My husband and I are always arguing about celebrating our child’s birthday. He says there is nothing wrong with it, while I think birthdays should not be celebrated. After all, wouldn’t celebrating birthdays be a blind imitation of a Western tradition? Can you please tell us whether or not it is proper to celebrate birthdays? Jazakum Allah Khayran.
To answer this question properly we have to keep in mind four basic Islamic principles. These are:
- The basic asl refers to the permissibility of things. This principle, established by Islam, denotes that things that Allah SWT has created and the benefits derived from them are essentially for man’s use, and are therefore permissible. Nothing is haraam except what is prohibited by a sound and explicit text from the Lawgiver, Allah SWT. If the text is not sound, as in the case of a weak hadith, or if it is not explicit in stating the prohibition, the original principle of permissibility applies.
- “When the Prophet SAAW came to Madinah, he found that they had two days of celebration and feasts. He told them that Allah SWT has replaced these two days with two better days: the two Eids, Eid ul Adha and Eid ul Fitr.” It is clear from this hadith that the Prophet SAAW limited annual celebrations to only the two Eids.
- “Every soul is responsible for what it earns.” The concept of accountability is deeply entrenched in the Islamic system, in all areas and at all levels. Muslims are always encouraged to look deeply into the expected consequences of any action before doing it. If the consequences are expected to cause definite harm, Muslims should try to avoid the action. If the consequences are expected to bring benefits, it is good to do such an action.
- Choose the lesser of two evils. This is a great rule in Islamic jurisprudence that was deduced by the scholars from the practices of the Prophet SAAW and the teachings of Qur’an. This rule should be understood properly and applied wisely by parents in the North American environment.
Based on the first principle, some say that there is nothing wrong with celebrating birthdays, since there is no specific text prohibiting it. However, looking at the second principle, we see that the Prophet SAAW clearly instructed us that nothing should be celebrated annually or observed regularly except the two Eids: Al Fitr and Al Adha. Also, the fact that the practice of celebrating birthdays was not known among the early Muslims may raise the question “Why should we start promoting a Western tradition that may not be proper?”
Bearing in mind the above arguments so far, the least that could be said about celebrating birthdays is that it is a questionable or controversial practice. However, this is not the end of the story. There are other factors that should be considered in the North American environment, such as the consequences of celebrating versus ignoring birthdays.
Among the unacceptable consequences of celebrating birthdays in the current Western format is that the birthday person is the centre of attention and the only person who feels special during the celebration. This may promote traces of arrogance in the personality of some children and make them full of themselves. Also, the celebration format may be unacceptable to some because of the lavish gifts that some parents buy for their children and the time wasted just eating and playing games.
On the other hand, ignoring the birthday of a school-age child may lead the child to think that his parents do not care about him and that his teacher loves him much more than his parents. This is because teachers in public schools usually wish the children a happy birthday and may even have a little celebration in the class. We do not think that any parent would like to leave his or her child with such an impression.
Clearly, the answer to this question is not a simple yes or no. All of the above factors must be taken into consideration, and the answer could vary from one situation to another, depending on the child’s age and specific conditions.
The reality is that most Muslim parents now in North America celebrate their children’s birthdays. Our objective should be for our Muslim children to give up these celebrations in their current format. However, this objective, though noble, cannot be achieved in only one step. With the parents’ wisdom in dealing with the situation insha’a Allah this objective can be achieved gradually. Here is what we suggest to achieve this goal insha’a Allah in the most amicable way while avoiding the negative consequences discussed earlier:
- When the child is very young (one to four years old) and is not yet attending school, there is no need for the parents to initiate a birthday celebration for her. No harmful effects can be expected from this practice, because the child is not likely to notice that other children are celebrating their birthdays.
- If the child is school age, it would be a big mistake to completely ignore the issue of birthdays. In such a situation, the answer could be to celebrate the child’s birthday but in a manner that is low-key. For example, the child could invite two or three of his friends, have a cake and some food that he likes, and play a few games with his friends. He could sit with his parents, either before his friends arrive or after they leave, and discuss what he wants to do throughout the coming year to learn more and be a better person. Thus, you shift the focus of the celebration away from the food and games and toward a more Islamic format of self-evaluation for improvement. This way, as the child is being entertained, he is also learning an important Islamic concept: the concept of self-assessment and auditing our deeds (muhassabah). Parents could use the opportunity to congratulate him for his achievements in the past year. They could also remind him that birthdays are not really big celebrations in Islam, but that they are celebrating his birthday now so he does not feel left out or feel bad. Parents could mention the hadith of the Prophet SAAW that Allah SWT has replaced all celebrations with two meaningful celebrations: Eid ul Fitr and Eid ul Adha. This way you have chosen the lesser harm (of having a limited and small-scale celebration in an acceptable format) to avoid a greater harm (the child’s feeling that his parents do not love him and that his school teacher loves him more). Tell the child that, once he is ready to let go of celebrating his birthday, he should tell you. By then you would be fully applying the hadith of the Prophet SAAW.
In addition to the above gradual approach to help your child give up celebrating birthdays, always make the celebrations of the two Eids much bigger and more entertaining for him in every aspect: in the home environment, and with gifts and new clothes so that he can enjoy it more than any birthday.
Another suggestion is that you explain to the children that, during Eid, all Muslims are happy and feel special, while at a birthday party only one person feels special.
 Asl, plural usul, denotes origin, source, foundation, basis, fundamental or principle.
Qur’an: Chapter 74, Verse 38.