Allah explains the reason why he created mankind and jinn:
"I have only created jinns and mankind so that they may serve Me." (Qur'an 51:56)
The Messenger (saw), along with all preceding messengers, called nations (aqwam) to collective servitude of Allah (ibadah). This would require a communal way of life in accordance with sharia governed by a single khalifa and appointed officials of state.
This call was phrased by the Messenger (saw) as "mana'a and nusrah on the basis of tawheed". Mana'a referred to collectively implementing and defending this deen and nusrah referred to helping to convey it to mankind via diplomatic and military means. Tawheed refers to what should be a collective worldview for the nation that adopts this call, the common basis for Islam as a communal and civilisational way of life. The details can be found in this answer.
This then is what is meant by a call to Islam and is seen in the call of all previous messengers and that of the final messenger Muhammed (saw) as detailed in his seerah.
I will cite key evidences that are often ignored by those claiming he called to tawheed (a claim that is overly reductionist in nature, ignoring major aspects of Islam as a way of life, reducing it to personal dogma, rituals and morals).
1. Previous Messengers
Qur'anic verses are categoric regarding the call every previous messenger made to their nation was that of ibada and not tawheed which is but one of many elements of Islam:
وَلَـقَدۡ بَعَثۡنَا فِىۡ كُلِّ اُمَّةٍ رَّسُوۡلًا اَنِ اعۡبُدُوا اللّٰهَ وَاجۡتَنِبُوا الطَّاغُوۡتَۚ فَمِنۡهُمۡ مَّنۡ هَدَى اللّٰهُ وَمِنۡهُمۡ مَّنۡ حَقَّتۡ عَلَيۡهِ الضَّلٰلَةُ ؕ فَسِيۡرُوۡا فِىۡ الۡاَرۡضِ فَانْظُرُوۡا كَيۡفَ كَانَ عَاقِبَةُ الۡمُكَذِّبِيۡنَ
And We certainly sent into every nation a messenger, [saying], “SERVE Allah and avoid taghut.” And among them were those whom Allah guided, and among them were those upon whom error was [deservedly] decreed. (Qur'an 16:36)
لَقَدۡ اَرۡسَلۡنَا نُوۡحًا اِلٰى قَوۡمِهٖ فَقَالَ يٰقَوۡمِ اعۡبُدُوا اللّٰهَ مَا لَـكُمۡ مِّنۡ اِلٰهٍ غَيۡرُهٗ ؕ اِنِّىۡۤ اَخَافُ عَلَيۡكُمۡ عَذَابَ يَوۡمٍ عَظِيۡمٍ
"We had certainly sent Nuh to his NATION, and he said, "O my people, SERVE Allah; you have no deity other than Him. Indeed, I fear for you the punishment of a tremendous Day. The ELITES among his people, "Indeed, we see you in clear error."" (Qur'an 7:60-61)
وَاِلٰى عَادٍ اَخَاهُمۡ هُوۡدًا ؕ قَالَ يٰقَوۡمِ اعۡبُدُوا اللّٰهَ مَا لَـكُمۡ مِّنۡ اِلٰهٍ غَيۡرُهٗ ؕ اَفَلَا تَتَّقُوۡنَ
"And to the 'Aad [We sent] their brother Hud. He said, "O my NATION, SERVE Allah ; you have no deity other than Him. Then will you not fear Him?" The ELITES who disbelieved among his nation said, "Indeed, we see you in foolishness, and indeed, we think you are of the liars."" (Qur'an 7:65-66)
وَاِلٰى ثَمُوۡدَ اَخَاهُمۡ صٰلِحًا ۘ قَالَ يٰقَوۡمِ اعۡبُدُوۡا اللّٰهَ مَا لَـكُمۡ مِّنۡ اِلٰهٍ غَيۡرُهٗ ؕ قَدۡ جَآءَتۡكُمۡ بَيِّنَةٌ مِّنۡ رَّبِّكُمۡ ؕ هٰذِهٖ نَاقَةُ اللّٰهِ لَـكُمۡ اٰيَةً فَذَرُوۡهَا تَاۡكُلۡ فِىۡۤ اَرۡضِ اللّٰهِوَلَا تَمَسُّوۡهَا بِسُوۡٓءٍ فَيَاۡخُذَكُمۡ عَذَابٌ اَ لِيۡمٌ
"And to the Thamud [We sent] their brother Salih. He said, "O my people, SERVE Allah; you have no deity other than Him...And remember when He made you successors carve from the mountains, homes. Then remember the favors of Allah and do not commit abuse on the earth, spreading corruption. The ELITES who were arrogant among his NATION said to those who were oppressed - to those who believed among them, "Do you [actually] know that Salih is sent from his Lord?" They said, "Indeed, in that with which he was sent, we are believers."" (Qur'an 8:74-76)
لِاَبِيۡهِ يٰۤـاَبَتِ لِمَ تَعۡبُدُ مَا لَا يَسۡمَعُ وَلَا يُبۡصِرُ وَ لَا يُغۡنِىۡ عَنۡكَ شَيۡـئًـا
When Ibrahim said to his father, "O my father, why do you SERVE that which does not hear and does not see and will not benefit you at all? O my father, indeed there has come to me of knowledge that which has not come to you, so follow me, I will show you a straight path. O my father, do not SERVE Satan. Indeed, Satan has ever been, to the Most Merciful, disobedient. O my father, indeed I fear that there will touch you a punishment from the Most Merciful so you would be to Satan a companion [in Hellfire].” (Quran 19:42-45)
لَمۡ يَكُنِ الَّذِيۡنَ كَفَرُوۡا مِنۡ اَهۡلِ الۡكِتٰبِ وَالۡمُشۡرِكِيۡنَ مُنۡفَكِّيۡنَ حَتّٰى تَاۡتِيَهُمُ الۡبَيِّنَةُ ۙ ﴿98:1﴾ رَسُوۡلٌ مِّنَ ۡلُوۡا صُحُفًا مُّطَهَّرَةً ۙ ﴿98:2﴾ فِيۡهَا كُتُبٌ قَيِّمَةٌ ؕ ﴿98:3﴾ وَمَا تَفَرَّقَ الَّذِيۡنَ اُوۡتُوا الۡكِتٰبَ اِلَّا مِنۡۢ بَعۡدِ مَا جَآءَتِّۡنَةُ ؕ ﴿98:4﴾ وَمَاۤ اُمِرُوۡۤا اِلَّا لِيَعۡبُدُوا اللّٰهَ مُخۡلِصِيۡنَ لَـهُ الدِّيۡنَ ۙ حُنَفَآءَ وَيُقِيۡمُوا الصَّلٰوةَ وَيُؤۡتُوا الزَّكٰوةَ وَذٰلِكَ دِيۡنُ ِ ؕ
Those who were given the Book did not divide except after the proof had come to them. Though they were not commanded except to SERVE Allah, dedicating their faith to Him as men of pure faith, and to maintain the prayer and pay the Zakat. That is the upright DEEN. Indeed the faithless from among the People of the Book and the polytheists will be in the fire of hell, to remain in it [forever]. It is they who are the worst of creatures. Indeed those who have faith and do righteous deeds - it is they who are the best of creatures. (Qur'an Surah Bayyinah)
2. Muhammed (saw)
The Meccan surahs summarise the same message delivered to Quraysh:
"Say, "O disbelievers, I do not serve what you serve. Nor are you servants of what I serve. Nor will I be a serve of what you serve. Nor will you be servants of what I serve. For you is your deen, and for me is my deen." (Qur'an Surah Kafiroon)
"For the accustomed security of the Quraysh, their accustomed security [in] the caravan of winter and summer, Let them worship the Lord of this House, Who has fed them, [saving them] from hunger and made them safe, [saving them] from fear." (Qur'an Sura Quraysh)
"Indeed, Pharaoh exalted himself in the land and made its people into factions, oppressing a sector among them, slaughtering their [newborn] sons and keeping their females alive. Indeed, he was of the corrupters. And We wanted to confer favor upon those who were oppressed in the land and make them leaders and make them inheritors and to establish them in the land; and through them show Pharaoh, Haman, and their soldiers of what they feared." (Qur'an Surah Qasas)
Quraysh called to Islam
From the outset the messenger sought khilafah, asking for bayah at the first clan gathering after presenting his deen.
After the first verse ordering the messenger to warn his clan (asheerah) Ali (ra) prepared a banquet and invited around 45 members of his clan Bani Hashim with some from Bani Al-Muttalib bin Abd Manaf also in attendance including Abu Talib, Hamzah, al-Abbas and Abu Lahab. The Messenger (saw) spoke to them and everyone left abruptly after eating with Abu Lahab responding by saying:
"These are your uncles and cousins, speak to the point, but first of all you have got to know that your kinspeople do not have the power to withstand all the Arabs and I am the most fitting person to stop you. ... Verily, I have never heard of anyone who has incurred more harm on his kinspeople than you." The Messenger kept silent and said nothing in that meeting. (Fiqh al-Seerah, pp. 77)
He invited a second time and said:
"A leader does not lie to his family. By Allah, besides Whom there is no other god, I am Allah's Messenger." (Fiqh al-Seerah, p. 77-78)
"Then he said, 'Banu Abd al-Muttalib, I have been sent to all men in general and to you in particular. Now that you have seen what you have seen, which of you will swear an oath of allegiance (bayah) to me to become my brother, my companion and my inheritor?" (Tarikh al-Tabari, Vol. 2, p. 322, Tarikh al-Tabari, Vol. 2, p. 322, Ibn al-Athir, al-Kamil fi at-Tarikh, Vol. 1, p.259; Seerah Rasul Allah, p.119)
The kufr elites understood and repeatedly rejected his message, humiliating and mocking him and his companions, saying:
The kings of the earth have come who will own the treasures of Persia and Rome. They would then wolf-whistle (in mockery). (Bayhaqi, Dala'il an-Nubuwwah, Vol. 2, p. 317)
Abu Jahl bin Hisham, while waiting outside the door of the Messenger (saw) to kill him shortly before hijra observed to his companions:
"Muhammad claims if you follow him in his deen, you shall be the kings of the Arabs and non-Arabs, after your death you shall be brought back to life and your lot shall be gardens like the gardens of Jordan. He also claims if you do not do this, you shall meet with slaughter from him and after your death you shall be brought back to life and your lot shall then be a fire, in which you shall burn." The Messenger came out, took a handful of dust and said, "Yes, I do say that and you are one of them..." (Tarikh al-Tabari, Vol. 2, p. 337)
Whilst Abu Sufyan when questioned about Muhammed's (saw) call responded by saying:
...Heraclius said, “What does he order you to do?” Abu Sufyan replied, “He tells us to worship Allah and Allah alone and not to worship anything along with Him, and to renounce all that our ancestors had said. He orders us to pray, to speak the truth, to be chaste and to keep good relations with our kin.” (Bukhari)
Presentation of the call to Najashi
The Quraysh delegation, Amr ibn al-As and Abdullah ibn Abi Rabi'ah, claimed: Some of our foolish people left the deen of their people and did not embrace the King's deen. Instead, they invented a new deen with which neither we nor you are acquainted. (Fiqh al-Seerah, p. 134)
Jafar (ra) in response stated:
O King, we were a people living in ignorance: we worshipped idols, ate carrion, committed all manner of indecencies, treated our relatives and neighbours badly, and the strong among us oppressed the weak.
Then Allah sent to us a messenger from among us, whose lineage, truthfulness, trustworthiness and chastity we knew well. He invited us to believe in Allah's unity and not to associate partners with him, and to give up the worship of idols. He ordered us to be truthful in our speech, to fulfil our trust, to be kind to our kith and kin, to love our neighbours and keep away from the forbidden things and bloodshed. He forbade us immorality, lying and embezzling the orphan's wealth. He ordered us to establish prayer and fast. (Fiqh al-Seerah, p. 134; Ahmed)
Presentation of the call to Tribes
When they rejected him, he asked his uncle al-Abbas (ra) to help him identify influential tribes and would visit them with him at their homes and marketplaces where the tribal leaders stayed.
Ibn Hisham narrated:
"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)
"The Messenger (saw) used to present himself to the Arabian tribes calling them to no one but Allah, that they associate none with him, and give him (the Prophet) support and believe in him." (Darami, al-Seera al-Nabawiyyah, Vol. 1, p. 102)
Presentation of the call to Ta'if
Ibn Hisham narrated:
"The Messenger (saw) went out to Ta'if seeking the support (nusrah) and the protection of Thaqeef (a clan in Taif) against his tribe and their embrace of what he received from Allah (swt)." (Ibn Hisham, as-Seera al-Nabawiyyah, Vol.1, p. 419)
Ibn Saad mentions he stayed there for ten days and there was no leading person whom he did not approach and talk to. (Ibn Saad, Tabaqat, Vol. 1, p. 238)
The first tribe the Messenger (saw) approached was Ta'if: He sat down with them and called them to God, and spoke to them of the requests which he had come to them to make, that they should come to his aid in defense of Islam and take his side against those of his own tribe who opposed him. One of them said,
"If God has sent you, I will tear off the covering of the Kabah"; another said, "Could God find no-one but you to send ?" and a third said, "By God, I shall never say a single word to you, for if you are a messenger from God as you say, you are too important for me to reply to you, and if you are lying against God, it is not right for me to speak to you." (Tarikh al-Tabari, Vol. 2, p. 327)
As part of this, he initiated discussions with three leaders of Thaqeef (Abd Yalil, Mas'ud and Habib) who eventually rejected his call and ordered their followers to stone the Messenger (saw) when returning to Mecca.
"He sat down with them and called them to God, and spoke to them of the requests which he had come to them to make, (that is,) that they should come to his aid in defense of Islam and take his side against those of his own tribe who opposed him. One of them said, "If God has sent you, I will tear off the covering of the Kabah"; another said, "Could God find no-one but you to send ?" and the third said, "By God, I shall never say a single word to you, for if you are a messenger from God as you say, you are too important for me to reply to you, and if you are lying against God, it is not right for me to speak to you." (Tabari, Tarikh al-Tabari, Vol. 2, p. 327)
Imam Kinani narrated:
"He stayed in Ta'if leaving no one of their leaders except he went to him and spoke with him. They did not accept his message for fear of (harm might inflict) their youths." (Kinani, al-Mukhtasar al-Kabir, p. 39, Ya'muri, Uyun al-Athar, Vol. 1, p. 155)
Presentation of the call to Bani Kinda
The tribe of Kinda was the first one suggested by Abbas.
Abbas told the Messenger (saw): 'These are Kinda and those who mix with them. They are the best of those from Yemen who make the pilgrimage. Those are the homes of Bakr b. Wa'il; those belong to the Bani Amir bin Sa'sa'ah. Choose for yourself.'
The Messenger (saw) began with Kinda, asking them, 'From whom are you?'
'From Yemen,' they replied.
'From which tribe?' he asked.
'Would you like to achieve good?'
'How would that be?' they asked.
'You would bear witness that there is no god but God, and would engage in prayer and believe in God's message."'
Kinda replied, 'If you are successful, will you grant us power after yourself?'
The Messenger (saw) replied, 'Power rests with God; He places it where He wishes.'
They responded, 'We don't need what you bring... have you come to us to keep us from our gods and have us go to war with the Arabs? Remain with your people. We have no need of you!' (Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, Vol. 2, pp. 106-7)
Presentation of the call to Bani Bakr bin Wa'il
The Messenger (saw) then left them and went to Bakr bin Wa'il.
He asked, 'Who are these people?' 'They are part of Bakr bin Wa'il...'
'How many are they?' he asked.
'Very numerous,' he was told.
'How would their protection be?' he asked.
They replied, 'We border on Persia; we have no protection from them or for them.'
He told them, 'Grant God custody over yourselves and He will keep you safe until you descend upon their homes, marry their women and enslave their children. Then give praise to God three and thirty times, then give thanks to Him three and thirty times, and say He is most great four and thirty times.'
'Who are you?' they asked.
'I am the Messenger of God,' he replied. Then he left.
When he had left, his uncle Abu Lahab had been following him and telling people, 'Do not accept what he says.'
When he passed by them, they asked, 'Do you know this man?' He replied, 'Yes, he's from our elite. What about him makes you ask?'
They told him what he had offered them, saying, 'He claims to be the Messenger of God.'
Abu Lahab commented, 'Take no account of whatever he says. He's crazy, and talks off the top of his head.'
'We saw that,' they commented, 'when he spoke as he did about Persia!' (Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, Vol. 2, p. 107)
Presentation of the call to Bani Amir ibn Sa'sa'ah
Banu Amir ibn Sa'sa'ah was a powerful tribe who accepted to provide him with protection and victory (mana'ah and nusrah) however stipulated leadership be within their tribe after his death. Ibn Hisham narrated their condition:
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 Messenger (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.
When the pilgrims dispersed, the Banu Amir bin Sa'sa'ah went back to one of their shaykhs who was so old that he was unable to participate in the pilgrimage with them. On returning to him they would tell him what had happened during the pilgrimage. In this particular year he asked them on their return what had happened during the pilgrimage, and they said, "A young man from the Quraysh, one of the Banu Abd al-Muttalib, who claimed that he was a prophet, came to us and called upon us to defend him, stand with him, and bring him back with us to our country." The old man put his hand to his head and said, "Banu Amir, is there any way we can put this right? Can we regain our lost opportunity? By him in whose hand my soul rests, no descendant of Ishmael has ever falsified this. It is indeed the truth! What happened to your ability to judge him? (Ibn Hisham, Vol. 1, pp. 424-427)
Presentation of the call to Bani Sheeban bin Thalabah
The Messenger of Allah was taken to Bani Sheeban bin Thalabah. Abu Bakr (ra) who accompanied him was aware of the lineage of tribes recommended them for their suitability saying:
"May my parents be sacrificed for you, none besides them are more honourable than this tribe."
The dialogue between Abu Bakr and one of their leaders, Mafruq is most revealing.
Abu Bakr asked Mafruq, "What is your number?" Mafruq replied "We are one thousand in number and one thousand is no little figure." Abu Bakr continued "What about the Mana'a (power/defence) amongst you?" Mafruq answered "We always struggle, for every nation is bound to struggle." Abu Bakr further enquired "What about the result of the battles between you and your enemies?" Mafruq responded, "When we fight we are in one of our furies and the battle is enraged... We prefer our horses to our children and we prefer weapons to milking animals. So far as the victory is confirmed it is from Allah." Hearing this exchange and their suitability to offer him support, the Prophet immediately invited the tribe to Islam saying, "I call you to witness that there is no God but Allah, that I am is His Messenger, and that you shelter me and protect me until I discharge the duty placed upon me by Allah."
Mafruq asked the question "What do you preach my brother?" To which the Messenger recited verses from Surah al-Anam. Mafruq enquired, "Tell me something more about your preaching, O my Qurayshi brother! By Allah this speech is not of any who inhabits the earth. If it were theirs we would recognise them."
The Messenger recited, "Allah commands justice and the doing of good. And giving help to kith and kin. Allah forbids evil deeds, Munkar and rebellious actions. He admonishes you so that you may take heed." (Qur'an 16:90)
The discussion expanded to include Hani ibn Qabisah who was their religious leader and Muthanna bin Haritha, their commander of war. However the ensuing discussion showed that despite their many qualities they were unsuitable to offer support. Muthanna explained to the Messenger of Allah "We have a treaty with Kisra (Emperor of Persia) due to which we are staying here (i.e. their land between the valleys of Yamamah and Samawah). According to the treaty we are not authorised to raise any new movement or give asylum to any such person who initiates a new movement. It is possible that your mission might be disliked by the Emperor... If you need our help (and shelter) against those in Arabia, we are ready for that."
The Prophet rejected their offer, "I think you do not show any reservation in replying to me... The one who supports Allah’s deen, should protect it from all sides." Clasping the hand of Abu Bakr, the Messenger of Allah (saw) arose and left the assembly.
The Messenger called his nation to collectively serve Allah alone by implementing Islam as a ruling system so that his people could live by Islam and through diplomacy and military intervention would ask all mankind to do the same.
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