This year the Muslim holiday celebrating the Prophet Muhammad's birthday fell close to Christmas, and a number of Muslim political and religious leaders took the opportunity to send an ecumenical message. Egyptian President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi extended Christmas greetings to the Copts; the Grand Mufti of Egypt Shawqi 'Allam and other prominent Egyptian Muslim authorities expressed similar sentiments. Last year, Sisi attended Christmas Mass in Cairo and was greeted with cheers. King 'Abdullah of Jordan likewise sent Christmas greetings this year, and stressed the need for unity and equality of citizens of both faiths.
These leaders' comments come against a general backdrop of religious and sectarian violence in the Middle East, and specifically in response to Muslims who forbid greeting non-Muslims on their religious holidays - a prohibition commonly endorsed even by non-militant streams of Salafism and Wahhabism.
The following are excerpts from their statements:
Cartoon in the official Egyptian daily Al-Ahram: "The Prophet Muhammad's Birthday and Christmas Fall At The Same Time"
On the presents: "Dignity, Happiness, Love, Good, Tolerance"
Next to the Santa smiley: "May you be well every year" (a traditional holiday greeting in Arabic)
ahram.org.eg, December 23, 2015
Sisi: "We Wish [Our Christian Brothers] A Happy Holiday And We Share Their Joy From The Bottom Of Our Hearts"
On December 22, 2015, in a public address on the occasion of the celebration of the Prophet Muhammad's birthday, Egyptian President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi extended Christmas greetings to Egypt's Christians and emphasized the need for national unity. He likewise stated that if Muslims do not share in the Christians' holiday spirit, it is a "tragedy":
"The holidays of our brothers and our folk, the Christians, are drawing near... We wish them a happy holiday and we share their joy from the bottom of our hearts. If you do not feel the same, it's a tragedy. If you think that this is not a part of your religion, it's a problem. Please note that I am not saying this just so you hear it. You know this already. I am saying this so that the Egyptians will practice it.
"Do not listen to people who divide us. I never allow anyone to say to me: Our brothers who are like this or that. Nobody should describe anyone by his appearance or his religion. We are all... Egyptians.
"I say on the eve of their celebration: Happy holidays. I say this with all my love and appreciation... I say these things so that you will teach them from the mosque pulpits. What divides us destroys us. What divides us destroys us. There is no difference. We are united, and God willing, we will remain united. This is not just talk. We must say it and practice it."
SUPPORT OUR WORK
Egyptian Grand Mufti Shawqi 'Allam: Islam Encourages Sending Christmas Greetings
In comments on the occasion of Christmas, Egyptian Grand Mufti Shawqi 'Allam said that offering Christmas greetings is considered a meritorious action that is encouraged by Islam. He added that the exchange of holiday greetings among compatriots of different faiths strengthens the spirit of love and camaraderie, which is something that Egyptians are in need of today in order to bequeath a humane faith-based culture to coming generations. According to the Mufti, "all of the divine messages firmly fixed in us lofty values and principles regarding relations with other people of various religions and races, so that we might follow these values and principles and bring peace, coexistence, and love to our societies."
Dr. Ahmad Karima, a professor of shari'a at Al-Azhar, explained why extending holiday greetings on Christmas is a praiseworthy act, and condemned those who claim otherwise. He said that the Prophet Muhammad celebrated Moses' being saved from drowning at the hands of Pharaoh together with the Jews of Yathrib (the city later called Medina), and that this festival later became the Muslim fast of 'Ashura. "It is [an act of] piety and good relations for a Muslim to greet People of the Book [Christians and Jews] on their holidays, whether these be religious holidays, social holidays, or other. The Muslim jurisprudents say that all things are permitted unless there is a [religious] text of definitive authenticity and meaning that forbids them, and since [in this case] there is no such prohibition, greeting [non-Muslims on their holidays] is permitted. And in our days it is considered a meritorious act... We extend our greetings to all the Christians, of all churches and sects." Karima then condemned "pigheaded" Wahhabis who differ from this opinion, saying that their view is a joke that need not be taken into account by serious Islamic scholarship.
Sheikh Al-Azhar Ahmad Al-Tayyib, in his speech on the occasion of the celebration of the Prophet Muhammad's birthday, also extended Christmas greetings to "our brothers the Christians in Egypt and in the entire world, east and west."
King 'Abdallah II Of Jordan: "Arab Christians Are A Deep-Rooted Part Of Our Past, Our Present, And Our Future"
In a televised address broadcast on December 22, 2015, King 'Abdallah II of Jordan sent holiday greetings to both Muslims and Christians, and noted that this year the two holidays coincided in the shadow of "the hardest conditions that our region has encountered... [in terms of] the spread of extremism [and] violence, and the straying from the values and teachings that both the Muslim and Christian messages brought [to humanity]. We must recall, on this occasion, that Islam is a religion of mercy, and that what unites us are shared values, as far as can be from what the modern Kharijites are doing..." (The Kharijites were an early Islamic sect that declared other Muslims to be unbelievers and engaged in violent revolt against the authorities; the reference is to ISIS, al-Qaeda, and their like.)
King 'Abdallah continued, saying that in Jordan "our society has never known [sectarian] division. We all live under the umbrella of [equal] citizenship, which unites and does not divide. We believe that the Arab Christians are a deep-rooted part of our past, our present, and our future..."
 See MEMRI TV Clip No. 4713, Egyptian President Al-Sisi at Coptic Christmas Mass: We Are All Egyptians, January 6, 2015.
 For a recent example, see a tweet dating December 23, 2015, by the Saudi religious scholar Dr. Muhammad Al-'Arifi: "It is permissible to greet a kafir [infidel] on his happy occasions, [such as] a promotion or graduation, but it is forbidden to greet him on his religious occasions. If he celebrates the birth of the son of God, and you greet him [on that occasion], then that is affirmation of his beliefs" (Twitter.com/MohamadAlarefe).
 Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), December 24, 2015.
 Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 23, 2015.
 royanews.tv, December 22, 2015.