Q: What is the ruling on celebrating secular Holidays such as Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, Birthdays, etc…?
A: There are two realities among Muslims that must be corrected if we are to properly integrate into society and develop a thriving Muslim community both uncompromisingly principled in faith and culturally relevant. The first is an attitude I refer to as the “Haram police”. This is where anything new, we don’t understand or is different than what we are used to is immediately suspect as forbidden in Islam. The second is the clash of civilizations mentality that our enemies really want us to embrace, but conflicts with the fundamental teachings of Islam.
The claims of prohibition are a result of misunderstanding new realities which leads to them is application of certain texts to different situations and people. The scholars who are ruling against secular holidays use a few texts to prove their case. One is that of imitating the disbelievers. The Prophet (PBUH) said, “Whoever imitates a people is counted as one among them.” (Abu Dawood 4031)
This Hadith cannot mean generality because the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was clearly an Arab throughout the many years that Muslims were a very small minority and he felt no need to dress, eat, talk and generally act different than the pagan Arabs. This Hadith is warning us in matters of religious distinction. Things which distinguish one to be a follower of a specific religion. I have heard scholars in the East mistakenly referring to America or Europe as Christian lands when in fact they are secular. These scholars make judgements about Westerners and the Western way of life as though it is “Christian” and from here they look at the practices coming from them as specifically Christian. So they are mistakenly assuming that all holidays in the west are Christian.
The idea of something being a secular holiday or perhaps better stated occasion is new. Historically empires and lands were ruled by a king or emperor who followed a religion and that was the religion of the state which effected the way of life in that state. So of course back then Holidays were religious in nature. This is not the case with the modern secular state.
The other reference used to prohibit celebrating secular holidays is the famous Hadith where the prophet (PBUH) told some children, “In the days of ignorance before you embraced Islam (when they were pagans), you had two days that you used to have fun and play in. God has replaced those with two days with better days than those; the day of breaking the fast and the day of sacrifice.” (Nasaii 1555)
This Hadith has been debated as to its legal implications. The wording – in your days of ignorance –is seen as related to religious rites of pre-Islamic paganism so many scholars understand this to be what the Hadith means by saying “replaced” since Islam replaced Paganism as the religion of these people. Many great scholars such as his eminence Sh. Abdullah bin Bayyah say it’s specific to religious holidays and not customary occasions. Also there is a debate if it was for prohibition, dislike or preference as we will see with another example in Al-Ateerah later.
Along the same line of thought is the claim that these things are religious innovations which have been strongly prohibited by the Prophet (PBUH). It is true that there is an Islamic legal maxim “Methods of worship must be established in scripture” there is also another maxim agreed upon by our scholars “Customary or cultural matters are generally considered permissible”. So as we have established the celebration of secular holidays are not acts of worship so are thus part of culture. Here the only way we could prohibit these things is if there is some text which clearly prohibits the act. The correct opinion is that the texts brought forth are not related to these holidays, but are properly used to prohibit celebrating religious holidays such as Christmas, Easter or Halloween.
In looking at this issue, we must acquaint ourselves with a common practice among the Arabs during the times of Jahiliyyah. According to the major Arabic dictionaries and historical encyclopedias, al-Ateerah was an occasion in which Arabs would slaughter animals during the first 10 days of Rajab seeking to fulfill their vows (al-nathr) and to receive the favor of their gods.(Fath al-Bari v. 9 pg. 682)
According to the well-established biography of the Prophet ﷺ, the Prophet ﷺ was guided to Islamicize this tradition.(Al-Mawsoo’ah al-Fiqhiyyah al-Kuwaitiyyah v.29 pg. 278)
In Islamicizing these traditions, the Muslims were commanded to slaughter in the name of Allah alone and give the meat to the poor, family and friends, just as we do for Eid al-Adha. The proof for this is in the hadith (narration) that states, “The Prophet was asked about al-Ateerah and he said it was haqq (a truth or a right).”(Ahmad 4/11) The Prophet ﷺ also said, “Indeed every year, each household is responsible for the slaughter of al-Udhiyyah and al-Ateerah.”(Al-Tirmidhi 1518) In the following set of authentic ahadith, the practice was allowed or seen as sunnah (established tradition of the Prophet ﷺ). Abu Razeen al-Uqaylee asked the Prophet ﷺ, “We used to slaughter animals in Rajab. We would eat from its meat and give it to those who came to us.” The Prophet ﷺ responded, “no problem” or “that’s fine.”(Nasa’ii 4244)
On the other hand, there is another authentic hadith that says, “No far and no Ateerah.” (Bukhari) To a layman, this seems to be a contradiction, but it is far from that. Imam Shafi’i and his students hold that this hadith combined with the aforementioned ahadith only abrogates the obligation of al-Ateerah. So their position is that al-Ateerah remains a sunnah and thus the meaning of the vague hadith is “No far or Ateerah is an obligation.” This was the position of Ibn Seereen and Imam Ahmad as well as many of the Scholars of Hadith.)Al-Majmoo’ 8/444(
Some Malikis, as noted by Ibn Rushd in al-Bidayah, took this hadith as a full abrogation, thus making it makrooh (disliked) to take part in al-Ateerah. Modern Saudi scholars have deemed it a full-abrogation thus making it prohibited. Al-Allamah ash-Shawkani disagreed with the Malikiyyah based upon solid usool (method used to derive fiqh). He said, in agreement with the Shafi’ee school, “In combining the hadith it must be said that the meaning is ‘there is no obligation of Far or Ateerah’ thus making it a sunnah which the Prophet ﷺ allowed. This can be the only opinion because we don’t know the exact chronological order of these texts except that they are all within the last couple years of the Prophet’s life… There is no doubt that the hadith ‘No Far and No Ateerah’ by itself indicates prohibition. That can’t be the case after we combine this hadith with the other ahadith and the fact that full abrogation cannot be established except with knowledge of the order of the statements or by a clear claim that it is abrogated.”(Nayl al-Awtaar2152-2157)
The majority of scholars from the Hanafi and Hanbali schools of thought said that this hadith came as an abrogation of the legislation of these practices as a sunnah, and thus it was replaced by al-Udhiyyah. They hold that this abrogation was not that of prohibition but rather that of negating it as an Islamic practice like the Udhiyyah, yet it still remains an acceptable and permissible customary act. (Al-Fiqh al-islamywaAdillatuh al-zuhaily v. 4 pg. 2746)
Ibn al-Qayyim said, “If it we gather these ahadith then we see that this hadith of abrogation is that of it being a sunnah (Islamic practice) without there being a prohibition or dislike in it. So if a person wanted to slaughter an animal in Rajab for whatever reason and he wanted to give the meat to the poor, then that would not be disliked.” (Awn al-Ma’boodvol. 7 pg. 382)
In conclusion, I stand with the renowned Shaikh Abdullah ibn Bayyah, by saying that according to these texts, there is nothing wrong with celebrating occasions and holidays which are customary and are not representing a certain religion. This is as long as Muslims conduct themselves in an Islamic manner and do not participate in acts that can lead to sinful behavior. For example for Muslims to get together on New Year’s Eve and await midnight while doing things permissible is no problem. On the other hand, attending parties where alcohol and illicit sexual relationships happen would be prohibited.
See Sh. Bin Bayyah’s Fatwa http://binbayyah.net/english/holidays-free-of-religious-overtones/