إِذْ دَخَلُوا عَلَيْهِ فَقَالُوا سَلَامًا ۖ قَالَ سَلَامٌ قَوْمٌ مُّنكَرُونَ
“(That was) when they entered upon him and said, ‘Peace (be upon you!)’ He answered, ‘And upon you be) peace, unfamiliar folks!'”1
This contains further praise for Ibrahim. He responded to the angels’ greeting with a better one. Their greeting was “Salaman“. This Arabic expression constitutes a verbal sentence2 which, more precisely, means: “We greet you with peace.” His response was “Salaman”. This is a nominal sentence which, more precisely, means: “Lasting and constant peace be on you.” No doubt, the latter sentence implies consistency whereas the formal sentence implies change. Thus, Ibrahim’s greeting was better and more complete.
Good Manners in Criticism
The next words in this ayah, “unfamiliar folks”, display two forms of good manners in addressing the guests, even when there is need to express concern about their behaviour:
i) Ibrahim dropped the subject (mubtada’) of the sentence. Otherwise, he would have said, “You are unfamiliar people.” Thus he expressed concern without confronting them directly with it — which would have carried some rudeness.
This was also the manner of the Prophet Muhammad, May Allah bless him and grant him peace, who, when criticizing some people’s actions, instead of confronting them with what would hurt them, would say, “Why do some people say such-and-such, or do such-and-such?”3
ii) Ibrahim, peace be upon him, omitted mentioning the party affected by their unfamiliarity, namely, himself. This is more appropriate than saying, “You are unfamiliar to me.” Allah says elsewhere:
فَلَمَّا رَأَىٰ أَيْدِيَهُمْ لَا تَصِلُ إِلَيْهِ نَكِرَهُمْ وَأَوْجَسَ مِنْهُمْ خِيفَةً
“But when he saw their hands not reaching for it, he deemed their conduct strange and became apprehensive of them.”4
1 ath-Thariyat 21:26
2 In Arabic, a sentence can either be verbal or nominal. A verbal sentence starts with a verb. For example, “The man came” would be expressed in Arabic as a verbal sentence, “Came a man”. A nominal sentence, on the other hand, does not contain a verb. It consists of two nouns or their equivalents: a mubtada’ (starting noun or subject) and a khabar (describing noun). For example, “The man is tall” would be expressed in Arabic as a nominal sentence, “The man tall”, where “the man” is the mubtada’ and “tall” is the khabar. In this sense, a verbal sentence describes a changing process (a process that took place at a certain time), whereas a nominal sentence describes a constant process.
3 As he, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, for example, in the hadith recorded by al-Bukhari and Muslim from Anas, may Allah be pleased with him, when he criticized the three individuals who inquired about his manner of worship and pledged to improve it.
4 Hud 11:70
(ar-Risalat ut-Tabukiyyah: The Message from Tabuk, Ibn ul-Qayyim, translation and commentary by Muhammad al-Jibaly)