Converts and the Holidays: Maintaining the Ties of Kinship without Crossing Islamic Boundaries

Converts and the Holidays: Maintaining the Ties of Kinship without Crossing Islamic Boundaries

Written by Stephanie Siam

I remember as a kid sitting in my family’s living room:

memories
memories

All the lights off, all the sounds off, watching the lights on the Christmas tree move through their rotation of red … to blue … to green … to white … with the decorations glistening in the electric glow. And then they rotated to off. And for a moment I held my breath, waiting for them to come back on, bringing me out of darkness, into a room of warmth and color.

I remember the first Christmas after I converted to Islam:

I was conflicted about what to do. I lived in the same city as a lot of my extended family. My immediate family was driving to Mobile for the holidays. There was a schedule of who to visit and where to go in the short time they were to be in town. And nobody knew I was Muslim.

The holidays – especially Thanksgiving and Christmas – have always been a kind of family reunion for my mother’s side of our family. When my grandmother was still alive, the dinners and get-togethers always centered around her house. With my mother at her side, she crafted delicious meals and traditions that still hold a soft place in my heart.

After her death, these two occasions became even more important to my mother. She needed to continue the tradition. She needed to feel like nothing had changed. And I didn’t want to be the one to break her heart.

Still, everywhere I turned, all I heard was, “Haraam. Haraam. Christmas is haraam.”

Do not try this at home
Do not try this at home

Now, before you jump the gun and assume I’m proposing Muslims deck the halls with holly to have a merry little Christmas – hear me out.

It makes very little sense to me for Muslims born outside of countries that celebrate Christmas (or natural-born Muslims, for that matter) to participate in festivities that are foreign to them. For example, even though Kwanzaa and Hanukkah are observed in the United States by people of their respective heritage and traditions, not all Americans take part in celebrating these occasions.

And unless someone converted to the observing religion or became part of a family that practiced such traditions, most people would think it strange for a person to participate in a festival outside of their own religion or family/cultural tradition.

So, with that being said, it is easy to see why many scholars lay out the blanket “Christmas is haraam for Muslims” statement, especially those that have never been outside of their own countries or experienced multiculturalism in their own lives and families.

Some of these same scholars also say it is “haraam” for women to drive cars, air conditioners to be used in the absence of husbands at home, and a person to change his religion. However, there has been much research and discussion about all of these, and other scholars have permitted the same things that others forbid.

While I understand the basis for scholars to say Muslims shouldn’t celebrate Christmas and its traditions – the purpose of Christmas, the religious affiliations it has, and the consumerism it promotes – to issue an all-encompassing ruling that also cuts ties between Muslim converts and their Western families is dangerous.

Most people are well-aware that Christmas has long since left its original “adopted” purpose (the birth of Prophet Isa/Jesus [pbuh]) and become more of a secular winter festival celebrating snow, Santa Claus, and uncontrolled spending. Even if there are religious aspects of the holiday still observed by families, they hardly ever take place on the day of the celebrations – unless it falls on a Saturday/Sunday – and they are not usually at the forefront of the occasion.

The truth is, Christmas has become a secular, cultural tradition where families get together to socialize, eat and make memories.

family, food, and fun (or fights)
family, food, and fun (or fights)

Accordingly, many Muslims who converted from Christianity understand this. Many converts from other religions (or none of them) also get this picture. The ones who don’t seem to understand are the scholars issuing fatwas (religious rulings) on issues outside the scope of their culture or experiences.

Again, let me be clear:

I don’t think it is okay for Muslims (natural-born or converts) to go to church and praise services in celebration of Christmas. To attend Christmas mass, Christmas Eve prayers or take part in the Christmas cantatas (live depictions) of the Nativity (the Biblical account of Jesus’ birth) – no matter how much we Muslim ladies resemble the Virgin Mary – is not cool. Or Islamic. In fact, it’s probably bordering on shirk.

But there’s an issue that natural-born Muslims don’t understand – and quite often judge – about us converts. Despite adopting a new religion, embedding ourselves in foreign languages and cultures, and attempting to reconcile our previous lives with our new ones, we still have family members. We still have people that love us – or at the very least want to understand us.

And the beauty of Islam is that even though we’ve accepted this new way of life and worship, we aren’t supposed to cut ties with the ones who birthed us, raised us, supported us and loved us from the beginning.

OnIslam respondent Dr. Jamal Badawi, Member of the European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR) and the Fiqh Council of North America, explains:

Participating in the non-religious aspect of Christmas such as family reunion dinner or visitation is OK. Attempts should be made to avoid situations where alcoholic drinks are served on the same table. Kindness to parents and family without compromising one’s beliefs is an Islamic duty.

During socialization and whenever appropriate, one may share one’s thoughts [on religion] with them, preferably in answer to their questions or comments without being too argumentative.

In fact, in terms of greeting others and giving gifts: this is actually sunnah (actions recommended/practiced by Prophet Muhammad [saw]). No, I am not saying the Prophet (saw) brought Christmas gifts to his Christian neighbors. However, Allah (swt) does instruct us to return greetings to others in kind or better:

When you are greeted with a greeting, greet in return with what is better than it, or at least return it equally… (An-Nisa 4:86)

Additionally, the European Council for Fatwa and Research suggests this action becomes obligatory when non-Muslims congratulate Muslims on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr or Eid al-Adha. Therefore, if your neighbors customarily acknowledge you on your Islamic holidays, it is perfectly okay to wish them well on theirs in the spirit of maintaining community and friendship.

With regards to gifts, the ECFR explains:

There is also no objection to accepting gifts and presents from them, and to return their gifts in kind, on

I love a presie anytime of year!
I love a presie any time of year!

condition that these gifts are not unlawful in themselves, such as being alcohol or pork. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) accepted the gift of the King of Egypt and several others [. . .] .

Interestingly enough, the person who had the most influence (beyond Allah, alhumdulillah) in my conversion to Islam gave me a Christmas present the first year I knew her. I remember this action often, as it reminds me of how I was invited into Islam in a gentle, encouraging manner — the way we should bring others.

Finally, one of the first things Muslims learn as a child is the status of mothers in Islam. It does not differentiate between the religion of mothers; the only stipulation is the mother cannot enjoin the child to go against Allah. This means, while you must respect and obey your mother and father, you must also remain true to Islamic teachings.

If your parents are trying to force you to go to church with them, or to remove your hijab, or drink alcohol or eat pork, then you should certainly avoid these situations. But if your parents only want you around to visit with them, to share in memory-making as a family, to eat some yummy food and enjoy a nice cup of apple cider by the fireplace, why isn’t this okay?

Idris Tawfiq, in his article “Happy Holidays”, best expresses my sentiments when he says:

If we know in our hearts that we are not celebrating the religious side of the feast, perhaps even declaring this in our own du`aa’ [sic] on the morning of Christmas itself to reassure our newfound faith, we have nothing to fear by taking part in a celebration of family and friends.

Indeed, there are several varying opinions on this issue. I am not saying that one opinion is more correct than the other. However, when it comes to me, I take the side of strengthening the ties of kinship, showing my relatives the positives of Islam (such as generosity, kindness to family and respect for others’ opinions and faiths) and praying that one day, we can all celebrate Eid al-Fitr together. As Muslims, insha’Allah.

Note: My intention with this article is not to encourage Muslims to start decorating their houses with lights, putting up trees in their living rooms or singing Frosty the Snowman when the first snowfall comes. If anything good comes from this article, it is from Allah. And if anything wrong appears, it is from me. And I ask Allah to forgive me of any misunderstanding I have or cause.

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