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Islamic Society ( 15 Jun 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Muslims’ Participation in Non-Muslim Festivals and Functions

By Maulana Waris Mazhari


(Translated by Yoginder Sikand)


Islam, properly understood, is the religion of human nature. It provides guidelines for establishing a proper and firm link between individual human beings and their Creator. It also provides guidance for relations between individuals themselves. It insists that one can have a proper relationship with the Creator only if one has proper relations with the all of God’s creation, including all other human beings, because, as a well-known hadith attributed to the Prophet Muhammad says, ‘All creatures are [members of] the family of God’ (al-khalqo ayalullah). After finishing his prayers, the Prophet would beseech God thus: ‘O God! The Sustainer of myself and of all things, I bear witness that all the slaves of God are brothers to each other’ (alahuma rabbana wa-rabba kulle shai'in ana shahidun an al-'ibada kullahum ikhwatun).


To  actualise this vision of universal brotherhood and solidarity, it is imperative that Muslims and people of other faiths establish close and friendly relations. They should help each other, and share in each others’ joys and sorrows. This is indispensable for building a harmonious society. Islam insists on respect, compassion and love for all human beings. The Quran commands Muslims thus:


‘Allah forbids you not, with regard to those who fight you not for (your) Faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them: for Allah loveth those who are just’ (60: 8).


Accordingly, the Prophet invited non-Muslims to his home and accepted their invitations to visit their homes. He would visit non-Muslims when they were ill to inquire about their health, join their funerals, and exchange gifts with them. When the notorious hypocrite Abdullah Ibn Ubay died, the Prophet went for his funeral. When his body had been laid in his grave, he placed his own shirt on it. According to Jabir Ibn Abdullah, the narrator of this report, the Prophet did so because Abdullah Ibn Ubay had provided the shroud for the Prophet’s uncle Abbas when he died in the battle of Uhd. Thus, the Prophet repaid Abdullah Ibn Ubay for this deed. This action clearly suggests that we must repay goodness with goodness, even if it relates to someone who is an inveterate foe, whether Muslim or non-Muslim.


Generally speaking, in the early and classical Muslim period, non-Muslims living under Muslim rule were not pushed into separate ghettos, where they would have had no social interaction with Muslims. This is quite in contrast to Europe in the same period and even till much later, where, for instance, Jews were confined to their own localities. Often, after conquering new lands Muslim rulers settled Muslims in the towns and localities where the existing non-Muslim communities lived. This inevitably promoted considerable interaction between Muslims and others, at the social, economic, and cultural and even religious levels.


However, it must be admitted that today misunderstanding abounds as to Islamic teachings about relations between Muslims and others. Not just non-Muslims but even many Muslims themselves suffer from serious misconceptions about these teachings. There are several causes for this. Widespread anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim propaganda at the global level is surely one of these. In India, the political agenda of certain right-wing forces is based entirely on this anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim project. Through this they want to utterly weaken the Muslims, to destroy them socially, economically, politically and culturally, and to eventually absorb them into the Hindu cultural milieu.


Another  cause for these misunderstandings about Islamic teachings regarding inter-community relations must be sought in the very structure of what is now called Hinduism. In actual fact, Hinduism is not a religion at all in the conventional sense of the term. It is, rather, a collection of different religious traditions and cultural practices. ‚Hinduism’ can even accept and absorb atheism. In contrast, despite its flexibility Islam  cannot compromise on its beliefs and basic principles. Certain values based on religious principles do indeed come in the way, to a certain extent, of social and cultural interaction between Hindus and Muslims in India.


Besides this, another major cause for wrong conceptions about what Islam teaches about how Muslims should relate to others are certain views of the early fuqaha and narrow-minded ulema about inter-community relations, which, one must stress, are not in accordance with true Islamic teachings.


A Historical Survey


Hindus and Muslims have been living with each other in India for more than 1200 years now. Islam first entered India in the southern Malabar region, through the agency of Arab traders and missionaries, who used peaceful means to spread the faith. They impressed the local Rajas with their character, for which they won their respect. Consequently, they were able to closely mix with the local populace and established a place for themselves in their hearts.


Shortly after, Muslims established a presence in north India, with the invasion of Sindh by Muhammad Bin Qasim in the early eighth century. This was followed by the invasions of the Turks and Afghans from Central Asia. A large number of Muslims settled in India in their wake. Unlike in the case of the early Muslims in Malabar, this new Muslim presence was not welcomed by the local Indians. This is because these Muslims had entered India as invaders, who then became rulers of the land. Yet, despite this, gradually these Muslims established links with the local Indians, leading to the emergence of a broadly shared Hindustani culture and styles of living. This intermingling also gave rise to the Bhakti and the Sufi movements, both of which clearly indicate a remarkable degree of cultural synthesis between Hindus and Muslims.


One aspect of this shared culture was the widespread participation of Hindus and Muslims in each others’ functions and religious festivals. A number of Muslim rulers participated or shared in Hindu festivals in order, perhaps, to promote their political interests. There is no doubt that this helped promote closer bonds between Muslims and Hindus. Writing in the Tughlaq period, the historian Isami notes that Muhammad Bin Tughlaq used to play Holi with his Hindu nobles. Sultan Zainuddin of Kashmir also participated in Hindu festivities.


A number of Sufis of this period are said to have celebrated Basant, the popular north Indian Hindu spring festival, with much gusto Basant. An interesting story is told as to how this began. The death of his nephew Maulana Taqiuddin Nuh caused the noted Sufi saint of Delhi Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya deep distress and sadness. It so happened that just then a group of Hindus, singing and making merry, passed by on their way to the Kalikaji temple to offer saffron flowers there on the occasion of the Basant festival. On seeing them, Amir Khusrau, Khwaja Nizamuddin’s close disciple, burst out of his sadness and, in a state of revelry, rushed to meet his master, who was at that time at his nephew’s grave. On seeing Khusrau and hearing the verses in Hindi and Persian that he had composed on witnessing the joyous Hindu pilgrims, Khwaja Nizamuddin smiled. And, since that day, whenever Hindus headed towards the Kalikaji temple, Sufis of Delhi would take saffron flowers in their hands and head towards the shrine of Maulana Taqiuddin Nuh, taking along with them qawwals and chanting mystical verses.


This is how the Muslims of Delhi began celebrating the Basant festival. Soon, it became a fifteen-day festival at numerous Sufi shrines in the town. During this period, Muslim women would wear yellow or basanti-coloured clothes and sing Basant songs, like their Hindu sisters. Yet, it must be said that there is no evidence of Sufis who abided by the shariah (and these included Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya himself) participating in Hindu festivals such as Holi, Dussera and Diwali.


The Mughal era was known for its religious tolerance, and all Mughal Emperors, with the notable exception of Aurangzeb, participated in various Hindu festivals. Holi and Diwali were celebrated inside the royal palace during Akbar’s reign, and ordinary Muslims, emulating the Emperor, also began doing so. Aurangzeb prohibited these festivals from being celebrated inside the palace, but many common Muslims continued to do so. In his memoirs, Tuzk-e Jahangiri, the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, son of Akbar, writes:


‘[On the occasion of the Raksha Bandhan festival] Hindu nobles would tie rakhis on my father’s hand, decorated with rubies, pearls and other precious jewels. When this became too much to bear, my father instructed them to tie only a simple silk thread on his hand. In my time the [Hindu] nobles also did the same, and then I also issued an order that they tie only a silk thread on my hand.’


Dussera and Diwali were also celebrated with much gusto in the courts of Akbar and Jahangir. According to the Alamgir Namah, Dussera was also celebrated even in Aurangzeb’s court. There were a number of Hindu slave girls in the royal palace in Akbar’s and Jahangir’s reign. The Mughal princesses played Holi with these girls and with visiting Hindu Rajput princesses, and the Mughal emperors would join them in this.


Later Mughal Emperors, such as Shah Alam II, Akbar Shah II and Bahadur Shah Zafar, who were known for their addiction to luxury and their only very loose attachment to religion (if at all), are known to have celebrated various Hindu festivals with their Hindu and Muslim noblemen. The late Mughal historian Munshi Fayazuddin describes the Dussera celebrations in Bahadur Shah Zafar’s palace thus:


‘On the day of Dussera, the Emperor assembled his court. A neel kanth bird was made to fly before him. Then, the keeper of the royal birds brought out some falcons. The Emperor placed a falcon on his hand and then dismissed the court. In the evening,  the head of the stables applied mehndi on the special horses. The Emperor inspected them and, giving the man a reward, dismissed him.’


The Tuzk-e Jahangiri also indicates that in the courts of Akbar and Jahangir horses and elephants were richly decorated and brought before the Emperor on the occasion of Dussera, in accordance with Hindu traditions.


Like the Mughals, the Nawabs of Awadh also celebrated numerous Hindu festivals. The famous Urdu poet Mir Taqi Mir wrote twomasnawis on Holi, which describe very evocatively the scene of this festival being celebrated in Nawab Asafuddaulah’s court.



Following the practice of numerous Muslim rulers of India who patronised and participated in various Hindu festivals, many common Muslims did the same. This was particularly the case with numerous recently-converted local Muslim communities or such groups that had only partially converted to Islam and still maintained many of their pre-Islamic beliefs and practices. It was common for them to attend local or ‚Hindu’ fairs, some of which were religious in character. Evidence for this is plentiful in the historical records, and numerous Urdu poets, such as Nazir Akbarabadi, Insha, Fa'iz, Hatim, Amanat Lakhnavi and others, even wrote poems on such festivals and fairs.


It is obvious that many aspects of these Hindu festivals that Muslim rulers and subjects participated in were not in accordance with the commandments and principles of the shariah, but to the extent that it was possible to legitimize this participation within the limits of the shariah the ulema did not stop them from doing so. These Muslim rulers were well aware that their actions were not in full accordance with the shariah, but they probably felt that this helped gain legitimacy for themselves from their Hindu subjects, and faciliated peace and harmony in their domains. For some, however, it was sheer entertainment.


In describing the active participation of Muslim rulers and common Muslims in these festivals I do not mean to pass any judgment on the phenomenon. Rather, my aim has been to present an important, and not often recognised, part of the history of Hindu-Muslim relations in India in order to highlight the shared cultural traditions that the interaction between the two communities gave birth to. I also wish to indicate how deeply the Indian Muslim rulers and their Muslim subjects were rooted in the Indian cultural milieu, notwithstanding what the demands of the shariah truly were with respect to participation of Muslims in the festivals and other functions of people of other faiths.


The Shariah Position on Muslims’ Participating in Non-Muslim Festivals


Having discussed the participation of Muslims in Hindu festivals from the cultural and historical points of view, it is crucial to also look at it from the perspective of the shariah.


Islam does not prevent Muslims from interacting closely with non-Muslims whom they live amidst. If members of a plural society are not bound closely together through strong ties of friendship, interaction, and mutual assistance, such a society will soon disintegrate. At the same time, it must be stressed that Islam has its own views, beliefs, system or code of ethics, and social rules, which is insists its followers must abide by, including as regards Muslim participation in non-Muslim festivals.


The classical fuqaha have tried to lay down the limits, forms and conditions regulating Muslim participation in non-Muslim festivals and other social gatherings and functions. These have been discussed at length in the books of fiqh, particularly in the sections that deal with relations with non-Muslim zimmis. The vast majority of these fuqaha were of the view that it was not permissible in theshariah for Muslims to participate in non-Muslim festivals. They argued that this was because these festivals are religious in nature and involve aspects of polytheism, which Islam cannot compromise with. Invoking several Quranic verses and Hadith reports, they lay down that for Muslims to participate in non-Muslim festivals is clearly haraam (forbidden).


One hadith which they quote to back their stance relates:


‘It is narrated from Anas Ibn Malik that when the Prophet of God (may peace and God’s blessings be upon him) reached Medina, the people used to observe a festival that lasted for two days. He asked what these two days were, and his companions replied that in the days of ignorance they used to play and make merry on these days. The Prophet then said that God had given two better days than these: Eid ul-Azha and Eid ul-Fitr.’


In a similar vein, the Caliph Umar is said to have advised, ‘Stay away from the festivals of the enemies of God.’


Numerous other such reports are referred to and discussed in great detail in Allama Ibn Taimiyah’s well-known book Iqtiza al-Sirat al-Mustaqim (‘The Requirements of the Straight Path’). Ibn Taimiyah sternly forbids Muslims from participating in non-Muslim festivals, insisting it is haraam and a cause for provoking divine wrath.


This remains the position of the vast majority of our contemporary ulema as well. However, the fact is that the fiqh perspectives that are offered in order to back this claim are characterised by inordinate strictness, harshness and narrowness. In my opinion, this vexed issue needs to be studied and discussed within  the framework of what is called fiqh ul-aqalliyat or ‘fiqh for [Muslim] minorities’.


Functions and other gatherings of non-Muslims which can be considered religious festivals generally involve un-Islamic, polytheistic aspects. On the other hand, there are other functions that are not, in essence, religious in nature, and can be called social functions or, at best, semi-religious functions. They mark various important life cycle events, such as marriage, birth, death, or the inauguration of a shop or a building, and various other occasions marking joy and sorrow. It may be that some un-Islamic practices are observed during these functions. However, it appears that there is nothing wrong if Muslims avoid these practices and participate in these functions. This cannot be construed as tantamount to participating in polytheistic celebrations that the fuqaha have condemned based on their reading of the Islamic scriptural sources.


It is necessary to properly determine the rules, limits and conditions of Muslims  being allowed to participate in non-Muslim religious festivals. If on the occasion of Holi or Diwali, a Muslim accepts the invitation of a Hindu friend to visit his house, participates in the joys of the festival, and presents gifts to him, is it forbidden according to the shariah? In a plural society, is it at all proper for a Muslim to refuse his Hindu friend’s invitation to visit his home? Muslims live as a minority in India, and the added importance of close cultural interaction and relations between Muslims and others in this context needs no explanation. If Muslims do not choose to maintain close bonds with their non-Muslim neighbours and share in their grief and joys, they will be pushed even further to the margins of society. This would create immense problems for them, not just in the social, political and economic spheres but even in their religious lives as well. Hence, the rules, conditions and principles of participating in non-Muslim functions and festivities must be studied and developed in this light.


The classical fuqaha permitted Muslims to set up stalls and shops in places where non-Muslims celebrate their religious as well as secular social functions. They allowed them to earn a profit from such commercial activities. This is, in a sense, a sort of participation in these festivals and functions. Indeed, it can even be said to be a form of cooperation and promotion of such festivals and functions.


In this regard, the question arises if the participation of Muslims in non-Muslim fairs, that are generally associated with some or the other non-Muslim religious festival but whose basic purpose is to provide popular entertainment, can be said to be tantamount to participating in non-Muslim religious festivals, which the fuqaha forbid? It is a well-known fact that many Muslims do participate in such fairs throughout India, where they enjoy the entertainment that is provided therein. Some of this entertainment is clearly religious in nature or background, as for instance the Ram Leela plays in north India. Can seeing such programmes be considered to be tantamount to participating in non-Muslim religious festivals, as the ulema claim?


It is necessary to discuss these issues and evolve suitable responses keeping in mind the sensitivities of living in a plural society and the demands of collective social existence, in the light of which we can develop the necessary possibilities within the broad framework of the shariah. The classical fuqaha, it must be noted, did indeed develop such possibilities and spaces for Muslims living in what they termed as dar ul-harb (‘abode of war’) or dar ul-kufr (‘abode of infidelity’), which are terms and concepts that are not mentioned in the Quran and are not relevant today. For instance, Allama Ibn Taimiyah, who is noted for his strict, indeed extreme, approach with regard to inter-community relations, writes in his well-known work Iqtiza al-Sirat al-Mustaqim thus:


‘The prohibition on imitating non-Muslims and the commandment to distinguish oneself [externally] from them relates to the context when the deen [Islam] is already in a position of domination. When, in the beginning, the Muslims were weak, these commandments were not given. Then, when the deen received power and domination, these commandments were issued. In this way, Muslims living in dar ul-harb and dar ul-harb are not obliged to abide by the commandment to distinguish themselves externally from non-Muslims, because this might cause damage [to them]. Indeed, in some such cases it is advisable, or, sometimes even necessary, for Muslims to share in the external practices and ways of [the non-Muslims] if this is in the interests of the deen or in accordance with higher purposes.’


This comment by Allama Ibn Taimiyah is of crucial importance. He makes a critical distinction here between the conditions of Muslims living in a state of numerical and political dominance and those of their co-religionists living as minorities, and accepts that different rules might apply to them in matters relating to adopting certain practices of non-Muslims (provided they did not contravene Islamic beliefs, such as monotheism). In this way, he is able to highlight the flexibility of shariah rules depending on changed social contexts.


Unfortunately, the Indian fuqaha and muftis do not appreciate this very crucial point that Ibn Taimiyah made. Instead, they insist that the fiqh formulations developed in a period of Muslim political dominance be strictly applied to a vastly different context today where, as in India, Muslims are a minority, and a marginalised one at that. This, in my view, is not a realistic approach. To seek to blindly impose fiqh prescriptions developed in, and relevant to, a context of Muslim domination to our Indian context today can only create greater problems for Muslims and Islam, rather than solving them.


In today’s context of religious pluralism, especially in countries like India, it is necessary to review some of the views of the classicalfuqaha on such vexed issues as ‚imitating non-Muslims, cooperating with them and participating in their functions, which are certainly no longer relevant. These issues must be seen from not the lens of the classical fiqh of Muslim domination but, rather, from within the emerging paradigm of what is called ‘fiqh for [Muslim] minorities’, which seeks to steer Muslim minorities away from adopting extremist positions and, while enabling them to abide by the basic principles of Islam, facilitates their adjustment to contemporary political and cultural realities and demands.



Maulana Waris Mazhari is the editor of the New Delhi-based monthly Tarjuman Dar ul-Uloom, the official organ of the Graduates’ Association of the Deoband madrasa. He can be contacted on


Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.