This article originally appeared in ImanWire
One of the yearly rituals our Muslim community engages in is the debate about whether it is permissible for one to wish a Merry Christmas to Christians or not. What follows is not to engage in the specifics of the debate. Of course this is another contentious issue in which Muslims form strong opinions on one way or another. However, it is nevertheless a matter in which scholars such as Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah have given a fatwa (Islamic legal ruling) on, decreeing that it is permissible to congratulate non-Muslims on their holidays and to even receive and give them gifts in return.
Some Muslims find it sad that such a fatwa is needed, claiming that it is a “small issue” and we have “bigger issues” to deal with. This is not to mention the discontentment of others who found it troubling that we need a fatwa to “be nice.”
What many have missed is that a fatwa decreeing it permissible to congratulate non-Muslims on their religious holidays is not about giving Muslims permission to practice basic human decency or to be nice. It is an evaluation of an action against the core values of Islam. It may outwardly seem to be a “small issue”, but it is on these small issues that principles at play become evident. In fact, the “big issues” are a manifestation of these principles on the grand scale. If we are not clear about our core values, solving “big issues” is pie in the sky.
The offence taken from this fatwa is an offence taken from its attack against a presumption in the modern world’s human experience: that you should be able to do whatever you want to do, whenever you want to do it, and the only accountability acknowledged, albeit unconsciously, is to cultural norms. But to relegate all moral judgments to social conventions is to fall into the abyss of unchecked relativism.
To illustrate the point of this fatwa we need to engage in a thought experiment. A thought experiment is a commonly used exercise of imagination to ascertain the true nature of things or the basis of an argument. The following is one such experiment to examine whether “being nice” is a foundational moral principle from an Islamic perspective.
Imagine you decide to open up a clothing store as a new business in which you have put all your life’s savings and knowledge into. On opening day you have family congratulate you. Rightfully, you would expect your best friend to also come and congratulate on the big event. A year later your best friend also decides to open up a store. It naturally follows that you also are expected to come on opening day and congratulate them. It is the Golden Rule in action: do unto others as you want done unto you.
However, what if your best friend’s store happened to be in the business of selling pornography and liquor? Would you have the same response as if it was a clothing store? Based on conventional Western “human decency” it would be considered “nice” to congratulate your friend and wish them well and quite rude to not say anything let alone even advise your friend to shut this business down, which in that case would be considered “crossing the line”.
This thought experiment illustrates a point. It is that “being nice” is not really a foundational moral principle. It is a virtue nonetheless, but it is not a moral principle that governs interactions with others. “Being nice” is governed by the individual’s core values, which means there are circumstances when “being nice” is restricted if it contradicts with one’s principles. The fatwa on the permissibility of congratulating non-Muslims on their religious holidays is not a fatwa about “being nice”. It is about whether the current customary convention declaring a particular action as “nice” is congruent with an understanding of an objective source of values, i.e., the Quran and Prophetic Tradition (Sunnah).
In the Quran is a verse stating, “So as a person of pure faith, stand firm and true in your devotion to the religion. This is the Fitra (natural disposition) God instilled in mankind – there is no altering God’s creation – and this is the right religion, though most people do not realize it.” [30:30] The Beloved Muhammad ﷺ is reported to have said that every newborn is born upon the Fitra, i.e., a natural disposition towards what is good and what is true. It is then the parents, or in a broader sense the culture, that can shape one’s beliefs and opinions, which may not necessarily coincide with the Fitra.
Discernment between the Fitra and the culture requires deep knowledge and contemplation.Cultural forces in the modern world have been given unprecedented power through technology and mass communication, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to get in touch with their Fitra. This is especially so in the context of social media, which feeds narcissistic tendencies and exerts enormous pressure on people to conform as they often unconsciously do to trends, whether they are good or bad, just so they are not turned into outcasts. This is evident in the way an increasing number of Muslims are now celebrating Christmas.
The fatwa from Shaykh Bin Bayyah also illustrates another aspect of Islam. In his text I’lam al-Muwaqi’een ‘An Rabbil’Aalameen Imam Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya states in a section where he addresses how fatwas can change based on place, time, intention, and custom, that “The Sharia is built and found upon the benefits of people in this life and the next, and it is all justice, all mercy, all benefits, and all wisdom. Every ruling that goes from justice to tyranny, from mercy to its opposite, from benefit to harm, and from wisdom to frivolity is not from the Sharia even if some attempt to make it so through [faulty] interpretation.”
Some Muslims have been quite dismissive of Shaykh Bin Bayyah’s fatwa, claiming that this is just “common sense” and we “do not need a fatwa for that.” In reality, common sense should be more accurately stated as “the current conventions and customary norms one is surrounded with and the emotional judgments that are rationalized to justify decisions made on particular issues”. Having a fatwa confirm a position a Muslim has already adopted is not a sign that it is not necessary. This is especially so in the case that when questioned to explain how this position was arrived at, most Muslims will not be able to provide an objective reason outside of their own biases and feelings.
One of the characteristic attributes of the human being is forgetfulness, which is one of the embedded meanings within the Arabic word for human, Insan. The functional role of Muslims scholars as mentioned in the Quran to synthesize the Quran and the Sunnah to gain an understanding of them, and to be a people of reminder. What Shaykh Bin Bayyah’s ruling here confirms is the harmony between the fatwa and the Fitra.