In the first place, we would like to state the fact that Islam cares much for the relation between Muslims. It makes it clear that Muslims, on meeting one another, should greet one another saying ‘As-Salam `Alaykum’. In his Hadith, the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, says: “Never will you enter Paradise until you are true believers. You will never be true believers until you show love to one another. Shall I inform you of something which, once you do it, will disseminate love amongst you, exchange ‘Salam’.” (Abu Daud)
Islam also shows that certain forms of greeting are to be avoided so as to keep the Muslim creed intact from Shirk. Among these forms is bowing down as it is meant for the very purpose of glorification. But what if the intention behind bowing is just greeting as is the case with people in different societies where it’s considered a form of disrespect for the young to stand erect while greeting the elders? The same applies to actors taking their bow while on stage; is it still Haram (prohibited)?
In answering this, we have to bear in mind that Islam did not come to destroy or eradicate all people’s cultures and traditions save those that totally contravene the teachings of Islam and its principles. So it made it clear right from its inception that servitude and worship should not be for anyone save Almighty Allah; all men are equal before the Lord; no one has advantage over others save by piety…etc. These are some of the noble principles of Islam that guide man in his social interaction with his fellow men. But at the same time, Islam pays due respect to some fine traditions that do not collide with its teachings, and are kept within bound and limit as not to take any form of Shirk . Thus, we can say that if bowing is just to show respect, just as the case between the young and the elders, between students and teachers, without involving any sign of sacredness or any form of inequality, there is nothing wrong in it. This is further clarified in the following fatwa issued by Sheikh `Atiyya Saqr, former Head of Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee:
“At-Tirmidhi quoted Ibn Malik, may Allah be pleased with him, as saying: “Once a man said to the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him: ‘O Allah’s Messenger! When a man meets his brother or friend, is he allowed to bow to him (in a show of extraordinary veneration)?’ The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said: ‘No’. The man asked: ‘Then should he embrace and kiss him?’ The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said: ‘No’ and the man asked again: ‘Should he just shake hands with him?’ The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said: ‘Yes.’” (Musnad Ahmad)
In his book ‘Al Adab Al Kubra’ (Elevated Manners), Abu Al-Ma`ali said that bowing as a form of showing mutual respect is permissible. Other people draw analogy between it and the Angels‘ bowing before Adam, peace be upon him. Also when Ibn `Umar went to the Levant, the People of the Book there bowed to him as a matter of respect, and he did not forbid them from doing so. Instead he said that it was a form of dignifying Muslims.
“Permissibility here means that it is not prohibited. But this does not negate its being blameworthy”, states As-Safarini in his book ‘Ghiza’ul-Albab’ (Cultivation of the Mind), vo.1:286.
From the above mentioned Hadith we understand that bowing to greet someone is somewhat detestable, that we can say it is blameworthy, because it is unfit for a Muslim who truly believes in Allah and abides by His teachings.
However, this Hukm (ruling) depends on the intention of the person himself. For example, if the bows are made just to show gratefulness to a person who deserves them, then there is nothing wrong in this. But there shouldn’t be any exaggeration. Bowing is also a method of showing courtesy to kings and sultans.
All in all, when an actor takes his bow, he does not usually intend anything else than acknowledging applause and admiration accorded him by the audience. This makes the ruling somehow light for him.”