Answered by Shaykh Muhammad ibn Adam al-Kawthari
In the name of Allah, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful,
Principally, birthdays are not something that should be celebrated or to be happy about. When it is someone's birthday, one year of his/her life has decreased, and not increased. As such, what intelligence is there in celebrating and showing happiness when a year has decreased in one's life?
Before understanding the legal ruling with regards to birthday celebrations, it is worth remembering here that imitation of the unbelievers (Kuffar) is something that Islam strictly disapproves of.
In a Hadith recorded by Imam Abu Dawud (Allah have Mercy on him) and others, The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said:
“Whosoever imitates a nation is amongst them”. (Sunan Abu Dawud,)
It should be remembered here that not everything what the non-Muslims wear and do, is Haram and unlawful. Imitation, which is prohibited, is effected in one of the following two ways:
a) One does something with the intention of imitating the Kuffar, meaning one does so because one wants to be like a particular non-believer or non-believers.
b) Doing something that is unique and exclusive to the non-believers or it is part of their faith. This will also be considered imitation, thus Haram (unlawful). (See the Fatwa of Shaykh Mufti Taqi Usmani).
In light of the above, there are few situations with regards to the Shariah (legal) ruling on celebrating birthdays:
1)If it is celebrated by imitating the Kuffar in that all or some of the customs that are unique with the Kuffar are adopted, or acts that are unlawful in Shariah are committed, then there is no doubt in its impermissibility. The lighting of candles on a cake that number the years of one’s life and then blowing on them, playing of music, singing, extravagant and lavish spending, showing off, etc are all unlawful and forbidden practices. Thus, if birthdays are celebrated by adopting the above-mentioned customs, it will not be permissible.
2)If the above-mentioned evils are avoided, then there are two possibilities:
a) If one celebrates birthdays with the intention of imitating the Kuffar meaning one does so because one wants to be like the Kuffar, then, as stated previously, it will be considered imitating the Kuffar, thus unlawful.
b) If there is no intention of imitating the Kuffar (and also the above mentioned evils are avoided) then the ruling on celebrating birthdays will depend on whether it originated from the religious customs of the non-Muslims and it is part of their faith. (It can not be considered to be unique with the Kuffar, for celebrating birthdays has become a widespread phenomenon that is carried out in many different parts of the world). I am personally unaware of whether celebrating birthdays has a connection with the Christian faith or other wise, thus I am unable to give a decisive ruling.
However, I have mentioned the criterion of which the ruling will be based. If the origins of birthday celebrations are connected to a particular faith, then there is no doubt in its impermissibility. If, however, it has no connections with the faith of the non-Muslims, then (and Allah knows best) it seems that it would be permissible to celebrate it (provided the evils mentioned above are avoided).
3)If one thanks Allah and shows gratitude for being blessed with one more year of his life, thus expresses happiness and joy, then there is nothing wrong with that. (See: al-Fatawa al-Rahimiyya (urdu), 6/320).
And Allah knows best
Muhammad ibn Adam al-Kawthari
Darul Iftaa, Leicester, UK
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