Many Muslims Ordered to Steer Clear of Christmas: ‘But You Can Say Happy New Year’

By Patrick Goodenough | January 4, 2013 | 4:46 AM EST

Saudi King Abdullah, seen here greeting a Vatican representative at a 2008 interfaith conference in Madrid, presides over a kingdom where no churches are allowed and leading clerics forbid Muslims to give Christians greetings to Christians. (AP Photo, File)

( – Muslims have mixed views about Jesus Christ, and the recent Christmas season witnessed a variety of responses to the celebration from different parts of the Islamic world.

In predominantly Sunni Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, the top Islamic authority instructed adherents this year not to attend Christmas functions or parties – and advised that they even avoid wishing anyone “Merry Christmas.”

“It’s still up for debate whether it’s halal [religiously permissible] or haram [prohibited], so better steer clear of it,” the Jakarta Post quoted Indonesian Council of Ulema chairman Ma’ruf Amin as saying. “But you can say ‘Happy New Year.’ ”

Mar’uf did say that Muslims should still respect the right of Christians to celebrate Christmas peacefully. Indonesia has a history of attacks against churches, and in its most recent report on international religious freedom, the State Department reported on continuing use of violence and intimidation by “hardline Muslim groups” to force churches to close.

In Saudi Arabia, religious police detained more than 40 people, almost all Christians, for “plotting to celebrate Christmas,” Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper reported.

The detentions occurred during a raid on a house in the north of the kingdom, where an event was being hosted by “an Asian diplomat,” it said, citing a statement from the police force, known formally as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

In a 2004 religious ruling or fatwa, a recently-deceased top Saudi cleric, Muhammad ibn al Uthaymeen, laid down the law on Christmas and New Year, telling Muslims the holidays “combine confusion, physical desires and falsehood, there is nothing in them that is of any religious benefit, and the instant gratification involved in them only ends up in pain.”

“The fact that the religion of the People of the Book [Christians and Jews] is tolerated does not mean that their festivals are approved of,” he wrote.

Uthaymeen said it was forbidden for Muslims to accept invitations to Christmas-related events, or themselves to have parties, exchange gifts or take time of work.

It was also haram to pass on Christmas greetings, he said, quoting a famous 14th century Sunni jurist as saying that doing so “is like congratulating someone for prostrating to the cross, or even worse than that. It is as great a sin as congratulating someone for drinking wine, or murdering someone, or having illicit sexual relations, and so on.”

Saudi Arabia does not permit churches to operate, and last year the kingdom’s foremost cleric, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh, said those churches that exist in neighboring Gulf states should be destroyed.

In contrast to the Christmas fretting in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, in Shi’ite Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad evidently had no problem congratulating Christians in a statement late last month on the “birth anniversary of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him).”

“I believe that the sole way to save the man from severe moral, social and cultural crises is returning to the exalted teachings of the great messengers of God,” he said.

In the Qur’an, many biblical figures are described as Muslim prophets, while especially exalted prophets are called “messengers of God,” and include Jesus, Mohammed and Elijah.

Muslims consider Jesus to be a “messenger” but do not recognize him as divine, or believe he was crucified (Qur’an 4:157).

The Qur’an acknowledges that Mary conceived without human intervention, but not because Jesus was God-made-flesh as Christians believe. (Qur’an 9:30 says those who believe Jesus is the Son of God are under Allah’s curse.)

Rather, Muslim scholars say the miracle of virgin birth was simply God’s will, just as it was to bring Adam, who is also regarded as a Muslim prophet, into existence without a mother or father.

The Qur’an says Mary gave birth under a date palm tree, which miraculously provided nourishment for her (Qur’an 19:22-26). Joseph is not mentioned.

Like Ahmadinejad, the Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist group Hezbollah sent a greeting “on this blessed occasion” of Christmas. Christians comprise a large minority in Lebanon.

Hezbollah also used the day to criticize Israel and the United States.

“The teachings of Jesus Christ – which inspire every philanthropist – contradict what the region is witnessing in terms of injustice affecting our Christian brethren in Palestine,” it said.

Hezbollah said Jesus’ birthplace, Bethlehem, “and all Palestine is still collapsing under the oppressive Israeli occupation, which is continuously supported by the arrogant forces, specifically the United States of America.”

‘Palestinian Jesus’

In the Palestinian territories, the celebration of Christmas was not shunned – it is an important time for tourism – but rather used by the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) to make political declarations.

Most of P.A. chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ 750-word Christmas message comprised criticism of Israel and Israeli policies, while in its Christmas greeting, the P.A. ministry of information equated the annunciation to Mary with last November’s United Nations vote to upgrade the Palestinians’ status.

The Christmas season also witnessed some repeating of the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s pronouncement that “Jesus was a Palestinian.” (Arafat called him “the first Palestinian fedayeen,” an Arabic term for militant or freedom fighter.)

Monitoring P.A. media over the past month, the Palestinian Media Watch organization reported finding several such statements:

--“Jesus is a Palestinian; the self-sacrificing Yasser Arafat is a Palestinian; Mahmoud Abbas, the messenger of peace on earth, is a Palestinian. How great is this nation of the holy Trinity!” – op-ed in the official P.A. daily, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida

--“The greatest Palestinian in history since Jesus is Yasser Arafat.” – Fatah Central Committee member Jibril Rajoub

--“We all have the right to be proud that Jesus is a Palestinian.” – Ramallah district governor Leila Ghannam

--“We can be proud, oh son of Mary, that you are the first Palestinian who redeemed mankind.” – Christmas Day editorial in Al-Hayat Al-Jadida

--“Jesus is a Palestinian par excellence.” – mufti of Jerusalem Sheikh Muhammad Hussein

“While Christian tradition and the historical writings of the period portray Jesus as a Jew living in the land of Judea/Israel, the P.A. consistently tells its people that they are the ones connected to Jesus,” wrote PMW director Itamar Marcus and analyst Nan Jacques Zilberdik.

“This is not only a distortion of Jesus’ personal history as reported in Christian writings, it is also an anachronism. The Romans changed the name of Judea/Israel to ‘Palestine’ in order to punish the Jewish nation after its unsuccessful rebellion, a full 136 years after the birth of Jesus.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow