When the Messenger (saw) first received revelation, he focused called his nation, his people of Quraysh, to accept Islam and reorient their way of life. Allah commanded him to focus on the tribal leaders, those whom society implicitly trusted, following them even if they changed their collective way of life. He thus did not proactively call individuals, who could personally agree with him, whilst society still continued with their existing way of life. His mission was to change society, establish a civilisation, not change the faith of some individuals in a missionary sense.
Ibn Abbasah al-Sullami (ra) was one of the early companions to accept Islam. He had heard rumours a messenger had appeared in Mecca so visited the Messenger (saw) and believed in him. He wanted to stay but the Messenger (saw) was afraid for his safety so asked him to return to his homeland, joining him when he heard of the establishment of Islamic power.
Ibn Abbasah (ra) narrated:
كُنْتُ وَأَنَا فِي الْجَاهِلِيَّةِ أَظُنُّ أَنَّ النَّاسَ عَلَى ضَلاَلَةٍ وَأَنَّهُمْ لَيْسُوا عَلَى شَىْءٍ وَهُمْ يَعْبُدُونَ الأَوْثَانَ فَسَمِعْتُ بِرَجُلٍ بِمَكَّةَ يُخْبِرُ أَخْبَارًا فَقَعَدْتُ عَلَى رَاحِلَتِي فَقَدِمْتُ عَلَيْهِ فَإِذَا رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم مُسْتَخْفِيًا جُرَءَاءُ عَلَيْهِ قَوْمُهُ فَتَلَطَّفْتُ حَتَّى دَخَلْتُ عَلَيْهِ بِمَكَّةَ فَقُلْتُ لَهُ مَا أَنْتَ قَالَ " أَنَا نَبِيٌّ " . فَقُلْتُ وَمَا نَبِيٌّ قَالَ " أَرْسَلَنِي اللَّهُ " . فَقُلْتُ وَبِأَىِّ شَىْءٍ أَرْسَلَكَ قَالَ " أَرْسَلَنِي بِصِلَةِ الأَرْحَامِ وَكَسْرِ الأَوْثَانِ وَأَنْ يُوَحَّدَ اللَّهُ لاَ يُشْرَكُ بِهِ شَىْءٌ " . قُلْتُ لَهُ فَمَنْ مَعَكَ عَلَى هَذَا قَالَ " حُرٌّ وَعَبْدٌ " . قَالَ وَمَعَهُ يَوْمَئِذٍ أَبُو بَكْرٍ وَبِلاَلٌ مِمَّنْ آمَنَ بِهِ . فَقُلْتُ إِنِّي مُتَّبِعُكَ . قَالَ " إِنَّكَ لاَ تَسْتَطِيعُ ذَلِكَ يَوْمَكَ هَذَا أَلاَ تَرَى حَالِي وَحَالَ النَّاسِ وَلَكِنِ ارْجِعْ إِلَى أَهْلِكَ فَإِذَا سَمِعْتَ بِي قَدْ ظَهَرْتُ فَأْتِنِي " . قَالَ فَذَهَبْتُ إِلَى أَهْلِي وَقَدِمَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم الْمَدِينَةَ وَكُنْتُ فِي أَهْلِي فَجَعَلْتُ أَتَخَبَّرُ الأَخْبَارَ وَأَسْأَلُ النَّاسَ حِينَ قَدِمَ الْمَدِينَةَ حَتَّى قَدِمَ عَلَىَّ نَفَرٌ مِنْ أَهْلِ يَثْرِبَ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْمَدِينَةِ فَقُلْتُ مَا فَعَلَ هَذَا الرَّجُلُ الَّذِي قَدِمَ الْمَدِينَةَ فَقَالُوا النَّاسُ إِلَيْهِ سِرَاعٌ وَقَدْ أَرَادَ قَوْمُهُ قَتْلَهُ فَلَمْ يَسْتَطِيعُوا ذَلِكَ . فَقَدِمْتُ الْمَدِينَةَ فَدَخَلْتُ عَلَيْهِ
"In the state of the ignorance (before embracing Islam), I used to think the people were in error and they were not on anything (the right path) and served idols.
Meanwhile, I heard of a man in Mecca who was spreading a message; so I went to him.
The Messenger of Allah (saw) was at that time hiding as his nation had made life hard for him.
I adopted a friendly attitude (towards the Meccans and thus managed) to enter Mecca and go to him and I asked him: Who are you?
He said: I am a Messenger. I asked: Who is a Messenger? He said: (A Messenger in the sense) I have been sent by Allah.
I said: What is you have been sent with? He said: I have been sent to maintain familial ties, destroy all idols and to proclaim the oneness of Allah (in a manner that) nothing is to be associated with Him.
I said: Who is with you in this? He said: A free man and a slave.
He (the narrator) said: Abu Bakr and Bilal were there with him among those who had embraced Islam by that time. I said: I intend to follow you.
He said: During these days you would not be able to do so. Don't you see the (hard) condition under which I and (my) people are living? You better go back to your people and when you hear that I have been granted victory, you come to me.
So I went to my family. I was in my home when the Messenger of Allah (saw) came to Medina. I was among my people and used to seek news and ask people when he arrived in Medina.
Then a group of people belonging to Yathrib (Medina) came. I said (to them): How is that person getting on who has come to Medina?
They said: The people are hastening to him, while his people (the polytheists of Mecca) planned to kill him, but they could not do so.
I (on hearing it) came to Medina and went to him." (Muslim 1812)
For example, Imam Nawawi stated:
فَقَالَ لَا تَسْتَطِيعُ ذَلِكَ لِضَعْفِ شَوْكَةِ الْمُسْلِمِينَ وَنَخَافُ عَلَيْكَ مِنْ أَذَى كُفَّارِ قُرَيْشٍ ...
The Messenger (saw) said: ... Muslims are weak in authority and power and I am afraid the disbelievers of Quraysh would harm you.
(Nawawi, al-Minhaj fi Sharh Muslim, Vol. 6, p. 115)
Some writers and scholars misunderstood the statement of ibn Abbasah (ra) of following the Messenger (saw) and the Messenger's rejection of this. They thought the Messenger (saw) did not accept his Islam because at such an early point he was not inviting people outside of Mecca.
But this understanding is problematic because ibn Abbasah meant he wanted to live with the Messenger (saw) in his city but he refused because of Quraysh's responses.
Even when ibn Abbasah (ra) came to the Messenger (saw) in Medina, he asked the Messenger (saw) teach him the wudu and prayer and associated rituals - meaning the messenger had not told him of that nor asked he practice it, or if he had, he may have seen Muslims praying in Medina and wanted to learn how to do the same.
فَدَخَلْتُ عَلَيْهِ فَقُلْتُ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ أَتَعْرِفُنِي قَالَ " نَعَمْ أَنْتَ الَّذِي لَقِيتَنِي بِمَكَّةَ " . قَالَ فَقُلْتُ بَلَى . فَقُلْتُ يَا نَبِيَّ اللَّهِ أَخْبِرْنِي عَمَّا عَلَّمَكَ اللَّهُ وَأَجْهَلُهُ . أَخْبِرْنِي عَنِ الصَّلاَةِ … فَقُلْتُ يَا نَبِيَّ اللَّهِ فَالْوُضُوءُ حَدِّثْنِي عَنْهُ
"I went to him and said: Messenger of Allah, do you recognise me? He said: Yes, you are the same man who met me at Mecca.
I said: It is so. I again said: Prophet of Allah, tell me that which Allah has taught you and which I do not know, tell me about the prayer… I said: Prophet of Allah, tell me about ablution also..." (Ibid)
In addition, the Messenger's message at the beginning of Islam was calling for a new social trajectory seeking to displace oppressive systems based on disbelief that dominated the world. This was seen in the conversations of al-Abbas with Afif (ra) and at the early banquets the prophet arranged and other situations where the Messenger (saw) stated he was seeking Islam rule over Rome and Persia as well as part of his political goals.
The latter understanding was supported by virtually every classical scholar. For example, Imam Nawawi stated:
معناه: قُلْتُ لَهُ إِنِّي مُتَّبِعُكَ عَلَى إِظْهَارِ الْإِسْلَامِ هُنَا وَإِقَامَتِي مَعَكَ فَقَالَ لَا تَسْتَطِيعُ ذَلِكَ لِضَعْفِ شَوْكَةِ الْمُسْلِمِينَ وَنَخَافُ عَلَيْكَ مِنْ أَذَى كُفَّارِ قُرَيْشٍ وَلَكِنْ قَدْ حَصَلَ أَجْرُكَ فَابْقَ عَلَى إِسْلَامِكَ وَارْجِعْ إِلَى قَوْمِكَ وَاسْتَمِرَّ عَلَى الْإِسْلَامِ فِي مَوْضِعِكَ حَتَّى تَعْلَمَنِي ظَهَرْتُ
"It means: I said to him I am going to follow you by showing Islam here while I am inhabiting with you.
He said: You can't do this because of Muslims' weak authority and power and I am afraid the disbelievers of Quraysh would harm you.
But you have been rewarded and keep your Islam and go back to your nation and continue being a Muslim in your place until you hear of our victory." (Nawawi, al-Minhaj fi Sharh Muslim, Vol. 6, p. 115)
A similar understanding was also stated by Abu al-Fadl Ayad:
ِلَيْسَ مَعْنَاهُ أنّهُ رَدَّهُ دُونَ إِسْلَامٍ، وإنَمَا رَدَّهُ عَنْ صُحْبَتِهِ واتِبَاعِهِ؛ لأنه كان فِى أولِ الإسِلامِ وقَبْلَ قُوَتِه
"It does not mean he rejected his Islam, rather rejected his accompanying and following (in Mecca) because this was at the beginning of Islam before it gained power." (Ayadd, Ikmal al-Ma'lam bi Fawa'id Muslim, Vol. 3, p. 207)
Ibn Abbasah (ra) was the fourth who embraced Islam very early on in Mecca. He was living outside Mecca but heard rumours of the Messenger's dawa. He asked to remain with the Messenger (saw) in Mecca who refused as the Quraysh may have harmed him, advising him to return to his homeland and join him when Islam was dominant in power.
Ayadd, Ikmal al-Ma'lam bi Fawa'id Muslim
Nawawi, al-Minhaj fi Sharh Muslim.
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