Turning the Tide Back in Our Favor — Ummatics and the Need for Critical Muslim Engagement

Ten years since the Arab Uprisings, the global umma is in as dire a situation as ever.  Mainstream, traditional Islam is under intense pressure from a plethora of different sources, both external and internal to the umma. The list of specific external threats is too long to spell out here in much detail. Some of these threats come from a wide array of well-funded NGOs, think tanks, and Islamophobic state actors that seek to demonize (if not criminalize) all forms of autonomous Islamic public political expression. At the same time, many Arab autocrats—in the name of ‘fighting terrorism’—have also demonized and criminalized local political aspirations and have only further entrenched their power in the midst of the chaos. These same autocratic despots have also made great efforts to portray themselves to the rest of the world as progressive-minded reformers. Tarek Masoud (2021) recently commented in an online interview with Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation that, “If there’s one big difference between the present era and the height of the Arab Spring, it is that the region’s autocrats no longer justify themselves with simple appeals to stability, but instead bill themselves as agents of transformation and modernization.”

The bigger threat to the umma however—in particular to Muslims living in North America—is far more subtle and comes from within. The internal pressures come from ‘left’, ‘right’, and what I call ‘the disinterested middle’ of the umma itself. On the left, there are those that seem willing to forsake widely held Islamic norms in favor of coalition-building with larger progressive secular-liberal social movements, and from the right one will often find people who dress themselves in the garb of a sectarian, exclusionary ‘alpha-male’ form of politics that seems more intent on public shaming rather than public educating; a form of expression more applicable for reality television and internet memes than serious scholarly inquiry. Despite the formidable obstacles that some of those on the left and right fringes of the umma pose, I would ultimately contend that it is the disinterested middle—those disaffected by politics with no real vision at all for what the umma ought to look like—that is the biggest cause for concern. At least the two aforementioned groups aim to incorporate some iteration of Islamic belief and action in their daily lives. The disinterested middle represents a large swath of Muslims who would still check ‘Islam’ as their religion on the demographic part of a survey and perhaps celebrate Eid, but have little meaningful engagement with the religion beyond that. Apathy rather than antipathy from Muslims towards their own religion is the biggest long-term challenge the umma faces.

It is a shame that we have reached this point, but it ought not be all that surprising. One well-known hadith notes that we would one day reach a point in which “the nations will invite to partake of [us] as diners call one another to a large dish”, further noting that the Muslims will not be small in number when this happens, rather they will be wayward and lost “like the refuse of the flood” (Sunan Abī Dāwūd, #4297).

The Ummatics project is a necessary endeavor at this point to curb the umma’s continued heedless downstream drift. There is a dire need for a new public space that encourages respectful dialogue and discourse that is undergirded by one overarching theme—the need to create “new discourses and practices in the broad, shared framework of the caliphate that take the collective future of the global Muslim ummah seriously” (Anjum, 2019, p. 50). At least this is what I see as the crux of the Ummatics project. As Professor Anjum notes in his discourse-setting 2019 Yaqeen essay, “Who wants the Caliphate?”, the task at hand for Muslims interested in what I call ‘Caliphic-discursive thinking’ is the need to connect theory with practice. In Anjum’s words, ummatics can be understood as “a call for Muslims to allow ourselves to dream big without neglecting small, immediate obligations and duties, to think globally even as we must act locally. It is a call for conversations, networking, rethinking, and reimagining the possibilities of living politically as Muslims”. Ummatics is not about preaching any specific dogma or rigid line of exclusionary thinking. It is also not about rehashing centuries old disagreements about the nature of Allah’s divine attributes or the eternality of Heaven and Hell to use as a cudgel against those who adhere to different opinions on these often-divisive matters. Rather, ummatics is about expanding the horizons of what is possible for Muslims to achieve in the dunyā as engaged political agents who possess their own societal ambitions.

While ummatics is not an exercise in esoteric mysticism or metaphysics, it nonetheless remains cognizant of these issues when sketching a political path forward. At the same time, ummatics is not a call for empty slogans such as nah sharqī, nah gharbī, jumhūrī-i Islāmī or al-Islām huwa-‘l-ḥāl nor is it about seeking to identify the ideal strongman to install as Caliph to whom everyone readily pledges bayʿah. We have all seen where this superficial level of engagement has taken us. This forum can best be understood as a place for creating the necessary intellectual conditions for meaningful Muslim political engagement. Wael Hallaq’s The Impossible State (2013), which largely reads as a critique of the possibilities of an Islamic nation-state in the modern world, gives relevant advice for contemporary Muslims seeking to engage in meaningful political action. Hallaq comments that despite the institutions of Sharīʿa themselves being long gone and unlikely to ever come back, nonetheless Sharīʿa’s “moral effects persist with unwavering stubbornness” and that “[t]his moral system [possesses]…capital of immeasurable value” (p. 168). Furthermore, he contends that a sustainable course of action forward for meaningful Muslim political engagement will require nonconformist thinking and native imagination, because the social units that would make up the larger sociopolitical order must be rethought in terms of moral communities that need, among other things, to be reenchanted. Historical moral resources would provide a blueprint for a definition of what it means to engage with economics, education, private and public spheres and, most of all, the environment and the natural order. It would also provide for a concept of communal and individual rights, which would require a clear understanding of the shortcomings and strengths of the liberal order’s concept of rights. (Hallaq, 2013, p. 168)

I feel that this ummatics project is well-suited to address Hallaq’s challenge. Drawing from Islam’s historical moral resources, the ummatics project is about freely exchanging ideas on a wide range of issues that are relevant to the well-being of the umma in an increasingly complex and alienating world. It is about moving beyond instrumental reason and the cold-calculated liberal economic rationality that characterized policy making and politics more generally in the post-industrial era. Ummatics is about moving beyond what the political scientist Wilson Carey McWilliams once called ‘the politics of disappointment’—a gloomy and cynical mode of political discourse that characterized late 20th century American politics—and instead re-enchanting our political thinking with Qur’anic values as well as rethinking our engagement with questions related to the porous divide between the public and private spheres. It is about giving hope to those who eventually may one day be able to take the next steps forward.

In order for this project to succeed however we will need the public umma to take a major part in this project, after all, we all are responsible for shaping our collective destiny forward.  I hope that those reading this today heed this call and start writing down their ideas so we can all begin to move forward.  I encourage you to test your ideas in our forum.  Those involved in the initial development of this project are all critically engaged, practicing Muslims who have committed themselves to looking beyond the status quo and secular liberal capitalist modes of political organization.  We look forward to growing with you as this project further develops.


Abū Dāwūd al-Sijistānī. (2008). Sunan Abī Dāwūd, 5 Vols. Hafiz Abu Tahir Zubair ‘Ali Za’i (ed.) and Nasiruddin al-Khattab (trans.). Houston, Texas: Darussalam Publishers.

Anjum, O. (2019). Who Wants the Caliphate? Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research. Accessed online at https://yaqeeninstitute.org/ovamiranjum/who-wants-the-caliphate

Hallaq, W. (2013). The impossible state: Islam, modernity, and modernity’s moral predicament. New York: Columbia University Press.

Masoud, T. (2021). Tarek Masoud reflects on the Arab Spring ten years later [interview]. Ash

Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. Accessed online at https://ash.harvard.edu/tarek-masoud-reflects-arab-spring-ten-years-later

McWilliams, W.C. (1995). The politics of disappointment: American elections 1976–94. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House.

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