Can you say ‘salam’ to non-Muslims? Understanding hadith.
Suhail and Abu Huraira (may Allah be please with them) narrated that the Prophet (peace be on him) said:
حَدَّثَنَا قُتَيْبَةُ بْنُ سَعِيدٍ، حَدَّثَنَا عَبْدُ الْعَزِيزِ، – يَعْنِي الدَّرَاوَرْدِيَّ – عَنْ سُهَيْلٍ، عَنْ أَبِيهِ، عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ، أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ “ لاَ تَبْدَءُوا الْيَهُودَ وَلاَ النَّصَارَى بِالسَّلاَمِ فَإِذَا لَقِيتُمْ أَحَدَهُمْ فِي طَرِيقٍ فَاضْطَرُّوهُ إِلَى أَضْيَقِهِ ”
‘Do not greet the Jews and the Christian’s before they greet you, and when you meet any of them on the road force him to go to the narrowest part of it’ [Sahih Muslim 2167a -Book 39, Hadith 16]
First impressions of a hadith
This may be the first time you come across this hadith. At first glance it is a bit disturbing. The most concerning issue is that it contradicts the general guidance of Islam. We know that there is no contradiction between the Quran and the sunnah, therefore no hadith can contradict the general guidance of the Quran or Sunnah.
The general guidance in Islam is to show mercy (rahma) and have good character, and be an agent of goodness. Therefore when a hadith such as this one appears to contradict this, this suggests that there is something wrong with it such as the authenticity, the narrator or the context of the hadith.
In fact, this hadith is an excellent example of how the muhaddith critique hadith. We will go through the methodology of how we find out what such hadith narrations really mean, when they appear to be conflicting with the main principles of Islam.
The very first thing you need to do with any hadith is check its authenticity. If a hadith is not authentic, you need not proceed with the rest of the steps.
Check the authenticity by looking at the reference, the narrator, and which book it appears in. In this instance the hadith has been narrated in Sahih Muslim which means that it is authentic. Sahih Muslim and Sahih Bukhari are the highest levels of authenticity, and we do not dismiss their narrations as weak, unlike narrations from other collections, like Tabarani.
Next you check the chain of transmitters of the hadith. The narrator of this hadith is Suhail bin Abi Salih. In this hadith, there are three people before the Prophet (peace be on him): Suhail, his father and then Abu Hurayrah may Allah be pleased with him.
Suhail bin abi Saleh is the narrator of the hadith, and the issues arise from him. This is the summary of a lot of research, including a recent and comprehensive 44-page research paper on this hadith by Dr Hakim Al Mutayri who managed to get to the bottom of the issues.
The first narrator of this hadith is Suhail, not Abu Hurairah. Suhail was one of the great hafidh and muhadith (scholar of Hadith). However when you read his biography you discover that he lost his brother who was very beloved to him. The trauma caused by this loss led to psychological illness due to which he forgot many of his narrations.
In the science of hadith, for this reason, scholars distinguish between different periods in the lives of narrators. For instance, Suhail was one of the Shuyukh of Imam Malik, and Imam Malik narrated from him. However, there is a distinction made between the period before he suffered the loss and his memory was impacted and the period before when he was fine. If there is a narration from the period after his memory was affected, we are careful in taking it. If the hadith is in line with other similar narrations we take it, if it conflicts or raises doubts, we park it and we do not use it.
You might ask why did Imam Muslim narrate this hadith from Suhail in his Sahih. Imam Bukhari chose not to narrate from Suhail except on three occasions from him, as he was not satisfied that Suhail met his criteria. He did not include his hadith in his matn.
Sahih Muslim wrote an introduction, unlike his teacher Bukhari, who did not, to explain how he collected, narrated and organised the hadith in his book. He divided them into three kinds. The first was the most authentic narrations by the most reliable narrators, then the second and finally the third level. Muslim placed the narration by Suhail in the third level, which means that he did not consider it the highest level of authenticity.
Unlike Bukhari, who split the hadith over different chapters depending on the topic, Muslim cited all the details of the hadith in one go. The Muqaddimah (his introduction to the Sahih) contains some of the most important principles found in the creed and methodology of the people of Sunnah and Hadith.
3. Compare narrations
The next thing we do in order to understand the hadith is to check it against other narrations. By collecting different narrations by different narrators we can compare the differences in the wordings of the hadith.
In another narration we see a slight difference in the wording.
وَحَدَّثَنَا مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ الْمُثَنَّى، حَدَّثَنَا مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ جَعْفَرٍ، حَدَّثَنَا شُعْبَةُ، ح وَحَدَّثَنَا أَبُو بَكْرِ، بْنُ أَبِي شَيْبَةَ وَأَبُو كُرَيْبٍ قَالاَ حَدَّثَنَا وَكِيعٌ، عَنْ سُفْيَانَ، ح وَحَدَّثَنِي زُهَيْرُ بْنُ حَرْبٍ، حَدَّثَنَا جَرِيرٌ، كُلُّهُمْ عَنْ سُهَيْلٍ، بِهَذَا الإِسْنَادِ وَفِي حَدِيثِ وَكِيعٍ ” إِذَا لَقِيتُمُ الْيَهُودَ ” . وَفِي حَدِيثِ ابْنِ جَعْفَرٍ عَنْ شُعْبَةَ قَالَ فِي أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ . وَفِي حَدِيثِ جَرِيرٍ ” إِذَا لَقِيتُمُوهُمْ ” . وَلَمْ يُسَمِّ أَحَدًا مِنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ .
This hadith has been narrated on the authority of Suhail with the same chain of transmitters but with a slight variation of wording. The hadith transmitted on the authority of Waki’, the words are ‘When you meet the Jews.” And in the hadith transmitted on the authority of Shu’ba, the words are:
‘When you meet the People of the Book.” And in the hadith transmitted on the authority of Jarir the words are:” When you meet them,” but none amongst the polytheists has been mentioned explicitly by name. [Sahih Muslim 2167b: Book 39, Hadith 17]
We see that the hadith refers to Jews and Christians in one narration, the People of the Book in another and mushrikeen (polytheists) in a third. Which one did the Prophet (peace be on him) say? They are not the same. Sometimes you may express a word in different forms, but the meaning is the same. It does not matter if different wording is used when the meaning is same. However, if the different words change the meaning we need to understand which one is right.
4. Check the context – Is the hadith related to a specific incident or a general hadith?
The summary of these narrations how that the Prophet (peace be on him) was not making a general statement, but referring to a very particular instance. And this particular occasion was as they were going into battle. Bani Qurayza the Jewish tribe of Madinah had broken their pledge with the Prophet (peace be on him). This was a treaty that would protect Madinah and they would support the Prophet (peace be on him) if needed it and he would support them when they needed it. They broke this pledge when they mobilised their troops to fight the Prophet (peace be on him) in Madinah in the Battle of the Ditch. 10000 troops came to attack the believers and uproot the Prophet (peace be on him) and erase Islam from Madina.
The Prophet (peace be on him) received the revelation from Allah Almighty through the angel, Jibreel and they decided to fight them. The Prophet (peace be on him) was giving his army instructions on their way to fight them. He told them not to greet them with the salam. Salam means peace, it means you are offering the recipient safety, but in the situation of war it is the opposite. Muslims have to honour their word, so you cannot greet them with peace and then fight them. The situation was not a time for social pleasantries, it was time for battle.
At the end of the hadith, it says if you meet some of them force them to the narrowest part of the road. This part is only found in the narration by Suhail. It related to the context of going into battle and is not general guidance for Muslims. It cannot be applied to any ordinary scenario with non Muslims. That would be completely wrong.
If you do not understand that this hadith is specific and extract the lesson that you must not greet non Muslims or say salam to non Muslims, it would be to completely misapply it. Though the hadith is sahih and narrated by Muslim if you divorce it from its context, it will contradict the basic principles of Islam.
Common misconceptions – How to greet non Muslims
Scholars who say that you can greet non-Muslims with the salam, quote the verses of the Quran which say you should greet others in a way better than you are greeted:
And when you are greeted with a greeting, greet [in return] with one better than it or [at least] return it [in a like manner]. Indeed, Allah is ever, over all things, an Accountant. (4:86)
The Prophet (peace be on him) on different occasions said salam to non Muslims, and People of the Book. You can initiate the salam and you can greet non Muslims. It may seem obvious but it is not obvius to those who read the hadith and apply it literally without understanding the details around the hadith.
It is not enough to see a narration in Bukhari or Muslim if there is an issue contradicting the common ruling and the general guidance, especially for Muslims who are living in non-Islamic environments.
Some people might say they greet non Muslims because we are weak, but when we become strong we do not greet them, we just push them into the narrow part of the road. This does not make any sense. How can you want to do dawwah and spread the message of Islam? The message of Islam is mercy.
It is common sense that you should be nice to all your neighbours regardless of their faith.
The great scholars like Imam Tahawi, who passed away 310 AH, (may Allah have mercy on him) composed two books on hadith which appear problematic; the first is ten volumes ( Sharh Ma’ani Al-Aathat) and is a very important book, the second book is around twenty volumes (Sharh Mushkil Al- Aathar). These two books are very important. Imam Tahawi collected many of these narrations in his book and went through the details. It is very useful for those who are specialised.
Returning a greeting with just walaikum applied to a specific occasion
Some scholars have commented on this hadith that it means you should not initiate a greeting, and if you are greeted, do not give the complete reply wa alaikumassalam warahmatullah, but just wa alaikum only. This is related to a specific occasion during the lifetime of the Prophet (peace be on him) when some Jewish people in the community were mocking the Prophet (peace be on him) and instead of saying asalamu alaikum they were saying assamu alaikum. Assam means death so they were greeting him with a death threat, wishing him to die. The Prophet (peace be on him) realised what they were saying, but rather than argue with them, he simply said and the same to you, wa alaikum. He was right, as death is coming to all of us, and no one can escape death.
Again this hadith related to a specific occasion and that context does not exist. If you have a Jewish or Christian friend it is fine to say assalamu alaikum to them.
The context is always at the core of any ruling. The context is the core. If you do not get the context it will be very difficult to understand. Unfortunately, we don’t pay much attention to the context most of the time and this leads to wide spread misunderstanding.
Spread the salam to everyone
There are endless hadith on the importance of saying salam and spreading the salam. It was the first instruction the Prophet (peace be on him) gave to the citizens of Madinah in his first khutbah. As ‘Abdullah bin Salam (may Allah be pleased with him) reported:
I heard the Messenger of Allah (may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) say: “O people, spread the greeting of peace profusely, maintain kinship ties, feed others, and pray at night when people are asleep, you will enter Paradise in peace. (Ibn Majah)
He did not say spread the greeting among Muslims only. In the Quran Allah Almighty instructed:
“And servants of (Allah) the Most Gracious are those who walk on the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say, Peace (Salaam)!”(25:63)
“O you who believe, enter not into houses other than yours without first announcing your presence and invoking peace (saying salaam) upon the folk thereof. That is better for you, that you may be heedful”(24:27)
Abu Hurayrah narrated that the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) said:
“By Him in Whose Hand my soul is! You will not enter Jannah until you believe, and you shall not believe until you love one another. May I inform you of something, if you do, you love each other. Promote salam amongst you” (Muslim)
“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; we seek not the ignorant”
The Prophet (Peace be upon him) said:
“Greet with Peace those whom you know and those whom you do not know”
He also informed us that when Allah created Adam, He commanded him “Go to that assembly” and they were an assembly of seated angels – ” and listen to how they greet you. Indeed, it is your greeting and the greeting of your descendants”. He said: “Peace be upon you” they said: “Peace be upon you and Allah’s Mercy”
Sufyan bin Uyaynah, a pious predecessor was once asked whether a Muslim can greet a non-Muslim with salam, and he confirmed that they could because ‘Allah does not forbid you in respect of those who do not fight you because of your religion and do not expel you from your homes – from being righteous and dealing justly towards them. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly’
God does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with those who have not fought against you about the religion or expelled you from your homes. God does not love the unjust people. (60:8)
This hadith is an important one in understanding how to get to the bottom of a hadith and apply it properly in accordance with the Quran and Sunnah. Our deen is a deen of mercy, and good manners. It would not make sense to understand the hadith as a command to be rude. Dawah cannot be done when one is rude and we live in multicultural societies, so we have to live with graciousness and be the role models of kindness and mercy.
Shaykh Haytham Tamim – Delivered to the Sunday Hadith Class based on Ibn Hajar al Asqalani’s collection of Hadith Bulugh al Maram.
Transcribed by Asma Husain
For more inspiration on how to navigate life through the Quran and Sunnah:
- Eid al Adha: a time for unity and brotherhood
- Dhul Hijjah and Hajj: An introduction
- How to deal with people. Shaking hands in Islam. Ghazali’s rule no. 15 continued
- How to deal with people: hurry to help others and initiate the salam. Ghazali’s rules 14-15
- What do we learn from defeat?
July 20, 2021
July 17, 2021