At a time when images of desperate Iraqi and Syrian refugees seeking safe havens dominate the news, fewer themes could be more pressing than that of hospitality. What can religion contribute to the idea and its practice? That is the question that Mona Siddiqui addresses here.
In an account that is both scholarly and personal, Siddiqui explores the concepts and categories, scriptural stories and characters, and legal, ethical, mystical and feminist discourses that engage the ideal of “hospitality” in the Muslim tradition. She argues for an expansive understanding that frames hospitality not only as an act of giving, but also as an attitude invested in establishing more giving relationships.
Her book is anchored on three configurations of the term: hospitality of human beings towards others, hospitality of God towards creation and hospitality between the sexes. It is in the weaving together of otherwise disparate topics that her main contribution lies. In addition to abundant references to the Koran and the recorded sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad, Siddiqui draws her material primarily from Sunni sources, from the writings of the scholar and mystic Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111 AD) to examples from the mystical and belles-lettres traditions. In addition, she considers excerpts from Christian discourse, including those of St John Chrysostom and other important theologians.
Among the book’s most engaging moments is its analysis of hospitality in the Koran. Siddiqui argues that it presents hospitality as a virtue that enables human beings to gain proximity to God. These scriptural references to hospitality take the shape of ethical commands, framed in the relationships of host/guest, host/traveller or host/neighbour, and Siddiqui highlights their implications in the dramatically transformed conditions of modernity. She argues that in the Koranic ethos of hospitality, the host/guest relation is situated in a language of rights and obligations, so that both host and guest have rights over the other. Such an arrangement is in sharp contrast to a modern language of hospitality as a simple act of kindness. She also instructively argues that Koranic invocations to travellers don’t conjure up images of a “stranger”, as they might in the contemporary world of borders, nations and passports, but rather of a person displaced from her home. Thus, the Koran argues for hospitality that is measured but not exclusivist, whereby the limits of hospitality should be determined by the capacity of the host and not by the identity of the host or guest.
Siddiqui’s meditations on the Koranic notion of hospitality could not be more relevant to the modern context of a globally connected, and yet increasingly atomised, world. One of the book’s weaker points, in contrast, is its discussion of the interaction of gender and hospitality in relation to questions of marriage, family and sexuality. Curiously absent from this account is her own position. Instead, we are provided with a survey of existing literature that does not do justice to the complex terrain of Muslim feminist thought on which such questions are debated. Overall, however, this is a lucidly written work that straddles academic analysis and normative activism, and offers an excellent overview of how the idea of hospitality nourishes and inspires different facets of Islamic thought and Muslim practice.
Tehseen Thaver is assistant professor of religious and Islamic studies, Bard College, New York.
Hospitality and Islam: Welcoming in God’s Name
By Mona Siddiqui
Yale University Press, 288pp, £20.00
Published 15 October 2015