Copycats: Imitating Non-Muslims & their Festivals
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
Jazk’Allah Kahir for a very informative article. Does this apply to having a family get together on Christmas Day, due to the fact that everyone has a day off? This would therefore include making food i.e. turkey, chicken or Salmon, however not with the intention of celebrating a festival, but having members of a family together, which would usually be on Eid, but most people won’t take a day off on Eid, if it falls on a weekday?
JazakAllahkhair for the article.
I had the same question as Jonjo. Would really appreciate a reply.
Barakallahu fikum for your comments and questions Jonjo & Sofi. There is no problem in family gatherings at this time of the holiday season, provided the intention isn’t to honour Christmas in any form or fashion; but to keep ties of relations. As you quite rightly point out, Jonjo, such gatherings are convenient, since for so many, it is the only time of the year where everyone is off from school, uni or work all at the same time – something that is difficult to do at other times of the year, including the two Eids!
However, one avoids such food, drink and other matter that are associated with usual Christmas festivities. Halal turkey is fine during any times of the year; but given its particular association with Christmas, it’s best avoided around about this week.
There is a hadith which says that Shaytan has given up all hope of misguiding Muslims in big things, so be wary of following him in small things. No Muslim would celebrate Christmas as “the Word becoming Flesh” – naudho billah! But it’s tempting to put a tree in the corner of the room… where’s the harm?
In spite of the outward protests of being independently minded, the drive to conform is compelling, and people conform even when they “rebel”. Once the idea of letting pants hang half-way down ones buttocks was outrageous, now it’s fashionable. Fashion is driven by consumerism, and consumerism is a formidable force, especially among the young. And with the infantilisation of society it becomes easier for business to shape values and morals.
The insane commercialism of Christmas is a very recent phenomenon (business led) and one that is seductive. Muslims compare their Eids with Christmas and there is a sense of disappointment that the two do not nearly compare. The emotional tugs from children leave parents with a sense of guilt and confusion at not having a Christmas tree in the house.
Of course any opportunity to spend time with the family is welcome but Muslims need to be reminded about the limits and that change takes place by degrees. Just as water can erode and shape rock, so habits can change and corrode the heart and thus change whole civilisations. The family get-together over Christmas becomes a family dinner with turkey (well, if it’s available…); the crackers won’t be far off and then the presents will follow – and what’s the objection there? Didn’t the Prophet encourage us to give gifts?
The root of Eid is aad, I believe – to return; it is an event that returns, one that is marked regularly at set dates. Is it so very hard to imagine what will happen when children grow up having Christmas dinners? Is it so very difficult to see what our grand-children’s children will be doing at Christmas? Unless Muslims are reminded of who they are and how generations in the past lost their values and faith then the same fate awaits us.
I recall reading Jeffrey Lang’s “Struggling to Surrender” and a Muslim friend commented what a bad title that was; it made Islam sound like a struggle. Lang was spot on. Islam IS a struggle; a struggle against consumerism; a struggle to make our children see the beauty in this world and not be distracted by the tinsel on Santa’s Grotto; a struggle to explain that Christmas is not our Eid; a struggle to explain why a hoodie is not what a Muslim wears; a struggle to explain why certain music is not appropriate.
There is so much that is beautiful in Islam and so much that Muslims have to teach the world. While we should be teaching the world about the dangers of consumerism, infantilism and the rapacious exploitation of humans as well as the Earth, it’s a shame that we are the ones that seem to be most enthusiastic about these moral failings.
“Just as water can erode and shape rock, so habits can change and corrode the heart …” Barakallahu fikum for that valuable reminder.
We ask Allah to steer us and our children aright and that we be kept under His caring protection and grace. The influences and pressures to conform that now bear upon our children are immense indeed. Only with du’a to Allah can tides be turned.
Barakallahu fikum Irfan.
As-salaamu alaikum wa-Rahmatullah
Thank you for the timely and useful reminder. At this time of the year, the advice about imitating the festivals of non-Muslims is especially welcome and relevant.
About a week ago I met someone I had assumed to be a mature and practicing Muslim who asked in all seriousness “Do you keep a christmas tree in your house?”. I was taken aback and said no quite forthrightly. That must have embarrassed him because he became quite defensive and said “Oh, neither do I. But my young daughter keeps asking for one. And I have resisted – so far!”
The incident brought home to me the pressures many Muslims are now facing. And it’s not just the Muslims who live as minorities. Unfortunately the Western culture is so prevalent that Muslims in their own lands now feel the pressure to conform to all kinds of things that are inimical to Islam – clothes being a very conspicuous example.
About a year ago I heard a khutbah in which the khatib was trying to demonstrate that birthdays are not haram. I have my issues with birthdays but I wouldn’t go so far as to say they are haram. But I found the justification that the khatib gave very telling. “The Prophet commemorated his own birthday”, said the khatib, “because he said he fasted on Mondays because he was born on Monday”.
Consider this justification. The Prophet marked his birthday by fasting – and act of reflection, introspection, gratefulness and remembrance. An act that is private and does not require others to remember you on that day. And that private act of reflection was being used to justify the birthdays that are celebrated today – acts that are egoistic, involve feasting, self-regarding, expectation of others to remember that day, and often wasteful of precious resources. I have seen grown men become upset with family and friends because someone has forgotten a birthday.
As you say, we sometimes drag the sunnah down to our own selfish desires.
Jazak Allahu khayran for this.
It’s always a fascinating subject because I find a lot of its interpretation is subjective and not fixed such as the reference to the Jewish shawl.
I do wonder though, given that the litmus test is in it no longer signifying something religious or non muslim in nature- how exactly does one gauge this? Often people say urf but the problem in the UK is that we are of such a diverse range of backgrounds as British Muslims from 1st/2nd/3rd generation immigrant communities to a real mix of Arab, Asian, African origins as well as indigenous converts- what one may deem as still having certain religious or non muslim connotations, another may not. When testing the issue on urf of the people here- do people take the varying communities into account?
To add to that discussion, we also have secularism which has reduced everything to the lowest denominator like you said. This includes Christmas. Christmas for most people is about having a holiday, partying, giving gifts, watching TV, eating, drinking and just chilling- rather than attending Mass or any religious service.
Bearing that in mind, if one intends to wish another Merry Xmas or Season’s Greetings etc- how would the litmus test stand? Does it signify “we wish you a happy time celebrating your religion- or we wish you a happy holiday and chill?”
Another thing I noted was Sh Hamza Yusuf’s words:-
“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
I know you meant it in the context of tightness but the comment about jeans and T-shirt can come across as a little classist? It is not the material but rather the fit which is problematic and whilst in times gone by(for some) Jeans may have reflected rebel, shameless clothing, it certainly doesn’t now.
I really think we need to be careful not to conflate respectable clothing with that worn predominantly by people of certain social standings. Add to that- all levels of people can become victims to fashion and wage slaves to materialism/capitalism.
One other point- as wearing of trousers, skirts, ties, shirts, suits etc are now generic to both communities, surely there must have been some who were the initial adopters of “non muslim” attire and were they then at fault?
There has to have been some point where the item of clothing crossed boundaries in order for it to no longer be specific to non muslims, yet in what way was it permissible for the initial people to have adopted it?
There’s so much more that comes to mind regarding this topic.
May I ask- what exactly was the actual context of the hadith narrated?
Jazak Allahu khayran. 🙂
As for the first point, is Christmas still a religious festival (given its almost ubiquitous commercialisation and secularisation), the answer must certainly be a definite: ‘Yes!’ For hundreds of millions of people (out of the two billion Christians worldwide) Christmas may means consumerism, but it holds a deep religious significance too. That is enough of a litmus test and, I suspect, will continue to remain thus until Christ’s second coming.
I agree with the second point that discussing dress sense could become a bit classist. You are right, it’s less about the material and more about the tight fitting. Denims are, I think, no longer linked with a purely rebel image. The actual point of the shaykh, I imagine, was how Muslims have moved from something dignified and noble to its total opposite. I suppose if we were to imitate, why couldn’t it be the more worthier aspects of non-Muslim culture and lifestyle?
Thirdly, yes indeed. There was a time when the ‘ulema gave fatwas in Muslim majority countries that whoever wore such starched attire (shirt, tie & suit) has intentionally resembled them and has thus done something haram. There were even fatwas of kufr, because it showed an intent to cast off an Islamic lifestyle and adopt an unIslamic (invader) lifestyle. When did things change? Well there was no specific point in time; no boundary or barrier. It just gradually happened at different times in different regions of the Muslim world. Initially there was resistance, but by the time it looses its religious, transgressing or rebel significance, and more and more ‘descent’ or godly people adopt it, that tends to be the ‘line’.
There are still a few scholars and lay Muslims who frown upon such attire; considering it part of Western imitation. And that would be correct from the point of view of those who are raised in a very different social atmosphere and whose customs are radically different from that of the West’s. As for Muslims born and raised or socialised here: that is part of their custom and culture.
As I said to my daughter, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”. Then I asked her why and she replied, “It is because this is the month (i.e. Rabbi ul Awwal) that our Prophet came to us”.
Thank you Shaykh for another timely article.
And what a blessing his being sent to us was: allahumma salli wa sallim wa barik ‘ala sayyidina wa habibina wa nabiyyina muhammad wa alihi wa sahbihi ajma’in.
To argue that Christmas no longer holds any religious significance in today’s times is very naive. I live next door to a church and it is never busier than during Christmas and Easter. Furthermore although there is no doubt that the West in general has become more atheist in its beliefs, they represent only a small fraction of Christendom. But even then you only have to switch on the TV on Christmas morning to see the number of religious broadcasts from various Cathedrals around the UK. Around the world, hundreds of millions of Christians celebrate Christmas as a religious festival.
What does Christmas represent? Putting aside its pagan origins, Christmas represents the birth of the ‘begotten’ son of God. The emphasis is on begotten and I challenge any Muslim, after reading up the definition of begotten, to not be upset with this statement. But in all these discussions, no one has mentioned the Quran and what Allah says about this statement. 2 passages from the Quran stick out (although there are more). Firstly Surah al-Kahf, Allah says:
And to warn those who say, “Allâh has begotten a son ”
No knowledge have they of such a thing, nor had their fathers. Mighty is the word that comes out of their mouths . They utter nothing but a lie.
This statement is a clear lie as stated by the Lord of the Worlds, Our Creator, how can a Muslim celebrate a lie?
Then in Surah Maryam, Allah says:
And they say: “The Most Gracious (Allâh) has begotten a son.”
Indeed you have brought forth a terrible evil thing.
Whereby the heavens are almost torn, and the earth is split asunder, and the mountains fall in ruins,
That they ascribe a son to the Most Gracious (Allâh).
But it is not suitable for (the Majesty of) the Most Gracious that He should beget a son
There is none in the heavens and the earth but comes unto the Most Gracious (Allâh) as a slave.
The above verses need no explanation other than to add that this statement is so grievous to Allah that we would witness the greatest natural disaster the World has ever seen, had it not been for Allah’s patience and forbearance with the wrong doers.
As Muslims, we strongly believe in the freedom to practice religion. So we do not call for Christmas to be banned or any other foolish calls such as that. We are a minority religion living amongst many people of other faiths. Never before, on this scale, have we seen people of so many different faiths, living, working and worshiping side by side. It is paramount that we as Muslims understand how these interactions should be defined and managed. Knowledge is the key to success.
Jazakallahu khayran for that reminder.
the last comment by AJ gave me consolation as I realised, particularly this very evening, I have moved on somewhere else…….that ‘else’ will be realised as my journey of life continues……….
May that ‘else’ keep you connected to His blessed and holy Self. Life’s journey must surely have Him as its goal and end.
Asalam o alaikum,
What about Birthdays Shaykh as long as there are no celebrations but just wishing and exchanging gifts especially between husband and wife?
Wa alaykum as-salam wa rahmatullah.
Once upon a time there was no doubt that Muslims, living in majority Muslim countries, celebrating birthdays was not from their customs or societal conventions. Rather, it was imitation of non-Muslim culture. As such it was generally deemed thy scholars to be forbidden (haram).
As for Muslims raised in non-Muslim lands, where the custom is to celebrate birthdays, our scholars have taken one of three views:
1 – It is haram, because it is imitation. 2 – It is bid’ah because it is celebrating a yearly celebration other than the two Eids. 3 – It is permissible, if it is kept to just family and if it involves no extravagance nor any fanfare.
As for the first view, it has failed to take into consideration the custom of Western Muslims and has hinged a ruling on differences in custom – so it is incorrect.
The second view, that it is a bid‘ah, also seems to be wrong, since no one celebrates their birthday as an act of worship. So it cannot be a bid‘ah. Nonetheless, classical jurists differed about the celebration of ‘Atirah, a day of festivities having no religious overtones that the people of Madinah celebrated in Rajab and prior to the Prophetic Call. Some jurists permitted it after Islam, others, detested it or said it was abrogated by the two Eids. Thus birthdays, mother’s day, wedding anniversaries and other yearly celebrations – though not bid‘ah – would be detested according to an analogy of one scholarly view with ‘Atirah, or its permissibility cancelled by the the two Eid festivals.
The third view has as its basis that ‘Atirah, according to another scholarly view, was not forbidden nor detested, and nor abrogated; and also the juristic maxim that all worldly things are permissible, unless there is an evidence to forbid it. According to this juristic view, celebrating anniversaries and birthdays, etc., would be allowed – as long as they were not extravagant, flamboyant nor involve any religious overtones. The question to be asked by people who allow it is: will most people stick to the guidelines, or will it be a case of just throwing caution to the wind in this matter too?
And Allah knows best.
JazakAllah Khairan katheeran!