What or who constitutes the Ummah and how should we define progress? Zafar Bangash examines these concepts and sheds light from the Islamic perspective challenging some long-held but erroneous beliefs.
In the first part of this series of articles on the theme, The Ummah: its role and responsibilities, Zafar Bangash, director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT), discusses such concepts as progress and what or who constitutes the Ummah.
The Muslim world is beset by so many problems — both internal and external — that many Muslims have become despondent about the future of the Ummah. Some wonder out loud whether Muslims will ever make progress like other peoples and communities. Before this question can be properly answered, we must first have a better understanding of the meaning of the word progress and also, what or who constitutes the Ummah.
we must first have a better understanding of the meaning of the word progress and also, what or who constitutes the Ummah... Since Western values and ethos dominate much of the sociopolitical discourse in the world today, Muslims too are not immune from their corrosive influence. In the West, progress is equated with material or financial gains.
Since Western values and ethos dominate much of the sociopolitical discourse in the world today, Muslims too are not immune from their corrosive influence. In the West, progress is equated with material or financial gains. A society that becomes industrialized is said to make progress regardless of what destruction it causes to the environment or how much inequality in wealth it spawns. Growth in a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) — that is the value of goods it produces — is generally taken as a sign of progress.
Each government’s performance is measured by the growth it achieves in its GDP in a specified timeframe. These are all material parameters. Whether such “progress” brings satisfaction or happiness to families or the society at large is not factored in. Similarly, degradation of the environment or the rate at which non-renewable resources are being depleted is also not considered. There is absolutely no room in this materialistic vision of progress for moral growth, spiritual elevation or satisfaction because these are non-quantifiable entities.
Yet those familiar with his Sirah would confirm that his progress in society was not based on his success in business, the number of camels or the acres of orchards he possessed or even the square miles of territory he controlled.
But we cannot accept this Western view of progress. Let us consider this in light of the Sirah of the noble Messenger of Allah (pbuh). Muslims believe he was the most successful human being in history. Even many fair-minded non-Muslims agree with this view. Yet those familiar with his Sirah would confirm that his progress in society was not based on his success in business, the number of camels or the acres of orchards he possessed or even the square miles of territory he controlled. His success was measured in terms of the number of hearts he liberated through his exemplary character, pleasant manner, forgiving nature, and principled determination. People longed to be in his company because of his lofty qualities of character. He had what we would term in contemporary terminology, immense charisma. How does one measure charisma on a materialistic scale.
He not only left this world without any material possessions but he also inspired his companions to adopt the same simple lifestyle... They established a civilization that lasted nearly 1,000 years, a feat unequaled before or after the advent of Islam. So we need to move beyond the Western-imposed definition of progress.
According to the Western materialistic view of progress, the Prophet of Allah (pbuh) would not be considered to have been very successful. After all, he did not leave a huge bank balance, palaces or vast estates at death. He not only left this world without any material possessions but he also inspired his companions to adopt the same simple lifestyle. Yet who can say that the early Muslims were not successful or did not make progress? They established a civilization that lasted nearly 1,000 years, a feat unequaled before or after the advent of Islam. They certainly did not dazzle people with their wealth or fancy clothes.
So we need to move beyond the Western-imposed definition of progress. But even by the standards of their own narrowly crafted definition of progress, the West has failed. A small coterie of people has accumulated enormous wealth while the vast majority has been turned into slaves working like automatons to merely make ends meet. Broken families leading to rising levels of depression, suicides, crime and burgeoning prison populations all point to the failure of this system, its values, and its notion of progress. The Western definition of progress, regrettably, is also the one accepted by most elites in the Muslim world although they have demonstrably failed to show any “progress” in their respective societies even on their own accepted scale.
In the Qur’an, Allah (swt) describes the Muslims as the “best Ummah raised among mankind” (3:110), yet the qualities required to make them the “best community” do not exist among most Muslims today. What accounts for this dismal state of affairs?
Who is responsible for this failure in the Ummah is a question we will address a little later. First, let us establish a better definition of the Ummah. One opinion posits that the nearly two billion Muslims in the world today constitute the Ummah. Some Muslims even proudly proclaim that Islam is “the fastest growing religion in the world.” Perhaps, but this definition only accounts for numbers. Do vast numbers automatically translate into transformative power? While constituting one-fourth of the world’s population, occupying 20% of the earth’s landmass, producing 20% of its mineral and 40% of its energy resources, the Muslim world should be a leading if not the leading power in the world, yet at the global level it is quite insignificant, whether assessed on the material or moral scales. In the Qur’an, Allah (swt) describes the Muslims as the “best Ummah raised among mankind” (3:110), yet the qualities required to make them the “best community” do not exist among most Muslims today. What accounts for this dismal state of affairs?
The issue of numbers also needs a closer examination and whether the reverse — that is, small numbers — automatically means lack of power. During the colonial period, the European colonial powers with their relatively small populations — Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, for instance — colonized and ruled societies many times larger. They did not even maintain large armies in the colonized lands yet for centuries the colonial program was able to project power in occupied societies. What accounts for the European colonialists’ projection of power despite their relatively small populations compared to the Muslim countries’ lack of power today despite their large populations? Similarly, we must address the issue of why Muslims lost power along with the pre-eminent position they had enjoyed in the world for nearly 1,000 years. As recently as 200 years ago, the Muslims were a dominant force on the world stage.
A large population may become powerful only if it functions in conjunction with several other factors. In the contemporary global situation, the US, China and Russia’s relatively large populations only augment a power formula that was consolidated by other means. Power is not only a function of a large population but also of such other factors as the determined pursuit of clearly-stated objectives, judicious use of material resources and military strength, but above all, coordination between the objectives to be pursued and the willingness of the masses to support them. In short, what results in power projection is the alignment of a number of factors to maximize one’s strength. When all these factors support each other to optimize output, the result is often quite spectacular. But the power of such states, lacking in moral authority or certitude, declines fairly rapidly; other predatory competitors overtake them. America’s position as a pre-eminent global power is declining while that of China and Russia is rising. Only a century earlier, Britain appeared unrivaled. It would be immediately apparent that all these powers were and are non-Muslim. Power, however, is not the monopoly of any group or religion; Allah (swt) has no favorites. He gives wealth and power to whomever He wills. How they use such blessings is what determines their ultimate position with Allah (swt). That the pre-eminent position of these powers is short-lived clearly points to their weak and unstable ideological and moral foundations.
Often, when we Muslims think of the Ummah, our emotional fascination with what could be someday if we were united, obfuscates our understanding of the meaning of the Qur’anic word ummah, and thereby the intent and purpose of its use along with the binding concept that lies behind it. Few Muslim scholars have attempted to attach a contemporary value to the word so that ordinary Muslims can have a tangible idea of what meanings the word is supposed to elicit when used. It is interesting to note that the Arabic words, umm for mother, and imam for leader, derive from the same root as the word ummah. In a metaphorical sense, umm leads one in the direction of source, origin, foundation, gist, and essence.
For instance, Makkah is often referred to as Umm al-Qura, meaning the original city, country or place of settlement; and similarly, Surah al-Fatihah is sometimes characterized as Umm al-Qur’an, meaning the foundational surah. When one thinks of the word imam, what comes to mind are things like in front of, in the lead, pacesetting, guiding, and setting direction. Thus when we hear the word ummah, all of these layers of meanings ought to occur in our collective consciousness, the only difference being that while umm and imam may apply to individuals, ummah refers to a social aggregate that functions as if it were one entity.
To solidify this view, listen to how Allah (swt) uses the term in describing an experience of Musa (a) when he was at Madyan,
“Now when he arrived at the wells of Madyan, he found there an ummah of men who were watering [their herds and flocks]; and at some distance from them he came upon two women who were keeping back their flock…” (28:23).
Notice that in this description, the collective strategies, energies and labors of a large group of men are being harnessed to accomplish a singular objective — drawing water for livestock — that would be difficult, if not impossible, for one to achieve by himself. Therefore, in a generic sense, an ummah is: many hands, one purpose.
...to collect people with different understandings, different backgrounds, different problem-solving approaches, different ways of processing information, different cultures, different upbringings and different mindsets on a unified mission is not an easy task...
But, to collect people with different understandings, different backgrounds, different problem-solving approaches, different ways of processing information, different cultures, different upbringings and different mindsets on a unified mission is not an easy task: it takes planning, it takes work, and it requires institutional channels of open communication. Consistent and regular effort is required to bind people to a common purpose, for unity of purpose would have no meaning if everyone was thinking and acting the same way. Human differences are by divine decree; indeed Allah (swt) says,
“And [know that] all mankind were once but one ummah, and only later did they begin to hold divergent views. And had it not been for a decree — that had already gone forth from your Sustainer — all their differences would indeed have been settled [from the outset]” (10:19).
What this means is that all humanity has the innate capacity to recognize the existence of Allah (swt), to be conscious of His authority, to appreciate His power, and thus to conform to His command and counsel. However, man’s capacity is constantly compromised by subservience to less worthy authorities, resulting in a progressive deviation away from his inborn characteristics. And had Allah (swt) chosen, such an estrangement of man from his fitrah would never have occurred, but this would have precluded his intellectual, moral and social development — meaning that Allah (swt) desires man to use his rational faculties, cultivated through prophetic example and guidance, to discover these universal truths.
Rational confidence is a by-product of the exchange of ideas between thinking people, of a collaborative dialogue to test theses and hypotheses so that all those thus engaged can have certitude of the way reality ought to be. Developing a consciousness of Allah’s (swt) power presence, His authority, His omnipotence and His oneness is a joint effort, a cooperative exercise; in short, it takes an ummah. In other words, for an individual with his limited abilities, no matter how extensive they may be, to achieve this is problematic; but the collective consciousness of an entire society dedicated toward this recognition makes this possible.
This is why Ibrahim (a) has been characterized as an ummah unto himself; he was uniquely able to accomplish what it would normally take an ummah to do,
“Verily, Ibrahim was an ummah [a man who combined within himself all virtues], devoutly obeying Allah’s will, turning away from all that is false, and not being of those who ascribe divinity/authority to any beside Allah; [for he was always] grateful for the blessings granted by Him who had elected him and guided him onto a straight way” (16:120–121).
In Part 2 of this essay on The Ummah: its role and responsibilities, the concept of ummah and what role it ought to play in the real world will be more precisely examined.