[Explanation in the light of Surah an-Nisa Ayah 86]
In pre-Islam Arabic, when people met, they used to greet each other by saying hayyakAllah or an’amAllahu bika aynan or an’im sabahan or other expression of this nature. When Islam came, it changed this style of greeting and replaced it with a standard form of greeting which is As-Salaamu Alaykum. Commonly, though incompletely, translated in English as ‘peace be on you’, the greeting means, “May you remain safe from every pain, sorrow and distress.”
In Ahkam-ul-Qur’an, ibn Arabi says, the word salaam is one of the good names of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala and as-Salaamu Alaykum means that Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala is your Guardian and Caretaker.
The Islamic Greeting is Unique
All civilized people around the world have the custom of saying something to express mutual familiarity or affection when they meet each other. If compared with these broadmindedly, the Islamic form of greeting will stand out significantly for its comprehensiveness because it does not simply restrict itself to an expression of affection alone. It rather combines it with the fulfillment of the demands of love and affection. It means that we pray to Allah that He keep you safe against all calamities and sorrows. Then, this is no bland prayer for long life alone as was the way with pre-Islam Arabs. Instead of that, here we have a prayer for good life, that is, a life which is secure against all calamities and sorrows. Along with it, the Islamic salaam in an expression of the reality of our relation with Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala – that we, the greeter and the greeted, are all dependent on Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala needing Him all the time and no one can bring any benefit to someone else without His will and leave. Taken in this sense, this form of greeting is an act of worship in its own right and quite functionally indeed, a medium of reminding a brother-in-faith of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala, the object of his obedience and love.
Staying with this line of presentation, let us imagine a person praying to Allah that his acquaintance remain safe against all calamities and sorrows. When doing so, is it not that he is sort of making a promise as well that the person being greeted is safe against his own hands and tongue. In other words, he is saying that he, in his place, is the guardian and protector of the person’s life, property and honor.
In Ahkam-ul-Qur’an, ibn Arabi has reported the following saying of Imam Ibn Uyaynah, “Do you know what salaam is? The greeter by salaam says, ‘You are safe from me’.”
To sum up, it can be said that this Islamic form of greeting has a universal comprehensiveness as it is medium of the remembrance of Allah while reminding the person greeted of Him. It is a vehicle of expressing love and affection for a brother-in-faith and, in fact, a wonderful prayer for him. Then, it also carries a commitment that the greeted will in no way face harm or discomfort from the greeter as it appears is a sound hadeeth where the Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam said,
“A Muslim is the one from whom all Muslims remains safe from his tongues and from his hands.” [Tirmidhi, kitab-ul-Emaan]
At this point one may fondly wish that Muslims would not utter the words of this greeting as some sort of habitual custom which commonly prevails among other people of the world. How beneficial it would be if this greeting is offered out of a full understanding of its reality which, perhaps, may turn out to be enough for the reform of whole community. This is the reason why the Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam laid great emphasis on popularizing the practice of Muslims in greeting each other with salaam, and he identified it as the best of deeds and took time to explain its merits, graces, blessings and rewards. In a hadeeth of Saheeh Muslim narrated by Abu Huraira radhiAllahu anhu, the Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam has been reported to have said,
“You cannot enter Paradise until you are a believer and your belief cannot be complete until you love each other. I tell you something which, if you put it in practice, will establish bonds of love among you all, and that is, ‘Make salaam a common practice among you which should include every Muslim, whether an acquaintance or a stranger’.”
Abdullah ibn Umar radhiAllahu anhu says that someone asked the Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam, “Out of the practices of Islam which is the worthiest?” He said,
“Feed people and spread the practice of salaam, whether you know or do not know a person.” [Bukhari, Muslim]
The Musnad of Ahmad, Tirmidhi and Abu Dawud report from Abu Umamah radhiAllahu anhu that the Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam said,
“Nearest to Allah is the person who is the first one to offer salaam.”
A hadeeth from Abdullah ibn Masud radhiAllahu anhu appearing in Musnad al-Bazzar and al-Mujim al-Kabeer of al-Tabarani reports that the Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam said,
“Salaam is one of the names of Allah with which He has blessed the people of the earth. So, make salaam a common practice among you because, when a Muslim goes to a gathering of people and offers his salaam to them, he is blessed with a station of distinction in the sight of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala as he reminded everyone of salaam, that is, reminded everyone of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala.If people in the gathering do not return his greeting, others will respond who are better than the people of this gathering, that is, the angels of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala.”
In another hadeeth from Abu Huraira radhiAllahu anhu the Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam is reported to have said,
“A big miser is the man who acts miserly in offering salaam.” [Tabarani, al-mUjim al-Kabir]
The effect that those teachings of the Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam had on his Companions can be gauged from a narration about Abdullah ibn Umar radhiAllahu anhu who would frequently go to the bazaar just for the single purpose of having a chance to meet any Muslim there in the hope of offering salaam to him and thus become deserving of the reward of an act of worship. Incidentally, he never intended to buy or sell anything while there. This narration from Tufayl ibn Ubayy ibn Kaab radhiAllahu appears in Mu’atta of Imam Malik.
Ayah 86 of the Qur’an says,
وَإِذَا حُيِّيتُم بِتَحِيَّةٍ فَحَيُّواْ بِأَحْسَنَ مِنْهَآ أَوْ رُدُّوهَآ إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَلَى كُلِّ شَىْءٍ حَسِيباً
“And when you are greeted with a greeting, greet with a better greeting or (at least) return it (in a like manner)” was explained by the Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam through his own action in the following manner.
Once someone came to the Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam and said, “As-salaamu alaykum Ya Rasoolullah.” While returning the greeting, he added a word and said, “Wa alaykumus salaam wa Rahmatullah (And peace be on you, and the mercy of Allah).” then someone else came and offered his salaam using the following words, “As-salaamu alaykum wa Rahmatullah.” In response, he added yet another word and said, “Wa alaykumus salaam wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatuh (And peace be on you too, and the mercy of Allah, and His blessings).” Then came a third person. He combined all three salutations in his initial salaam and greeted him by saying the whole thing, that is, “As-salaamu alaykum wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatuh.” In response, the Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam said only one word, “Wa alayk (and on you).” Disappointed in his heart, he said, “Ya Rasoolullah, ransomed be my parents for you, you said many words of prayer while returning the greeting of those who came before me. But, when I greeted you with all those words, you limited your response to wa alayk (and on you)”. He said, “You left nothing for me to add in the response! Since you used up all those words in your initial salaam, I found it sufficient to return your greeting on the principle of like for like in accordance with the teaching of the Qur’an.” This narration has been reported by ibn Jarir and ibn Abi Hatim with different chains of authorities.
There are three things we find out from this hadeeth, words appearing in the ayah under comment mean that a salaam offered should be returned by adding more words to it. If someone says asalaamu alaykum, you respond by saying wa alaykumus salaam wa Rahmatullah. If he says as-salaamu alaykum wa Rahmatullah, then, in response, you say wa alaykumus-salaam wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatuh.
This addition of words is restricted to three words only as a masnoon act. Going beyond that is not masnoon. The logic behind it is obvious. The occasion for salaam requires that the verbal exchange be brief. Any excess in this connection which interferes with ongoing business or which becomes heavy on the listener is not appropriate. Therefore, when the person visiting the Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam combined all three words in his very initial salaam, he elected to abstain from any further addition of words. This was further explained by Abdulllah ibn Abbas radhiAllahu anhu by saying that the Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam stopped the man who went beyond the limit of the three words by telling him that salaam ends at the word, barakah. Saying anything beyond that was not the practice of the blessed Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam.
If someone makes his salaam with three words spoken at the same time, returning it with only one word will be correct. That too comes under the principle of like for like and is sufficient in obedience to the Qur’anic command أَوْ رُدُّوهَآ “or return the same” as the Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam has, in this hadith, considered a one-word response as sufficient. [Tafseer Mazhari]
In summation, we can say that it is obligatory on a Muslim to return the salaam offered to him. If he fails to do so without any valid excuse admitted by the Shariah of Islam, he will become a sinner. However, he has the option to choose the mode. He can either respond with words better than those used in offering the salaam; or, the response could be in identical words.
It will be noticed that this ayah very clearly states that returning a salaam is obligatory but it is not explicit on the nature of offering a salaam initially. However, in the Quranic expression وَإِذَا حُيِّيتُم بِتَحِيَّةٍ “And when you are greeted….” There does lie a hint point towards this rule of conduct. That this statement is in the passive voice without identifying the subject precisely could be suggestive of salaam being something all Muslims already do habitually and commonly.
The Musnad of Ahmad, al-Tirmidhi and Abu Dawud report that the Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam said, “Nearest to Allah is the person who is the first to offer salaam.” So, from the emphasis on salaam and its many merits you have learned from the teachings of the Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam cited earlier, we get to understand that offering the initial salaam has also been emphasized as part of the practice of the Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam. According to Tafseer al-Bahr al-Muhit, the initial salaam is actually a sunnah mu’akkadah (emphasized practice of the Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam) as held by the majority of ulema. And Hasan al-Basree said, “The initial salaam is voluntary while returning it is an obligation.”
Some more detailed explanation of this Qur’anic injunctions about salaam and its answer have been given by the Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam which the reader may wish to know briefly. According to a hadeeth in al-Bukhari and Muslim, the person riding should himself offer salaam to the person walking; and the person walking should offer salaam to the person sitting; and a small group of persons walking near a larger group should be the first to offer salaam.
According to a hadeeth in Tirmidhi, when a person enters his house, he should offer salaam to the members of his family as this act of grace will bring blessings for him as well as for his family.
According to a hadeeth in Abu Dawud, when one meets a Muslim more than once, he should offer salaam every time; and the way offering salaam is masnoon at the time of the initial meeting, so it is at the time of seeking leave when offering salaam is in line with the practice of the Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam and a source of reward as well. This rule of guidance appears in Tirmidhi and Abu Dawud as narrated by Qatadah and Abu Huraira radhiAllahu anhu.
Now a note of caution about the rule, it is obligatory to answer salaam, however, there are certain exceptions to it. For instance, if someone says salaam to a person who is offering salah, an answer is not obligatory. Indeed, it is a spoiler of salah. Similarly, a person may be delivering a religious sermon, or is busy in reciting the Qur’an, or is calling the adhan or iqamah, or is teaching religious texts, or is busy with his human compulsions, in all such conditions, even offering the initial salaam is not permissible, and he is not responsible for answering it as a matter of obligation either.