‘Tis that time of year again when people are wearing red, slacking off work, and using “tis” to start sentences.
Buying and Selling Christmas Goods – The Islamic Perspective
Yes it’s Christmas.
For some people the festive period can be a stressful time. The black-sheep relatives come around who you’ve never got on with; the excessive alcohol drunk and all that comes with it; and the mountains of cooking to be done.
But for practising Muslims, there are other problems. You see Islamically, we’re not supposed to encourage and venerate religious ceremonies, events, and sacraments of other religions. This is because often Islamic theology will be completely at odds with what is at the heart of another religion’s festival.
For example, Christmas is about the birth of Christ (though the day is almost certainly wrong) and mixed in to that are some historic pagan elements. Muslims don’t believe Jesus is the son of God and we’re not that keen on pagan rituals either. Similarly, Easter is about the sacrifice of God’s son on the cross and rising again after three days. Again, Muslims believe something very different to this and don’t regard Jesus as God, so there are clear theological tensions here.
But of course you don’t want to be a party-pooper, or come across as intolerant.
So that’s why Muslims get nervous at Christmas. Secret Santa sends a shiver running down our spines. Advent calendar chocolates are met with a ghastly smile. Even buying Christmas-themed mince pies at the supermarket leaves one with a vague sense of guilt.
There are lots of fiqhi discussions to be had here, such as the accepting and receiving of Christmas presents, but I won’t go into that and instead refer you to Sh. Nizami’s article on this, and Sh. Qadhi’s speech on this.
Instead, since our focus here is Islamic Finance, let’s think about buying and selling Christmas products.
Buying something haram is generally a no-no. But that’s not the big concern here, as Muslims aren’t going out to buy crates of mulled wine.
What about buying something that’s halal intrinsically but has Christmas packaging on it and is being sold for the particular occasion of Christmas – for example the various mince pie displays we see in the supermarkets right now?
Well the crucial things at play here is (a) am I supporting Christmas by doing this? and (b) what message am I sending to society?
Ultimately the act of buying something intrinsically halal is fine – as the act of buying is a private one (it is between you and the seller) and so there is little fear of you making a public statement – which is the overriding concern when it comes to all things Christmassy – namely that you’re implicitly supporting or venerating it. So you are not in any clear way supporting the Christian morals that you may not theologically agree with by buying some mince pie.
We must also make an important distinction between two different kinds of messages that we could be sending: 1. “I support and affirm the Christian festival of Christmas” and 2. “I’m getting involved in the cultural end-of-year celebrations and secular symbology of a cultural seasonal phenomenon”. The latter is fine, the former is impermissible.
Given that the only real message you will send to society in support of Christmas is the one to Mr Kipling’s marketing team who get the sales figures from the local Tesco’s where one of the digits will be one higher because of your purchase, you can be rest assured that your purchase is supporting a commercial populism surrounding Christmas, as opposed to making any deep theological point.
Of course one can go into this whole debate deeper and deeper. It is true our buying habits shape the economy and where money is invested, what advertising is run, and which products and themes are used. This is of course a symbiotic process – in that we’re also influenced in turn by the ads, the products on display, and the themes being used. So, if anything, there might be mild case, from the point of view of taqwa, in favour of avoiding Christmassy products. But it would be too strong to say they’re haram.
That’s why, if given the choice, I still choose the plain packaging mince pie over the Christmassy packaged one. I want to make sure that I am not even mildly affirming something I theologically disagree with.
When it comes to selling, there are two kinds of goods.
There are your Christmas trees, three wise men figurines, and advent calendars – the overtly Christmassy products with direct links to either paganism or Christianity. Then there are the Christmas-themed Freddo-Frog chocolate bars, or tinsel-wrapped Lindors, Santa Claus products, or snowflake-patterned Coca Cola bottles.
With the first kind of products – these are best avoided. By you displaying these products prominently you are making a public statement as a Muslim shopkeeper (as opposed to a private one as a Muslim buyer) that you support Christmas-the-religious-cum-pagan-festival. Your shop is part of a wider discourse around Christmas.
The second element to this is that these products are only inevitably going to be used in something haram – the act of putting up a Christmas tree as a symbol of Christmas. People don’t buy Christmas trees for anything other than that. If this is the case then the majority opinion is that that sale is not permissible (see this fatwa). The principle behind this is derived from this ayah:
Help you one another in AlBirr and AtTaqwa (virtue, righteousness and piety); but do not help one another in sin and transgression [5:2].
These products are admittedly not that many – as most of the things that surround Christmas these days are actually commercial-sector created fantasies. For example Santa’s reindeer. Or snow and snowflakes.
There were no snowflakes in the Middle East where Jesus (peace be upon him) was born, and certainly no reindeer!
The second kind of product – the food that is Christmas-themed – this is much less problematic. Here you’re selling a product that is available all year round – just with different packaging. Here you’re not necessarily affirming any theological point, you’re merely supporting commercial Christmas populism. Sometimes you might even not have any choice, as certain suppliers will entirely switch their packaging to Christmas-themed, and you can’t get hold of any other.
Again though, if you as a seller have the choice between a plain-brand Coca Cola to sell vs. a Christmas-themed one, then taqwa would suggest the former.
So there you are folks, and merry…seasons greetings to you all!
N.B. I am not a scholar and this is not a fatwa. However scholarly views and religious texts were considered in the preparation of this piece. This article is instead best read as starting a debate on an important contemporary issue, written from a relatively informed point of view. Your thoughts, criticisms, and corrections are as always highly welcome.