Please note that the words Allah and God are used interchangeably in the article.
The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is reported to have said, “Islam began as something strange and will return to [being] something strange just as [it was] in the beginning, so glad tidings to the strangers” (Muslim).d
Ibn Majah narrated that it was asked, “Who are the strangers?” The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) responded, “Those (few) who left their tribes (for Islam)” (Ibn Majah).
In another version, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) responded to the question by stating, “Those that correct the people when they become corrupt” (Abu Amr al-Dani, Al-Albani graded it authentic in Sahihah (3/267)).
In another narration he said in response to the same question, “They are a small group of people among a large evil population. Those who oppose them are more than those who follow them” (Ahmad, Al-Albani graded it authentic in Sahihah (4/153)).
The Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) statement “Islam began as something strange“ means that before his coming the people were on misguidance. So Allah sent him to guide the people to the truth. It is reported that the Prophet (pbuh) said, “Verily, Allah looked at the people of Earth with disdain, the Arabs and the non-Arabs, except for some of the remnants of the People of the Book (i.e., the Jews and the Christians)” (Muslim).
When the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was sent and began to call the people to Islam, there were only a handful of people from various tribes that responded to his call. Those that responded were fearful of their families and tribes that they may severely harm or hurt them. However, they remained patient for the sake of Allah. The Muslims at that time were weak. They were expelled and displaced from their homes and were made to flee to remote countries. They were twice forced to migrate to Abyssinia and then finally to Medina. Among them were those who were punished and tortured for the sake of Allah and those who were killed. During that time those entering into Islam were considered ‘strangers’.
Then Islam became established in Medina and became strong. It’s people became visible in all aspects. Afterwards, the people began to enter Islam in large crowds. Allah made the religion clear to them and completed His favor upon them. Then the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) died yet the Muslims stayed firm on their religion. They collaborated and supported one another during the time of Abu Bakr and Umar. Then the devil put his plans against the Muslims into action. He cast fear and agony between them and spread among them trials of lustful desires and doubts. These two tribulations continued to grow little by little until most of creation fell into the devil’s obedience. There are those who entered into his obedience through the trial of doubts, there are those who fell into it through the trial of lustful desires, and there are also those who fell into it because of both.
The ‘strangers’ during the end times will be few in number once again. Imam Awzai, while commenting on this hadith, stated that, “Islam will not go away but the people of Sunnah will until only one person will remain among them.” This is why the early pious predecessors (salaf) used to praise the Sunnah a lot. They used to attribute it to a positive form of strangeness and used to indicate that they are few in numbers. Some of their quotes are as follows:
“O people of Sunnah! Be gentle, may Allah have mercy on you. Verily, you are the least among the people.” – Hasan Al-Basri
“There is nothing stranger than the Sunnah and the one who knows it is even stranger.” – Yunus bin Ubayd
“Treat the people of Sunnah with goodness, for verily, they are strangers.” – Sufyan Al-Thawri
“If a person reaches you from the east and he is from the people of Sunnah, then give him your salam, and if a person reaches you from the west and is from the people of Sunnah, then give him your salam because Ahl-us-Sunnah wal Jama’a are only a few.” – Yusuf bin Asbat
Noted Islamic scholar Ibn Qayyim said, Muslims are strangers among mankind; the true believers are strangers among Muslims; and the scholars are strangers among the true believers. And the followers of the Sunnah, those that abandon all forms of innovation, are likewise strangers.
The strangeness we feel is a sensation that was shared by the prophets and messengers before Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Prophet Noah preached the word of God to his people for 950 years yet he was rejected and mocked. Prophet Lot, Prophet Ibrahim and Prophet Jonah, were abused, persecuted and humiliated. Prophet Moses was rejected not only by the Pharaoh but also by his own people when they rejected his call and worshiped the golden calf instead of God alone. Prophet Jesus and his disciples were ridiculed when they chose to worship God Alone and must surely have felt the strangeness that we feel today.
Ibn Qayyim suggested that there were three degrees of strangeness. The first one he called ‘praiseworthy strangeness’, which is the result of adhering to the belief in One God. It is the strangeness of those who say, there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His messenger. It is a comforting strangeness, that comes from knowing that there is no help except from God. He (God) says that most of mankind will not follow the truth. Those that worship God truly and correctly will be the strangers from among mankind.
And if you obey most of the people on Earth, they will lead you astray. (Quran 6: 116)
And most of mankind will not believe, even if you (O Muhammad) desire it eagerly. (Quran 12: 103)
And truly, most of mankind are rebellious and disobedient (to God). (Quran 5: 49)
But nay, most of mankind are ungrateful. (Quran 12: 38)
As to the second type of strangeness, ‘blameworthy strangeness’, Ibn Qayyim said more than 600 years ago, words that are pertinent even today. “Their strangeness is due to their refusal to follow the correct and straight path of God. This strangeness is the strangeness of not conforming to the religion of Islam and, as such, it will remain strange even if its followers are numerous, its power is strong and its existence is widespread. These are the strangers to God, His Messenger, and His religion.”
The third category is the strangeness a traveler feels. It is neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy. It does however have the potential to become praiseworthy. When a person who lives in a place for a short period of time, knowing that he has to move on he feels strange, as if not belonging anywhere.
Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, “Live in this world as though you are a stranger or a wayfarer” (Bukhari). The strangeness that is felt by many adherent Muslims is usually a good thing. It can be that praiseworthy strangeness that confirms our love for Allah and His Messenger. It reminds us to live our lives as if we are travelers at a way stop, waiting for Allah to call us home to our final abode.
There is also an interesting piece on this topic by Ibn Taymiyyah and can be read here.