This festive season has seen another flare up of the debate surrounding a fatwa issued by the imam of Lakemba mosque directing his followers not to wish people a Merry Christmas. This debate prompts the question, should those of other faiths feel obliged to wish Christians a Merry Christmas? What statement is being made by a refusal to do so?
I’m an atheist who loves Christmas and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. For me, and for many people, Christmas is about holidays, family, food and a general festive vibe. But this year I’ve started to think twice before saying my routine “Merry Christmas” to shopkeepers, co-workers and neighbours. I don’t believe in the theology behind Christmas, so I’ve been subtly changing my vocabulary to “have a great holiday” or “enjoy the Christmas break.” I’m sure nobody has noticed this subtle change except me, but it has allowed me to express my goodwill towards others while remaining true to what I do (and don’t) believe.
The decision to wish people a Merry Christmas or not can be even more difficult for some of those who have strongly held religious beliefs that directly oppose the concept of celebrating the birth of Jesus as God’s son. In order to better understand this issue, we have compiled some interfaith perspectives on walking the delicate line between remaining true to one’s own beliefs and sharing goodwill and respect for others’. Below are summaries of a Jewish, a Muslim, a Christian and an Existentialist perspective, to read any of the responses in full, click the link at the bottom of their summary.
A Jewish Perspective – Rabbi Zalman Kastel
Rabbi Kastel’s response to this issue is to reflect on the need to balance two competing priorities when it comes to wishing people a Merry Christmas. One consideration in Jewish law is the importance of fostering positive interfaith relationships with ones neighbours, while a competing consideration is remaining true to one’s own faith and not endorsing religious beliefs that are counter to your own.
While Rabbi Kastel is in favour of prioritising building positive relations with others, he argues that having positive relations with others means accepting views which are different to ones own. Therefore he believes we need to respect or at least tolerate the views of those who prioritise remaining true to ones own faith and respect their decision not the say “Merry Christmas”.
A Muslim Perspective- Sheikh Soner Coruhlu
Sheikh Soner sees no issue at all with Muslims wishing Christians a Merry Christmas. He explains that keeping good relations with people of other faiths is an extremely important aspect of Islam. He also argues that wishing somebody a Merry Christmas is not the same as celebrating Christmas oneself, it is simply respecting and acknowledging that this day is important to others.
Furthermore, he explains the importance of examining ones intentions when evaluating any action. He argues that when a Muslim wishes a Christian a Merry Christmas, the intention is not to imply that he believes that the divine was born on that day, but rather that a messenger was born. As Muslims believes that Jesus was a messenger of Allah, it is not contrary to Islam to acknowledge the birth of Jesus.
A Christian Perspective – Father Patrick McInery
Father Patrick is disappointed in the fatwa issued by an Imam of the Lakemba mosque in 2012 forbidding Muslims from wishing Christians a Merry Christmas. He sees this fatwa as being indicative of a deeper underlying issue- that of exclusivism or supercessionism i.e claiming “my religion is right; all other religions are wrong!” He believes that in our multi-faith society we must respect others’ religions even if their beliefs directly contradict our own.
He has come to the conviction that all religions must have a role to play in God’s plan and thus they should all be respected. He strongly believes that for Muslims to wish Christians a Merry Christmas would not compromise their faith, it would simply show appreciation and respect to the many people within their community for whom this is a special time. He himself offers greetings to Muslims on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr and he does not see this as compromising his faith, but rather as a social and religious courtesy.
An Existentialist perspective – Emma Bromley
Emma reflects on what Christmas means to her as an Existentialist. She explains that she sees this time of year as important because of the time spent with family. As a result, although she does not believe in the theology of Christmas, she believes in much of the sentiment and has no problem wishing people a Merry or Happy Christmas. As she says these words, her focus is not on the religious meaning of them, but rather on the positivity of the words Merry and Happy. She sees these greetings as a way to express her goodwill towards others at this time of year, without any religious connotations.
Have your say
What do you think? Will you be wishing your friends and neighbors a Merry Christmas this year? We’d love to hear your opinions on this topic, so leave a reply under this post.
By Grace Smith
Grace is a Communications Officer at Together for Humanity.