“The word mehmani means hospitality. When one makes a private audience with the Imam, it is called mehmani, and before that he presents a najwa (offering) to the Imam. There are different words in Persian for the hospitality, viz. mehman-dari, mehman-parwari and mehman nawazi. Thus the proper word mehmani means an entertainment, banquet, feast or hospitality.
The rapid growth of Islam brought large number of people into its fold, who stood in need of the Prophet’s guidance. In their assemblies they crowded and pressed upon each other in order to be able to sit nearest to the Prophet. On this juncture, the Koranic verse revealed to check crowding on the Prophet: “Oh you who believe! When you consult (najaytum) the Apostle, then forward an offering prior to your private audience (najwakum); that is better and purer for you” (58:12).
Abul Kassim b. Sallama Hibatullah writes in his al-Nasikh wal mansukh (Beirut, 1984, p. 90) that Ali bin Abu Talib is reported as saying, “The people were crowding upon the Prophet plying him with questions or clamouring with requests and he became anxious lest some of their questions when answered would lead to the imposition of fresh impositions binding upon them. So God revealed this verse (58:12). The people ceased crowding on the Prophet.”
Commenting the Koranic verse (58:12), John Burton curiously writes in The Sources of Islamic Law (Edinburgh, 1990, p. 190) that, “That in this matter, which for post-Mohammedan society involved no practical considerations, since the receipt of fees in advance of private audience with the Prophet being, apparently, a special prerogative and perquisite of the Prophetic office, would presumably have ceased on his death.” John Burton must bear in mind that the offering of najwa remained continued as a Prophetic tradition in his descent till now in the Ismailism. The concept of the mehmani is also given elsewhere in the Koran: “And some of the Bedouin Arabs believe in God and the last day, and look on their payments as pious gifts bringing them near to God and obtaining the prayer of the Prophet. Indeed, they bring them near (to Him): soon will Go admit them to His Mercy” (9:99)
It is gleaned from a tradition reported in Abu Daud that the people’s gatherings were usually held in the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, where he took his seat in the small courtyard. Since there was no distinguished place for him, the Companions later on raised a small platform of mud on which the Prophet would sit himself while the people sat in a circle on the other side. Later, Sahl relates that the Prophet sent message to a woman: “Tell your carpenter slave to make for me a pulpit of pieces of wood, on which I may sit” (Bukhari, 8:64). According to Tirmizi, each person got a place according to his rank, none being allowed to have an idea that some other persons had been more honourably treated. Thus, the Prophet used to come out one day specifically for the public (Ibn Majah, 3:22). With all his simplicity and humility, the Prophet’s audience used to be swayed with an air of enthralled reverence for his august personality. His discussion was not concerned with anything other than religion, morality and spiritual purification; yet people would sometimes ask most trivial questions, for instance, “O Messenger of God! What is the name of my father” or “I have lost my camel, where I am to fin it?” The Prophet did not like to answer such questions. According to Sirat-i Nabi (2:195) by Shibli Nomani, “The Prophet would also invite people to communicate to him the wishes and needs, who could not make a direct approach.” Abu Sa’id Khudri related that some women requested the Prophet to set aside a day for them because the men were taking all his time. In response to their request, the Prophet fixed one day for the women (Bukhari, 1:34).
The Prophet also accepted the mehmani as a guest at homes when invited. Salmah bin Aku’a relates that Talha bin Ubaidullah once purchased a well near a mountain and invited the Prophet and others on feast. The Prophet said, “O’Talha! You are very bounteous” (al-Majma’a, 1:296). Suhaib relates that once I prepared meat for the Prophet and called on him since the food was prepared for the Prophet alone. But he came to my house accompanied by the team. All of them ate to the fill but the food remained unfinished (al-Hilliyah, 1:154). Sa’d bin Ibadah narrates: Once I brought a pulp to the Prophet in a big vessel. He asked, “What is this O’Abu Thabit! I submitted, “I have today slaughtered a big camel and thought it better to present you its pulp.” He ate from it and prayed for my well-being. (Tabaqat, 4:12). Anas bin Malik narrates: Sa’d bin Ibadah once invited the Prophet on feast and carried dates and bread to him. He ate from it, and then he was presented a cup of milk. The Prophet drank it and said, “O’my God! Send down Your blessings upon the family of Sa’d bin Ibadah” (al-Kanz, 7:40). Abu Masud Ansari relates: A man from the Ansar called Abu Shuaib once ordered his slave to cut meat and cook food for the Prophet together with four more persons. Thus he invited the Prophet with four other persons. But one more person also joined them, which was also allowed in the hospitality (al-Muslim, 1:176). Anas bin Malik narrates: Once a tailor invited the Prophet on feast at his house. I also accompanied him. He served bread of barley with meat mixed with pumpkin. Anas states, “I saw the Prophet searching pumpkin in the cup. From that day on, I developed deep linking for pumpkin (Ibid. 2:180). Jabir bin Abdullah narrates: My mother prepared a special dish and asked me to invite the Prophet. I, then called on the Prophet and whispered in his ear that my mother had prepared a little food for you. Having heard this, the Prophet told his Companions, “Get up! Let us go.” Thus about fifty men came with him and sat at the door. He asked them to enter the house in a group of ten. In this way, all of them ate to the fill and the food remained intact (Sa’id al-Hathami, 8:308). Anas bin Malik reports: Once Abu Talha told to Umm Salim that he had heard the Prophet speaking in a weak tone and marked him to be hungry. Umm Salim gave me some breads of barley wrapped in a piece of cloth. I saw the Prophet sitting in the mosque with his Companions. The Prophet asked, “Have you been sent by Abu Talha?” I said, “Yes.” He again asked, “Has he sent you with an invitation?” I said, “Yes.” Thus, he left the place with the Companions. I came ahead of them and informed Abu Talha all that was going to happen. Abu Talha said in embarrassment, “O Umm Salim! The Prophet and his Companions have arrived and we do not have enough food for them.” He however came out to welcome the Prophet, who entered the house and said, “Bring me whatever you have.” Umm Salim presented some bread. He asked the bread to be broken into pieces. Umm Salim squeezed her leathern bottle over the pieces of bread and made them spicy. The Prophet blew over it, and asked the Companions in a group of ten to be allowed entry into the house. Thus all the guests came in forming a group of ten and ate to their fill. They were about seventy to eighty in number. (al-Muslim, 2:178). Ibn Masud reported that the Prophet liked the flesh of the fore-leg of a goat too much. Jabir bin Abdullah relates that once we invited the Prophet, and slaughtered a goat for him. At this, he said, “It appears that you people know that I like the meat” (al-Kanz, 4:37). Ibn Abbas narrated: The Prophet took food while sitting on the ground. He used to milk the goat himself and accepted the bread of barley offered to him by the slaves (Ibid.). Yahya bin Abu Kathir related that Sa’d bin Ubaidah used to send a tray full of Tharid (a kind of food made of dates etc.) to the Prophet daily. On each day it was sent to the house of the wife in whose apartment he happened to be (Ibid. 4:37). Ibn Busr relates that once the Prophet came to the house of his father. The Prophet came down from his mule and his father presented sattu (thrashed barley), cheese, ghee and smashed dates. The Prophet ate it. When the Prophet mounted on his mule, Busr held the reign of his mule and requested to pray for him. The Prophet prayed: “O’God! Bestow Thy blessings in their provisions, forgive them and show Thy compassion unto them” (al-Kanz, 8:47). Qazi Mohammad Saeed writes in Biographies of the Women Companions (Karachi, 1995, p. 218) that once Umm Haram invited the Prophet to a feast and displayed a great love and regard. He also had his mid-day nap at her house. On other occasion, a woman invited him to meals. After the meals he was leaving her house when she peeped out of the curtain and said, “O Apostle of God, do invoke blessings of God for me and my husband.” He did so and prayed: “May God shower His benedictions on you and your husband.”
The tradition of the mehmani originated in the period of the Prophet is still continued in his descent.
The followers of the Imam must keep in minds certain codes in the mehmani. Qadi Noman writes in Kitab al-Hima that, “If any one wants to visit the Imams, he should be neat and tidy. He should put on the best dress and use the best possible perfume that he can get. Let him exhibit the blessings of God, which He has conferred on him. If he has received some consideration at the hands of the Imams then it is his duty to make a demonstration of it by visiting them in a ceremonial dress. This is out of respect for the position they hold.” (p. 110)…”When we pay a visit to the Imams, we should take the necessary precaution in the matter of cleanliness and decency of dress. If we do not take this precaution, we shall be belittling the dignity of the Imams. He who thinks lightly of these things exposes himself to the wrath of God. For, to be clean on such occasions is traditional with us; nay, it is the necessary part of our religion. The Prophet say “God likes cleanliness and He hates clumsy fellows.” Hence, in all such matters, it is our duty to do what God likes us to do and to refrain from what He does not like. In short, we should observe the rules of decency when we visit the Imams who are the medium of our approach to God and on whom we look for intercession for us on the day of judgment.” (p. 111)… “If any one of us stands up before the Imam, he should adopt the position which he takes up at the time of standing for prayers. He should have a due regard for the dignity of the Imam and should fix his eyes on the ground. He should lower his arms and look up to him with the belief that to get a glimpse of the Imam is a sort of prayer. There is an authoritative tradition to this effect. He should not turn his eyes here and there. He should not make awkward movements. He should not play with his hands. He should either lower them down or place the right one on his left a little below his chest. He should be respectfully silent. He should speak only when the Imam asks him to speak or circumstances force him to speak or when the Imam intends to speak to him or when he is required to give some information to the Imam about some work which was assigned to him. When he speaks he should speak as long as the Imam is prepared to hear him. The moment the Imam turns away from him or stops talking to him, he should immediately stop unless the Imam, directly or indirectly, permits him to continue the topic. In that case he should say what he has to say otherwise he should shut his mouth and never utter a word without his permission.” (pp. 114-5… “The signs and symbols used by the Imams in the course of their conversation with us and hints dropped by them are a fathomless ocean. None can dive deep in it with the exception of those whose hearts have been illumined by God. They, too, cannot master all the subtleties in the conversation of the Imams.” (p. 116)… “When we request the Imam for worldly gain or for a lift in our spiritual career, we should never talk at random and we should see that in such requests we are not prompted by a craving for power or a desire to make a parade of our piety. The Prophet says “He who seeks the good of the next world with a view to improve his prospects here, will not enjoy the fragrance of paradise which is so powerful that it can be smelt from a distance of hundred years’ journey.” (p. 125).