Not everyone makes decisions based on principle and truth. Some people only change when the practicalities of life necessitate it. When people entered Islam like this, do we consider it true faith or hypocrisy? This is a reality that the Prophet ﷺ recognized, and we will see how he handled it.
Elites & Pragmatists
It is rare to find someone taste wealth and power, then give it up for the sake of a moral cause or spiritual truth. Hence, the focus of the rich and powerful is often, not always of course, is retaining the rare power that they have been given. If they retain it while submitting to the truth, it is a blessing. But if they retain in disobedience of Allah then it is a curse, and they will lose their joy and inner peace.
The Prophet ﷺ of course knew this and hence catered his message to this very basic human impulse. When he ﷺ was visited by the wealthy Christian nobleman, Adi bin Hatim, he immediately addressed these concerns: “Perhaps what stops you from entering this religion is the poverty of its people…the great number of their enemies…or that [political] authority is elsewhere.”
Adi did not object that these were his reasons. The Prophet ﷺ replied that all these weaknesses would go away and painted a picture of success: “By Allah, wealth will overflow until there is nobody to take it…There will come a time when a woman will ride on her animal from Qadisiyya to this house, not fearing anything…You will hear about the white palaces of Babel being conquered by this nation.” Adi entered Islam after this conversation.
Abu Sufyan was another example. The Prophet ﷺ knew that Abu Sufyan needed to be certain that he was defeated before giving up his lordship over Mecca. And so the Messenger ﷺ positioned Abu Sufyan at a narrow entry point into the city and made the army march through there so that he could see the amount of legions and lose hope in any further resistance.
Even the Quran addresses this fear of loss through the da’wa of Prophet Nuh. Allah promises the disbelievers that if they turn back to Him, they will get rich and be surrounded with kids and friends.
A Companion Who Entered Islam Without Conviction Initially
Those who enter Islam merely because it is practical or because they have no other choice, may have entered upon a shallow or not-fully-sincere foundation, but nonetheless, their iman can become genuine later. Hamza, the Prophets uncle and cousin,* entered Islam merely to spite Abu Jahl after he hurled a vile insult upon the Messenger ﷺ.
Abu Mahzura was a young man of Mecca who entered Islam after the conquest because he did not have much choice; his city was conquered. During the campaign against Ta’if, he was caught making fun of the mu’adhin making the call to prayer. When the Prophet ﷺ called him over, he said, “I went to him and there was nobody I hated on the earth more than him.” He said this after having taken the shahada. Seeing this in his eyes, the Prophet ﷺ placed his hand on his chest, recited some prayers and then gave him a sack of gold. He then taught him the call to prayer and assigned him to be the next mu’adhin. Abu Mahzura continued, “I left that meeting and he was the most beloved of people to me on the earth” (Muslim).
Abu Sufyan and many other converts-after-conquest form the legal category of “those whose hearts are to be softened.” Namely, those whose hearts need to be softened. I can think of no political order in the world that addresses the hearts of its new adherents. This points to the overarching theme of bringing people into Islam in any way, shape, or form, while believing that the heart can be rectified and made genuine later. Here is a more contemporary example of this...
“Bring Your Bottle”
Sayyid Umar Abdullah was an East African scholar in Europe. One of his friends told him, “I have a colleague who loves the deen, but is hesitant about entering.” He said, “Bring him to me.” The man met Sayyid Abdullah, who asked him, “What stops you from entering the deen?” The man said, “I’m a heavy drinker and cannot see myself not drinking.” Sayyid Umar laughed and said, “Come to Islam, and bring your bottle too. We may have many drinkers in this umma.” What the shaykh was saying was that entering Islam is not entering into perfection; and correct belief is not negated by falling into sins. The man also said he couldn’t fast, so Sayyid Umar said then don’t fast, but do submit that there is one god and Muhammad is His Messenger ﷺ, which the man did. He never missed a fast and in due time left alcohol.
This way of doing da’wa is in fact rooted in the Sunna. Imam Ahmad narrates in his Musnad that a man approached the Prophet ﷺ with the condition that he will enter Islam but only pray two times a day, not five. The Prophet ﷺ accepted it and the man took his shahada. But as soon as he joined the community, he saw the silliness of his condition and never missed a prayer.
Many people don’t realize that the famous “Actions are by intentions” speech by the Prophet ﷺ came about due to a marriage conversion.** Umm Qays was a pious believer and had a proposal from a pagan. She accepted him on the condition that he enter Islam and migrate to Madina, which he did. The Companions jokingly began calling him Muhajir Umm Qays. When the Prophet ﷺ learned about this, he did not deny the man’s Islam, but rather emphasized the primacy of intention.
Love is one of the most popular entry points into Islam. I would imagine that every year, thousands convert just for the sake of getting married. According to Pew, 28% of marriages in America occur between members of two different religions, and 21% of Muslims marry someone who was not born Muslim. WikiHow even has a page on how to convert to Islam for the purpose of marriage. We often look down on this reason for conversion, but in doing so, we are overlooking Divine Wisdom. If entry into Islam could only happen after deep study and contemplation, then we should also look down on born Muslims who do no such study or contemplation even into their adult life.
Many born Muslims will admit merely going through the motions for years until something happened that made them think deeply, see that Islam is true, and then practice genuinely after that. Surely, “converts of convenience” should be afforded the same runway. More often than not, the “marriage convert” will level out to resemble the average Muslim in terms of their spiritual life. They had a different entry point, that’s all.
Prisoners of War
Consider the Bukhari hadith on Allah’s wonderment at “those who enter the Garden in chains.” It refers so prisoners of war, enemies, who were taken into the custody of Muslims (where they would observe and then embrace Islam) in handcuffs and chains. Ibn ‘Ata in his Hikam comments that Allah knew most people would not come to Him voluntarily, so He forced them with obligations, lured them with reward, and cornered them with punishments. But when they do finally arrive at His gate (spiritual experience) and taste the sweetness of faith, their heart settles and they come willingly.
Law vs Reality
When Usama bin Zayd was about to kill a pagan in battle, the pagan uttered the shahada to save his life. Usama killed him anyway, thinking that the only shahada that counts is the sincere one. But the Prophet ﷺ became upset and said, “Did you kill a Muslim? Did you kill a Muslim?”
The moment someone utters the shahada, they enter the community of believers regardless of what we think. One of the wisdoms behind this is that even if they are pure hypocrites, their children will nonetheless be reared in an environment of faith. The son of the worst hypocrite, Abdullah ibn Ubayy, was a pious Companion. Hence, when it comes to entering Islam, we judge by the outward and treat them accordingly. Furthermore, we can never dismiss transformation, even over decades. In sum, the strategy of Islam when it comes to conversion is to lower the bar of entry, then believe firmly that hearts will change in the future, and iman will settle in. And even if not, then to have more hopes in their offspring and future generations that will be raised in faith.
*Hamza was the Prophet's uncle from their fathers' side and his cousin through their mothers' side.
**Some scholars deny any connection between the marriage story and the hadith.