I’m Sad That “Assalamu-Alaikum” Would Make Anyone Uncomfortable

It is intended to be a beautiful thing: A prayer for peace

I learned about the article in Haaretz after reading some…ahem…colorful responses from people I follow on Twitter. In the article, journalist Samira Sadeque wrote that she cringed when she heard Representative-elect Ilhan Omar of Minnesota say, “Assalamu-alaikum” and “Alhamdulillah” at an event celebrating her historic victory:

Omar’s various identities as “firsts” are important for any little girl watching her on TV, and sends a message across America about representation.
However, she started her speech with “As-salaam aleikum,” an Islamic greeting, followed by “Alhamdulillah Alhamdulilah Alhamdulillah,” to cheers across the room. Muslims across America rejoiced: they felt seen, they felt heard. Sitting in my New York apartment, watching the video, I cringed.
As a woman who grew up in a Muslim country before relocating to New York, both the greeting as well as “Alhamdulillah,” which means “(all) praise be to God,” took me back to a time and place I’d been trying to free myself from.
New York, and more broadly America, was my escape to freedom, a life away from the religion being pushed down my throat — on the streets, to shops, to dinner table conversations. “As-salaam aleikum” to me is a reminder of what I associate with the oppression I felt in my hometown — of being muted down, a reminder that as a woman, I am lesser. Smaller.

This made me incredibly sad. Sadeque continued:

But to Muslims in America, it was something completely different: An act of defiance, a symbol of liberation from the Islamophobia that shackles the U.S. Muslim community. As a friend of mine, who is a Muslim organizer in New York, said in response to my doubt about Omar’s introduction: it’s something that can be seen “as a revolutionary act of social defiance against structural and violent state-sponsored Islamophobia."

That is not how I see “assalamu-alaikum.” To me, this greeting, which means “peace be upon you,” is not “a revolutionary act of social defiance.” Rather, it is a prayer for peace.

“Assalamu-alaikum” is a prayer that God sends down His peace upon you. Further, since one of the names of God is “Al Salam,” or “Peace,” the greeting “assalamu-alaikum” can also mean, “May God be with you.” I see this as something beautiful.

When I see other Muslims in America, and I reach out to them — with smiling face — and say, “assalamu-alaikum,” I am both praying for peace for them and simultaneously connecting with them on both a spiritual and communal level. When that person responds in kind, I get such a warm feeling in my heart, having made that connection with a brother or sister in faith.

In fact, encouraging believers to say “assalamu-alaikum” was one of the first things the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) did when he arrived in Medina, saying: “Spread peace (i.e., “salam”), feed one another, keep the family tie strong, and pray when the people are asleep. [If you do these things,] you will enter Paradise in peace and security.”

“Assalamu-alaikum” is not an act of defiance. Rather, it is a prayer for peace.

Many years ago, spending a summer in Egypt, I did not get this same feeling when I said “assalamu-alaikum.” The greeting was more like, “Hiya doin’?” Being a Muslim majority country, everyone said “assalamu-alaikum” to one another. Even the Christians said “assalamu aliakum” to me. It was devoid of that special character that the greeting has for me in America.

Sadeque concluded her piece by writing:

I wanted to feel a surge of pride when I watched Omar’s victory, to celebrate another Muslim woman’s achievement. Instead, as someone for whom her greeting doesn’t resonate positively, I ended up feeling an unexpected dissonance, even alienation.

This is truly unfortunate. It is wrong that there are places in the Muslim majority world that abuse Islam to such an extent that it would make Ms. Sadeque, or anyone else, cringe upon hearing “assalamu-alaikum.”

It is my hope and prayer that, over time, this alienation from “assalamu-alaikum” dissipates on the part of Samira Sadeque and she gets the same spiritual benefit I do from the greeting. And I pray to our Precious Beloved Lord that His Peace and Security be upon her forever and ever. Amen.