By Abu Amina Elias
In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Whenever we read a narration about the Prophet, we need to understand it within its historical, theological, and moral context. One such narration concerns how to treat the people of the Book, Jews, Christians, and other non-Muslims when using the road:
Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
لاَ تَبْدَءُوا الْيَهُودَ وَلاَ النَّصَارَى بِالسَّلاَمِ فَإِذَا لَقِيتُمْ أَحَدَهُمْ فِي طَرِيقٍ فَاضْطَرُّوهُ إِلَى أَضْيَقِهِ
Do not initiate greetings with the Jews and Christians. When you meet any of them in the road, then make him take its narrowest path.
Source: Sahih Muslim 2167, Grade: Sahih
On the surface, it seems like the Muslims are being commanded to be rude to others. However, the Prophet made this statement to his companions when they were departing to confront a Jewish tribe that had just violated their peace treaty.
Ibn Al-Qayyim comments on this tradition, saying:
لَكِنْ قَدْ قِيلَ إِنَّ هَذَا كَانَ فِي قَضِيَّةٍ خَاصَّةٍ لَمَّا سَارُوا إِلَى بَنِي قُرَيْظَةَ
It is said that this was in a specific situation, when they were marching to the tribe of Qurayzah
Source: Zād al-Ma’ād 2/388
Authentic versions of this tradition as narrated by other companions make this context clear.
Abu Basrah reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
إِنَّا غَادُونَ عَلَى يَهُودَ فَلَا تَبْدَءُوهُمْ بِالسَّلَامِ فَإِذَا سَلَّمُوا عَلَيْكُمْ فَقُولُوا وَعَلَيْكُمْ
Verily, I will depart against the Jews in the morning, so do not greet them with peace and if they greet you with peace, then say: And upon you.
Source: Musnad Ahmad 26695, Grade: Sahih
This narration is authentic according to Al-Haythami in Majma’ al-Zawāʼid 8/44 and Al-Albani in Irwā’ al-Ghalīl 1275.
Abu Abdur Rahman Al-Juhani reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
إِنِّي رَاكِبٌ غَدًا إِلَى الْيَهُودِ فَلَا تَبْدَءُوهُمْ بِالسَّلَامِ فَإِذَا سَلَّمُوا عَلَيْكُمْ فَقُولُوا وَعَلَيْكُمْ
Verily, I am riding against the Jews tomorrow, so do not greet them with peace and if they greet you with peace, then say: And upon you.
Source: Sunan Ibn Majah 3699, Grade: Sahih
This narration is authentic according to Al-Albani in Sahih al-Jami’ 2464 and Sahih Ibn Majah 2999.
From these, we can understand that the command to not initiate peaceful greetings and to not accommodate their path was specific to these hostile tribes. In another context, the companions would greet non-Muslims with peace. The Muslims in this case were simply told to continue marching on their way without stopping to accommodate these people.
Even so, it was not permissible for the Muslims to harm these non-Muslims while they walked along the path.
Al-Qurtubi comments on this tradition, saying:
وَلَيْسَ الْمَعْنَى إِذَا لَقِيتُمُوهُمْ فِي طَرِيقٍ وَاسِعٍ فَأَلْجِئُوهُمْ إِلَى حَرْفِهِ حَتَّى يَضِيقَ عَلَيْهِمْ لِأَنَّ ذَلِكَ أَذًى لَهُمْ وَقَدْ نُهِينَا عَنْ أَذَاهُمْ بِغَيْرِ سَبَبٍ
The meaning is not that if we meet them on a wide road we should force them to take its narrowest edge, as this would be harming them and we have been prohibited from harming them without a just cause.
Source: Fatḥ al-Bārī 11/40
It is not allowed in Islam to harm anyone or anything without a just cause. Letting them take the narrow part of the road was simply a means to avoid honoring them, since at the time their tribe was showing hostility towards the Muslims.
Ibn Hajar comments on this tradition, saying:
مَعْنَاهُ لَا تَتَنَحَّوْا لَهُمْ عَنِ الطَّرِيقِ الضَّيِّقِ إِكْرَامًا لَهُمْ وَاحْتِرَامًا
It means do not give up your section of the road to them in order to honor and respect them.
Source: Fatḥ al-Bārī 11/40
If we were to honor such people at the time of their wrongdoing, that would only embolden them to commit more crimes. A little harshness in this context is actually an act of love and mercy because it is meant to discourage their bad behavior. This is called tough love.
In general, Islam encourages us to be kind and gentle even to those who are very rude to us, as long as they are not violent against us.
Aisha reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
إِنَّ اللَّهَ رَفِيقٌ يُحِبُّ الرِّفْقَ فِي الْأَمْرِ كُلِّهِ
Verily, Allah is kind and he loves kindness in all matters.
Source: Sahih Bukhari 6528, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi
The Prophet made this statement about a group of Jews that cursed him inside his own home, telling his wife Aisha to be kind and not to curse them in retaliation.
In sum, the tradition about not initiating greetings with non-Muslims and making them use the narrow path was specific to the context of hostilities. It does not mean non-Muslims should be harmed or that we should be rude to them as they use the road. Rather, the general rule in Islam is to be kind and gentle with others.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.