In December 2022, as every year before Christmas and New Year's Day, there was a debate in the Arab media and social media on whether Muslims are permitted to extend holiday greetings to the Christians. This debate emerged especially after religious and political leaders in the Muslim world extended greetings to the Christians, sparking criticism from extremist Muslims.
Prominent religious institutions and figures in the Sunni Muslim world, such as Al-Azhar; Dar Al-Ifta, Egypt's official body for issuing religious rulings, and the Egyptian Grand Mufti, all issued rulings this year stressing that Islam permits to wish Christians a happy holiday. The Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, in fact posted a message on his official Facebook page conveying holiday greetings to Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Church, and to the heads of the other Christian churches and all Christians around the world. He also visited Pope Tawadros in Cairo to convey his greetings in person.
The Sheikh of Al-Azhar's Facebook post extending holiday greetings to the Christians
Egypt's Dar Al-Ifta likewise tweeted that there is no ban on wishing Christians a happy holiday and that this gesture does not contravene the religion, as some extremist Muslims claim. Extending such greetings, it said, is part of "the noble human virtues that the [Islamic] shari'a preaches, [as reflected] in the Quran and in the Prophet's Sunna [the traditions and sayings of the Prophet]…" Egypt's Grand Mufti Shawqi 'Alam issued a statement endorsing the position of Al-Azhar and Dar Al-Ifta in this matter. Saudi sheikh Muhammad Al-'Issa, secretary-general of the Muslim World League, likewise stressed the permissibility of this gesture, which he said promotes coexistence around the world.
This position of the religious institutions, and especially the Al-Azhar Sheikh's formal gesture of extending Christmas greetings to the Christians, sparked harsh criticism from extremist Islamic elements, especially on social media. Moroccan Salafi preacher Hassan Kettani tweeted: "One of the disgraceful things is what the Sheikh of Al-Azhar and some other Islamic [leaders] are doing, [namely] attending a church on the Christian holiday and extending greetings to the Christians. This is an immense offence against all Muslims…" Others agreed that it is forbidden to extend greetings to the infidels.
Conversely, many in the Arab press and on social media welcomed the position of the religious institutions, and especially of Al-Azhar, in favor of greeting Christians on their holidays. Egyptian liberal Sameh 'Askar commended the Sheikh of Al-Azhar on his opinion, stating that the liberals have been voicing this opinion for years but were accused of heresy for this.  Egyptian media figure 'Amr Adib, who is close to the regime, said that nobody can understand or accept the criticism against the Sheikh of Al-Azhar. Emirati writer 'Abdallah Al-Ne'aimi defended the Sheikh of Al-Azhar as well, and said that the negative reactions to his position reflected an extremist approach.
Articles in the Arab press likewise welcomed the position of the religious authorities. The articles noted that no text in Quran or other primary Islamic sources explicitly forbids greeting non-Muslims on their holidays, and stressed that doing so is not synonymous with embracing a non-Muslim faith or participating in its rituals. Moreover, they added, this gesture promotes coexistence and highlights the tolerant nature of Islam. The opposition to this practice, they added, is a warning bell alerting to the need to fight the extremism that still prevails in society.
Al-Azhar Sheikh Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayyeb and Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Church (image: Twitter.com/AlAzhar, January 4, 2023)
The following are translated excerpts from some of these articles:
Egyptian Columnist: Accusing The Sheikh Of Al-Azhar Of Heresy For Extending Holiday Greetings To The Christians Is A Very Grave Action
Hussein Al-Qadi, a researcher of political and extremist Islam and a columnist for the Egyptian daily Al-Watan, slammed those who had criticized the Al-Azhar's Sheikh's gesture of formally conveying Christmas greetings to the Christians. He noted that some of the critics were themselves graduates or members of Al-Azhar, which reflects the large gap that exists between the moderates and extremists within this institution, and indicates that there is a need to reform its curricula. Al-Qadi wrote:
"[The Sheikh of Al-Azhar], the great imam Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, [recently] wrote on his official Facebook page: 'I congratulate my dear brothers and friends, Pope Francis, Pope Tawadros II, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, church leaders, and Christian brothers in the East and West on Christmas. I pray to God that the voice of brotherhood and peace will be louder, and that safety and stability will prevail everywhere.' The responses to this post ran the gamut from support to opposition, with some even using rude, scornful or offensive expressions that belittled the Sheikh of Al-Azhar and accused him, directly or indirectly, of heresy. Responses such as these have several important implications:
"1. Those who cursed and scorned the imam, or accused him of polytheism, were Salafis, [members of the] Muslim Brotherhood, or members of [other] extremist religious currents, including [some] Al-Azhar members and Al-Azhar students.
"2. The number of people who accused the Sheikh of Al-Azhar of heresy or polytheism, or of watering down the faith, including some Al-Azhar members, proves that the beliefs of the Sheikh of Al-Azhar and his senior clerics are one thing, and the beliefs of some [other] Al-Azhar members are another thing. [Therefore] it is vital to amend the Al-Azhar curricula, so as to address this wide rift between the moderate ideas of Al-Azhar's senior clerics and the extremism that characterizes some [other] Al-Azhar members…
"5. What has happened is a serious warning bell, proving that the fight against extremism still requires great effort because extremism is still present and common. Trying to paper over this fact or conceal it will not change the reality in the slightest…
"The issue [here] is graver than some angry responses that will pass with time. In fact, we are facing extremism that is sure to destroy everything and turn the homeland into chaos the minute it has the opportunity to do so. When the Sheikh of Al-Azhar is accused of polytheism, of selling out the religion and of signing a truce with infidels just because he greeted the Christians on their holidays – and [especially] when some of those who make these accusations are students at the institution headed by this senior imam, amid silence from those who should have spoken up [in his defense] – that is a very grave situation."
Former Kuwaiti Minister: Al-Azhar's Ruling In Favor Of Greeting The Christians Is The Binding One, Not The Extremists' Opinions
Writing on the daily Al-Nahhar, Sami 'Abd Al-Latif Al-Nesf, Kuwait's former information minister, stressed Al-Azhar's exalted position and stated that its ruling from 2018, which permits extending holiday greetings to Christians, is binding, not the position of the extremists who accuse others of heresy. He also noted that the Christians in Western countries greet the Muslims on their holidays, and that conveying well-wishes is not the same as embracing someone else's religion.
He wrote: "Al-Azhar is one of the greatest and most learned Islamic centers… It certainly supersedes any individual in its knowledge [of Islam] and its [religious] status… especially those [clerics] who issue many extremist rulings that accuse [fellow Muslims] of heresy. A ruling issued by Al-Azhar on December 30, 2018 says: 'Islam preaches coexistence, tolerance and respect, and inculcates [these values] in the believers. These values do not detract from the believers' pride in their religion or their adherence to it. The more a Muslim deepens his understanding of Islam, the more respectful of others he becomes.' [The ruling] stated further: 'Greeting the Christians on their holidays falls under the rubric of being gracious, respectful and polite towards them. Allah commanded us to follow these principles in dealing with all human beings, without discrimination… Permitting to greet the Christians on their holidays also conforms to the religious goal of highlighting the tolerant and moderate character [of Islam]...'
"Every year during the Muslim holidays, the leaders of the Christian Western countries host Muslim clerics and [public] figures to convey [holiday] greetings. The exchange of such greetings among Muslims and Christians, or among members of other religions, does not imply that the one extending the greeting has embraced the religion of his addressee, as one of [the extremist clerics] claimed. When a Christian greets a Muslim [on a Muslim holiday], this does not mean the Christian has embraced our faith and that he is about to stop eating pork and drinking wine or start praying with us, fasting on Ramadan and making the pilgrimage to Mecca. Similarly, it is complete idiocy to claim that when a Muslim extends holiday greetings to a Christian, he has started believing in what the Christian believes…
'We must understand that saying hello, extending [holiday] greetings or extending condolences to a Christian, a Jew or anyone else has nothing to do with issues of belief and heresy. As the Al-Azhar jurisprudents ruled unanimously, these are [merely] examples of decent behavior that should be adopted. If Islam allows [a Muslim] to take a wife from among the People of the Book [i.e., Christians and Jews], who raises his children while maintaining her faith, it is inconceivable that Islam would forbid the husband and children to greet her [on her holidays] or accuse them of heresy for doing so.
"This strict and extremist ruling, that greeting someone is sharing his faith, also implies that Muslims cannot extend greetings to one another, for they are divided into dozens of religious groups, creeds and schools. [Furthermore,] there are tens of millions of Muslims living and working in Christian countries. Is it wise to ban them from extending greetings to the Christians in their own countries?!"
Saudi Journalist: Nothing In The Quran Explicitly Forbids Conveying Holiday Greetings To The Christians
Writing in the Al-Sharq Al-Awsat daily, Saudi columnist Tawfiq Al-Sayf stated that, although some Muslim clerics keep marketing the ban on wishing the Christians a happy holiday, he is not familiar with any clear text in the Quran that forbids this. This gesture, he added, actually reflects one of the most noble of human virtues, namely the virtue of tolerance towards others and respect for their beliefs.
He wrote: "My goal in this article is to stress that Christmas… is an opportunity to highlight one of the most noble of human virtues, namely tolerance.
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"In past years, the last week of [December] [saw phenomena that] looked like one of those seasonal bazars held by socio-political organizations to recruit [new] members or to prepare their members for fighting their rivals... [There were] sermons and publications that questioned the veracity of [the Christian account of Jesus's] birth and whether today's Christians are [true] followers of Allah's prophet Jesus. And it all culminated with stressing the ban on extending holiday greetings to Christians on Christmas and the New Year, and with denouncing Muslims who were civil or polite to their non-Muslim neighbors. Thankfully, those bazars no longer exist…
"This issue obviously perplexes people, because they are familiar with rulings by contemporary and ancient jurisprudents stressing this ban, but I also know that neither the Quran nor the Sunna include anything that explicitly and unequivocally supports this ban. Experience in Muslim countries and elsewhere shows that [allowing] Christmas celebrations and greetings does not cause any significant harm. On the contrary, it may even be beneficial…
"The jurisprudents' tendency to be strict in the matter of our relations with non-Muslims does not arise from an objective scrutiny of the relevant texts or from a balanced consideration of all the interests that a jurisprudent should assess before issuing [such] rulings…
"This is an opportunity to highlight the virtue of tolerance and to implement it in practice… Tolerance is not submissiveness... It is recognition that every human being, be he like us or different from us, has the inalienable right to choose the religion in which he sees his salvation and the way of life that brings him joy. We have chosen our religion and they have chosen theirs, and none of us has the right to deny others their chosen way to salvation and happiness. You may not be hostile towards them because of their choice, just as they may not be hostile towards you because of yours. That, in a nutshell, is the essence of tolerance.
"I hope we all hurry to wish our fellow citizens of the world a merry Christmas, thus underscoring our respect for their rights and their choices… If you want to spread dignity in the world, be the first to do so."
Saudi Journalist: It's Odd How Those Who Call Christians 'Infidels' Rush To Beg For Their Help In Times Of Crisis
Saudi journalist Haila Al-Mashouh, who writes for the Saudi state daily 'Okaz and the Emirati daily Al-Ittihad, expressed her support for Egyptian football star Mo Salah, who plays for Liverpool FC and has posted a picture with his family alongside a Christmas tree. She stated that this was a nice expression of tolerance on his part, and mocked Muslims who call Christians "infidels" yet run to seek asylum in their countries when disaster strikes.
She wrote: "[Recently] there was controversy over a photo of Egyptian football star Mohamed Salah, who plays on the Liverpool [FC] in Britain, which showed him celebrating Christmas with his family… and with a lit up Christmas tree in the background and some [other] elements of a simple family celebration. In my opinion, this is a nice show of tolerance by this world-famous Muslim player who lives among Christians and is surrounded with love and respect [there]. Despite this, after [he posted it on] Christmas eve it became a topic of debate on social media and [other] media. Over 80 million people saw it, some of whom were supportive and others angry. Some attacked him and others defended him. This tolerant and important picture became a football pitch in which people hurled opinions at each other and pigeonholed each other.
"This picture… was not the beginning or the first spark that ignited the controversy over extending holiday greetings to non-Muslims, and did not add anything to the futile arguments aimed at expressing hostility towards others and at fanning controversies and creating division between the proponents of tolerance and the [religious] fanatics… This is just stubbornness and extremism regarding basic principles [of human decency] that will not undermine the sanctity of Islam or the faith of any Muslim or have the slightest effect on them…
"What is even more saddening is that Christians in most of the Arab countries and those who greet them [on their holidays] are subjected to humiliation. In fact, Muslims who do so are accused of heresy… The question is: How is it that people denounce the greeting of Christians and call them 'infidels,' yet whenever disaster strikes they run to the [Christian] countries seeking asylum, justice, rights and aid?!..."
Egyptian footballer Mo Salah with his family under the Christmas tree (image: Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, December 27, 2022)
Qatari Columnist: Those Who Differ From Us In Their Religion Deserve To Be Greeted By Us On Their Holidays
'Issa Bin Muhammad Aal Ishaq, a columnist for the Qatari daily Al-Sharq, wrote about living among American Christians during his student days in the States and about the ties of friendship he formed there. He wrote: "The controversy that emerges every year in this season, over [the question of] greeting the Christians on their holidays… took me back to my student days, when I met Mark Walter and his wife Susan, two Catholic Americans. We lived next to them in the apartment we rented from them for almost five years, when I studied in the States, in Austin, Texas. They shared the happy and sad moments of my life, and I shared theirs… I visited them and they visited me. My children played with their children. On my holidays they greeted me and brought my children presents, and we did the same [on their holidays]. We have kept in touch with them for 32 years… Whenever we needed their help in any way, they were always there for us… As I relate this story, I wonder: Why do we Muslims still find this question unresolved? [Why] are Muslims still helpless to decide whether it is permitted or forbidden to extend greetings to Christians on their holidays and festivals? What are the religious laws that forbid or permit this? And which jurisprudent or sheikh is qualified to ban or permit this?...
"People who differ from us in their faith but respect us and are peaceful towards us – [including] people who live among us and serve in specialized fields like science, medicine and consultancy, and share our celebrations and joys – are they not entitled to be greeted by us on their holidays, out of politeness, rather than active participation [in their rituals]? It's only a verbal greeting that expresses feelings of warmth towards those who participate in our holidays, greet us and live among us. What about new converts to Islam? Are they allowed to contact their families and exchange gifts? Or is this forbidden?...
"I have found that, when I greet non-Muslims on their holidays, I open the door to a conversation about Islam, and that the first question they ask is, 'What are the Muslim holidays? How do you celebrate them, and why? What is the meaning of Ramadan and why do you fast for 30 days? Why do you celebrate Eid Al-Adha? Why do you slaughter a sheep [on this holiday]? Why do you connect this to the Prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael, and what about the pilgrimage to Mecca?'…
"Jurisprudents and imams such as Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Al-Qayyim [Al-Jawziyya], as well as their successors, such as [former Saudi grand mufti] Sheikh ['Abd Al-'Aziz Bin] Baz and [senior Saudi cleric] Sheikh Ibn 'Uthaymin, all considered the greeting of non-Muslims on their holidays as a reprehensible and even forbidden act, based on [Quran 5:51]: ' O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you - then indeed, he is [one] of them…' But some religious councils, such as the European Council for Fatwa and Research, and modern clerics like Dr. 'Abd Al-Sattar Fath Allah Sa'id, a researcher of Quran and Quranic Studies at Al-Azhar university, or Isma'il Al-Kilani, the former head of the Shari'a Studies and Guidance [Department] in [Qatar's] Ministry of Education, permitted to greet non-Muslims on their holidays, while stressing that it is forbidden to take part in their rituals, based on Quran 60:8-9: ' Allah does not forbid you from dealing kindly and fairly with those who have neither fought nor driven you out of your homes. Surely Allah loves those who are fair; Allah only forbids you from befriending those who have fought you for your faith, driven you out of your homes, or supported others in doing so. And whoever takes them as friends, then it is they who are the true wrongdoers'…
"Deeds are judged based on the intention behind them, and different people have different intentions. If [a Muslim who] extends holiday greetings to a non-Muslim keeps in mind that it is a religious transgression to participate in actions that are probably forbidden [in Islam, i.e., in the celebrations themselves], then [conveying greetings] it is permitted, as some have ruled.
"Many religious issues relevant to Muslims… are still disputed by clerics and sheikhs, who draw their inspiration from different sources and jurisprudential institutions around the Arab and Muslim homeland. How long will religious rulings continue to depend on individuals, rather than on joint jurisprudential institutions that represent Islam or [entire] countries or governments?"
 On the discourse in previous years, see MEMRI reports:
 Facebook.com/GrandImam, December 25, 2022.
 Twitter.com/AlAzhar, January 4, 2022.
 Twitter.com/egyptdaralifta, December 26, 2022.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 1, 2023.
 Twitter.com/hiaahsanshow, December 23, 2022.
 Twitter.com/hassan_kettani, December 29, 2022.
 Twitter.com/AlamoudiSa, Twitter.com/Doo711, December 26, 2022; Twitter.com/taam_alsaada, December 25, 2022.
 Twitter.com/sameh_asker, December 29, 2022.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 27, 2022.
 Twitter.com/AbdllahAlneaimi, December 29, 2022.
 Al-Watan (Egypt), January 4, 2023.
 For the text of this fatwa, see Facebook.com/fatwacenter, December 30, 2018.
 Al-Nahhar (Kuwait), December 30, 2022.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 12, 2022.
 Al-Ittihad (UAE), January 5, 2022.
 Ibn Taymiyya (1263– 1328) was a Sunni theologist and exegete that is today identified with extremist Salafi Islam.
 Ibn Al-Qayyim Al-Jawziyya (1292-1350) was a jurisprudent of the Sunni Hanbali school.
 Al-Sharq (Qatar), January 1, 2023.