A Word of Peace

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A Word of Peace

Category : Values

By Sohaib Saeed

It may have become something of a cliché that Islam means peace, or is a religion of peace. Yet there is no doubt that the pursuit of peace is a central goal of this life, just as we strive to arrive at the Abode of Peace after we die. When the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said “Spread peace”, it was a sign that his followers should feel that they have this role upon the earth: to be bearers of peace.

The greeting of peace – in Arabic, expressed with the word salām – is one of the great symbols of Islamic ethics and is heard upon the tongues of the Prophets in the Qur’an as well as the Bible. To extend the word of peace to those you know and those you do not, is to put them at ease and engender an atmosphere of trust. It is a covenant extended to all who will accept to live in peace with us, and a precursor to getting to know one another as the Qur’an instructs.

In a verse exemplifying constructive reciprocity, Almighty God says: {And when you are greeted with a greeting, then greet with something better than it, or return it (in kind).} (Qur’an 4:86)

While the scholars have discussed in detail the wordings of such greetings and their replies, the spirit of this verse is to take positivity and build upon it before passing it on. Every society will benefit from this lesson, and it ought to be kept in mind when interacting within our own community as well as engaging with others.

It is also the case that knowing our scripture and its higher purposes – and reflecting on the localised contexts of its application – will enable us to benefit from divine guidance in living among people, inviting them through our words and actions to a life of peace and fulfilment. In particular, I have in mind the reservations Muslims often have when it comes to sharing this greeting of peace with non-Muslims.

Perhaps, were it not for the way the following two Prophetic narrations have been understood, they would not doubt for a moment that it is their duty to greet every human being with a smile and peaceful greeting. It would seem completely natural to promote a shared culture built upon this word of peace.

Returning Peace

The first is the hadith recorded by Imam al-Bukhārī, that the Prophet (pbuh) said: “When the People of Scripture greet you (with salām), then say: And on you.” This has widely been considered as a general rule, yet such a shortened reply – without mentioning peace explicitly – would seem to conflict with the general Quranic principle of returning better or equal.

The matter becomes clearer with reference to the context in which the Prophetic instruction was given. Another hadith in al-Bukhari says: “When the Jews greet you, one of them will say: ‘Death (sām) be upon you’, so reply: And on you.” In other reports, the Prophet’s wife heard this taking place on an occasion and was overtaken with anger, responding with more insults. But God’s Messenger (pbuh) said: “Take it easy ʿĀʾisha, for God loves gentleness in all things. Did you not hear me respond to them by saying ‘And on you’?” Indeed, death is written upon every human soul. Moreover, the evil wished upon the Prophet by those speakers only rebounded and became a certainty for them. The Prophetic way is to refuse to be drawn into the exchange of insults and lowly words.

Imam Ibn al-Qayyim was acutely conscious of this context when he stated that the instruction to limit the reply to ‘And on you’ is specific to cases where it is certain – or at least likely – that the original ‘greeting’ contained malice (i.e. sām in place of salām). As for such a case where it is known that the greeting was indeed the greeting of peace, he says: “What the legal evidences and principles entail is that one should reply with ‘And on you be peace’. Such is justice, and Allah commands justice (ʿadl) and benevolence (iḥsān).”

Commenting on the verse Q 4:86 and the generality of its instruction, he states: “Allah made increase recommended, but the equal reply obligatory. This by no means contradicts the hadith reports on the subject, because the Prophet (pbuh) only instructed to limit the reply to ‘And on you’ due to that curse which they used to intend in their greetings.”

He goes on to say concerning the prohibition in the hadith: “Even though the generality of the wording is to be considered, that generality only encompasses cases equivalent to the original case mentioned, not such as differ from it… Thus if the reason no longer obtains and the [non-Muslim] says ‘Peace be upon you and the mercy of Allah,’ justice in greeting entails that we respond with its like.”

It is narrated that al-Shaʿbī – one of the leading scholars of the early generations – was greeted by a Christian and replied, “On you be peace and the mercy of God.” When someone questioned him about it, he said: “Does he not live in the mercy of God?”

Offering Peace

If responding in kind has met with disapproval from many of the Muslims, this has applied more to proactively greeting non-Muslims with salām. This is due to the second hadith which we will seek to understand in its context and in the light of general principles. In the authentic compilation of Imam Muslim, we learn that God’s Messenger (pbuh) said: “Do not be first to offer the Jews and Christians the greeting of peace”.

However, here again context plays an important role. The remainder of that narration says “If you meet one of them in the street, drive him to its narrowest point.” This is evidently linked to a situation of conflict, not an ordinary state of living side by side. This becomes clearer when looking at other authentic narrations in which this prohibition appears alongside a specific reasoning. For example: “I am riding tomorrow to the Jews, so do not be first to greet them.”

Ibn al-Qayyim noted in Zād al-Maʿād that some early scholars took note of this latter group of narrations and synergised them to conclude that the prohibition was restricted to the case of open conflict with the Jews of Banū Qurayẓa, and by extension to similar cases in the future. The author himself sided with the view that it is a general rule.

However, noted scholars including Sh. Yūsuf al-Qaraḍāwī and the late Sh. Faiṣal Mawlawī – and before them Sh. Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā – have supported the case for considering the prohibition to be limited to cases of war. In the words of Riḍā: “It may have been for specific reasons caused by the state of conflict between them and the Muslims, in which they [Banū Qurayẓa etc.] were the aggressors… It becomes clear [from additional narrations] that he (pbuh) forbade them from extending the word of peace because it entails security. He did not wish to make them feel secure while he was not secure from them, given their history of violating treaties with him. Thus leaving off salām was to inspire fear which would push them to comply.”

If this is the context, then it ought not to be enacted wherever the following verse applies: {Allah does not forbid you, concerning those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes, from being righteous toward them and acting justly toward them} (Q 60:8). This is the banner under which we live in a multi-faith society – whether as majorities or minorities – and part of righteous treatment (birr) is to greet with peace.

There are evidences from the Qur’an to support this practice, presented in detail by Sh. Mawlawī. One example is the verse which says: {And when they hear ill speech, they turn away from it and say: ‘For us are our deeds, and for you are your deeds. Peace be upon you (salāmun ʿalaykum); we seek not the ignorant.’} (Q 28:55). Here, even in the context of parting in distaste, the Muslims are instructed to use the word of peace rather than any other. In his explanation of Q 43:89, Sh. Muḥammad Amīn al-Shinqīṭī noted: “This verse indicates that [the Prophet (pbuh)] is to address the unbelievers with the word peace. Almighty God has explained that saying peace to the unbelievers is the way of His righteous devotees.” He then cited several verses including that in which Prophet Ibrāhīm said to his father: {Peace be upon you} (Q 19:47).

Imam al-Nawawī recorded in his commentary upon Ṣaḥīh Muslim that various authorities – including Ibn ʿAbbās, Abū Umāma and Ibn Muḥayrīzconsidered it permissible, and added that it is one of the views in the Shāfiʿī school of jurisprudence. The same applies to the other schools, although the preponderant view in each is that initiation is not allowed.

Imam al-Qurṭubī stated that among early scholars who approved extending salām to non-Muslims was Sufyān b. ʿUyayna, who cited several proofs including the verse of harmonious living quoted above (Q 60:8). Al-Qurṭubī supported this view, and cited a statement of al-Nakhaʿī indicating that such greetings would normally be extended when there is a need or a right, such as that of a companion or neighbour.

It is narrated that Ibn Masʿūd (may Allah be pleased with him) did so to an important person he accompanied on his way. When he was asked, “Is that not disliked?”, he replied: “Yes, but it is the right of companionship.” It is also reported that Abū Umāma (may Allah be pleased with him) would greet anyone he passed on his way home, whether Muslim or Christian, young or old. When he was questioned about this, he said: “We have been commanded to spread peace.”

This is the message that I wish to reach the hearts and minds of Muslims who live in peace with people of other faiths. Yet we can disagree without mutual condemnation. After all, as Imam al-Awzāʿī stated when asked on this issue: “If you should greet, then the righteous [before you] did greet. And if you should leave it, the righteous [before you] did leave it.”

Final observations

The discussions as found in Islamic commentaries and works of jurisprudence pertain to the specific wording of salām, not any other greeting. It seems that many scholars concluded that it is a specific greeting to be used among the Muslims. The fact that it is a word with such a universal importance, together with the general principles in our religion that encourage spreading peace and inviting to it, presented a difficulty such that scholars sometimes presented strained  justifications for excluding non-Muslims from receiving the word of peace, due to the hadiths indicating prohibition.

However, when we reflect on the account of some Jews twisting the words of greeting in the time of the Prophet (pbuh), we realise that this greeting was originally exchanged by all and not exclusive by any means. The Muslims who were commanded to “Spread peace” were to promote this concept and spread positive interaction among all humanity. I am not sure whether trying to prevent people from being influenced by our manners and adopting our practices reflects a superiority or  inferiority complex, but it is not the way demonstrated by the Prophet (pbuh) and his companions. After all, an authentic hadith informs us that the greeting of peace was taught to the first human being, Prophet Adam (pbuh), and designated as the greeting of all his descendants. This is something we can share regardless of differences in religion.

It should also be recognised that much of the discussion in previous times has used terms like “the people of covenant (dhimma)” rather than saying Jews and Christians, or simply non-Muslims. While I do not share the hysterical views of some concerning this term, it is obvious that any discussion of interfaith relations in modern times needs to take account of the changed global landscape and the various conditions in which people live side by side today, as equal citizens rather than rulers and ruled. As such, this article’s suggested re-evaluation of Muslim attitudes to returning and initiating greetings of peace – though based upon classical scholarship to a large extent – is an example of how changing circumstances may bring about different conclusions without disrespecting those who came before.


Mawlawi, Al-salām ʿalā Ahl al-Kitāb Ruʾya Fiqhiyya [online article]

Al-Qaraḍāwī, Fiqh al-Jihād (Wahba 2010), pp. 1055-1058

Ibn al-Qayyim, Aḥkām Ahl al-Dhimma (Ramādī lil-Nashr), pp. 409-426

Tafsīr al-Qurṭubī, sub. Q 19:47

Riḍā, Tafsīr al-Manār, sub. Q 4:86

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