Those of us who wish to succeed in calling people to righteousness should follow the Prophet's example of taking a gradual approach in teaching them the legal rulings of Islam. This approach is clear from the Prophet's own approach to calling to Allah, an approach that he bequeathed to his Companions.
When Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) send Mu`âdh b. Jabal to Yemen, he advised him as follows: He told him to first call the people to monotheism and to abandon idolatry. Then, if they accept that, he should move on to the other pillars of Islam.
Each pillar was introduced on its own. The people were not confronted with all the religious teachings and observances at once.
Here is what the Prophet told him, as related to us by Ibn `Abbâs:
You are going to a people from among the people of the scripture, so the first thing towards which you should call them is to testify that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. If they obey you in this, then teach them that Allah has made compulsory upon them five prayers. Then if they obey you in this, teach them that there is charity to be taken from their wealthy people and given to their poor people. Then if they obey you in this, teach them that avoid taking the best of their wealth. Fear the supplication of the oppressed, for there is no barrier between it and Allah." [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (1395) and Sahîh Muslim (19)]
This hadîth is very important to moral preachers, Islamic workers, community leaders, public officials, and anyone else concerned with positive action in their communities. It teaches us that we need to take things step-by step.
When calling people to Islam, we see in the hadîth that the first of these steps is to call them to the belief that there is only one God and that Muhammad is His Messenger. Then, when the people have this essential basis of faith, other matters can be addressed, from the most important to the next in the degree of importance.
This approach is indeed a matter of courtesy and kindness. If we were to demand from people all at once that they adhere to all the teachings of Islam, we are simply going to turn them away. It is therefore essential that we know how to recognize what its most important. This is an essential skill for an Islamic preacher, but one that many preachers, unfortunately, neglect to cultivate.
It is true that every general and particular matter that Allah has enjoined upon us as an obligation is important. It is inappropriate for us as Muslims to take any of our religious obligations lightly. Furthermore, ignorance of any of our obligations is a personal deficiency for a Muslim, and a Muslim should not be content to persist in being ignorant of Islamic teachings. However, none of this contradicts with what we are saying regarding taking a gradual approach in disseminating Islamic teachings to others. The gradual approach in teaching the principles of Islam is itself part of our Islamic teachings. It is something we find in the Sunnah.
It is obvious that when discussing Islam with an atheist, that we are not going to call him to observe the five prayers. How can we? Faith is an essential prerequisite to the validity of worship.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "Make things easy. Do not make them difficult. Give glad tidings. Do not drive people away." [Sahîh al-Bukhârî
(69) and Sahîh Muslim
There are many things that people can have a hard time adopting all at once. If we begin with demanding those things from them, it will merely cause them to distance themselves from us. If, on the other hand, we begin by explaining the beauty and essential goodness of worshipping and obeying our Lord, and reminding people of the blessings and reward for faith coupled with good deeds, we are preparing them to joyfully accept engaging in the worship that Islam calls them to observe. Once their hearts are full of the love of Allah, what would have previously seemed a burden to them becomes something quite dear.
The same thing can be said for the condemnation of sins. If people's lives are surrounded with fornication, wantonness, drinking, gambling, and other vises – if we start off condemning those sins which rightly deserve to be condemned, we are only going to frighten the people off. However, once we have cultivated the fear of Allah in their hearts, they will be ready to give up those sins.
The mother of the believers, `A'ishah tells us:
The first verses to be revealed were those speaking about Paradise and Hell. Then, when people embraced Islam, the verses pertaining to the lawful and prohibited were revealed. If the first thing to be revealed was: "Do not drink wine," they would have said: "We will never give up wine." If it had been: "Do not fornicate," they would have said: "We will never stop fornicating." [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (4993)]
The gradual approach in calling people to Allah is like taking someone by the hand and guiding them safely and carefully to their destination.