(Ustaz Zhulkeflee Hj Ismail response to a convert's question, which was published in "The Muslim Reader" - a quarterly magazine of MCAS (Muslim Converts Association of Singapore), Peng Geck Avenue)
In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful
I was told by a religious teacher that Muslims cannot participate at all in celebrations of the non-Muslims. Being a Chinese convert, this advice places me in a very difficult situation because it would imply that I have to cut myself off from all social functions involving my non-Muslim family.
Wouldn’t this confirm the notion that when a Chinese embraces Islam, he would become a Malay? When I tried to ask clarification as to whether I can participate in the coming Chinese New Year celebration, the answer was a blunt “NO! It is Haram to do so. Muslims cannot imitate non-Muslims in their customs! ” I suspect that this religious teacher’s view could be a personal opinion and regarding this time I am still unclear about my position as a Muslim who is a Chinese. Can I celebrate Chinese New Year, etc? What is your comment regarding this view?
I seek your kind attention on this and hope to receive an explanation of the Islamic
view on the matter.
Your brother in Islam,
Muhammad Faizal Tan
Brother Muhammad Faizal Tan,
Islamic rules (as to what is lawful or unlawful) should be based directly on clear principles found in the Quran and authentic Ahadith. In matters of interpretation of rules, there may be differing opinions of scholars. About whether a re-evaluation of the basis which they had reached their decisions on can still be made, refer to what Allah [the Glorious and Exalted] has said:
“…and if you are at variance over any matter, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you (truly) believe in Allah and the Last Day. This is best (for you) and best in the end.”
(Qur'an: Surah An-Nisa’ :4:59)
I beg to differ from the view held by that religious teacher mentioned by you because I have not come across a clear, explicit (i.e. without a need to interpret anymore) basis for this. Therefore, it is at best his own interpretation for which the basis for his decision is yet not known to me. Even then, I shall be happy to consider them if they are available. In studying the case for Muslim converts, the interpretations and application of any rulings must be taken into consideration the following Islamic principles:
- Preferring the easier way to that which is difficult in matters where it is not explicitly unlawful.“make it easy, do not make it difficult, convey glad tidings and do not cause them to run away”.- (Hadith of the Prophet s.a.w.)
- That a converts’ attitude and behaviour in life will directly influence his non-Muslim family’s view of the teaching of Islam. Therefore whatever advise given to convert must be accompanied with teaching him on the appropriate manner of how to explain them to the family, so that they do not misinterpret the converts’ action. The best advise is to remind the convert that whatever things they project in their life, it will be seen by his family as representing Islam. Therefore, their duty to explain the misconceptions about Islam is best done through their attitude and behaviour towards their family. They must strive to be better, than before they became Muslims.
“…that you might be witnesses to nations..”- (Qur'an: Surah Al-Baqarah: 2:143)
- A convert must not be allowed to neglect his obligations in his relationship to his family especially towards his parents; and it must be seen as a long-term strategy to win them over to Islam. There are some Muslims who advise converts to leave their family who are non-Muslims. Whatever may be the reason (right or wrong) this usually gave the convert the impression (and to some the excuse) that they can do away with all their family obligations. This possible reaction of certain converts must be kept in mind when advising them because it can be abused and harmful to the image of Islam.
“…and bear them (your parents) company in this world’s life with kindness..”- (Qur'an: Surah Luqman: 31:15)
- Any rites or practices which is directly linked to other religious beliefs or which is contrary to Islam is to be totally avoided. But, tolerance and the spirit of accommodating the various ethnicity and cultures have been one of the strength of Islam, leading to its rapid spread. Islam in fact encourages distinctness in ethnicity; unity of Faith amongst the diversity of race. Let us not forget the beautiful message to the mankind in the verse:
“ O Mankind! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and female, and We have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily the noblest of you in the sight of Allah is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, Allah is all-knowing.”- (Qur'an Al-Hujurat: 49: 13)
It is understandable for some amongst us, who wants the Muslim convert to assimilate into the Muslim community fast. But in most cases, we tend to adopt a simplistic but negative approach, which would lead to a total eradication of the converts’ own ethnicity. This may be the reason how the misconception that “Islam is a Malay religion” came about.
- In matters of the principle of faith and worship, there can be no compromise [except when one is compelled by physical harm or death, which comes under “Dwaruu-rah”]:
“Say: …..I do not worship that which you worship..” – (Qur'an: Al-Kaafirun: 109:2)
“(FA-MANDW-DWUR-RA) But if one is forced by necessity without willful disobedience, nor transgressing due limits- then is he guiltless for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.”—(Qur'an: Surah Al-Baqarah: 2:173)
With these preliminaries, let me respond to specific points raised in your question:
“Can a Muslim convert participate in the Chinese New Year celebration?”
Firstly, what is Chinese New Year? As I understand it, the Chinese follow a lunar calendar system except that it will be adjusted cyclically, to coincide with the solar system after a certain number of years. Unlike the Islamic lunar calendar, their calendar tries to ensure that the seasons will be somewhat fixed. In this system, the celebration of their new year is to usher in the “Spring” – [Chun] symbolically to represent the new birth after a long almost lifeless winter season. Indeed we can understand the rationale for their celebrating it. Chinese customs are inevitably linked to tradition and practice begun in China, which enjoys the four seasons (spring, summer, autumn, and winter), which perhaps many Malays might not be able to appreciate. Its origin, therefore, as I have been made to understand, is not linked to any religious belief (unlike Christmas which is linked to the Christian belief concerning the concept of salvation- birth of a “saviour”).
Being a Chinese, to participate in this New Year is not at all wrong, as this is part of culture as a Chinese. Except that in the celebration, as a Muslim, you must not imitate any of the rites or ceremony involving worship, nor accept certain superstitious belief connected with the New Year, which many Chinese believe in.
“What are your comments on the religious teacher’s ruling saying that it is forbidden?”
I am aware of some people’s concern that Muslims “cannot imitate non-Muslims”. The basis for this opinion seems to be a Hadith from the Prophet (pbuh):
MAN TA-SHAA-BAHA BI QAU-MIN FA-HUWA MIN HUM
Whosoever imitates [the way of] a people he becomes [included as] one of them. - (Hadith.)
The tendency for some people to be strict and literal in their interpretation of this Hadith could be the reason [or basis] for that religious teacher’s ruling. But let us not be parochial (narrow) and shallow in our understanding of this Hadith. We need to qualify the word ‘imitate”: what does the Prophet (pbuh) mean by this? Imitate what? Does it also mean therefore, that in our dressing, our use of materials, and the speech and language, the science and technology etc. we must not imitate any of them? Lest, we become one of them? Is the Muslim community a homogeneous and monolithic one projecting only what is familiarly Arab or familiarly Malay? And that they are to be rigidly different? Does Islam therefore close itself to all other (alienate) culture and customs? To strictly say that we cannot imitate any of the ways of the non-Muslim is surely inconsistent with the way of Islam. Islam regards learning from others as an important principle to Muslim growth. The concern here is for us not to be regarded as a non-Muslim, and therefore it relates to the matters of our faith or our practices connected to belief; to be careful of not compromising principles which we, as Muslims holds, which is distinct from unbelievers. There surely is a difference between what constitute a race and religion. Can a Chinese Muslim not retain his Chinese-ness, just as the Malay Muslim retains his Malay-ness, as long as they both remain Muslims? The multi-racial ness of Islamic community begun during the time of our Prophet (pbuh) where non-Arab companions were accorded names identifiable with their respective race viz. al-Farisi (the Persian), ar- Rumawi (the Roman), al-Habashi (the Abyssinian) etc. How can we deny the Chinese-ness of our convert brothers?! Our Chinese Muslim brothers belong to their community and there is wisdom in making their community realize that their being a Muslim does not take away their race because, too often, Islam is being regarded as a Malay religion. To think of it again, this Hadith is irrelevant to our converts, because they (racially) already belong to their racial group. What is the fear of them being categorized as Chinese? They are already Chinese! And a Chinese can still be a Muslim, can’t he?
Another probable reason is a Hadith where the Prophet (pbuh) said:
“ABDA-LAKU-MULLAA-HU BIHI -MAA KHAY-RAN MIN-HUMAA: YAUMA-AL-AD-HAA WA YAUMA-AL-FITR”
“Allah has changed for you better things than these two, [they are] the day of sacrifice and the day of Fitr”—(Hadith reported by Abu Dawuud)
The full context of this saying as reported by Anas [r.a.] was particularly referring to the two days, which the Medinan used to make merriment (play and celebration). When asked by the Messenger (pbuh) as to what these days are [all about]? They said that these two days are [called “Nauruj” & Meherjan”] which have been celebrating since the Days of Ignorance [i.e. before they became Muslims]. Then the Messenger (pbuh) responded with the above reply. Some interpret this to mean that therefore, any other forms of celebrations [observed before Islam] would be considered “Haram” (forbidden) for Muslims.
Other scholars, on the other hand, view this Hadith as showing how historically 'Eidul-Adha and 'Eidul-Fitr’ has replaced two previous celebrations among the Medinan; the Hadith does not indicate that every other forms of celebration is forbidden. Also it can be deduced that 'Eidul-Adha and 'Eidul-Fitr’ is much superior than any other celebration. And that celebrating it is sanction as a form of ‘Ibadat. (worship) by Islam. Any other celebration has not been sanctioned or regarded as a form of ‘Ibadat. Thus, it does not necessarily mean that there cannot be any other [non-‘ibadat] celebrations- only that whatever they are, it is significantly of lesser importance for Muslims. And for the Medinan specifically [because Allah intended them to be the model community] their two days of celebration has since then been changed to Eidul-Adha & Eidul-Fitr’.
I am inclined to the second view because if one were to accept the first view, then one would regard every Muslim, in every country or state, to be guilty for designating a day of celebrating their countries’ independence day or national day, or for observing certain special days etc. Some tried to moderate this by the use of the term “commemoration” instead of “celebration” but this is just semantics because the word “Eid” signifies a day to celebrate or a feast/festivity.
Our Lord! Forgive us, and our brethren who came before us into the Faith and leave not, in our hearts, rancour (or sense of injury) against those who have believed. Our Lord! Thou art indeed Full of Kindness, Most Merciful. Aamin.
WAL-LAAHU A’LAM BIS-SAWAAB.
WAS-SALAAMU’ALAYKUM WARAH-MA TULLAAHI WABARA-KAA-TUH