Showing generosity to visitors and guests has always been a virtuous act in the previous nations, one that has deservedly attracted respect and good-standing within the community. But what about within Islam?
This tradition is called Karam in Arabic and can be translated as ‘honouring the guest, being generous and noble to him’. In fact, it is no surprise that the many different variations found of the root verb ka-ra-ma all imply excellence and other praiseworthy characteristics.
Al-Kareem is one of the Beautiful Names of Allah:
“…your Lord, the Generous (al-Kareem).” (al-Infitaar, 6)
“Recite, and your Lord is the most Generous (al-Akram).” (al-’Alaq, 3)
It is the description of the Blessed Angels:
“And indeed over you are keepers. Noble (kiraaman) and recording.” (al-Infitaar, 10-11)
“Indeed, it is a word [conveyed by] a Noble (kareem) Messenger.” (al-Takweer, 19)
It increases the magnificence of that which is already exalted:
“Indeed it is a Noble (kareem) Qur’aan.” (al-Waaqi’ah, 77)
“Thus exalted is Allah, the Sovereign, the Truth; there is nothing worthy of worship except Him, Lord of the Noble (kareem) Throne.” (al-Mu’minoon, 116)
It is used many times for the best of qualities within the Messengers and special chosen servants of All?h:
“They will be in gardens, honoured (mukramoon).” (al-Ma’aarij, 35)
“And those who do not testify to falsehood, and when they pass near ill speech, they pass by with dignity (kiraaman).” (al-Furqaan, 72)
“Rather they are honoured (mukraman) servants.” (al-Anbiyaa’, 26)
“…and there came to them a Noble (kareem) Messenger [Moosaa].” (al-Dukhaan, 17)
“Has there reached you the story of the honoured (mukramoon) guests of Ibraaheem?” (al-Dhaariyaat, 24)
It comes as no surprise therefore that Islaam places an incredible emphasis on karam, even though one senses a lack of concern amongst the Muslims to this very central part of Islamic conduct and behaviour in society.
It is clear from the very beginning of the Prophethood how important the honouring of the guests has been. It was a well known custom of the Arabs during their Jaahiliyyah period, to be the most generous and noble to their visitors, whoever they might have been.
We see in the famous hadeeth narrated by Imaam al-Bukhaari (rahimahullah) when the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), distressed after receiving revelation in the cave of Hira’ informed Khadijah (radhy Allahu ‘anha) of it, fearing that something might happen to him. Khadijah said,
“No by Allah! Allah will never disgrace you! You maintain the ties of kinship, help the poor and needy, serve your guests generously and assist those deserving ones after calamity.”
And how true was the statement of the blessed Mother of the Believers! Allah ‘azza wa jall will never disgrace the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) but rather increases his status day by day as more and more people bear witness to his perfection. Notice also that to honour the guests with generosity and nobility has been made a key reason for the absence of disgracing the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam).
In fact, to show karam to the guest is an obligation upon every Muslim as indicated by the hadeeth narrated by Imaam al-Bukhaari and Imaam Muslim that the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said: “Whosoever believes in Allah and the Final Day should entertain his guest generously – his deserving reward: a day and a night (of the best). To entertain the guest (properly) is for three days, anything offered over that is to be counted as charity. And it is not permissible for the guest to stay so long as to make matters difficult and embarrassing (for the host).”
One can see the stress and emphasis of honouring the guest by the way the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) linked this act of worship to belief in Allah and the Final Day. This shows it is mandatory. The first day and night of the guest necessitates a very high quality reception, with the most excellent of food and service. The second and third day is of a more normal kind. Not only that, but the fact that if any further time offered to the guest over three days is sadaqah, then this clearly shows that what must be less than that is from the waajibaat.
Some Hadeeth concerning Karam
There are many narrations concerning the importance of the right of the guest and the etiquettes to be shown by the host. Imaam al-Bukhaari (rahimahullah) entitled his chapters in light of this: “The right of the guest”, “Honouring the guest and serving him with one’s own hands”, “To prepare the meal and to trouble oneself for the guest”, “What is disliked as regard anger and impatience before a guest” and so on.
‘Uqbah b. ‘Aamir (radhy Allahu ‘anhu) narrated in Saheeh al-Bukhaari: We said, “O Messenger of Allah, you have sent us out, and we are to stay with a people who do not host and entertain us, so what do you think about that?” The Messenger of Allah replied, “If you stay with a people and they entertain you properly as they should, then accept it. If they don’t do that, then take from them the right of the guest, which they must give.”
Abu Hurayrah (radhy Allahu ‘anhu) narrates that the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “Any guest that comes upon a people and he is deprived (of hospitality), then he can take from them the amount of his (deserved) meal, and there is no blame upon him.”
The Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said to Abdullah b. ‘Amr (radhy Allahu ‘anhum), “Verily, your guest has an obligatory right upon you.”
Abu Kareemah (radhy Allahu ‘anhu) narrates that the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “The night for the guest is an obligatory right upon every Muslim. So if he comes to the courtyard, there is a debt upon the host, (the guest) if he wills may take it or leave it.”
Al-Talib (radhy Allahu ‘anhu) reported that the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “To entertain the guest for three days is his binding obligatory right (haqqun laazim); anything over that is charity.”
Therefore the ruling upon entertaining the guest is an obligation for three days. This was mentioned by Imaam Ahmad (rahimahullah) and a group of the scholars. One can be considered a sinner for not performing this right for your brother. Imaam ibn Hazm (rahimahullah) said,
“To entertain the guest is an obligation upon the villager and the city dweller, upon the scholar and the ignorant; a day and night of excellence and then three days as his right to be hosted. If he does not receive his hospitality, then he is to take his right however he can and have his debt paid off as such.”
Subhaanallah, how amazing Islam is! What other system of life emphasises building the links of love and brotherhood between members of its society as the blessed Deen of Allah does! Where else can one find such compassion and generosity, not only to those whom you know, but to those whom are unknown as well! It is unfortunate to admit that the weak links amongst our brothers and sisters today, whether ‘practising’ or not, can be seen to stem directly from the lack of realisation about the importance of serving the Muslim community and especially so their guests.
Narrations from the Companions on Karam
Not surprisingly, the companions in particular would take this issue very seriously. Abu Bakr (radhy Allahu ‘anhu) became furious when his guests were not served properly by his son Abdur-Rahman (radhy Allahu ‘anhu) even though he was technically not to blame! Bukhari narrates that Abu Bakr (radhy Allahu ‘anhu) got so angry, he rebuked his son and invoked Allah to cut the ear of Abdur-Rahmaan! All that, simply because he thought that his guests had not received the proper attention deserving of them.
Honouring the guest is not restricted to the rich or those whom you know only. In fact, showing karam and generosity to those whom you don’t know, and the poor, is a higher form of ‘ibaadah which brings together many excellent virtues.
It is narrated that Abu Hurayrah (radhy Allahu ‘anhu) said,
“The best of the people to the poor was Ja’far b. Abi Taalib. We would go with him and he would feed us with whatever he had at his house.”
Abu Bakr b. Hafs (rahimahullah) narrated that Abdullah b. ‘Umar (radhy Allahu ‘anhum) would not eat except that an orphan would be by his side.
Narrated Hamza b. Suhayb (rahimahullah) that Suhayb b. Sinaan al-Roomi (radhy Allahu ‘anhu) used to feed people a great amount of food, so ‘Umar (radhy Allahu ‘anhu) said to him, “O Suhayb, you feed the people large amounts of food, this is extravagance with your wealth!” Suhayb (radhy Allahu ‘anhu) said, “Indeed the Messenger of Allah says, ‘The best of you are those who feed the people and return the greetings (salaam).' This is what makes me feed the people [a lot of food].”
It is clear to see from the biographies of the Salaf (the early blessed generations), that generosity was a key virtue in the character of the Muslim. Many Sahaabah in particular were famous for their acts of magnanimity such as Abu Bakr, Talhah, ‘Aa'ishah and many more (radhy Allahu ‘anhum ajma’een).
As the Poet said:
“I honour the riding beast of my guest before I honour him,
I will have not honoured him if I don’t honour his horse!“
i.e. that if you really want to show your generosity and be noble to your guest, then it is not just about feeding and housing him! The real karam will involve looking after all his affairs such as feeding the ride in the above poem, or to make a direct analogy in our times, looking after the car of the guest, having it cleaned, washed, serviced and ready for him. It might involve buying his on-going plane or rail ticket, organising his affairs, preparing clothes for him and all other things that will put your guest at ease, and make him feel special as he deserves to be.
Instances of this can still actually be seen here in the West although we still see – wal-hamdulillah – many examples existing of such exemplary behaviour in some of the Muslim lands, where even the extremely poor will put everything at your disposal even if it is their only food. Many people still fight for the right to host the guest so they can be honoured and rewarded themselves! How often has a traveller remembered afterwards the immense generosity displayed by locals in his time of need, and then supplicates for him, as instructed by the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) when he said, “When someone has been done a favour, and he says to his benefactor ‘Jazakallahu Khayran’ (May Allah reward with you goodness), then he has indeed excelled in praising him.“
The Story of the Guests of Sayyidina Ibraaheem (‘alayhis-salaatu was-salaam)
For an understanding of the etiquettes required in correctly serving the guests, one needs to look no further than the beautiful story of Sayyidina Ibraaheem (‘alayhis-salaatu was-salaam), the narrative which may be found in the Blessed Qur’aan. Allah ‘azza wa jall says:
“Has the story reached you of the honoured guests of Ibraaheem? They said, “Salaaman” (Peace be upon you). He answered: “Salaamun! (Peace be upon you!) You are a people unknown to me.” Then he turned to his family, and brought out a fat [roasted] calf, then placed it close to them, saying, “Will you not eat?”” (al-Dhaariyaat, 24-27)
The Mufassireen discussed this event in detail in their commentaries, deriving many useful lessons in the manners of treating the guest.
When the guests (Jibreel, Mikaa’eel and Israafeel according to Ibn Katheer) came upon Ibrahaam (‘alayhis-salaatu was-salaam), he did not recognise them at all, yet he still greeted them with a happy and welcoming demeanour. They said to him Salaaman yet he returned the greeting with a better and stronger one, Salaamun! (Nay, Peace be upon you!) The grammarians mentioned when comparing a statement said in marfoo’ (the nominative) state with one made in a state of nasb (i.e. accusative), the marfoo’ statement (in this case, Salaamun) is much stronger and eloquent. So Ibraaheem (‘alayhis-salaatu was-salaam) responded with the best of greetings as per the command of Allaah ‘azza wa jall when He says:
“And when you are greeted with a greeting, greet [in return] with one better than it or [at least] return it [in a like manner].” (al-Nisaa’, 86)
This would have instantly made his guests fill totally welcome and at ease, even though he didn’t know them.
After Ibraaheem (‘alayhis-salaatu was-salaam) had welcomed his guests and invited them inside as cheerfully and sincerely as possible, Allaah says, “Fa raagha…” i.e. he turned away very quickly and discreetly towards his family. It is clear from the use of this word in the Arabic language that Ibraaheem (‘alayhis-salaatu was-salaam) did not waste any time to hurry and prepare the food for his guests.
It is common to see when one goes to a house as a guest, that the host may ask whether they require food. This is immensely bad manners for it puts the guest in an awkward position, for how can the guest possibly be expected to say, “Yes! Bring me food!” In fact, it is often the sign of a miserly host who will ask such a question, because he often will have no intention whatsoever of wanting to entertain his guest, rather he wants to almost ‘hurry’ his guest and force him to want to leave! And if the host does go and get the food, he may take his time and make a big issue out of it, almost forcing the guest to think that a great effort has been expended for him, and that he is causing difficulties, again making him feel uncomfortable and uneasy.
How opposite this is to the example set by the Prophets! See how Ibraaheem (‘alayhis-salaatu was-salaam) hurries away without any fuss, expecting nothing less but that the guests will eat, being as quick as possible so as to not make the guests wait and feel hungry or uncomfortable. He did not wait to hear them request their rights, and nor did he remind them of any favours he was doing for them such as to say, “I am going off to prepare food for you now.”
Sayyidina Ibraaheem (‘alayhis-salaatu was-salaam) then went and chose the best possible food he could offer, a young and fat calf, roasted upon heated stones. Consider the swiftness of the host here, and even though there were only three guests, it is always better to have more food, for some food left over is better than to not have enough in terms of entertaining the visitor. It is well known that to place in front of the guest more than he can eat is from the higher ideals of karam. That is the real reward of the guest that he is owed as explained by the word ‘Jaaizatuhu‘ in the hadeeth found in Bukhaari i.e. the ‘premium reward’ the guest is entitled to on his first day with the host.
“And placed it close to them…” i.e. the food was not just placed in front of them, but close to them, minimising any effort from the guest. It is understood to be against the etiquettes of karam to set the food in another area or room and then to ask the guest to go there. Again, the example here is of sincerity and a real will by the host for the guest to be at total ease, to enjoy his stay, and receive his obligatory rights.
“…saying, “Will you not eat”?” i.e. being very easy and gentle with the guest, not using any forceful tactics to make the visitor feel uneasy. This form of karam is a skilful medium between being too insistent, and being miserly with the food.
It’s unfortunate that many Muslims, after having such clear examples of the lofty behaviour expected from the servants of Allah, still seem to be very loose with such obligations. This is also strange considering that many of the people of knowledge considered the reward of the host is likened to the one who is fasting.
In fact, many Muslims are often unaware that they are unintentionally being bad hosts in front of their guests. Karam is not something which is necessarily rote memorised; rather it is something which is passed down via custom, and comes naturally to those who are sincere about their hospitality.
Small points are often magnified in such occasions, which is why we see Ibraaheem (‘alayhis-salaatu was-salaam) go to such measures that many might have seen as extreme. Ibn al-Jawzi (rahimahullah) considered it bad manners for there to be silence during the meal, rather there should be speech about good matters etc. This is well understood today, where prolonged bouts of silence during eating causes one to become uncomfortable, whereas if the host is happy and cheerful and encourages the right environment of relaxation and ease, as well as ensuring respect for the food and the other aspects of the Sunnah when beginning and ending the meal, one sees the fruit of his hospitality.
It is sad to see how often Muslims make empty promises to their friends, either in person, or by phone, and then when their guest turns up, eagerly looking forward to meeting again, he is faced with a miserable face and excuses. How damaging it is to the hearts when this happens especially without good excuse. Such people have to increase in their taqwa of Allah and protect themselves from falling into the worst of categories, i.e. those who break their promises, one of the signs of the Hypocrites, and those who are misers, which is the exact opposite of karam. Ibn Taymiyyah (rahimahullah) explained in his Majmoo’ how the Qur’aan and Sunnah were so opposed to the characteristics of miserliness etc, and how it was seen amongst the Salaf as one of the worst diseases of the heart.
In these materialistic times, where everyone is obsessed only with themselves, we need to turn back to the Sunnah of the Messenger of Allah (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), and protect our communities from the evil diseases of the society we live in. Reviving every small detail of our tradition is the only way to success and strength, and we should make our concern for our brothers and sisters of this Ummah a priority likewise.
2. Bukhaari (Bad’ al-Wahi, 3)
3. Mujallah al-Hady al-Nabawy (1/12)
4. Bukhaari (Adab, 6135)
5. Fath al-Baarî (10/655)
7. Bukhaari (Adab chapters 84-87)
8. Bukhaari (Adab, 6137)
9. Sahîh’l-Targhîb w’l-Tarhîb (2591).
10. Bukhaari (Adab, 6134)
11. Sahîh’l-Targhîb w’l-Tarhîb (2592).
12. Ibid (no. 2593).
13. Tafsîr ibn Kathîr (7/426)
14. Mujallah al-Hady an-Nabawy (1/13)
15. Bukhaari (Adab, 6137)
16. Hilyat’l-Awliyaa’ (1/163)
17. Hilyat’l-Awliyaa’ (1/371)
18. Musnad Imaam Ahmed (6/16)
19. Hilyat’l-Awliyaa’ (1/207)
20. Shu‘ab’l-Îmaan, Imaam al-Bayhaqî
21. Tirmidhî (2035) who graded it Hasan jayyid gharîb.
22. al-Alûsî, Rûh’l-Ma‘aanî (27/19)
23. Summarised from Tafsîr ibn Kathîr (7/426)
24. ibid and ibn al-Jawzî, Zaad’l-Masîr (p.1350)
25. al-Alûsî, Rûh’l-Ma‘aanî (27/19)
26. al-Raazî, Tafsîr’l-Kabîr (14/215)
27. Tafsîr ibn Kathîr (7/427)
28. Aadaab’l-Sharî‘ah (3/350)
29. Mujallah al-Hady al-Nabawy (1/13)
30. ibid (1/14)