The Politics of “Salaams”

No one is safe from judgements. Judgements are not reserved for any specific group of people – women, men, muslims, atheists – we all face our fair share of them. We often make snap judgements within the first moments of making an acquaintance. My pet peeve, however: greeting a stranger with good wishes and receiving a stare up, down, a pause and a cold “hi”.

In the Muslim community, like in many others, there are hierarchies related to greetings. For those unfamiliar with the Muslim hierarchy of greetings, above secular greetings are a series of religious greetings – often recited in Arabic – from the tradition of Prophet Mohammad.

Narrated by Abu Hurayrah:
A man passed by Prophet Mohammad while he was sitting with some others, and said “Peace be upon you” (Salaam ‘alaykum).
Prophet Mohammad said, “[He will have] 10 rewards.”
Another man passed by and said “Peace be upon you and the mercy of God” (Salaam ‘alaykum wa rahmat-Allaah).
Prophet Mohammad said, “[He will have] 20 rewards.”
Another man passed by and said “Peace be upon you and the mercy of God and His blessings” (Salaam ‘alaykum wa rahmat-Allaahi wa barakaatuhu).
Prophet Mohammad said, “[He will have] 30 rewards.”
(al-Bukhaari in al-Adab al-Mufrad [586], al-Nisaa’i in ‘Aml al-yawm wa’l-laylah [368] and Ibn Hibban [493])

I want to reassure the readers that the notion of reward in the greeting comes from the perspective of sincere good wishes upon Muslims and non-Muslims as a good deed and a charity.

Narrated by ‘Abd-Allaah ibn ‘Umar:
A man asked Prophet Mohammad: “What is the best thing in Islam?”
He said, “Feeding others and giving the greeting of peace to those whom you know and those whom you do not know.”
(Abu Dawood [5494], Ahmad [2/169], al-Bukhaari [12, 28 and 6236], al-Nisaa’i, [8/107], Ibn Hibbaan [505] and Muslim [39])

In large parts, it is due to the emphasis in the tradition of Prophet Mohammad that I get infuriated when my “salaams” are not answered. As best as I can, I try to refrain from judgement. Many Muslims are non-Arabic speakers: they may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the Arabic phrasing. Perhaps their discomfort – even from Arabic speakers – may come from the use of Arabic in a non-Arab environment (if you are familiar with Love God Diversity, you will recognize my sing song use of the English “Peace and blessings”). There may also be a discomfort identifying as or identifying with Islam/a hijabi Muslim in a country where they find themselves a minority. For those reasons, I allow for personal preferences. I also contend that it is possible that my interlocutor may not have heard me.

However, when my greeting goes ignored and, subsequently, the greetings of another gets acknowledged, I ultimately find it disrespectful.

Narrated by Abu Hurayrah:
Prophet Mohammad said: “The Muslim has five responsibilities towards a fellow-Muslim: he should return his greeting of peace, visit him when he is sick, attend his funeral, accept his invitation, and pray for his mercy when he sneezes.”
(Abu Dawood [5031], Ahmad [2/540], al-Bukhaari [1240], al-Nisaa’i in al-Yawm wa’l-Laylah [221] and Muslim [2792])

Muslims have a responsibility to acknowledge fellow believers – and, arguably, non believers – with sincere wishes of peace, mercy and blessings. Receiving “salaams” from a stranger on the bus, at work, at school, etc., can be the greatest feeling of all: the acknowledgement of the individual’s worth of God’s best intentions.

Those attitudes are not always – dare I say, not often – reciprocated. I would like to call upon fellow believers to reflect on the way they greet people they meet. Especially non-conforming Muslims, converts and non-Muslims.

I recently read Thanaa El-Naggar‘s piece “Practicing Islam in short shorts“. I wish I could reach out to Thanaa and tell her that her sincere well-wishes upon fellow Muslims do not go unrewarded. I would like to encourage her and those who feel like her to greet others with peace even if they are unsure how their greetings will be met.The response to a sincere greeting is not a reflection of the well-wisher but on the responder.

I have heard many theories on various responses to salaams (please comment with your own insight), and here is my own perspective:

Men may ignore a “salaams” as they do not wish or know how to interact with women
I’d like to remind men that when they choose “hi” over a proper response they *are* interacting with a woman so they might as well do so with the respect and dignity that we deserve. Even if they decide to ignore me completely, it reflects badly on their views of women as “less worthy” Muslims.

They may have doubts as to my intentions
I have yet to figure out what is the wrong intention when wishing peace onto someone; regardless, God knows my intentions. May they be purified if they are not worthy. Also, returning “salaams” has nothing to do with *my* intentions and everything to do with theirs.

They may not believe that I am Muslim
My only response is to refer them to the above hadiths that says Muslims should greet even strangers with peace.

They are ill-intentioned, disrespectful, etc.
I cannot know their heart. If this is the case, I pray and hope that God guides them. Regardless, I hope to find it in my heart to greet even the most callous of human being with God-given respect.

Regardless of who you are, I hope if you meet me, that you will feel comfort in my well wishes and that you will be comfortable responding with your best greetings: be it Salaam, Shalom, Namaste or “What are you at”!

Peace and blessings everybody!

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