Dawah in today's understanding means calling upon non-Muslims to believe in Islam.
The Arabic word dawah (دعوة) is derived from the root دعو. A Muslim who performs dawah is called داعي (daa'ee).
According to the Lane's lexicon:
دَعْوَةٌ دَعْوَةٌ [as an inf. n. of un.] signifies A single time or act (Ṣ, Mṣb) [of prayer and of imprecation, as is indicated in the Ṣ, and also, though less plainly, in the TA]. See دُعَآءٌ.
word: دَعْوَةٌ ― (signification - A2) [Also, as such, A call.] You say, هُوَمِنِّى دَعْوَةُ الرَّجُلَ (Ḳ, TA) and الكَلْبِ, and دَعْوَةَ الرَّجُلِ and الكَلْبِ, in the former case دعوة being used as a simple subst., and in the latter case as an adv. n., (TA,) meaning قَدْرُ مَا بَيْنِى وَبَيْنَهُ ذَاكَ [i. e. He, or it, is distant from me the space of the call of the man and of the dog]. (Ḳ, TA.) And لَهُمُ الدَّعْوَةُ عَلَى غَيْرِهِمْ The call is to them before the others of them: (Ḳ, TA: [يَبْدَأُ in the CK is a mistake for يُبْدَأُ:]) accord. to the T and the Nh, in the case of gifts, or pay, or salary. (TA.)
word: دَعْوَةٌ ― (signification - A3) The call to prayer: whence, in a trad., الدَّعُوَةُ فِى الحَبَشَةِ [meaning The office of calling to prayer rests among the Abyssinians]; (JM, TA;) said by the Prophet in preference of his مُؤَذِّن Bilál. (JM.)
word: دَعْوَةٌ ― (signification - A4) A call, or an invitation, to El-Islám. (Mgh.) You say, أَدْعُوكَ بِدَعْوَةِ الإِسْلَامِ andدِعَايَةِ↓ السلام andدَاعِيَةِ↓ الاسلام, meaning I call thee, or invite thee, by the declaration of the faith whereby the people of false religions are called: دَاعِيَةٌ being an inf. n. syn. with دَعْوَةٌ, like عَافِيَةٌ and عَاقِبَةٌ: (JM:) دَعْوَةُ الإِسْلَامِ andدَعايَتُهُ↓ andدَاعِيَتُهُ↓ signify the same: and دَعْوَةُ الحَقِّ [in like manner] means the declaration that there is no deity but God. (TA.)
word: دَعْوَةٌ ― (signification - A5) An invitation to food, (Ṣ, M, Mṣb, Ḳ, TA,) and to beverage; or, accord. to Lḥ, specially a repast, feast, or banquet, on the occasion of a wedding or the like: (TA:) thus pronounced by most of the Arabs, except 'Adee of Er-Rabáb, who pronounce it, in this sense, دِعْوَةٌ↓: (AʼObeyd, Ṣ, M, Mṣb:) it is an inf. n. in this sense, (Ṣ,) or a simple subst.: (Mṣb:) andدُعْوَةٌ↓ signifies the same; (Ḳ;) or, as some say, this, which is given as on the authority of Ḳṭr, is a mistake: (TA:) and so doesمَدْعَاةٌ↓ [app. an inf. n.]. (Ṣ, Mṣb, Ḳ.) You say, كُنَّافِى دَعْوَةِ فُلَانٍ andمَدْعَاتِهِ↓, meaning [We were included in] the invitation (دُعَآء [see 1]) of such a one to food: (Ṣ, Mṣb: [but in the latter, نَحْنُ, in the place of كُنَّا:]) [or we were at the repast, or feast, or banquet, of such a one; for] you say [also] دَعَاهُ إِلَى الدَّعْوَةِ andالى المَدْعَاةِ↓ [He invited him to the repast, or feast, or banquet: and in this sense دَعْوَة is commonly used in the present day]. (MA.)
word: دَعْوَةٌ ― (signification - A6) See also دِعْوَةٌ:
word: دَعْوَةٌ ― (signification - A7) and دَعْوَى.
word: دَعْوَةٌ ― (signification - A8) Also i. q. حَلِفٌ or حَلْفٌ (accord. to different copies of the Ḳ) [both in the sense of Confederation to aid or assist]: (Ḳ, TA:) [whence] one says, دَعْوَةٌ فُلَانٍ فِى بَنِى فُلَانٍ [meaning The confederation of such a one is with the sons of such a one]. (TA.)
Al Maany dictionary
According to popular online Arabic-English dictionary almaany.com:
دَعْوَة ( اسم ): دُعاء
(good) wish ; invocation (of God) ; prayer ; supplication
دَعْوَة ( اسم ): طَلَب
claim ; demand ; request
دَعْوَة ( اسم ):
دَعْوَة ( اسم ): مُنَاشَدَة
appeal ; appealing to ; call ; calling upon ; invitation ; inviting ; request ; requesting
دعوة ( اسم ):
Da`wahInviting others to Islam. Missionary work.
In the Quran
There are 212 words derived from the root دعو in the Quran , but only 6 occurrences are دعوة (dawah).
In two of the six cases it occurs with a suffixed possessive pronoun (كما and ك). Notice that in none of these cases it speaks about proselytizing done by Muslims towards non-Muslims.
Allah responds to dawah (calling) from a person (dawah towards Allah, not towards disbelievers):
And when My servants ask you, [O Muhammad], concerning Me - indeed I am near. I respond to the invocation (دعوة) of the supplicant when he calls upon Me. So let them respond to Me [by obedience] and believe in Me that they may be [rightly] guided.
Moses does dawah towards Allah so that he makes people disbelievers:
And Moses said, "Our Lord, indeed You have given Pharaoh and his establishment splendor and wealth in the worldly life, our Lord, that they may lead [men] astray from Your way. Our Lord, obliterate their wealth and harden their hearts so that they will not believe until they see the painful punishment."
[ Allah ] said, "Your supplication (دعوتكما) has been answered." So remain on a right course and follow not the way of those who do not know."
This was the opposite of what is today known as "dawah" (calling people to Islam). Moses wants to make people disbelievers and Allah fulfills his wish.
In the verse 13:14, dawah is directed "to him" (meaning "to Allah"), not towards the disbelievers:
To Him [alone] is the supplication (دعوة) of truth. And those they call upon besides Him do not respond to them with a thing, except as one who stretches his hands toward water [from afar, calling it] to reach his mouth, but it will not reach it [thus]. And the supplication of the disbelievers is not but in error [i.e. futility].
The meaning of the verse is that when Muslims give dawah towards Allah, he responds, but when polytheists give dawah to their gods, the gods don't respond .
In 14:44, the dawah is from Allah (not from Muslims) towards people:
And, [O Muhammad], warn the people of a Day when the punishment will come to them and those who did wrong will say, "Our Lord, delay us for a short term; we will answer Your call (دعوتك) and follow the messengers." [But it will be said], "Had you not sworn, before, that for you there would be no cessation?
Dawah from Allah (not from Muslims):
And of His signs is that the heaven and earth remain by His command. Then when He calls you with a [single] call (دعوة) from the earth, immediately you will come forth.
And in the last one, the dawah is from the disbelievers:
You invite me to disbelieve in Allah and associate with Him that of which I have no knowledge, and I invite you to the Exalted in Might, the Perpetual Forgiver.
Assuredly, that to which you invite me has no [response to a] supplication (دعوة) in this world or in the Hereafter; and indeed, our return is to Allah, and indeed, the transgressors will be companions of the Fire.
Muslims leading non-Muslims to Islam?
The verse 41:33 seems to support proselytizing:
And who is better in speech than one who invites to Allah and does righteousness and says, "Indeed, I am of the Muslims."
However there is another verse which says if someone wants to be a disbeliever, let him disbelieve:
Then whosoever wills, let him believe; and whosoever wills, let him disbelieve.
And both the verses above are in contradiction with the following verses, which say that only Allah decides who believes and who doesn't. So it's not a matter of free will and the Muslim effort to try to convert people is pointless.
Allah sends astray whom He wills and guides whom He wills.
Do you wish to guide those whom Allah has sent astray? And he whom Allah sends astray - never will you find for him a way [of guidance].
So from this, we could say that "the dawah" movement is a blasphemy against the Quran, because they try to lead people to faith, while they should believe that only Allah can do it. They are trying to interfere with the will of Allah.
Even Muhammad doesn't have any power in leading people to Islam:
Indeed, [O Muhammad], you do not guide whom you like, but Allah guides whom He wills. And He is most knowing of the [rightly] guided.
According to the Quran, Allah guides whom he wants into faith and Muslims cannot lead people to faith, so dawah is pointless.
- But if Allah doesn't exist, then it IS the Muslims who are leading people to Islam and then they say "Allah did it".
- "His exalted be He is the call of truth that is the words that constitute it the truth and these are ‘there is no god but God’ lā ilāha illā’Llāh; and those upon whom they call read yad‘ūn or tad‘ūn ‘you call’ those whom they worship apart from Him that is other than Him — namely the idols — do not answer them anything of which they ask; save as is the response to one who stretches forth his hands towards water at the edge of a well calling to it that it may reach his mouth by its rising through the well to reach him but it would never reach it that is reach his mouth ever likewise they the idols will not answer them; and the call of the disbelievers their worship of idols — or their actual supplication — goes only astray it is only in perdition. " https://www.altafsir.com/Tafasir.asp?tMadhNo=0&tTafsirNo=74&tSoraNo=13&tAyahNo=14&tDisplay=yes&UserProfile=0&LanguageId=2