I have always advised Muslims and others that when you use a Hadith or a Quranic verse, you should know the historical background as why it was said and when it was revealed. If you do not know the very basics of when and why a verse of the Quran was revealed or why the Prophet (p) said a statement, don’t try give an explanation and lead innocent people astray.
Without its historical background one will at times give an interpretation that may be alien to the way it was understood when it was uttered. For example, the following Hadith is often quoted and twisted by individuals who want to paint the Islamic faith negatively:
“Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger as saying: Do not greet the Jews and the Christians before they greet you and when you meet any one of them on the roads force him to go to the narrowest part of it.” (Sahih Muslim Book 26, Hadith 5389. Eng. Tran., https://sunnah.com/muslim/39/16 )
“Narrated Abu Hurairah: that the Messenger of Allah said: “Do not precede the Jews and the Christians with the Salam. And if one of you meets them in the path, then force them to its narrow portion.” (Jami at-Tirmidhi volume 5, Book 40, Hadith 2700. Eng. Tran., Sahih Darussalam, https://sunnah.com/tirmidhi/42/13 )
Just reading the above reports by itself may seem to give a reader an impression that the Prophet (p) discriminated against other religious groups. However, this is not the case when we consult historical sources on the same incident. This saying was uttered mainly against an enemy group who aimed to harm the Prophet (p) and the Muslims. There are two Hadith reports on this:
“It was narrated from Abu ‘Abdur-Rahman Al Juhani that the Messenger of Allah said: “I am riding to the Jews tomorrow. Do not initiate the greeting with them, and if they greet you, then say: Wa ‘alaikum (and also upon you)”. Sunan Ibn Majah volume 5, Book 33, Hadith 3699. Eng. Tran., Hasan Darussalam https://sunnah.com/ibnmajah/33/43 )
“Abu Basra al-Ghifari reported that the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “I will ride to the Jews tomorrow. Do not give them the greeting first. If they greet you, then say, ‘and on you.’” (Al-Adab Al-Mufrad Book 44, Hadith 1102. Eng. Tran., Sahih Al-Albani, https://sunnah.com/adab/44/2 )
The part where it says, “I will ride to the Jews” or “I am riding to the Jews” indicates that the Prophet (p) was at war with this group of people in his time. There are two clear proofs from classical scholars that this statement was made in relation to war.
The 9th century Persian Islamic scholar Abu Isa Muḥammad ibn Isa as-Sulami ad-Darir al-Bughi at-Tirmidhi (824 – 892 CE) placed this Hadith in the category of “The Book on military expeditions” :
“21 THE BOOK ON MILITARY EXPEDITIONS
(41)Chapter: What Has Been Related About Greeting The People Of The Book With Salam
Narrated Abu Hurairah:
That the Messenger of Allah said: “Do not precede the Jews and the Christians with the Salam. And if one you meets one of them in the path, then force him to its narrow portion.” (Jami at-Tirmidhi volume 3, Book 19, Hadith 1602 Eng. Tran., Sahih Darussalam, https://sunnah.com/tirmidhi/21/65
The 14/15th century Shafi’I scholar Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani (1372 – 1449 CE) placed this Hadith in the category of “The Book On Jihad”:
“Bulugh al-Maram – The Book on Jihad
Abu Hurairah (RAA) narrated that The Messenger of Allah said: “Do not start by saluting the Jews and the Christians (when you meet them), and if you meet any of them on the road, force him to go to the narrowest part of the road.” (Bulugh al-Maram Book 11, Hadith 1350. Eng. Tran., https://sunnah.com/urn/2116100 )
It is quite clear that among classical scholars of Islam, they deemed this Hadith report to be in relation to war only.
Who exactly was this group that the Prophet (p) and his companions were at war with? This saying was uttered on the occasion of the Banu Qurayza incident. The Prophet and his people were marching to the Banu Qurayza tribe. This tribe just had violated the peace treaty and attacked the Muslim community.
They had violated the treated and helped the Quraysh in war against the Muslims, in the battle of Khandaq: “Battle Of The Trench (al-Khandaq – al-Ahzab)“. For more information on Banu Quraizah incident, see the following article please: “Re-Examining Banu Qurayzah Incident”
The medieval sunni scholar Imam Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (1292 – 1350 CE) states that the Hadith was uttered in relation to when the Muslims “went out to Banu Quraizah” :
“Regarding His Guidance In Giving Salutations Of Peace To The People Of The Scripture
It has been authentically reported from the Prophet that he said:
‘Do not anticipate them in offering salutations of peace; and if you meet them in the road, force them to the narrowest part of it.’
However, it has been said: That was in special circumstances, when HE WENT OUT TO BANU QURAIZAH and he said: ‘Do not anticipate them in offering salutations of peace.’ ” (Provisions for the Hereafter (Zaad Al-Ma’ad) by Ibn Al-Qayyim Al-Jawziyyah, page 211 – 212)
Contemporary Professor Said Fares Hassan comments on this particular Hadith and gives a plausible explanation(s) as why the Prophet uttered those words on that occasion:
“The Qur’an is the ultimate source, and the Sunnah runs in its orbit and does not depart from it. Therefore if the Qur’an states the principle of justice and righteousness in dealing with non-Muslims, then prophetic hadith such as ‘do not initiate peace greeting i.e., saying ‘peace be upon you,’ with the Jews and oblige them to take the side of the road’ should be reinterpreted in terms of the Qur’an and not otherwise.
Such a statement should not be taken at its face value. The Sunnah has to be considered as an integral structure in its own right, however closely linked to the Qur’an as an elaboration of its values in a relative specific context.
Based on the principle, the above hadith is applicable only in its specific context. It is reported that the Prophet instructed Muslims not to greet the Jews when he was heading to war against the Jewish community of BANU QURAYZAH for the breaching of their covenant with him. Muslims were advised not to greet them because if they exchange greetings,
THIS WILL BE LIKE GIVING THE JEWS AN AMAN, THAT IS, CONCLUDING A PEACE TREATY, which is not desired in this specific situation. Against this specific incident, the Qur’an lays the general principle that ‘Allah does not forbid you to deal justly with those who fought not against you on account of religion nor drove you out of your homes’ (Qur’an 60:8). If one adds to this some other prophetic Hadiths that support the Qur’anic principle, one can conclude the inapplicability of the statement preventing the greeting of non-Muslims.” (Fiqh al-Aqalliyat – History, Development, and Progress [Palgrave Macmillan, 2013], by Said Fares Hassan, page 104)
This explanation offered by Professor Said Fares Hassan has also been given by other classical scholars in the past. The highly respected scholar Ishaq bin Rahwaih (777 – 852 CE) comments in relation the report under discussion. He writes:
“إذا كانت حاجة إليه فلك أن تبدأه بالسلام، ومعنى قول النبي (لا تبدؤوهم بالسلام)لما خاف أن يدعوا ذلك أمانا وكان قد غدا إلى يهود
“If there is a need for it, then initiate the greeting. As for the meaning of the words of the Prophet “Do not greet them”, he said this out of fear that this might signify to them that they are safe, while he already marched against the Jews (Banu Qurayzah).” (Masaa’il al-Imam Ahmad wa Ishaq bin Rahwaih, volume 1, page 87)
When the historical context of the Hadith is taken into account, we see that the Prophet (p) said this statement in the time of war. Hence, the Hadith reports under discussion has been understood from the earliest of days of Islam as a safeguard not to give false hope to the enemy.
For example, since the Prophet (p) and his companions were going out to battle against a treacherous group of people, they did not want to greet them since that would amount to giving them security. Hence, that would be considered treachery on their part if they did. Thus, the companions at the time were prohibited from greeting them.
Furthermore, to better explain what scholar Ishaq bin Rahwaih (777 – 852 CE) is saying, we have to look Islamic teachings and see how strict Islam is when it comes to treachery:
“Aman may be given by Muslims to non-Muslims and by non-Muslims to Muslims. At the time of ‘Umar, the second Caliph, during a war, a Persian soldier took shelter at the top of a tree. A Muslims soldier told him in Persian cum Arabic ‘matrasi’ (don’t be afraid). His adversary thought that he was given a pledge and protection and came down. Sadly, he was killed by the Muslim soldier.
The matter was reported to the Caliph, who warned the commander, saying ‘As God is my witness, if I hear anyone has done this I shall cut his neck.”’ (Badruddin Ayni, Umdah Al-Qari Sharh Saheeh al-Bukhari, (Cairo Al-Taba Muneeriya, n.d.), volume 15, page 94) (The Concept Of Treaty In Relation To War And Peace In Islam, [Fikr-O-Nazar Urdu Journal (July-Sept 2009)], by Dr. Muhammad Munir, volume 47, No. 1, page 43 – 65)
And according to Shaybani (749 -805 CE):
“‘Umar wrote to his commander in Iraq that if anyone gave pledge to any enemy soldier buy sing, inter alia, the Persian words ‘matrasi’, then these words are binding.’ (Shaybani, Siyar al-Kabir, volume 1, page 199) (The Concept Of Treaty In Relation To War And Peace In Islam, [Fikr-O-Nazar Urdu Journal (July-Sept 2009)], by Dr. Muhammad Munir, volume 47, No. 1, page 43 – 65)
Muwatta Malik (711 -795 CE):
“…DO NOT ACT TREACHEROUSLY. Do not mutilate and do not kill children.” (Muwatta Malik Book 21, Hadith 11 Eng. Tran.)
“Fight against those who disbelieve in Allah. Make a holy war, do not embezzle the spoils; DO NOT COMMIT TREACHERY; and do not mutilate (the dead) bodies; do not kill the children.” (Sahih Muslim Book 019, Number 4294)
In light of the context, the Prophet Muhammed (p) was worried that he was going to give the enemy a false sense of security by imitating greetings. If one is responsible in any way for providing the enemy a false sense of security and then you fight him, Islam considers this to be an act of treachery. That is the justice of Islam. And so the Prophet was just trying to be extra cautious in regards to this situation with the Banu Qurayza.
(1) – “‘Those Who Wage War And Make Mischief’ – Quran 5:33” (Ukil & Urayna)
(10) – “Did Jews Get Expelled From Arabia?”
(11) – “Ali Ibn Abi Talib Did Not Burn Apostates Alive – Historical Analysis”
 Commenting on this, classical scholar Abu Eisa stated that those people were at war with they should not be honored:
[He said:] There are narrations on this topic from Ibn ‘Umar, Anas, and Abu Basrah Al-Ghifari the Companion of the Prophet.
[Abu ‘Eisa said:] This Hadith is Hasan Sahih. And regarding the meaning of this Hadith: “Do not precede the Jews and the Christians”: Some of the people of knowledge said that it only means that it is disliked because it would be honoring them, and the Muslims were ordered to humiliate them. For this reason, when one of them is met on the path, then the path is not yielded for him, because doing so would amount to honoring them.”
(Jami at-Tirmidhi volume 3, Book 19, Hadith 1602 Eng. Tran., Sahih Darussalam, https://sunnah.com/tirmidhi/21/65 )
 14th century scholar Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali (1335 – 1393 CE) comments in regards to treachery:
“…if he makes a contract he is treacherous and does not fulfil the contract. He says:
Fullfill your contracts. Contracts will be asked about.’ Surat al-Isra:34)
And he says:
‘Be true to Allah’s contract when you have agreed to it, and do not break your oaths once they are confirmed and you have made Allah your guarantee’ – Surat an-Nahl: 91
And he says:
‘Those who sell Allah’s contract and their own oaths for a party price, such people will have no portion in the akhirah and on the Day of Rising Allah will not speak to them or look at them or purify them. They will have a painful punishment.’ – (Surah Al Imran:77)
There is in the two Sahih books from Ibn Umar that the Prophet said, ‘For every treacherous one there is a banner on the Day of Rising by which he will be recognised.’
And in a version, ‘The treacherous one will have set up for him a standard on the Day of Rising, and it will be said, ‘This is the treachery of so-and-son! Al-Bukhari (3188) and Muslim (1735)
They both also narrated it in a hadith of Anas in the same sense.
Muslim narrated a hadith of Abu Sa’id that the Prophet said, ‘Every treacherous one will have a standard at his buttocks on the Day of Rising.’ Muslim (1738)
TREACHERY IS HARAM IN EVERY CONTRACT between Muslims and another, EVEN IF THE PERSON WITH WHOM THE CONTRACT IS MADE IS A KAFIR. For this reason there is in the hadith of Abdullah ibn Amr from the Prophet ‘Whoever kills a person whom he has an agreement without a just cause will not smell the gragrance of the Garden, and its fragrance can be experienced at a distance of forty years travel.’ Al-Bukhari narrated it. (Al-Bukhari (3166, 6914).
Allah, exalted is He, commands in His Book that we fulfil idolaters contracts if they undertake to fulfil their contracts and do not fail in them.” (“Jami’al –Ulum Wal – Hikam”) – Ibn Rajab Al-Hanbali [Translated by Abdassamad Clarke – Turath Publishing, 1428/2007], page 744 – 745)
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