The Muslim greeting of salam “saying as-salamu alaykum” in Arabic means “peace be upon you”.
The Greeting of Moses
The language of Moses was Hebrew: In Hebrew the greeting is: shalom aleichem. This means the same as “as salam alaykum”.
Traditionally the pious Jews use the greeting shalom aleichem, “peace be upon you!” And its natural response is: aleichem shalom, “upon you be peace,” or the slightly more formal wa’aleichem ashalom, meaning “and upon you be peace.”
This Hebrew response is paralleled by the Arabic response, “wa alaykum salam.”
Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic belong to the Semitic family of languages since they were derived from the same parent language. The close kinship of the Semitic languages to one another can be seen in the persistence of the same roots from one language to another.
So the root s-l-m, for example, means “peace” in Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and other Semitic languages. Thus Hebrew and Aramaic are lexically, etymologically, as well as syntactically kindred sister languages.
And for that reason, when Jews greet one another with “shalom aleichem” it is almost the same as the Arabic “as salam alaykum“.
The Greeting of Jesus
Jesus taught the same greeting to his disciples. See the following verses from the Gospels:
And into whatsoever house ye enter, first say, Peace be to this house. (Luke 10:5)
And as they thus speak, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. (Luke 24:36)
Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. (John 20:19)
And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. (John 20:26)
Jesus spoke the Aramaic language, which is only a dialect of the Hebrew language. So, the English expression, “peace be unto you” given in the Gospels as the equivalent of what Jesus taught, is a translation of the original Aramaic expression used by Jesus: “shalom aleichem“.
Islam and Peace
The word “Islam” is derived from the same root as the Arabic word “salam“, meaning peace. The name of the religion “Islam” means the peace one may attain by submitting to the laws of God.
We know that peace is extremely valuable and essential for the happy co-existence and healthy growth of individuals, families, and societies.
History teaches us that if peace is absent for a long time, a society would face death, destruction, and even extinction.
And religions teach of eternal peace for the dead souls in the hereafter. As sensible beings, it is our duty not only to seek peace, but also to strive for its attainment in every sphere of life.
Indeed, peace is a state of balance and harmony arising out of our conforming to the laws of nature and our obedience to the moral laws of religion.
Both these sets of laws are from God Almighty Himself. Muslims believe that this is because it is God Who created the universe and its laws.
Whether we want it or not, everything in the universe willingly or unwillingly obeys God’s laws which are called Laws of Nature.
In other words, everything in the universe submits to God Almighty and is at peace with Him and the world around.
Islam — or “living in peaceful submission to God” — is at the initial level, our submission to the laws of nature; and we become “Muslims” (= those who submit) at this level, willingly or unwillingly.
And there is a second level of living in peace, that is what the ancient prophets and their followers did, as is evident from this verse:
Say: “We believe in God, and in that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, and that which has been bestowed upon Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and their descendants, and that which has been vouchsafed by their Sustainer unto Moses and Jesus and all the [other] prophets: we make no distinction between any of them. And unto Him do we surrender ourselves. (3:84)
The English sentence at the end of the verse, “And unto Him do we surrender ourselves” is a translation of the original Arabic, “Wa nahnu lahu Muslimoon“.
This can also be rendered thus: “and we are Muslims”.
The purport of the verse is: We believe in all the prophets of God and in all the revealed books of God — and we do not differentiate between one and another of the prophets of God. Because, as Muslims, we give the same respect and honor to all the Muslim prophets of God. This is because all the prophets of God and their followers were living in “Islam”.
And then there is Islam as the complete submission to God Almighty, as revealed in the Last Testament called the Quran, to the Prophet Muhammad:
This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed My favor upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion. (5:3)
That is to say, Islam as taught by the earlier prophets was completed and perfected by Muhammad.
The foregoing underscores the fact that we cannot have a better prayer than the prayer for salam — Islam — peace.
And the best greeting we can give to our fellow beings is nothing but “peace be upon you” — “as-salamu alaykum“.
(From Discovering Islam’s archive.)