Shujaat Ali Quadri
Ummah, an Arabic word, is defined by the Oxford dictionary as the whole community of Muslims bound together by ties of religion. However, the word Ummah in Arabic simply means community or nation, with no emphasis on the commonality of religion or kinship.
Unfortunately, Muslims all across the world, some prominent Islamist outfits specifically, have been viewing themselves as one Ummah by virtue of being of one faith. Similarly, non-Muslim commentators reflect the interpretation of the Ummah exactly as the Oxford dictionary has mentioned.
The historical facts however favour the Arabic meaning of the Ummah. At the time of Prophet Muhammad, before the conception of the Ummah, Arab communities were typically governed by kinship as was prevalent among the various tribal groups. In other words, the political ideology of the Arabs centered on tribal affiliations and blood relations. In the midst of a tribal society, the religion of Islam emerged and along with it the concept of the Ummah. The Ummah emerged according to the idea that a Messenger or Prophet has been sent to a community. Unlike earlier Messengers, who had been sent to various communities in the past (as can be found among the Prophets in the Old Testament), Muhammad sought to develop an Ummah that was universal and not only for Arabs.
Muhammad saw his purpose as the transmission of a divine message and the leadership of the Islamic community. Islam sees Muhammad as the messenger to the Ummah, transmitting a divine message, and implying that God is directing the life affairs of the Ummah. Accordingly, the purpose of the Ummah was to be based on religion by following the commands of God, rather than kinship.
According to Professor Juan Cole, the renowned historian of Early Islam and the Middle East, the usage is further clarified by the Constitution of Medina, an early document said to have been negotiated by Prophet Muhammad in CE 622 with the leading clans of Medina, which explicitly refers to Jewish, Christians and pagan citizens of Medina as members of the Ummah.
Prof Cole’s recent book Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires delves into the question of the Ummah in detail in order to ally western perception of the Ummah. Based on the reading of some selected portions of his book, it can be inferred that the first Ummah emerged in Medina. He describes Ummah as an encompassing community of all or a plural society.
After Prophet Muhammad and the first converts to Islam were forced to leave Mecca, the community was welcomed in Medina by the Ansar, a group of pagans who had converted to Islam. Despite Medina already being occupied by numerous Jewish and polytheistic tribes, the arrival of Muhammad and his followers provoked no opposition from Medina’s residents. Upon arriving in Medina, Muhammad established the Constitution of Medina with the various tribal leaders in order to form the Meccan immigrants and the Medinan residents into a single community, the Ummah. Rather than limiting members of the Ummah to a single tribe or religious affiliation, the Constitution of Medina ensured that the Ummah was composed of a variety of people and beliefs essentially making it to be supra-tribal.
Historian of very early Islam, Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, suggests that Prophet Muhammad’s initial intentions upon arriving in Medina were to establish a mosque, however, this is unlikely. Tabari also claims that Muhammad observed the first Friday prayer in Medina. It occurred on Friday because Friday served as a market day in Medina to enable Jews to observe the Sabbath. Membership in the Ummah, according to Tabari, was not restricted to adhering to the Muslim faith but rather encompassed all of the tribes as long as they vowed to recognize Muhammad as the community and political figure of authority. The Constitution of Medina declared that the Jewish tribes and the Muslims from Medina formed ‘One Ummah.’ The Medinan Ummah was purely secular due to the variety of beliefs and practices of its members.
Ummah in the words of the Quran
There are 62 instances in which the term Ummah is mentioned in the Quran, and they almost always refer to ethical, linguistic, or religious bodies of people who are subject to the divine plan of salvation. The Quran recognizes that each Ummah has a Messenger that has been sent to relay a divine message to the community and that all Ummahs await God’s ultimate judgment.
A verse in the Quran also mentions the Ummah in the context of all of the Messengers and that their Ummah (nation) of theirs is one, and God is their Lord entirely:
O Messengers, eat from the good foods and work righteousness. Indeed, I, of what you do, am Knowing. And indeed this, your Ummah (nation), is one Ummah (nation), and I am your Lord, so fear Me. [Quran, Surah Al-Mu’minun (The Believers) (23:51–52)]
Dr. Shujaat Quadri is the Chairman of the Muslim Students federation of India