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Missionaries

Source:
The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Missionaries

    Many Muslims believe that they must call others to the faith. The Qur'an advocates different forms of da'wah, which is broadly defined as an act of invitation or summoning. Surah 16.125 of the Qur'an tells Muslims to “Invite to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching, and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious.” The Qur'an prohibits forced conversion: “There is to be no compulsion in religion.” It also stresses the legitimacy of other religions: “Whoever believes in God and the Last Day, and whoever does right, shall have his reward with his Lord.” This verse refers to Christians, Jews, and members of other monotheistic faiths. Muslims, therefore, vary in their dedication to converting others to their religion. Islamic missionary work in the modern era primarily focuses on other Muslims, in an effort to create an international community of believers (ummah).

    Conversion of Non-Muslims.

    The Islamic empire spread across the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain in the 700s, and Muslims brought their religion to the areas they conquered. Most Islamic rulers did not force people to convert. They granted them the right to practice their faith as long as they paid a jizyah (poll tax). In many cases, non-Muslims were also required to wear clothes that distinguished them from Muslims and to restrict their public expressions of piety. Non-Muslims could not ride horses, bear arms, or build structures higher than those of Muslims. Many non-Muslims found it politically and economically advantageous to profess a belief in Islam. By the 900s, most countries in the Islamic empire had become predominantly Islamic. In other areas, such as East Africa, India, and Southeast Asia, people learned of Islam from traders, popular preachers, and Sufi wanderers and converted because they found the doctrine appealing.

    Unlike Christians, Muslim religious leaders did not organize missionary expeditions. In fact, the Arabs lacked a term for conversion until they came into contact with Christian crusaders, who traveled to the Islamic world to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims and to spread their faith. They remained largely unsuccessful but tried again in the 1800s, after European powers had colonized much of the Islamic world. Western missionaries not only brought religious teachings to Islamic regions, but also established schools, hospitals, and other facilities. Some made their services free to Christians but charged high fees to Muslims in order to encourage conversion. As a backlash against this practice, Muslims established their own missionary movements and social welfare organizations.

    In the early twenty-first century, most da'wah groups seek to unify Muslims, though some groups work to convert those of other faiths. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, Christian and Muslim missionaries compete fiercely for converts. In the United States, African Americans have initiated campaigns to urge members of their communities to embrace the Muslim faith, sometimes promoting it as the religion of their ancestors. Muslim immigrant groups in Western countries have attracted followers by emphasizing Islam's link to Christianity and Judaism. Finally, sects such as the Ahmadi work to spread their version of Islam to both Muslims and nonbelievers.

    Within the Muslim Community.

    Most da'wah groups focus on the Muslim community. After the Europeans took over much of the Islamic world, da'wah took on a political significance that it had not had since the early days of the empire, when the Abbasids used it to gain support from the Umayyads and the Ismailis used it to rebel against the Abbasids. In the late 1800s, the Ottoman sultan Abdulhamid II used the term da'wah to refer to the caliph's duty to bring Muslims of all countries under his authority, much as the Pope had done with the Catholics. The sultan had turned da'wah into a tool to promote the political unity of Muslims. In a time of Western colonialism and increased Christian missionary activity, this politicized approach to da'wah gained popularity.

    The rise of independent Muslim nations after World War II ( 1939 – 1945 ) inspired leaders to create state and international da'wah groups. Rulers such as Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser established international organizations to promote Islam, the Arabic language, and Arab nationalism. Saudi Arabia established the Islamic University in Medina in 1961 to train da'wah workers and gave rise to the Muslim World League, which sought to unify the Muslim world and replace secular society with a community based on Islamic principles. Some leaders, however, accused Egyptian and Saudi Arabian leaders of using missionary work to reinforce their own power rather than that of the Islamic community.

    Some Muslims created nongovernmental da'wah movements based on their dissatisfaction with modern rulers. These Muslims often saw little difference between state leaders and Western colonial rulers. They viewed their governments as more concerned with modernization than with the revival of pure Islamic states. Some da'wah organizations continue to call for the overthrow of regimes that they deem too secular or unsupportive of pure Islam, urging members to withdraw from mainstream society to follow traditional Islamic practices and to call upon others to do so. Other nongovernmental groups work to spread Islam to areas in which Muslims constitute a minority. The Tablighi Jamaat brings Islamic teachings and practices to believers and nonbelievers living at the borders of Islamic nations. Other groups seek converts in Western communities to which Muslims have migrated.

    Current Da'wah Trends.

    Once the work of individuals, da'wah is now dominated by organizations and institutions that pursue a variety of goals, such as attracting young people, building mosques, and promoting traditional practices. Academies in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and other countries train Muslims for missionary work. They create programs for the teaching of imams, community leaders, and other professionals; they arrange seminars, lectures, and conferences; they establish libraries in prisons and hospitals; they organize leadership and training courses for new Muslims; they publish literature and audio-visual material on the act of da'wah; and they communicate with other da'wah organizations. Some da'wah groups also promote social welfare, especially for refugees, and hope to expand their facilities to include medical care and education.

    Despite the proliferation of da'wah organizations, the movement has met with only limited success. Its effort to unify Muslims has alienated some local groups. Muslim activists also find it difficult to penetrate communities in Africa and other areas in which Islam is relatively new. Muslims who immigrate to Europe and lose touch with their regional roots are more likely to accept organized Islamic movements, as are small mosques or societies eager to join a larger community. See also Ahmadi; Christianity and Islam; Conversion.

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