The Beginning of the Public Invitation
The public invitation to Islam started in Makka after the fourth year of Prophethood. The Prophet Muhammad’s first and most important addressees were the Quraysh. Placing their idols in and around the Ka’ba, the Quraysh had managed both the major and minor pilgrimages (hajj and ‘umra) since the time of Abraham and Ishmael, and for this reason held a position of privilege and esteem among the other tribes. They erected the idols of various tribes both inside and around the Ka’ba in order take full advantage of the visiting pilgrims. Difficult days awaited the Prophet who continued to invite members of his family and his close friends to Islam. This was because he was now instructed to openly convey the truths revealed to him to the Makkan polytheists (Al-Hijr, 15:94) and commanded to warn all those he could reach, starting with those closest to him. (Ash-Shu’ara 26:214). The Prophet began this arduous struggle, which was to continue for close to twenty years until the conquest of Makka, with a feast to which he invited his closest relatives. About forty-five people, members of the Banu Hashim and Banu al-Muttalib clans of the Quraysh tribe, attended this banquet. However, after the meal, the Prophet’s uncle Abu Lahab took the floor and, not giving the Prophet a chance to speak, said: “I have never seen a person bring as bad a thing to his tribe as you have brought.” Upon this, all the guests left. Greatly saddened by this adverse outcome the Prophet organized another meeting a few days later. Explaining to his invitees that God was one, that He had no partner or equal, that he himself believed and trusted in Him and that he would not lie to his guests, the Prophet continued his words by saying: “I have been sent as a Messenger to you, in particular, and to all humanity, in general. I swear by God you will die just as you fall asleep, you will be resurrected just as you wake from sleep. You will be called to account for your deeds. You will receive reward in response for your goodness and punishment in response to your evil. Both Paradise and the Fire are eternal. You are the first I have warned.” The Prophet’s uncle Abu Talib declared that he was impressed by the Prophet’s words and that he would support him, but that he would not abandon the religion of his forefathers. His other uncle Abu Lahab told his relatives to prevent the Prophet, that they would be humiliated if they accepted his invitation and that they would be killed if they protected him. Upon hearing this Abu Talib declared that he would protect his nephew so long as he lived. Abu Lahab and his wife were in constant opposition to the Prophet, showed bitter enmity towards him, and in particular followed him when he met with people who came from outside Makka only to contradict him, announce him a liar and sorcerer and claim that he had caused dissension within his tribe. It is for this reason that a Qur’anic chapter bearing Abu Lahab’s name was revealed, stating that both he and his wife were doomed to perish in the Fire. (Al-Masad, 111:1-5). Despite the fact that the Qur’an contains explicit statements of the words, actions and even intentions of those who showed hostility to the Prophet and the Muslims, none of their names, with the exception of Abu Lahab, have been mentioned.
Climbing to the top of the hill of Safa one day, the Prophet decided to convey the message of Islam to all the people of Makka, declaring to all those gathered there: "If I were to inform you that an enemy host was about to attack you from behind that hill, would you believe me?" They answered, "Yes, we would. We have never before seen you lie." The Prophet then said, "God has commanded me to warn my nearest relatives. You are my tribe of the nearest kindred. I will not be able to do anything for you in the Hereafter unless you proclaim that there is no deity but God."
The leading figures of the Quraysh had not opposed Prophet Muhammad's invitation to Islam too sternly in the beginning. However, when the Prophet began reciting the revelations criticizing idolatry and announcing that the idolaters would be doomed to the Fire, they started to see his message as a great threat, began to show bitter hostility, and took to doing whatever they could to prevent his inviting others to this message. Moreover, they were concerned that the triumph of belief in One God and the subsequent end of idolatry would lead to their losing their superiority in the eyes of the other Arab tribes, as well as their commercial prospects and advantages. On the other hand, the Quraysh, who possessed a strong ancestral culture as the natural result of tribal allegiance, assigned great value to those traditions inherited from their forebears. They considered idol worship as a cult that needed to be preserved without question and, reiterating this issue frequently, refused to abandon the beliefs and worship of their forefathers. The morality of the Quraysh was also not at a level that would have made it easy for them to accept the invitation of the last prophet. In a Makkan society where an ignorant mentality was prevalent, alongside harmful habits such as alcohol indulgence, gambling, adultery and lying, the earning of unlawful profits, as well as exploitation and oppression fed by financial power and feelings of tribal superiority were also dominant. Criticizing these attitudes, the Qur’an announced that superiority among human beings was based on reverence to the Creator and compassion to His creation (al-Hujurat, 49:13); it warned that those who acted otherwise would be subjected to punishment in the Hereafter.
The Quraysh began to humiliate and insult Prophet Muhammad when they saw that he was gaining support as time went by and due to his criticism of their beliefs and attitudes; after a certain time they did not refrain from resorting to violence. The sources at times provide detailed accounts of the ruthless punishment, torment and torture that the Makkan polytheists inflicted on the Muslims. In particular, the persecution exacted by notorious Makkans such as Abu Jahl, Abu Sufyan, Abu Lahab, Umayya ibn Khalaf, Walid ibn Mughira, 'Uqba ibn Abi Mu'ayt and Hakam ibn Abi al-‘As constituted a great stain upon humanity. Those most affected by their persecution were families, slaves and concubines who came from outside Makka. They would be left to starve, laid out on the hot desert sands and have rocks piled on top of them. The Yasir family endured the most brutal of these tortures. Coming to Makka in search of his missing brother, Yasir was taken under the protection of Abu Huzayfa from the Banu Makhzum tribe and married his concubine Sumayya. The famous Companion, 'Ammar ibn Yasir was born of this marriage. Yasir, Sumayya and ‘Ammar were among the first Muslims and responded with patience to the torment and torture of the polytheists. Eventually, Sumayya, killed under Abu Jahl’s brutal torture, earned the title of the first martyr in the history of Islam. Yasir was also killed under torture on the same day. ‘Ammar, who survived, reached the point where he was no longer able to bear the excruciating torment and was forced to speak in favor of the idols Lat and ‘Uzza and against the Prophet. Just as soon as he escaped the persecution, he went to Prophet Muhammad and explained the situation to him. The Prophet, seeing the great distress that ‘Ammar suffered, asked him what he had felt while uttering those words. ‘Ammar replied that there was no change whatsoever in his faithful heart. Upon this, informing him that there was nothing wrong with his behaving in such a manner under these conditions providing he kept his belief, the Prophet advised him to act in the same manner if he were subjected to the same treatment again. (See also An-Nahl 16:106).
Those weak and enslaved, such as Bilal al-Habashi, Suhayb (from Rum/Byzantium), Habbab ibn Arat and Abu Fukayha and concubines such as Zinnire, Umm Ubays, Nahdiyya and Lubayna also faced great torment for the sake of their beliefs. Among the slaves, Bilal al-Habashi, the first person to accept Islam after Khadija, was subjected to severe torture by his master Umayya ibn Khalaf. He was dragged through the streets of Makka, a rope being tied around his neck and given to the hands of children. At noon, Umayya ibn Halaf would lay him out on hot sands, put huge scorching stones on his chest, demand him to abandon belief in the One God, and profess belief in the Lat and ‘Uzza idols instead. Notwithstanding all this suffering, Bilal, having great difficulty breathing, would proclaim his unwavering belief saying, “He is One! He is One!” On the other hand, well to do Muslims were also exposed to various kinds of persecution and punishment. For instance, ‘Uthman's uncle Hakam ibn Abi al-‘As exerted great pressure on him by cutting off his financial support and tried to thus force him to abandon his belief. Sa‘d ibn Abi Waqqas faced the resistance of his mother. A verse was even revealed for this reason, stating that obedience to parents was not necessary when they urged their children to deny God (Luqman, 31:15). Abu 'Ubayda ibn Jarrah faced great hostility from his father after becoming Muslim. 'Abd Allah ibn Mas'ud was beaten unconscious because he publicly recited God’s revelation at the Ka’ba; he was left covered in blood. While Mus'ab ibn 'Umayr was the son of an affluent family and grew up in prosperity, he faced strong reaction from his family because of his acceptance of Islam and was deprived of any kind of financial support with even his clothes being taken from him. When Abu Dharr from the Ghifar tribe announced his having become Muslim, the Makkan polytheists beat him thrice leaving him for dead. Holding a position of repute in Makka, Abu Bakr had a place of worship surrounded by strong and high walls constructed in the garden of his house, because praying or reciting the Qur’an in public had been outlawed. Above and beyond these, the streets that Prophet Muhammad himself used had filth and thorns thrown on them, his house was stoned, and there was even an attempt to suffocate him with tripe being thrown onto him during his prostration in prayer. His uncle Abu Lahab and his wife Umm Jamil, Abu Sufyan’s younger sister, in particular caused the Prophet much grief. Umm Jamil forced her two sons to divorce their wives, both of whom were Muhammad's daughters. Upon this, the Qur’anic verse mentioned below was revealed: “May both hands of Abu Lahab be ruined, and ruined are they! His wealth has not availed him, nor his gains. He will enter a flaming Fire to roast; And (with him) his wife, carrier of firewood (and of evil tales and slander), Around her neck will be a halter of strongly twisted rope.” (Al-Masad, 111:1-5)
Far from turning the Muslims away from their religion, the torture, threats, oppression and cruelty of the Makkan polytheists only served to strengthen their faith. The trial and hardship that the Muslims endured in the way of God only increased their resolve and demonstrated what a valuable treasure belief was. Not knowing what to do in the face of the effect that the Qur’an, addressing both hearts and minds, was having on the people, the Quraysh began to speak against the Qur’an and disseminate misinformation in relation to it. They claimed that the Prophet was a soothsayer, madman or a poet, that he learned the Qur’an from a Christian, and that this book was either a spell or an ancient fable. Nonetheless, these fabricated claims of the polytheists were constantly refuted with verses revealed to the Prophet and Divine declaration.
The Quraysh met with the Prophet’s uncle Abu Talib three times in order to try to prevent Prophet Muhammad conveying the message of Islam. Abu Talib averted the first demand with his conciliatory words. When the Quraysh used threatening words in the second meeting, he called the Prophet and told him that he could take a stand against his tribe no longer. Understanding this to mean that his uncle would no longer keep him under his protection, the Prophet declared, "If they placed the sun in my right hand and the moon in my left hand to abandon my cause, I would not until God made the truth prevail or I died in the attempt." Upon hearing this, Abu Talib consoled his nephew with the following words: “Go and say what you will. I swear by God that I will never turn you over to them.” In their third appeal, the Quraysh proposed the following: “Hand your nephew over to us and let us give you Walid ibn Mughira’s son ‘Umara as a son.” Abu Talib rejected this proposal with a vengeance. In the meantime, some of the Quraysh met with Prophet Muhammad himself and tried to dissuade him from his mission. 'Utba ibn Rabi'a for instance said: "If by what you are doing, you want wealth, we will give you enough of it so that you will be the richest man among us; if you want position and prestige, we will make you our ruler.” In fact, he even went so far as to say, “If you are acting as such because of a mental illness, we will arrange for the best physicians and have you cured.” After ‘Utba completed his speech, the Prophet knelt and recited the first verses of Sura al-Fussilat (41:1-6) and told him that he was a Prophet appointed by God. Although ‘Utba was deeply affected and bewildered by the verses as well as the Prophet’s words, he did not accept Islam.
Hamza and 'Umar ibn al-Khattab's Acceptance of Islam
The conversion of two people in the early Makkan period of conveying the message of Islam holds particular significance. The first of these is the Prophet’s uncle Hamza and the other is 'Umar ibn al-Khattab. In the sixth year of Prophethood (616), a concubine who had witnessed Abu Jahl and his men insulting the Prophet related what she saw to Hamza who had come to circumambulate the Ka’ba on his return from a hunt. Overtaken by rage at what he heard, Hamza struck the head of Abu Jahl with the bow that he held in his hand and declared his acceptance of Islam saying, “I too have accepted the religion of Muhammad. Let him who has the courage come and fight me!” In the house of Arqam at the time, the Prophet was exceedingly pleased at his uncle having accepted Islam.
Showing great effort to ease the suffering of Muslims in their conveying God’s message to the people, the Prophet, at the same time, prayed for the guidance of certain powerful and influential individuals. One of these individuals was ‘Umar. Historian Ibn Ishaq relates that ‘Umar left his house one day with the intention to kill the Prophet, but went to his sister Fatima’s house first, having learned on the way that that she too had accepted Islam. He beat his brother-in-law and sister after having heard them recite the first verses of the Qur’anic chapter entitled Ta-Ha. Upon seeing Fatima’s determination and her being covered in blood, ‘Umar felt great remorse and asked to see the pages that they had been reading. Deeply moved and affected by the first verses of Ta-Ha and Abasa, ‘Umar went to the house of Arqam, where the Prophet was at the time, and declared his belief in Islam. The Prophet’s responding to ‘Umar’s acceptance of Islam with proclamations of God’s greatness was echoed by those in the adjoining room. Thereafter, all those in the house left together and headed for the Ka’ba.