Q. Is the imitation of non-Muslims categorically prohibited in Islam? If so, wouldn’t that make the wearing of suites, trousers, shirts and ties impermissible? And given the current political climate, can or should Muslims partake in their religious festivities and celebrations?
A. The basis for such a viewpoint is taken from the Prophet’s statement ﷺ: ‘Whoever imitates a people is from them (man tashabbahu bi qawmin fa huwa minhum).’1 And yet not all forms of imitation, or tashabbuh, are forbidden in Islam. So in order to get to the nub of the matter, let us work through the issue piecemeal:
Firstly, the imitation that is forbidden is one that involves the intent to resemble non-Muslims, for no other reason than they are non-Muslims and that that is part of their lifestyle. Ibn Taymiyyah explained that, ‘Imitation is whenever an act is done merely because others have done so.’2 Also, it says in the Mawsu‘ah al-Fiqhiyyah: ‘Imitation in what isn’t blameworthy or what does not involve intent, isn’t a problem.’3 If anything, imitation accompanied by intent falls under the Quranic stricture: He among you who turns to them, is of them. [Qur’an 5:51]
Secondly, imitating non-Muslims in sartorial matters that are specific to their religion or religious traditions, like wearing a cross or a jewish skull cap, is also categorically forbidden (haram). Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani cites in his magisterial commentary to Sahih al-Bukhari about Anas seeing some people wearing a shawl-like garment; he censured them, saying: ‘They look just like the Jews of Khaybar.’ Ibn Hajr goes on to explain: ‘It would be correct to infer from this incident that such a shawl, during those times, was emblematic of the Jews. In our time, this is no longer the case and thus wearing it becomes part of what is generally permissible.’4
Thirdly, and what stems directly from the above: clothing which cease to be specific to the religious codes of non-Muslims become permissible. To again quote Ibn Hajr: ‘If we say that it [a red saddlecloth] is forbidden because of it being imitation of the non-Arabs, then this is a religious reason. But that was their distinguishing symbol at that time when they were disbelievers. Now that it has ceased to be particular to them, the notion no longer applies and hence it no longer remains disliked (makruh). And God knows best.’5
Fourthly, the rules with respect to being distinct from the non-Muslims are very much contextual, and are bound with time and place. Ibn Taymiyyah explained the point, thus: ‘The same holds true even for today. Were a Muslim to find himself in the Land of War (dar al-harb), or the Land of Unbelief (dar al-kufr) without there being actual war, he is no longer under the injunction to differ from them in their external modes of life, lest it should prove harmful. In fact, it might be recommended – incumbent, even – for a man to at times participate in their external modes of conduct if, in doing so, it will be in the interest of the faith: either to invite them to the religion, to learn about their internal matters so as to apprise the Muslims of them, to ward-off any harm they may be considering against Muslims, or other such goals … So conforming with, or differing from, them varies according to time and place.’6
Fifthly, if the above is grasped, then the matter of imitation or resemblance becomes clear. Sometimes it is forbidden; sometimes disliked; at other times simply permitted: indeed, in some pressing situations it may even be required. The wearing of jackets, trousers, shirts or ties, as well as other items of dress now common to Muslims and non-Muslims alike is, at the least, permitted. For they are neither specific to the non-Muslims, nor do they [any longer] hold any religious significance.
Sixthly, a brief word about Muslim men’s dress code. The Qur’an informs: O Children of Adam! We have sent down to you clothing to conceal your shame, and for adornment; but the clothing of piety, that is the best. [7:26] Woefully, the once dignified and modest dress sense of the Muslim male has taken quite a nose dive in recent times. Not too long ago, a Muslim man’s dress sense reflected the viceregal function of Man: modest, dignified, and devoid of ostentation, arrogance and extravagant self-indulgence. Our fiqh requires that a man cover, not just his awrah or “nakedness” (all that is between the navel and the knees), but his clothes must be loose enough so as not to reveal the contours or shape of his awrah too. But, says Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, loose fitting and modest clothing are now replaced ‘by jeans and t-shirts, clothes that reek of infidelity and shamelessness,’ causing Muslims to appear, not as khalifahs of the Earth, but as ‘wage-slaves’ of Western factories and fashions.8 For sure, our clothes needn’t be Arab or Pakistani garb; for the Sunnah inclines to some degree of acculturation. But if one is going to wear trousers that aren’t loose but tight, one wears a long jacket or shirt which permits the male awrah and its contours to be dutifully covered and concealed. We are to let the Sunnah help beautify our conduct, behaviour and appearance. Let the Sunnah raise us; let us not drag the Sunnah down to our own levels of mediocrity. Islamic dress may not be one monolithic phenomenon, but it does lay down clear-cut sartorial guidelines for both the genders.
Seventhly, the rationale behind the avoidance of imitation and of being distinct from non-Muslim is to avoid the dangers of assimilation whereby a Muslim’s faith, practice and moral probity could be compromised or impaired. Secular societies tend to have a marked proclivity for mediocrity; for dragging things down to their lowest common denominator. Believers, by contrast, are urged to live their lives by the benchmark of excellence: ‘Verily Allah prescribes excellence in all that you do,’ exhorts one famous hadith.7 Those Muslims born or raised in the West, well their challenge is to square maintaining their faith and identity as Muslims, while affirming the cultural norms that they have been socialised into. They are also duty bound not to portray Islam as something Arab or Asian, for example, and thus obscure its universal nature. Hence sometimes we need the courage to be distinct; at other times the courage to conform!
As for celebrating non-Muslim religious festivals, like Christmas, Easter or Diwali, Ibn Taymiyyah was asked about a Muslim who makes the food of Christians on Nayruz (Persian New Year) and on all their occasions such as Epiphany and other feast days, and who sells them things to help them celebrate their festivals. Is it permissible for the Muslims to do any of these things or not? His response:
‘Praise be to Allah. It is not permissible for Muslims to imitate them in any way that is distinct to their festivals, in terms of food, clothing, bathing, lighting fires, refraining from usual work or worship; and so on. Nor is it permissible to give a feast, exchange gifts, or sell things that help them to celebrate their festivals, or to let children and others play the games that are played on their festivals, or to adorn oneself or put up decorations. In general, [Muslims] are not permitted to single out the festivals of the non-Muslims for any of these rituals and customs. Rather, the day of their festivals is just an ordinary day for the Muslims, and they should not single it out for any activity that is part of what they do on these days.’9
1. Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.4031. Ibn Taymiyyah said, Iqtida al-Sirat al-Mustaqim (Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm, 2003), 163: ‘Its chain is excellent (jayyid).
2. Iqtida al-Sirat al-Mustaqim, 164. A point worth noting: ‘Resemblance devoid of any intent isn’t called ‘imitation’ as there is no actual resolve. But if there arises outward conformity with that of non-Muslims in some actions or appearance, then it becomes disliked (makruh), and being distinct becomes what is sought after. It doesn’t, though, reach the level of being forbidden.’ Al-Juday‘, al-Lihyah (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Rayyan, 2005), 196.
3. Mawsu‘ah al-Fiqhiyyah (Kuwait: Dhat al-Salasil, 1988), 12:7.
4. Fath al-Bari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1989, 10:337.
5. ibid., 10:376.
6. Iqtida al-Sirat al-Mustaqim, 282.
7. Muslim, no.1955.
8. Agenda to Change Our Condition (USA: Zaytuna Institute, 2001), vii.
9. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 25:329