Belonging to the Islamic Umma


We have explained that the essence of the Muslim personality is the affirmation of the shahada.30 If we had to look for the minimal element on which Muslims agree for the definition of their common identity, we would certainly find that it was this fundamental profession of faith, which, when declared sincerely, makes the individual a Muslim.

This shahada is not a simple statement, for it contains a profound perception of the Creation that itself gives rise to a specific way of life for the individual, as for the society. The permanent link with God, the recollection that we belong to Him and will return to Him sheds an intense light on our person because we understand that life has meaning and that all people will have to account for their actions. This “intimate thought of every action” is one of the major dimensions of Islamic spirituality that, without any form of institutionalized influence, prompts every believer to decide on the markers for his social life.

To believe, along with the recollection of the presence of the Creator, is a way of understanding one’s life within Creation and among people, for, from the Islamic point of view, to be with God is to be with human beings. This is the meaning of tawhid that we have referred to earlier. In Islam, there are four circles or areas that, at various levels and with specific prerogatives, should be highlighted in order to explain the social significance of the teaching of Islam, from the family to the umma and finally to the whole of humankind.

Immediately after the recognition of the presence of a Creator, which is the fundamental vertical dimension, a first horizontal area is opened up in matters to do with human relations. The strong affirmation of the oneness of God and the worship of Him is linked as an essential condition with respect for parents and good behavior toward them. The first area in social relations, which is based on family ties, is basic for Muslims. The Qur’an connects the reality of tawhid with respect for parents in numerous verses: “Do not set up any other deity side by side with God, lest you find yourself disgraced and forsaken: For your Lord has ordained that you shall worship none but Him. And do good unto your parents. Should one of them, or both, attain old age, in your care, never say ‘Ugh’ to them or scold them, but [always] speak unto them with reverent speech, and spread over them humbly the wings of your tenderness, and say: ‘O my Sustainer! Bestow Thy grace upon them, as they cherished and reared me when I was a child.

O serve one’s parents and be good to them is the best way of being good before God. It is one of the most important teachings of Islam, and the Prophet constantly emphasized it with supporting injunctions, such as the famous hadith: “Paradise lies at the feet of mothers.” Nevertheless, there may be a situation when parents ask something that is against the faith and God’s commands, in which case a son or a daughter should not obey, although they should remain respectful and polite. The most important of these commands is, of course, not to associate any other god with God, and if parents order their children to do this, they should refuse: “But if both try to force you to associate with Me that of which you have no knowledge, do not obey them; keep company with them in this world in an appropriate way, but follow the way of those who turn to Me.

This refusal to obey certain pressures exercised by one’s parents clearly shows where the priorities lie with regard to authority from the Islamic point of view: one should please both God and one’s parents, but one should not disobey God in order to please one’s parents. This was confirmed in general terms by the Prophet: “There should be no obedience to a creature in disobedience to Creator”33 This means that despite the importance of parental ties, which are where identity and fundamental belonging lie for a Muslim, they are not the first or the most important criterion in determining and guiding human relations. If a Muslim has to choose between fairness, which God has commanded should be practiced and respected, and himself, his parents, or his loved ones, he should prefer justice, for such an act bears true witness to his faith: “O You who have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in upholding equity, bearing witness to the truth for the sake of God, even though it be against your own interests or those of your parent and kinsfolk. Whether the person concerned be rich or poor, God’s claim takes precedence over [the claims of] either. Do not, then, follow your own desires, lest you swerve from justice: for if you distort [the truth], behold, God is indeed aware of all that you do!

A Muslim belongs above all to God, and this belonging influences and illumines with a particular light each social sphere in which he or she is involved. To believe in God and to bear witness to His message before the whole of humankind means that the fundamental values He has revealed, such as honesty, faithfulness, fairness, and justice, all have priority over parental ties. Consequently, Muslims must respect family ties (and by extension ties with community, people, and nation) as long as no one forces or compels them to act against their faith or conscience.35 The first area of social relations in Islam associates father and mother very closely with the concept of the family, which refers, in the broad Islamic sense, to close relations and to everyone with whom one has a family relationship (alaqrabun).

The individual affirmation of Islamic faith by means of the shahada and the recognition of the family as the first context of social life are the prerequisites for entering into the second circle of social relations in Islam. Each of the four practical pillars of Islamic religious practice has a double dimension—individual and collective. By trying to excel in the practice of their religion, Muslims are immediately called to face the communal dimension of the Islamic way of life. Most Qur’anic injunctions are addressed to the believers in the plural: “O bearers of the faith. . . .” and when Muslims recites the “opening chapter” of the Qur’an (al-Fatiha) in each prayer cycle, they present themselves as members of a community by saying: “You alone we worship, to You alone we turn for help. Guide us in the right Way.

Alone before God, Muslims should direct all their efforts toward developing a personal and intimate consciousness of God, but they should also not forget that they belong to the community of faith. The Prophet said: “Communal prayer is twenty-seven times better than the prayer of a man alone in his house.”37 Prayer is the most important pillar of Islam. It is its very essence and explains the link with God but also the fundamental equality that exists between believers, brother beside brother, sister beside sister, all asking for divine guidance based on faith and brotherhood, as they have been taught. This sense of community is confirmed and reinforced by all the other religious practices, particularly zakat, which is essentially a tax raised for the poor and needy. The stronger our relationship with God, the stronger our desire to serve others will become, too. A right understanding of zakat takes us to the heart of the social message of Islam: to pray to God is to give to one’s brother or sister. These are the very foundations of Islam as Abu Bakr understood it, when he warned after the death of the Prophet that he would fight anyone who wanted to make a distinction between prayer and paying zakat (what is effectively what happened later with the southern tribes). The same call is found in the requirement to fast during the month of Ramadan. An act of worship in itself, fasting also leads Muslims to perceive, and to feel inwardly, the need to eat and drink and, by extension, to ensure that every human being has the means to subsist. The month of Ramadan should be a time during which believers strengthens their faith and spirituality while developing their sense of social justice.

Pilgrimage clearly has this same double significance: the gathering at Mecca is the great witness to this community of faith that exists among Muslims. Men and women together, at the Center, praying to one God, members of a community that shares the same hope—of pleasing the Creator and of being forgiven and rewarded in the next life. For Muslims, the daily practice of their religion gives birth naturally to a deep sense of being members of one community. This is a dimension that is inherent in the Islamic faith and way of life, which in turn are strengthened, guided, and shaped by this communal feeling: “Certainly the believers are brothers,”38 the Qur’an tells us. Wherever Muslims live, we are present at the birth of a community that is created and confirmed by prayer and the prescribed religious practices and that then develops progressively as the Muslims begin to use their imaginations and to put in place social activities centered around the mosque (or to create an Islamic association). This process is evident everywhere in the world, in Muslim countries as well as in the West. To pronounce the shahada, which is, as we have said, the essence of Muslim identity, is to share in this community spirit with its immediate implication, which is the promotion of social activities. In philosophical terms, one might say that this feeling has a part in Muslim identity at the heart of the practice and that it constitutes one of the distinctive characteristics of such an identity. As the Prophet said: “Gather together, for the wolf picks off only the sheep that stand alone.

A rereading of this analysis concerning the communitarian aspect of the four practical pillars of Islam shows a development in the sense of belonging. Prayer establishes connections with our Muslim neighbour in a specific place, while zakat enlarges the circle of our social relations, for the whole of the sum must be spent on the needy people in the area where it is raised.
Fasting develops an even broader feeling, for by fasting and by thinking about it, we are in spiritual communion with the poor of the whole world. And this communion finds a final, tangible, and physical realization in the pilgrimage to Mecca, the sacred place of gathering for millions of Muslims, symbolic of the umma.

This is in fact the third circle that delineates the belonging of a Muslim: the umma is a community of faith, feeling, brotherhood, and destiny. All Muslims who say the shahada should know and understand that their individual actions are part, an essential part, of the shahada borne by the whole community of believers: all Muslims are individually invested with the common responsibility of bearing witness to the message before the whole of humankind. This is the exact meaning of the verse already quoted that links the notion of umma (the body, in the singular) with the duty of the believers (the members, in the plural): “So we have made you one community justly balanced, so that you might be witnesses before humankind.

Consequently, every Muslim is not only personally attached to this dimension, but also understands that it is his or her duty to spread it and pass it on to his or her children. It is an active belonging coming from a deep understanding of the principle of tawhid, the oneness of God, which sheds a particular light on the umma and its responsibility toward Him. It follows that what takes place within the umma should interest all Muslims, because this connection is part of their identity. The Prophet’s statement is clear: “Whoever is not interested in the affairs of Muslims is not one of ours. To be Muslim, anywhere in the world, means feeling and developing this sense of belonging to the umma as if one were an organ in an enormous body. The Prophet said: “The umma is one body; if one of its members is sick, the whole body experiences the fever and the affliction.

Does this mean that this belonging, resting on faith, brotherhood, and love, knows no limit and is the only criterion by which we should judge, so that we might say, for example, that everything done in the name of the umma is good and that what is not should be rejected? This statement, which is sometimes made by Muslims themselves, absolutely does not express the teaching of Islam, for just as there were limits to obedience to parents, there are principles on which Muslims base their belonging, their allegiance, and therefore their support. The greatness of the Islamic umma must be understood in the fact that it is “a community justly balanced” that must bear witness to the faith before all humankind by defending and spreading justice, solidarity and the values connected with honesty, generosity, brotherhood and love. This feeling of belonging does not mean that Muslims are required to accept or support an injustice simply because it is committed by another member of the faith. On the contrary, in the name of their religion and as members of the umma they should stop it and even oppose it. The Prophet clearly said: “Help your brother whether he is unjust or the victim of injustice.” On of the Companions asked: “Messenger of God, I understand helping some who is the victim of injustice, but how should I help one who is unjust?” The Prophet replied: “Prevent him from being unjust. That is how you will help him.

This sense of belonging must be founded on the principles revealed by God, without which it becomes a kind of blood-bond or tribal attachment in total opposition to the universal message of Islam. We have shown that even the closest relationships, like those between parents and children, are subject to the principle of justice, and this is also without question the case with regard to relations within the umma as well as with other peoples and nations. Justice takes precedence over sentiment, whether the sentiment is affection or aversion: “O you bearers of the faith! Stand firm as witnesses before God, practicing justice. Let not hatred toward a people incite you to commit injustices. Be just: this is closest to piety [awareness of God]. Fear God; God well knows what you do.

If the sense of belonging to the umma is inherent in the Islamic faith and part of the essence of tawhid, we should underline the fact that this attachment is based on a true understanding of the mission of the Muslim community as a whole, which is, for all Muslims, to bear witness to their faith in the presence of God before the whole of humankind by standing on the side of justice and human dignity in all circumstances, in relation to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

The principle of justice is the criterion. In the body of literature that illustrates its correct application, the Qur’an and the Sunna refer to a very specific situation which serves to guide—and maybe restrain—involvement in and for the umma, by showing when Muslims, whether members of a group or nation, are bound by a contract or agreement. We have noted earlier, in dealing with the notion of shahada, the importance of contract in Islam, and the Revelation is clear on this point: “An account will be required of every contract, and the believers are those “who respect the pledges entrusted to them and their commitments.

This principle is true to the point that if Muslims are treated unjustly or persecuted in a country with which another Muslim community has signed an agreement, it is impossible for the latter to intervene because respect for the contract overrides everything. This is explicitly stated in the Qur’an: “Those who believed, who emigrated and struggled with their goods and themselves in the way of God, and those who gave them refuge and succor, they are allied with each other. And as for those who believed but who did not emigrate with you, you will not be bound to them as they did not emigrate. If they ask for your help in the name of religion, you must help them, except against people with whom you have concluded a treaty. God sees perfectly what you do.

Although this verse refers to a situation in which two entities exist— for example, a Muslim state such as Medina and a non-Muslim neighbor— it is still possible to deduce at least three essential teachings:
1. Muslims are not responsible for those of the coreligionists who chooseto live elsewhere and are bound to another state (by an explicit or tacit agreement).
2. It is the duty of Muslims to react when their brothers or sisters areexposed to persecution by reason of their religious beliefs.
3. However, the duty to help persecuted believers cannot be carried outif there is a treaty (of alliance or nonintervention), for such an intervention would meant a unilateral breach of the obligations of the agreement.

These three observations are of prime importance in discussions of the notion of umma and what is implied by being connected to it. One part of Muslim identity is guided by the principle of justice, but this may be restricted in certain circumstances when there are pacts which may be signed by Muslims—in their capacity as individuals or a community.

The sira of the Prophet teaches us that he submitted to the clauses of the pact he had signed with the tribes of Quraysh at al-Hudaybiyya. The agreement, as we have said, meant that if someone left Medina for Mecca, he would be allowed to stay there, but if someone had escaped from Mecca, the Prophet should not accept him but should send him back to Mecca. Later, when a Muslim escaped from Mecca and arrived in Medina, the Prophet refused to keep him because this would have been a betrayal of the pact: to the great amazement of the Companions, the Prophet sent him back, showing them by his attitude that an agreement applied without exception. It was only later, when the tribes of Quraysh had first broken the terms of the pact of al-Hudaybiyya, that the Prophet decided to send his army to Mecca.

Thus, by way of synthesis of our study of the notion of umma, three observations should be made. First, the notion of belonging based on faith, religion, and brotherhood brings out the very essence of the teaching of Islam and constitutes one of its distinctive characteristics, for it explains that the link with God (al-rabbaniyya) is fully realized through an active and positive involvement in society, from the small family unit up to the wide reality of the umma. Next, in the light of their faith, Muslims are bound to “the prime aim of justice,” which must be their criterion in every circumstance, rather than to an abstract feeling of belonging founded only on the fact that “we are all Muslims.” In other words, Muslims should feel that they belong above all to God and that the Creator will never accept a lie, a betrayal, or an injustice, especially on the part of a Muslim individual or community, for they should be models of rectitude, honesty, justice, and loyalty. Finally, contracts determine our status, define our duties and rights, and guide the direction as well as the content of our actions. Once settled, the terms of an agreement must be respected, and if one of its points seems to go against the rights of Muslims—or even against their conscience as believers—it must be discussed and negotiated, for Muslims do
not have the right to break a treaty unilaterally. On this point, their loyalty must have no exceptions.



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