It has been claimed the Prophet (saw) had two stages to his activities, a secret stage where he sought to secretly convert and prepare a group of people close to him and following this, a public phase of addressing all of society.
This view was adopted by many contemporary movements including the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ut-Tahrir amongst others. (Munir al-Ghadban, al-Manhaj al-Haraki li-Seera an-Nabawiyah) Most contemporary seerah writers adopted a similar position. But this overwhelming view appears mistaken, or limited, when we consider the seerah events more carefully.
The General View
The traditionally accepted view is Islam was discussed secretly for around three years until Allah ordered:
فَاصْدَعْ بِمَا تُؤْمَرُ وَأَعْرِضْ عَنِ الْمُشْرِكِينَ
"So declare what you are commanded and turn away from the polytheists." (Qur'an 15:94)
The Prophet (saw) then allegedly chose individuals who would accept his call, educated and prepared them, and after the verse was revealed, he initiated a public stage calling society to Islam with this group, in effect a socio-political struggle.
A statement of ibn Abbas and ibn Mas'ud (ra) narrated by the first-century tabi'i Abdullah ibn 'Ubaydah states:
مَازَالَ النَبِيُّ مُسْتَخْفِيًا حَتى نَزَلَتْ ... فَخَرَجَ هُوَ وأَصْحَابُه
"The Prophet (saw) continued hiding until this verse was revealed … so he went out with his companions." (Tabari, Tarikh at-Tabari, Vol. 17, p. 152)
The statement was reconsidered and amended by the second-century mufassir Muqatil ibn Sulayman who argued:
"أسَّرَ النُبُوَةَ وكَتَمَهَا سَنَتَيّن فَقَال الله- عز وجل- لنبيه- صَلَى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وسَلَم: "فَاصْدَعْ بِما تُؤْمَرُ".
"The Prophet (saw) kept his Prophethood as a secret and hid it. Allah then told His Prophet (saw) 'Declare what you are commanded'" (Muqatil, Tafseer Muqatil, Vol. 2, p. 473)
This view developed further as an early secret stage by the fourth-century jurist and muhadith Imam Abu al-Layth al-Samarqandi and others who argued:
وكَان رَسُولُ اللهِ... قَبْلَ نُزُولِ هَذِهِ الآيةِ مُسْتَخْفِيًا لا يُظْهِرُ شَيْئًا مِمَّا أَنْزِلَ اللهُ عَلَيْهِ، حَتَى نَزَلَتْ هَذِهِ الآية.
"Before this verse was revealed, the Prophet (saw) was hiding (his Prophethood), showing none of what had been revealed to him until this verse was revealed." (Samarqandi, Bahr al-'Ulum, Vol. 2, p. 263)
The seerah sources, however, cite multiple contradictory narrations, making many early historians doubt this narrative.
Ibn Ishaq and ibn Hisham noted their uncertainty of this stage:
وَكَانَ بَيْنَ مَا أَخْفَى رَسُولُ اللَّهِ... أَمْرَهُ وَاسْتَتَرَ بِهِ إلَى أَنْ أَمَرَهُ اللَّهُ تَعَالَى بِإِظْهَارِ دِينِهِ ثَلَاثَ سِنِينَ- فِيمَا بَلَغَنِي- مِنْ مَبْعَثِهِ.
"This happened between the period in which the Prophet hid his matter (revelation) and presented it secretly until Allah ordered him to publicly show his deen after three years - as we have been told - of his ba'thah" (Ibn Hisham as-Serra an-Nabawiyah, Vol. 1, p. 262, al-Ya'muri, 'Uyun al-Athar, Vol. 1, p. 117)
The authors highlight their doubt by adding "as we have been told" as early books of seera usually cited narrations only. Ibn Ishaq also in another place argued when discussed the issue of 'fasda' it is a mere probability the Prophet (saw) hid something:
وكَانَ رُبَمَا أَخْفَى الشَيّء
"He may have hidden something." (Ibn Ishaq, al-Siyar wa al-Maghazi, p. 154)
Which is still does not mean he hid his dawa nor his prophethood and it may refer to the fact that the Prophet (saw) secretly taught the companions (ra).
Prophetic Dawa was Never Secret
Seerah narrations, however, suggest the Prophet's (saw) call was public from the outset.
Most early converts heard rumours of his discussions with tribal leaders asking for a reorientation of society based on a new worldview.
After reading almost every narration in the books of seerah I would say there is no narration where the Prophet (saw) proactively initiated dawa with non-influential individuals, rather his focus was with tribal leaders and influential people in Mecca. All the early companions proactively approached the Prophet (saw) after hearing of his message.
The companion Abu Bakr (ra) heard rumours Muhammad (saw) was openly claiming prophethood after returning from a business trip. Ibn Ishaq narrated Abu Bakr asked the Prophet about his insults against the idols and ancestors, which had become public. (Ibn Ishaq, as-Siyar wa al-Maghazi, Vol. 1, p. 139)
Within days of revelation, the Prophet (saw) would pray publicly in front of the Ka'ba with Ali and Khadijah (ra). Afif bin Yahaya, a trader visiting Mecca, on seeing the unusual prayer asked al-Abbas about it who told him the man was his nephew who claimed God had sent him as a Messenger and the treasures of the emperors of Rome and Persia would be opened for him and his followers. (Ibn Ishaq, as-Seera wa al-Maghazi, pp. 137-138)
Abu Dharr al-Ghifari (ra) an early convert, lived hundreds of miles from Mecca. He too heard rumours about the appearance of a prophet in Mecca. He sent a man to the Prophet (saw) seeking answers, but the responses the man brought did not satisfy him so he visited the Prophet (saw) himself, subsequently embracing Islam.
Amr ibn Abbasah al-Sullami, a non-Meccan Arab, heard of a prophet, met with him and embraced Islam. An interesting part of his conversion narrates:
لَقَد رأَيّتُنِي رُبْعَ الإسْلَام مَعَ رَسولِ اللهِ لَمْ يُسْلِمْ قَبْلِي إلا النَبِي - صلى الله عليه وسلم- وأبَو بَكْرٍ ، وبِلَال
"I was a quarter of Islam with the Messenger of Allah (saw). No one had converted before me except the Prophet (saw), Abu Bakr and Bilal." (Dhahabi, Siyah A'lam an-Nubala', Vol. 2, p. 458)
فسَأَلْتُ عَنْهُ فَوَجَدْتُهُ مُسْتَخْفِيًا، وَوَجَدْتُ قُرَيْشًا عَلَيهِ أَشِداء
"I searched for him and I found him hiding and I found Quraysh fiercely (opposing) him." (Ibid)
It is also supposed, when Umar (ra) embraced Islam, the public stage was initiated however Muslims had been migrating to Abyssinia because Meccans were persecuting them. Umar was not yet a Muslim when this migration took place and, therefore, the public phase had not commenced. Who told the Meccans about Islam if the call was a secret?
Even Umar's (ra) embracing of Islam was due to the disputes arising from the Prophet's (saw) call leading him to try to kill him.
أُرِيدُ مُحَمَّدًا هَذَا الصَّابِئَ، الَّذِي فَرَّقَ أَمْرَ قُرَيْشٍ، وَسَفَّهُ أَحْلَامَهَا، وَعَابَ دِينَهَا، وَسَبَّ آلِهَتَهَا، فَأَقْتُلَهُ
"I want Muhammad, this apostate, who has divided the public opinion of Quraysh, underestimated its goals, criticised its deen and insulted its gods, so I will kill him." (Ibn Ishaq, as-Seera an-Nabawiyah, Vol. 1, p. 344, Ibn Kathir as-Seera an-Nabawiyah, Vol. 2, p. 34)
Earlier, six companions as well as the Prophet practised and discussed Islam openly, resulting in a backlash from the Meccans. Abdullah ibn Mas'ud (ra) narrated:
"The first people to declare their Islam publicly were seven: The Messenger of Allah, Abu Bakr, Ammar and his mother Sumayyah, Suhaib, Bilal and Miqdad.
With regard to the Messenger of Allah, Allah protected him through his paternal uncle Abu Talib. Abu Bakr was protected through his people. As for the rest, the Meccans made them wear coats of chain-mail and exposed them to the intense heat of the sun." (Ibn Majah 150, Ibn Abd al-Barr, ad-Durar fi Ikhtisar al-Maghazi wa as-Siyar, pp. 41-42)
In some narrations, the Meccans were mocking the Muslims about their call, indicating their awareness of the revelation and its message. Bayhaqi narrated a man called al-Aswad Ibn Abd al-Muttalib and his friends were mocking the Prophet (saw) and his companions whenever they saw them, saying:
َقد جَاءَكُم مُلُوكَ الأرضِ ومَن يَغْلِبُ على كُنُوزِ كِسْرَى وقَيّصَر ثم يَمْكُّونّ ويُصَفِّرُون
"The kings of the earth have come who will own the treasures of Persia and Rome. They would whistle through their fingers (in mockery)." (Bayhaqi, Dala'il an-Nubuwah, Vol. 2, p. 317)
Others would mock the Prophet (saw) saying:
هَذَا الَّذِي يزْعم أَنه نَبِي وَمَعَهُ جِبْرِيل
"This is the one who claims he is a prophet and Gabriel with him." (Suyuti, ad-Durr al-Manthur, Vol. 5, p. 102)
Qadi Abd al-Jabar noted:
ُوكانت قُرَيْشَ والعَربَ قَدْ تَفَرَغُوا لِمَكَارِهِهِ وتَرَكُوا كُلّ شُغْلٍ ... فَكَانَتْ خَمْسَةٌ مِنْ مَشْيّخَةِ قريشٍ قد تَفَرَغُوا للاسْتِهْزَاءِ والمَنْعِ في المَوَاسِمِ والمَحَافِلِ من أن يُسْتَمَعَ مِنْه
"Quraysh and the Arabs dedicated themselves only to abuse him and left all the other works. Five Quraysh leaders encouraged mockery and preventing the rituals (of hajj) and conference (of trade) to listen to him." (Qadi Abd al-Jabar, Tathbeet Dala'il an-Nubuwah, Vol. 2, p. 344)
Interestingly, the early suras revealed to the Prophet, such as al-Mudathir, al-Muzamil, al-Qamar, al-Qalam, al-Masad and others, including parts of discussion of the state and response of the leaders' critiques and mockery.
Within days, the Prophet's call spread hundreds of miles outside Mecca contradicting the notion of an early secret phase.
All these events suggest the Prophet's (saw) call from the outset was public.
It seems when the Prophet's (saw) call failed, a verse ordered a change in approach, or more specifically 'a refocus' seeking to win over the Quraysh's support base.
When Umar embraced Islam, he asked the Prophet (saw):
"O Messenger of Allah, are not we the right (party) in either state of death and life?
The Prophet (saw) replied, 'Yes, by Him in Whose Hand my soul is, we are the right party in either state, i.e. life and death.'
Umar replied, 'So, why do we hide? Who sent you with Truth, we will go out.'
We went out in two rows; Hamza led one and I led the other. " (Ibn al-Jawzi, Safwat as-Safwah, Vol. 1, p. 103, Muhib ad-Deen at-Tabari, ar-Riyad an-Nadirah, Vol. 2. P. 272, al-Halabi, as-Seera al-Halabiyah, Vol. 1, p. 472)
It seems there was secrecy in some activity – albeit not in his public call. This secrecy appears to be in relation to his followers. The Prophet used to meet the companions in Dar al-Arqam, the home of one of his younger companions. From reviewing the narrations, this was to educate and strengthen the early Muslims without pressure and ridicule of society.
This secret preparation is visible in many stories of the companions' conversion when they approached the Prophet (saw) they approached him, he asked them to hide their faith.
This notion was supported by A'isha (ra) who narrated regarding the early dawa of the Prophet (saw) that he practised dawa openly (in terms of inviting people) and secretly (in terms of teaching, preparing and protecting the followers):
ثُمَّ دَعَا رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ إِلَى الإِسْلامِ سِرًّا وَجَهْرًا
"Then the Messenger of Allah called to Islam secretly and publicly." (Musanaf ibn Abd ar-Razaq 9418, Ibn Abd al-Barr, ad-Durar, p. 36)
Many contemporary scholars noticed this anomaly between the public and secret actions. For example, the founder and the general director of the faculty of Dawa in al-Azhar University Prof. Ahmed Ghalush:
ِأنّ الجَهْرَ الأَوَلَ كانَ خَاصًا بِالدَعْوَةِ يقُومُ بِهِ رَسُولُ اللهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم عَلَانِيّةً، بَيْنَما الجَهْرُ الثَانِي صَارَ عَامًّا يَقُومُ بِهِ الرَسُولُ ... وَأصْحَابِهِ القَادِرُونَ على التَبْلِيغ.
"The first public dawa was regarding the Messenger of Allah (saw) publicly, but the second public dawa was done by the Messenger of Allah (saw) and his companions who were capable of conveying it." (Ahmed Ghalush, as-Seera an-Nabawiyah wa ad-Dawa fi al-'Ahd al-Maki, pp. 485-488)
The Palestinian politician and writer, Muhammad Izzat Darwaza said in his tafseer:
عَلَنِيَّة الدَعْوَةِ في بِدْئِهًا: والمَشْهَدُ الذي احْتَوَتْهُ الآيَاتِ والأَحَادِيثِ المَرْوِيّة في صَدَدِهِ يَدُلّ بِقُوةٍ على أنّ الدَعْوَة بَدَأَتْ عَلَنِيّةً خِلَافًا لِمَا رُوِيّ أو لِمَا هُو مُسْتَقِرٌ فِي الذِهْن ... إنّ النَبي صلّى الله ًعليه وسلّم- حِمَايَةً لأَصْحَابِهِ- كَان يَلْزَم ُالحَذَرَ والتَحَّفُظَ في الصَلاةِ والاجْتِمَاعِ بِهِم. غير أن دَعْوَتَهُ لِلنَّاسِ كانت وَظَلَّتْ جَهْرَةً.
"Publicity of dawa at its initiation: the events appear in the verse and narrations in regarding this stage strongly prove dawa started publicly contrary to what has been narrated or stable mindset.
(He then added similar seera events mentioned above). …
For the sake of the protection of companions, the Prophet (saw) was cautiously praying and meeting them, but his dawa was and still public." (Darwaza, at-Tafseer al-Hadith, Vol. 1, p. 322-323)
The founder of Salafi Wahabi movement Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahab said after the revelation of sura al-Mudathir - the second revelation - the Prophet (saw) approached people openly and secretly:
فإنه لما أُنْزِلَ عَلَيْهِ: (يَا أَيُّهَا الْمُدَّثِّرُ - قُمْ فَأَنْذِرْ - وَرَبَّكَ فَكَبِّرْ - وَثِيَابَكَ فَطَهِّرْ( شَمَّرَ عَنْ سَاقِ الدَّعْوَةِ، وَقَامَ فِي ذَاتِ اللَّهِ أَتَمَّ قِيَامٍ، وَدَعَا إِلَى اللَّهِ لَيْلًا ونَهَارًا، سِرًا وجِهَارًا
"When the sura al-Mudathir was revealed, the Prophet (saw) started the dawa immediately and perfectly accomplished the mission of Allah: he called to Allah day and night and publicly and secretly." (Abd al-Wahab, Mukhtasar Zad al-Ma'ad, p. 96)
What interested me more was a statement of the contemporary famous historian Mubarkapuri, whose work in seera is internationally widespread. He argued the Prophet (saw) did not do secret dawa and the secrecy was for the companions, not the Prophet (saw).
فكان عَامَةُ الصَحَابَةَ يُخْفُونَ إسْلَامَهُم وعِبَادَتَهُم ودَعْوَتُهُم واجْتِمَاعَهُم، أَمَّا رَسولَ اللهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم فَكَانَ يَجْهَرُ بِالدَعْوَةِ والعِبَادَةِ بَيْنَ ظَهْرَانَيّ المُشْرِكِينَ، لا يَصْرِفُهُ عن ذلك شَيء، ولكن كان يَجْتَمِعُ مَعَ المُسْلِمِينَ سِرًّا؛ نَظَرًا لِصًالِحِهم وصَالِح الإسْلامِ
"The majority of the companions used to hide their Islam, worship, prayer and meetings, but the Prophet (saw) was doing public dawa and worship openly in front of the polytheist with no hindrance.
But he used to meet with Muslims secretly for their, and Islam benefit." (Mubarkafuri, al-Raheeq al-Makhtum, p. 80)
It sometimes appears confusing for some historians, for example, Azhari scholar Professor Ra'uf Shalabi argued in one place of his book that the first stage was secret:
ِوهَذَا دَوْرُ العَمَلِ السِرِيّ واخْتِيَارِ الرَعِيلِ الأوَلِ وإعْدَادُ القِيَادَة
"This is the stage of secret work and choosing the founding followers and preparing them for leading." (Ra'uf Shalabi, al-Da'wa al-Islamiyah fi al-'Ahd al-Maki, p. 293)
But he in another place argued the contrary:
ِوفِي هَذَا الجَو مِنَ العَرْضِ تَبْدُو هُنَا ظَاهِرةً واضِحَةً, هِيّ أنّ الدَعْوَةَ لمْ تَكُنْ سِرِيّةً كَمَا ذَكَرَ ذلك جُلَةَ الكَاتِبَينَ فِي التَاريخِ والسِيرَة
"In this historical show, a phenomenon appears very clear that the dawa was not secret as most of writers of history and seera argue." (Ibid, p. 208)
We may argue as a way of reconciliation, he referred to the first statement to the fact that the Prophet (saw) secretly thaught the companions.
A leading contemporary jurist Muhammad Abu Zahrah also argues there was no secret dawa in regard to the Prophet (saw) but a secret preformation of rituals for the companions:
ِالاسْتِخْفاءُ فِي هَذِهِ الفَتْرَةِ ليْسَ استِخْفَاءً بالدَعْوَة
"Secrecy in this period was not secrecy in dawa" (Abu Zahrah, Khatam al-Nabyeen, Vol. 1, p. 324)
Similarly, Dr Muhammad Heekal in his doctorate reached the same conclusion as this answer. (Heekal, al-Jihad wa al-Qital fi al-Siyasah al-Shar'iyah, Vol. 1, pp. 380-388)
The Prophet's (saw) call was public from the outset focusing on the elites.
Secrecy was maintained when preparing his group of companions who emerged publicly in year three focusing on the masses.
Muqatil, Tafseer Muqatil;
Ibn Ishaq, as-Siyar wa al-Maghazi;
Ibn Hisham as-Serra an-Nabawiyah;
Dhahabi, Siyah A'lam an-Nubala';
Samarqandi, Bahr al-'Ulum;
al-Ya'muri, 'Uyun al-Athar;
Tabarani, al-Mu'jam al-Kabir;
Ibn Kathir, Tafseer al-Qur'an al-'Adheem;
Ibn Kathir as-Seera an-Nabawiyah;
Tabari, Tarikh at-Tabari;
Ibn al-Athir, Asad al-Ghabah;
Ibn Abd al-Barr, ad-Durar fi Ikhtisar al-Maghazi wa as-Siyar;
Ibn Hajar, al-Isabah fi Tameez as-Sahabah;
Ibn al-Jawzi, Safwat as-Safwah;
Muhib ad-Deen at-Tabari, ar-Riyad an-Nadirah
Bayhaqi, Dala'il an-Nubuwah;
Qadi Abd al-Jabar, Tathbeet Dala'il an-Nubuwah;
Al-Halabi, as-Seera al-Halabiyah.
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