One of the main objectives of man’s honorable vicegerency mission on earth is establishing, spreading and living peace. By peace it is meant peace with Allah the Creator and Master, the people, the environment with its animate and inanimate realities, and the self.
Peace is also meant to be realized at all levels of existence: personal and social, local and global, and physical as well as metaphysical.
The Prophet said that:
Al-Salam (Peace as well as the Source and Embodiment of Peace) is one of the names of Allah, and Allah has ordained it on earth, so “spread it (as a truth, reality and greeting) among yourselves (Sahih al-Bukhari).
When Almighty Allah sent Adam, as the first human being and prophet, to earth, He acquainted him with this ontological purpose:
Get down all of you from this place (the Paradise), then whenever there comes to you Guidance from Me, and whoever follows My Guidance, there shall be no fear on them, nor shall they grieve (2: 38).
Then if there comes to you guidance from Me, then whoever follows My Guidance he shall neither go astray, nor shall be distressed. But whosoever turns away from My Reminder, verily, for him is a life of hardship, and We shall raise him up blind on the Day of Resurrection (20: 123-124).
In consequence, the Islamic tradition of greeting with salam commenced with the first man and prophet on earth, Adam, as well.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said:
Allah created Adam and he was sixty cubits tall. Then He said: ‘Go and greet those angels and listen to how they greet you, for that will be your greeting and the greeting of your progeny.’ He said: ‘Al-salamu ‘alaykum (Peace be upon you).’
They said: ‘Al-salamu ‘alaykum wa rahmatu Allah (Peace be upon you and the mercy of Allah).’ So they added the words wa rahmatu Allah” (Sahih al-Bukhari).
The greeting of salam is not just a greeting; it is a supplication whereby a person wishes and implores Allah to grant another person, or a group of persons, that which is coveted most: peace. When pronounced in full, salam also includes Allah’s mercy and blessings.
The people articulate thereby their aspirations and hopes to attain peace and become its embodiment and source. They wish to become an instrument of its spread to the spheres where its light is yet to shine and inspire.
Salam, it goes without saying, contains the gist of life’s mission and purpose. It is their microcosm.
After Muhammad (peace be upon him) had been sent as the final prophet with the final revelation of Islam to mankind, the idea of peace (salam) as life’s quintessential design and people’s ultimate existential goal has been underscored more categorically than ever before.
The Night of Power (Laylatu-l-Qadr) — during which the revelation of the Holy Quran and with it Muhammad’s prophethood began — and all that transpires then is described as salam (peace) (al-Qadr 97:5).
That is because during Laylatu-l-Qadr angels greet each other and the believers with salam; or because Satan’s trickeries in general during the month of Ramadan and in particular during Laylatu-l-Qadr are rendered completely futile, or their scope of influence is being greatly restricted; or simply because everything, especially in the spiritual realm, associated with that Night is about peace and tranquility. That is one of the reasons why that Night is most blessed and is better than a thousand months (97:3).
Exchanging salams is a confirmed sunnah of the Prophet, which may be categorized as an obligation. However, some specify the matter in such a way that saying salam to another Muslim(s) is a sunnah, whereas replying to it is an obligation.
There are great rewards for exchanging salams. Ten rewards (hasanat) are given for saying salam ‘alaykum (peace be upon you), twenty for salam ‘alaykum wa rahmat-Allah (peace be upon you and the mercy of Allah), and thirty for salam ‘alaykum wa rahmat-Allah wa barakatuhu (peace be upon you and the mercy of Allah and His blessings) (Sahih al-Bukhari).
The rewards are not there just on account of salam being a form of greeting. Rather, such is the case because with salam a Muslim, apart from wishing, also assures his fellow Muslim(s) that from him comes nothing but peace, safety and security.
Moreover, when saying salam and genuinely meaning what is being said, a person tells another person(s) targeted by his salam that he is (they are) safe from his potential evil and harm. When he receives salam in return, he, too, gets assurance that he is safe from his, or their, potential evil and harm.
When two or more persons separate, they are again required to exchange salams, thus implying that in each other’s absence they are all safe from each other’s potential malice and detriment. They are safe, for example, from each other’s backbiting, spying, plotting, jealousy and any other form of physical, mental and even spiritual harm.
This way, a general aura of peace and wellbeing is generated from which not only people – Muslims and non-Muslims alike — but also the whole environment, benefit.
In other words, salam as a greeting is a contract, or a bond, which ought to be honored by both parties. It is a pledge that a person will contribute his bit to attaining and safeguarding the greatest at once individual and communal asset: peace, without which a question mark will always persist over every individual and communal civilizational undertaking.
Salam as a greeting is not a cultural symbol or manifestation. Nor is it a cliché that could be so overused or misused that it might lose its original meaning and effect.
Rather, salam is a statement of intent and purpose, as well as a declaration and program of action. It is furthermore an assertion of identity and character. It defines a person, helping him to be distinguished and to distinguish thereby.