Famously, hospitality is considered a key guide to moral behaviour in cultures where Islam is the dominant religion. From Morocco to south China and from the Kazakhstan to Nigeria, the mores of hospitality are important dynamics in shaping how individuals, families and communities behave towards each other. High on the list of necessary social conventions are those which deal with hosting and visiting.
Visits between relatives are frequent. They are often made unannounced, at any time of day and they can last a considerable amount of time. Some visits are obligatory, such as celebrations of rites of passage, the return of a person from a trip, the arrival of new neighbours, or when someone is ill. A refusal to receive visitors is unthinkable, while failure to make an obligatory visit can threaten the fabric of an extended family.
Religious impulse to hospitality
There is a strong theological and religious impulse within Muslim cultures in this dynamic of host and guest. The Qur’an encourages hospitality. The verse most often cited as an injunction to hospitality is Sura 24.61:
There is no blame on the blind man, nor is there blame on the lame, nor is there blame on the sick, nor on yourselves that you eat from your houses, or your fathers’ houses or your mothers’ houses, or your brothers’ houses, or your sisters’ houses, or your paternal uncles’ houses, or your paternal aunts’ houses, or your maternal uncles’ houses, or your maternal aunts’ houses, or what you possess the keys of, or your friends’ (houses). It is no sin in you that you eat together or separately. So when you enter houses, greet your people with a salutation from Allah, blessed (and) goodly; thus does Allah make clear to you the communications that you may understand.
Whilst this says, “there is no blame,” the trajectory of the verse is that it is a positive thing to host family and those in need. It is a positive thing to eat together and share blessing of peace and goodness. It is understood to be almost mandating the need for sharing hospitality.
The Qur’an also highlights the example of the Prophet Muhammad as the highest model to emulate, and therefore his actions of hospitality are to be copied. The prophet demonstrated the high status of one who treats his guest well when he said, “…Let the believer in God and the Day of Judgment honour his guest.” Here, honouring, or treating a guest well is coupled with two of the most important beliefs in Islam, belief in God and belief in the Day of Judgment. For Muslims, this vital hospitality relationship is therefore triangular; it consists of host, guest, and God.
The Qur’an draws attention to the morals of treating guests well. Believers are to offer respect, love, peace, and cordiality to each guest. In sura 4, it is viewed that God favours such spiritual virtue:
When you are greeted with a greeting, return the greeting or improve upon it. Allah takes account of everything. (Sura An-Nisa’4.86)
Qur’anic morality encourages believers to compete with one another in doing good.
A common act as greeting a guest is called for and Sura 51 gives the example of Abraham of this in action:
Has the story reached thee, of the honoured guests of Abraham? Behold, they entered his presence, and said: “Peace!” He said, “Peace!” (and thought, “These seem) unusual people.” Then he turned quickly to his household, brought out a fatted calf, And placed it before them… he said, “Will ye not eat?” (Sura adh-Dhariyat Sura 51: 24-27)
Cultural impulse to hospitality
As well as the religious aspect of the call to hospitality, there are the cultural dynamics (though the cultural dynamics mentioned below are not distinct concepts because, in reality, they intertwine and interact). At the heart of this is an understanding of the world that doesn’t see people as separate and singular, but considers that individuals are interlinked and interlocked. The core being of people is not as separate individuals but as group, joined to others, particularly those in their family. People in such collectivist communities have identity in their group, and their place and role with that group, rather than in their individual characteristics.
Within this setting, eating together, meeting, spending time and interacting is key to keeping group relationships healthy and thriving. Entertaining is not a pleasant bonus but an essential part of life to build us up, both as interdependent individuals and as a group, and to enable us to flourish. For communities who focus on the group as the core unit, hospitality is an indispensable part of life.
Reciprocity, gift-giving and debt
The intricate knowledge of how hospitality works and how these interactions are played out is related to the social skills of gift giving. A gift is not a gift unless it is a free gift, i.e., involving no obligation on the part of the receiver. Yet, we all know that somehow it is required that something be returned. Between people who are social acquaintances this is carefully measured. We know that the gift of muffins baked for neighbours means that the plate will not be returned empty. A favour done today will somehow be returned. Not immediately, but not too far in the future either. We cannot pay for a favour in any way or it ceases to be one, you can only thank, though on a later occasion we can demonstrate gratitude by making an equally ‘free’ gift in return.
Reciprocity is the essence of social cohesion and solidarity, whether in exchanging greetings or in business. It is the cement that holds any society together, for it establishes relations between people; once you have exchanged something, you are related. The, often meaningless, salutations on the path have no other function than this.
Deeper than this is the reciprocity of close family and intimates. Here no records are kept, but every act of favour and grace goes into a ledger that is somehow always in debt to the other. Once a lot of interactions have occurred both parties simultaneously feel in debt to the other, unless there has been a clear degree of patronage. In near equal relationships, each underplays their input and values the input of the other, leaving a sense of slight mutual indebtedness. This is a strong positive social glue, holding relationships together.
Westerners’ interaction with hospitality
British culture is, in the main, a lot more individualistic than those described above. Of course, hospitality is important here but there is a quantum difference in emphasis and priority. The differences are in degree rather than kind. In getting to know our Muslim neighbours this can mean we feel a bit lost as to how to negotiate these interactions. Sub-communities that are held together by this strong social glue can seem closed or hard to break into. A key into making relationships in such settings is, of course, hospitality, particularly hospitality that includes eating together. As has been pointed out many times, food is very useful in forming, and fostering, relationships. A simple way of getting to know our Muslim neighbours, and in growing strong relationships wherein Jesus can be known, is by eating together.
Hospitality a theological key?
Giving and receiving open and warm hospitality goes further than opening up, and deepening, relationships with our Muslim neighbour. It can also be a way of making Jesus known, a way of unveiling Jesus in that setting. Hospitality has important theological implications, including the idea of God as provider, Father, host, and head of family. God is known as “generous Lord” (rabbika al-kareem) (Sura 82:6; 6:3), but he can also be known as guest. Similarly, he is also Father of the family within which we can all be adopted, and we can point to him as Father and Host, with Jesus having the role of oldest son. This role is one of welcome and representing the Father. So too, as we welcome our Muslim friends, we can represent Jesus as his hands and arms.
There is a eucharistic tenor that can come into this relationship. Jesus is present at the sharing of food, at the breaking of bread, and so our Muslim friends can experience something of his grace, his blessing and his presence. In the midst of this our lives and speech can reflect that we are in Christ, one with him, and joined with him. People from collectivist backgrounds are attuned to knowing that relationship means interconnection and a deep joining. As Jesus becomes known so the call to being in Christ will also grow and flourish.
Hospitality is part of the social glue that holds collectivist communities together in ways that go well beyond our individualistic understanding. It is therefore an incredibly important part of the way of Islam, and part of life for our Muslim neighbour. If we both show and receive hospitality with our Muslim friends, then we are building relationships that will intertwine us with their lives, and vice versa. In this, Jesus is present and can be unveiled as elder brother, representative of the Father who is Host, and known through sharing both food and discussion. He can be known through the breaking of bread.
Dr Colin Edwards
Vice Principal, Redcliffe College