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Chinese New Year Celebration from a Muslim’s Perspective

Each year, around this time, here in Hong Kong and other parts of the world where we have the Chinese community present, you will witness the people celebrating their biggest festival of the year – the Chinese New Year.

The purpose of this article is to humbly educate people who aren’t aware of the rituals and origins of the acts that are done during this festive time. Moreover, it is to highlight the point of how a Muslim ought to carry him/herself in light of this celebration. At no point does the article aims to insult or vilify the culture, rather it’s to understand better whilst not negotiating the orthodox beliefs of being a Muslim.

1. The Celebration

“The Chinese New Year is now popularly known as the Spring Festival because it starts from the Beginning of Spring (the first of the twenty-four terms in coordination with the changes of Nature). Its origin is too old to be traced. Several explanations are hanging around. All agree, however, that the word Nian, which in modern Chinese solely means “year”, was originally the name of a monster beast that started to prey on people the night before the beginning of a new year (Do not lose track here: we are talking about the new year in terms of the Chinese calendar).”

This is evidently clear of ‘false beliefs’ contrary to the teachings of Islam as mentioned: “All agree, however, that the word Nian, which in modern Chinese solely means “year”, was originally the name of a monster beast that started to prey on people the night before the beginning of a new year”.

2. Red papers and Fire-crackers

One legend goes that the beast Nian had a very big mouth that would swallow a great many people with one bite. People were very scared. One day, an old man came to their rescue, offering to subdue Nian. To Nian he said, “I hear say that you are very capable, but can you swallow the other beasts of prey on earth instead of people who are by no means of your worthy opponents?” So, swallow it did many of the beasts of prey on earth that also harassed people and their domestic animals from time to time.

After that, the old man disappeared riding the beast Nian. He turned out to be an immortal god. Now that Nian is gone and other beasts of prey are also scared into forests, people begin to enjoy their peaceful life. Before the old man left, he had told people to put up red paper decorations on their windows and doors at each year’s end to scare away Nian in case it sneaked back again, because red is the color the beast feared the most.

From then on, the tradition of observing the conquest of Nian is carried on from generation to generation. The term “Guo Nian”, which may mean “Survive the Nian” becomes today “Celebrate the (New) Year” as the word “guo” in Chinese having both the meaning of “pass-over” and “observe”. The custom of putting up red paper and firing fire-crackers to scare away Nian should it have a chance to run loose is still around. However, people today have long forgotten why they are doing all this, except that they feel the color and the sound add to the excitement of the celebration.

From this quote, we as Muslims are not to burn fire-crackers as it is an act very much associated to the belief that it helps scare away the monster, as advised by the immortal god. The same goes to red paper decorations.

3. Spring cleaning

It is popularly recognized as the Spring Festival and celebrations last 15 days. During this time people start buying presents, decoration materials, food and clothing. A huge clean-up gets underway days before the New Year, when Chinese houses are cleaned from top to bottom. This ritual is supposed to sweep away all traces of bad luck. Doors and windowpanes are often given a new coat of paint, usually red, then decorated with paper cuts and couplets with themes such as happiness, wealth and longevity printed on them.

This proves that the Spring Cleaning tradition is related to the belief of getting rid of omen and bad luck, which opposes the Belief in the Decree of Allah. As mentioned: “This ritual is supposed to sweep away all traces of bad luck”. It is even known as a ritual.

4. The Dinner

Dinner is usually a feast of seafood and dumplings, signifying different good wishes. Delicacies include prawns, for liveliness and happiness, dried oysters ( ho xi), for all things good, fish dishes or Yau-Yu to bring good luck and prosperity, Fai-chai (Angel Hair), an edible hair-like seaweed to bring prosperity, and dumplings boiled in water (Jiaozi) signifying a long-lasting good wish for a family. It is customary to wear something red as this colour is meant to ward off evil spirits. But black and white are frowned upon, as these are associated with mourning. After dinner, families sit up for the night playing cards, board games or watching television programmes dedicated to the occasion. At midnight, fireworks light up the sky.

Although having a meal is no harm in Islam as long as the food is halal and beneficial and not harmful, yet the belief that so and so food bring about fortune, prosperity and to attend the dinner wearing garment of specific colour to ward off evil are beliefs which contradict the Islamic Creed.

5. The Red packets or “Hong Bao”

On the day itself, an ancient custom called Hong Bao, meaning Red Packet, takes place. This involves married couples giving children and unmarried adults money in red envelopes. Then the family begins to say greetings from door to door, first to their relatives and then to their neighbours. Like the Western saying “let bygones be bygones,” at Chinese New Year, grudges are very easily cast aside.

Tributes are made to ancestors by burning incense and the symbolic offering of foods. As firecrackers burst in the air, evil spirits are scared away by the sound of the explosions. At the Festival, all traditions are honored. The predominant colors are red and gold. “Good Wish” banners are hung from the ceilings and walls. The “God of Fortune” is there to give Hong Baos. Lion dancers perform on stage continuously.

Visitors take home plants and flowers symbolizing good luck. An array of New Years specialty food is available in the Food Market. Visitors purchase new clothing, shoes and pottery at the Market Fair. Bargaining for the best deal is commonplace!

The colour “Red” again and “God of Fortune is there to give Hong Baos”, as mentioned earlier is directly linked to false beliefs.

6. Oranges

Tangerines in Chinese language sound similar to the word “luck” and orange sounds like the Chinese word for “wealth”. Through the play of words, the Chinese is associating the gift of orange and tangerine as having an abundance of happiness and prosperity. The bright orange color of the fruits also symbolizes ‘gold’; hence it has an auspicious meaning to bring in good luck and wealth. This is a very important factor for the Chinese new year celebration. Hence, you will find tangerine and orange fruits, being displayed in houses, offices and shops as they believe it will usher in good fortune for the occupants. They are also served to guests as well as given as gifts to family members and friends.

Hence, it is very much intertwined with beliefs.

7. Chingay or “The Lantern Festival”

Chingay or “The Lantern Festival” which marks the end of Chinese New Year. In China is a festival celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first month in the lunisolar year in the lunar calendar marking the last day of the lunar New Year celebration. It is not to be confused with the Mid-Autumn Festival; which is sometimes also known as the “Lantern Festival” in locations such as Singapore and Malaysia. The Chingay Parade is an annual street parade held in celebration with the birthdays of the Chinese deities or the procession of the Goddess of Mercy (Guanyin) as part of the Chinese New Year festivities. It was held to worship and enjoy with the deity. During the earliest procession in more than 100 years ago, the earliest English newspapers Echo in Malaysia adopted the word Chingay Procession for this special event.

8. Greeting and Well wishes

Since we have understood clearly that this Celebration and the activities surrounding it, are opposing the teachings of Islam, a true Muslim, with all due respect to the elderly, will not commit any form of disobedience, worst when matters of shirk (false belief that negates one’s Islamic Creed) are concerned. A true Muslim, adhering to the Quranic and Prophetic teachings, holding steadfast to the ways of the Righteous Predecessors and safeguarding his faith, will not get himself involved in these shirk activities. How can he/she even greet them and wish them well in committing acts of shirk which will not be pardoned by Allah, even if one is not participating?

9. The Do’s

When it involves only strengthening ties of kinship and it is purely customary and not against Islamic values and teachings, with no relation whatsoever to any ritual act or places or occasion of rites, Wallahu a‘lam (Allah knows best), only then it is permissible.

Explanation from the trustworthy scholars

The Prophet (peace be upon him) made it very clear that in Islam there are two festivals or holidays. These are the Eid festivals. The celebrations and holidays of a people are from among the actions that most distinguish one people from another. He (peace be upon him) said:

“Whoever imitates (or resembles) a people is one of them.”[1]

In another saying, he (peace be upon him) gave a clear warning to the Muslims in regards to imitating the non-Muslims in their ritualistic practices:

“He who imitates a people will be from among them (on the Day of Judgement).”[2]

Therefore, it is not allowed for Muslims to participate in the holidays or celebrations of the non-Muslims. If one says my intention is not enjoin in the celebration but just to be courteous, then we need evidence from the Prophet (peace be upon him)’s life whether he or his companions ever did the same when the festivals of the non-Muslims at their time came. On the contrary, we have this saying from a companion of the Prophet (peace be upon him):

“The Prophet (peace be upon him) arrived in Madeenah while people were celebrating two particular festivals, so he asked: “What is (the significance of) these two days?” Some people replied: ‘They are days which we used to celebrate during the pre-Islamic era.’ So the Messenger (peace be upon him) replied: “Allāh has replaced them for you with two days which are better, the day of ‘Eed Al-Fitr and ‘Eed Al-Adh-haa””[3]

There are other evidences and rulings given by scholars of early times, which further brings to our attention the severe danger in being part of a celebration that has roots coming from polytheism, charms and hearsay- all of which is strictly forbidden in Islam.

As Muslims, we are meant to be people who call people to the true and pure way of life. Here is a reminder for us all from Allāh Himself:

“You are the best ummah (group of people) singled out for mankind: you enjoin what is right (ma’roof), forbid what is wrong (munkar), and believe in Allāh .”[4]

To sum up, as Muslims, when such times come around, there is indeed something we can do and in fact it should be something which we should be doing on a regular basis – making Dua (pray) that Allāh who is Al-Hādī, the One who guides, open the hearts of all those who are astray to accept the way of life which will salvage their current and more importantly their hereafter. May Allāh guide us all.

References

[1] Sunan Abu Dawud
[2] Sunan Abu Dawud
[3] Sunan Abu Dawud
[4] Al-Qur’ān | 3:110

Click here to get a free copy of the Qur’ān in English or Chinese.

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Written by Adeel Malik

Born in Hong Kong, grew up in Scotland and ethnically Pakistani, Adeel primes himself to be a multicultural individual who is an advent social media user for the purpose of learning and propagating Islam while is also a sports fan. Being an English teacher himself, he envisions a bright future for Muslims which he strongly believes can only be done with education.

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