being the odd one out in explaining their absence from Christmas parties.

Every year there is pressure on Muslims to take part in the festive action. Children at school are expected to attend the Christmas party, take part in the nativity play and sing in the school carol service. For those who remain outside of this atmosphere they may well become ostracised; branded as boring or a killjoy. Worse still, accusations may be levelled that Muslims are not showing respect to the indigenous culture and adopting an intolerant attitude.

Showing respect and tolerance to others
Those who refrain from taking part in the seasonal festivities are considered as extreme, intolerant or just plain unsociable. Fellow pupils cannot understand why going to a Christmas party is such an issue with Muslims.

Surely going to a social gathering, which in truth has little to do with the Christian religion, does not mean that you throw away your Islamic beliefs and practices. After all, the schools do not just celebrate Christmas. Many of the schools in Britain have a demographic mix of various cultures, races and religions.

Many schools in the larger cities like London, Birmingham and Manchester celebrate all festivals and occasions. They will acknowledge and commemorate Christmas as well as Diwali and Eid. School children of other faith backgrounds take part in organised activities to engender a greater understanding of cultures alien to theirs. If other children take part in Islamic celebrations, should we not allow our children to take part in theirs? Many schools permit Muslim children to take leave on the day of Eid. Surely if they make gestures to accommo-date Islam, should we not take part in their celebrations like Christmas, Diwali and whatever else the school children celebrate?

These are amongst the questions that circulate in the Muslim mindset, causing them a dilemma. Essentially, does the Muslim adhere strictly to his faith and reject the calls to join in the Christmas celebrations or does he partake in the merriment on the basis that not joining in would be rude and disrespectful?

The pressure to join in with festivities is heavily encouraged within the workplace and the school environment. Employees realise that attending the Christmas party is a good place to network and socialise with colleagues. It is oft quoted how promotion opportunities are initiated in the pub or at the office party.

The run up to the office party will be a big topic of discussion amongst the employees, as is the post office party analysis, which merely adds to the pressure to fit in and not be seen as a party pooper.

Similarly, schools propagate an agenda of fostering tolerance and respect for other faiths and religions. Religious education classes will teach children that all religions are the same and that they provide similar if not the same values. Hence, everyone must participate in each other's festivities, religious or otherwise, so as to experience this common ground and togetherness. The pressure to accept this idea is no more apparent than at Christmas time in schools and offices.

Respect and tolerance only goes so far
The idea of showing tolerance and respect to other's beliefs and values, even if you disagree with them, emanates from the western capitalist ideology. In particular, the concept of pluralism states that all groups and sections within society should have their views and beliefs protected. The manifestation of this can be seen in the idea of showing respect and tolerance to all religions and faiths.

The problem with accepting other people's faiths and values merely on the basis of respect and tolerance is that genuine debate and discussion as to what is right and wrong is abandoned. In fact, questioning and debating religion is one of the last taboos within the West. On the basis of not offending another person's religion, greater questioning or scrutiny about one's beliefs never occurs. For example, the lack of any serious debate around the whole festive period masks the fact that there is no evidence to suggest that Isa (as) was born on 25 December or that Christianity has anything to do with Christmas at all.

Moreover, the reality of pluralism within the West and its manifestation in tolerating and respecting all religions hides a more sinister side. Western society only actually tolerates other beliefs and religions to the point that they do not contradict the underlying values and norms of society. In short, tolerance and respect only goes so far. For example, western states may allow Muslims to practice Islamic festivals and worships on the basis of showing tolerance and respect. However, if Muslims were to advocate the Islamic solutions with regard to economics or politics they would be quickly stopped in their tracks. Equally, there would be no respect and tolerance from the West for Muslims marrying four wives or implementing the Islamic punishments.

Recently, George W Bush announced in a series of speeches that he would actively work to bring democracy to the Middle East. Clearly, this is a case of the West trying to impose its beliefs and values upon others thus contradicting their own concepts of pluralism and showing respect to others. Why do the western governments not apply the principle of pluralism here and let other nations around the world live according to their own value systems. The duplicity of the West can be seen in their insistence on all other peoples adhering to capitalist ideas, values and systems.

The essence of the western call for showing respect and tolerance to other ideas is not that they accept that other people have a right to live in any way they wish. Rather, it means that other beliefs and values will only be tolerated within a framework of western secular laws and viewpoints. Equally, societies that call for western values of freedom and democracy are praised. If this is maintained, then the West is happy to show respect and tolerance. However, the moment anyone crosses the western worldview by advocating an alternative to secularism, such as Muslims and the Islamic world, then the West is quick to abandon its ideals of respect and tolerance. Jack Straw clearly highlighted the limits of western tolerance when he said "Democrats can never accept that religious injunctions take precedence over temporal laws." (Prospect Magazine, October 2002).

Furthermore, religion in the eyes of the West is merely for the individual and should have no part to play in societal affairs. So, capitalist society is quite content in encouraging people to celebrate each other's religious festivals such as Christmas or Eid provided that their views do not enter the political arena. The moment that such views impact on the wider society, all semblances of respect and tolerance will disappear as the relentless attack on the Church for its insistence on banning homosexuals from office has shown over the years. So tolerance in the West is underpinned by the belief that secularism is sacred. If any religious value or behaviour is incompatible with secularism it is rejected.

Islam has its own view of Respect and tolerance
The concept of showing tolerance and respect to others and their beliefs is underpinned by the fact that Islam is the truth. This is the starting premise that the discussion is built around. The Islamic aqeedah is built on a rational foundation, which appeals to the intellect of man. Thus the proving or disproving of a creed is determined through rational discussion. If people want to believe in other creeds then that is a matter for them, but as Muslims we would see it as a duty to explain the falsity of their creed from a rational basis and the correctness of Islam. The myth of pluralism and the mirage of showing respect and tolerance should not prevent us from doing that. Muslims cannot accept the creed of freedom, the belief in the 'trinity' or the worship of animals as on a par with the beliefs of Islam. Neither would we shy away from explaining the consequences of believing in falsehood in the Hereafter.

Etiquettes of discussion
Even though we believe in the correctness of Islam and the falsehood of all other creeds, Islam has laid down rules on how to discuss and debate with people of other faiths. The purpose of such discussion is to arrive at the truth, not to humiliate or ridicule others.

Within the Khilafah minority groups are protected on the basis of the saying of the Prophet (saw), "He, who harms a dhimmi (non-Muslim citizen), harms me".

Neither is a Muslim permitted to force a person to accept Islam. Allah (swt) says in the Qur'an: "Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from error: whoever rejects Taghut and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things." [TMQ Al-Baqarah: 256]

"Say, 'This is my way: I call to Allah with sure knowledge, I and whosoever follows me. And Glorified and Exalted is Allah. And I am not of the Mushrikeen (polytheist)" [TMQ Yusuf: 108]

A Muslim needs to refute false beliefs with evidence and prove the correctness of Islam through convincing argument and the power for intellect. For example, at the time of the Prophet (pbuh) the Quraysh held a firm conviction in the idea that having a daughter was a bad omen. The Prophet (pbuh) refuted this argument by illustrating the contradictions within their own actions. He (pbuh) argued, why was it that they were above having daughters yet they created idols with their own hands and described them as the daughters of Allah (swt). The Prophet (pbuh) asked if the Quraysh thought they were better than the God they worshipped. In this way, the incorrectness of the Qurayshi belief was highlighted without resorting to abuse or ridicule.

The way to respond to Christmas
A Muslim should not be held ransom to participating in Christmas festivals on the basis of showing respect and tolerance. The mentality of the Muslims should be to politely explain to his colleagues or fellow pupils that Islam has its own festivals and celebrations and that a Muslim is not allowed to partake in any others.

Ultimately, the discussion should proceed to explaining that this is due to the belief in Allah (swt) and it is He (swt) that has decided the limits for the Muslim. Of course, the Muslim should be available to explain at any time the reasons as to why he believes in a Creator (swt) and in the Prophethood of Muhammad (pbuh).

Imitating the disbelievers in any of their religious affairs or in any gesture that distinguishes them as groups is forbidden. Al-Bukhari narrated in his Sahih that Abu Saeed Al-Khudri (ra) reported that Allah's Messenger (pbuh) said, "You will indeed follow the ways of those before you, hand span by hand span, and cubit by cubit even if they were to enter into a lizards hole, you will follow them." We asked 'is it the Jews and the Christians?' He (pbuh) replied, "Who else!"

This ahadith condemns imitating them. It is a proof for the prohibition of imitating the Jews and the Christians in their occasions, symbols, or any matter related to their belief. Hence, it is not allowed for a Muslim to give Christmas cards, wish anyone a Merry Christmas, buy a Christmas tree or celebrate Christmas in any way.

As a Muslim, the Prophet (pbuh) brought guidance to us with regards to celebrating the festivals of other people. Islam defined for us which festivals the Muslims are allowed to celebrate.

It is reported that Anas bin Malik (ra) said:
When the Prophet (pbuh) came to Medina, the people had two holidays from the days of Jahiliyyah. He (pbuh) said, "When I came to you, you had two holidays, which you used to celebrate in Jahiliyyah. Allah has replaced them for you with better days, the days of slaughter (Adha) and the day of Fitr."

Also, Uqbah bin Amer (ra) reported that the Prophet (pbuh) said, "The day of Arafat and the day of slaughter and the days of Tashriq are our holidays, the people of Islam." [Imam Ahmad]

Thus we have not been given a licence to add to the two celebrations Islam gave us. The Prophet (pbuh) said, "Whoever brings something that is not from our affair, it is rejected." [Bukhari]

Mazhar Pathan
Source: Khilafah Magazine 2003

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