If you have ever been to a mosque, or even just been hanging out with a group of Muslim friends, as-salaam alaikum is an expression that will be heard time and time again. As-salaam alaikum is the standard greeting Muslims share with each other when meeting. This expression is Arabic for “Peace be upon you.” The common response back is a similar return greeting of peace, Wa alaikum assalaam (and upon you be peace). Even in this innocuous and harmless method of saying hello we find an interesting spiritual inversion. Sharing the peace might seem a place where Christianity and Islam look similar at first glance, but what might we find upon further investigation?
With a cursory look, a person would note that Jesus brought peace (John 16:33). Paul talks about the peace that passes all understanding (Philippians 4:7). So too a Muslim will tell you plainly that the word Islam, which means submission, comes from the same Arabic root word as peace, salam. It’s right about here where any conversation will get sidetracked with whether or not Islam is truly a religion of peace. While those conversations have value, for the purposes of this blog, this author will not go down such a detour. By keeping on topic, a much more subtle yet profound truth will come to light. So here we stand, both Christians and Muslims claiming that each religion is one of peace. Muslims are even quick to cite such passages as John 20:21 as evidence that Jesus was a Muslim, since he gave the traditional Islamic greeting of peace. [i]
To unravel this confusion, let’s look at greetings in the Bible in more depth. Paul has the greatest number of epistles, so there are myriad examples of greetings there. To get a flavor for these, examine 1 Corinthians 1:3, Romans 1:7, or Galatians 1:3. What pattern emerges? Or consider the greetings of Peter in 1 Peter 1:2 or 2 Peter 1:2, or again those of John in 2 John 3 or Revelation 1:4. Seventeen times in the Bible there are greetings of both grace and peace. However, in each circumstance, notice that the order is always the same. In each case, the grace comes before the peace. Not even once does peace come first before grace.
This raises the question of whether it is possible for peace to ever come before there is grace. In the book of Philippians, the context of the passage discussing the peace that passes all comprehension is that such peace comes after rejoicing, prayer, and offering thanks to God. We are only able to do these because of God’s grace to bring us to Himself in the first place. In John 16:33, the context is that peace will be given because Jesus has overcome the world, and He has just told His disciples plainly who He is, and therefore how He has the right to grant this peace. He grants it by the fact that He will return to the Father in order to be the instrument of grace to those who believe.
So again the question must be asked if there can even be peace without grace. There is surely no peace between God and any individual human until a person accepts the reconciliation that God offers via Jesus Christ. That peace between God and man comes only by grace alone and not by merit (Ephesians 2:8-9). For our relationship with God, peace comes as a result of God’s grace. Peace between individuals, groups, or nations can be achieved temporarily and to a limited extent. However, history shows us clearly that strife between nations has been a permanent fixture of our world. Personal experience shows us that maintaining peace with family members and friends is a constant battle. Indeed, maintaining that peace often requires showing the grace of forgiveness to those who have harmed us. Here too, oftentimes peace comes as a natural consequence of extending grace to those we encounter.
Yet what about the claims by Muslims that Jesus offered the traditional Muslim greeting of peace? Indeed, the Bible records four times when Jesus offers this greeting; Luke 24:36, John 20:19, John 20:21, and John 20:26. What commonality do all these verses share? In each case, this greeting comes after the resurrection! Jesus only gives this greeting after He has died on the cross and returned to the Father, healing the fractured relationship between God and man. The greeting of “peace” only occurs after Jesus has accomplished His mission of allowing us to receive God’s grace to its fullest measure. Once again, peace follows grace.
In this simple example, we again see a marked difference between Islam and Christianity. In Islam, peace is put first and foremost and yet is attempted without grace. In Christianity, peace comes only after grace, never before.
Perhaps as Christians we should say hello by saying “grace be unto you.” To be more serious, I would ask any native Arabic speakers to comment with the anglicized equivalent of “grace be unto you” in Arabic. What would a Muslim say if greeted this way?