Someone sent me this hadith (given with no context) on twitter, hoping to score a cheap point:
I emailed a knowledgable friend to ask about its interpretation. He wrote back:
This hadith needs to be read in light of another hadith which states…
عن أبي الطفيل عامر الكناني قال : ضحك رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلّم ثم قال : ألا تسألوني مما ضحكت ؟ قلنا : يا رسول الله مما ضحكت ؟ قال : رأيت ناسا من أمتي يساقون إلى الجنة في السلاسل ، ما أكرهها إليهم ! قلنا : من هم ؟ قال : قوم من العجم يسبيهم المهاجرون فيدخلونهم في الإسلام
Abi Tufayl Amer al-Kinani said: The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) laughed and then said: Are you going to ask me about what I was laughing about? We said: Oh Messenger of Allah, what were you laughing about? He said: I saw people from my Ummah being herded into paradise in chains! We said: Who are they? He said: A group of non-Arabs taken prisoner by the Muhajirun and eventually enter paradise. [Collected by al-Haythami and authenticated by al-Albani]
Ibnul Jawzi said that this hadith is referring to people who were taken prisoner and then when they came to know about Islam and its beauty, they embraced it. They weren’t coerced into accepting Islam, but what led to their accepting Islam was ironically their initial capture and imprisonment.
So the Prophet (peace be upon him) is expressing his delight in the fact that the Muslim’s character and morals are so great, that even their prisoners of wars are getting impressed and adopting Islam eventually. It does not mean that they are being forced to accept Islam, nor does it mean that they are being imprisoned till they do or that they were imprisoned for that very purpose. The rules of war in Islam are known and need to be borne in mind.
Badrul Deen al-‘Aini in his commentary on Saheeh al-Bukhari said that the scholars differed whether this hadeeth only applied to the Sahabah (which may be the case, since the Prophet said “muhajirun” in that narration), but regardless, that’s not really the point.