Deconstructing the hadith on greeting non-Muslims with the salam. Insight into the sciences of hadith.
There is common misconception that one may not greet non-Muslims with the salam. Or that you should only reply to them with ‘walaikum‘ not ‘walaikum asalam‘. This opinion is based on the hadith narrated by Suhayl bin Abi Salih, from his father, Abu Salih, from Abu Hurayrah (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]
In his 44-page research paper, Dr Hakem Al-Mutairi (Al-I’lam A Study of the Hadith: Do not initiate the Salam to the Mushrikeen), made a detailed examination about the issues which make this narration problematic and explained why we cannot use it as source for ruling that one must not initiate greetings to non-Muslims.
If we come across an ayah or a hadith which goes against the grain of main Islamic principles, we need to delve deeper and discover why that is the case. The context is always at the core of any ruling. When scholars of hadith look at this narration, there are many reasons why taking it at face value is wrong.
First impressions of a hadith
If you have not come across this hadith before, it is disturbing, because it appears to suggest that the Prophet (peace be upon him) is commanding believers to be rude to people of other faiths, telling them not to greet non-Muslims and even push them to the narrow part of the road.
This goes against the basic principle of Islam, which is to spread love and mercy to all of Allah’s creation and to exhibit good character at all times. It contradicts the general guidance of Islam.
In the Quran, Allah Almighty instructed:
وَإِذَا حُيِّيتُم بِتَحِيَّةٍ فَحَيُّوا بِأَحْسَنَ مِنْهَا أَوْ رُدُّوهَا ۗ إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ حَسِيبًا
When you are greeted with a greeting, respond with a better greeting, or return it. God keeps count of everything. [4:86]
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said:
“Greet with peace those whom you know and those whom you do not know” (Bukhari and Muslim)
And it is at variance with multiple hadith promoting the salam.
We all know 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.
Reconciling the apparent contradiction by a process of checking
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 hadith on not greeting non-Muslims is an excellent example of how the muhaddith critique hadith. We will go through their methodology and how they tackle the ahadith which appear to conflict with the main principles of Islam.
First we need to check the authenticity of the narrator of the hadith and then the wording of the hadith, and in addition the context of the hadith. As these will shed light on why the hadith seems to be a misfit or goes against the essence of Islam. Let’s examine this hadith to establish the correct interpretation.
The very first thing you need to do with any hadith is check its authenticity. If a hadith is not authentic, one can dismiss it immediately.
We 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 we check the chain of transmitters of the hadith. The narrator of this hadith is Suhayl bin Abi Salih. This gives us our first cause of concern. Suhayl bin Abi Salih was a great hafidh and muhaddith (scholar of hadith). However when you read his biography, you see that he suffered a great trauma in his life when he lost his brother, which impacted his memory, causing him to forget many narrations.
In the science of hadith, scholars distinguish between different periods in the lives of narrators. For instance, Suhayl was one of the Shuyukh of Imam Malik, and Imam Malik narrated from him. However, due to this tragedy in his life, shuyukh use the ahadith he narrated in the earlier part of his life, but for narrations in the period when he suffered memory loss, scholars only accept hadith which are in line with other similar narrations from other narrators while they put hadith which conflict with other hadith to one side.
One might wonder why Imam Muslim narrated this hadith from Suhayl in his Sahih at all?
Imam Muslim in his Sahih wrote an introduction, unlike his teacher Bukhari, to explain his methodology – how he collected, narrated and organised the hadith in his book. He divided them into three categories. The first was the most authentic narrations by the most reliable narrators, followed by the second and finally the third level. Muslim placed the narration by Suhayl in the third level, which means that he did not consider it the highest level of authenticity.
Imam Bukhari chose not to narrate from Suhayl except on three occasions, because he was not satisfied that Suhayl met his criteria for authenticity, so he classified those three hadith as muallaqaat (unverified and unauthenticated hadith, not in the matn (main core of the text)). Bukhari, however, arranged his hadith according to their topics, sometimes splitting a hadith over multiple topics, unlike Muslim who cited all the details of the hadith in one place. Muslim’s 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.
Confusion in the mind of the narrator
In one narration it says:
حَدَّثَنَا حَفْصُ بْنُ عُمَرَ، حَدَّثَنَا شُعْبَةُ، عَنْ سُهَيْلِ بْنِ أَبِي صَالِحٍ، قَالَ خَرَجْتُ مَعَ أَبِي إِلَى الشَّامِ فَجَعَلُوا يَمُرُّونَ بِصَوَامِعَ فِيهَا نَصَارَى فَيُسَلِّمُونَ عَلَيْهِمْ فَقَالَ أَبِي لاَ تَبْدَءُوهُمْ بِالسَّلاَمِ فَإِنَّ أَبَا هُرَيْرَةَ حَدَّثَنَا عَنْ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ “ لاَ تَبْدَءُوهُمْ بِالسَّلاَمِ وَإِذَا لَقِيتُمُوهُمْ فِي الطَّرِيقِ فَاضْطَرُّوهُمْ إِلَى أَضْيَقِ الطَّرِيقِ ” .
Suhayl ibn Abu Salih said: I went out with my father to Syria. The people passed by the cloisters in which there were Christians and began to salute them. My father said: Do not give them salutation first, for Abu Hurayrah reported the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) as saying: Do not salute them (Jews and Christians) first, and when you meet them on the road, force them to go to the narrowest part of it. [Abu Dawoud]
Critics of hadith say that in this narration either Abu Salih was confused because firstly it says Abu Hurayrah narrated the hadith, but Abu Hurayrah had not become a Muslim at that time so he was not present when it was narrated, or it could be that Suhayl was confused and did not recall the hadith from his father correctly, or thirdly that Suhayl’s father (Abu Salih) had paraphrased the hadith according to his own understanding of the hadith, and was mistaken.
The next cause for concern is that this same hadith has been narrated by five other authentic narrators, but Suhayl bin Abi Salih’s narration is inconsistent with theirs.
When the different narrations by different narrators are collected and compared, we see differences in the wordings of the hadith. There are several inconsistencies.
The hadith transmitted on the authority of Waki’a, the words are: ‘When you meet the Jews.” 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.” And to add to the confusion, there is a narration that says when you meet ‘the Mushrikeen.’ Thus we do not know if the narration is referring to the Mushrikeen (polytheists), the Jews only, or Jews and Christians/the People of the Book.
Moreover, there is also inconsistency where the narration says do not greet them in ‘a road’ or ‘the road’. If it is ‘a road’ the command is general, however it if it is ‘the road’ the narration is referring to a specific road. In fact it was a particular road, as we will see below.
Finally, there is also an inconsistency whether the narration is referring to the non-Muslims in the singular or plural. Was it if you meet ‘all of them’ meaning all of them, or ‘some of them’? Which one did the Prophet (peace be on him) say?
The understanding of the words changes depending on what they are. Sometimes it does not matter if different wordings are used in different narrations because they do not change the meaning of the hadith. However, in this instance, the different words change the meaning, so we need to know which wording is right. This will be aided by knowing the context.
Check the context – Is the hadith related to a specific incident or a general hadith?
The three Companions Abdul Rahman al-Juhani, Abu Basra al Ghifari and Abdullah ibn Omar all narrated this hadith as something the Prophet (peace be upon him) said on his way to battle.
Many scholars thought this was a general command, but in fact it was a specific command for a specific occasion. Ibn Taymiyyah and his student, Ibn Qayim agreed that this hadith was related to a specific historical event. Therefore this narration cannot be used to form a general ruling.
The Muslims had just fought the Battle of the Trench, because Banu Qurayza, the Jewish tribe of Madinah had betrayed the Prophet (peace be upon him) by breaking their pledge to protect him and colluded with their enemies who had attacked Madinah. This had posed a critical threat to Muslims and the very existence of Islam as they had been attacked by 10,000 troops after Banu Qurayza had broken their treaty of alliance with the Prophet (peace be upon him). Once they had won that battle, the Prophet (peace be on him) received the revelation from Allah Almighty through the angel, Jibreel to fight them. The Prophet (peace be on him) therefore instructed his army that if there were to meet any of the enemy on their way – not to greet them with the salam.
The salam is a greeting of 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 it does not make sense to greet your enemy with a greeting of peace and then fight them. The situation was not a time for social pleasantries, it was time for battle.
This is why at the end of the hadith, the narration by Suhayl talks about forcing them into the narrow part of the road. 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. It was related to Banu Qurayza, not because they were Jews, but because they had betrayed their treaty.
Misunderstanding the hadith
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.
Dealing with hadith that appear problematic
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 in this area. My advice would be to read the comprehensive work on this hadith in Arabic, as it is difficult to summarise it but this gives an insight into this important explanation of a commonly misunderstood hadith.
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.
The correct narration according to the context is narrated in Musnad Ahmad, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said to his soldiers on their way to battle with the Jewish tribe Banu Qurayza:
‘If you meet the Jews on the road, push them to the narrowest part of it and do not greet them with the salam.’
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
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