Greeting According to the Order of Merit

In this light, the sunnah is to start according to the following order of merit: age, knowledge, social status, lineage (like one belonging to the family of Rasulullah [Sallallahu álayhi wa sallam]), leadership, veterans of Jihad, genorosity or similar virtues. Furthermore, the sunnah of hospitality is to start with the most prominent, then to move to those on the right in order to reconcile the ahadith that instruct starting from the right with the ahadith which suggest starting with people of virtue.

Some people of weak understanding mistakenly claim that the sunnah is to start with those on your right whoever they may be. They base this on those ahadith which encourage starting from the right. But this is only correct when those present are all equal or similar in character, status or age. In that case the one on the right of the host should be commenced with. However, if one of them is distinguished with a merit such as  old age, then the sunnah is to start with this person, for this is a characteristic which warrants preference.

Imam Ibn Rushd [Rahimahullah] said in his book, “Al-Bayan Wat Tahsil”: “As a rule, if the status of those present are equal, one should commence with those on the right, as with every desirable act.”

However, if a scholar, an honourable person or an elder is present, the sunnah is to start with such a person and then move to his or her right in a counter clockwise fashion.  [1]

Rasulullah [Sallallahu álayhi wa sallam] was offered milk mixed with water while a Bedouin was sitting on his right, and seated to his left was Sayyiduná Abu Bakr [Radiallahu anhu]. Rasulullah [Sallallahu álayhi wa sallam] drank  some and handed it over to the Bedouin saying, “From the right, then to the right.” [2]

Do not proceed to the left even if the person to the left is of higher status in knowledge, virtue or age, unless those on the right agree to pass their right. This is in conformity to what Rasulullah [Sallallahu álayhi wa sallam] did when he was seated with an elder to his left and a young man to his right when he was offered a drink. After drinking, he asked the young man: “Would you give me permission to pass it to those elderly on the left? The boy answered, “By Allah, no. I would not favour anyone with my share of your drink.” Rasulullah [Sallallahu álayhi wa sallam] willingly put the drink in the young man’s hand indicating that it was his right.”

Therefore, the general rule is to start on the right if those present are equal in merit. However, if there is a person who is distinguished by a respectable trait or is one of virtue, then undoubtedly to start with that person would be more appropriate. (Then move to the right.)

If we were to follow the alleged rule that, hosts ought to start with the persons who are on their immediate right, then this could result in starting with a child, a servant, a driver, or a guard, who may even be a non-Muslim, at the expense of more prominet guests such as a dignitary, a revered scholar, a leader, a parent, a grandparent, or an uncle. Would it be acceptable by the Shariah and its refined manner to forsake honouring and starting with a child, a servant, a driver and then proceed to a person of higher status? Also, it is possible that there may be ten persons or more, sitting on the right, before the most honourable person. In that case, he may only be reached after ten or even twenty more people. Islamic manners definitely do not accept this irregular conduct.

However, if someone asks for a drink, they have a right to be served before anybody else regardless of his age or status. It should then be served to those on his right. If this person notices someone elder pt og higher status showing desire for the drink, he may willingly give up his right in favour of that person. When preferring others to oneself, one has practised the Islamic manner of unselfishness and one will achieve great virtue and earn great rewards.

[1] In this manner one will not be expressing one’s personal preference of some over others.

[2] In this instance, Rasulullah [Sallallahu álayhi wa sallam] being the most honorable was the first to drink. Hence, the drink was offered from his right thereafter.

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