The Concept Of Ummah Is Real And Alive. Why Are Muslim Leaders Hesitant To Embrace It?
Whereas the recent events in the Middle East have revealed a number of issues that the Muslim world is either unable or unwilling to solve, the one vital issue that is worth discussing today is the complete disregard and disuse by the Muslim world of a major Islamic concept related to nationhood: the concept of the Ummah or the Ummatic paradigm.
Since the last many years specially since the “Arab Spring” as one read newspapers and watched analysts on TV talking endlessly of “The Arab World”, “The Arab Street” and “The Arab leaders”, one wondered if the concept of the Ummah is irretrievably lost. The reality is that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact the spirit of Pan Islamism is alive and kicking all over the Muslim world at a very fundamental level. The question therefore is why the leaders, media persons and opinion makers shy away from articulating this spirit. This great disconnect is the result of a fractured polity within each and every Muslim sub-culture where the leadership is not based on popular public support but rather serves vested interests in many cases and indeed foreign and alien interests in others. Their continued ignorance and silence regarding the Ummatic paradigm has resulted in a near complete demise of the concept in the press and the media.
This article then is a 101, an introductory course on the Ummatic paradigm. Is there such a thing as the Ummatic paradigm; was it ever a reality; and is it still a viable, workable concept?
First of all, what does the word Ummah stand for? The word Ummah comes from the Arabic word Umm which means Mother, so it really means the mother nation (the nation of believers in Islam) but research shows that there are other political dimensions of this word as well.
Article 17 of Meesaq e Madeenah (The constitution of Madina) states that the Jews of Bani Awf are one Ummah with the Muslims while the same article expressly recognises the separateness of the religions of the two communities. But obviously common cause binds them together here which also speaks volumes of the political magnanimity embedded in the truly Islamic system. It can easily be deduced that communities living, working and collaborating together form an Ummah. In fact in the early years of Islam an incident took place wherein the Byzantines, who were Christians, fought a war with pagans and lost. The pagans of Makkah rejoiced but the Muslims were saddened by the defeat of the Christians who had a different faith but were believers nevertheless. This and other incidents show that the Ummatic paradigm may be stretched at the intellectual level and has many dimensions based on people coming together for common cause.
But generally speaking in the last 1400 years, when we talk of the Ummah, we talk of the Muslim Nation or the Super Nation to which belong all the little sub-groups or sub-nations. At the core of this concept among other issues is the issue of identity. Each individual in the Muslim world has a number of identities vis a vis citizenship, profession, language and political leanings. But the Ummatic paradigm urges the Muslims to give transcendence to the greatest overreaching identity within these competing identities, that of religion, which really means that the members of the Ummah have a baseline common ideology which binds them in such a way that it transcends all other loyalties, identities and positions.
An interesting event from the early years of Islam illustrates the above argument well. Once, a group of companions of the Prophet (PBUH) were talking about what now seems the issue of identity. Each would have his turn and say he was so and so the son of so and so, till it was Salman Farsi’s turn and he said, “I am Salman, the son of Islam” which made Umar respond immediately, “I am Umar, the son of Islam.”
The Ummatic Paradigm urges its adherents to be proud not of lineage, but ideology; not because that ideology will give them an elitist status but because it is an ideology based on righteousness and propriety; Justice and Truth.
The Ummatic Paradigm was opposed and sneered at even during the time of the Prophet by the Hypocrites of Madinah, the fifth column so to speak, who time and again tried to be divisive of the polity. There were attempts to draw away the Roman, African and the Persian Sahabah from the Ummah by these hypocrites on the basis of nationality. But it was really the last century which dealt a big blow to the Paradigm politically. With the demise of the Caliphate which was a single political authority as far as giving fatwas and declaring Jihad was concerned, it was an uphill task to keep the banner of the Ummah aloft. But a few brave and intellectually far sighted leaders did just that; among them were Jamal uddin Afghani, Allama Iqbal, Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Sir Sultan Muhammad Agha Khan, Ameer Ali and in recent times Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. And so we see that despite being colonized and beleaguered, there have been some amazing manifestations of the Ummatic Paradigm in the Muslim world. I would like to share with the readers some of these great stories.
When the British and the Turks went to war during World War I, a Bengali Unit of the British army staged mutiny, and from officer to the last man, every man refused to fight the Turks. The British put this brave Bengali Unit on a small boat without food to drift away at sea and die but they were subsequently saved.
Another inspiring story comes to us from the ashes of the Iran-Iraq conflict. In this war which lasted for ten years, a border town of Iran called Khurramshehr was bombarded by the Iraqis incessantly, but on the eve of the first Gulf War when the crew of a western television station visited Khurramshehr and asked the residents whose side they were on, the Iranis replied in a stunning display of pan Islamism that they were on the side of Iraq.
Pakistan till recently was a manifestation of The Ummatic Paradigm. Right from its very inception and even before, Pakistan and the Muslim League’s policies were founded on the said paradigm of Muslim Unity. The Indonesian leaders had asked the president of Muslim League Mr Mohammad Ali Jinnah for support during the freedom struggle in Indonesia. Quaid i Azam appealed to the Muslims for the support of this cause and sent 600 soldiers to fight for it. The majority of these soldiers were martyred during the fight for freedom. The Indonesian government published a book entitled ‘The Six Hundred Brave Pakistani Soldiers’. In 1948, when Holland attacked Indonesia, Pakistan suspended KLM’S license to operate from Pakistan in a show of solidarity. In 1965, Indonesia’s president Sukarno told the chiefs of the Armed Forces to give away all the equipment Pakistan required keeping only the bare minimum for Indonesia. The support for Cypress extended by the visionary Bhutto is well known as well. So we can conclude that the Ummatic Paradigm has been a functional operational reality in the past without any detriment to the Muslim world; in fact the opposite can be argued.
Critics says that it is an outdated concept now; and is not a viable one any more. But the proponents of the Ummatic Paradigm argue that the European Union (EU) has most amply displayed that the said paradigm is practical for they have operationalized it in our modern times in a competent manner. The EU bases its membership not just on geographical unity but also, and most importantly, on certain ideological practices. European countries which do not conform to this ideology and certain practices in governance etc., cannot join the EU. The United States and Israel along with United Kingdom can also be seen as an Ummah with a common ideology and common agenda and goals.
Why is the Muslim Intellectual shying away from this most practical and needful paradigm? The Muslims have a common belief and certain derivative beliefs and positions regarding justice and peace. They must speak and act with one voice. This is the defining moment for the Muslims. They have no choice. They must get up and revitalize the Ummatic Paradigm.