Answered by Shaykh Muhammad ibn Adam al-Kawthari
Giving Salams to Non-Muslims
In the name of Allah, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful,
The word Salam’ is one of the names of Allah Almighty and it is included in the Islamic greeting Assalamu Alaykum Warahmatullahi Wabarakatuh’ (May the peace of Allah descend upon you and His Mercy and Blessings). In pre-Islamic Arabia, when people met, they used to greet each other with various greetings. Islam changed and replaced these greetings with this standard form of greeting.
The greeting Assalamu Alaykum’ is commonly translated as peace be upon you’ and it means: May you remain safe from every pain, sorrow and distress.
Qadhi Abu Bakr ibn al-Arabi (Allah have mercy on him) states:
“The word Salam is one the good names of Allah Almighty and Assalamu Alaykum’ means: Allah Almighty is your guardian and caretaker. (Ahkam al-Qur’an).
Due to this aspect of Salam, it is generally impermissible to use this form of greeting for non-Muslims. Imam al-Haskafi (Allah have mercy on him) states:
“A believer may greet a non-Muslim (with the greeting of salam, m) if he has a need from him otherwise it is prohibitively disliked (makruh) Therefore, one should abstain from saying Salam to the disbelievers, for the Hadith says: “Do not commence by greeting the Christians and Jews with Salam. If you meet one of them on a pathway, force them to walk on the side” recorded by al-Bukhari . If a Jew, Christian or fire-worshipper greets you, then there is nothing wrong in replying to them, but one should not say more than Wa alaykum’.
Allama Ibn Abidin (Allah have mercy on him) states by commentating on the above:
“It is stated in al-Shir’a (name of a book) that when one greets non-Muslims, one should say: Assalamu ala man ittaba’a al-huda (may peace be upon the guided ones). The reason for this impermissibility of saying Salam to non-Muslims is to not show them respect. When one greets them for a need, it is not out of respect, thus permissible. (See: Radd al-Muhtar ala al-Durr al-Mukhtar, 6/412).
Imam al-Bukhari records a Hadith in his Sahih on the authority of Anas ibn Malik (Allah be pleased with him) that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said: If the people of the book (ahl al-Kitab) greet you, say in reply: Wa alaykum (and also on you)”. (Sahih al-Bukhari).
Also in Sahih al-Bukhari, in the Chapter: How to greet a gathering in which there are Muslims and non-Muslims’ a long Hadith has been recorded on the authority of Usama ibn Zaid (Allah be pleased with him) that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) passed by a gathering in which there were Muslims, Idolaters and Jews, and the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) greeted them and invited them to Allah .. (Sahih al-Bukhari).
The author of Tafsir al-Mazhari states:
“If a group consists of Muslims, Idolaters and Jews, one should greet them (with Salam), as mentioned in the Hadith recorded by al-Bukhari and Muslim from Usama ibn Zaid. However, the intention should be to say Salam to the Muslims (of that group) so that it does not entail commencing to greet non-Muslims” (See: Ahkam al-Quran by al-Tahanawi, 2/306).
One of the great Hanafi scholars of the Indian subcontinent, Imam Ashraf Ali al-Tahanawi (Allah have mercy on him) states in his famous heavenly ornaments’:
“If one’s teacher is a non-Muslim, then one should greet him by saying only Assalam (peace) or Assalamu ala man ittaba’a al-huda. One should abstain from using the words Assalamu Alaykum for non-Muslims”. (P. 476).
From the foregoing, we can conclude our discussion in the following points:
1) It is impermissible to greet non-Muslims with the Islamic greeting of Assalamu Alaykum
2) One may greet non-Muslims with the greeting they themselves use
3) At times of need, such as the hope of one accepting Islam, it would be permissible to greet non-Muslims with the Islamic greeting
4) If a non-Muslim greets a Muslim with the Islamic greeting, one should respond by saying Alaykum or Assalamu ala man ittaba’a al-huda. While doing so, one should pray that Allah Almighty guide him/her to embrace Islam.
5) If a group consists of Muslims and non-Muslims, then it is permissible to greet them with the Islamic greeting. However, the intention should be to greet the Muslims only.
And Allah knows best
Muhammad ibn Adam al-Kawthari, UK