Offering Greetings to Non-Muslims

Adil Salahi
Publication Date: 
Fri, 2003-06-06 03:00

Some people suggest that non-Muslims should not be offered the same greetings as Muslims. It is well-known that the Islamic greeting is one of peace. It uses the word Salam, which is one of God’s names. Hence, it should not be offered to a non-Muslim. However, when we look at Hadiths that refer to this subject, several points become apparent.

A Hadith reported by Abu Basrah Al-Ghifari mentions that the Prophet said to his companions: “I am going to visit the Jews tomorrow. Do not begin by offering them the greeting of Salam. Should they offer it to you, then say: ‘And to you’.” (Related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad, Ahmad and Al-Nassaie)

The import of this Hadith is clear. The Prophet’s companions who would be traveling with him were instructed not to start by offering the Jews the greeting of peace. They were to reply when offered a greeting by giving a reduced form which returns the same greeting to the speakers.

Thus, we have here clear instructions to adopt what may be described in modern terms as a strictly formal attitude. The question that may be asked here is whether this applies in all situations or on that particular occasion?

There is nothing in Islam that prevents us from developing and maintaining good and friendly relations with non-Muslims, particularly those who are citizens in an Islamic state, or those who enter into a peaceful agreement with the Muslim community.

The Prophet says that harming such a non-Muslim is like causing harm to the Prophet himself. The Prophet’s companions were keen to follow his teachings and they maintained very good relations with their non-Muslim neighbors. However, the Islamic greeting is a very special one because it uses a name of God, and it should always be answered in the same form or in an even better one.

Hence it should be offered only to those who are certain to answer it properly. Those who do not may be greeted in a different way, such as we wish them good morning, or good day.

From another point of view, the Jews of Madinah used to twist their tongues with the Islamic greeting so as to give it a different meaning. A Hadith related by Abdullah ibn Umar quotes the Prophet as saying: “When a Jew offers you a greeting of peace, he actually says: as-Saam alaik. Hence, you better reply by saying ‘and to you’.” (Related by Al-Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawood and Al-Nassaie)

Here the Prophet alerts his companions to the way the Jews used to twist their tongues when they said their greeting in order to alter its meaning. The correct form of the Islamic greeting is as-Salam alaik, when offered in the singular, and adding the plural makes it alaikum, when offered to more than one person.

The Prophet points out that the Jews used to omit the letter ‘l’, so as to make the first word sound as Saam, which is an Arabic word that means death.

Thus, they wished death to the addressee while giving him the impression that they were wishing him peace. Hence, the Prophet tells his companions to return their wish to them.

Apparently some of the Jews in Madinah thought that this was a way to ridicule the Muslims, laughing at them privately. Anas reports: “A Jew passed by the Prophet and said: as-Saam alaikum, and the Prophet’s companions returned the greeting as though he said his greeting properly, wishing them peace. The Prophet said to them that the man said as-Saam alaikum. The Jew was held and, on questioning, he admitted (that what the Prophet said was true). The Prophet said to them: ‘Return his wish to him.’” (Related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad as well as Muslim, Abu Dawood and Al-Nassaie)

This Hadith speaks of a practical example of what the Jews used to say, changing the words of the greeting so as to wish the Muslims death. In other reports of this incident, some Muslims were really angry at the Jew who thought that he could fool so many Muslims as they sat with the Prophet. Therefore one or two of them suggested that they should kill the Jew. However, the Prophet put the matter into the right perspective and told them to return his wish to him.

It should be said that the reaction of those companions of the Prophet was a natural one, but the Prophet stressed that they should deal with others according to Islamic standards.

Another Hadith stresses the same point. “A number of Jews came to the Prophet and instead of offering the proper greeting, they said: ‘As-Saam alaikum’. The Prophet answered: ‘And to you.’ His wife, Aishah, was nearby and she said: ‘And to you be death and God’s curse.’ The Prophet told her to be patient and cool down. She said: ‘Have you not heard what they said.’ The Prophet said: ‘Yes, I have, and I replied. Our wish will be answered while theirs will not.’” (Related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad and Muslim).

Again the Prophet urges his wife to be patient and to reply to the insult in a cool way.

He assures her that their wish will not be answered because God does not answer a wish for harm against an innocent person. However, the reply is answered because it is from the aggrieved party.

It was the Jews who started this, trying to fool the Muslims and ridicule them. Hence, they are totally in the wrong. On the other hand, if one is to carry this too far and repay the offender in an unjust way, he would be in the wrong.

Some Muslims feel that these Hadiths mean that we should not offer the Islamic greeting to non-Muslims. There is no strict rule to suggest so. The rule that applies to Muslims and non-Muslims alike is that if a non-Muslim offers us the Islamic greeting of peace, we return it at least in equal measure, but it is always preferable to return a greeting with a better one. Abu Musa Al-Ash’ari wrote to a priest and offered him the greeting of peace.

He was questioned about this, and he explained: “He wrote to me offering me this greeting, and I am replying to him.” This shows that Abu Musa, a scholar companion of the Prophet, understood the Islamic criterion.

A Muslim does not fail to reply to a greeting with a better one, or at least a similar one. Moreover, there is nothing sacred about the Islamic greeting of peace. We offer it to all, if they are willing to offer it to us. This is supported by Ibn Abbas who says: “Return the greeting of peace to a Jew, a Christian or a Majian. God says: ‘When a greeting is offered you, answer it with an even better greeting, or (at least) with its like.’ (4: 86)” (Related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad)

Arab News Islam 6 June 2003

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