I have repeatedly been asked about the permissibility of accepting Christmas presents and Christmas cards; for some the enquiry might be unwarranted, but others remain unsure whether it is tantamount to celebrating the religious basis of Christmas and inadvertently supporting the belief that Jesus is the Son of God. In the majority of circumstances these presents take the form of gift bags or hampers distributed at work. Occasionally, such gifts are presented by work colleagues or friends, with Christmas cards a widespread custom in nearly all settings.
Based on the various narrations that typify the attitude of the prophetic companions (sahabah) towards receiving gifts on the occasion of non-Islamic festivals, as well as the case that accepting a Christmas present, or card, cannot reasonably be held as venerating non-Islamic religious symbols (sha’irah) or supporting unbelief:
- It is perfectly permissible to accept Christmas presents or Christmas cards, and should be done so with a show of gratitude towards the giver’s generosity.
- Believers ought not to offer gifts for the occasion of Christmas. However, in general it is encouraged for British Muslims to present non-Muslim friends and colleagues with gifts, and more so on both Eids, so that we may express social commonality and goodwill with fellow citizens.
Some scholars, from various denominations, are of the view that it is not permitted to accept Christmas cards or presents. Although there are a number of arguments they posit in support of this opinion, all seem to be based around the view that to accept a gift is to venerate the occasion, or to support the erroneous claim disbelievers make about Christ. Interestingly however, many medieval Islamic jurists, and those often cited by such scholars, held no such qualms with accepting presents on Christmas (or its like).
In general, there exists no impediment in accepting presents from non-Muslims. Imam al-Bukhari relates, at the beginning of the chapter: accepting gifts from pagans, that the Prophet Abraham and his wife Sara were presented with Hagar by the Egyptian king; and the Prophet Muhammad accepted gifts from the King of Ailah, al-Muqawqis the Patriarch of Alexandria, and a Jewish woman. Given this to be the norm, the ruling on Christmas presents is not about accepting a present in itself but how accepting it will be perceived. Not only is gauging perception a tricky issue but we need to ascertain who we are actually concerned with when attempting to determine how the acceptance of a Christmas present will be regarded. Given that such matters are a societal affair, it is primarily the perceptions of society that we are addressing, attempting to mitigate the possible misunderstanding that believers affirm the birth of God, or that the Most High begot a son, all the while without seeming belligerent or pugnacious on a matter that is connected but different (i.e. the notion of accepting a gift). Thus it is incorrect to approach the issue with the sentiment that ‘in my view it is veneration’, but instead it should be: ‘in my opinion, society and those involved view it as…’
The attitudes engendered by the Prophet’s companions strongly suggest that receiving a Christmas gift is not deemed to be consenting to unbelief or aiding the cause of shirk. The famed Hanbali scholar, Taqi’din b. Taymiyyah stressed its permissibility in Iqtida as-Sirat al-Mustaqim relating the opinion to Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal and offering the following points:
- Ali b. Abi Talib, the celebrated prophetic companion and fourth righteous caliph, accepted the gifts of a Zoroastrian on Nowruz.
- Both Ibn Jarir al-Tabari and Ibn Abi Shaybah reported that Lady A’ishah, the wife of the Prophet, said of presents offered by Zoroastrians on Nowruz: “Do not eat what has been slaughtered for that day, but eat from their plants.”
- Ibn Abi Shaybah also reported by way of Waki’ that the prophetic companion Abu Barzah lived among Zoroastrians who would kindly present his family with foodstuff on Nowruz and the Gahambars, and would say to his family, “Eat what are from plants, but return that which is something else (i.e. meat).”
In countering linear reasoning we might recognise that receiving a gift takes on a passive tone rather than an affirmative one; and in nearly all circumstances it is a show of appreciation towards a person’s generosity and kindness. God intimates, “Allah does not forbid you, in regards to those who do not fight you over your faith, nor drive you out of your homes that you are good to them, and maintain equity towards them, for God loves those who are just.” (Quran 60:8)
Inevitably, interlocutors will argue that an individual’s view of public perception is subjective, and indeed it is, often based on the experiences of those articulating their opinions. The uncomfortable question then arises at this juncture: are the opinions of such scholars the product of direct experiences or merely those formulated as observers? Furthermore, in order to get around such subjectivity we should also consider another measure that functions as the consequence of a Muslim venerating Christmas: does the acceptance of a present promote the religious festival? Clearly the Prophet’s companions thought not, and after citing the narrations above, Ibn Taymiyyah continued: “all of these indicate that celebrations or festivals play no part in prohibiting the acceptance of gifts. In fact, the ruling for gifts pertaining to religious festivals remains the same as the ruling pertaining to accepting gifts on any other occasion, since the acceptance of gifts cannot be considered assisting in the promotion of their religious markers (sha’air).”
But what about the perception amongst believers?
The question suggests that accepting Christmas presents will lead believers to assume that venerating the alleged birth of God is not a problem. But just as we inform believers of the permissibility of accepting Christmas presents why must we stop there instead of clarifying the entire matter by simultaneously informing them of their aqidah. In this way we cannot conclude that the act of showing appreciation for gifts with lead to approving shirk – linear thinking has been the cause of all sorts of problems for western Muslims, and the profuse misapplication of sad al-dhari’ah by some, where we prohibit what is permissible due to a supposed causal link, has resulted in illegitimate restrictions and an inconsistent application of divine law.
So when exactly do gifts become affirmative?
It is in the act of presenting a gift that a point is primarily made; at celebrations such as births and weddings it is a show of delight and goodwill, an affirmation of the auspicious nature of the event. It is for this reason that the majority of jurists held it impermissible to offer gifts for non-Islamic religious festivals. For example:
- in al-Iqna the Damascene Hanbali jurist, Musa b. Ahmad al-Hajjawi, expressed an aversion to presenting Christians with gifts on Christmas;
- similar sentiment was expressed by Ibn al-Qasim, the student of Imam Malik b. Anas, as reported by the Spanish Maliki jurist Shams’din al-Mawwaq in his commentary on the Mukhtasar Khalil;
- the eminent Somali Hanafi jurist and theologian, Uthman b. Ali al-Zayla’i wrote in his commentary on Kanz al-Daqa’iq: “to give in the name of Nowruz or the Gahambars is impermissible.”
But that is not to say that gifts to non-Muslims remain, in the general, impermissible; what is clear is that the pronouncement of the tahrim (prohibition) was due to the inevitability of being conflated with religious approval. Beyond specific days, it is encouraged to present non-Muslim friends and colleagues with gifts, and perhaps even more so on both Eids, so that we too may express social commonality and goodwill with fellow citizens. Allah has ordained that it is in equity that the believer must deal “…that you are good to them, and maintain equity towards them, for God loves those who are just.” (Quran 60:8)
Other nuanced discussions
It is also noted that many queries stem from ambiguities on the secular aspects of Christmas, with believers wanting to engage with society meaningfully whilst compliant with the will of God. What remains important for the scholar is to conceptualise the issue accurately. For example, some of the questions received have been pertaining to gifts presented at the end of the year before the Christmas break up, such as a company distributing hampers or gifts bags, or arranging a dinner. Typically, much of all of this has little to do with Christmas day, not only does it take place in advance but tends to be an end-of-year practice rather than pertaining to actual religious festivities (note that it is not repeated at Easter). The confusion stems from the case that events pertaining to the end of the year coalesce with the Christmas season; and where a situation relates to the end of the year rather than Christmas itself any discussion on veneration or support ofsha’air becomes moot. In this way, there are many other masa’il that require nuanced and astute deliberations.
I am frequently asked about numerous matters that pertain to this time of the year, many are specific issues with numerous variables to consider. Although it is understandable that believers require guidance and rather admirable that they exhibit a commitment to the shari’ah, it is typically the case with ifta’, that is the act of issuing legal verdicts, that muftis respond to specific issues and often need to probe the questioner (mustafti) to conceptualise the crux of the matter, and so, in most instances general counsel on a whole host of masa’il remains inappropriate.
All praise is for the Most Wise, and He alone knows all.
Originally posted on nizami.co.uk: http://nizami.co.uk/permissible-accept-christmas-presents/