Returning the Salaam, with a Better Salaam
In ayah 86, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala tells us the etiquette of offering and returning greetings known as salaam among Muslims. He says,
وَإِذَا حُيِّيتُم بِتَحِيَّةٍ فَحَيُّواْ بِأَحْسَنَ مِنْهَآ أَوْ رُدُّوهَآ
“And when you are greeted with a greeting, greet with a better greeting or (at least) return it (in a like manner).”
meaning, if the Muslim greets you with the salaam, then return the greeting with a better salaam, or at least equal to the salaam that was given. Therefore, the better salaam is recommended, while returning it equally is an obligation.
The Muslims were specially exhorted to be very civil and polite to the non-Muslims because at that time their relations were strained on account of the conflict between them. In that state of tension, they were forewarned to be on their guard against incivility and impoliteness. They were, therefore, taught to be equally civil and polite to them when they greeted them respectfully. Nay, they should be even more civil and polite than their opponents.
Harsh behavior and harsh words do no good to anyone but they are specially unsuited to the work of those missionaries of Allah’s Message, who have dedicated themselves to one day invite the world to the Truth and exerted themselves to reform the ways of the people. Such ill behavior may satisfy one’s vanity, but it does great harm to one’s mission.
Imam Ahmad recorded that Abu Raja Al-Utaridi said that Imran bin Husayn said, “A man came to the Messenger of Allah sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam and said, “As-Salamu Alaykum.” The Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam returned the greeting, and after the man sat down he said, “Ten.” Another man came and said, “As-Salamu Alaykum wa Rahmatullah, O Allah’s Messenger.” The Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam returned the greeting, and after the man sat down he said, “Twenty.” Then another man came and said, “As-Salamu Alaykum wa Rahmatullah wa Barakatuh.” The Prophet sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam returned the greeting, and after the man sat down he said, “Thirty.” This is the narration recorded by Abu Dawud. At-Tirmidhi, An-Nasa’i and Al-Bazzar also recorded it.
There are several other ahadeeth on this subject from Abu Saeed, Ali, and Sahl bin Hanif. When the Muslim is greeted with the full form of salaam, he is obliged to return the greeting equally. As for Ahl Adh-Dhimmah (Jews and Christians who lively peacefully in a Muslim state) the salaam should not be initiated nor should the greeting be added to when returning their greeting. Rather, as recorded in the two saheehs their greeting is returned to them equally.
Ibn Umar radhiAllahu anhu narrated that the Messenger of Allah sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam said, “When the Jews greet you, one of them would say, `As-Samu Alayka (death be unto you).’ Therefore, say, ‘Wa Alayka (and the same to you)’.”
In his saheeh, Muslim recorded that Abu Huraira radhiAllahu anhu said that the Messenger of Allah sallAllahu aalyhi wa sallam said, “Do not initiate greeting the Jews and Christians with the salaam, and when you pass by them on a road, force them to its narrowest path.”
Towards the end of ayah 86, it was said,
إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَلَى كُلِّ شَىْءٍ حَسِيباً
“Indeed, Allah is over everything, an Accountant.”
It means that with Allah rests the reckoning of everything which includes all human and Islamic rights such as salaam and its answer. These too will have to be accounted for before Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala.