There’s More to Salam Than Meets the Eye
إِذَا حُيِّيتُمْ بِتَحِيَّةٍ فَحَيُّوا بِأَحْسَنَ مِنْهَا أَوْ رُدُّوهَا إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَلَى كُلِّ شَيْءٍ حَسِيبًا
When you are greeted with a greeting, return it with a better greeting or [at least] its equal. Surely God takes account of all things. [Q.4:86]
Of course, there’s much more to offering the greetings of salam – which, by the way, is recommended to initiate and obligatory to respond to 1 – than meets the eye. It’s more than just a verbal gesture. And it’s certainly more than just saying “hello”.
Mutual greetings of salam; of peace, is a well-established prophetic practice,2 behind which is the idea of spreading goodness and love among the believers. In initiating greetings of peace, we show our good will and intent towards fellow Muslims. For we are asking God for His peace, mercy, blessings and protection to be showered upon all those we meet and greet. No wonder, then, that the famous sahabi, Ibn ‘Umar, would go to his local market with no other motive than to spread the greetings of salams to all whom he would meet; whether friend or stranger.3
The above verse teaches us that it is preferred to reply with a better greeting, but required to at least return an equal greeting. So, for instance, if one is greeted with: al-salamu ‘alaykum, it is preferred to reply with: wa ‘alaykum al-salam wa rahmatullah (or even adding: wa barakatuhu). Failing that, one returns an equal greeting (in this case, wa ‘alaykum al-salam). Again, if someone greets us with: al-salamu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullah, the above verse obligates us to at the very least reply with its equal: wa ‘alaykum al-salam wa rahmatullah. Falling short of this is failing to be brotherly or sisterly, and is failing to comply with a Quranic command.
Of course, when ignorance of such basic codes of behaviour abounds, one should be thoughtful where one gives the full greeting of salam, just in case the listener[s] won’t respond with an equal greeting and thereby possibly be sinful!
Some have emphasised that although the norm and recommendation among us Muslims is to greet each other with salam, the above verse applies to any greeting, by any person. Thus, if a non-Muslim greets us with a simple “hello” or “good morning,” one replies with a better response (“hello, and I hope you’re well,” for instance), or at least an equal greeting.
Whenever greeted with a warm, smiling salam, the same verse teaches us to reciprocate with nothing less: in other words, a warm, smiling reply. The cold, zombie-faced, I’ve-just-come-back-from-a-funeral type of salam, that is all too often thrown about, is simply not good enough! The Qur’an sees this as being mean-spirited and of poor character. If one’s intent, even as one is greeting another with salam, is to do them some harm or to later speak ill of them behind their back, then that is unlikely to be due to poor character. Rather, such an act has a distinct stench of hypocrisy.
The hope in all of this is that, not only would we learn to demonstrate our good will to others; or be caring enough to invoke blessings and goodness upon them as our norm; but that we’d also learn to become people who, by our very nature, are eager to give back more than we receive. A community in which love of giving and goodness is nurtured – at first as a religious instruction; but then as a spiritual and selfless ideal – is a community that begins to reflect the mutual relationship God wishes for us to make real throughout the wider human collective. But it has to start with individuals who are seeking to become better people for the sake of God.
So all that is left to say is: wa’l-salamu ‘alaykum [wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu].
1. See: al-Hajjawi, Sharh Manzumat al-Adab al-Shar‘iyyah (Saudi Arabia: Wazirat al-Sh’un al-Islamiyyah, n.d.), 186, 190.
2. Cf. al-Bukhari, no.3148; Muslim, no.2841. Also cf. al-Tirmidhi, no.2485, where he graded the hadith as sahih.
3. Consult: Malik, al-Muwatta, nos.961-62.