It is Sunnah (recommended) in Islam when you meet another muslim to greet him with salams. But what do you do when somebody does not say salaams? Or when they greet you with hello or what’s up instead of saying salams? And are there correct and incorrect ways of saying salams?
So let’s start with a couple of incorrect ways of giving salams. Firstly, when you say salaams it should not be mumbled or said under your breath. The purpose of the greeting is for the other person to hear it, not for them to have to ask: what did you say? Because you mumbled it. Another incorrect way is if you just wave (or more commonly a hand gesture towards one’s chest) instead of actually articulating the greeting. There are a couple of exceptions when a hand gesture is allowed. The first is when there is considerable distance or noise between you and the person so that saying the greeting would not be heard, in which case a hand gesture will be ok. The second instance is when the person you are greeting is deaf, in which case hand gestures replace speech as a form of communicating generally speaking, including greetings.
Who should start the salaams is mentioned in the the hadith on Abu Hurairah (May Allah be pleased with him) reported: The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said, ‘A rider should greet a pedestrian; a pedestrian should greet one who is sitting; and a small group should greet a large group (of people).” [Al-Bukhari and Muslim]. The narration in Al-Bukhari adds: The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said, “The young should greet the elderly.” Therefore between two muslims, the younger one greets first. Between two groups of people, the smaller greets the larger first. Somebody moving initiates salaams to somebody stationary.
But what happens when the one who is supposed to say salaams first doesn’t say it, either forgetfully or pretending not to see you? It’s no excuse to ignore him. You give salaams first in this case, even if you are the elder and the one you are greeting is a child. The prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) said: “It is not permissible for a man to forsake his brother for more than three nights, each turning away if they meet. The better of the two is the one who is the first to greet the other with salaam.” (Bukhari)
So, what exactly is the salaams one muslim says to greet another muslim? If you are meeting one person, you say: “as-salamu alayk”. If it’s two people you are greeting, you say “as-salamu alaykuma” and if it’s more than three people you say: “as-salamu alaykum”. The last way of saying the greeting, can be used for all situations, as is the case commonly practiced today.
Lastly, do not restrict or make the greeting of another muslim like what many people do today by replacing salams with: hello, whats up, marhaban, or ahlan wa sahlan. These greetings are fine to say, after you have completed the sunnah and spread the islamic greeting. So say: As-salamu alaykum, then follow it with any other greeting you want, such as ahlan wa sahlan, hayakallah, hello, what’s up!!