Shaykh Bin Bayyah on Holidays Free of Religious Overtones

Shaykh 'Abdullah Bin Bayyah
Shaykh 'Abdullah Bin Bayyah
Shaykh 'Abdullah Bin Bayyah

The following is in regards to the permissibility of Muslims participating in cultural [not religious] holidays. There is much confusion on the part of many Muslims who, in substituting a heedless puritanical approach to religion, promulgate a theory that all celebrations outside of the 2 Eids are haram, making them not only impermissible, but punishable in the Here-After. Original post on Suhaib’s web site.

“The holidays which are forbidden [for Muslims] to observe are those with religious overtones [such as Christmas and Easter*] not the festive gatherings people observe due to certain events. Therefore, people are allowed to celebrate wedding anniversaries, birthdays or any occasion as such celebrations are not related to religious holidays. It is imperative that we work to remove the confusion surrounding this misunderstanding and the doubts that have affected many people [regarding this issue]. [Because of this misunderstanding] people find hardship and difficulty in their religion. Especially when a religious minded person holds [such non religious celebrations] to be from the major sins or rejected acts when, in fact, they are not.

Understanding An Important Legal Maxim [the origin of things is permissibility unless there is a text to the contrary]

The origin of things is permissibility so there is no problem with you attending such an event. The school of Ahmed [Hanabliah] allowed the celebration of al-’Atirah which was a sacrifice, during the month of Rajab, observed by the people who lived prior to the advent of the Prophet [may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him]. Although the school of Imam Malik [Malikis] considered it disliked, since it was a practice from those days, the school of Ahmed allowed this practice since there was no text [from the Qur’an, Sunna or Consensus] that explicitly forbade it. Thus, this practice remained upon its original ruling, permissibility [here the sheikh is showing us how the scholars utilized the legal maxim mentioned above]. So, if people gather together to sacrifice there is no objection for them to congregate, celebrate, enjoy themselves and commemorate the independence of their country. Therefore, there is no hardship in celebrating such occurrences.

With regards to the statement [of the Prophet may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him] that “Allah [The Exalted] has given you better than those (feasts): ‘Eid al-Adha (Sacrificing) and the ‘Eid al-Fitr“, then “those feasts” were those with strict religious over tones: one a Christian holiday and the other a pagan one. In addition, the Prophet [may the peace and blessing of Allah be upon him] mentioned that the Islamic holidays were two: ‘Eid al-Fitr and ‘Eid al-Adha. But it is not understood from this that he [may the peace and blessing of Allah be upon him] forbade people from gathering and celebrating [other non-religious occasions]. Even if a person considered [such gatherings] disliked there is no need for him to bother others by making things difficult that were not prohibited by the Qur’an, the Sunna, the consensus [of the scholars] and where no agreement was reached within the schools of Islamic law.

This is because ease in matters [such as these where there is no prohibition and the origin is that of permissibility] is a must, and those statements that create hardship and burden [related to such matters], that are not based on explicit texts [that prohibit them], are weak. Thus, there is nothing that prohibits us from facilitating such matters for the people and giving them some breathing room because ease and facilitation are from the foundations of Islam: Allah says, “And He did not make any hardship for you in religion.” [Surah al-Hajj: 78] and “Allah wants to lighten your burdens.” [Surah al-Nisa28] and “Verily, with hardship there is ease. Verily with hardship there is ease.” [Surah al-Sharh5-6]. The Prophet [may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him] said, “Facilitate [things] and do not make things difficult. Give glad tidings, and do not cause others to flee.” In closing, we reiterate that the foundation of Islam is ease and the independent interpretation of the legal sources [ijtihad of scholars] is respected but is not [equal to] texts from the Shari’ah [Qur’an and Sunna].”

May peace be upon you
Dr. Abdullah Bin Bayyah

An American Muslim In Post-Christendom

As of late I have been given over to thoughts pertaining to Christianity and Christendom [definitions forthcoming] and how it has affected myself as well as society, in my opinion, on such topics as cosmology, God-concept and how we think about religion as a whole. These thoughts come from my thirty four years, sans three of four years of early childhood, in observance of how I have come to think of God as well as the many interactions and reactions that I have witnessed people have when conversing about God and religion.

First, I should introduce the notion of Christianity and Christendom as two very separate and distinct entities. One does not equate the other. In fact, I hope to point out some similarities between the evolution of Christendom out of Christianity and such neologisms as Islamic this or Islamic that [especially things like “Islamic society”, etc]. Recent research into early Christian Gnostic literature has shed an amazing amount of light on early notions of what constituted Christian belief, both in terms of exegesis and practice. This bears a striking resemblance to early Muslim thought regarding creed and practice as well. They both share a commonality that can best be summed up as “agree to disagree”. In other words, there was no single, overriding authority that could claim a hegemonic orthodoxy and excommunicate others as heretical. How funny it is that we should be living at a time when such early questions should come around again – what remains is how will we answer them. Shall we answer them as the Early Communities did, fostering a real sense of diversity or inclusion, or give way to narrow-minded viewpoints [yes, I am avoiding fundamentalist here as I believe this word has been striped of any linguistic meaning given the media’s indulgent misuse of it]. Time will tell.

Like it or not, many of us here in America, and certainly in Europe, have gown up in the shadow of Christendom. Much of our understanding of God and religion has come from what we have absorbed passively from this environment. Like a sponge, we soaked up what lay around us, not giving too much thought as to whether it was worth digesting or not. This should not be thought of as something base or vile but rather the function of culture. One of the primary functions of culture is that we don’t have to think, process, and answer every minute detail of our lives. It is always on auto pilot, filtering and processing all that we come into contact with, especially in our formative years. This cultural process is conceptual as well as highly iconic and visual. For example, whether many people believe it or not, the classic Italian paintings that depict God as an old white man in the clouds reaching down to Adam has been exceeding potent in informing many of us on our visualization of God. In fact, through many conversations with people who are atheists or non-religious, many of their verbal objections have included rejection of such “ridiculous notions”. But we should be careful to not cloud our judgment that what we see now in a sort post-Christendom should not be taken part and parcel for Christianity as a whole. This same cautioning should be applied to so-called Islamic or my preference, Muslim societies. History has proven to be a powerful matchmaker for politics and religion. Constantin’s embracing of Christianity as the imperial religion of the Roman empire was done so at the exclusion of many other teachings and interpretation’s Christianity. This process has been repeated time and again across the globe and throughout time and including almost all religious traditions.

It is certain, that in Europe, Christianity developed in a vary iconic manner; meaning that the visualization of God and the Bible affected religious thought – an affect that we have inherited right down to today. It has shaped and defined the conversation of God/religion in our socio-cultural context to an extent far greater than we are aware of. As church historian Hugh McLeod puts it, “most Christians learnt and practiced their faith in the context of ‘Christendom’”. McLeod continues, “That is, they lived in a society where there were close ties between the leaders of the church and those in positions of secular power, where the laws purported to be based on Christian principles, and where, apart from certain clearly defined outsider communities, every member of society was assumed to be a Christian.” [Caputo, John D. and Vattimo, Gianni. After the Death of God. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. Pg. 4.].

So why all this talk on Christianity from an American Muslim convert? Well, to be sure, these very same perceptions played a part in my own conversion to Islam, even if it were more passive than vehemently active. To be certain, I was not thinking about the Sistine Chapel when I wandered into the mosque one fateful day but nonetheless, such iconic renderings by Michelangelo impacted my choice to refute such concepts of an “old white man in the clouds”. And if I had these experiences I am bound to think others may have had them as well. Indeed, such “rejections” are not the domain of Muslim converts alone. I have had several conversations with other Christians who have sought out earlier renditions of Christ’s teachings that predate all of the great Italian painters. I have found their journey akin to many American Muslim converts who, usually attracted more to Sufi-style teachings, have looked to return to an early understanding of Islam, one that is uncluttered by the intervention of institutional authority, be it state sponsored or a school of thought that has wedded itself with a state supporter, much akin to the Constantinian edict which set up a particular interpretation of Christianity as the orthodoxy whilst banning others as heretical [it should be confused that I am against a school of thought in any way as I adhere to the Maliki school of Muslim thought]. In many ways, this process of establishing orthodoxy can be said to be the nemesis of modern day diversity. For in the face of orthodoxy, how can there be room for multiple, valid interpretations?

There is much talk these days about an Islamic reformation. That the Islamic world is in an upheaval and much like its Christian counterpart, all of this blood and conflict can be attributed to this transformation. While I do not find this opinion to be completely baseless I am critical of the thought of simply seeing the historical struggle of Muslim thought, growth, and development through the lens of Christianity. Indeed, I think much of the problem of misunderstanding Islam on the part of non-Muslims is this tendency to see Islam not for what it is but for how it is or isn’t Christianity. This misunderstanding can certainly be linked to the above mentioned issues such as iconic visualization and residual understanding of living in a post-Christendom society. I do believe that Muslims are in a state of flux and change. What seems to make this seem so dramatic is that Islam and Muslims have been thrust on to the world stage by process of media attention. The idea that Islam as a religion and Muslims as various people have been some sort of sleeping giant that has suddenly chosen to cease its slumber is as clumsy as it is unobservant. Modernity is a talented trickster and can often seem to pull rabbits out of our hats. To the contrary, Islam and Muslim thought have been in a constant historical flux since the death of the Prophet. This reformation is nothing new under the sun. Indeed, from Malaysia to Yemen. From the Xinjian province in China to Detroit Michigan, Muslims have not simply been victims of history but have been drivers of this vehicle as well. In this case, the tree does make a sound in the forest. The question is not where there is some one to see it fall but rather who do we give importance to as the observer. Spock’s comment to the marine biologist in Star Trek IV sums of the falling of the tree: when she asks how he knows if Gracie (the humpback whale) is pregnant. She insists, “Nobody knows that.” Spock’s reply was, “Gracie knows”.

Modern interfaith dialogs seem to be stagnated at a simple, “can’t we all just get along”. What seems sad to me is the great wealth of experience that other religious traditions have to offer. Much of the early Gnostic approaches bear a clear resemblance to much of what Dr. Sherman Jackson has oft-repeated in his many publications and speeches. That true diversity isn’t a clumsy redefining of diversity as uniformity but rather the real possibility of coexisting and even socially supporting theories that may seriously contradict one’s own core beliefs. It is my sincere hope that more American Muslims will turn their thoughts inward and reflect on our very unique and rich experiences growing up in a post-Christendom society. And that even though we’ve chosen another path to pleasing God, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. That there are still viable opportunities to engage other communities and to really add something meaningful to the social discussion on religion.

And God knows best.

Kafir – A Word Reexamined

If there is one primary characteristic that Modernity spells out to me, it is in the way in which certain schools of thought or groups of people, who deemed antagonistic or undesirable, are cast, part and parcel, as barbaric and backwards. The underlined point in this type of casting is that the target group has always been so. Modernity, in all of its technological advancements, falls short in analytical thinking. Islam, as an example, a highly sophisticated entity (no different than any other religious tradition) is reduced to simple barbarism (as if it has always been so). Ironically, many Muslims have fallen pray to this line of thinking as well. Recently, I was reflecting on the user of the word, kafir, and how it is used and understood now, in this Modern context, and then how it was used and understood in contexts prior. And while I do not subscribe to the apologists’ theory that the word some how does not have any application for Modern Muslims, I do think there is a sincere and important need to revisit the history of this word in the Muslim tradition. Sample if you will, as articulated by Dr. Sherman Jackson:

“Premodern and even early modern jurists spoke quite casually of the “non-Muslim wife” [al-zawjah al-kafirah], the “non-Muslim mother” [al-umm al-kafirah], and “non-Muslim parents” [al-walidan al-kafiran] as human beings worthy of respect as such. For example, in Bulgat al-salik li agrab al-masalik ila madhhab al-imam Malik 2 vols. [Cairo: Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi, n.d.] — an authoritative Maliki text still used on the graduate level at al-Azhar seminary today — after indicating that a Muslim must be good to his parents regardless of their religion, al-Dardir [d. 1201/1786] writes, “and he should guide the blind parent, even if he or she is a kafir, to church, and deliver him or her thereto and provide him or her with money to spend during their holidays” [2: 523]. Also, the Maliki and Hanafi schools unanimously agreed that a non-Muslim mother [umm kafirah] had a primary right to custody of her Muslim children in cases of divorce from a Muslim husband, assuming that she would not attempt to steer the children away from Islam. […] It should be noted that the Maliki school bore the brunt of the atrocities inflicted by the Christians upon their expulsion of the Muslims from Spain and Sicily and the Hanafi school bore the brunt of the Mongol invasions. Still, these views on the non-Muslim relatives remain standard in the Maliki and Hanafi schools right down to the present day.

Essentially, in the Modern context, both used by Muslims and understood by non-Muslims, kafir has come to no longer be a religious term for those who are outside the belief-fold of Islam but rather a subset of humanity, unworthy of respect, completely devoid of value. In the Modern context, the kafir is someone who is rejected, not on moral or religious grounds, but some deeper, innate characteristic that is wholly incompatible with Islam. Sadly, this philosophy was common in much of the rejectionist rhetoric I heard as a young Muslim in the Blackamerican community as well as the need-to-dominate propaganda I head from immigrant Muslims. This is completely inconsistent with the view of many of the jurists and great personalities from Islam’s past that Modern Muslims evoke! When one examines this, the [hostile and unfortunate] nature of relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims becomes more clear. Does this mean that the word kafir has no place in Islam today? I would argue it certainly does have a place but it should have nothing to due with placing or determining “human value”. Instead, as it has been understood in times past, it is merely a demarcation, signifying someone who is outside the religious fold of Islam. And as in a recent conversation with a non-Muslim, who stated, “this is the problem with Islam”, in that as long as Muslims see the world in a Muslim/non-Muslim dichotomy, then we will inevitably have this issue. My rebuttal to her was to quite frankly, “grow up”. There is no reason why I should be forced to not recognize those who are outside of my religious fold whilst still keeping good relationships with them. To claim that I have to make up my mind, to either jettison the word [and join the rest of the “reformist” Muslims who would just as soon sell the religion for a chance to gain the approving nod of the dominant culture] or use the word in its current state, dehumanizing all those who fall outside the classification as Muslims, is erroneous and childish. Life is not a true or false exam – I will make my own choices and operate by my own rationals, thank you very much. In truth, this classification, kafir, would apply in my case with many members of my family and even friends – it is no way a classification of their worth as human beings.

And God knows best.

Also see Mu’min and Kafir – Negotiating Shared Space.