Does New Year’s Have a Place in Islam?

Yesterday MuslimMatters published the article, “4 Reasons Why Muslims Should Not Celebrate New Years.” The author, Muhammad Wajid Akhter, does not claim to be an Islamic scholar and he does acknowledge that there is a difference of opinion about this even among scholars. However, he did have four reasons that I thought were worth considering, for those of us who are unsure about our obligations as Muslims in a non-Muslim world. (Obviously, if you live in a Muslim country, this won’t be as much of an issue.)

  • Reason Number One: It is technically inaccurate–and pagan.
  • Reason Number Two: What exactly is there to celebrate?
  • Reason Number Three: It usually involves un-Islamic practices.
  • Reason Number Four: It is against the spirit of Islam.

There are a lot of celebrations in the United States that are technically inaccurate. The Declaration of Independence wasn’t actually signed on the 4th of July, for instance. As for paganism, is a holiday pagan just because it doesn’t have its roots in Islam?

If those were the rules, then Muslims wouldn’t participate in any holidays except for the two Eids. There are those, of course, who think that we shouldn’t, but most Muslims at least recognize the existence of holidays that are civic rather then religious. After all, most of us live in civic, rather than religious, societies. (I prefer the word “civic” to “secular” because we are governed by a concern for the common good more than by a desire to be non-religious.)

As Muslims, we do have our own New Year to celebrate, but in non-Muslim societies life is arranged around other calendars, most notably the Gregorian calendar. We go to work and school and conduct our business according to that calendar. The Hijri calendar is invaluable to Muslims in the observance of our faith, but we cannot force non-Muslim societies to operate according to it.

New Year’s Eve and Day are traditionally set aside for celebration and for reflection. Not all celebrants go out to bars and drink. In my family, for instance, we spend New Year’s Day sharing a meal together, reminiscing about the year just past and sharing our hopes for the year to come. That could be done anytime, but New Year’s is the time when we are all reminded to do so. (Since my family is non-Muslim, I don’t expect them to observe the Islamic New Year.)

Holidays are there to make us stop and remember things we have decided, as a society, are important to remember. New Year’s reminds us that we made it through another year, which is no small thing in this day and age. It reminds us that we’re all in this together. And it reminds us that we have more life to look forward to, God willing. How does that go against the spirit of Islam?

Some Muslims are scared to acknowledge cultural traditions other than their own for fear that they will lose their Muslim identity. Well, I’ve got news for you: there’s a difference between culture and religion. Many things that Muslims observe as Islamic are actually cultural traditions that technically have no place in Islam as a religion. Being a Muslim is a state of one’s heart and soul, not a matter of language or food or local customs.

Many new Muslims are confused by the things born Muslims tell them they must do because they can’t see how they have anything to do with the observance of Islam. Because Islam developed in certain cultures, it’s hard to separate Allah’s requirements from people’s traditions. Too often, when a convert comes from a non-Muslim culture, he is made to feel inferior and in danger of going to Hell if he observes his own cultural traditions.

I’d like to make a case for new and born Muslims who find themselves in a non-Muslim culture to find ways to incorporate their faith into their daily lives. What’s wrong with celebrating the Gregorian New Year’s by going to the mosque and making special prayers for the world? Why can’t we get together with our families and friends and tell them that we value the life that Allah has given us?

There’s one more step that we could take to counterbalance the influence non-Muslim society has on Muslims: we can and should be putting more emphasis on our own New Year. Usually it comes and goes with no mention of it anywhere, sometimes barely even in the mosque.

There’s nothing wrong with what New Year’s stands for. It’s how we celebrate it that counts.

Can Muslims Celebrate Halloween?

October brings with it another problem for Muslims: Is it all right for us to celebrate Halloween?

On the blog GOATMILK, as part of its ongoing series of debates,  a guest blogger recently wrote an article about why Muslims should be allowed to practice Halloween. (See article here.) Basically her reasoning went like this:

Other cultural practices lack an Islamic origin or a pure history, but have permeated into the fabric of our lives, and have evolved to become part of mainstream Muslim culture, too, like engagement rings, white wedding dresses and even the Hajj. …

Halloween allows kids to participate in a larger community outside their homes and classrooms.  Think about how Muslim kids appear/feel when they are barred from partaking in Halloween activities. How would Muslims appear to the world if we shunned the Olympics? …

Halloween is a cultural tradition that should be as permissible and mainstream to American Muslims as sporting events or other cultural traditions here. …

I have a few problems with her premises. First of all, Halloween is not on the same par as the Olympics.

Although many Halloween customs have their origins in pagan rituals, the holiday itself was given a religious spin by the Christian Church. According to Wikipedia:

It was traditionally believed that the souls of the departed wandered the earth until All Saints’ Day, and All Hallows’ Eve provided one last chance for the dead to gain vengeance on their enemies before moving onto the next world. To avoid being recognized by a soul, Christians would wear masks and costumes to disguise themselves, following the lighted candles set by others to guide their travel for worship the next day.

Secondly, if we followed the author’s criteria, it would also be permissible to receive gifts from Santa Claus or participate in Easter egg hunts. Those practices have become secularized and commercialized, but they still have ties to religious doctrine. Giving gifts at Christmas is in imitation of the Three Wise Men who brought gifts to the baby Jesus; the egg is the symbol of new life, as in Jesus’ resurrection. To pretend that they are merely secular inventions is a way of kidding ourselves that there is no harm in observing them.

Thirdly, since when do we decide what practices are haram and halal by how much they alienate us from non-Muslims? By that reasoning, we shouldn’t wear Islamic clothing, or use Arabic phrases in our speech, or pray five times a day, or do any number of things that make us seem different from other Americans.

On the contrary, we should stand proud as Muslims and insist on our right to be considered American, too. What kind of country would this be if everyone had to be alike? And what are we teaching our children if we allow them to conform to the majority just to be accepted?

I’m not saying that I think we should avoid doing everything that is not distinctly Islamic. Even Muslims don’t agree about what exactly is halal and haram. But one thing we do agree on is that our religion is unique. People should be able to tell the difference between a Muslim and everyone else.