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Imitating disbelievers (tashabbuh) is forbidden:

...the Messenger (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him) definitively prohibited it and said: “Whoever imitates a people is one of them.” -- Islam Q&A

Thus, if we imitate a disbeliever, we are essentially a disbeliever. It's quite important, therefore, to determine when one is imitating a disbeliever and when one just happens to have something in common with a disbeliever.

Question: How to distinguish "imitation" from "doing the same thing"?

Presumably, something like reading a newspaper would not amount to imitating a disbeliever, despite the fact that disbelievers read newspapers.

Something like eating hot cross buns might be more borderline, as while the cross represents a crucifix, in my experience, they're ordinarily going to be eaten without much thought of Christianity. (They're eaten here in China all year round, and I doubt they're cooked with any realization of the "cross = crucifix" symbolism.)

Also coming into play are:

  1. Simply being friendly. It could be interpreted as being rude and elitist to have a deliberate aversion to what one might perceive as imitation.

  2. Whether or not one intends imitation. E.g. saying "merry Christmas" out of politeness is something many non-Christians do.

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    IMO the intention is the key. However Islam or more exactly Quran doesn't support blind imitation, therefore one is asked to know or at least try to know the ruling of anytging he/she is up to in order to distinguish right from wrong. – Medi1Saif Dec 25 '16 at 9:35
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I think this question can be approached from a philosophical point of view. Consider the following situation:

  1. Person A meets Person B on the street.
  2. Person B is Christian and invites Person A to go to church with them on Sunday.
  3. Person A accepts the invitation.
  4. At church, Person A reads the prayers aloud along with the rest of the congregation.
  5. Person A believes the words of the prayers.

IMHO, Person A is not "imitating" Person B until step 5. Since "belief" is a personal matter, by my definition it's not possible for anyone (except God) to know if Person A is truly imitating Person B, and therefore it would be unfair to claim that Person A did anything wrong unless you could read their mind.

That being said, I believe the rule is intended to be interpreted more strictly, because humans are social by nature and consequently very easily indoctrinated with new ideas and influenced by those we associate closely with. To prevent true "imitation", one needs to potentially make rules forbidding acts prior to step 5, for fear that without rules people will gradually change their beliefs, whether intentional or not. This is a double-edged sword though, because while it helps the religion to survive, it also opens the door for individuals with extreme views to distort the value systems they teach, and protect it against outside corrective influence under the guise of forbidding "imitation" of those who think differently than they do.

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