Theorizing Modernities article

Expanding the Conversation on Hospitality in Islam

Photo Credit: Geoff Livingston. “Refugees Welcome” at Dulles Airport, January 2017.

The interview “Nourishing Hospitality,” conducted by Jolyon Mitchell with author and scholar Mona Siddiqui, is not only a useful introduction to Siddiqui’s book Hospitality and Islam: Welcoming in God’s Name (2015), which I have previously reviewed, it also serves as a companion piece that provides further context and texture to what is already a timely and accessible work. The exchange further grounds the book by drawing into the conversation new valences to everyday experiences, like the feeding of others or traveling to new places, and making connections to the various forms of suffering underlying today’s headlines, whether in Syria, Palestine, or elsewhere.

As I read through the interview, several of Siddiqui’s responses prompted me to pause and reflect further. For instance, when asked how the book changed her mind, Siddiqui replies: “The chapter on divine hospitality was a challenge. You have the Eucharist in Christian theology which is a very obvious and deep symbol. You don’t have that equivalent in Islamic tradition.”

Upon reading this, my mind immediately began to reel through the various rites and symbols of Islam to see if there was indeed anything that might be considered a proper “equivalent.” Of course, determining equivalency is a subjective enterprise. All too often the quest for analogues privileges European Christian categories of analysis. Studies revealing this disparity abound.[1] Siddiqui’s framing of the “challenge” seems to participate, perhaps inadvertently, in this dynamic. While her answer of the “delights of paradise” is intriguing, it is more properly a soteriological ideal, rather than a symbolic ritual like the Eucharist. When considering the symbolic universe of Islam my thinking went to ṣalāh or the daily ritual prayer, perhaps inspired by the recent and strong scholarship on symbolic practice, especially Marion Katz’s Prayer in Islamic Thought and Practice. While this rite might be conventionally thought of as an act performed in solitude, it represents a relational reality between the human being and God. Prayer, after all, is always done to God. The stations of ṣalāh, in which the precant transitions through the different postures of prayer (standing, bowing, sitting, and prostration) mark what must be accomplished for the proverbial guest to earn the hospitality of the host. In this regard, a sincerely performed prayer embodies both the entreaty and its acceptance, the guest and the host, the human servant and God. Framing the inquiry along these lines might prove fruitful for further reflections on the nature of divine hospitality in Islam.

Later in the interview, the conversation turns to the religious significance of the stranger. At this point Siddiqui states that “the concept of stranger isn’t in the Qur’an itself,” at least not in an explicit manner. The conventional religious language associated with the stranger is sparse in the scripture. I would not cede, as she does, that the stranger is “quite a biblical concept.” An argument can be made that the stranger is also an Islamic concept as my own Muslim theological writings have increasingly made apparent to me. One need only turn to the hadith literature that seeks to preserve the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad to find fertile ground for strangers, strangerhood, and strangeness. For the sake of brevity, I will cite only two prophetic reports to make my point. Found in numerous hadith collections, but perhaps made most famous for its mention in al-Nawawī’s renowned collection of forty hadith, the Prophet Muhammad reportedly said:


            “Be in the world as though you were a stranger or a wayfarer” (122-3, Hadith 40).


In this hadith the stranger (gharīb) is not merely a person of encounter. Rather, as the hadith indicates, strangerhood is a mantle to assume and a disposition to foster with respect to life in this world. Our home, the hadith implies, lies in a life and world beyond this one. Elsewhere, the Prophet Muhammad goes a step further and equates the faith of Islam itself with strangeness (gharīb). The hadith scholar Ibn Rajāb al-Ḥanbalī cites the following hadith at the beginning of his treatise Kashf al-kurba fī waṣf ḥāl ahl al-ghurba:


“Islam began in strangeness and it will return to strangeness just as it began, so blessed are the strangers.”[2]


Strangerhood and strangeness are not merely conceptual foils, but asserted in a decidedly central manner here. Strangeness is invoked to point out that Islam goes against the grain. There is something powerfully subversive, or at least interventionist born by these prophetic sayings.

Let it be clear, however, that the points that I have raised above do not mark a disagreement with Siddiqui. Her reflective investigation into hospitality as a theological virtue is important. The work marks a helpful starting point of consideration. My interventions are intended as indications as to how the conversations and ideas developed in her incredibly insightful work might be extended and continued in the wider theological discourse. I invite Siddiqui to consider how other themes and religious symbols might deepen, redirect, or subvert altogether the ongoing conversations between modern faith traditions, especially in light of the power disparities that all too often underlie these exchanges.


[1] See for example Richard King’s critique of the discourse on “religion” and “mysticism” in the context of South Asia or Brent Nongbri’s wider ranging historical analysis.

[2] The translation is my own. A different translation of this hadith appears in Ibn Rajab al-Hanbalī & Abū Bakr al-Ajurrī, The Journey of the Strangers, translated by Abu Rumaysah (Birmingham: Daar us-Sunnah Publishers, 2009), 32.

Martin Nguyen
Professor Martin Nguyen is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Fairfield University where he also presently serves as the Faculty Chair for Diversity. He earned his Masters of Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School and then obtained his Ph.D. from Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. In addition to his book Sufi Master and Qur'an Scholar from Oxford University Press he has published on the Qur'an and its interpretation, Muslim theology, and Islamic spirituality. He serves on the editorial board of the journal Teaching Theology and Religion and is a regular contributor to the Wabash Center's blog "Teaching Islam.”