‘And Spread the Greeting Among Yourselves’: Exploring the Salam

Peace, one and all…

Note: this is quite an old post, and has for some time been gathering ‘dust’ in the vaults of my wordpress account!

In a very beautiful and profound hadith, the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is reported to have said:

‘You will not enter the Garden until you believe and you will not believe until you love one another.  Shall I show you something that make you love one another?’  They said, ‘Yes, Messenger of Allah’.  The Prophet said, ‘Spread the greeting among yourselves’ (Most of the ahadith referred to in this post are taken from Imam Bukhari’s al-Adab al-Mufrad. Unless otherwise stated, all text citations refer to this work)

This is a very famous tradition and in my own case, one that I encountered at a very early stage during my journey into Islam.  However, when I used to reflect upon this hadith I was struck by something that seemed odd.  To explain, I misunderstood ‘belief’ (iman in Arabic) as being a purely mental phenomenon, as the mere acceptance of intellectual propositions.  Now that I have grown a little older, I realise that this is in fact a problem of language.  The English term ‘belief’ carries with it a wide range of linguistic baggage.  The Collins English Dictionary defines belief in the following manner:

‘n. 1. a principle, idea, etc., accepted as true or real, esp. without positive proof.  2. opinion; conviction.  3. religious faith.  4. trust or confidence, as in a person or a person’s abilities, probity, etc’

The Arabic term Iman is, by contrast, a far richer and far broader concept.  As Shaykh Kabir explained it, very briefly, at last year’s retreat, Iman is belief coupled with knowledge (remembering that knowledge – Ilm – is not mere information but knowledge and action together).

Looking at this hadith with these thoughts in mind, I realise that belief/iman is an inward quality or movement of the soul.  In a sense, it is the interiorisation of our very submission/islam.  As we grow in our submission to God, we continually deepen ourselves and our connection with the Divine – to the point that iman comes to settle firmly in the heart – and this settled state is what we really mean when we speak of iman.  The famous Hadith of Gabriel bears this idea out.  In this vitally important tradition, the Prophet (alahi al-salatu wa al-salam) describes the verities of faith as an ongoing movement from the external to the internal, at the culmination of which lies the state of Ihsan, described in the following manner: ‘It is to serve Allah as though you behold Him; and if you don’t behold him, (know that) He surely sees you”.

To return to our original hadith with these thoughts in mind, we can see that the essential element in increasing our iman lies in developing our capacities for true and open relationships with others – to strengthen our ability to love, in other words.  And the way to begin this process is by spreading the greetings of peace (literally,  the salam or to say ‘al-salamu alaikum‘ – ‘peace be with you’).

The Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is also reported to have said:

‘By Him in who holds my soul in His hand, you will not enter the Garden until you submit.  And you will not submit until you love one another.  Spread the greeting and you will love one another.  Beware of hatred for it is the razor.  I do not say to you that it shaves the hair.  Rather, it shaves the din‘ (260)

Here again we have the same idea expressed: entrance to Paradise is firmly tied to the development of loving relationships with others (and thus, on a deeper level, to God).  Hatred, and its destructive impacts, is here likened to a razor shaving our din (broadly, ‘religion’) from us: hatred is like acid, it corrodes our ability to make relationships with others.

These notions underpin an extremely rich, dynamic and intricate system of spiritual friendship in the Islamic tradition (one particular form being known as futuwwah, ‘spiritual chivalry’) – all of which is designed to create ever-strengthening ties between people.  Abu Hurayra (may God be pleased with him) makes the following report: ‘The Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) said, ‘Exchange gifts and you will love each other’ (564).  Anas, a companion of Muhammad (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) repeated this injunction: ‘My sons, exchange gifts, it will bring about love between you’ (595, Athar 150).  In a hadith recorded by Imam al-Bayhaqi, the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) offered useful advice on developing our friendships:

‘Three practices will keep sincere your brother’s love for you: greeting him when you see him; making room for him in gatherings; and calling him by the most endearing of his names’

Such practices keep love burning in our hearts for our friends, to the point where we seem to think about them all the time.  Perhaps this emotional and spiritual bond (which exists beyond time and space) is what the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) referred to in this hadith:

‘The souls of two believers meet in the course of a day even if they have not actually seen each other’ (261)

A very famous Hadith Qudsi speaks of the power and significance that relationships founded on God can have:

‘Where are those who love one another through My glory? Today I shall give them shade in My shade, it being a day when there is no shade but My shade’ (source: hadith 23)

At the heart of friendship, lies mercy (rahma).  Compassion and tenderness are integral aspects of all relationships and their absence seriously impairs attempts to form lasting bonds.  The Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is reported to have asked a bedouin: ‘Do you kiss your children?’  ‘We do not kiss them’, was the reply.  Importantly, the Prophet (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) then said, ‘Can I put mercy into your hearts after Allah has removed it?’ (90).  Thus, the simple act of kissing one’s children has a deeper spiritual significance.  As a parent myself, I know just how important affectionate physical contact is.  Abu Hurarya (may God be pleased with him) relates another relevant story:

‘The Messenger of Allah (sall Allahu alaihi wa salem) kissed al-Hasan ibn Ali while al-Aqra ibn Habis al-Tamimi was sitting with him.  Al-Aqra said, ‘I have ten children and I have never kissed any of them’.  The Messenger of Allah (sall Allahu alaihi wa salem) said, ‘Whoever does not show mercy will not be shown mercy’ (91)

In other words, mercy is reciprocal: in our human relationships we have to earn it by giving it.  This same idea of reciprocity underlines another relevant tradition, in which Rasul Allah (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) is reported to have said:

”Worship the Merciful (al-Rahman) and feed the people.  Spread the greeting among yourselves and you will enter the Garden’ (981)

Worship the Source of Mercy and serve that Source by feeding others.  Spread the salams and enter the Garden.

The very act of saying salam sets up a kind of spiritual vibration. This is because we can open ourselves to relationships with others and on a deeper level, with the entire universe around us, and hence with God.  In this regard, it is very interesting to note the following hadith:

al-Salam (the Source of Peace) is one of the names of Allah the Almighty which He has placed in the earth.  Therefore spread the salam (greeting) amongst yourselves’ (989).

Abdullah, an early Muslim, had this to say:

Salam is one of the names of Allah which Allah has placed on the earth.  Extend it among you.  When a man greets a people and they answer him, then he has a higher degree than them because he reminds them of peace.  If no one answers him, he will be answered who is better and more excellent’ (1040, Athar 255)

To spread the salam is thus to share the Name of God with others.  It is to remind others that you intend naught but good – or at least, it subtly acknowledges the ever-present Judge.  It is to remind others of the Source of Goodness that pervades and upholds all existence.  The salam is also a kind of benediction, blessing all who come into contact with it.  Mu`awiya ibn Qurra is reported to have said:

‘My father said to me, ‘ My son, when a man passes by you and says al-salamu alaikum (‘peace be upon you – plural), do not say ‘wa alaika al-salam (peace be upon you – singular)’ as if you were singling that greeting out for him alone.  Rather, say, ‘al-salamu alaikum (peace be upon you – plural)’ (1037: Athar 252)

Abdullah ibn Umar is reported to have advised his contemporaries that:

‘When someone enters a house which is not lived in, he should say, ‘Peace be upon us and on the righteous servants of God’ (1055, Athar 261)

In other words, entering a deserted house with the Name of God is to send out protective energies into that waste place.  It is also to ensure that the Name of God proceeds us, wherever we go and in whatever circumstance we find ourselves.

To spread the salam, to give greetings of peace, is to approach life positively.  It is to orient ourselves to the fundamental goodness that exists buried within all things, and to the Source of all goodness itself.  This is why the Messenger of God (alaihi al-salatu wa al-salam) praised the salam so highly and this is why it has remained so fundamental a practice of the Islamic tradition.

What can I say in response to all of this, other than Ya Salam! (‘O Source of Peace’)

Wa akhiru da’wana an il hamdu lillahi rabbil alameen.

Ma’as salama,
Abdur Rahman

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7 thoughts on “‘And Spread the Greeting Among Yourselves’: Exploring the Salam

  1. LOVED this post Abdur! I also read that back in the day when ‘one spread the greeting, salaam’ in effect used to mean, ‘how are you doing…in your spiritual progress’

  2. Wa alaikum salam Mohseyep,

    Welcome to my online home. Thank you for stopping by. I look forward to some interesting conversations with you, either here or at you own blog. Allah bless you always.

    My best salams to you (and the garden)!

  3. Dear Abdur,

    I returned from Tanzania and Zanzibar loving the openess in this greeting and asked much what it meant from the local people. Thank you for the clearer understanding of this expression. Oh, how the language of God can encompass so much in so few words. It is a greeting I send to my 6 year old son on the night before we swear in our newly elected president.

    May we all inhabit the true spirit of this beautiful greeting.

  4. Peace Carolyn,

    The salam is both beautiful and profound, which is why I personally find it so inspiring. Allah! Amen to your prayer. May it indeed be so.

    Welcome to my online home. God bless you always.

    Abdur Rahman

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