People often assume Islam came for individual salvation - this is a general misconception.
The message of Islam from the very beginning focused on society, its structures and institutions and the role of individuals within such a society. This cannot be emphasised enough. This was not just the message of Islam, all previous prophets and messengers came with a similar focus; prophets coming to societies that accepted revelation, whilst messengers coming to societies hostile to their message.
The Messenger (saw) did not proactively call non-influential individuals to Islam, rather he called tribal leaders and elites who represented their societies.
The historical context of the Messenger (saw) was significantly different from ours. The core social units were tribes and clans, which unlike a modern family, were more akin to small autonomous states with their own elites, army, land, rights and so on.
When we review the books of seera, we find the Messenger (saw) did not target individuals, those with no major role or influence in the orientation of society, rather he focused on their elites and influentials who wielded this ability.
From the outset, when Allah revealed his words to the Messenger (saw), he ordered him to arise and warn, starting with his clan (asheerah), where they could live collectively by revelation, structure their community by it and provide the ongoing dawa to other societies and civilisations with protection and support.
وَأَنذِرْ عَشِيرَتَكَ الْأَقْرَبِينَ
"And warn, (O Muhammad), your closest kindred." (Qur'an 26:214)
The Messenger (saw) asked his cousin Ali (ra) to prepare a banquet and invite the leaders of his clan (Banu Abd al-Muttalib). Ali (ra) cooked the meal and invited about forty leading men. The men however left abruptly on the first occasion before the Prophet could address them. He invited them again and after eating said:
ِيا بَنِي عَبْدِ المُطَلِبْ، إنِي والله ما أَعْلَمُ شَابًا فِي العَرَبِ جاءَ قَوْمَهُ بأفْضَلَ مِمَا جِئتُكُم به، قَدْ جِئْتُكُم بخيّرِ الدُنيا والآخِرَة، وقَدْ أَمَرَنِي اللهُ تعالى أن أَدْعُوكُم إليهِ، فأيُكُم يؤازِرُنِي على هَذَا الأمر
"O Bani Abd al-Muttalib, I don't know of any Arab youth who came to his people with a notion better than I came with.
I came to you with the goodness of this world and the hereafter. Allah (swt) ordered me to call you to Him.
Who is going to support me regarding this matter. (Tabari, Tarikh al-Tabari, Vol. 2, p. 322, Ibn al-Athir, al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, Vol. 1, p. 259)
All those in attendance rejected his offer, arguing they were unable to undertake all out conflict with other tribes, although the Messenger's uncle was happy to provide him protection (ijaarah) should he wish to suggest this to the other clans.
He (saw) then went to mount Safa and called the clans of Quraysh collectively to Islam. Ibn Abbas narrated:
خَرَجَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم حَتَّى صَعِدَ الصَّفَا فَهَتَفَ " يَا صَبَاحَاهْ " . فَقَالُوا مَنْ هَذَا الَّذِي يَهْتِفُ قَالُوا مُحَمَّدٌ . فَاجْتَمَعُوا إِلَيْهِ فَقَالَ " يَا بَنِي فُلاَنٍ يَا بَنِي فُلاَنٍ يَا بَنِي فُلاَنٍ يَا بَنِي عَبْدِ مَنَافٍ يَا بَنِي عَبْدِ الْمُطَّلِبِ " فَاجْتَمَعُوا إِلَيْهِ فَقَالَ " أَرَأَيْتَكُمْ لَوْ أَخْبَرْتُكُمْ أَنَّ خَيْلاً تَخْرُجُ بِسَفْحِ هَذَا الْجَبَلِ أَكُنْتُمْ مُصَدِّقِيَّ " . قَالُوا مَا جَرَّبْنَا عَلَيْكَ كَذِبًا . قَالَ " فَإِنِّي نَذِيرٌ لَكُمْ بَيْنَ يَدَىْ عَذَابٍ شَدِيدٍ "
"The Messenger of Allah (saw) set off till he climbed Safa and called loudly: Be on your guard!
They said: Who is it calling aloud?
They said: Muhammad.
They gathered around him, and he said: O sons of so and so, O sons of so and so, O sons of Abd Manaf, O sons of Abd al-Muttalib, and they gathered around him.
He (the Messenger) said: If I were to inform you that there were horsemen emerging out of the foot of this mountain, would you believe me?
They said: We have not experienced any lie from you.
He (saw) said: Well, I am a warner to you before a severe torment. " (Muslim 208)
When this attempt to call the nation (qawm) also failed to gain support, the Messenger (saw) focused increasingly on the leaders. Most of the companions who converted in the early years of Islam heard rumours of the Messenger's discussions with tribal leaders, asking they collectively reorient society according to a new worldview based on the divine. He critiqued fundamental polytheistic values of Meccan society, ancestralism and socio-economic practices.
Those approaching the Messenger (saw) would be told of his message, revelation and the truth.
For example, Dimad (ra) heard rumours accusing the Messenger of being insane. He used to cure mad people so asked the Meccans to guide him to the Messenger (saw) seeking his quick recovery. The Messenger (saw) recited some verses and supplications in front of him, Dimad (ra) responded:
وَاللَّهِ لَقَدْ سَمِعْتُ قَوْلَ الْكَهَنَةِ، وَقَوْلَ السَّحَرَةِ، وَقَوْلَ الشُّعَرَاءِ، فَمَا سُمِعْتُ مِثْلَ هَؤُلَاءِ الْكَلِمَاتِ، فَهَلُمَّ يَدَكَ أُبَايِعْكَ عَلَى الْإِسْلَامِ. فَبَايَعَهُ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فَقَالَ لَهُ: وَعَلَى قَوْمِكَ؟ فَقَالَ: وَعَلَى قَوْمِي
"By Allah, I have heard the speech of clergymen, sorcerers and poets, but I have not heard similar words. Give me your hand to pledge allegiance (bay'ah) to you.
The Messenger (saw) took his bay'ah and said: 'Does this bay'ah include your tribe?'
He answered, 'Yes, it is the bay'ah of my tribe.'" (Ibn Kathir, al-Seerah al-Nabawiyyah, Vol. 1, p. 452)
An interesting part here is the last question "Does this bay'ah include your tribe?" because it along with many other evidences confirms the Messenger (saw) would focus his dawa to collectives, societies and communities and not individuals.
Other incidents also illustrate the social and collective nature of his call, the elites gathering at his uncle's deathbed complaining about him:
Abdullah bin Abbas (ra) narrates that when Abu Talib was about to leave the world, a group from the Quraysh came to see him. Among this group was Abu Jahl. They complained to Abu Talib about what his nephew was saying and doing, including insulting their gods. They expressed the wish that Abu Talib call for the Messenger and forbid him from what he was doing.
When Abu Talib sent for the Messenger, he promptly arrived and entered the house. When the Messenger (saw) came to the room, there remained a space for one person between the group of the Quraysh and Abu Talib.
Abu Jahl feared that if the Messenger occupied the empty space next to his uncle, Abu Talib may become more lenient. Therefore, he jumped to occupy the place, leaving no place for the Messenger near his uncle. For this reason, the Messenger (saw) was forced to sit near the door.
Addressing the Messenger (saw) Abu Talib said, 'Oh my nephew! Why are your people complaining that you insult their gods and tell them so many things?'
Upon this, those present started saying many things.
The Messenger (saw) finally addressed his uncle saying, "Oh my uncle! All I want these people to do is to accept a single statement that would make all the Arabs serve them and make all the non-Arabs pay them taxes."
Taken aback by this, they exclaimed, "Only one statement! By the oath of your father, we are prepared to accept ten such statements! What is this statement?"
Abu Talib also asked, "Oh my nephew! What is this statement?"
The Messenger (saw) replied, "Laa Ilaaha Illallah (There is none worthy of worship but Allah)."
Upon hearing this, they hastily stood up and brushing down their clothing, they said, "Does he make all the gods into one god... This is something very strange." (Ahmed, Nisa'i, Tirmidhi, Ibn Abi Hatim)
After ten years of repeated dawa in Mecca, the Messenger (saw) was faced with repeated rejection by Quraysh and following the death of his uncle Abu Talib, the Messenger (saw) started approaching tribesseeking their mana'ah (protection) and nusrah (support) for Islam.
His uncle al-Abbas, Abu Bakr and Ali (ra) would identify influential and tribes and visit them with him at their homes, marketplaces during the Hajj season.
Abu Bakr (ra) used to ask the tribes about their ancestors. Sometimes he would tell the Messenger (saw) certain tribes were useless because they had no respectable ancestors. Regarding one tribe he noted:
بِأَبِي أَنْتَ وَأُمّي، هَؤُلَاءِ غُرَرٌ فِي قَوْمِهِمْ
"O Prophet, they are with no respected clan among their people." (Sohili, al-Rawd al-Aneef, Vol. 4, p. 35)
They would also ask about the number of fighters, the protection they could provide, their forefathers, previous wars etc to evaluate their ability to defend and propagate Islam. If they were able to carry the responsibility, the Messenger (saw) would present the message of Islam and ask them for protection and support.
Ibn Hisham narrated:
فَقَالَ أَبُو بَكْرٍ كَيْفَ الْعَدَدُ فِيكُمْ ... كَيْفَ الْمَنَعَةُ فِيكُمْ؟ ... كَيْفَ الْحَرْبُ بَيْنَكُمْ وَبَيْنَ عَدُوّكُمْ؟… فَتَقَدّمَ رَسُولُ اللهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فَقَالَ: "أَدْعُو إلَى شَهَادَةِ أَنْ لَا إلَهَ إلّا اللهُ وَحْدَهُ لَا شَرِيكَ لَهُ وَأَنّي رَسُولُ اللهِ وَإِلَى أَنْ تُؤْوُونِي، وَتَنْصُرُونِي
"Abu Bakr asked (the tribe), 'what are your numbers? … Can you provide mana'ah? … How does war look like with your enemies?' … (after the Messenger was assured they could provide the mana'ah) … The Messenger (saw) then said, 'I call to testify there is no god but Allah, with no association with Him; I am the Messenger of Allah. I ask you to provide me with shelter and support.'" (Sohili, al-Rawd al-Aneef, Vol. 4, p. 36)
In some cases, people said we have no mana'ah and we could not afford to fight the Arabs, Persia and Rome, so the Messenger (saw) and Abu Bakr (ra) would leave them. Once the Messenger (saw) met such people, so he left them without presenting Islam nor himself. When leaving, people asked him:
قَالُوا: وَمَنْ أَنْتَ؟ قَالَ: أَنَا رَسُولُ اللَّهِ. ثُمَّ انْطَلَقَ
"And who are you?' He replied, 'I am the Messenger of Allah.' Then he departed." (Ibn Kathir, al-Seerah al-Nabawiyyah, Vol. 2, p. 160; Darami, al-Seerah al-Nabawiyyah)
This gives the impression that the message of Islam is for the societies. The Messenger was about to leave without even introducing himself when he found them unable to support his message. This did not mean they were not important, rather they were not the target during this stage.
Even the bay'ah pledged by the Ansar was not an individualistic bay'ah rather a bay'ah considered binding on all society:
فَقُلْنَا: يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ عَلَامَ نُبَايِعُكَ؟ قَالَ " تُبَايِعُونِي عَلَى السَّمْعِ وَالطَّاعَةِ فِي النَّشَاطِ وَالْكَسَلِ، وَالنَّفَقَةِ فِي الْعُسْرِ وَالْيُسْرِ، وَعَلَى الْأَمْرِ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ والنَّهي عَنِ الْمُنْكَرِ، وَأَنْ تقولوا في الله لا تخافوا فِي اللَّهِ لَوْمَةَ لَائِمٍ وَعَلَى أَنْ تَنْصُرُونِي فَتَمْنَعُونِي إِذَا قَدِمْتُ عَلَيْكُمْ مِمَّا تَمْنَعُونَ مِنْهُ أَنْفُسَكُمْ
"We (al-Ansar) said, 'O Messenger of Allah, for what are we to give bay'ah to you?'
He replied, 'Give me bay'ah for obedience at a time of vivacity and slackness;
affording expense in times of hardship and easiness;
enjoying the good and forbid the evil;
to be sincere to Allah and do not let the fear of blame of others stop you from carrying out the command of Allah;
to support and protect me when I join you in the manner you protect yourselves.'" (Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, Vol. 3, p. 248)
All of these elements demonstrates the dawa of the Messenger (saw) focused on societies through influential tribal leaders who could change their nation.
This does not mean the Messenger (saw) neglected or rejected non-influential individuals who accepted the truth of his message; rather his approach was to win over the influentials and elites of society, who could more readily ensure a transition for all of their followers.
Where individuals approached him, he responded to them, answered their questions and spent time teaching them and helping them build their personalities.
Tariq Ramadan summarises the issue as follows:
"The Quraysh's opposition was not merely to a man and a message. Indeed, if all of God's messengers have met with the same reeeptionthe same opposition and hatred from a considerable part of their own community-it is because the contents of wha they brought meant a radical revolution in the order of things in society" (In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad, p. 55)
Given the historical and social context, we can conclude the Messenger (saw) called societies to Islam, not individuals. When the Messenger (saw) called to Allah, he typically focused on the representatives and influentials of societies whether they be of Mecca, Taa'if, people of Yathrib or other tribal leaders.
We don't know of any non-influential individual, only leaders, influentials and elites, who were proactively called by the Messenger (saw) himself.
Darami, al-Seerah al-Nabawiyyah
Ibn al-Athir, al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh
Ibn Hisham, al-Seerah al-Nabawiyyah
Ibn Kathir, al-Seerah al-Nabawiyyah
Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah
Sohili, al-Rawd al-Aneef
Tabari, Tarikh al-Tabari
Tariq Ramadan, In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad
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