What lies under the surface of American holidays?
By Omer Kazmi
A mother is waiting patiently for the doorbell to ring. She has the television on, but gets up and dusts or rearranges things. She sighs. She runs wrinkled hands through her white hair. Her worried expression, etched onto her face, is common for mothers. Whatever she is cooking starts to burn. She rushes to the stove and almost misses the doorbell! She races to the front door, and her smile is wide when the delivery man hands her flowers. She is so excited that she tips him and hurriedly reads the “Happy Mother’s Day” card. Tears of joy trace their way down her cheeks. Her son has finally remembered her.
While this account is entirely fictional, it does not stand outside the realm of possibility: it’s quite possible that on May 8, 2022, thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of mothers lived this story out with minor differences.
This could be interpreted as a sweet story. It has all the elements of a lovely Mother’s Day, a time when millions of Americans take some moments out of their day to celebrate mothers and motherhood. Even in this era of Roe v. Wade, which allows a woman to refuse motherhood, Mother’s Day is one of those days that, at least in the public consciousness, is more important than other holidays.
Islamically, there does not, prima facie, seem to be anything wrong with celebrating Mother’s Day. It is one of those days that seems so innocent (unlike Halloween or Valentine’s Day) and pure and good, and thus criticizing it can be shocking. We’re celebrating our mothers, after all, and they should be honored, as mentioned in the famous hadith: “Abu Hurayra reported that a person said: Allah’s Messenger (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), who amongst the people is most deserving of my good treatment? He said: Your mother, again your mother, again your mother, then your father, then your nearest relatives according to the order (of nearness)” (“Sahih Muslim,” Hadith# 2548b). Other versions increase the number of times he says “mother,” highlighting motherhood’s significance. Based on this, it’s not much of a stretch to devote an entire day to mothers.
However, there are much larger, insidious issues that we overlook when celebrating such holidays. If we’re not vigilant and clear about what we believe and who we are, we may lose parts of our religion or add unlegislated things to it. God warns us: “Say, (O Prophet,) “Shall we inform you of who will lose the most deeds? (They are) those whose efforts are in vain in this worldly life, while they think they are doing good! It is they who reject the signs of their Lord and their meeting with Him, rendering their deeds void, so We will not give their deeds any weight on Judgment Day” (18:103-5). We might think we’re doing good. But if we’re not following the Quran and Sunna, and if we lose sight of Islam’s teachings, then our deeds may become void.
Mother’s Day is just one manifestation of a larger issue: the underlying intent of American holidays at large. The secular holidays that celebrate certain people, relationships or other non-religious events are identified as American holidays because they are most popular here, even if they are celebrated elsewhere. In addition, they belie a particularly American mindset, namely, self-aggrandizing and an emphasis on profit.
So, what’s wrong with American holidays?
Entitlement. In political discussions in the U.S., the focus is always on rights. The country’s founding was based on this principle, as the American Revolution broke out because of a lack of the right of representation and the Constitution was not ratified until the Bill of Rights was created. Rights are naturally Islamic, and no question of justice can be answered without a discussion of rights and responsibilities. However, if one only seems to be thinking in terms of rights, like Americans tend to do, then a society can feel entitled. People may think they deserve things that, in reality, they do not.
Everything, it seems, has become a right. Every niche group promotes a rights-based program. Although the goals don’t always seem clear, there’s always vehement discussion. Anyone who opposes the rights of whatever group will be reprimanded or, worse yet, canceled. There is literally no discussion of responsibilities.
American holidays exhibit this rights-based mentality. The mother on Mother’s Day has the right to be treated well, even if this isn’t the case for the rest of the year. Mothers have the expectation that people will do things for them, buy things for them and be nice to them, whether they’re good mothers or not. Like children on Christmas, it doesn’t matter whether they were good or bad throughout the year – they’re going to get a gift.
This principle is un-Islamic, for God says, “And I swear by the self-reproaching soul” (75:2). In his tafseer of this ayah, Ibn Kathir mentions that “Al-Hasan al-Basri … said about this Ayah, ‘Verily, by Allah, we think that every believer blames himself. He says (questioning himself), “What did I intend by my statement? What did I intend by my eating? What did I intend in what I said to myself?” However, the sinner proceeds ahead, and he does not blame himself.’ It’s in the believers’ nature to question their intentions and behavior and to blame themselves for even little things. Islam focuses on what they need to do, not what they should expect from others. When one has the expectations that American holidays promote, then one might become disappointed and depressed if those expectations are not met.
Following Desires. There is no religious basis for many American holidays, which means that if we celebrate them, we are essentially following our desires. Take Mother’s Day as an example. A Wikipedia search reveals that it was started in 1907 by Anna Jarvis, who wanted to celebrate it in the church. However, its underlying spiritual reasoning disappeared soon after: “Although Jarvis, who started Mother’s Day as a liturgical service, was successful in founding the celebration, she became resentful of the commercialization of the holiday. By the early 1920s, Hallmark Cards and other companies had started selling Mother’s Day cards. Jarvis believed that the companies had misinterpreted and exploited the idea of Mother’s Day and that the emphasis of the holiday was on sentiment, not profit. As a result, she organized boycotts of Mother’s Day, and threatened to issue lawsuits against the companies involved”.
The fact that the holiday’s originator ended up fighting against its celebration is telling. It had become — and remains — about desire and profit, not the spiritual exercise she had intended. Indeed, every innovation — and it is an innovation even if there is no Christian basis for having a Mother’s Day — leads to such commercialization.
Tradition. The problem with recurring holidays is once they become traditions, it becomes increasingly difficult to stop or change them. We can easily graft these days into Islam, especially if we cite the above-mentioned hadith to justify celebrating Mother’s Day. Days of honoring quickly develop into ritualistic occurrences, replete with food, events and even certain speeches. If enough time passes, the event becomes something observed simply because that’s the way it’s always been. However, the Quran frequently warns about the disbelievers who just follow what their ancestors did.
This is the most dangerous aspect. One can find a difference of opinion among learned, religious men and women about engaging in such celebrations. However, if they become ingrained, then they can become confused with religion. To take Mother’s Day as an example, Jarvis started celebrating mothers in the church. Already there are people who may not remember a time before Mother’s Day, and that means it will become so culturally ingrained that to stop celebrating it will be next to impossible. Muslims need to start a conversation about observing American holidays with a focus on their underlying intent, rather than a fiqhi ruling. It may very well be permissible to celebrate Mother’s Day, but that isn’t necessarily the point. Our devout ancestors would abandon even halal things for fear of falling into haram. What about these American holidays, which are questionably permissible? The good that they seem to show belie the problems underneath.
Omer Kazmi, Ph.D. is a writer, editor and professor of English at Valencia College in Orlando, Fla. He is also the author of “The Temptation of Jamal” (2021).
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