I was asked by some people about the culture of Muslims hugging every time they meet, both men and women. Although I’m not sure exactly how frequent it is amongst women, in some circles Muslim men will hug when greeting one another on every occasion, even where they see each other every few days. To a large extent, even where it is unsaid, many assume it is either religious or the ‘Muslim’ thing to do.

Here I’m not trying to explicate the entire fiqh issue, but simply raise some basic conclusions that need considering.

So what’s the story?

Saying ‘Assalamu alaikum’ is explicitly mentioned in revelation, along with the advantages in doing so (such as spreading sentiments of peace in communal living). God says, “When you are offered a greeting respond with a better one, or at least return it.” (4:86) Ibn al-Qayyim, the Hanbali sage, wrote that this goes for all those who greet you with sincere wishes, including both Muslims and non-Muslims. Thus if someone greets you with ‘good morning’ it is a moral duty (according to Quranic sentiments) to respond with the same or better. Similarly, Ibn Muflih in his work Adab al-Shar’iyyah stated that it was prophetic practice to say (what today’s equivalent would probably be) “Good morning” instead of salam.

Is touching upon greeting and meeting merely a cultural expression, or religious?

Imam Malik disliked shaking hands or hugging as related by Ibn Wahb and Ibn Abdil Barr, and a position taken by Suhnun et al. Qadi Ibn al-Arabi wrote that this was because Malik didn’t view it as a general stipulation nor decisively from revelation like the saying of salam, for if it were, Malik would have regarded them saying salam and shaking hands the same. However, al-Qurtubi seems to have disagreed with Malik, quoting the hadith of Bara b. Aazib (al-Tabarani) where Bara said to the Prophet who shook his hand, “I thought shaking the hands was something foreigners do?!’ He replied: “We are worthier of doing so; if two Muslims shake hands with one taking the hand of another out of love and sincerity between them, their sins are shed.” (The foreigners he was referring to was probably the Yemenites.) What we might note from this narration is:

Firstly, that shaking hands is between two people who know one another. Secondly, that the reward (and concomitantly the encouragement, or nadb) is based on doing it out of love and sincerity between two people – the reward is for the heartfelt sentiment and not from the mere act of hand-shaking, since it wasn’t widespread amongst the Companions previously (as intimated by Bara). Perhaps it was for this reason that Qatadah enquired from Anas b. Malik whether the Companions would shake hands. Whilst other hadiths also speak of how hand-shaking removes sins, the hadith of Bara contextualises the reasons behind it. Other hadith such us “shake hands for it removes enmity” (al-Muwatta’) should also be contextualised by the above, and this is probably where Imam Malik was coming from in his antipathy towards establishing shaking hands and hugging as a religious practice.

However, most jurists were of the view that it is a religiously encouraged act based on numerous reports. Whatever the case, there is no problem with shaking hands and it is certainly a decent thing to do between people who know one another. Bara is also quoted in Adab al-Mufrad as saying: “a complete greeting is to shake the hands of your brother” which is also narrated by Ibn Mas’ud elsewhere.

As for those who don’t know one another well, the lowest common denominator between all jurists is that they may do if they wish, but it isn’t a must, and if someone doesn’t seem inclined to do so, no offence should be taken nor should they be taken to task out of a misplaced sense of religiosity. However, we must also consider that in certain circumstances, normal societal customs will dictate the thing to do, just because there is no explicit shar’i declaration doesn’t mean it’s not rude, and it does not befit the believer to come across as such. I guess there has to be a balance between a cognisance of pervading social norms and the right to bodily autonomy.

To be clear, what I’m saying is that the actual physical contact is inconsequential in itself – the reward is in the expression of the heartfelt sentiment (which can be achieved without actually touching). Shaking hands is not a ritual act but a means by which the sentiment is expressed. Shaking hands on its own is a cultural gesture, and merely for being the cultural ‘thing to do’ doesn’t accrue the rewards mentioned the hadiths.

As for repeated hugging, it is narrated by Anas b. Malik that a man asked the Prophet whether people should hug and kiss when they meet. The prophet said “no”. But when he was asked about shaking hands the Prophet replied in the affirmative. (al Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah) However, there is some nuance to be had here. al-Sha’bi relates that the Companions would shake hands when they would meet, and hug when they returned from a journey. (al-Tahawi) It is also reported that the Prophet hugged Ja’far b. Abi Talib when he returned from East Africa. What this tells us is that hugging is a cultural practice, and general appropriateness in the Prophet’s time used to limit it to significant occasions (such as journeying) or a notable circumstance, but not as a general norm of greeting.

This is particularly important in our (British) context. I believe general appropriateness still limits it to specific occasions, and in particular contexts such as a viral pandemic (like SARS or the coronavirus) it is something that we need to avoid. But even beyond this, many who do not ascribe to certain cultural norms (converts or otherwise) do not hug so frequently nor feel very comfortable with such frequent bodily contact. With a culturally plural religious community there must be some acknowledgement that we’re not all the same, and thus, it is wise to demarcate between what is religious and cultural, so as not to impose such norms on others or unnecessarily put them in an uncomfortable situation.

And God alone has complete knowledge.