Invite to the path of your Lord with wisdom and good advice. (An-Nahl 16:125)
Since the Qur’an urges Muslims to avoid compulsion in persuading non-believers to convert to Islam (“No coercion in religion,” Al-Baqarah 2:256), it would follow that the most acceptable way to convert someone to Islam would be to convince him or her of Islam’s superiority. And Muslims should do this by explanation and example suggested in the Qur’an: “Invite to the path of your Lord with wisdom and good advice” (An-Nahl 16:125).
The explanations and practical actions that lead to conversion constitute an activity required of Muslims; the spreading of Islam to others. Such an activity is called “da`wah”, an Arabic word meaning a “call, summon, invitation.”
Though da`wah was not made a pillar of the Islamic faith, in the holy scripture of Islam, Muslims (or Muhammad, as it actually is in the text of the Qur’an and Hadith collections) are urged to invite non-believers to join their faith.
One may even say that all Muslims are, by definition, missionaries/preachers. The Qur’anic injunctions for da`wah are further confirmed by the prophetic practice; Muhammad himself was above all a da`i (caller to Islam).
In the Qur’an, the word “da`wah” and its derivatives are used in different contexts over a hundred times (for example, in 2:186, 2:221, 3:104, 7:193, 10:25, 10:106, 12:108, 13:36, 14:22, 14:44, 16:125, 17:52, 21:45, 22:67, 23:73, 26:72, 27:80, 28:87, 35:14, 40:10, 40:41–43, 41:33, 42:15, 70:17, 71:5–8, etc.), while in Sahih Al-Bukhari, Sahih Muslim and other Hadith collections they are also present.
Though neither the Qur’an nor the Hadith collections presupposes institutionalized structures of or methods for da`wah (the invitation to Islam) they laid groundwork for the historical development of Islamic missionary activities, which are still taking place all over the world.
Yet, before proceeding with an analysis of how da`wah actually works, one has to explore the crucial issue of whether Islam was originally seen by Muslims (Muhammad foremost among them) as a religion of and for Arabs, or rather as a world religion from its very inception. In other words, was Islam meant to be a universal missionary religion?
It is hardly possible that the spreading of Islam beyond the confines of Arabia was of any concern for Muhammad (peace be upon him) while he was still in Makkah. He seems to have preached exclusively to Arabs, both settled and nomadic.
But once he relocated to Yathrib, his attention, even if only partially, turned to non-Arabs: He preached to Jews, and he is also reported to have argued with local Christians in attempts to convert them, though these reports are impossible to verify.
There is yet another issue: Is da`wah to be directed exclusively toward nonbelievers, or is it, in certain circumstances, also to be addressed to fellow Muslims?
This question becomes crucial when one realizes that the term “da`wah” has been extensively used throughout the history by Muslims (Abbasids in the 8th century, Ismai`lis in the 9th through 13th centuries, Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimun in the 20th century) who directed their activities toward fellow Muslims, be it from a sectarian or an orthopractic perspective.
Does the Qur’an consider, approve, or even encourage such kind of da`wah?
Here we’re aimed at providing the Qur’anic expressions and notions of “da`wah” (emphasizing its meaning an “invitation to Islam”) in their variety and complexity, with a relevant analysis of the most significant of them. The spectrum of meanings of “da`wah”, as used in the Qur’an and the Hadith collections, and their relation to the practical missionary activities of Muslims, is sought.
I also seek to show that whatever “da`wah”, as an invitation to Islam, meant to Muhammad, it was eventually included (in the making of the Hadith collections) in the range of duties prescribed to Muslims, even if only as fard kifaya (an advisable activity). The distinction will also be drawn and the common believer’s da`wah on the other.
As da`wah in the course of history became a well-organized activity among certain Muslim groups, one would expect the mufassirs (exegetes; the commentators of the Qur’an) to have elaborated upon this concept. Therefore, it is worth inquiring what mufassirs have actually said regarding the Qur’anic passages containing the term “da`wah”.
Major classical mufassirs such as At-Tabarsi (died 1153), Al-Baidawi (died 1286), and Ibn Kathir (died 1372) and contemporary ones such as Abduh (died 1905), Rida (died 1935), Qutb (died 1966), and Mawdudi (died 1979) all touched upon the term and concept of “da`wah” in their commentaries.
Since in the Qur’an the word “da`wah” appears numerous times, only those verses that speak of or imply the preaching and spreading of Islam are dealt here. The following lines of the Qur’an contain the word “da`wah” with this connotation.
If some servants of mine asked you about Me, I am indeed close and I respond to the call of a suppliant if he calls upon Me. So let them respond to My (invitation), so that they believe in Me and may be on the right side. (Al-Baqarah 2:186)
Those (unbelievers) invite to fire, and God invites to paradise. (Al-Baqarah 2:221)
Let there be a group of people among you who invite to goodness, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong. (Aal `Imran 3:104)
And God invites to the abode of peace and guides those whom He pleases to the straight path. (Yunus 10:25)
Say: this is my way, I invite to God. (Yusuf 12:108)
Say: I was commanded to worship God, and not to associate anyone with Him. I invite and my return is to Him. (Ar-Ra`d 13:36)
And those who did wrong will say: Our Lord, …, we will answer your invitation and will follow the messengers. (Ibrahim 14:44)
Invite to the path of your Lord with wisdom and good advice. (An-Nahl 16:125)
Indeed you invite them to a straight path. (Al-Mu’minun 23:73)
You were invited to faith and you refuse. And God invites to the abode of peace, and guides those whom He pleases to the straight path. (Ghafir 40:10)
Who is better in speech than the one who invites to God. (Fussilat 41:33)
Invite those who turn back and turn away face. (Al-Ma`arij 70:17)
He said: I have been inviting my people day and night, but my invitation increased but flight. (Nuh 71:5, 6)
From a close scrutiny of the major tafseers (exegeses of Qur’an), it becomes evident that most mufassirs did not at all venture to consider the ideological or practical aspects of “da`wah”. Most of the classical mufassirs merely explained the word “da`wah” through its synonyms, and only some go beyond the philological level. It is difficult to assess why they stayed aloof of the ideological implications of the term as used in the Qur’an.
One may guess that for mufassirs (especially of the classical period), the word “da`wah” was not especially religiously charged and did not have the sense of missionary activity.
Whatever the reason, it is disturbing to realize that the major mufassirs of classical times paid so little attention to the ideological as well as practical dimensions of da‘wa. The implication would be that institutionalization of da`wah is a relatively recent phenomenon. However, as it will be shown further below, this is not the case – da`wah acquired a high level of institutionalization rather early in Muslim history. With this in mind, it becomes even more odd why mufassirs abstained from devoting more attention to “da`wah”.
Modern commentators of the Qur’an such as Abduh/Rida and Qutb, unlike their predecessors, pondered “da`wah” verses to a much more considerable extent. But for these authors, da`wah, and indeed the tafseer itself, was more of a political endeavor than a theological one. So, for example, Qutb, in his commentaries on 3:104 and 12:108, advocates a total reislamization of the Muslim Ummah through political means, while Rida stresses education in revitalizing Muslim religious consciousness.
The article is excerpted from an academic dissertation titled “The Multiple Nature of Da`wah” by Egdunas Racius, an expert on Islam at Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania.