From the legendary figure of Hātim, hospitality has been made a keystone of the Islamic ethical system

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Last update: 2022-04-22 08:59:14

From the legendary figure of Hātim (a poet-knight of pre-Islamic Arabia mentioned even by Boccaccio and Goethe) to the sayings of the Prophet, hospitality has been made a keystone of the Islamic ethical system. And yet Islam was also, with great practicality, to define its limits: three days, the first with a special banquet and the other two with normal treatment. “Anything after that is charity.”

Hātim, son of ‘Abd Allāh son of Sa‘d son of al-Hashraj, from the Tā’ī tribe; his mother was called ‘Inaba,[1] daughter of ‘Afīf, from the Tā’ī. Generous and an excellent poet, his fame followed him wherever he stopped. Whenever he fought, he triumphed and if he gathered up booty he left it to pillage; he would give to everyone who asked; he was always the first to play the game of arrows[2] and if he took prisoners, he would set them free.

During a journey, he passed by the ‘Anaza tribe: a prisoner asked him for help but Hātim did not have the wherewithal to ransom him. He bought his freedom nonetheless and put himself in chains in his place until he could pay the ransom. He divided his wealth more than ten times and swore by God that he would kill no brother.

Abū ‘Ubayda has stated that there are three champions in generosity amongst the Arabs: Ka‘b Ibn Māma, Hātim al-Tā’ī (both of whom became proverbial) and Harim Ibn Sinān, Zuhayr’s patron.[3] In the open space in front of his tent, Hātim kept huge cooking pots that he never took off the fire. When the moon of Rajab rose,[4] he sacrificed an animal every day and distributed its flesh.


[The Break with His Father]

When he was a boy, his father entrusted him a herd of camels. [The poets] ‘Abīd Ibn al-Abras, Bishr Ibn Abī Khāzim and Nābigha al-Dhubyānī passed by, on their way to al-Nu‘mān’s[5] court, and Hātim sacrificed three camels in their honour, even though he did not know them. He asked them their names and they revealed them to him. Then he divided all his camels between them. He sent word to his father about what he had done and his father came to ask him about the animals. “My father,” he replied, “I have procured you a crown of imperishable glory” and he told him what he had done. His father replied, “From now on I will not accept you as my neighbour and I will never give you hospitality again.” “If so, I do not care,” and he parted from him.


[His Mother]

His mother was called ‘Inaba. So great was her generosity that she never put anything aside. Having tried in vain to curb her behaviour, her brothers shut her up at home for a year, giving her only the bare minimum to survive. They hoped that, having tasted the food of poverty, she would understand the value of wealth and would abandon her habits. After a year, they let her out and entrusted her a herd of about thirty camels. [While they were grazing] a woman from the Hawāzin tribe[6] came to her. The woman asked her for help and she replied, “Here is the herd, take it. By God, I experienced such hunger that I swore I would never refuse someone who asked me anything”. Then she recited these verses:


By my life! Hunger ate into me so harshly
that I swore I would never again refuse a hungry person.
So say to those who reprove me, “Let it go!
And if you cannot, by all means kick yourselves in anger.”
What you see today is nothing other than my nature.
How could I change it, my brothers?

[Hātim’s Hospitality]

According to his son ‘Adī, Hātim was a man of long silences and used to say, “If the only way to protect yourself from something is to let it go, let it go.” His wife Nawwār told the following story: “We had been hit by a year when the earth had shrivelled and the sky on the horizon was covered with dust; the camels came back gaunt with hunger in the evening, the animals’ teats gave not even a drop of milk for their little ones and famine had wiped out the livestock. In short, we were sure we were doomed to death. During a freezing night that seemed never to end, our children ‘Abd Allāh, ‘Adī and Saffāna all began to cry out in their hunger. Hātim went to the two boys and I went to our little girl and, by God, it took them a long time to calm down. In the end, they fell asleep and I lay down beside him again. Then, to distract me from my hunger, Hātim began to talk to me. Intuiting why he was doing so, I pretended I had fallen asleep. When almost all the stars had set, something suddenly raised the tent curtain. ‘Who goes there?’ asked Hātim, but the figure disappeared. Shortly afterwards, it returned. ‘Who goes there?’ Hātim asked. And the figure ran off once more. It came back again at the end of the night. ‘Who goes there?’ ‘I am one of your neighbours and I have come to you leaving my children behind in the tent. They are howling like wolves in their hunger and you are the only person I can ask for help, o Father of ‘Adī!’ ‘By God, I will feed them until they are sated!’ ‘How will you find the food?’ I asked. ‘This is not your concern.’ And, turning to the woman, he added, ‘Bring them here immediately so that God may fill you and them.” The woman came back carrying two children in her arms whilst four other children walked at her sides: she looked like a female ostrich surrounded by her little ones. Hātim made his way to his horse and planted his knife in its breast. The horse fell heavily to the ground. He skinned it, held out the knife to the woman and said to her, ‘Help yourself.’ We all gathered around the meat, but Hātim exclaimed, ‘For shame on you! Would you eat without inviting the rest of the tribe?’ And he went to call them, tent by tent, saying, ‘Come, people, everyone around the fire.’ They all came; Hātim, wrapped in his clothes, stayed in a corner to watch us eat and, by God, he did not touch even a mouthful of meat, even though he needed it more than us. When morning came, only the horse’s bones and hooves remained on the ground. Then I reproved him and he composed this poem in reply:


Hush, Nawwār, stop reproving me and criticizing
and do not ask, about something now over, what has become of it.
Do not say of an animal, ‘You killed it’;
Be silent, should I donate to jinns and demons alike!
The miser knows of only one path for his goods,
But the generous man sees many.
Do not reprove me about an animal that I gave as a gift
To people of my own blood: the best way to use things is to give them away.”

[Marriage with Queen Māwiya]

One day Hātim presented himself before Māwiyya, daughter of ‘Afzar, [7] to ask for her hand. On entering her home, however, he found that [the famous poet] Nābigha and a man from the Nabīt clan were also asking for her in marriage. Māwiyya told all the suitors to leave. Each one was to compose a poem listing his deeds and merits and she would marry the most generous man and the most gifted poet. The three left and each one killed an animal in sacrifice. Māwiyya dressed in the clothes of one of her maidservants and followed them.

When she reached the man from the Nabīt clan, she asked him for food. He gave her the animal’s tail and she took it and carried it away. She came to Nābigha: he gave her the same thing and she took it and carried it away. She came to Hātim and he had put one of his pots on the fire. She asked him for something to eat and Hātim answered, “Wait until the food is ready.” She waited and when it was ready, Hātim gave her the rump, a piece of the hump and a piece of the withers. Then the woman went away.

Nābigha and the man from the Nabīt sent Māwiyya the back of the animal they had slaughtered as a gift. Hātim, on the other hand, sent her the same parts he had given to the maidservant. In the morning, the three suitors came to the queen and the man from the Nabīt clan apostrophised her as follows:


Ask the Banū Nabīt[8] what my merit is
In the winter, when the winds blow,
When men cut the teats of a thin camel[9]
With just the slightest hint of fat on its head and around its bones,
When the milking strings lie unused
And no little one receives milk to drink in the morning.

Then it was the turn of Nābigha, who said,


Ask the Banū Dhubyān what my value is
When smoke enwraps the old man who withdraws from the game of arrows[10]
And the winds blow from Mount Urul
Pushing a flock of rainless cirrus clouds in the morning;
Then I give to my playing companions
With both hands and serve them a ladleful of well-seasoned food.


Finally Hātim spoke, saying:


Māwiya, money comes and goes
And stories and memory are all that remain.
Māwiya, I do not say to the beggar
When he comes to me, “There is a vow on the livestock.”
Māwiya, either there is an impediment, and it must be clear,
Or one should give, and give without restraint.
Māwiya, what good is wealth to the valorous man
If he begins to bray like a donkey out of fear?
Māwiya, if my ghost[11] is to reawaken in a desolate
region, without water or wine,
you will see that I will not have been harmed by what I have spent
and that my hand will be empty of anything I have kept back for myself.
All the peoples know that Hātim
Would have had wealth in abundance, had he wanted it.


When they had finished reciting their poems, Māwiyya invited them to dine. She had her servants bring to each one the food they had given her to eat [when she had presented herself dressed as a maidservant]. The man from the Nabīt and Nābigha hung their heads in shame. Hātim, when he saw what was happening, threw their plates away and gave them the food he had received to eat. The two vanished and Māwiyya married Hātim. […]


[The Tomb]

A member of the Tā’ī tribe said that a man named Abū Khaybarī passed beside Hātim’s tomb and alighted there for the night. [As a joke] he began to call on him, “Father of ‘Adī, bring us the gifts of your hospitality!” When dawn came, he started and began to shout, “My poor animal!” “What’s up?” his companions asked him. “I swear to you by God,” he answered, “Hātim appeared, sword in hand, and went and cut off the hocks of my camel, right under my very nose”. His companions went to check and there the animal was, unable to get up from the ground. “Well,” they commented, “he really has brought you the gifts of his hospitality”. So they cut the camel’s throat and spent a good part of the day eating its meat. Then, after loading the unfortunate man on another camel, they departed. ‘Adī, Hātim’s son, appeared as they were setting off: he was leading a black camel that was tied to his own animal and he said, “Hātim came to me while I was spleeping and told me how you had insulted him and that, in answer, he had offered your animal as a gift of his hospitality to you and your companions. He also recited some verses about this which he repeated until I had learned them by heart:


Abū Khaybarī, you envious man
in the tribe and querulous, too,
why do you disturb wasted bones
In a spacious desert where the owl[12] makes her cry heard?
You take the liberty of pestering them
While fortune smiles on you all around.


Hātim has ordered me,” the son concluded, “to pay you this camel as compensation for your animal. Take it!” And Abū Khaybarī took it.


(Ibn Qutayba, Kitāb al-shi‘r wa l-shu‘arā’, edited by Michael J. de Goeje, Brill, Leiden 1904, pp. 123-130)



[Two conflicting assessments of Hātim]

From Kumayl Ibn Ziyād al-Nukh‘ī.[13] ‘Alī, may peace be upon him, said:

My God, how unwilling most people are to do good! I am always amazed when I see a man who, when a brother comes to him in need, does not consider himself fit to do good. Even if we did not hope in paradise and did not fear hell, even if we did not wait for a reward and were not afraid of a punishment, well, even in those circumstances we ought to seek the noblest customs. Indeed, they show the way of salvation.


‘Adī, Hātim’s son, embraced Islam with conviction. It is reported that he once said to the Prophet, “O Messenger of God, my father was generous and indulgent, he was faithful to the promises of protection he made and taught the noblest customs.” But the Prophet replied, “Your father is firewood in hell.” Seeing the sorrow written all over his interlocutor’s face, he added, “‘Adī, not only your father. Also mine and Abraham’s father are in the fire.”


(Abū l-Faraj al-Isfahānī, Kitāb al-Aghānī, ed. al-Hay’a al-Misriyya, vol. 17 (Cairo 1970), p. 364 and p. 387)




The Guest in the Islamic Tradition


A Great Gesture of Hospitality

From Abū Hurayra. A man came to the Messenger of God and said, “I am exhausted.” So Muhammad had one of his wives called but she answered, “By the One who has sent you with the Truth, all I have with me is water.” So he sent him to another wife, but she, too, responded in the same manner and so did all of them, one by one, saying “By the One who sent you with the Truth, all I have with me is water.”

So Muhammad asked, “Who wants to offer him hospitality tonight, may God reward him?” One of the Helpers[14] got up and said, “I offer myself, O Messenger of God” and he set off with the man in the direction of his own tent. The Auxiliary asked his wife if she had something to offer and she replied that she had only the children’s food. “Well then, distract them somehow and settle them to sleep. When our guest comes in, light[15] the lantern and let him see that we are eating. If he tells you he is hungry, get up, put out the lantern [and give him our food].” Thus they remained sitting while the guest ate. When morning came, the Helper went to the Prophet and the latter said, “Last night God wondered[16] at your treatment of your guest.”


[parallel version]

From Abū Hurayra. A guest spent a night in the home of one of the Helpers who had only enough food for himself and his children. The latter said to his wife, “Get the children to sleep, put out the lamp and offer the guest what you have.” So the verse came down “… preferring others above themselves, even though poverty be their portion” (Qur’an 59:9).


(Muslim, Sahīh, Kitāb al-ashriba, Bāb ikrām al-dayf wa fadl īthārihi, nos. 5382-5383, Dār Sādir, Beirut, undated, p. 790)


“He Who Comes to Visit You Has a Right Over You”

From ‘Abd Allāh Ibn ‘Amr Ibn al-‘Ās. The Messenger of God came into my home and recited the hadīth, “He who comes to visit you has a right over you; and your wife has a right over you.”[17]


(al-Bukhārī, Sahīh, Kitāb al-sawm, bāb haqq al-dayf fī al-sawm, no. 1974, Dār Sādir, Beirut, undated, p. 342)


“Hospitality Lasts Three Days, Anything After That is Charity”

“Hast thou received the story of the honoured guests of Abraham?” (Qur’an 51:24). In connection with this verse, ‘Abd Allāh Ibn Yūsuf has recounted to us... from Abū Shurayh al-Ka‘bī that the Messenger of God said, “Whoever believes in God and the last Day should honour his guests, according them special treatment for one day and one night. Hospitality lasts three days; anything after that is charity.[18] And it is not licit for the guest to stay so long that he gets himself sent away.”

[...] From Abū Hurayra. The Prophet said, “Whoever believes in God and the last Day should not harass his neighbour; Whoever believes in God and the last Day should honour his guests; Whoever believes in God and the last Day should speak good or keep silent.”

From ‘Uqba Ibn ‘Āmir. One day we asked the Messenger of God, “Look, you are sending us [outside Medina]. What shall we do if we stop at people who do not offer us the gifts of hospitality?” He answered us, “If the people you stop at order you to accept what is due to a guest, accept it; if they do not, take it from them anyway.”


(al-Bukhārī, Sahīh, Kitāb al-adab, bāb ikrām al-dayf wa khidmatihi iyyāhu bi nafsihi, nos. 6135-6137, p. 1097)


Do Not Stand Too Much on Ceremony

After receiving some guests, Abū Bakr said to his son, ‘Abd al-Rahmān, “You take care of them because I have to go to the Prophet. Make sure you hurry to give the gifts before I return home.” ‘Abd al-Rahmān brought what he had and said to them, “Eat!” but they asked, “Where is the master of the house?” “Eat!” “We will not eat until the master of the house comes.” “Accept our gifts, because if he finds that you still have not eaten when he comes, we will be in serious trouble.” The guests refused. “And I understood,” continued ‘Abd al-Rahmān, “that my father was going to give me a piece of his mind. I went to hide when he arrived. My father asked what we had done and they told him what had happened. ‘‘Abd al-Rahmān!’ Silence. ‘‘Abd al-Rahmān!’ Silence. ‘Come out, you idiot, if you can hear me, may God strike you down!’ I came out and told him to ask the guests. ‘The boy has told the truth,’ they said. ‘He brought us the gifts.’ ‘Well then, since you wanted to wait for me, by God, I will not eat anything this night!’ ‘By God, we will not eat either.’. ‘There never was a night worse than this! What is wrong with us? Why don’t you want to accept our gifts? Come on, bring the food.’”

The son brought it, Abū Bakr dipped his hand into the dish and said, “In the name of God, Satan’s was the first”. He ate and they ate with him.


(al-Bukhārī, Sahīh, Kitāb al-adab, bāb mā yukrah min al-ghadab wa al-jaza‘ ‘ind al-dayf, n. 6140, p. 1098)

[Translated into English by Catharine de Rienzo from the Italian version by M. Diez. The translation has been revised on the Arabic original by M. Diez]


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] ‘Utba, according to the Aghānī (XVII, 365).

[2] A pagan rite in which the participants killed a camel and divided its parts out by lot. It was forbidden by the Qur’an.

[3] Harim Ibn Sinān was the chief of the Dhubyān. There are numerous anecdotes about his generosity towards Zuhayr, a pre-Islamic poet and author of a famous ode that has become part of the canon of the Mu‘allaqāt (“The pendants”).

[4] One of the sacred months in pagan Arabia, during which animal sacrifices were made.

[5] Lord of the Arab kingdom of Hira, in lower Mesopotamia, and a vassal of the Persian Empire. Although reigning over a sedentary territory, the sovereigns of Hira maintained close ties with the Bedouin tribes and to this end they maintained various court poets.

[6] A tribe from the Hijaz area and a fierce enemy of the Quraysh. Muhammad defeated it, with difficulty, in the battle of Hunayn (630).

[7] A warrior-queen who headed the tribal confederation of the Tanūkh. In 378, she unleashed a revolt against the Emperor Valens, defeating the Roman troops in Syria several times. She died around 425.

[8] For its symmetry with the subsequent lines, I prefer the version from the Aghānī (vol. 17, p. 383) to that of Ibn Qutayba, which would leave the pronoun –hum in the second line hanging.

[9] During periods of scarcity, there was the practice of cutting the teats of some animals to make them fatten anyway.

[10] Another allusion to the ritual game of maysir by which a sacrificial animal was divided out among the participants. The Mount Urul mentioned in the following line, is recorded by Yāqūt in his geographical dictionary.

[11] According to a pagan belief, the soul of a dead man remained near his tomb in the form of an owl. Here, it is translated as “ghost”.

[12] Once again, the owl that contains the dead man’s soul.

[13] Among the most important companions of ‘Alī, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law.

[14] The Helpers were the inhabitants of Medina who had converted to Islam. According to another version of the hadīth, the man was called Abū Talha.

[15] The text says “put out”, but this verb is problematic because the same order would be given twice. I have corrected it on the basis of the parallel version in al-Bukhārī, Kitāb Manāqib al-Ansār, bāb “wa yu’thirūna ‘alā anfusihim wa law kāna bihim khasāsa”, no. 3798, p. 668.

[16] In al-Bukhārī it is said more audaciously, “God laughed.”

[17] The hadīth’s finale is not relevant to our theme: the narrator would like to fast constantly but the Prophet fixes for him the limit of one day of fasting and one of rest (the so-called “David’s fast”), precisely because “He who comes to visit you has a right over you.”

[18] The period of hospitality – the commentators specify – provides for a special banquet in honour of the new arrival (jā’iza) on the first day, followed by two days during which the guest receives the same treatment as the other members of the family.

To cite this article

Printed version:
Text by Ibn Qutayba, “The Generous Deeds of the Tribal Chief”, Oasis, year XII, n. 24, December 2016, pp. 96-104.

Online version:
Text by Ibn Qutayba, “The Generous Deeds of the Tribal Chief”, Oasis [online], published on 15th March 2017, URL: