Reflections on the Ummah/Nation-State Divide


January 17, 2012 at 10:55 am

This essay is based on a lecture given by Imam Zaid at the Reviving the Islamic Spirit Conference, December 2011. Hopefully, it will provide some food for thought as we begin the arduous process of rethinking many of the fundamental ideas and institutions that developed during an age that is rapidly drawing to a close. As that age expires, many of the the ideas accompanying it must be allowed to expire with it. If we attempt to cling dogmatically to outmoded ideas and institutions, we are only delaying their inevitable demise and handicapping the ability of coming generations to build a world that is a more realistic reflection of their resources, potential and limitations.

One of the most profound developments in the modern history of Islam has been the emergence of the Nation-state in Europe and its subsequent imposition on the Muslim world. Its profundity is illustrated by the fact that it has come to capture the imagination of all politically active Muslims. In the process, it became one of the principal means for consolidating the destruction of a viable Islamic civilization by introducing into the Muslim world an institutional and conceptual framework that helped to hasten the disappearance of the institutions and organizations that gave Muslim societies their unique character and identity.

To briefly illustrate both the pervasiveness and the destructiveness of the nation-state in the Muslim world, we can mention the statement of Dr. Sayyid Hussein Nasr that the Muslim nations are united in their destruction of their respective environmental richness. Hence, Qaddafi’s Libya, Saddam’s Iraq, The Islamic Republic of Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, etc. all share a reckless disregard for environmental protection and a total disregard of classical Islamic teachings relating to environmental stewardship and conservation. His point is that these Muslim nation-states, despite their varying ideological orientations, have all waged an undeclared war against their fragile ecosystems.

One of the reasons for this is the imperative that the Muslim nation-states “catch-up” with its western counterparts in terms of economic and industrial development. In the context of a linear view of national development, the argument goes, Muslim nation-states cannot afford the luxury of considering the ecological consequences of their so-called development programs. Environmental protection can only come at the cost of slowing development and the strategic implications of lagging to far behind are too grave for ecological concerns to even be considered.

Before proceeding, let us mention that the nation-state as a modern political arrangement was unknown until 1648, at the earliest, in the aftermath of the signing of the Peace of Westphalia, which resulted in the break-up of the Holy Roman Empire. This is seen as the event that demarcates the birth of the modern nation-state. As far as Muslims are concerned, the idea of a sovereign nation-state is a 20th Century phenomenon. Most contemporary Muslim states did not achieve independence until after the Second World War through the expiration of various colonial mandates and decolonization struggles. There are a few exceptions to this chronology, such as the secular Turkish Republic, which achieved its independence in the aftermath of the First World War.

Prior to the 20th Century, hence, for most of the history of the Muslim Ummah, Muslims organized themselves, politically, according arrangements that primarily reflected tribal or geographical lines of demarcation. A sultan’s (political leader) authority was demarcated by the limit of his tax-collecting and rebellion-suppression ability, not according to his claim to hold sway over a territory demarcated by fictitious lines drawn on a map. Similarly, although people may have accepted the authority of a particular sultan, their ultimate allegiance was, practically, to their tribe or clan.

Despite such practical ties, most Muslims held a sentimental attachment to the Ummah, in its conceptualization as the global Muslim community. There were instances when that sentimental attachment translated into tangible political action, such as the Turks soliciting volunteers from lands as far flung as India and Morocco to assist in the expulsion of the European occupiers from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the First World War.

In endeavoring to look at the question of what it means to be a member of the global Muslim Ummah in the context of the modern nation-state, we must look at the different ways we can examine the idea of the Ummah. We can examine it politically, socially, culturally and religiously. In many instances confusion arises when discussing issues related to this topic, we fail to make these distinctions.

Let us begin by looking at the idea of a distinct Ummah, religiously. Most of the verses in the Qur’an dealing with the idea of a single, unified Ummah are religious statements. They demarcate a unique religious community, and in most instances they enjoin upon it specific religious duties.

رَبَّنَا وَٱجْعَلْنَا مُسْلِمَيْنِ لَكَ وَمِن ذُرِّيَّتِنَآ أُمَّةً مُّسْلِمَةً لَّكَ وَأَرِنَا مَنَاسِكَنَا وَتُبْ عَلَيْنَآ إِنَّكَ أَنتَ ٱلتَّوَّابُ ٱلرَّحِيم
Our Lord! Make the two of us submissive unto you, and from our progeny a community submissive unto you. Teach us our rituals, and accept our repentance. Surely, you are most accepting of repentance, the all merciful.

وَكَذَلِكَ جَعَلْنَاكُمْ أُمَّةً وَسَطاً لِّتَكُونُواْ شُهَدَآءَ عَلَى ٱلنَّاسِ وَيَكُونَ ٱلرَّسُولُ عَلَيْكُمْ شَهِيداً
Thus have we made you a moderate community in order that that you be a witness against humanity and the Messenger will be a witness against you.

وَلْتَكُن مِّنْكُمْ أُمَّةٌ يَدْعُونَ إِلَى ٱلْخَيْرِ وَيَأْمُرُونَ بِٱلْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ ٱلْمُنْكَرِ وَأُوْلَـٰئِكَ هُمُ ٱلْمُفْلِحُونَ
Let there arise from you a group calling to all good, enjoining right and forbidding wrong. They are those who will be successful.

كُنْتُمْ خَيْرَ أُمَّةٍ أُخْرِجَتْ لِلنَّاسِ تَأْمُرُونَ بِٱلْمَعْرُوفِ وَتَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ ٱلْمُنْكَرِ وَتُؤْمِنُونَ بِٱللَّهِ
You are the best community brought forth [to serve] humanity. You command good, forbid wrong and you believe in Allah.

لَيْسُواْ سَوَآءً مِّنْ أَهْلِ ٱلْكِتَابِ أُمَّةٌ قَآئِمَةٌ يَتْلُونَ آيَاتِ ٱللَّهِ آنَآءَ ٱللَّيْلِ وَهُمْ يَسْجُدُونَ
They are not the same! Among the People of the Scripture is an upright group that recites the Signs of Allah, throughout the night, all the while in humble prostration.

فَكَيْفَ إِذَا جِئْنَا مِن كُلِّ أُمَّةٍ بِشَهِيدٍ وَجِئْنَا بِكَ عَلَىٰ هَـٰؤُلاۤءِ شَهِيداً
How [will it be] when We bring forth from every community a witness, and We will bring you forth as a witness against these.

إن هذه أمتكم أمة واحدة و أنا ربكم فاعبدون
Verily, this community of yours is a unified community, and I am your Lord. Worship Me!

In these verses Allah describes a religious community that has been commissioned with religious responsibilities: submission to God; undertaking certain rituals; witnessing for or against humanity; recipients of and preservers of a scripture; followers of the Prophetic tradition; calling to the path of God; enjoining the right; forbidding the wrong; believing in God; a community that will be testified against by the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessing of Allah upon him, a community established to worship Allah.

These functions are religious duties or obligations that can be performed within or outside of the context of a nation-state. There is no excuse for Muslims not to be performing them in whatever time or place we find ourselves in. This is the most basic level of our defining our membership in the Ummah of Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah upon him. This is a level that defenders of most modern nation-states would view as noncontroversial.

Another level we can consider the Ummah is directly associated with the first. As a religious community of shared rituals, a shared liturgical language, shared dietary conditions, a common general dress code and unique approaches to art and music, Muslims share a common culture. This shared reality creates an Ummah at the cultural level. This cultural Ummah, cuts across the various nations, tribes and geographical regions that comprise the religious Ummah. At its height, it allowed Ibn Battuta to travel over 70,000 miles, from Tangiers in Morocco to Indonesia, and to remain, for the most part in a single, integrated cultural zone. Hence, he was able to become a judge in the Maldives. He was at home wherever he went in the vast Muslim world. His situation stands in stark contrast to Marco Polo, who traveled to many of the same areas a quarter century before Ibn Battuta. The latter was an outside observer in virtually all of the lands he traversed.

This cultural unity has indeed decayed, but it is still an extant reality, even in its diminished form. Muslims pray the same way the world over. We fast the same month of Ramadan in the same way the world over. If a Muslim from Canada and or the United States were to go to Indonesia or Mali he or she would find Muslims praying and fasting exactly as he or she is praying or fasting, and if they were educated, Islamically, they could communicate with their hosts in the Arabic language. Standards governing what constitutes acceptable or Halal food are universal among Muslims.

These cultural distinctions of the Ummah should be actively encouraged regardless of the political imposition of the nation-state over the Muslim people, as they are distinctions that are apolitical in nature. Those cultural traditions that are disappearing, such as calligraphy, spiritual musical, etc. should be revived. Furthermore, these standards have always accommodated local influences. Thus, by way of example, even though traditional Malay food or dress would be viewed as Islamic, it differs markedly from the traditional Fulani, West African Muslim food or dress owing to the unique Malay of Fulani contributions to the Islamic ideal.

It should be also be understood that the cultural reality of Islam has preceded, coexisted with and will likely outlive the nation-state. This latter statement does not assume an inherent superiority of the “Islamic.” It assumes that humans will find superior ways to organize their societies than the already anachronistic (to some extent) nation-state. Again, these are levels of endeavor that most advocates and defenders of the nation-state will not find controversial.

The most controversial level of analysis in terms of assessing the relationship between the Muslim Ummah and the nation-state is at the level of politics. Here the degree of controversy does not arise from Islam, if that were the case, the nation-state would have never become the dominant form of political organization among the Muslim people.

The ongoing “Arab Spring” illustrates the pervasiveness of the degree to which Muslims have accepted the nation-state. The various movements in different Muslim countries are focused on who will control the nation-state. They are not movements that challenge the validity of the state itself. The movements’ principal slogan illustrates this:

الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام
The people want the downfall of the regime.

The activists, both Muslim and secular, are calling for the eradication of the oppressive ruling regimes, not the eradication of the state itself.

What controversy between Muslims and the nation-state that does exist arises from the nation-state itself, not from Islam and Muslims, with the exception of fringe groups that have little political relevance in their respective societies. The critical question here is what does the nation-state demand of the Ummah. If the nation-state demands the acceptance of a common set of political obligations and the assumption of a common set of political responsibilities, which advance the common good of all of its members, and I am speaking of Muslims in the context of a pluralistic, representative state, then the degree of controversy can be managed.

Among the most fundamental obligations and responsibilities for Muslims living in the western, secular, pluralistic nation-states are the following:

1) Respecting the sanctity of the life, property and honor of one fellow citizens;

2) Respecting the sanctity of the public space;

3) Respecting the plurality of ideas, beliefs and the personal freedoms that underlie them; and expecting that the belief, ideas and personal freedoms of Muslims will be protected.

These are obligations that virtually all Muslims will find acceptable and consistent with Islamic beliefs and values.

However, if the nation-state demands blind, unconditional allegiance that crosses into the realm of worship, which some fascist definitions of the nation-state imply, then the state is elevated to the level of an idol and idolatry is forbidden in Islam. Consider the following view of the fascist state by one of its most influential theorists and architects, the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini:

Against individualism, the Fascist conception is for the State; and it is for the individual in so far as he coincides with the State, which is the conscience and universal will of man in his historical existence. It is opposed to classical Liberalism, which arose from the necessity of reacting against absolutism, and which brought its historical purpose to an end when the State was transformed into the conscience and will of the people. Liberalism denied the State in the interests of the particular individual; Fascism reaffirms the State as the true reality of the individual. And if liberty is to be the attribute of the real man, and not of that abstract puppet envisaged by individualistic Liberalism, Fascism is for liberty. And for the only liberty which can be a real thing, the liberty of the State and of the individual within the State. Therefore, for the Fascist, everything is in the State, and nothing human or spiritual exists, much less has value, outside the State. In this sense Fascism is totalitarian, and the Fascist State, the synthesis and unity of all values, interprets, develops and gives strength to the whole life of the people.

This conceptualizing of the state is not only forbidden in Islam, it runs counter to the western, pluralistic democratic state as we know it and as it was envisioned by its founders. It is therefore a patriotic duty for Muslims and all other concerned citizens to oppose any fascist views that involve the deification of the state. Critically, and this is an issue I have addressed at length elsewhere, it is a duty of Muslims to oppose efforts deifying an authoritarian, totalitarian state in the name of Islam, or the “Islamic” state.

One of the greatest steps we can take to undermine the emergence of fascist views of the nation-state is to “de-reify” it. In other words, the modern state is not an anthropomorphized, monolithic, living, “spiritual” entity. It is an pseudo-abstraction comprised of individuals, groups, institutions and organizations, which have in most instances varying interests. Each of these is connected to a particular nation-state in different ways. Take the example of the United States.

It is comprised of groups that have been labeled Native American, African Americans, White Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans, home-owing Americans, corporate Americans, oil industry-controlling Americans, defense-contracting Americans, etc. Each of these groups is connected in different and differing ways to the American project. Some groups are able to control and manipulate the institutions of government in ways that advance their interests, while other have little or no influence over those institutions.

Usually, but not always, groups are connected to the American project in ways that reflect their being the victims or beneficiaries of that project. For example, many Native Americans feel no connection at all to America. As a result they are seeking independence from the United States and endeavoring to establish sovereign nations. Some African Americans, whose ancestors were brought to America in chains, lack the same sense of patriotism that resides in the breasts of many who came to America freely and found prosperity for themselves and their progeny. Their feeling is expressed well in the following words of Fredrick Douglas. In his moving speech, What is the Fourth of July to the Negro, Douglas stated:

“The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?”

Yet, even among African Americans, there is a a wide range of feelings towards America. While many would share the bitterness expressed by Douglass, others display a more ambivalent attitude towards the country. Consider the words of Langston Hughes when he writes, critically, but hopefully, in his poem, “Let America be American Again”:

“O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!”

Yet other Americans of African descent find no problem in an unqualified embrace of the American project and unabashed praise for the country. This group is represented by the likes of Reverend Archibald Carey, Jr., an African American minister whose words informed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s I Have a Dream Speech. He proudly proclaimed in an address to the 1952 Republican Convention:

“We, Negro Americans, sing with all loyal Americans: My country ‘tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, Land of the Pilgrims’ pride From every mountainside Let freedom ring!”

The point I am making here is that if African Americans are this complex and diverse in terms of a connection to the American project then what about the entire country and all of its ethnic, racial and religious elements. That diversity is what makes America unique, and it argues against a fascist vision of the state that would seek to disguise that diversity beneath an imaginary uniformity generated by an authoritarian state.

In conclusion, America, and most other modern western nation-states are composed of many elements. Muslims, in varying numbers at various times have always been one of those elements. As such, the struggle of American Muslims, both to live peacefully in this land as Muslims, and the struggle to define the nature and terms of our engagement with the state, while belonging to a global Muslim community, are uniquely American struggles. As such, we have an obligation to our ancestors who preceded us in this land to continue that struggle, and we have an obligation to our fellow citizens to work along with them to preserve the integrity of the sociopolitical arrangement that made that struggle possible.