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Ummah

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

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    Ummah

    The term ummah, often translated as “Muslim community,” is a fundamental concept in Islam. It represents the essential unity of believers worldwide, regardless of their geographical or cultural settings.

    Scholars who study the Qur'an maintain that the word ummah refers to a people to whom God sends a prophet, or a people who are the objects of a divine plan of salvation. According to these studies, the ummah is a single group that shares common religious beliefs. In actual usage, however, the term has many different meanings, and at times, the Qur'an refers to the community in a civil, rather than religious, sense.

    Aside from the Qur'an, the earliest existing Islamic source on the word ummah is a set of documents dictated by Muhammad shortly after his arrival at Medina. Commonly referred to as the Constitution of Medina, these documents were designed to regulate social and political life in the city. The constitution indicates that the different groups living in Medina and the surrounding area—the Muslim tribes of Medina, Muslims who emigrated from Mecca, and Jews—form “one distinct community (ummah) apart from other people.” In this context, the term ummah refers to a social unit that includes believers of different forms of monotheism.

    The hadith literature helped narrow the concept. Although the hadith also vary somewhat in usage, the reports generally define the ummah as a spiritual community of Muslims united in their shared beliefs. As members of a worldwide ummah, Muslims have a religious identity that transcends tribal and ethnic loyalties. Islamic doctrine further teaches that all believers are equal and should defend and protect one another.

    The concept of ummah evolved in the decades following Muhammad's death. Early Muslims accepted the idea that the ummah needed a single leader to preserve its unity. During the Middle Ages, Muslim scholars asserted that the preservation of Islam itself depended on protecting the unity of the ummah.

    The ummah also acquired legal status within Islamic societies. Islamic law classified Muslims as believers and others—including Jews and Christians—as nonbelievers. The nonbelievers had rights, but they were subordinate to Muslims. No formal requirements existed for joining the ummah, aside from being born to Muslim parents or freely choosing to become a Muslim. Community membership became a form of citizenship that guaranteed, at least in theory, equality for all Muslims. In the 800s, some legal scholars declared the consensus of the community to be a valid source of Islamic law. Supporters of this position cited Muhammad's statement that his ummah “would never agree on an error.” Only the Qur'an and the traditions of Muhammad had more legal authority.

    During the 1800s and 1900s, European powers colonized much of the Islamic world. Nationalists urged the members of the ummah to defend Islamic lands against foreign invasion. They also called for religious solidarity to revive the ummah. Loyalties clashed, however, with the rise of independent Muslim nation-states in the mid-1900s. Certain nationalist groups began calling for the separation of religious and national identities, emphasizing political rather than religious loyalty.

    The increase of secular influences in the late 1900s further weakened the bonds of religious identity. Nonetheless, the ummah remains a powerful concept in the Islamic world today. Many Muslims regard the worldwide ummah as their primary social identity. This solidarity is displayed in the support provided to believers in other lands who are victims of political or religious persecution or natural disasters. See also Islamic State; Nationalism.

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