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What was the Prophet's (saw) message at the start of Islam?

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Islamic researcher, graduated from Al-Azhar University, Islamic Studies in the English language. I also studied at Temple University in the US.
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In a Nutshell:
The Prophet's message at the beginning of Islam was calling for a trajectory that combined the theological, religious and divine with the political, social and institutional, enabling the reorientation of Quraysh's Meccan society, followed by a call to other nations as part of a larger process of unifying mankind. This is evidenced across many early narrations (ahadith).


The Message

The Prophet's message can be traced through all of the evidence's relating to the dawa people received in the Meccan period. they expose a consistent pattern, there the Prophet (saw) was targeting the combination of two theses, the theological thesis to 'serve Allah alone' and a social thesis to 'apply these rules to structure, regulate and govern society'.

The Prophet (saw) combined these two theses when he first called people to Islam. One of the early verses commanded:

وَأَنذِرْ عَشِيرَتَكَ الْأَقْرَبِينَ
"And warn, (O Muhammad), your closest kindred (clan)." (Qur'an 26:214)

The Prophet (saw) started his mission with a collective address. He asked Ali (ra) to prepare a banquet and invite the leading figures of his clan (Banu Abd al-Muttalib). On the first two attempts, the attendees left before the Prophet could address them. He invited them again and after eating was able to address them, saying:

ِ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 Banu Abd al-Muttalib, I, indeed, don't know of any Arab person who came to his people with a notion better than I come with.
I come 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 at-Tabari, Vol. 2, p. 322, Ibn al-Athir, al-Kamil fi at-Tarikh, Vol. 1, p. 259)

In this address, he combined the benefits of 'this world' (temporal and social) with the benefits of 'the Hereafter' (theological and eternal). He invited them to submit themselves to Allah, implement, support and protect his deen as he conveyed it to the world. The audience for this were naturally the tribal leaders and influentials who had the ability to reorient society.

Some days later, Afif ibn Yahya (ra), a trader, attended Mecca during the Hajj period to trade with Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib (ra), the uncle of the Prophet (saw). Abbas was one of the banquet attendees. While they were discussing, they saw a man come out of a tent, face the Ka'ba and start praying. Then a woman came out, stood behind him and prayed. Then a boy came, stood to his right and started praying. One version of the hadith states Afif (ra) questioned Abbas (ra) about this, as it did not seem familiar. Abbas (ra) reported:

هَذَا مُحَمَّدُ بْن عَبْدِ اللهِ يَزْعُمُ أَنَّ اللهَ أَرْسَلَهُ وَأَنَّ كُنُوزَ كِسْرَى وَقَيْصَرَ سَتُفْتَحُ عَلَيْهِ...
فَلَيْتَنِي كُنْتُ آمَنْتُ يَوْمَئِذٍ فَكُنْتُ أكَوَنِّ رَابِعًا
"The man was Muhammad ibn Abdullah, his nephew, who believed Allah had sent him as a Messenger and the treasures of the emperors of Rome and Persia would be opened for him … Afif (ra) later said he wished he believed that day, as he would have been the fourth in Islam (after the Prophet, Khadijah and Ali)." (Ibn Ishaq, as-Seera wa al-Maghazi, pp. 137-138)

The point here is Abu Bakr (ra) and the other companions had not yet embraced Islam. Abbas who had attended the banquet, understood the prophet's (saw) message as social, political and theological in nature, with all characterising his new deen.

The Prophet (saw) continued his call proactively targetting elites of tribal societies across Arabia for several years and educating any converts who heard about this call and believed him. Ten years later, the message remained the same, without change or development as would be expected of a divine call.

Targetting the Arab Tribes

The only change was the audience; the Prophet (saw) began targetting other tribes seeking their mana'ah (protection) and nusrah (support). This commenced after the stubbornness of Quraysh and their followers and the death of his uncle Abu Talib who had provided him with protection in Mecca.

The Prophet (saw) used to be accompanied by his uncle al-Abbas, Abu Bakr or Ali (ra) who would guide him to the appropriate Arabian tribes, based on their influence and strength. The Prophet (saw) visited them in their homes and marketplaces during the Hajj seasons.

The Prophet (saw) used to ask the tribe about social, political and war related issues, the ability and number of fighters, the protection they could provide, their forefathers, their reputations, their treaties, previous wars and so on to ensure they had the ability to defend Islam against its political enemies and were able to convey it.

This is the same message Abbas (ra) received days after the initiation of revelation, being delivered ten years later, as Rabi'ah (ra) narrated:

وَرَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ يَقِفُ عَلَى مَنَازِلِ الْقَبَائِلِ مِنْ الْعَرَبِ، فَيَقُولُ: يَا بَنِي فُلَانٍ، إنِّي رَسُولُ اللَّهِ إلَيْكُمْ، يَأْمُرُكُمْ أَنْ تَعْبُدُوا اللَّهَ وَلَا تُشْرِكُوا بِهِ شَيْئًا، وَأَنْ تَخْلَعُوا مَا تَعْبُدُونَ مِنْ دُونِهِ مِنْ هَذِهِ الْأَنْدَادِ، وَأَنْ تُؤْمِنُوا بِي، وَتُصَدِّقُوا بِي، وَتَمْنَعُونِي، حَتَّى أُبَيِّنَ عَنْ اللَّهِ مَا بَعَثَنِي بِهِ.
"The Prophet (saw) used to stand in front of the home of the Arabian tribes saying, 'O clan of so and so, I am the Messenger of Allah to you who orders you to worship and associate none with Him; to stop serving others besides Him; to believe and trust me as well as protecting me in order to convey the message Allah has sent me with.'" (Ibn Hisham, as-Serra al-Nabawiyah, p. 423, Darami, as-Seera al-Nabawiyah wa Tarikh al-Khulafa', Vol. 1, pp. 93-101, Suhili, al-Rawd al-Aneef, Vol. 4, p. 35-36)

Ibn Hiban narrated;

صَلَى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَم أَنْ يَعْرِضُ نَفْسَهُ فِي الْمَوَاسِمِ، إذَا كَانَتْ، عَلَى قَبَائِلِالْعَرَبِ يَدْعُوهُمْإلَى اللَّهِ، وَيُخْبِرُهُمْ أَنَّهُ نَبِيٌّ مُرْسَلٌ، وَيَسْأَلُهُمْ أَنْيُصَدِّقُوهُ وَيَمْنَعُوهُ

"The Prophet (saw) used to present himself to the tribes of Arabia calling them to serve only Allah and not to associate others with Him, to provide the Prophet (saw) with victory and believe in him." (Ibn Hiban ad-Darami, as-Seera al-Nabawiyah wa Tarikh al-Khulafa', Vol. 1, p. 102)

The universal change that would reach Persia and Rome which al-Abbas understood at the very beginning of Islam lasted for years.

In one incident, the Prophet was calling the tribal leaders to Islam, a tribe refused to protect the Prophet (saw) and his religion against the Rome and Persia and they accepted the responsibility of protection and support against the Arabian tribes. The Prophet (saw) however refused and told them within a few years you will inhabit Roman and Persian lands (the same message al-Abbas summarised for Afif). (Al-Asbahani, al-Mustakhraj, Vol. 1, pp. 73-74)

Ibn Kathir narrated when the Prophet (saw) called a tribe to the above message, they said:

وَلَعَلَّ هَذَا الْأَمْرَ الَّذِي تَدْعُونَا إِلَيْهِ مِمَّا تَكْرَهُهُ الْمُلُوكُ، فَأَمَّا مَا كَانَ مِمَّا يَلِي بِلَادَ الْعَرَبِ فَذَنْبُ صَاحِبِهِ مَغْفُورٌ، وَعُذْرُهُ مَقْبُولٌ، وَأَمَّا مَا كَانَ يَلِي بِلَادَ فَارِسَ فَذَنَبُ صَاحِبِهِ غَيْرُ مَغْفُورٍ، وَعُذْرُهُ غَيْرُ مَقْبُولٍ. فَإِنْ أَرَدْتَ أَنْ نَنْصُرَكَ وَنَمْنَعَكَ مِمَّا يَلِي الْعَرَبَ فَعَلْنَا. ... ثُمَّ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ: " أَرَأَيْتُمْ إِنْ لَمْ تَلْبَثُوا إِلَّا يَسِيرًا حَتَّى يَمْنَحَكُمُ اللَّهُ بِلَادَهُمْ وَأَمْوَالَهُمْ وَيُفْرِشَكُمْ بَنَاتِهِمْ أَتُسَبِّحُونَ اللَّهَ وَتُقَدِّسُونَهُ؟
"The kings may hate this message you invite us to.
(Meaning of translation) It is possible to protect you against the Arabian tribes as they are easy to deal with, but Persia is dangerous and we cannot protect and help you against them…
The Prophet (saw) replied, 'What do you think if I tell you that you will wait for a short period of time and Allah will give you their countries and wealth, and marry you with their women, will you praise Allah and serve him?'" (Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, Vol. 3, pp. 176-177)

The Prophet (saw) sometimes called for one of these theses separately, noted in multiple seera accounts. So, when non-influential individuals approached him, he told them about his message, asking them to believe in its truth. Given they had no political power or military force, that was all they could do.

For example, Abu Bakr (ra) heard rumours about Muhammad claiming to be a prophet so asked him about this. The Prophet (saw) explained Allah had ordained him as a prophet and presented the revelation to him and Abu Bakr believed him.

Ibn Ishaq narrated Abu Bakr (ra) came and asked him:

أَحَقٌ مَا تَقُولُ قُرَيْشٌ يا مُحَمَد مِنْ تَرْكِكَ آلِهَتَنا، وتَسْفِيهِكَ عُقُولَنَا وتَكْفِيرَكَ آبَاءَنَا؟
ُفَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم: يَا أَبَا بَكْر إِنْي رَسُولُ اللهِ ونَبِيِهِ، بَعَثَنِي لِأُبَلِغَ رِسَالتِهِ وَأَدْعُوكَ إَلَى اللهِ بالحَقِ، فو اللهِ إنه لَلحَقِ أدعوكَ، إِلى اللهِ يا أبا بَكْر، وَحْدَهُ لَا شَرِيكَ لَهُ، وَلا يُعْبَدُ غَيْرَه ...
فَأَسْلَمَ وكَفَرَ بالأصْنَامِ، وخَلَعَ الأنْدَادَ، وأقَرَّ بِحَقِ الإسْلامِ، ورَجَعَ أَبُو بَكْرٍ وهُوَ مُؤْمِن مُصًدِق

"Is what the Quraysh say true, O Muhammad, that you abandoned our gods, underestimated our mind and considered our fathers as infidels?
The Prophet (saw) replied, 'O Abu Bakr, I am the Messenger and the Prophet of Allah. He sent me to convey His Message and to call you to Allah with the truth.
By Allah, I invite you to the truth; i.e. Allah, O Abu Bakr. Allah (is the One) with no deities beside Him; no one is worthy of servitude except Him…
He then became a Muslim and rejected the idols and the so-called likes (of Allah). He testified the truth of Islam and returned (to the people) a firm believer and faithful." (Ibn Ishaq, as-Sira wa al-Maghazi, Vol. 1, p. 139)

It was also narrated he (saw) used to stand among the congregations during Hajj and say:

يا أَيُّها النّاسُ، قُولُوا لا إِلَهَ إِلّا الله تُفْلِحُوا، والنّاسُ مُجْتَمِعُونَ عَلَيهِ
"O people, say 'there is no God but Allah' and you will be successful. (the narrator said) People were surrounding him." (Ahmed 18610)

The Prophet (saw) even asked tribes to provide him with protection and support even if they disliked his message.

Asbahani narrated the Prophet used to say:

لا أُكْرِهُ أَحَدًا مِنْكُم عَلَى شَيءٍ، مَنْ رَضِي الذي أَدْعُو إليه قَبِلَهُ، ومَنْ كَرِهَهُ لم أُكْرِهْهُ، وإنَّما أُرِيدُ أَنْ تحْرُزُوني مِمَّا يُرَادُ بِي مِنَ القَتْلِ، فَتَحْرِزُونيِ حتَّى أُبَلِّغَ رِسَالَاتِ رَبِّي عَزَّ وَجَلَّ حتَّى يَقْضِي الله تَبَاركَ وتَعَالىَ لي ولمَنْ صَحِبَنِي بِمَا شَاءَ
"I would not compel any of you to accept something; rather whoever loves what I call for, he could accept and whoever dislikes it, I would not compel him (to accept).
I want you to protect me in conveying the message of my Lord (swt) until Allah accomplish for me and my followers what He wills." (Asbahani, al-Mustakhraj, Vol. 1, p. 72)

Banu Amir ibn Sa'sa'ah agreed to provide him with protection and victory (mana'ah and nusrah) while calling to Allah and his new deen, providing they took over leadership after him.

Ibn Hisham narrated their condition:

أَرَأَيْتَ إنْ نَحْنُ بَايَعْنَاكَ عَلَى أَمْرِكَ، ثُمَّ أَظْهَرَكَ اللَّهُ عَلَى مَنْ خَالَفَكَ، أَيَكُونُ لَنَا الْأَمْرُ مِنْ بَعْدِكَ؟
قَالَ: الْأَمْرُ إلَى اللَّهِ يَضَعُهُ حَيْثُ يَشَاءُ،
فَقَالَ لَهُ: أَفَتُهْدَفُ نَحُورُنَا لِلْعَرَبِ دُونَكَ، فَإِذَا أَظْهَرَكَ اللَّهُ كَانَ الْأَمْرُ لِغَيْرِنَا! لَا حَاجَةَ لَنَا بِأَمْرِكَ، فَأَبَوْا عَلَيْهِ
"What do you think if we gave you the bay'ah (oath) on your matter (the deen) then Allah gave you victory over your enemies, Will the leadership be ours after you?
The Prophet (saw) said: 'This matter is to Allah gives it to whomever He wills.'
They objected: 'Should we protect you - the act that may cost us our life - against the Arabs and when victory comes, others will take the leadership! We don't need your matter (deen)'.
And they rejected him." (Ibn Hisham, Vol. 1, pp. 424-427)

In some cases, tribes would claim we have no mana'ah and we could not afford to fight the Arabs, Persians and Romans, so the Prophet and Abu Bakr would leave them.

Once the Prophet (saw) met such people, leaving them without even presenting Islam nor himself. When leaving, people asked him:

قَالُوا: وَمَنْ أَنْتَ؟ قَالَ: أَنَا رَسُولُ اللَّهِ. ثُمَّ انْطَلَقَ
"They asked, 'And who are you?' The Prophet (saw) replied, 'I am the Messenger of Allah.' Then he departed." (Ibn Kathir, as-Seera al-Nabawiyah, Vol. 2, p. 160, Darami, as-Seera al-Nabawiyyah)

This gives the impression that the political authority over society is critical to manage, regulate and shape the lives of its members. The Prophet (saw) was about to leave one tribe without even introducing himself when he found they lacked political authority and power. This does not mean they were not important, rather they were not the target during this early stage.

At the end of the Meccan phase, and before the establishment of the Islamic state in Medina, the Prophet (saw) was very clear, combining both. The Ansar when asking him about the terms of the bay'ah, he combined both.

All of the terms combined the theological and divine instruction, to be politically applied in the society they lived in, allowing individuals to live by them.

The message from the beginning, was clear in its trajectory... social dominance.

Conclusion

The Prophet's message at the beginning of Islam was calling for a trajectory that combined the theological, religious and divine with the political, social and institutional, enabling the reorientation of Quraysh's Meccan society. This was to be followed by a call to other nations as part of a larger process of unifying mankind. This is evidenced across many narrations (ahadith) appearing across the twelve years of his call in Mecca.

References

Ibn al-Athir, al-Kamil fi at-Tarikh
Tabari, Tarikh at-Tabari
Ibn Ishaq, as-Siyar wa al-Maghazi
Ibn Hisham, as-Serra al-Nabawiyah
Darami, as-Seera al-Nabawiyah wa Tarikh al-Khulafa
Suhili, al-Rawd al-Aneef
Al-Asbahani, al-Mustakhraj
Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah
Ibn Kathir, as-Seerah al-Nabawiyah


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