Salaam - The Islamic Greeting

Salaam - The Islamic Greeting
[Adil Salahi]

Muslims all over the world use the Islamic form of greeting, "Assalamu alaikum", which means peace be to you.

The very wording helps generate a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. It is also common in its shorter and longer forms to all Muslim communities wherever they happen to be. Thus, when two Muslims meet who are total strangers to each other, the moment they use this greeting, they immediately feel that they have common grounds, even when they do not speak each other's languages.

The Islamic greeting has different versions, the shortest of which is the one we have already mentioned. The rule in Islam is that when we are offered a greeting, we return it with a better one, or with its equal at least. God orders in the Qur'an:

"When a greeting is offered you, answer it with an even better greeting, or (at least) with its like. God keeps count of all things."
[Surah an-Nur; 4: 86]

The better greeting and reply are illustrated in the following Hadith. Umar (radiAllahu anhu) reports that he was riding with Abu Bakr (radiAllahu anhu) on one mount. When they passed by people, Abu Bakr (radiAllahu anhu) greeted them saying: 'Assalamu alaikum' and they replied: 'Wa alaikum assalam wa rahmatu Allah.' Or he may greet them saying: 'Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatu Allah,' for which their reply was: 'Wa alaikum assalam wa rahmatu Allah wa barakatuh.' Abu Bakr (radiAllahu anhu) commented: "Today, people have gained much more than us." [Sahih al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad]

We note that every time Abu Bakr (radiAllahu anhu) offered a greeting, its reply was the same with an addition. The first one was the short form of the greeting of peace. The reply stated: 'Wa alaikum assalam wa rahmatu Allah.' This means: 'And to you be peace together with God's mercy.' Thus, the reply adds a prayer that the person who offered us a greeting should be blessed with God's mercy, both in this life and in the life to come.
When the person who starts the greeting includes in it this same prayer for mercy to the one being accosted, the latter replies with yet another addition, 'wa barakatuh,' which adds a wish for Allah's blessing to the one who took advantage and offered us a friendly greeting. Abu Bakr (radiAllahu anhu's) comment at the end of the Hadith shows that he was pleased with the fact that people always replied to his greeting with a better one.

These are the normal form of greetings mostly used in Muslim communities. Rarely does a greeting go beyond these. It is reported that a man from the
Yemen visited Abdullah ibn Abbas (radiAllahu anhu) and greeted him with the full greeting 'Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatu Allah wa barakatuh,' but added something extra. Ibn Abbas told him: 'A greeting of peace ends with the wish for God's blessings.' This means that Ibn Abbas thought that such addition is unnecessary.

However, Kharijah ibn Zaid, a scholar of very high standing who belonged to the generation that followed the Prophet's companions, i.e. the tabieen, used to write when he addressed the caliph: 'Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatu Allah wa barakatuh wa maghfiratuh wa tayyib salawatih.'

The added last phrases express a prayer that the addressee will also have Allah's forgiveness and special blessings. Kharijah would not have added these phrases if he had the slightest doubt about such addition being appropriate. His father was distinguished among the Prophet's companions for his scholarship. When we have two reputable scholars expressing opposite views, we say that one of them was aware of something the other did not know. Perhaps Kharijah was aware that when addressing a person of eminence, the use of additional phrases would be in order.

Another Hadith that speaks of the importance of the wording of the Islamic greeting quotes the Prophet  as saying: 'The Jews do not envy you for anything more than they do for the greeting of peace and saying Aameen.' This Hadith stresses the special distinction given to the Islamic greeting.

The Jews the Prophet  refers to here are the ones with profound knowledge, such as the well- versed rabbis. They are the ones to appreciate the significance of the Islamic greeting, assalamu alaikum.

Aameen is a word which we say when someone addresses a prayer to God. It signifies a request made to God to answer his prayer. This makes the prayer a collective one, with all those who are present joining their fellow Muslim in an appeal to God on behalf of the one who is saying that prayer. But why would the Jews be envious of our greeting?

The word 'Salam', which means peace, is also a name of Allah. Using it in our greeting is a constant reminder of the special relation between a believer and Allah.

We have already mentioned that the Prophet has encouraged us to use the Islamic greeting often, and with all people. But how important is it to greet others?

To answer this question we mention a Hadith reported by Abu Hurairah (radiAllahu anhu) who quotes the Prophet  as saying: 'A Muslim has a right against his fellow Muslim in six ways.' Asked what were these, the Prophet  said:

'(1)When you meet him, greet him;
(2) if he invites you, accept his invitation;
(3) if he seeks your advice, give him an honest and sincere advice;
(4) if he sneezes and praises God, bless him;
(5) if he falls ill, visit him; and
(6) if he dies, attend his funeral.'
[Sahih al-Bukhari and Muslim]

The Hadith is clear in making it a duty of a Muslim to offer a greeting to his fellow-Muslim when they meet. The one who takes the initiative is in a better position. Although offering a greeting is a sunnah, which means that it is highly recommended, returning a greeting is obligatory. The other five aspects also help to cement relations within the Muslim community. All of them fall within the category of Sunnah, except for giving an honest advice, which is obligatory. A person who is asked for advice commits a sin if he deliberately and knowingly gives the wrong advice. To do so is dishonest, and dishonesty is forbidden in Islam.

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