وَإِذَا حُيِّيْتُم بِتَحِيَّةٍ فَحَيُّواْ بِأَحْسَنَ مِنْهَا أَوْ رُدُّوهَا إِنَّ اللّهَ كَانَ عَلَى كُلِّ شَيْءٍ حَسِيبًا
4:86 But when you are greeted with a greeting [of peace], answer with an even better greeting, or [at least] with the like thereof. Verily, God keeps count indeed of all things.
I’ve had the experience of traveling abroad, living in Arab societies, and staying in Arab homes both abroad and in America. I am particularly fond of three families that played important roles in the formation of the community that grew from masjid an-noor to the MCA. The Arab Americans I came to know in the Bay Area are some of the most hospitable and honorable people I know. Over the years I developed friendships and bonds with Arab, Black American, African, South Asian, Indonesian, Pacific Island, Eastern European, Vietnamese, Chinese, Latino/Chicano, and White American Muslim women with the start of a simple greeting. That greeting is the universal greeting that Muslims exchange by saying, “Salaam alaikum!” (Peace be upon you) and the return, “Wa ‘alaikum salaam” (And upon you be Peace).
As a religious minority in America, everyone I know who wears hijab, including myself, gets excited when someone greets them with respect and honor. It especially means a lot in this society where you get a lot of Americans cutting their eyes, looking at you with pity or apprehension because your outer garments displays your religion. Some ethnic groups are more enthusiastic about their salaams, while other times it is really about the fervor of an individual Muslim.
Arabs are known for elaborate and long personal greetings and farewells. They are also very polite in their speech, with honorific terms denoting class and gender. In Muslim societies, people don’t salaam everybody they encounter on the street. If they did, you wouldn’t get anywhere. Maybe it is possible in the village, but in large cities, you go about your business and only give greetings in personal encounters. But often, a person arriving into a small store, shop, class, or gathering will give salaams, and everyone returns it. Everyone returns it because they have at least the requisite knowledge that the return of the greeting is their religious duty.
In Philadelphia, and especially in the area where I live there are a lot of Muslims. Black American Muslim men occasionally greet me on the street. Muslim men don’t always greet each other and vice versa because it may seem inappropriate to talk to the opposite gender. But that problem doesn’t exist whenever I see Black American Muslim women, where they often give me warm enthusiastic salaams. The White American Muslim women I encounter within stores will break a small and offer salaams. I’ve seen women from South East Asia whose faces have brightened with wide smiles as gave me the universal greetings of peace. But there is a big problem with Muslim greetings in one high profile group, immigrant Arab women who happen to wear hijab. Perhaps it is a Philadelphia thing, but I have heard of similar things in places like Chicago and Detroit. I’d further this by saying that the problem is not with Arab men. I may be wrong, but I haven’t heard of Arab men refusing to greet Black men in this city. The other day, I was walking with my husband and an Arab cab driver honked, waved, and gave us the fist. I see this problem as gender specific. Nor do I don’t think it is is an immigrant women versus Black American women thing. Little South Asian aunties will return salaams too. And on college campuses, such as UPenn and Temple, Muslim girls from all backgrounds are all happy to give salaams and even break out in a smile when they see a Muslim. I’ve experienced it and have spoken with some Black American Muslim women in Philadelphia who have noticed the reluctance of some Arab women to give greetings and the refusal of some to even return someones greetings and salutations.
My personal experience brought it home. On our way back home from errands in Center City a few weeks ago, my husband and I decided to stop by the Trader Joe’s which was right by the trolley stop. As we walked to get the front door, an Arab women in hijab came out and I said out loud, “Salaam alaikum.” She just walked straight past me without acknowledging we existed. My husband said maybe she didn’t hear me. As he went to get a cart he repeated the greeting. She acted like he was invisible. We are supposed to make seventy-something excuses, right? Let me think of some: 1. she was deaf, 2. she was blind, 3. she was mentally disabled, 4. she never read the Qur’an all the way through, 5. she never read a book about how to be a Muslim, 6. she never picked up a hadith book in her life, 7. we scared her by saying salaam alaikum too loud, 8. she must have saw me and thought I was one of those hijabi bandits 9. ummmm, I am running out of legitimate excuses… The reality is, my cousin who is Muslim and has lived in Philly all her life has had several occasions where Arab women have refused to return the greeting. One woman in a halal store refused on three separate occasions. One time, the woman saw my cousin from behind and mistook her for someone else and said, “Salaam alaikum!” When my cousin turned around and returned the greeting the woman looked in disgust that a Black woman gave her the greeting.
As I run my social experiment, I am still waiting for my hypothesis to be verified or falsified. But for the most part, whenever I’ve encountered immigrant Arab women–no matter how piously dressed–rarely initiate greetings. Since I’m trying to avoid confrontation or feelings of anger, I tend to pass them by without giving them salutations and greetings. I have either two options, to woman up and nurse my wounded feelings as I get dissed on a regular. Or I can tighten up my Arabic so I can give them a mini khutbah on the rights of their brothers and sisters.
The irony of this is that the above mentioned verse in the Qur’an states that you are required to return greetings in kind, but it is better to extend them. The reality is, even if you had a major dispute with another Muslim if they were to give the greeting, you return it because it is their right. The refusal to return greetings is a sheer sign of arrogance and prejudice. To me, it is a major sign of hypocrisy. It also sows seeds of discord and mistrust within our community. I think it should be addressed by the imams and religious leaders because this is not a way for any Muslim woman to conduct herself. This is why I hope that this post trickles up, that people read it, that they remind their moms, wives, daughters, sisters, aunts, and friends that this is their brothers’ and sisters’ right.