Why Ummatics: A Series of Contentions

This article serves as an introduction to a series of essays articulating a cumulative case for the urgent priority of ummatics today. Written as one long-form essay, it will be published as a series of shorter pieces over the next few months, Allah willing, to facilitate reading, engagement, and critique. This series has greatly benefited from the feedback of many scholars, teachers, and students, including Yasmeen Daifallah, Iyad Hilal, Mairaj Syed, Joseph Kaminski, Hanaa Hasan, Alex Thurston, Ismail Yaylacı, and Uthman Badar. Given all the generously shared wisdom, I write in the plural register as “we”, while acknowledging that the remaining errors and infelicities are mine alone.

 

Introduction

On a hectic July afternoon, after having spent some two months in mesmerizing Istanbul, I caught a ride to the airport with my fourteen-year old son, Ahmad. The unusually communicative driver knew not a word of English, and we, unfortunately, not a word of Turkish. But Ahmad and I were by now experts at conversations through google translate. He started with the woes of a crushing economy that was making it hard for educated and capable young men like him to pay rent or get married, and then moved on to his view of what the source of all the woes was. Disunity of the Muslims, he said, rattling off into my phone’s mic the names of nearly a dozen countries that needed to be united, all while driving in hectic traffic. I vaguely recall that, aside from Türkiye, the list included Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan, and possibly others.

I was surprised and elated at once with the ease with which this struggling taxi driver could lay out a breathtakingly bold vision that Muslim leaders and intellectuals no longer dare to voice in public. This was not the first time in my travels across the world that a simple, lay Muslim had intimated to me this vision. Ummatics is an attempt to capture just this sentiment, which we believe is the voice of the Umma the world over.1

Having explained what we mean by ummatics here, and made a case for why Muslim unification is a divine imperative that is feasible and an urgent priority here, we wish now to address some of the doubts and objections raised against this vision. In the earlier articles, we argued that our flourishing, indeed our very survival, as Muslims requires that we respond to the divine imperative of securing a unified Islamic agency, an ideal that by historical consensus (ijmāʿ) of all Muslim schools has included an imām, also called a khalīfa or amīr al-muʾminīn, a principal or representative of the Umma vested with political authority. To that end we must not only renew our commitment to Allah but also identify challenges, elevate our discourse, initiate constructive dialog among the Umma’s scholars and intellectuals, design and evaluate strategies, secure resources, and design requisite institutions capable of functioning in the modern world.

At the Ummatics Institute, as a contribution to the research aspect of this work, we encourage scholarship on three types of questions: the why (making the case for Muslim unification), the how (developing and evaluating strategies of transformation and integration at various levels), and the what (institutional design for a modern caliphate and its legal, social, political, and economic dimensions).

Focusing on the “why” in this series of papers, we assess some common objections to, and sources of skepticism about, the gargantuan aim of the political unification that could ultimately affect two billion Muslims spread across some fifty states across the globe, some 22 to 30 percent of whom live as minorities in non-Muslim-majority states.2 Before we address the “why” in detail in forthcoming papers, in this introductory piece we pave the way by discussing some of the key terms (unity, solidarity, khilāfa) and briefly outlining important aspects of the “what” and the “how”.

Hold on to Allah’s rope: On unity and solidarity

We begin by explaining what we mean by words such as “unity” and “solidarity”, since lack of clarity often leads to discord and confusion. Allah commands unity both in itself as a primary command (“hold on to Allah’s rope all together and be not divided”)3 and as a condition for the well-being of the Umma, the world at large, and establishment of the divine order.4 Sometimes, “unity” means sameness and homogeneity, as distinct from “solidarity”, which connotes shared bonds and interests with recognition of individual differences. Given the emphasis on individuality today, it is fashionable to view solidarity as good, and unity bad.

We can transcend such linguistic confusion by recognizing that every unity requires tolerance of some differences, while sustaining homogeneity in non-negotiable matters. The key question, then, is what are the respects in which sameness is required and for whose sake differences in other respects are tolerated, even encouraged. In fact, the fault line between unity and tolerance in any religion, ideology, or community defines its essence. Overreaching in favor of uniformity can be just as harmful as its neglect. The extent and nature of unity required also depends on the nature and aspiration of the given community: only minimal unity is needed if there is no collective mandate other than surviving and perhaps having a good time, like people on a picnic. A stronger bond is needed if the mandate is collective action, such as in an army or a corporation.

In short, the meaning, modality, and extent of Islamic unity, and the question of where “holding the rope all together” is required and where differences are acceptable, are not all up for our decision, but part of divinely revealed norms. Allah requires unity that is uncompromising in the basic creed and practices and yet greatly accommodating of human diversity.5 Indeed, sometimes tolerance of diversity is encouraged precisely to secure effective unity, as the Prophet z has taught.6

Every pillar of worship in Islam, indeed every command in the sharīʿa, seeks not only to express and deepen our creedal commitment to the Oneness of Allah, but also to strengthen other dimensions of Islamic solidarity. It includes affective solidarity, which is grounded in our affection for Allah, His Prophet z, and His symbols (shaʿā’ir). The sincerity of faith is linked directly to the extent of our feeling for the believers and against the enemies of faith.7 Islamic law also aims to secure social solidarity among the believers, as they must come together for congregational prayers, Eids, Hajj, and in marital and commercial ties, exchange greetings, gifts, and so on.

We may add to this economic solidarity, in that Islam requires us to establish an economic order that is based in charity and ummatic well-being, one that is free from the oppressive practices of ribā (usury), cheating on the scales, malpractice, and so on. The most consequential of these dimensions of Islamic unity is what we may call agentive or political unity, which requires us to undertake our collective responsibility of bearing witness unto all humankind, enact the sharīʿa, protect the community of believers and its divine order and engage in jihād for its sake, and so on. Each aspect of this unity protects and completes the others.

It is crucial to understand the shifting meanings and interrelationships of these spheres. In the past, the economic sphere would have been part of the social, but with the rise of capitalism, it has acquired an oversized and unique significance, and, along with the political, has come to dominate the rest of the spheres of life. What counts as political, similarly, has shifted over the course of history, most radically in the modern period, when the political has dominated all other spheres.

In the premodern world, what the ruler or the ruling elites considered as part of their purview was quite limited. In medieval Islam, for instance, the ruler (often called sultān or malik) neither made law nor interpreted it, but only enforced it, and had rather limited influence on people’s beliefs, morals, and worldview. Medieval Muslims lived by their communities of sharīʿa law as explained and embodied by the scholars, spiritual masters, and local customs. In this world, ethnicity, in contrast to medieval Europe, played a negligible role in defining Muslims’ identity.8 The reach of the political sphere, in other words, was small, and the ruler was needed mostly for defending borders and maintaining law and order by upholding Islamic law. Muslim societies were creedally, legally, affectively, and economically deeply interlinked, and the lack of political unity was strongly felt only in certain fragile moments such as during the Byzantine aggression, the Mongol attacks, and the Crusades. Even though the consequences of political fragmentation in these cases were debilitating, the overall religious confidence and civilizational momentum of Islam made recovery possible.

In short, given the great expanse of the Islamic world and absent the technology to communicate and travel faster, the cost of political fragmentation was low and its harm only not as devastating as it is today. Notwithstanding these difficulties, the ʿulamāʾ of Islam never relinquished the requirement of installing a khalīfa, nor questioned the consensus (ijmāʿ) of the Companions, since they saw it as a necessary part of religion rather than merely a historical accident or a luxury.

Why Khilāfa? Because Words Matter

If the focus of ummatics is on reviving the Umma, it is often asked, why, then, insist on the term khilāfa, or caliphate, and risk any association with terrorist groups, and antagonizing many? Why not just speak of Muslim unity or Islamic governance? We believe in taking back our religion from the neocolonialists and their native collaborators as well as the reactionary militants. To compromise on our key Islamic terms and symbols risks severing our link to divine revelation and confusing our vision. Such a compromise would be construed as hedging on key beliefs.

More importantly, the caliphate/imamate as an institution signals two essential continuities, one to the Prophet of Allah z and the other to every Muslim anywhere in the world. Thus it is not merely a political institution in the modern sense, but the key to embodying these two continuities and affirming our collective identity as a single body. No other metaphor has the conceptual and affective power to conjure the Qur’anic mandate, Sunnaic authenticity, and ummatic depth. It must, therefore, be reclaimed by the broad swathes of the Umma against both its demonization as a medieval absolutist threat by global imperialist villains and their local proxies and its abuse by extremist outfits.

So what is the khilāfa and who is the khalīfa? There are two key meanings of the word khalīfa (lit., successor, deputy, or trustee) in the Qur’an, each of which maps to two important but entirely distinct discourses, that are sometimes conflated in the modern period. In Sūrat Ṣād (38:26), it refers to the power and authority given to Prophet Dawūd l. The Qur’an does not specify to whom he is made the successor, and exegetes have two opinions. First, khalīfa to the prophetic and political authority given to Mūsā l and other prophets; in this case, the correct translation would be successor. Second, khalīfa of Allah, which is strongly disliked by many scholars since it could mean Allah’s replacement, which is impossible, but other scholars accept it with the caveat that it means Allah’s deputy, trustee, or vicegerent, charged with the task of upholding Allah’s commands.9 In brief, the meaning of khalīfa in this verse is political authority, ideally one that walks in the footsteps of prophets and is constrained by divine guidance. It is in this sense that Abū Bakr I would be called the khalīfa of the Messenger of Allah (saw), and all legitimate Muslim rulers of the Umma would be given that title.

The other resonance of the word khalīfa in the Qur’an is in Sūrat al-Baqara in the foundational story of Adamic creation (2:30-39). Here, it refers to the authority and responsibility accorded to every offspring of Adam l, or perhaps to the believing among them, owing to our ability to know, speak, and choose to worship Allah.10 Over the last century, this use of the term has become predominant in Muslim revivalist discourses, as a way to emphasize human agency and responsibility, perhaps to complement the word ʿabd, slave, which indicates our relationship of willing servitude, obedience, and veneration of Allah.11 There is no denying that ʿabd/ʿibāda/ʿubūdiyya (servitude, worship, slavery) is the chief concept governing human-divine relationship in the Qur’an, the Sunna, and Islamic tradition.12

If used carefully, the human-as-khalīfa idea is a welcome correction, but this newfangled use could be misleading if it is used to deny either the centrality of khilāfa as a political institution or replace ʿabd as the key index of human relationship to God. What is objectionable, even disingenuous, is to ascribe to the Qur’an this far-fetched metaphysical or spiritual meaning (all humans or all Muslims as caliphs) to deny or replace the far more authoritative and widely attested meaning of the caliphate as political authority.13

The Prophetic Caliphate must be ummatic

The caliphate of the future must be an institution that is accountable to the Umma; one whose strength derives from the faith, skills, and prosperity of every individual Muslim, community, and region. If, as Malek Bennabi once wrote, the Umma had become colonizable before it was colonized, the quest of ummatics is for the Umma to become self-governable so that it can achieve self-governance.14 Our religion demands and the Umma desperately needs a true Islamic meritocracy, rather than tyrants who dominate through oppression and silencing of dissent. The diversity and complexity of the global community of Muslims are among our greatest assets.

Why start with the Umma, though, rather than the caliphate itself? Why not start top-down, and focus on the caliphate as an institution of political power that would set all things right? Put simply, the answer is that in Islamic creed and scripture, the Umma, the community of believers, is the primary audience of the divine revelation given to the Prophet z. The quintessential Qur’anic call is “O ye who believe,” addressed to all the believers, and the mission of the Final Prophet z is bequeathed to the Umma, not to any particular person or family. Both logically and chronologically, it is the Umma that is first constituted and then elects those who will secure its rights and lead its mission. Islam, in other words, is Umma-centric.15

Ummatics, then, is both the foundational step toward a prophetic caliphate, khilāfa ʿalā minhāj al-nubuwwa, and a mechanism to ensure that the Umma remains aware and empowered to hold all those in authority accountable. Put differently, precisely because a truly prophetic caliphate is a servant of the Umma, not its absolutist lord, the top-down approach is untenable. The sons and daughters of the Umma from all its corners must be prepared and empowered to establish it and thereafter to hold it accountable.

We cannot predict how and when it will happen, but ummatics is the name we give to the effort needed to make it possible. Unlike those who think that the caliphate is the name of a band of trigger-happy, vengeful militants, we believe that the caliphate is the name of a capacious, inclusive, yet profoundly Islamic civilization. It is a diverse and enlightened, Allah-centered yet also humane civilization that embraces both the inner diversity and experience of Muslims, while being open to learning from the human experience at large. It is, therefore, a civilization of knowledge, centered around the divinely revealed truth that gives meaning and purpose to all human knowledge and practice.

All these goals, virtues, and qualities are not merely instrumental for establishing a political union, but rather the union is instrumental for achieving them. They are mutually supporting goals that are necessary part of an Islamic flourishing. It is for this reason that we stress the need for an ummatic discourse and practice, a subject area of ummatics in every Muslim curriculum, and a chapter on the topic of the affairs of the Umma in every manual of rejuvenated Islamic jurisprudence. Put differently, if a legitimate caliphate were established tomorrow, we would still need ummatic knowledge and practices just as much to sustain and guide it and hold it accountable.

Discursive Integration of the Umma as a Condition for Ummatic Unification

Achieving the goal of ummatic unity requires creating sufficient readiness and commitment among broad swathes of the Umma to demand and be able to thrive in legitimate, accountable, and unified Islamic institutions. Achieving sustainable solidarity of the Umma, therefore, must begin by bringing together the right-minded intellectual and spiritual leadership from all possible regions and perspectives, a leadership that thus represents and secures participation in thought and action of Muslims globally. I shall label this the discursive integration of the Umma, which is a fancy way to say the ability of Muslims across the globe to exchange ideas, concerns, sentiments, and aspirations in a timely and regular fashion and on their own terms.

A limited example of this discursive integration was witnessed in the Arab Spring of 2011, when one spark in Tunisia ignited the aspirations and hopes of masses in twenty-some Arab countries; this was only possible because the media organizations had created a shared Arab-Islamic public sphere from Oman to Morocco. Although the Arab Spring was neither sufficiently ummatic nor led by a coherent set of ideas, it holds many lessons.

Far more undeniable an example and a greater testament to the vitality of the Umma, and the equally great threat posed by its anti-ummatic leadership, is the ongoing struggle in Gaza—Allah liberate the Further Mosque and its people and empower the Umma to fulfill its duty. Gaza has reawakened ummatic hope and sentiment in an unprecedented way, and has become a furqān, criterion, between the 99% of the Umma that is ummatic, so to speak, and the 1% ruling class who are anti-ummatic, siding with and abetting the genocide of our own people, after having opted for “normalization” with the settler-colonial entity, in return for, in Qur’anic terms, a short price.

Discursive integration requires recognizing the many, many ummatic revivals, struggles, and initiatives that are already underway across the globe. It calls for discovering silos and connecting them and identifying sources of discord and providing platforms for opposed camps to build bridges and manage disagreements. It also means rejuvenating the legacy of the great ʿulamāʾ and leaders of the recent past, both those well-known and those often neglected, and critically studying their contributions and movements. Most importantly, it involves identifying future leaders, innovative thinkers, unappreciated geniuses, and prophetic figures within the Umma today and giving them a platform to direct their energies toward a shared ummatic cause. In a future essay, Allah willing, we delve deeper into how discursive integration prepares the groundwork for practical ummatic unification in different fields.

What to expect: Contentions on Ummatic unity

With the above clarifications on the “what” and “how”, we can now return to the “why”: Why do Muslims, and the world, need ummatics? The answer is clear as day: because it is an Islamic obligation on the Umma, by consensus of all Muslim authorities, to be unified and carry out their mission under a legitimate, rightly-guided leadership. Unity and righteous leadership are both religiously mandated in themselves and needed to protect the integrity of Islam and the lives and limbs of Muslims. To employ Islamic theological vocabulary, they are required both by revelation and reason, in that order.

A robust Umma with such leadership and agency is necessary to call to Allah, to uphold the divine law and the divine mandate to stand in witness to humanity, and to offer moderns the alternative to today’s false gods, self-worship, and myriad tyrannies, guiding them to eternal salvation. It is, therefore, also the only way to facilitate the spiritual and material well-being of humanity.

Few in the Umma would disagree with this basic premise, but in a time when our sense of self, vocabulary, discourses, and even dreams have been infiltrated, many harbor a variety of doubts. We are weak and backwards, unable to plan and act, some believe, or just irreparably divided, doomed to be picked off by our enemies one by one. We are, furthermore, uniquely plagued by extremism and authoritarianism, and until the one right version of Islam is adhered to, there can be no hope. We must limit ourselves to private piety for any hope to change our condition is futile—Muslim unification is a pipe dream. Our modern view of Muslim history, refracted as it is through the secular Western narrative, adds fuel to this fire of despair: unity of all Muslims under a righteous government never occurred during the thousand years before colonialism, how could it be realized now? Finally, others suggest, the current reign of secular nation-states is insurmountable and irreversible.

The doubts and specious arguments, sometimes genuine concerns, are many, but they all have good answers. This series of contentions aims to articulate those answers in several short essays.

 

Each contention will be linked here when it is published:

Contention One: Ummatic Exceptionalism and the Prospect of Double Humiliation

Notes

  1. Studies consistently point in that direction as well, see for instance Mujtaba Ali Isani, Muslim Public Opinion Toward the International Order: Support for International and Regional Actors (Cham: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2019), 25; and Mujtaba Ali Isani, Daniel Silverman, and Joseph J Kaminski, “The Other Legitimate Game in Town? Understanding Public Support for the Caliphate in the Muslim World,” American Journal of Islam and Society 41, no. 2 (forthcoming, 2024).
  2. For an excellent study on the state of Muslim minorities see Yahya Birt, “Ummah at the Margins: The Past, Present and Future of Muslim Minorities,” Ayaan Institute, Oct 10, 2022, https://ayaaninstitute.com/research/publications/ummah-at-the-margins-the-past-present-and-future-of-muslim-minorities/
  3. Qur’an, Āl-ʿImrān: 103.
  4. Qur’an, al-Anfāl: 46, 73; Āl-ʿImrān: 152.
  5. For example, al-Ḥujurāt, 13: “O people! Indeed, We created you from a male and a female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may (get to) know one another. Surely the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous among you. Allah is truly Knowing, Aware.”
  6. There are numerous such ḥadīth reports. One ḥadīth promises reward for Muslims who give up acrimonious disputation (mirā’) even when they are right (Sunan Abī Dawūd, #4800). Another discourages disputation about the Qur’an (Musnad Aḥmad, #17821.)
  7. For instance, al-Fatḥ, 49: “Muḥammad is the Messenger of Allah—those with him are firm with the disbelievers and compassionate with one another…”
  8. Michael Cook, Ancient Religion, Modern Politics: The Islamic Case in Comparative Perspective (Princeton University Press, 2014), Ch. 1, gives a textured account of the role of ethnicity in the lands of Islam.
  9. Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī gives these two meanings, the second one with the noted caveat (https://tafsir.app/alrazi/38/26), whereas many scholars, including Ibn Taymiyya, take strong exception to the second meaning. Ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī gives only the first meaning, and Ibn ʿAṭiyya notes that khalīfat Allāh could only apply to prophets, but when applied to non-prophets, it can only mean rulers who inherit this office from their predecessors (https://tafsir.app/ibn-atiyah/38/29). For an evaluation of modern scholarship on the subject, including Patricia Crone and Martin Hind’s claim in God’s Caliph (Cambridge University Press, 1986), see Anjum, Politics, Law, and Community in Islam: The Taymiyyan Moment (Cambridge University Press, 2012), 42-48.
  10. Al-Ṭabarī’s mentions a variety of meanings assigned to “succession” in the early centuries, none of which approximate deputyship or vicegerency of Allah for all humankind https://tafsir.app/tabari/2/30. The khalīfa is understood to be either Adam himself, as God’s messenger and hence in possession of authority and responsibility to God (this meaning of khalīfa would be the same as the verse in Sūrat Ṣād), or all children of Adam, in which case, the meaning was not taken to be political authority. In the latter case, “succession” was taken to mean just the biological fact that human generations succeed one after the other, or as a whole they have succeeded another creation. The same two possibilities can be found in al-Qurṭubī. Later exegetes combine these two meanings in various ways, taking it to mean that all believers are recipients of a metaphysical responsibility and trust. All these meanings are acceptable if properly qualified by established (muḥkam) texts and doctrines.
  11. For these two uses, see Muftī Taqī Usmānī, Islam and Politics (London: Turath Publishing, 2018), 33.
  12. As an index of God-human relationship, kh-l-f and its derivatives appear a handful of times in the Qur’an, whereas ʿ-b-d and its derivatives are the default choice, appearing over two hundred times.
  13. An example of this move can be found in Haroon Mughal, Two Billion Caliphs: A Vision of a Muslim Future (Beacon Press, 2022).
  14. Algerian thinker Malek Bennabi famously coined the term colonisabilité in his French title, Colonisabilité: Problèmes de la civilisation. For a recent introduction to his thought, see Ahmed Jaafri, “The Colonizability of African and Asian Societies from the Perspective of Malek Bennabi (Historical Insights),” Psychology and Education 60, no. 2 (2023): 1829-1841.
  15. For a detailed discussion, see Ovamir Anjum, Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2012), Ch. 6.

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Contention One: Ummatic Exceptionalism and the Prospect of Double Humiliation

July 17, 2024
Ovamir Anjum

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July 15, 2024
ummatics

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