By Rabi’a Elizabeth Brown
“When any of the People of the Book greets you with Salam (peace), then say, Wa ‘alaikum (and also upon you).” (Sunan Ibn Majah 3697)
This lovely, seemingly simple greeting etiquette has deep and broad roots in the Quran and hadith. In fact, it goes to the essence of our deen.
The basics of giving salaams
As we grow up in Islam, or come to know it as reverts, we learn that it is good ‘adab (etiquette), in fact required, to hail a fellow Muslim with:
- As-salamu alaikum! (Arabic: ٱلسَّلَامُ عَلَيْكُمْ)
And to return the greeting, we can say, simply:
- Wa alaikum as-salam! (Arabic: وَعَلَيْكُمُ ٱلسَّلَامُ)
It is in fact good practice to return the greeting even if it is given with a sincere heart by a non-Muslim.
And at the end of each salat, we greet and give respect to the angels that accompany us on either side with a salaam.
The common English translation of the pair of greetings is:
- Peace be upon you
- And unto you peace.
But to leave your understanding at that level would be to deprive yourself of a far more important remembrance of Allah SWT and what is given to us in Islam.
Recognizing as Muslims the prophets before Mohammad (pbuh)
The Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) is the last and greatest prophet: it is through the Revelation given to him that Allah SWT perfected Islam.
But as we learn, a long line of prophets and messengers preceded his birth. Allah SWT names and blesses many of the most significant prophets in Surah. The greeting of assalamu alaikum makes plain the quality and steadfastness of their submission to Allah SWT as Muslims.
Peace and salutation to Nuh among the nations! (Quran 37:79)
Peace and salutation to Ibrahim! (Quran 37:109)
Peace and salutation to Musa and Harun! (Quran 37:120)
Peace and salutation to such as Elias! (Quran 37:130)
Glory to thy Lord, the Lord of Honour and Power! (He is free) from what they ascribe (to Him)! And Peace on the messengers! (Quran 37:180-181)
But why is this particular greeting so important?
Certainly, “peace” as the word salaam is often translated is a desirable state. But is there more? The Quran itself suggests that strongly.
Peace, lost and found in translation
It is said that there is no sufficient or adequate translation of the Arabic of the Quran. As one studies the Quran, this becomes obvious over time, as do the limitations of one’s own mind if your native language is something other than Arabic.
But Allah SWT has given us clues to what we really mean when we wish salaams upon a fellow Muslim, both from how the word is used in the Quran and thanks to at least one modern translator and scholar.
Peace in this world: is it even possible?
As Muslims who put our trust in the Oneness and complete power of Allah SWT, it is likely that we experience more peace than many people do.
But it’s a fleeting state. We are made to be changeable and changing during our mortal lives, as is the world around us, and Allah SWT fully intends that to be the case. And this is true for our entire beings, including our hearts.
One of the words for “heart” in Arabic is qalb (القلب). And Allah SWT is the Ruler of our hearts.
O believers! Respond to Allah and His Messenger when he calls you to that which gives you life. And know that Allah stands between a person and their heart, and that to Him you will all be gathered. (Quran 8:24)
Allah SWT can lead the heart of any person toward Him or seal it.
And no calamity befalls anyone, but with the leave of Allah. And whoever believes in Allah, He guides his heart. And Allah is All-Knowing about everything. (Quran 64:11)
Have you [O Prophet] seen those who have taken their own desires as their god? Allah left them to stray knowingly, sealed their hearing and hearts, and placed a cover on their sight. Who then can guide them after Allah? Will you not then be mindful? (Quran 45:23)
Because Allah SWT has this power to turn human hearts toward or away from Him, the Prophet (pbuh) referred to Allah SWT in several hadith as “The Turner of Hearts”:
Anas reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, would say:
“O Turner of the hearts, affirm my heart upon Your religion!”
I said, “O Messenger of Allah, we believe in you and in that with which you were sent. Do you fear for us?” The Prophet said:
“Yes, for the hearts are between the fingers of Allah. He turns them whichever way He wills.” (Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2140)
Allah SWT certainly leads us to Him (or not) as he wills, but we have free will as to whether to return the approach. We can deepen our connection to Him by being steadfast in salat (fard and sunnah) prayer and dhikr, or turning our thoughts to Allah SWT in remembrance.
And it is wise to remember that, in point of fact, the state of our hearts can change many times in one given day, not just over a lifetime. In his treatise Disciplining the Soul, Refining the Character, and Curing the Sicknesses of the Heart, Imam ibn al-Ghazali wrote:
The authentic mean between the two extremes is exceedingly obscure, being thinner than a hair and sharper than a sword … It is because of the difficulty of preserving rectitude [istiqama] that every one of God’s servants is required to pray “Guide us to the Straight Path” seventeen times each day, the recitation of the Opening Sura being an obligatory part of every rakat….
Thus the treading of the Straight Path with due rectitude is something extremely obscure; nevertheless the servant, should he be unable to do this properly, must at least strive to keep in its vicinity. Whosoever wishes for salvation can only win it by means of righteous acts, which proceed solely from good traits of character.
Therefore let every servant look to and reckon his attributes and qualities, and devote his energies to treating them one after the other. And we ask God, the Generous, to render us among the devout. 
And so we strengthen our foundation in the deen and our connection to Allah SWT by asking for guidance, over and over again, because without it we inevitably stray. And even with the guidance, we are still prone to being out of balance — but far less so if we had asked for no guidance at all.
Peace in the next world: what might it feel like?
In the Quran, Allah SWT uses the word سَلَام (salaam) most frequently to describe not what we can expect during our mortal lives, but rather what awaits the faithful in Jannah.
The physical world in which we live our mortal lives can be a stunningly beautiful place. Nature, culture, loving relationships, all are foreshadowing and ways to begin to understand what awaits us in Jannah. And as we deepen our relationship with Allah SWT, as said above, our hearts come to greater equilibrium on the Straight Way, and we experience far more stillness and quiet than we otherwise would.
But as lovely as what we can experience here may be, it does not hold a candle to what awaits us in Jannah, says Allah SWT in the Quran. This excerpt is from Surah al-Waqi’ah:
And those Foremost (in Faith) will be Foremost (in the Hereafter).
These will be those Nearest to Allah:
In Gardens of Bliss:
A number of people from those of old,
And a few from those of later times.
(They will be) on Thrones encrusted (with gold and precious stones),
Reclining on them, facing each other.
Round about them will (serve) youths of perpetual (freshness),
With goblets, (shining) beakers, and cups (filled) out of clear-flowing fountains:
No after-ache will they receive therefrom, nor will they suffer intoxication:
And with fruits, any that they may select:
And the flesh of fowls, any that they may desire.
And (there will be) Companions with beautiful, big, and lustrous eyes,-
Like unto Pearls well-guarded.
A Reward for the deeds of their past (life).
Not frivolity will they hear therein, nor any taint of ill,-
Only the saying, “Peace! Peace.”
The last ayah in the excerpt above, Ayah 26, concludes the passage that describes what awaits the Foremost, those closest to Allah SWT, in Jannah. And note that Ayah 24 makes clear that this state of perfect bliss and peace is “a reward” for their good deeds during their mortal lives.
Note Ayah 25, the one that immediately precedes the mention of “peace.” It describes an utter absence of frivolous or malicious speech. So the peace that the Foremost enjoy in Jannah has a sense of protection or being guarded against what they might have had to put up with in their mortal lives. It is a culmination of and reward for their steadfastness and diligence in their practice of Islam, as recognized by Allah SWT, who has chosen them as worthy of the highest of rewards. (The Foremost are not alone in Jannah: the Surah goes on immediately to describe a very similar state for the “Companions of the Right Hand,” who have lived righteous lives as well.)
So what does the peace of Jannah entail? Stillness, the deepest and ever-abiding of satisfactions, protection from all bad influences. Most importantly, it is a permanent state. A 20th-century scholar and translator of the Quran, Muhammad Asad, has suggested that the most adequate translation of سَلَام, or salaam, is not “peace” but rather “fulfillment.” It can be very helpful to think of the word in that way to get a deeper sense of what Allah SWT is telling us.
Looking forward to a peaceful fulfillment
Jannah can seem a very long way away, especially for the young, the troubled, the beleaguered. But Allah SWT has infinite compassion for us humans, with our short memories, short fuses, and inevitable exposure to the prevalent despair and skepticism of the non-Muslim world.
And so, every so often, when we least expect it, comes a second or two of sublime joy. We cannot plan for this or make it happen. It is a gift of Allah SWT, and it is a tiny taste of what we can expect in Jannah.
For further reading
What does As-salamu Alaikum mean to you? Share your reflection below!
- Disciplining the Soul, Refining the Character, and Curing the Sicknesses of the Heart, Imam ibn al-Ghazali, translated and annotated by T.J. Winter, pp 49-50, Islamic Texts Society (Cambridge, UK: 1995). Emphasis and some punctuation added for clarity.