KUALA LUMPUR • The most senior Islamic cleric in Kuala Lumpur has weighed in on a debate on whether Malaysian Muslims are permitted by their faith to wish Christians "Merry Christmas".
Mufti Zulkifli Mohamad Al- Bakri, the government-appointed chief cleric for the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya and Labuan, said on his Facebook page that he had received many questions on this matter in the run-up to Christmas.
He cited a 2007 edict by Malaysia's national fatwa committee - which comprises the country's most senior Islamic clerics - that said sending greetings to non- Muslims during their festive seasons was "permissible", as long as such greetings did not glorify non- Muslim faiths or use religious symbols.
"It's no more than a mere greeting to express happiness and enjoyment upon seeing the happiness of those celebrating," the mufti said in a statement on Monday. He said the greeting is permissible when it is a congratulatory expression on the celebration of other faiths without glorifying their religion.
Growing Islamic conservatism in multicultural Malaysia has tested relations between communities.
The Christmas greeting issue had surfaced in 2014, when an activist with conservative Muslim group Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia said it was not proper for Muslims to celebrate Christmas or wish Christian friends a happy celebration.
The broader issue of greeting non-Muslims in Malaysia during their festivals blew up in 2006, before the fatwa committee's ruling.
The then head of insurance company Takaful Malaysia's Islamic law department told his Muslim staff via e-mail that Deepavali involved the worship of Hindu deities, so issuing greetings was equivalent to practising polytheism and against the tenets of Islam.
At the time, Datuk Abdullah Mohamad Zin, a minister from the Prime Minister's Department and a religious adviser to the Prime Minister, blasted such views, saying that pleasantries were important for racial harmony. Mr Abdullah said: "He has no authority to say Muslims shouldn't wish Hindus (well) because that is like a fatwa ", which only government Islamic bodies could issue.
Similar sensitivities have again cropped up in the region. Last week, the Indonesian Ulema Council issued an edict prohibiting Muslims from donning non-Muslim "attributes" such as Santa hats.
Malaysians have also debated for years whether the word "Allah", the Arabic word for God, should be for exclusive use by Muslims, when the same word is also used by Sikhs and by Christians who speak Malay.
For Mr Zulkifli, his recent statement on Christmas greetings was not his first effort to foster goodwill. In January, he met - and warmly hugged - Archbishop Julian Leow Beng Kim, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur.
"Many issues were discussed together, especially those pertaining to the concept of a diverse society, tolerance and the spirit of respecting each other's faiths," Mr Zulkifli wrote on his Facebook page then.