Friday, October 31, 2014

On the Question of Halloween

A’uzu Billahi Min ash-Shaitain ir-Rajeem.
Bismillah ir-rahman ir-raheem.
Al Hamdu Lillahi Rabbil ‘Alameen.
Wasa’atu Wassalamu ‘Ala Muhammad wa ‘Ala Alihi was Sabhihi was Sallim
Ahmaduhu subhanahu wa Ta’ala wa ashkurhu wa Huwa Ahlul-Hamdi wath-thana.
I praise Him (Allah) the Exalted One and the High and I thank Him. It is He who deserves the praise and gratitude.

Ah-hamdu lillahi nahmaduhu wa nassta’eenuhu wa nasstaghfiruhu, wa natoobu ilayhi, wa na’oozu billahi min shurouri anfusina wa saiyaati a’maalina.
Praise be to Allah, we Praise Him and seek help from Him; we ask forgiveness from Him; we repent to Him, and we seek refuge in Him from our own evils and from our own bad deeds.

Surah 113, Al-Falaq:
Qul a’udhu biRabbil-falaq,
Min sharri ma khalaq.
Wa min-sharri ghasiqin idha waqab.
Wa min-sharrin-naffathati fil-uqad.
Wa min-sharri hasidin idha hasad.

Say:  I seek refuge with the Sustainer of the rising dawn,
From the evil of aught that He has created,
And from the evil of the black darkness whenever it descends,
And from the evil of all human beings bent on occult endeavours,
And from the evil of the envious when he envies.

Late in the afternoon of Halloween, chances are that kids will come to our front doors dressed in costumes, holding out bags or buckets into which we are expected to put candy.  I grew up with this tradition.  Since we lived on a farm, and houses in our area were pretty spread out, my mother would drive my brothers and I around from house to house.  It was great fun, and the neighbors were always happy to see us, especially the ones we knew who could guess who we were under our costumes.  When we got home, we would dump out our bags and see who got what treats, and trade with each other – three pieces of bubble gum for a Reeses Cup, etc.  I loved Halloween, and I still love Halloween.  Summer has gone, the pumpkins are harvested and decorated, leaves are blowing around, and the chill in the air reminds us that we had better enjoy whatever warmth is left because ice and snow are on the way. 

After I converted to Islam, I discovered that Muslims have a real problem with Halloween.  Some of them take it very seriously.  Imam Zaid Shakir summed up this attitude recently on a post to his blog entitled “Between the Deen and Halloween”:
"One the tragedies of our times is found in the easy willingness some Muslims accept practices, rituals or cultural symbols that have their roots in demonic or occult practices. Halloween is a perfect example. Most scholars trace the origins of Halloween to the then pagan Celtic people who believed that on a certain night, the dead would come alive and could walk among the living. On this night some of these people would dress up in ghoulish costumes believing that the spirits of the dead would mistake them for one of their own and not harass them. Others would offer these “spirits” sweets in order to earn their good favor. This is the origin of the Halloween costumes and the gifts of candy…. The darkness surrounding these practices is compounded by the representations and symbols rooted in the world of the occult and demons, such as witches, werewolves, vampires, etc. Like many aspects of demonology and the occult, Halloween has been sanitized and made to appear as something “cute.” Along these lines, some Muslims actually have “Halaloween” parties. It’s just “fun.” This is one of the ways children in our society, increasingly Muslim children are no exception, are introduced to occult and demonic symbols and rituals. Make it appear cute and fun and no one will notice the dark underside…. Halloween as well as Halaloween are Haram!”

Imam Shakir is right about the roots of Halloween.  It dates back to pagan rituals in England and Ireland, before the advent of Christianity.  But it is also associated with the Christian celebration of All Saint’s Day, Nov. 1, and All Souls Day, Nov. 2, during which Christians are enjoined to pray for those who have died.  The word Halloween is reported to date to about 1745 and to be of Christian origin. The word "Halloween" means “hallowed evening" or "holy evening."

My purpose here is not to present an exhaustive history of the roots and development of Halloween.  Suffice it to say that the history is long, complex, and multi-faceted.  My purpose is rather to explore the question of whether my faith really does proscribe me from celebrating this holiday.  As an American convert who does not believe that my conversion to Islam requires me to reject the positive or unharmful aspects of my native culture, I naturally ask myself this question.  For Muslims who grew up in places where Halloween was not a part of their childhood and youth, or for converts who may have negative memories of their childhood, it might be easy to dismiss this holiday as a celebration of demonology.  I cannot blame them.  If I thought Halloween is a celebration of demonology, I would also want nothing to do with it. 

But that has not been my experience of Halloween.  As a Muslim and as a mother, I did not feel that allowing my child to dress up in a fantasy costume and get candy from the neighbors was something that was prohibited by my faith.  In fact, I felt that nothing in my faith could justify preventing her from doing something that obviously brought so much joy and fun for her classmates, friends and cousins, and the sense of alienation and confusion that would bring.  It seemed ridiculous to tell her that she could not celebrate Halloween because it is a demonic holiday.  It was so obviously being celebrated as something fun, and not demonic.  Was she supposed to believe in demons, and that her friends and cousins could become possessed by them by putting on costumes? 

There is a different way of understanding Halloween.  I have always understood the holiday as a way of poking fun at superstition and the idea that demonic forces have any real power over us.  Making fun out of ghosts and skeletons and witches and vampires makes us realize that we can conquer our fears.  Those scary things aren’t real, after all, it’s our imaginations that make them scary.


Our faith tells us that God has power over Satan, and all demonic forces.  They have no power other than the power we let them have over us.  In Qur’an, Satan is the symbol of the rejection of God’s will.

            Surah 14, Ibrahim:
And when everything will have been decided, Satan will say:  “Behold, God promised you something that was bound to come true!  I, too, held out promises to you – but I deceived you.  Yet I had no power at all over you:  I but called you – and you responded unto me.  Hence, blame not me, but blame yourselves.  It is not for me to respond to your cries, nor for you to respond to mine:  for, behold, I have refused to admit that there was any truth in your erstwhile belief that I had a share in God’s divinity… (22).

Surah 34, Saba:
Say:  Point out to me those beings that you have joined with Him in your minds as partners in His divinity.  Nay – nay, but He [alone] is God, the Almighty, the Wise.  (27)

Thinking about Halloween as a symbolic conquest of our fear of evil and superstition made me ask myself, is there any practice in the Islamic tradition that also symbolizes our need to confront and disempower the demons in our minds?  And then I remembered the Hajj rituals.  One of the last of the Hajj rituals is the symbolic stoning of three pillars at Mina – the three pillars representing Satan.  The act of stoning the devil commemorates the three attempts the devil made to tempt the Prophet Ibrahim, pbuh, out of following a directive from God that he could not understand.  Prophet Ibrahim rejected all three of the devil’s attempts, stoning him and driving him away. The three stone pillars represent the places where the failed temptations took place and the act of stoning commemorates Prophet Ibrahim’s constant obedience to Allah and the vanquishing of the devil.

Halloween can be understood as a holiday that, through satire, disempowers the belief that evil spirits and demonic forces have any real power over us.  It robs those beliefs of their power to instill fear in us.  Seen in this way, Halloween can be understood as an expression of faith in Allah, al-Rahman, al-Raheem – God, the most Gracious, the most Merciful. 

Of course I recognize that not everyone, Muslim, Christian or otherwise, will agree that this interpretation of Halloween is an accurate representation.  But it is one possible interpretation.  I am not arguing that all Muslims should now celebrate Halloween.  We should all do what we feel comfortable doing, or not doing.  But I am arguing for the need to broaden the Muslim perspective and acknowledge that there are different ways of understanding things, and they all deserve consideration, and that those who do not reject this holiday are not necessarily doing something haram.

1 comment:

  1. "People in glass houses shouldn't throw bricks."

    Most religious traditions borrow (or build on top of!) previous traditions, adapting and reinterpreting rituals and spaces according to their new scriptures. Christian churches and Islamic mosques built on top of polytheistic temples, the cults of Mary/Fatimah to substitute for goddess worship, etc.

    So before Mr. Shakir starts busting on Halloween, perhaps he should take a closer look at some of those rituals surrounding Hajj. Kissing a black stone? Gimme a break.

    I also find it very depressing when Muslim "intelligensia" is borrowing ideas from the Evangelical Christian pool. Not a very deep pool to draw from. :(