* This answer was kindly provided by Idris Tawfiq, a British writer who became Muslim a few years ago. Previously, he was head of religious education in different schools in the United Kingdom. Before embracing Islam, he was a Roman Catholic priest. He now lives in Egypt.
Thank you very much for your question. It is something which many Muslims ask themselves at this time of year. In answering it, we need to understand what Christmas is about and we need to know where we, as Muslims, stand towards others who celebrate it.
I, personally, have not the least problem in wishing anyone a Merry Christmas, although I would seldom do so, but let us look at the matter first, before drawing a conclusion.
In terms of celebrating feasts, it seems to me that Muslims have got the balance right. Celebrating the two great feasts, `Eid Al-Fitr and `Eid Al-Adha, means first of all going to the mosque early in the morning on the day of the feast for the `Eid prayers. "Allahu Akbar," the imam begins, "God is the Greatest."
When the prayers are finished, the assembled community disperses and everyone goes home to celebrate the rest of the day with the family. A lavish meal, if they can afford it, and new clothes for the children. That is the essence of a Muslim feast.
Christmas, on the other hand, celebrated in December, is surrounded by so much media hype that many of the shops have begun to display their Christmas range from as early as October. After three months of "jingle bells," shoppers have had enough!
The pressure on parents each year to buy bigger and better toys for their children is so great. Many have to borrow money to cope with the financial burden Christmas brings. Similarly, even devout Christians find it a scandal that obscene amounts of money are spent on food, drink, and Christmas decorations when millions in the world are starving.
What, then, is Christmas about? The actual feast of Christmas, celebrated on December 25 by most Christians and on January 7 by the Orthodox, remembers the birth of Jesus (peace be upon him). In ancient times, December 25 was a feast of the pagan sun god, celebrated in Europe in the depths of winter to give hope that the cold, dark days of December would soon pass. The Churches took over this date, although nowhere is it actually recorded when Jesus was born.
The feast celebrates the belief that God sent His son into the world to redeem it from the Original Sin of Adam and Eve, and Christmas is the time when Jesus was born. That, in a nutshell, is what Christmas means. Whether any of the people staggering around the streets drunk know this, is another matter. Whether the shoppers, frantically clamoring for gifts of any kind to give to relatives they hardly know, understand that this is what they are celebrating is doubtful.
Most of the countries of Europe are nominally Christian and their predominant tradition is a Christian one. Christmas, as a traditional part of European and North American culture, is celebrated one way or another by almost everyone in these countries, whether or not they are church-goers or even believe in God.
During the Middle Ages, almost everyone went to church. Nowadays, the majority do not. Nonetheless, Christmas has remained very much a part of these societies. For most people, it has become a time to celebrate the love of family and friends and to look back with fondness at happy memories of childhood and to a time when people did, perhaps, pray and have some belief in its power. This is one group.
The other group who celebrate Christmas are devout Christian believers. For them it is a religious feast at the heart of their faith. The most important part of the celebration for them is not the turkey or the mince pies, but the religious service. Unfortunately for them, though, they are very much in a minority, and their feast has been robbed from them by the salesmen and the media.
Where, then, do Muslims stand in all of this? Clearly, as Muslims we do not believe that Jesus was God's son, so there is nothing for us to celebrate. That's why Christmas plays no part at all in the Muslim calendar.
In Muslim countries, for example, all the shops will be open as normal on 25 December and the majority of people, going about their everyday business, would not even realize that this day is called Christmas Day at all. Their lives would go on without any of the fuss associated with this day elsewhere in the world. For this reason, Muslims would not decorate their homes, schools, or offices with Christmas trees or fairy lights or hang cards around the walls. Nor would they send cards to everyone they know, wishing them a Merry Christmas.
There is yet another consideration, though, which is important at the present time. In many countries, Muslims are at present under attack, either physically or psychologically. Made to take the blame for terrorism, ordinary Muslims are pointed at with suspicion, and their real motives towards their country are questioned.
In such an atmosphere, there may be some who wish us a "Merry Christmas," not out of goodwill, but to provoke an argument or to embarrass us into making a response we are not comfortable with. In such a situation, we can politely decline to take the bait.
Muslims, however, are most respectful of what others believe and wish to live on friendly terms with all their neighbors, whether they are Muslim or not. In this context, returning the Christmas greetings of non-Muslim friends does not present us with a problem.
Obviously, if we sent a card, it would not be a religious card with Christian symbols, but rather some other symbol of the festive season. If the people we are responding to are devout believers in the Christmas message, we might send a greeting that says something like, "May God bless you all as you celebrate your feast," out of respect for their religious belief.
If they are, like the vast majority, simply celebrating what has become an important social occasion, we can respond to a well-intentioned greeting with a card that says something like "Compliments of the season" or "Greetings," since neither they nor we are celebrating the religious festival.
In such a context, even a card with a picture of a tree or some mistletoe or a robin red-breast, and the greeting "Merry Christmas" is not really a problem for either of us.
Going for drinks in the pub to celebrate is clearly out of the question. Going to parties where alcohol is being consumed is not how Muslims behave. However, if our non-Muslim neighbors invite us into their house for a piece of Christmas cake or a mince pie, we can accept their invitation.
Christmas should not be allowed to become a time where Muslims are being singled out as being unfriendly or not a part of the community. Indeed, we should be seen by our neighbors as full of fun and quite comfortable living with them. Let us not forget, though, to invite those same people to join us in our own homes at the time of the `Eid or to join us for iftar during Ramadan.
Showing our non-Muslim friends that Islam is a religion of peace and that we are peaceful and kind people is, indeed, at the heart of how we should behave. Peaceful and kind does not, of course, mean weak. We are not offering Christmas greetings out of weakness because we are in a minority. No, our greetings to our neighbors come from a strong and proud faith that we are called to be Muslim.
Our actions throughout the year, not just at Christmas time, should show how good Muslims behave and how we are faithful to prayer and dedicate all things to the Mercy of Almighty Allah. Indeed, Christmas time is actually a time for da`wah.
In a world which has lost all sense of God and which turns to alcohol and consumerism to drown its sorrows, we can show that there is a better way and that the way for all mankind to experience peace is not by kissing under the mistletoe or visiting Santa Claus in his Grotto, but by embracing Islam. In sha' Allah, even Christmas is a time for us to tell others about Islam.
I hope this answer is of help. Please keep in touch.