Indonesian Muslims still have very different opinions about wishing someone "Merry Christmas". Some of them believe it is OK to do so, while some others see it differently.
The former group base their opinion on the spirit of religious tolerance and the latter group consider it harmful for the religion and relate their opinion with the forbidden action of mixing one religion with another. This group seems to be dominant in Indonesia.
In defending their opinion, they use a hadith as mentioned in Bukhari: "It related from *Aishah that a group of Jews came to God's Messenger and said, 'as-sam *alayk (death be on you). I understood it and said to them, as-sam wa al-la*nah (on you be death and curse).
God's Messenger said, 'Be calm! O *Aishah, for God loves that one should be kind and lenient in all matters.' I said. 'O God's Messenger! Haven't you heard what they have said?' God's Messenger said, '(Haven't you heard what I have said.) I said (to them), *alaykum (upon you).'" According to them, responding to a greeting with non-Muslims is limited and so is wishing "Merry Christmas".
Based on a literature study, the writers believe that the ban of wishing "Merry Christmas" directly from the prophet is not found. This is due to the fact that historically there was relatively no clear contact between Muslims and Christians in Madinah as Muslims had with the Jews.
The Madina Charter, for example, indicates how intense the contact was with the Jews because they had economical and political power in Madinah. Conflict and cheating occurred between them which forced the Jews to leave Madina. This kind of contact didn't occur between Christians and Muslims in Madinah.
That is why there is no proof that the prophet said anything about wishing someone "Merry Christmas". The type of greeting between the Jews and Muslims at that time was the result of the political situation, which triggered a conflict. This is the reason why the prophet issued the hadith which the ulemas later interpreted as limiting and/or prohibiting Muslims to greet or reply using the word assalamu'alaikum or anything similar with non-Muslims.
Concerning using the Christmas greeting, there is no obvious Koranic verse or hadith regarding this matter. The Prophet Mohammad only had contact with a few Christians before he became a prophet and there was no further contact after he became one. Due to this fact, the reasoning of Muslims who ban wishing "Merry Christmas" is obviously questionable.
Whether an Indonesian Muslim is allowed or not to use this greeting is debatable following the level of the harmony that avails. Some years ago the Indonesian Ulema Council issued a fatwa banning the wishing of "Merry Christmas". Since there was no obvious proof from the prophet banning it, the Indonesian Ulema Council based their reasoning on the actual political situation. In this case, the political situation played a significant role.
Actually, what all Indonesian Muslims do now is to refer to the Holy Koran, Mary Chapter, verses 33-34. "Peace on me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I shall be raised alive! Such was Jesus, son of Mary: (this is) a statement of the truth concerning which they doubt."
The two verses do not ban Muslims from wishing "Merry Christmas" as long as they mean to confess that Jesus is just a human and not God (Tafseer Ibn Katsir, Vol. III/127). M. Quraish Shihab even mentioned that the human aspect is significant in Islam. If there is no problem with the human aspect, there is no problem then for Muslims to extend a congratulations to anyone who celebrates the birthday of someone who later became a Prophet and a Messenger.
Understanding the two verses, Indonesian Muslims should question why a hadith from Aishah became a basic reason for prohibiting Muslims from giving the Christmas greeting just because of the political situation in which they assumed that the so-called Christianization of Indonesia was at an alarming rate.
The Indonesian Ulema Council based the fatwa on what is in the Islamic jurisprudence named as sad al-dzari*ah (protecting Muslims from falling into something unexpected in Islam). In this case, the Council set the ruling for Muslims to stop them from falling into two unexpected things: Confessing Jesus as God, which is interpreted as an effort to mix a religion with another religion, and converting to Christianity.
Since every December Indonesian Muslims face this issue, it is better that all religious leaders have a mutual understanding and an open dialog and so contribute to a conducive atmosphere for harmony and tolerance among the followers of different religions. In the matter of wishing "Merry Christmas", Muslims should take all aspects comprehensively. Muslims can wish Christians "Merry Christmas" as if they were celebrating the birthday of another Prophet and Messenger whom Islam acknowledges.
Mahmudi Asyari is a Doctorate Degree Holder from Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University and Muizzudin is a lecturer of University of Indonesia.