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Ummah

By:
Ahmad S. Dallal, Yoginder Sikand, Abdul Rashid Moten
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Ummah

The Arabic term ummah refers to a people or a community, united by certain features that they share in common, such as customs, ethnicity, history, language, and, particularly, religion. It is often used to refer to the ummah al-muḥammadīyah (community of Muḥammad) or ummah al-Islāmīyah (community of Islam). Although its meaning has developed throughout history, it has often been used to express the essential unity of Muslims in diverse cultural settings.

Use in Qurʿān and Ḥadīth.

The term ummah occurs sixty-four times in the Qurʿān. In most of these cases, the term is used to designate a people to whom God sends a prophet, or a people who are part of a divine plan of salvation. Hence, in these contexts in the Qurʿān the term ummah refers to a single group sharing some common religious orientation. In Qurʿānic usage, however, the connotations of community and religion do not always converge, and the word has multiple and diverse meanings.

In several instances ummah refers to an unrestricted group of people. Sūrah 28 verse 23, for example, reads, “And when he [Moses] came to the water of Madyan, he found on it a group of men (ummah min al-nās) watering.” The term can also mean a specific religion or the beliefs of a certain group of people (43:22–23), or an exemplar or model of faith, as in the reference to Abraham as an “ummah, obedient to God” (16:120). Ummah also refers to the followers of a particular prophet, there being, the Qurʿān says, no people who have not been sent such messengers by God (“For every ummah there is an apostle,” 10:47); to a group of people adhering to a specific religion in terms of rules, rituals, and practices (“To each one of you We have appointed a law and a pattern of life. If God had pleased He could surely have made you all a single ummah,” 5:48); to a smaller group within the larger community of adherents (“They are not all alike; among the people of the Book is an upright ummah,” 3:113); to the followers of Muḥammad who are charged with a special responsibility (“And thus We have made you a justly-balanced ummah that you may be the bearers of witness to the people and that the Apostle may be a bearer of witness to you,” 2:143); or to a subgroup of these followers (“So let there be an ummah among you who may call to good, enjoin what is right and forbid the wrong, and these it is that shall be successful,” 3:104).

The term ummah is often used in the Qurʿān in the context of reference to a misguided group of people (“Were it not that all people would be a single ummah, We would certainly have allocated to those who disbelieve in the Beneficent God [to make] of silver the roofs of their houses and the stairs by which they ascend,” 43:33), or a misguided party from among the followers of a prophet (“And on the day when We will gather from every ummah a party from among those who rejected Our communications, then they shall be formed into groups,” 27:83, or “Then We sent Our apostles one after the other; whenever there came to an ummah their apostle, they called him a liar, so We made one follow the other [to its dooms], and We turned them into bygone tales,” (23:44). Finally, ummah could mean a period of time (“And if We hold back from them the punishment until a stated ummah/period of time, they will say,” 11:8). It can also mean an order of being (“And there is no animal that walks upon the earth nor a bird that flies with its two wings but they are an ummah like yourself,” 6:38).

The occasional rift between the civil and religious notions of ummah in Qurʿānic usage has parallels in ḥadīth literature. In several traditions Muḥammad is said to use “my ummah” to mean the group related to him by lineage rather than by religion. It is the ḥadīth literature, however, that provides the concept of ummah with its precise and focused meaning. Besides the Qurʿān, the earliest extant source available is a set of documents written by Muḥammad shortly after his arrival at Medina. These documents, commonly referred to in modern scholarship as the “Constitution of Medina,” comprise several practical provisions designed to regulate social and political life in Medina under Islam. Most scholars agree that the main purport of the constitution is political and not religious. It defines treaty relations among the different groups inhabiting Medina and its environs, including the Muslim tribes of Medina, Muslims who emigrated from Mecca, and Jews.

The “constitution” starts with the pronouncement that all these groups constitute “one distinct community [ummah] apart from other people.” In the forty-seven clauses of the constitution the term ummah appears in only one other instance, when the Jews of Banū ʿAwf are said to constitute “an ummah with the believers.” The same clause goes on to state that the Jews have their religion and the Muslims have theirs. The meaning of the term ummah in the constitution is clearly not synonymous with religion. The constitution also delineates relations of mutual aid among the different constituent tribal groups, actions to be taken against those who violate the terms of the agreement, and actions to be taken against criminals belonging to the incipient community in Medina. Rather than supplanting or abolishing tribal bonds, the constitution regulates relations among tribes, and between them and the outside world, on the basis of the higher order of the ummah. Ummah here is a concept of daily life that also stands for a certain kind of identity and defines a social and political unit.

While the Constitution of Medina seems to sanction diversity within the Islamic ummah, the Qurʿān sanctions differentiation among various ummahs as a norm decreed by God. Sūrah10 verse 19, reads, “People were once a single ummah; but they differed (and followed different ways). Had it not been for the word proclaimed by your Lord before, their differences would have been resolved” (see also 2:213, 5:48, 11:118, 16:93, and 42:8). There is a sense, therefore, in which the concept of the ummah refers to an ideal state, an original all-encompassing unity that is always invoked but never completely recovered.

This rudimentary concept of the ummah, however, is complemented by the narrower concept of the ummah of believers. This is the “justly balanced ummah” (2:143), which is further qualified in the Qurʿān as “the best ummah evolved for mankind, enjoining what is good, forbidding what is wrong, and believing in God” (3:110; see also 4:41 and 16:89). This specific ummah, or the followers of Muḥammad, is further differentiated from the followers of earlier messengers and prophets; whereas the latter's sphere of influence is restricted to particular peoples, the former's scope is all of humanity. When referring to prophets before Muḥammad, the Qurʿān says, “To every ummah We have sent an apostle [saying:] Worship God” (16:36; see also 10:47). In reference to Muḥammad, however, the Qurʿān adds, “Say: O men, I am verily the apostle of God to you all” (7:158). The universality of Muḥammad's mission was the reby asserted, and the “justly-balanced ummah” shouldered the central role in the fulfillment of this mission after him.

Development in Legal and Political Thought.

The concept of ummah underwent important developments immediately after Muḥammad's death. Different circumstances accompanied the selection of each of the first four caliphs after Muḥammad who are recognized in the Sunnī tradition, yet in each case the appointment was conferred by the majority of the ummah, thereby investing ultimate political authority in the ummah and its consensus. It was argued that, to preserve its unity, the ummah needed leadership consolidated in the person of one imam. The second caliph, ʿUmar, relinquished the distribution of conquered land to Muslim conquerors, considering it public property, the property of the whole ummah. The idealization of the period of the first four “rightly guided” caliphs is not a mere creation of the historical imagination of later generations of Sunnī Muslims: it was a period in which important Islamic ideals were actually conceived. These include the principles of the unity of the ummah, the ummah as the ultimate source of political authority, and the related principles of the unity of political leadership and the unity of the land of Islam.

Under Umayyad rule the need for a unified political authority was overemphasized and used to justify exclusive Arab dynastic rule at the expense of the Islamic ideal of the unity of the ummah. Under the ʿAbbāsids the inclusive Qurʿānic notion of the ummah was revived, and the political dominance of the ʿAbbāsid family did not preclude the participation of other ethnic groups. This participation, however, eventually led to the gradual loosening of political centralization. As the ʿAbbāsid caliphs wielded less control over an increasingly decentralized state, they continued to function as symbols of the unity of its ummah. This unity was corroborated by an Islamic cultural tradition that was well developed by the end of the second century of Islam.

Traditionalists and ḥadīth scholars argued that Islam could only be preserved by safeguarding the unity of the ummah. The standard legal formulations of the classical period defined it as a spiritual, non-territorial community distinguished by the shared beliefs of its members. This concept was not a mere abstraction; it had legal consequences. The distinction in later Muslim jurisprudence between the “land of Islam” (dār al-Islām) and the “land of war” (dār al-Ḥarb) was based on the conceptual division of people into believers and nonbelievers, although this notion of the two types of “land” does not, strictly speaking, have any Qurʿānic sanction. Nonbelievers were further classified on the basis of their relation to the ummah of believers. There were no formal conditions or ritual requirements for joining the ummah aside from being born to Muslim parents or freely choosing to become a Muslim. Membership in this ummah can thus be viewed as a sort of citizenship that guarantees, at least theoretically, equality among all Muslims. One expression of the treatment of the ummah as a legal entity is the distinction in Islamic jurisprudence between religious obligations that fall on individuals and other obligations that the ummah shoulders collectively as one unit. As late as the early twentieth century, French courts, for example, had to deal with the implications of a Muslim's membership in the ummah as a reality with substantive legal consequences.

In legal theory—for example, in the writings of Shāfiʿī (d. 820) on the principles of jurisprudence—the consensus of the community (ijmāʿ) was elevated into the status of a source of law second only to the Qurʿān and the traditions of Muḥammad. The ḥadīth stating “My ummah would never agree on an error” (lā tajtamiʿu ummatī ʿalā ḍalālah) was perceived in the legal classics as evidence of the infallibility of the ummah and its unrivaled authority. The literature of the classical period thus viewed the ummah as a socio-religious reality with legal and political import.

Beginning with the third century of Islam, some scholars suggested a distinction between religious forms of human association, or millah, and sociopolitical forms, termed ummah (for example, al-Farābī, d. 950). A more significant distinction was promoted by political theoreticians working during periods of political fragmentation. The celebrated al-Māwardī (d. 1058), for example, conceded the possibility of having more than one executive organ of political power, but he insisted on the unity of the ummah and on the symbolic unity of the office of the caliph.

From the third century AH Islamic literature also conferred a distinguished status on the Arabs within the larger ummah of Muslims. This literature emphasized the centrality of the Arabs and their language to Islam, in response to the Shuʿūbīyah movement, which denigrated the Arabs in favor of other ethnic identities. Al-Shāfiʿī, for example, lists in his Risālah fī uṣūl al-fiqh (Treatise on the Principles of Jurisprudence) the Qurʿānic references to Arabic and its prominence, and Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (d. 855) collects numerous ḥadīths that enumerate the virtues of Arabs and reprimand their foes. In different genres of writing, including jurisprudence, philosophy, histories, poetry, and prose, the Arabs are said to be privileged by speaking the language of the Qurʿān and of paradise, and by being the core community to whom Muḥammad was sent. As the political hegemony of the Arabs receded, so did the cultural tensions between them and other ethnic groups. The tradition of praising the Arabs, however, did not subside; rather, the initial reactive defense gave way to independent self-conscious reflections on Arabness as a cultural identity, and on its unique and organic link to the religious, political, and social identity of the Islamic ummah.

Era of Nationalism.

The social reality of the unified ummah, and the related concept of dār al-Islām, were not undermined by political decentralization in the Islamic world. However, under the pressure of European colonial encroachment on Muslim domains, this social identity was seriously challenged. Islamic resistance movements defending the ummah against European intrusions emerged throughout the Muslim world. The attempts of the Ottoman sultan Abdülhamid II (r. 1876–1909) to restore Muslim unity by reviving the idea of ummah were extremely popular among Muslims from India to Morocco. Equally popular was the call by Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (1839–1897) for Islamic solidarity to reinvigorate the ummah. On the other side of the confrontation, European powers were making progress both at the military front and in the form of concessions imposed on the Ottoman Empire. Moreover, the European idea of the secular nation state had some appeal among Muslim elites.

The earliest forms of nationalism in the Islamic world, however, conceived of Islam as a central component of the nationalist project. With very few exceptions, the early nationalists, including the non-Muslims among them, appropriated the Islamic concept of ummah. Although nationalist movements in the guise of Islamic reform often disrupted the actual political unity of the ummah, they did not challenge the theoretical authority of the concept. Moreover, the symbols of Arab nationalism retained their religious weight, in contrast to the Turkish nationalism of Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), who dissociated Turkey from its Islamic tradition. In India, some nationalist ʿulamāʿ who opposed the Muslim League's demand for a separate land for the Indian Muslims, later to be named Pakistan, developed the notion of “composite nationalism,” arguing that the Hindus, Muslims, and other religious communities of India were, all taken together, members of a single “nation.” For this purpose, they cited the “Constitution of Medina,” referred to above, which recognized all parties to the treaty, Muslims and non-Muslims, as members of a single ummah. This usage of the concept of ummah sought to counter exclusivist understandings of the term that were championed by forceful advocates of pan-Islamism as well as Indian Muslim leaders who were behind the movement for Pakistan.

In reaction to the political vacuum created by Atatürk's elimination of the caliphate in 1924, a number of Islamic conferences were held to discuss the political situation of the Muslim ummah. These conferences failed to achieve any significant results because of the conflicting loyalties between the sovereign secular nation-states and the religious ummah. These competing loyalties eventually led to greater separation between Islam and nationalism. Beginning in the 1960s, even Arab nationalists began to speak in favor of a complete separation of religious and national identities. In reaction, many Islamists argued that loyalty to the Islamic ummah negates any other loyalty to ethnic, linguistic, or geographical entities. Still, the idea of the Islamic ummah, as it is used in contemporary political discourse, carries the imprint of the nation state with which it is competing. The gradual secularization of public life has curtailed political and legal expressions of the idea of the ummah, but its significance as a source of social identity persists in the Islamic world.

See also CONSTITUTION OF MEDINA; DāR AL-ISLāM; ISLAMIC STATE; NATION; and PAN-ISLAM.

Bibliography

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  • Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798–1939. London, 1962. Especially useful for discussions of Arab nationalism.
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  • Naṣṣār, Naṣīf. Mafhūm al-ummah bayna al-dīn wa-al-tārīkh. Beirut, 1978. Useful study of the concept of ummah in the Qurʿān, in the “Constitution of Medina,” and in later philosophical and historical writings.
  • Naṣṣār, Naṣīf. Taṣawwurāt al-ummah al-muʿāsirah: Muʾassasat al-Kuwayt lil-Taqaddum al-ʿIlmī, Idārat al-Taʾlīf wa-al-Tarjamah. Kuwait, 1986. Useful survey of the various conceptions of ummah in modern and contemporary Arabic thought.
  • Nieuwenhuijze, C. A. O. van. “The Ummah: An Analytic Approach.”Studia Islamica10 (1959): 5–22.
  • Paret, Rudi. “Umma.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 4, pp. 1015–1016. Leiden, Netherlands, 1960–.
  • Qureshi, Ishtiaq Husain. The Struggle for Pakistan. Karachi, 1969. Includes references to the intellectual debates regarding the national identity of Pakistan and its relation to Islam.
  • Rahman, Fazlur. “The Principle of Shūrā and the Role of the Umma in Islam.”American Journal of Islamic Studies1, no. 1 (1984): 1–9.
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  • Rubin, Uri. “The ‘Constitution of Medina’: Some Notes.”Studia Islamica62 (1985): 5–23.
  • Sayyid, Riḍwān al-. “Dār al-Islām wa-al-Niẓām al-Duwalī wa-al-Ummah al-ʿArabīyah.”Mustaqbal al-ʿĀlam al-Islāmī1, no. 1 (1991): 37–70. Comparative study of the question of national identity in the modern Islamic world.
  • Sayyid, Riḍwān al-. Mafāhīm al-jamāʿāt fī al-Islām. Beirut, 1993. Chapter 5 is especially good on the Arabs in Islamic thought.
  • Sayyid, Riḍwān al-. Al-ummah wa-al-jamāʿah wa-al-sulṭah: Dirāsāt fī al-fikr al-sīyāsī al-ʿArabī al-Islāmī. Beirut, 1984. By far the best and most comprehensive study of the historical development of the concept of ummah. See especially pp. 17–87.
  • Serjeant, R. B.“The Constitution of Madinah.”Islamic Quarterly8 (June 1964): 3–16.
  • ʿUmarī, Akram Ḍiyāʿ al-. Al-mujtamaʿ al-madanī fī ʿahd al-nubūwah. Medina, 1983. Meticulous study employing traditional methods of ḥadīth criticism to establish the authenticity of the “Constitution of Medina” (pp. 107–136).
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