Islam came to this world to rescue the bewildered humanity from the chains of ignorance and darkness. The call of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) came to liberate the oppressed peoples from their oppressive rulers who placed a barrier between them and the light of Islam.
Sheikh `Abdel-Khaliq Hasan Ash-Shareef, a prominent Muslim scholar, states the following: An hadith states: “I have been ordered to fight people until they testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah and until they perform the prayers and pay the Zakah. Their doing so will earn them protection for their lives and property, unless [they do acts that are punishable] in accordance with Islam, and their reckoning will be with Allah the Almighty.” In explaining this hadith, I’d like to say that there is a big difference between the Arabic word ‘uqatel’ (to fight) and the word ‘aqtula’ (to kill). The first word (which is mentioned in the hadith) refers to fighting the powers that prevent people from realizing the greatness of Islam and seeing the divine light. Thus, the hadith goes in consistence with the Qur’anic verse that reads, (There is no compulsion in religion.) (Al-Baqarah 2: 256)
History bears witness to the fact that wherever Islam reached it survived, and that whenever Muslims entered any land, they used to live side by side with non-Muslim natives. We never heard about one of those non-Muslims being killed or punished due to his/her religion. On the contrary, those non-Muslims participated in the building of the Muslim State and stood side by side with Muslims in their process of developing the state.
The call of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was to liberate the oppressed peoples and oust all those deviant and despotic rulers who placed a barrier between their people and the light of Islam and prevented them from realizing its true nature and its illuminating teachings.
Again, we stress the fact that the exact words of the hadith are ‘uqatel i.e. fight’, not ‘aqtul (to kill’). It goes without saying that the history mentions many incidents in which non-Muslims took advantage and enjoyed the justice of Islam even when this policy stipulated things that were not in favor of Muslims. The incident of the son of `Amr ibn Al-`Aas, governor of Egypt at the time of the Caliph `Umar ibn Al-Khattab, with a Coptic man is a well-known example. `Umar allowed the Copt to avenge himself on the governor’s son who hit him just for outpacing him in horse racing. This great justice is out of dispute.
In conclusion, it is clear that what is meant in the hadith is fighting those who place people’s minds in the chains of ignorance and prevent them from grasping the light.