Give precedence to the elderly or to dignitaries, ahead of anyone else. After that, you may proceed with those on their right if you want to follow the practice of the Prophet (PBUH). The evidence supporting this manner in addition to the two Hadiths mentioned above, is illustrated in many Hadiths, some of which are cited below:
Imam Muslim reported in his Sahih in the Chapter on the Manners and Rules of Eating and Drinking, that Huzaifa bin Al-Yaman (RA) said: 'Whenever we were invited to a meal with the Messenger of Allah (PBUH), we would not reach the food with our hands before he reached for it.'
To emphasize the importance of these manners, Imam Al-Nawawi, in his book Riyad Al-Salihîn, cited a large collection of Hadith and devoted a whole chapter to the subject of 'Respecting Scholars, the Elderly and the Dignitaries. Giving them Precedence and the Best Seat. Acknowledging their Preeminence.' In the following paragraphs, I will reiterate some of these.
Allah said in the Quran: 'Are those equal, those who know and those who do not know? It is those who possess understanding that receive admonition.'
Imam Muslim reported that 'Uqba bin 'Amr Al-Badri Al-Ansari (RA) stated that the Prophet (PBUH) said: 'Those who are best at reciting the Quran should lead a group's prayer. If they are equal, then those most versed in the Sunnah should lead; if they are equal, then a person who migrated first [from Makka to Madina] should lead; if they had migrated at the same time, then an elder should lead.'
Imam Muslim reported that Ibn Mas'od said that the Prophet (PBUH) said: 'Let your wise and mature pray immediately behind me, then those who trail behind them, and then those who trail behind them.'
Imam Al-Bukhari reported that Jabir bin Abdullah (RA) said: 'After the battle of Uhud, the Prophet (PBUH) buried two martyrs in one grave. He asked, 'which one memorized more of the Quran?' Upon being told which it was, he laid him first facing Qibla.'
In addition, Muslim reported that Abdullah bin Omar (RA) stated that the Prophet (PBUH) said: 'I dreamt I was brushing my teeth with Sewak when two men approached me. I handed the Sewak to the younger but was instructed to hand it to the older. Accordingly, I handed it to the older.'
Imam Abu Dawood reported as a fair Hadith that Abu Müsa Al-Ash'ari (RA) stated that the Prophet (PBUH) said: 'Part of paying homage to Allah is to respect an elder whose hair has turned gray, or a [regular] reader of the Quran, or a just ruler.'
This desired behaviour towards elders is so important that the Prophet made it a part of respecting and venerating Allah. To ignore it is a gross misbehaviour. At its forefront comes respect and reverence of the just ruler. A revered poet enumerated a group of rules and stipulated that whoever broke these rules should be slapped on the neck. The eight rules are:
Disrespecting a grand ruler Entering a house without being invited to do so. Giving orders/directions at another's house. Taking an undeserved seat of honour. Insisting on discussing a topic with others. Interrupting two others. Asking charity from a person of low character. Seeking a favour from an enemy.
Abu Dawood and Al-Hakim reported as an authentic Hadith that Maimün bin Abi Shabîb recounted that a beggar stopped the Prophet's wife Aisha (RA) and she gave him a piece of dry bread. At another time, a properly-dressed, well-groomed man asked her for food. She let him sit and offered him a meal. When asked about that, she replied that the Prophet (PBUH) said: 'Treat people according to their status.'
Imam Al-Nawawi concluded this chapter by citing a Hadith as reported by Al-Bukhari and Muslim in which Samura bin Jundub (RA) said: 'Though I was a young child at the time of the Prophet, I used to listen to what he said and memorize it. Nothing prevents me from narrating my knowledge except the presence of men older than me.'
In conclusion, the Sunnah is to start according to the following order of merits: age, knowledge, social status, lineage, veterans of Jihad, generosity or similar virtues. Further, the Sunnah of hospitality, is to start with the most prominent, then to move to those on the right in order to harmonize the custom of starting on the right with the custom of starting with people of virtue.
Some people who misunderstand the real meaning of some texts of the Sunnah claim that the Sunnah is to start with those on your right whoever they are. They base this on Hadiths that stress starting from the right. But this is only true when the group is in all ways equal in character, status or age. However, if one of them is distinguished with a merit such as old age, then the Sunnah is to start with this person.
In his book Al-Bayan wa Tahsîl Imam Ibn Rushd said: 'As a rule, if the status of those present is equal, one should start on the right, as with every desirable act. However, if a scholar, an honourable person or an elder is present, the Sunnah is to start with such a person and then move to his or her right in a counter clockwise fashion. The Messenger of Allah was offered milk mixed with water while a Bedouin was sitting on his right, and to his left, was sitting Abu Bakr. The Prophet drank some and handed it over to the Bedouin saying, 'From the right, then to the right.'
Do not proceed to the left in an anti-clockwise fashion, even if the person to the left is of a higher status, unless those on the right agree to pass their turn. The Messenger (PBUH) was sitting with elders on his left and a young man on his right. He was brought a drink. After drinking, he asked the young man: 'Would you give me the permission to pass it to those? The boy answered: 'By Allah no. I would not favour anyone with my share of your drink.' The Prophet willingly put the drink in the child hand indicating that it is his right.
The Indian scholar, Al-Mubarakfuri, in his treatise on explaining Jami` Al-Tirmidhi elaborated on this. When commenting on the Hadith, 'the server should be the last one to drink,' Al-Mubarakfuri said, 'This indicates that the server should delay his drink until all the guests are served. The same applies when fruits are being served. The most notable should be served first, and then those of the right until everyone is served.'
Al-Minawi in his explanation of Sharh Al-Shamail commented on the previous Hadith of Ibn Abbas: 'This implies that the Sunnah is to continue serving drinks and food with those on the right of the most noble person even if that person happened to be less important than the person on the left.'
A Hadith in Sahih Muslim reinforces this rule of serving the elder or the most noble first, and then those on his right. Abdullah bin Bosur said, 'The Prophet visited my father and we served him with food made of dates and butter. Then he was brought dates, and he ate it and threw the pit using his middle and forefingers. Then he was brought a drink from which he drank and passed it to his right.'
The words 'he was brought a drink' clearly indicates that he was served first before those on his right since he was the noblest person present, and that then he passed it to those on his right. It indicates that they started with the Prophet out of respect and not because he asked for a drink. The preceding words 'he was brought dates' reinforces this understanding. It is very unlikely that the Prophet, while a guest, will ask his host for food and then for drink. It could be argued that this is a possibility. Indeed, it is a hypothetical possibility that lacks evidence or probability.
An important aspect of proper manners is that some people extend help and hospitality to strangers out of faith and pure humanity. If it becomes known that the person needing help has additional virtues such as being a scholar or notable person, they will go an extra step in their generosity and providing help. This is undoubtedly evidence of right instinct and faith which motivated such gestures.
Therefore, the general rule is to start from the right if those present are equal in merit. However, if there is a person who is well-known for a respectable trait, then start with that person.
If we were to follow the alleged rule that hosts ought to start with the person who happened to be on their right, then we could start with a young child, a servant, a driver, or a guard, at the expense of more prominent guests such as a dignitary, a revered scholar, a notable, a parent, a grandparent, or an uncle. Would it be acceptable by the Shari'a and its refined manners to forsake honouring and starting with persons of character, in favour of starting with a child, a servant, a driver and then proceed to persons of higher status? Also, it is possible that the ten persons or more are sitting on the right side before the most honourable person. To reach them at the end does not befit their status and may offend them. Islamic manners definitely do not accept this irregular conduct.
However, if someone asks for a drink, they have the right to the request before anybody else regardless of age or status, and the round should proceed with those on their right. If this person notices someone older or of higher status showing desire
for the drink, he, or she may willingly give up his, or her right in favour of that person. When preferring others to yourself, you have practiced the Islamic manner of unselfishness, and you will achieve great virtue, and honour and gain great rewards.
To respect, obey and give precedence to the elderly is an old and established Arab custom. Here I would like to quote in full the advice of Qais bin Asem AL-Tamimi, a great companion. On his death bed, Qais advised his children to make their elders/seniors their leaders from whom they will also receive valuable advice and wisdom all revolving around Islamic behaviour.
Qais bin Asem Al-Minqeri Al-Tamimi was one of the leaders of Tamim. Famous for his eloquent speeches, the Prophet gave him the title 'Master of the desert dwellers.' He was a wise and mild-mannered person. On the 9th year of Al-Hijra, he came to visit the
Prophet in Medina with a delegation of his tribe Bani Tamim. When the Prophet saw him he said 'This is the master of the desert dwellers.' He spent his last years in Basra where he died in the 20th year of Al-Hijra.
He was very patient and lenient. Ahnaf bin Qais, a famous Arab sage, was asked, 'Who taught you patience and leniency?' He answered, 'Qais bin Asem Al-Minqeri. Once I saw him sitting in his courtyard talking to his guests and his tribe. A man tied- up in ropes and a dead body were brought to him. He was told, 'This is your nephew. He killed your son.' Qais bin Asem remained calm and continued his conversation until he was finished. Then turning to his nephew, he said to him: 'You have done the worst. You have sinned toward your Lord, you harmed your relative, and murdered your cousin. You killed yourself and weakened your tribe.' He called another son and said to him, 'My son, go to your cousin and untie him, go to your brother and bury him, and go to his mother and give her a hundred camels to compensate her for the loss of her son.'
Al-Hasan Al-Basri who met him and studied at his hand said that when Qais bin Asem was dying, he called his thirty-three children, and advised them as follows:
'Oh my sons, fear Allah and remember what I will say, for no one will give you more sincere advice. When I die, make your seniors your leaders. Do not make your juniors your leaders for if you promote your seniors you will maintain your father's memory. Do not make your juniors your leaders for if you do so people will not only disrespect your seniors, but will look down at you. Do not wail on my death for I heard the Prophet forbidding wailing. Look after your wealth for it enlightens the generous and obviates the need to be mean. Do not beg people for that is the worst of wealth. Avoid bad traits which may please you once, but displease you many times."
Qais then called for his quiver, and asked his eldest son, Ali, to take out an arrow. He then asked him to break it which he did. He then asked him to break two arrows and this he did. He then asked his son to bundle thirty arrows with a tie and break them all, but his son could not. He said, 'My sons, you will be strong if united and weak if separated.' Then he composed the following poem:
Glory is what the truthful father built and which was maintained by the children. Glory, bravery and leniency are best adorned with chastity and generosity Thirty you are, my sons, in face of calamities and trouble You are like thirty arrows bundled in a strong tie It will not be broken, but once separated will be easily broken Your elders, your best mannered, should be your leaders Your young should be protected and nurtured until your youngest matures.
Importance Of Appearance
Distinct Muslim Personality
Cleanliness And Washing
Arriving From A Journey
Dress Properly With Family And Friends
Entering Or Leaving A House
Entering While Others Are Asleep
Announcing Your Presence
Seeking Permission To Enter
Knocking And Ringing
Answering 'Who Is It?'
The Manners Of Visiting
Keeping Appointments, Delays And Cancellation
Declining A Visit
Control Your Eyes
Removing Your Shoes
Choosing A Seat
A Visitor Is Not An Inspector
Timing Your Visit
Sitting Between Two Persons
The Host's Duties And The Guests' Rights
Stay In Touch
A Brief Advice To My Sisters
The Manners Of Conversation
Selecting Suitable Topics
Talk In A Suitable Tone
The Art Of Listening
Discussions And Debates
Swearing By Allah
Answering A Question
Respect And Favour The Elderly
The Elderly Are To Lead Prayers
Walking With The Elderly
The Elderly Are To Be Served First
Manners With Parents
Tell Your Family Your Whereabouts
Respect The Poor
Dealing With Non-muslims
Manners Of Eating
The Importance Of Eating Manners
Manners Of Eating
Manners Of Drinking
Gold And Silver Cutlery
Weddings Are Part Of The Prophet's Tradition
The Manners Of Attending Weddings
Visiting The Sick
Visiting A Patient
Praying For The Sick
The Length Of The Visit
The Manners Of Visiting A Patient
How The Ill Express Their Complaints
Breaking Unpleasant News
Expressing Condolences Is A Courtesy And A Duty
Expressing Condolences And Sympathy
Sending Flowers And Reading Quran During Funerals
A Final Word