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The Islamic Community & the Unity of Mankind
Political Issues
Christian Troll SJ

This article is written by a well known Jesuit who has lived and worked in the sub-continent. He speaks of the great value of the Muslim Ummah, the sense of brotherhood and solidarity in the Muslim world. He indicates how the five pillars of Islam reinforce that community sense, and how Muslims feel that their community is the best and that they must work to do away with corruption and hypocrisy in any form. The author is on the staff of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Roman.

1. Pervasive Sense of Brotherhood and Unity

When outsiders first look at Islam, their attention may be attracted by its radical monotheism or by its comprehensive legal system, or even by the life and teaching of Islam’s mystics, the Sufis. Yet people who have lived in a Muslim country and become familiar with its Muslim and non-Muslim inhabitants, are often struck by the central place the ideal of brotherhood and sisterhood occupies in Muslim life. A strong bond of solidarity binds together the Muslim believers. Each believer has a proud sense of belonging to one translational community marked by an identical, prescribed faith and law, by a common age-old history and by one sacred destiny.

The Muslim sense of belonging to one community is so significant that Muslims are sometimes defined as the people who wish to live inside the Muslim Ummah. (Ummah is the Arabic word used to refer to the community of the believers). Moreover, as the Muslims themselves stress again and again, the axiom ‘Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God!’ is utterly un-Islamic if it is taken to mean a separation of the religious and political domains. The Islamic sense of community and of the solidarity of all believers is both political and religious at the same time. Islam, in other words, claims to be not only a system of faith and worship but also a society, a community which determines for every one of its members his/her way of life.

According to the Islamic understanding, worship, family relations, economics, politics and other aspects of life, should ideally be governed by one system. This system should be directly derived from or, at least, shaped and animated by, the Sharī‘ah. The Sharī‘ah is the Islamic legal system elaborated by Muslim jurists through the centuries and is based on the foundation sources of Islam, Qur’ān and Hadīth.

Islam has succeed in creating a sense of solidarity and brotherhood among all Muslims. An individual Muslim may be ignorant of certain Islamic beliefs and practices. Some Muslims may even be critical of certain aspects of Islam. However, they will hardly ever lose the sense of fellowship with every other Muslim in the world, and very rarely will they be prepared to cut their ties with the Muslim community, the Ummah of the Prophet (sws). It is this community which guarantees to each of its sincere members welfare (Falāh) in this life and the next.

The Ummah can be described as the community of believers who profess God’s unity (Tawhīd), follow the guidance of the Qur’ān and the Prophet (sws) and pray with their faces towards the Qiblah.

2. The New Ummah as constituted by the Qur’ān and the Ministry of Muhammad

Historically, the solidarity of the Ummah based on the Pophethood of Muhammad (sws), was the fruit of Islam’s crucial event. This, of course, is the Hijrah, the Muslims’ departure from Makkah to Madīnah in 622 which, significantly, marks the starting point of the Muslim calendar. The Muslim calendar does not begin with either Muhammad’s birthday or with the first incidence of the Qur’ānic revelation and one humanity. The Ummah thus was not exclusive in membership like a tribe but open to all who confessed the truth and final faith. This openness, however, went together with a commitment to overcome, by a comprehensive effort that included preaching as well as military action, the conspiracy of the Makkans and, later, of other resistant groups.

The story of how Muhammad (sws) consolidated the fortunes of the new Ummah in Madīnah, how the new Ummah under his leadership defeated the tribe of the Quraysh of Makkah and, finally, how he extended the Ummah over the vast Arab peninsula, has remained throughout the Islamic centuries powerfully alive in the hearts and minds of the Muslims. This story continually inspires believers to commit themselves to the welfare of the Ummah. With the surrender of Makkah to the faith and rule of the Prophet and his Ummah, Islam became a state in which faith was united pervasively with political power. The military surrender of the Makkans went together with the eradication from within its walls of any traces of idolatry. Makkah set the precedent for the eventual total religio-political submission of all Arabia to the faith of the Prophet (sws) and of Arabia’s incorporation into the Ummah.

The Qur’ān contains a number of important texts concerning this theme, especially Sūrah 3, verse 100-110. The Muslims are all brothers, a striking statement in the light of the previous common tribal warfare:

Hold on firmly together to the rope of God, and be not divided among yourselves, and remember the favours God bestowed on you when you were one another’s foe and He reconciled your hearts, and you turned into brethren through his grace. You had stood on the edge of a pit of fire and He saved you from it, thus revealing to You His clear signs that you may find the right way perchance. (3:100-103)

A famous Hadīth, too, teaches that the Muslim is brother of the Muslim. This brotherhood is committed as ‘a band of peaple’ to ‘inviting to all that is good’ to ‘enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong’ (3:104). But surely the most celebrated verse in this context is:

Of all the communities raised among men you are the best, enjoining the good, forbidding the wrong, and believing in God. If the people of the Book had come to believe it was best for them; but only some believe, and transgressors are many. (3:110)

This affirmation is one of the constantly recurring themes of all present-day Muslim proclamations in sermons, conferences and debates. It is written in big letters on the wall of the assembly hall of the Arab League in Cairo. It has a temporal as well as a spiritual meaning. This community, in which all believers must form one brotherhood, is open to all human and transcends racial distinctions from the moment the person enters Islam. As far as historical reality is concerned, present and past tensions in the community prove that racial opposition has been and continues to be a potent fact. One example of this is the opposition of converted persons to the predominance of Arabs in the period of early caliphal history. Another, more recent example, is the struggle of the Arabs to rid themselves of Ottoman Turkish domination in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Without tensions of this kind, the Muslim world of today would be united. But it remains true all the same that the teaching of Islam condemns such racial particularism. The dream of a total realisation of brotherhood and unity continues to haunt the imagination of the preachers and politicians as well as of ordinary people in the Muslim world.

Shortly after reminding the Muslim believers of the fact that they are brothers and asking them to establish concord between themselves, the Qur’ān raises the question of division by races and tribes:

The faithful are surely brothers, so restore friendship among your brothers; and fear God that you may be favoured. (49:10)

O men, We created you from male and female, and formed you into nations and tribes that you may recognise each other. He who has more integrity has indeed greater honour with God. (49:13)

Nobility should therefore be based on pity, integrity and righteousness alone. In this sense, the Muslim believer regards himself and his co-religionists as superior to non-Muslims because, as a Muslim, he belongs to the most favoured and the final religious community established by God on earth.

3. The Ummah Corresponds to Human Nature

The idea and realisation of the Ummah prescribed in the Qur’ān and established by the ministry of Prophet (sws) is in fact fundamental to the human condition. A famous Tradition says: ‘Every child is born Muslim – it is his parents who make him a Jew or a Christian or a Sabean’. Every human being is created to find fulfilment in submitting to God’s will within a community. The Arabic word Ummah is seen to be closely related to the word for mother, Umm. In other words: as we are not physically able to care for ourselves for years after birth and rely completely on the human community, similarly we can survive as religious beings only in a community. Islam – which is essentially submission to God’s righteous will – corresponds most perfectly to humanity’s truest nature:

When your Lord brings forth from their loins the offspring of the children of Adam, He makes them witness over themselves, [and asks]: ‘Am I not your Lord?’ ‘Indeed’ they reply.’ We bear witness,’ Lest you say on the Day of Resurrection: ‘We were not aware of this’. (7:172)

Throughout history, there have been persons who have discovered and lived out this primordial relationship with God implanted deep within themselves, helped by a grateful contemplation of God’s signs in the universe and in the events of human history. Abraham (sws) is the outstanding example of this:

Abraham was certainly a model of faith, obedient to God and upright, and no idolater, Grateful to Him for his favours; so He chose him and guided him to the path that is straight, And gave him what is good in the world, and in the Hereafter he will be among the righteous and the good. (16:120-23)

Abraham (sws), in pursuing his insight, had to break with his community. On the one hand prophetic preaching seeks to remove individuals from communal settings which are contrary to God’s will, on the other hand, it calls individuals into a community which submits to God. In this way, it restores its members to their full natural state – as individuals in a community which is truly submissive to God. This is the true fulfilment of their human personhood (cf 3:104-110) as cited above. This religious perspective explains why politics and government are perceived as integral parts of the Islamic religious experience. It also helps us to understand the full significance of the organisation of the Muslim community at Madīnah. Here Muhammad and his followers take on the responsibilities of setting up a  model communal life. Here begins the struggle to create a new, final, potentially universal, socio-religious order, the ‘house’ of submission to God and of exemplary social justice (Dāru’l-Islam; Dāru’l-‘Adl)

4. The Community Dimension of the Prescribed Practices of Islam

Membership of the Ummah is acquired by pronouncing before two witnesses the Shahādah, the profession of faith. In this way, the Muslim becomes subject (Mukallaf) to the Community’s rights and obligations. Membership of the Ummah implies faith, and faith issues in witness. Shahīd is the term for the person who witnesses to the faith, if necessary, by giving his/her life in martyrdom. The Shahādah is in fact the deliberate renewal of the primordial covenant which God has made with all human kind. (see 7:172 above)

The profession of faith as well as the other four ‘pillars’ of Islam, besides being personal religious duties, have a social dimension. They manifest and strengthen the bond of unity and solidarity of all the believers.

The liturgical prayer (Salāh) is not only an individual obligation but it must be said in congregation if a sufficient number  of Muslims are present. In principle, all Muslims are enjoined to perform the ritual prayer together. Every day Muslims individually and in congregation, and every Friday noon in large Muslim congregations, the Muslims of the entire world, in concentric circles as it were, turn their faces toward the Ka‘bah at Makkah. Hence Muslims designate themselves as ‘the People of the Qiblah.’

The legal alms tax (Zakāh), likewise, has a community dimension. If properly implemented, that institution is a powerful instrument for realising social justice and making the Ummah the ‘abode of justice’ (Dāru’l-‘Adl).

The practice of the liturgical fast (Sawm) of Ramadān, far from being left to the individual conscience, is controlled effectively by the public authorities. Any Muslim who is caught eating, drinking or smoking in public, will be taken to task publicity. In a Muslim country with laws to this effect, he is like to the arrested by the police. The annual celebration of the month of Ramadān, culminating in the feast of the Breaking of the Fast, renews and intensifies the sense of the corporate responsibility of Islam and its power in this world.

But the most impressive liturgical celebration as well as realisation of the Ummah as such is the pilgrimage of Makkah (Hajj). It brings together from every part of the globe an immense diversity of Muslims who, in spite of vast differences of culture and language, experience themselves as forming a community. All of them profess and live the same faith, conform to the details of one law and are inspired by the same symbols and formulae of the one sacred language of Arabic.

5. The Ummah within the Wider Human Community

For better or worse, everywhere on the globe, increasingly, the world is experienced as interdependent and pluralistic. How far does the Ummah in our day know itself called to contribute to the construction not only of its own sectional world but, together with others and in the spirit of dialogue and spiritual emulation, also of the common universe with the aim of achieving a maximum of global justice and harmony?

Different individuals and groups in the Muslim community give very different, at times diametrically opposed, answers to this question. This is so because significantly divergent answers are given as to which are to be considered the essential elements of the religion (Dīn) of Islam and what are the adequate means to promote these in the conditions of the contemporary world. We confine ourselves here to a succinct outline of the answer which the well-known Tunisian Mohammed Talbi has given to our question. His position, or at least the basic tenor of it, would certainly be shared by many Muslim individuals and groups anywhere in the world, especially where they live in minority situations. The answers of the conservative and of the Islamist sectors of contemporary Muslims societies do not need to be stated here. At the present time they probably are the most powerful and eloquent sectors of Muslims society everywhere secular media. Hence they are rather known, even if not always correctly understood, as to their roots and motives.

The community-state is no more and can never be again. In this pluralistic world of ours, it is necessary now to work together with others on the basis of full equality and respect. The believers if faced with several political communities, both within and without national borders. These communities bring together people whose outlook is different ideologically, spiritually, socially, economically and professionally. They are united by a programme, certain immediate ends to be achieved. As long as he or she is discerning in his choice, in the spirit of true ijtihad the Muslim can belong to the political community of her or his choice. Tensions are to be expected but why should they harm a Muslim in his or her essential loyalties?

Then there are religious communities outside the Muslim Ummah to whom the Muslim individual and the Muslim Ummah relate. If we conceive of them in concentric circles around the Muslim Ummah, the first would be the one of the spiritual family of Abraham, ‘the people of the Scripture.’ This circle is surrounded by a much wider one. ‘It can be called,’ Muhammad Talbi writes, ‘the community of God’s service, rescinding from the way in which He is worshipped. It is the community of those who pray with a pure and sincere heart’ (Mohammad Talbi, ‘A community of Communities: The Right to be different and the Paths to harmony’ Encounter (Rome), No. 77, Aug/Sept 1981, p. 10).

Prayer and truly selflessly loving service and sacrifice are a common language uniting all who stretch out towards the mysterious Beyond. Much in the wider circle of religions fosters such an outlook and action.

Since God has sent countless messengers throughout history and has not deprived any people of a guide and warner (Q. 40:78; 10:47; 13:7 etc.) and does not punish without giving due warning first (which penetrates a multitude of religious beliefs and inspires many a faith community throughout the world’ (Talbi, ibid).

Simultaneously and viewed from the same perspective, the Muslim believers have the task to lay bare depravation, corruption and hypocrisy that affect religions as any other aspect of life in the world and not rarely even are promoted under the cover of institutional religions.

The spiritual attitude demanded of the Muslim believer as witness of God in a pluralistic and questioning world, Mohammad Talbi states, is one of listening to God who is near to each person. It is an attitude of respect for each person’s loyalties and of harmony with all who are striving for what is true, good and beautiful. In the words of Sūrah 2:186:

When my servants ask you about Me, [say to them]: ‘I am near to them, and I reply to the call of the one who invokes Me. So, let them listen to Me, and believe in Me, so that they may find the right way’.

(Courtesy: Encounter No. 25, May 1998)


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