In this article, Shaykh Abdul-Rahim Reasat explores the theme of Karam, or honouring. He uses the example of Prophet Ibrahim, peace be upon him, who is mentioned in the Qur’an as honouring his guests.
What is Karam?
Karam. A very rich and nuanced word of the Arabic language. Qurʾanic philologists, after deep analysis, tell us that its true meaning lies somewhere near ‘for something to be precious, valued, honoured, refined, esteemed and noble’. Meanings such as generosity, and being forgiving – which are common usages for karam in Arabic – are derivative, and not the root meaning itself.
Allah has informed us in the Qurʿan that ‘[By Allah] We have permanently honoured the children of Adam’ (17:70); that is to say, He has elevated the rank of humanity from amongst His creation. This is through various means, such as intelligence, articulate and eloquent speech, religion, morality, responsibility, knowledge, and the ability to traverse all the terrains of the planet – to name a few. The verb in the verse above (kar-ram-nā) indicates that this is something engrained within us, and permanent. It is from the karam of Allah, and so we may feel some of what it is like to have this quality, and to manifest it onto others.
The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) commanded us, ‘Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day, let him honour (yukrim) his guest’ (Bukhari). The initial part of this statement is a beautiful usage of the rhetorical device employed to spark within a believer a desire to implement the instructions given after it, almost as though he has cause to prove that he believes in Allah and the Last Day.
Coming from the context of Arab generosity where bedouins would light bonfires at night to invite the desert travellers to their hospitality, this hadith took this beautiful trait of the Arabs and combined it with the qualities faith promotes and nourishes within a believer. In short, to make one’s guest feel precious, valued, honoured and noble is something desired in Islam and a mark of nobility itself. It also has far-reaching effects on one’s relationships, friendships, and society as a whole.
In order to see how it is done let us look at one of the most noble and generous men ever to walk the earth, and see how he was with his guests.
The Example of Ibrahim
‘Has the important account (ḥadith) of the honoured guests of Ibrahim come to you? [It was] when they entered his [house] and greeted him. He replied with a better greeting saying ‘[You are] a people completely unknown [to us]’ (51:24-25).
The verses start with an address to the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant peace) asking if this particular story had been recounted to him. This serves to draw one’s attention to the story mentioned, and to prepare the listener for the wisdom and guidance it will impart.
Part of this wisdom is for one to spend on worthy causes knowing that one’s provision lies in the generous hand of Allah, which, incidentally, is one of the themes of Sura al-Dhariyat.
The event is referred to as a ‘ḥadith’, which means an event so significant that it should be regarded with due importance and made a frequent topic of conversation. This was, of course, the event when the people of the Prophet Lut were punished – may Allah protect us from His wrath.
The angels sent to them were first told to visit Ibrahim and give him the good news of the birth of his second son, Isḥaq. Allah referred to them as the honoured guests of Ibrahim. Exegetes have differed on the nature of this honouring: were they described as being honoured simply because all angels are honoured by Allah, or was it through the hospitality of Ibrahim? Both interpretations are possible in this situation. Their role as angelic messengers meant that they were honoured by Allah- yet, unaware of them being angels, Ibrahim honoured them to the best of His capacity too.
The verse then states that they entered his home without asking permission. This indicates that his great generosity and immaculate hospitality were known of far and wide, and that guests knew that they were free to enter without asking for permission. This fact alone speaks volumes about the generosity of Ibrahim.
Once inside they greeted him with the familiar greeting of Islam, which he, in turn, replied to. The grammatical state used to express their cordial greeting is weaker than the one used to express his greeting, which shows that he responded to their greeting with warmer and more welcoming words. In short, his reputation of being an impeccable host was immediately apparent.
Without delay, he started to make conversation with them, lest they feel like they were unwanted or intruding. Their being unknown to him was not a cause of frustration, or him not wanting to serve them with the best he had. Rather, he saw them as people sent to him by Allah as a means for him to draw closer to Allah through hospitality. He was not yet aware that they were angels.
‘Immediately, he quickly and quietly slipped away to his household, and soon brought a plump [roasted] calf’ (51:26)
Next, after making them comfortable, he slipped away. The word ‘rāgha’ in the verse implies that he was quick in departing, and that it was imperceptible and unceremonious. From this we can infer that he did not want to keep his guests waiting. Travelling is tiring, so feeding one’s guests immediately is a sign on good hospitality.
We can also see that he did not ask them whether they wanted anything to eat or drink. Many people would simply refuse due to their modesty, despite actually desiring some food. Ibrahim did not place them in this situation, nor did he give them a choice between foods; because many people would either refuse or simply choose what would be the least taxing on the host, even if they desired otherwise.
We then see that he went to his household – his wife, and their servants, if they had any. This indicates that the role of hospitality was a shared one, and each of them saw they great opportunity to please Allah the guests had brought with them.
To add to this, exegetes have mentioned that the particles mentioned in the verse indicate quick succession, which means that they hurried to honour their guests, and that it is almost as if the food was half prepared waiting for some guests to pass by. This is tremendous reflection of his generosity and reliance on Allah in matters of provision.
It can also be inferred that the host should serve what is easily available to him, whether it is a meal, some nuts, or a cup of tea. Guests in Ibrahim’s scenario were travellers through the desert; all the food a traveller had was what he could carry with him, so being someone’s guest was an opportunity to have a good meal which may not present itself again soon. Therefore, you do not have to serve a three course meal every time the neighbour comes over to pick up a parcel she had missed in the post.
Serving what is easily available also means that one does not have to sneak out of the back door for a secret trip to the supermarket to get some food for the guest. What is available is sufficient, and the host’s company is more important.
After a short space of time he took a plump roasted calf to the guests. Cows were the best food they could provide for a guest, as well as being very expensive. A fully grown cow can provide a lot of meat which can be eaten, shared or preserved. Yet, he chose to slaughter a calf.
A calf would have been quicker to cook, and its meat would have been more tender, but there would not have been much excess meat. Ibrahim’s prioritising of his guests in choosing the best and tastiest food, quick service, and selflessness here is nothing short of admirable.
‘He then placed it very close to them, and said, ‘Will you not eat?’ (51:27)
Ibrahim served his guests himself, and this is not a flaw; rather, it is the height of nobility for a man to serve his guests himself. This is a practice I noticed amongst the scholars and the righteous in the middle-east. For a man of distinction to place food in your plate – despite his rank and virtues – is an honour to say the least.
Not only that, Ibrahim gently requested them to eat. It was not a command. It was nothing but a warm and gentle word of encouragement to eat, posed in the form of a question.
Many guests feel shy, and it may not be easy for them start eating of their own accord. This gentle reminder once again shows that Ibrahim did everything he could to honour his guests, who, as far as he knew until this point, were normal people, beneath him in rank.
The food was also placed very close to them in order to prevent them from being too shy to eat anything served, and to have everything within easy reach. The guests of Ibrahim really were honoured.
We ask Allah – who, more than any, deserves to be described with the meanings of the word karam – to bestow His karam on us, and the believers, in this life and the next. The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace), upon receiving the opening verses of Sura al-Muʾminun, asked for this when he said,
‘اللَّهُمَّ زِدْنَا وَلَا تَنْقُصْنَا، وَأَكْرِمْنَا وَلَا تُهِنَّا، وَأَعْطِنَا وَلَا تَحْرِمْنَا، وَآثِرْنَا وَلَا تُؤْثِرْ عَلَيْنَا، وَأرْضِنَا وَارْضَ عَنَّا’
‘O Allah, give us an increase, and not a decrease; honour us and do not abase us; give us and do not debar us; prefer us and do not prefer [others] to us; and please us and be pleased with us’ (Tirmidhi).
Shaykh Abdul Rahim Reasat began his studies in Arabic Grammar and Morphology in 2005. He moved to Damascus in 2007 to study and sit at the feet of some of the most erudite scholars of our time, such as Shaykh Adnan Darwish, Shaykh Abdurrahman Arjan, Shaykh Hussain Darwish and Shaykh Muhammad Darwish.
In late 2008 he moved to Amman, Jordan, where he continued his studies in Fiqh, Usul al Fiqh, Theology, Hadith Methodology and Commentary, Shama’il, and Logic with teachers such as Dr Ashraf Muneeb, Dr Salah Abu’l Hajj, Dr Hamza al-Bakri, Shaykh Ahmad Hasanat, Dr Mansur Abu Zina amongst others. He was also given two licences of mastery in the science of Qur’anic recital by Shakh Samir Jabr and Shaykh Yahya Qandil.
His true passion, however, arose in the presence of Shaykh Ali Hani, considered by many to be one of the foremost tafsir scholars of our time who provided him with the keys to the vast knowledge of the Quran. With Shaykh Ali, he was able to study an extensive curriculum of Qur’anic Sciences, Tafsir, Arabic Grammar, and Rhetoric.
When he finally left Jordan for the UK in 2014, Shaykh Ali gave him his distinct blessing and still recommends students in the UK to seek out Shaykh Abdul Rahim for Quranic studies. Since his return he has trained as a therapist and has helped a number of people overcome emotional and psychosomatic issues. He is a keen promoter of emotional and mental health.