BOOK REVIEW: Importance of hospitality in Islam

28th Oct 2016

Hospitality and Islam: Welcoming in God’s Name. By Mona Siddiqui, London: Yale University Press. 2016. PB. Pp274. £9.67.

The author of this book teaches Islamic and Interreligious Studies in the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh. As an academic and writer, she has published several books including The Good Muslim: Reflections on Classical Islamic Law and Theology (2012) and Christians, Muslims, and Jesus (2013). She is fluent in French, Arabic and Urdu, and was also awarded an OBE for her contribution to interfaith understanding and dialogue in 2011.

In the book under review is probably the author’s most important literary contribution to date. Although the notion of hospitality is central to Islam and its teachings, not enough has been written about this topic by both classical and modern Islamic scholars. The fact that Muslims are increasingly moving away from traditional Islamic teachings on the subjects makes this topic even more pertinent today.

The Qur’an makes reference to hospitality in the following words: “Has the story reached you, of the honoured guests (Jibril and two other angels) of Abraham? When they came to him and said: ‘Salaam, (peace be upon you)!’ He answered: ‘Salaam, (peace be upon you),’ and said: ‘You are a people unknown to me.’ Then he turned to his household, and brought out a roasted calf. And placed it before them, (saying): ‘Will you not eat?’” (Surah Adh-Dhariyat 51:24-27) The Prophet (peace be upon him) also reinforced the Divine command by reminding Muslims to be hospitable. He said, “He, who believes in God and the Last Day, let him show hospitality to his guest…” (Bukhari and Muslim)

Based on both traditional Islamic teachings and relevant information from Christian sources as well as modern secular philosophies and ethics, in this book, the author argues ‘Islam holds hospitality as a virtue that lies at the very basis of the Islamic ethical system, a concept rooted in the pre-Islamic Bedouin virtues of welcome and generosity in the harsh desert environment. The concept can be found in the Arabic root dayafa. The Prophet is reported to have said, “There is no good in the one who is not hospitable.”’ (pp10-11)

Consisting of a short introduction, five chapters, and a useful bibliography, the first chapter of the book is devoted to an exploration of hospitality from the religious scriptures especially that of Islam and Christianity. According to the author, Abraham’s hospitality towards his guests provides a common ground between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In other words, to welcome the stranger and practice hospitality and kindness lies at the heart of the Abrahamic religions.

However, in chapter two the author focuses her attention on Islamic teachings on hospitality as espoused by Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d.1111) in his Adab al-Diyafa (Hospitality towards Guests). This chapter is very informative and both Muslims and non-Muslims should find it interesting and useful. As it happened, the author could have illustrated her points by making reference to the lives of the Prophet’s companions and their successors, most of whom were renowned for their kindness, generosity and hospitality but, unfortunately, she overlooked classical Islamic literature on this subject. By comparison, in chapters three and four, the author explored the notion of ‘Divine hospitality’ and ‘Men, Women and the Relationships of Hospitality’ in some detail before concluding the book with her own personal reflection on the topic.

This is an important and highly readable book that is pertinent to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, especially at a time when increasing pressures of life, work, finance and other factors are slowly but surely undermining our ability to be welcoming, generous and hospitable.

The author is right to say, ‘The spiritual journey in any faith is hard and demands stillness, solitude, prayer and reflection. Hospitality for the most part requires conversation, prayer and reflection. It is a drawing in as well as reaching out. Christian and Islamic cultures have emphasized the significance of hospitality as a structure and as an act in the cultivation of the virtuous life. In both traditions, hospitality is good for the individual, the host and the guest, and attitudes of hospitality can transform society around us.’ (p242)

Muhammad Khan, author of The Muslim 100 (2008) and The Muslim Heritage of the West 

(Kube Publishing, early 2017)


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