Political society

The Prophet’s Ummah envisions a plural society

Muslims performing Haj in Makkah, Saudi Arabia (Twitter: Ministry of Haj and Umrah, Saudi Arabia)

Shujaat Ali Quadri

Ummah, an Arabic word, is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as the entire Muslim community bound together by ties of religion. However, the word Ummah in Arabic simply means community or nation, without emphasizing community of religion or kinship.

Unfortunately, Muslims around the world, especially some prominent Islamist groups, see themselves as one ummah by virtue of one faith. Likewise, non-Muslim commentators reflect the Ummah’s interpretation exactly as the Oxford Dictionary has it.

Historical facts, however, favor the Arab sense of the Ummah. In the time of the Prophet Muhammad, before the conception of the Ummah, Arab communities were generally governed by kinship, as was the case 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 with it the concept of the Ummah. The Ummah emerged from the idea that a Messenger or a Prophet was sent to a community. Unlike previous messengers, who had been sent to various communities in the past (as can be found among the Old Testament prophets), Muhammad sought to develop a universal Ummah and not just for the Arabs.

Muhammad saw his goal as conveying a divine message and leading the Islamic community. Islam regards Muhammad as the messenger of the Ummah, conveying a divine message and implying that God directs the affairs of the life of the Ummah. Accordingly, the purpose of the Ummah was to be based on religion by following the commandments 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 ancient document believed to have been negotiated by the Prophet Muhammad in 622 CE with major Clans of Medina, which explicitly refers to the Jewish, Christian and Gentile citizens of Medina as members of the Ummah.

Professor 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 combine the Western perception of the Ummah. Based on reading selected portions of his book, it can be inferred that the first Ummah emerged in Medina. He describes the Ummah as an inclusive community of all or a plural society.

After the Prophet Muhammad and early converts to Islam were forced to leave Mecca, the community was welcomed to Medina by the Ansar, a group of pagan converts to Islam. Although Medina was already occupied by many Jewish and polytheistic tribes, the arrival of Muhammad and his followers did not provoke any opposition from the inhabitants of Medina. Upon arriving in Medina, Muhammad established the Constitution of Medina with the various tribal leaders in order to form the Meccan immigrants and the people of Medina into a single community, the Ummah. Rather than limiting the membership of the Ummah to a single tribe or religious affiliation, the Constitution of Medina ensured that the Ummah was made up of a variety of people and beliefs, making it essentially supra-tribal.

The early Islamic historian Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari suggests that the Prophet Muhammad’s original 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. This happened on Friday because Friday served as a market day in Medina to allow Jews to observe the Sabbath. Membership in the Ummah, according to Tabari, was not limited to adhering to the Muslim faith, but rather encompassed all tribes as long as they swore to recognize Muhammad as the community and political authority figure. The Constitution of Medina declared that the Jewish tribes and Muslims of Medina form “One Ummah”. The Ummah of Medina 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 who has been sent to relay a divine message to the community and that all Ummahs await the ultimate judgment of God.

A verse from the Quran also mentions the Ummah in the context of all the Messengers and that their Ummah (nation) is one, and God is entirely their Lord:

O messengers, eat good foods and work righteously. Indeed, I am aware of what you are doing. And indeed this, your Ummah (nation), is an 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 President of the Federation of Muslim Students of India