Answered by Sidi Abdullah Anik Misra
Question: Is a person always obligated to return someone’s “salam”? When would he not be obligated to do so?
Answer: As salaamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,
Allama Ibn ‘Abideen, in his seminal work Radd al Muhtar, mentions many instances where one does not need to return the greeting of salams, which would normally be obligatory.
In the first place, it is makrooh (disliked but not haram) to give salams to someone who is incapable or too busy to reply. However, if someone does give salams to them, it would not be an obligation to reply to it.
In terms of worldly actions, this includes when one is eating or when one is in the bathroom (I assume during relations with one’s spouse the same would apply then since even speech is disliked). They also mention that it is not obligatory to reply salams to a beggar since the beggar’s intention is not just to greet you but to ask you for something.
In terms of religious actions, while the person is praying, or reciting Qur’an (or making dhikr and duaa’, though there is some difference of opinion), or reviewing or teaching religious knowledge, or during any khutba (Friday, marriage, Eid, etc.), or if they are giving or hearing the adhan or iqama.
Also, a judge does not give or receive or reply to salams since his job is to remain neutral and not receive the defendants as vistors. If salams are given to a group, as long as one person responds, the others don’t have to.
Also, if a non-Muslim gives salams, one should not respond with the exact response unless there is an overriding interest, or they should suffice by simply replying “And upon you”, (“wa alaikum”, like saying “same to you”, because it isn’t clear what the non-Muslim intends by giving you a religious greeting that is a duaa’, so one simply wishes the same back to them).
The same non-obligation goes for an open sinner who is Muslim and hasn’t stopped publically doing a wrong thing (not the hidden sinner), though both of these require research and wisdom before applying without proper understanding and consideration of benefits and harms, so it is best to ask a scholar in specific cases for guidance.
A young un-related woman and a man do not have to reply to the other’s salams out loud (many scholars say they actually shouldn’t salam in the first place if they are only addressing each other without necessity, as a way to prevent unnecessary interaction).
Other books also mention the lack of obligation to return the salams of an insane person, a drunkard or non-discerning child, all of whom may not know or intend what they are saying.
Giving the salam greeting is not like saying an empty “hello” or “how ya’ doin’?” It is a sincere prayer with a significant meaning that is an act of worship, rewarded for in the Hereafter to both the greeter and responder, and a mark of faith, brotherhood and social cohesion. This is why the scholars treated it so seriously, and had to list exceptions when it wasn’t an obligation to respond. And Allah knows best.
Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani