The Muslim word da'wa can be translated, approximately, as "bearing witness." It is an invitation to the Way of Allah. The Qur'an (16:125) says, "Invite [all] to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious." Muslims, in the United States and elsewhere, believe that the message of God given to the Prophet Muhammad is the same as that given to other prophets, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Whenever Muhammad's name is mentioned, Muslims always declare, "Salla Allahu Alayhi wa Salam." ("Peace and blessing be upon him.") The Qur'an (37:37) says that Muhammad has "come with the [very] Truth and he confirms [the message] of apostles before him." Muslims also believe that it is incumbent on them to invite others to the worship and service of the one true God.
Abul A'la Mawdudi, a major modern-day Muslim revivalist, points out that bearing witness by means of da'wa is the most important duty entrusted to Muslims by God. The Qur'an repeatedly reminds Muslims of this duty toward God and their fellow beings (e.g., at 2:143, 3:110, and 5:8), and declares at 2:140, "And who is a greater wrongdoer than he who suppresses a witness entrusted to him by God?"
Despite the weight of this obligation, a Muslim's responsibility has parameters spelled out in the Qur'an (16:125), to "invite [all] to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious. . . ." The limits of responsibility are demarcated where the Qur'an says, at 46.9, that Muhammad was not saying anything of his own but is only "a warner open and clear." Muslims are also aware of the etiquette of offering the invitation. The Qur'an says that Moses, who was sent to Pharaoh, was advised by Allah to "speak to him mildly . . . perchance he may take warning or fear."
The practical example of this attitude toward the followers of other faiths is apparent in the confessional makeup of Muslim countries and even of Muslim societies of the past. Muslims, upon entering Jerusalem under the leadership of the second caliph Omar, were welcomed by the Christian clergy. Despite this, the caliph did not pray in the church, signaling that religious places were inviolable. Muslim Spain had thriving Jewish and Christian populations; India, after more than a thousand years of Muslim rule, had only a Muslim minority; and Jews who were expelled from Christian-conquered Spain were offered asylum in Ottoman Turkey.
Da'wa's Pivotal Role
The centrality of da'wa in Islam is evident from the fact that even within the Zakaat —the obligatory alms giving for the needy from one's earnings—system there is a provision whereby a portion can be paid to a non-Muslim to mellow his or her heart toward Islam and Muslims. Muhammad Hamidullah has written that the two interrelated aspects of the Prophet Muhammad's life were the propagation of Islam and his treatment of non-Muslims. In undertaking da'wa, the Muslim can commit it through words or action. Soon after receiving the Revelation and being instructed on the mode of prayer, the Prophet—as his biographical accounts mention—occasionally prayed publicly with his wife Khadijah in front of the Ka'bah at a time when the people of Mecca had never seen such a mode of prayer.
In the postcolonial period, da'wa has increasingly moved from its traditional sense of inviting others and has expanded to include calling on Muslims themselves to return to Islam, to more fully and self-consciously reappropriate their Islamic identity and be observant in the practice of their faith—both reform and renewal. Muslims are increasingly striving to put the Islamic system into practice, with efforts such as establishing Islamic schools and financial institutions. Such efforts, they feel, will entice others to look into the merits of the tradition of Islam.
Mawdudi (1986) advises Muslims to let their "lives speak the truth, and let the world hear it [not] merely from our lips but also from our deeds; let mankind witness all the blessings that Divine guidance brings to human life."
Etiquette of Da'wa
Da'wa is but an invitation, and the da'i (inviter) should observe appropriate etiquette toward the invitee and not cause annoyance in any sense to the listener of the message. The da'i should not expect that his addressee will conform to his ideas but should fully recognize the freedom of the addressee to accept or reject his ideas. Yahiya Emerick, himself a revert to Islam, advises the da'i to talk with the listener and not at him. He should accept the rejection of his ideas with utmost tolerance and respect, since the Muslim is told by God in the Qur'an (2:143), "We have made you a moderate community that you may be a witness to humanity even as the Messenger is a witness to you."
An essential etiquette of da'wa that is advised by the Prophet and all Muslim scholars is to illustrate the message by living it. One such example from the Prophet's life is the incident when a mother asked him to admonish her child for eating too much sugar. Instead of advising the child immediately, he asked her to bring her son the next day. When she brought him as asked, the Prophet not only dispensed his guidance but also informed the mother that yesterday he himself was enjoying a piece of hard sugar and thus was not morally in a position to advise the child.
Emerick, Yahiya. How to Tell Others About Islam. 1996.
Hamidullah, Muhammad. The Emergence of Islam, edited and translated by Afzal Iqbal. 1993, 1995.
Manual of Da'wah for Islamic Workers. 1989.
Mawdudi, Sayyid Abul A'la. Our Message. 1992.
Mawdudi, Sayyid Abul A'la. Witness unto Mankind:ThePurpose and Duty of the Muslim Ummah, edited and translated by Khurram Murad. 1986.
Omer Bin Abdullah