Greeting with Salaam the Non-Muslim
The Prophet (sal Allahu alaihi wa sallam) said: “Do not initiate greeting the Jews and Christians with the Salam, and when you pass by them on a road, force them to its narrowest path.”
We benefit from the above Hadith that it is not permissible to initiate the greeting of salaam to a non-Muslim.
Shaykh Ibn Baz (may Allah have mercy on him) said: The ruling concerning the rest of the kuffaar is the same as the ruling concerning the Jews and Christians with regard to this matter, because there is no evidence (daleel) to indicate anything different.
If one of them says “As-Saam ‘alaykum” – meaning, may death be upon you – or it is not clear whether they have said “salaam”, then we should respond by saying “Wa ‘alaykum” (and upon you).
The Prophet (sal Allahu alaihi wa sallam) said: When the Jews greet you, one of them would say, ‘As-Samu ‘Alayka (may death be unto you).’ Therefore, say, ‘Wa ‘Alayka (and the same to you). [Sahih Al-Bukhari and Muslim]
If a non-Muslim greets us with the correct shar’i greeting (i.e., says ‘Al-salaamu ‘alaykum’ clearly), the scholars differed as to whether we have to return the greeting. The majority of scholars said that we do have to return the greeting, and this is the correct view.
Ibn al-Qayyim (may Allah have mercy on him) said: they differed as to whether it is obligatory to return the greeting. The majority said that it is obligatory and this is the correct view. A group of scholars said that it is not obligatory to return their greeting just as it is not obligatory to return the greeting of those who follow bid’ah.
But the correct view is the first one. The difference is that we are commanded to forsake the followers of bid’ah by way of rebuke and to warn others about them, which is not the case with the Ahl al-Dhimmah (Jews and Christians). [Zaad al-Ma’aad, 2/425, 426]
The Muslim who is returning the greeting should respond in the manner prescribed by Shari’ah, giving a similar or better greeting, because of the general meaning of the Ayah, Allah says (interpretation of the meaning): 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]. [An-Nisa’ 4:86]
Ibn al-Qayyim (may Allah have mercy on him) said: if the person is certain that the Dhimmi (Jew or Christian) is clearly saying ‘al-salaamu ‘alaykum’ to him, and he has no doubts about that, should he say ‘wa ‘alayka al-salaam’ or shorten it to ‘wa ‘alayk’?
What is indicated by the evidence and principles of Shari’ah is that he should say ‘wa ‘alayka al-salaam’, because this is more just, and Allah commands us to be just and to treat others well… this does not contradict any of the ahadith on this topic at all, because the Prophet (sal Allahu alaihi wa sallam) told us to shorten the greeting to ‘wa ‘alayk’ because of the reason mentioned above, which is that they deliberately used to say ‘al-saam ‘alaykum’ (may death be upon you) instead of ‘al-salaam ‘alaykum’ (may peace be upon you), as indicated in the Hadith found in Sahih Al-Bukhari and Muslim which was narrated by ‘A’ishah (radi Allahu anha): He (sal Allahu alaihi wa sallam) said, “Do you not see that I say ‘wa ‘alaykum’ when they say ‘al-saam ‘alaykum’?” Then he (sal Allahu alaihi wa sallam) said, “If the People of the Book greet you with salaam, say, ‘Wa ‘alaykum.’” [Ahkaam Ahl al-Dhimmah, 1/425, 426]
And Allah knows best!