What does the concept of "Ummah" mean in Islam?
What does the concept of "Ummah" mean in Islam?
The Concept in the Qur’an:
The Glorious Qur’an is the first constituent that sets the concept of the nation in its new meaning; its broad and balanced concept that hinges on the unity of creed. It was the first to reach out for the whole existence with its universal and humane call that sets aside any tribalism or fanaticism. It addressed humanity at large without any regard for time or place.
The word “nation” was mentioned in the Qur’an in the singular form more than 50 times and we can easily extract at least five or six concepts for the word “nation” from the Qur’an.
First: The time and epoch as in the two verses
“If We defer their punishment till an appointed time…” (TMQ, 11:8).
“Then one of the two men who had been released and who, after a long time, remembered, said, ‘I shall tell you its interpretation; therefore, give me leave to go [to Joseph in prison].’” (TMQ, 12:45).
Second: The Imam who teaches righteousness and guides to the right path as in the verse
“Abraham was a nation in himself devoted to Allah and true in faith, He was not one of the polytheists;” (TMQ, 16:120).
Third: The followed practice or course as in the verse
“No indeed! They say, ‘We have found our fathers following a certain course, and we are guided by their footsteps.’” (TMQ, 43:22).
Fourth: A group of people in general as in the verses
“And when he arrived at the well of Madian, he found around it a group of men watering their flocks…” (TMQ, 28:23).
“When some of them asked, ‘Why do you admonish a people whom Allah is going to destroy or to afflict with a severe punishment?’…” (TMQ, 7:164).
This above meaning was mentioned in many other verses.
Fifth: A group of people having the same faith and the verses are numerous when it comes to this particular concept as in:
“Had Allah pleased, He would have united you in one nation…? (TMQ, 16:93).
“…had Allah so willed, He would have made you all a single nation, but He did not so will, in order that He might try you by what He has given you…” (TMQ, 5:48).
“For all people a term has been set...” (TMQ, 7:34).
Al-Tabari thinks that this above meaning is the original concept for the word “nation” even though he accepts –in many instances– the interpretation of the word as equivalent to “community” or “group of people”.
Sixth: A partial group belonging to a particular faith like in the verses
“Let there be a group among you who call others to good, and enjoin what is right, and forbid what is wrong: those who do this shall be successful.” (TMQ, 3:104).
“Every time a nation enters, it will curse its sister…” (TMQ, 7:38) .
Al-Wasit Dictionary defines the “nation” as: Each group for whom a messenger was sent whether they believed or disbelieved.
The Western studies come with a different conception as they see the “nation” being the resultant of an interaction between two types of factors:
The first are the objective factors like the language, history, race, single region, common interests, same aspirations, same traditions and habits, and same culture… etc. The second are the subjective factors like the individual awareness that each person a singular and separate character urging him to express this distinctive character in an organized manner .
In the eye of the Muslims the word “nation” extends far beyond all times in what we call “The Religion of God”; here the nation starts with Adam and it encompasses all the prophets and messengers throughout their sacred passage through history. The nation after Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) extends through all times and places, under all circumstances and for everybody alike.
Starting the age of the nation from the time of Adam (AS) as stated in the Qur’an gives a whole new meaning for the story; so it’s no longer just an acknowledgement of a fact or reality but it rather consolidates a concept upon which human unity can be founded. So what did the story tell us? It tells us the following facts:
A) That Adam came from the earth, so the earth is his mother and father. Hence, his sons have to treat this earth the same way a son would treat his parents; this relation is after all founded on devotion. Also, since Adam is from the earth this means there is equality between all his sons since they all come from Adam and Adam came from the earth (dust). Ibn Omar narrates to us that the Prophet (SAWS) gave a speech to the nation on the day Makkah was liberated and said, “O you people! Verily Allah has removed the slogans of Jahiliyah from you, and its reverence of its forefathers. So, now there are two types of men: A man who is righteous, fears Allah and is honorable before Him, and a wicked man, who is miserable and insignificant to Allah. People are the sons of Adam and Allah created Adam from dust… “
Since Adam is from the earth then he will return to it and his life if limited by his death. Hence this life is only a place where we are tested and assigned and not a place of immortality. Allah says, “From the earth We have created you and We will return you to it, and from it We shall bring you forth a second time.” (TMQ, 20:55). Since Adam is from the earth then he needs others and he can never be a stand-alone entity. From here comes the meaning of the word “There is no might or strength except in Allah” to indicate the reality of man’s existence on earth and the reality of his quest in it.
B) Adam (AS) was given a breath from the Spirit of Allah and this Spirit is a graceful creature of His. Allah says, “When I have formed him and breathed My spirit into him, fall down in prostration before him,’“ (TMQ, 15:29).
C) The angels were ordered to prostrate to Adam and this tells us that he is honored. Allah says, “We have honored the children of Adam, and have borne them on the land and the sea, given them for sustenance things which are good and pure; and exalted them above many of Our creatures.” (TMQ, 17:70).
D) Adam represents the good in his core, as opposed to the evil in Satan. So whoever imitates Adam is good and whoever deviates and imitates Satan is evil. Allah says, “O you who believe, do not follow in the footsteps of Satan, and whoever follows in the footsteps of Satan should know that he enjoins only indecency and evil...” (TMQ, 24:21).
E) Adam was shown both the two ways! Allah says, “…and shown him the two paths?” (TMQ, 90:10); that’s to say the path to good and the path to evil.
F) Adam was honored and endowed with responsibility! Allah says, “We offered the Trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they refused to bear it, because they were afraid of it. But man bore it…” (TMQ, 33:72).
This perspective for humanity identifies the concept of the ‘nation’ that started with Adam as Allah says, “Your religion is but one religion-and I am your only Lord, therefore, fear Me.” (TMQ, 23:52), and “This nation of yours is one nation and I am your Lord, so worship Me.” (TMQ, 21:92).
This way we come up with: 1) The Nation that got Invited to the message (ummat al-dawa): This is the whole humanity, 2) The Nation that Accepted the Message (ummat al-ijaba): These are the people who believed Prophet Muhammad (SAWS), his faith and his life style. This concept encompasses the whole humanity and it makes the Muslims regard the non-Muslims as a nation worthy of being addressed as “O You People…!” even if the Muslims are addressed as “O You Who Believe…!” In our creed as Muslims we see how the Prophet’s intercession will be for all humanity till the words of Allah “And in no way have We sent you except as a mercy to the worlds” (TMQ, 21:107), come true.
Among the prerequisites of understanding this concept is to set our priorities straight, to identify an approach for dealing with this life, to identify our relation with others, to set a program for populating the earth. Hence realizing the concept of the ‘nation’ is essential if it will represent a launching pad for all these issues and many others. Activating this perception however, is more important than the perception itself .
The Nation in Heritage and History:
When the revelation descended on Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) in the cave of Hiraa, there was no such thing as “nation” in the Arab Gulf. There were conflicting tribes, a plethora of dialects and faiths, clashing aspirations and on the outskirts of the peninsula there were political entities exploited by the major states in the region at that time; The Ghassanids and the Manathira in the Levant and Hayra who were connected to the Romans and Persians. Differences were set according to wealth, prestige, honor, boasting of fathers and mothers, tribes and races. The people at that time adopted three basic classes; the masters, the commoners, and the slaves!
Let us cite this story from history to explain our point further. In the earlier days of Islam the Muslims were very few in number, and the idolaters who were opposed to Islam used to persecute the Muslims. Being so few, the Muslims could do nothing to stop their persecution, and they thought it better to migrate to Abyssinia (presently known as Ethiopia), where they could live freely and in accordance with the Islamic principles. Al-Najashi (Negus King of Abyssinia) summoned the Muslims to his palace and, in the presence of his Christian scholars, he asked them: “What was your previous religion? What is your present religion? Why have you migrated to this country?” The Muslims’ spokesman was Jafar Ibn Abu Talib, a selfless young man who was full of belief. He replied: “O King! We were ignorant people and we lived like wild animals. The strong among us lived by preying upon the weak. We obeyed no law and we acknowledged no authority save that of brute force. We worshipped idols made of stone or wood, and we knew nothing of human dignity. And then God, in His Mercy, sent to us His Messenger who was himself one of us. We knew about his truthfulness and his integrity. His character was exemplary, and he was the most well-born of the Arabs. He invited us toward the worship of One God, and he forbade us to worship idols. He exhorted us to tell the truth, and to protect the weak, the poor, the humble, the widows and the orphans. He ordered us to show respect to women, and never to slander them. We obeyed him and followed his teachings. Most of the people in our country are still polytheists, and they resented our conversion to the new faith which is called Islam. They began to persecute us and it was in order to escape from persecution by them that we sought and found sanctuary in your kingdom. “
When the Prophet (SAWS) died he left the Arab Gulf behind as a one whole nation with one single faith and directing themselves to one direction for prayer (qibla). They all worshiped one God, followed one law (sharia), and were all under one single political leadership… etc.
Then land on which the Muslims lived expanded to include other countries like the Levant, Persia, Asia, Egypt… etc. This nation encompassed in its melting pot many other peoples like the Persians, the Turks, the Romans, the Berbers and the Kurds… etc. Then it embraced the various civilizations, sciences and cultures which were found in these countries to form eventually one single civilization that has an independent character; one of the most prominent civilizations in the history of humanity.
In her book “The Pivotal Nation” Dr. Mona Abul-Fadl argues that the continuity of the nation across history and surpassing the timed historical fact that goes from a fleeting past into today’s livable reality despite the absence of its embodied institutional shape (the caliphate) hinges mainly on several rules:
1) The Prophet (SAWS) strived to establish the nation even before the state or the sovereignty that will institutionally embody this nation.
2) The Prophet (SAWS) left behind him a ‘nation’ before a ‘leader; had there been no nation there would not have been anyone to lead it. Hence the leader (imam) is a derivative of the nation and the nation (or the community) is the original entity.
3) In this sense the ‘nation’ becomes the depository of the Muhammadan message; or to put it clearly, the nation becomes the vessel of the Qur’an.
4) This physical relation that gave way to the nation links it somehow to the cause not the effect. So the nation will survive so long as the Noble Qur’an survives but the disappearance of the “imam” or the “caliphate” even if this will weaken the effectiveness of the nation (being its embodies symbol) yet it will never end its existence which, in turn, will guarantee its regeneration. The nation in Islam is the entity that gives way to political, economic and social systems under the pretext of Islam as a doctrine and law. This whole pretext is adopted by the nation that believes in a holistic approach of life without any dichotomy between this life and the hereafter. At the end this generates for the nation a full thrust and momentum to vigorously pursue the implementation of its system till it is embodied on the land of reality. Louis Gardet expressed this meaning clearly in saying, “Islam assumes this inseparable bedrock linkage between religion and the state and between the community and creed. This physical correlation inevitably imposes itself and it exacts these appropriate positivist formations that will embody it and without which the system will be incomplete. “
This gives the historical dimension of the Islamic nation a whole capacity as regards to time and place and it makes it interact with what preceded it and whatever it can absorb without any sense of alienation. This historical interaction will also not result in an aftertaste of vagueness.
One Nation, Multiple Peoples:
Muslims, from the Islamic perspective, are a one nation that includes multiple peoples, multiple races, languages and homelands. Allah says, “…and made you into peoples and tribes, so that you might come to know each other. The noblest of you in Allah’s sight is the one who fears Allah most. Allah is all knowing and all-aware.” (TMQ, 49:13).
Being made of multiple peoples does not constitute a problem for the Muslim nation so long as Islam guides this nation and governs its actions. Islam melts the differences between the peoples with its doctrines, values, rulings and ethics. It melts everyone into one single mold till their differences become an enriching diversity rather than an antagonism. Everybody is loyal to Allah and the Muslim community! Everybody is proud of the faith that Allah honored them with and chose them for, “…Today I have completed your religion for you and completed My blessing upon you…” (TMQ, 5:3).
The loyal patriots and nationalists must never feel uncomfortable to belong to the Muslim nation because belonging to a major nation can never annul belonging to countries or peoples. Islam does not deny our love for our homeland or people because this comes naturally to all human beings. Human beings belong to various circles that intertwine and integrate without conflicting. The companions belonged to their peoples and tribes unabashed, we have; Salaman the Persian, Belal the Abyssinian, Suhaib the Roman and many other Qurayshis, Awsis, Khazrajis… etc. There is no contradiction between nationalism, Islamism, Arabism and Globalism if each was put in the right context. No wonder the Muslims are one nation because their Lord is One, their messenger is one, their book is one, their prayer direction is one, their rituals are the same and their governing law (the sharia) is one.
Belonging to the Muslim nation encompasses even the non-Muslims since they all belong to the abode of Islam as agreed by the jurists .
The Qur’an connects all the Muslim with an indestructible tie; the tie of brotherhood in faith. Allah says, “Surely all believers are brothers...” (TMQ, 49:10). There is no meaning for brotherhood if the brother does not feel the pains and worries of his brother. The Prophet (SAWS) personified this in the narration made by Al-Nooman Ibn-Bashir who said, “The Prophet (SAWS) said, “The believers, in their mutual love, mercy and compassion, are like one body: if one organ complained, the rest of the body develops a fever. “ This kind of compassion gives way to cooperation as illustrated by the Prophet (SAWS) in, “The believer to the believer is like the bricks of a wall, enforcing each other.” And then he clasped his hands, by interlacing his fingers . In another narration he says, “The Muslim is the brother of a Muslim. He does not do him injustice nor does he abandon him. “
After that comes the practical application of this brotherhood at the hands of the Prophet (SAWS) in the incident of brotherhood between the immigrants and supporters. Ibn Ishaq says, “The Prophet (SAWS) made pacts of brotherhood between his friends the muhajirin (the immigrants who fled Makkah) and the ansar (the supports who lived in Madinah). They became brothers two by two. Then he took the hand of Ali Ibn Abu-Talib and said, ‘This is my brother!’ This was how the Prophet -the master of all messengers, the leader of all those who fear Allah, the messenger of the Lord of the worlds who has no match or like in all humanity- became the brother of Ali (RA). There were also Hamza Ibn Abdul-Mutalib (the lion of Allah and His Prophet) and Zaid Ibn-Haritha (the Prophet’s freed slave) who became brothers. “
Among the virtues and pure temperaments of the ansar is that Allah says about them in the Qur’an, “Those who were already settled in the city [Madinah] and firmly rooted in faith, love those who migrated to them for refuge, and harbor no desire in their hearts for what has been given to the [latter]. They give them preference over themselves, even if they too are needy: those who are saved from their own souls’ greed are truly successful.” (TMQ, 59:9). Allah also says, “Even if you had spent all that is on the earth, you could not have coalesced their hearts, but Allah has coalesced them. Surely, He is Mighty and Wise.” (TMQ, 8:63). Al-Shawkani says in his book “Fathul-Qadir”, “This is generally speaking, and the coalition of the hearts of the believers was one of the causes of victory with which Allah endorsed His messenger. Most of the interpreters said, “This denotes the Aws and Khazraj tribes since they had ongoing wars and intense tribalism. Allah combined their hearts through their belief in Muhammad (SAWS). Other interpreters say, “It means the coalition between the muhajirin and ansar in general. The Arabs before the Muhammadan revelation practically fed on each other. They never respected ownership or blood till Islam came, united them in one and drove away this fanaticism from amongst them.”
In this respect it was narrated by Anas Ibn-Malik that he said, “The muhajirin said, ‘Prophet of Allah we have never seen any people who were a better compensation for whatever much we’ve lost nor a better consolation with whatever little they had. They have sufficed us from begging, shared with us all their blessings till we feared that they will harvest all the rewards.’ But the Prophet (SAWS) said, ‘No, this will not happen so long as you thank them and call Allah for them.’ “
Ibn-Katheer said, “Abdul-Rahman Ibn-Zayd Ibn-Aslam said, ‘The Prophet of Allah (SAWS) said to the ansar, ‘Your brothers left their money and children and came to you.’ So they said, ‘We will divide our money with them equally.’ The Prophet said, ‘Can you do better?’ They asked, ‘Tell us what to do Prophet of Allah!’ He said, ‘These people are not used to working. Will you provide for them and share with them your fruits?’ They said, ‘Yes we will! ‘”
Montgomery Watt says about the concept of the nation, “The concept of the nation as it comes in Islam is the most unprecedented magnificent idea. Till our time it still remains to be a fount for every stream of faith urging the Muslims to “uniting” into a single “nation” where all the boundaries of race, language, fanaticism to lineage or kin vanish. Islam is unique in creating this unity between its followers to include different spectrums of Arabs, Persians, Indians, Mongols, Chinese, Berbers, Negroes and white races sprawling all over the globe and with all their diverse interests. No one has ever come out of this nation trying to split this link or trying to disconnect himself from it. “