The ancient virtue of hospitality imposes duties on host and guest.
There is not one variety of olives on the table, but three, and hummus and eggplant, some pita, pickles, and white cheese. There are two main courses, in case one might not be to the guest’s taste, and fresh cucumbers and tomatoes, okra, onions, eggs. Everywhere in the Middle East, the traveler is overwhelmed by hospitality.
The virtue seems an ineluctable product of the landscape. Even as we traverse it in our air-conditioned car with our liters of water at our side, we are stunned by the heat, the distances between towns whose names reveal their most salient feature: Beersheba, Sheva’s well; Ein Gedi Spring. To refuse a man refreshment in such a place is to let him die, to threaten the openhandedness nomadic peoples must depend on to survive.
No wonder, then, the landscape that gave birth to the three great monotheistic religions produced in their adherents so great an emphasis on the virtue of hospitality. In the Koran as in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, the mistreatment of strangers is a sure way to incur divine wrath.
Pass Not Away, I Pray Thee, From Thy Servant
For example, all three traditions contrast the behavior of Abraham/Ibrahim, who does honor to strangers approaching his tent, and that of the Sodomites, who demand the same strangers be turned over to them to be raped. In the biblical account, Abraham rushes from the door of his tent to meet the three visitors and prostrates himself.
My lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant. Let now a little water be fetched, and wash your feet, and recline yourselves under the tree. And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and stay ye your heart; after that ye shall pass on (Genesis 18:3–5).
Beyond the morsel of bread, Abraham prepares a feast for his guests, who, of course, turn out to be angels with news that his wife Sarah will bear him a son.
Abraham’s nephew Lot—Lut in the Koran—also rises up to greet the messengers and urges them to stay at his home. When the men of Sodom riot outside his house, demanding that the strangers be delivered into their hands, Lut opposes them. "Guard against (the punishment of) Allah," he urges them, "and do not disgrace me with regard to my guests; is there not among you one right-minded man?" (The Holy Prophet 11:78) His hospitality helps protect him from the judgment visited on Sodom, so graphically described in the same chapter: "We turned them upside down and rained down upon them stones, of what had been decreed, one after another" (The Holy Prophet 11:82).
Some Christian commentators see in one of the messengers a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ. Indeed, hospitality to the stranger is equated with welcoming God. In the book of Matthew, Christ separates the nations into the cursed, who refused him food and drink, and the blessed, who received him. When the blessed ask, "And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?" he answers, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40).
Philoxenia: The Love of Strangers
In these passages, hospitality is not primarily associated with how we treat friends, neighbors, or members of our own family. When Abraham catches sight of the messengers in the distance, he has no way of knowing who they are. The blessed have earned praise for welcoming the stranger. Indeed, in the Christian Bible, the word often used for hospitality is philoxenia, from the Greek for one who loves strangers.
Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology associates hospitality with aliens or strangers in need, who were particularly vulnerable in the ancient Middle East:
The plight of aliens was desperate. They lacked membership in the community, be it tribe, city-state, or nation. As an alienated person, the traveler often needed immediate food and lodging. Widows, orphans, the poor, or sojourners from other lands lacked the familial or community status that provided a landed inheritance, the means of making a living, and protection. In the ancient world, the practice of hospitality meant graciously receiving an alienated person into one’s land, home, or community and providing directly for that person’s needs.
Part of the goodness in hospitality is in receiving a person outside the community from whom one has no immediate expectation of reciprocity. The person you help may never be in a position to help you—he or she may even bring you harm. Still, hosts are obliged to extend themselves.
During the Nazi period, those who helped to rescue Jews were motivated by this vision, according to Philip Hallie, who studied the inhabitants of Le Chambon, a French village that sheltered many refugees. He writes,
I learned that the opposite of cruelty is not simply freedom from the cruel relationship; it is hospitality…. When I asked them [the villagers] why they helped these dangerous guests, they invariably answered, "What do you mean, ‘Why?’ Where else could they go? How could you turn them away?"
Duty and Superfluity
In the formulation of philosopher John Rawls, hospitality constitutes a kind of duty—one we owe "not only to definite individuals, say to those cooperating together in some social arrangement, but to persons generally." Rawls calls this duty "mutual aid."
In Spheres of Justice,the philosopher Michael Walzer writes, "It is the absence of any cooperative arrangements that sets the context for mutual aid: two strangers meet at sea or in the desert, or, as in the Good Samaritan story, by the side of the road. What precisely they owe one another is by no means clear, but we commonly say of such cases that positive assistance is required if (1) it is needed or urgently needed by one of the parities; and (2) if the risks and costs of giving it are relatively low for the other party."
The Arab/Islamic tradition goes even further. Yes, one owes the traveler enough dates and figs for a journey, enough water to reach the next well. But hospitality is more than that, containing within it the superfluity evident in the story of Abraham/Ibrahim and the messengers. Scholar Abu Shuraih Al-Adawi says,
My ears heard and my eyes saw the Prophet when he spoke, "Anybody who believes in Allah and the Last Day should serve his neighbor generously, and anybody who believes in Allah and the Last Day should serve his guest generously by giving him his reward." It was asked, "What is his reward, O Allah’s Apostle?" He said, "(To be entertained) generously for a day and a night with high quality of food and the guest has the right to be entertained for three days (with ordinary food), and if he stays longer, what he will be provided with will be regarded as Sadaqa (a charitable gift).
In Islam, the hospitality relationship is triangular, including host, stranger, and God. Sustenance is a right rather than a gift, and the duty to supply it is a duty to God, not to the stranger.
Some traditional sources even put the duty of hospitality above prayer. The Talmud takes this message from Abraham’s speech in the passage of Genesis referred to previously: "My Lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, pass not away from your servant." While some commentators assume that Abraham is addressing the most prominent of the messengers, others read the plea as addressed to God, asking Him to wait while Abraham greets his guests. If this is so, we might see the principle as guidance for those who would allow their religious differences to distract them from their responsibility to care for strangers.
The Guest’s Responsibility
But hospitality also involves responsibilities on the part of guests. Rabbinic literature outlines many of these duties, including showing gratitude and not giving food to others without the host’s consent.
Just as the host is gracious, the guest is also obliged to be gracious. Whether an invitation to break bread is accepted or rejected is fraught with social implications. Accepting an invitation to eat with someone speaks to trust—that you won’t be poisoned, for example. It also has to do with social status. A person of higher rank can gift the host with his or her presence by agreeing to break bread together. The action implies recognition that, at least in basic needs, both parties are equally human and must eat to survive.
Furthermore, when it comes to basic humanity, no food is unworthy and all offers to share are equal. Rejecting an invitation to eat may imply an unwillingness to acknowledge the host as basically equal or valued as a human being.
In the modern Western world, hospitality has taken on different connotations. Perhaps as religious traditions became uprooted from the Middle East, the primacy of this virtue—or at least its association with the compassionate treatment of strangers—was lost. Westerners tend to see receiving guests as part of creating relationships. We entertain family and friends and those whom we wish to cultivate as friends rather than opening our homes to strangers. Our care for strangers tends to be monetary rather than personal.
While there are things to be said for this approach, it lacks the moral centrality of the view of hospitality John Koenig traces to ancient Greece and the Near East. As he writes in New Testament Hospitality,"According to this tradition, which has virtually disappeared from contemporary Western culture, hospitality is seen as one of the pillars of morality upon which the universe stands. When guests or hosts violate the obligations to each other, the whole world shakes and retribution follows."
Amal Barkouki-Winter is a psychologist and a founding member of the Arab American Institute’s National Policy Council. Miriam Schulman is the editor of Issues in Ethics.
This article was originally published in Issues in Ethics - V. 11, N. 1 Winter 2000.
Koenig, John. New Testament Hospitality. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.
Miller, William T. Mysterious Encounters at Mamre and Jabbok. Chico, California: Scholars Press, 1984.
Walzer, Michael. Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. New York: Basic Books, 1983.