by Zafar Bangash (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 38, No. 2, Rabi' al-Thani, 1430)
What or who constitutes the Muslim Ummah and what problems does it face? In Part I, ZAFAR BANGASH, director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought, offers some reflections on the issue.
Opinion among Muslims about whether the Ummah is making progress or declining is divided. It depends on each person’s outlook and perception. Clearly both views cannot be simultaneously correct although at a superficial level, there are elements of truth in both so we need to look much deeper and reflect on where the Ummah really stands today. Before we proceed, however, we must first have a better understanding of the meaning of the word progress and also, what or who constitutes the Ummah.
Since Western values and ethos dominate much of the sociopolitical discourse in the world today, Muslims too are not immune from their corrosive influence. In the West, progress is equated with material or financial gains. A society that becomes industrialized is said to make progress regardless of what destruction it causes to the environment or how much inequality in wealth occurs. Growth in a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) — that is the value of goods it produces — is generally equated with progress. A government’s performance is measured by the growth it achieves in its GDP in a specified timeframe. These are all material parameters. Whether such “progress” brings satisfaction or happiness to families or the society at large are not factored in. Similarly, the degradation of the environment or the rate at which non-renewable resources are being depleted are also not considered. There is absolutely no room in this materialistic view of progress for moral growth, spiritual elevation or satisfaction because these are non-quantifiable entities.
But we cannot accept this Western view of progress. Let us consider this in light of the Sirah of the noble Messenger of Allah (pbuh). Muslims believe he was the most successful human being in history. Even many fair-minded non-Muslims agree with this view. Yet those familiar with his Sirah would confirm that his progress in society was not based on his success in business, the number of camels or the acres of orchards he possessed or even the square miles of territory he controlled. His success was measured in terms of the number of hearts he liberated through his exemplary character, pleasant manner, and forgiving nature. People longed to be in his company because of his lofty qualities of character. He had what we would term in contemporary terminology, immense charisma. How does one measure charisma on a materialistic scale?
According to the Western materialistic view of progress, the Prophet of Allah ( pbuh) would not be considered to have been very successful. After all, he did not leave a huge bank balance, palaces or vast estates at death. He not only left this world without any material possessions but he also inspired his companions to adopt the same simple lifestyle. Yet who can say that the early Muslims were not successful or did not make progress? They established a civilization that lasted nearly 1,000 years, a feat unequaled before or after the advent of Islam. They certainly did not dazzle people with their wealth or fancy clothes. So we need to move beyond the Western-imposed definition of progress. But even by the standards of their own narrowly crafted definition of progress, the West has failed. A small coterie of people has accumulated enormous wealth while the vast majority has been turned into slaves working like automatons to merely make ends meet. Broken families leading to rising levels of depression, suicides, crime and burgeoning prison populations all point to the failure of this system, its values, and its notion of progress. The West’s definition, regrettably, is also accepted by most elites in the Muslim world although they have demonstrably failed to show any “progress” in their respective societies even on this scale.
Who is responsible for this failure in the Ummah is a question we will address a little later. First, let us establish a better definition of the Ummah. One opinion posits that the nearly 2 billion Muslims in the world today constitute the Ummah. Some Muslims even proudly proclaim that Islam is “the fastest growing religion in the world.” Perhaps, but this definition only accounts for numbers. Do vast numbers automatically translate into transformative power? While constituting one-fourth of the world’s population, occupying 20 percent of the earth’s landmass, producing 20 percent of its mineral and 40 percent of its energy resources, the Muslim world should be a leading if not the leading power in the world, yet at the global level it is quite insignificant, whether assessed on the material or moral scales. In the Qur’an, Allah describes the Muslims as the “best Ummah raised among mankind” (3:110), yet the qualities required to make them the “best community” do not exist among most Muslims today. What accounts for this dismal state of affairs?
The issue of numbers also needs a closer examination and whether the reverse — that is, small numbers — automatically means lack of power. During the colonial period, the European colonial powers with relatively small indigenous populations — Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, for instance — colonized and ruled societies many times larger. They did not even maintain large armies in the colonized lands yet for centuries the colonial program was able to project power in occupied societies. What accounts for the European colonialists’ projection of power despite their relatively small populations compared to the Muslim countries’ lack of power today despite their large populations? Similarly, we must address the issue of why Muslims lost power along with the pre-eminent position they had enjoyed in the world for nearly 1,000 years. As recently as 200 years ago, Muslims were a dominant force on the world stage.
A large population may become powerful only if it functions in tandem with several other factors. In the contemporary global situation, the US, China and Russia’s relatively large populations only augment a power formula that was consolidated by other means. Power is not only a function of a large population but also of such other factors as the determined pursuit of clearly-stated objectives, judicious use of material resources and military strength, but above all, coordination between the objectives to be pursued and the willingness of the masses to support them. In short, what results in power projection is the alignment of a number of factors to maximize one’s strength. When all these factors support each other to optimize output, the result is often quite spectacular. But the power of such states, lacking in moral authority or certitude, declines fairly rapidly; other predatory competitors overtake these states.America’s position as a pre-eminent global power is declining while that of China and Russia is rising. Only a century earlier, Britain appeared unrivaled. It would be immediately apparent that all these powers were and are non-Muslim. Power, however, is not the monopoly of any group or religion; Allah (swt) has no favorites. He gives wealth and power to whomever He wills. How they use such blessings is what determines their ultimate position with Allah (swt). That the pre-eminent position of these powers is short-lived clearly points to their weak and unstable ideological and moral foundations.
Often, when we Muslims think of the Ummah, our emotional fascination with what could be someday if we were united, obfuscates our understanding of the meaning of the Qur’anic word ummah, and thereby the intent and purpose of its use along with the binding concept that lies behind it. Few Muslim scholars have attempted to attach a contemporary value to the word so that ordinary Muslims can have a tangible idea of what meanings the word is supposed to elicit when used. It is interesting to note that the Arabic words, umm for mother, and imam for leader, derive from the same root as the word ummah. In a metaphorical sense, umm leads one in the direction of source, origin, foundation, gist, and essence. For instance, Makkah is often referred to as Umm al-Qura, meaning the original city, country or place of settlement; and similarly, Surah al-Fatihah is sometimes characterized as Umm al-Qur’an, meaning the foundational surah. When one thinks of the word imam, what comes to mind are things like in front of, in the lead, pacesetting, guiding, and setting direction. Thus when we hear the word ummah, all of these layers of meanings ought to occur in our collective consciousness, the only difference being that while umm and imam may apply to individuals, ummah refers to a social aggregate that functions as if it were one entity. To solidify this view, listen to how Allah (swt) uses the term in describing an experience of Musa (as) when he was at Madyan, “Now when he arrived at the wells of Madyan, he found there an ummah of men who were watering [their herds and flocks]; and at some distance from them he came upon two women who were keeping back their flock…” (28:23). Notice that in this description, the collective strategies, energies and labors of a large group of men are being harnessed to accomplish a singular objective — drawing water for livestock — that would be difficult, if not impossible, for one individual to achieve by himself. Therefore, in a generic sense, an ummah is: many hands, one purpose.
But, to collect people with different understandings, different backgrounds, different problem-solving approaches, different ways of processing information, different cultures, different upbringings and different mindsets on a unified mission is not an easy task: it takes planning and work, and requires institutional channels of open communication. Consistent and regular effort is required to bind people to a common purpose, for unity of purpose would have no meaning if everyone was thinking and acting the same way. Human differences are by divine decree; indeed Allah (swt) says,
And [know that] all mankind were once but one ummah, and only later did they begin to hold divergent views. And had it not been for a decree — that had already gone forth from your Sustainer — all their differences would indeed have been settled [from the outset] (10:19).
What this means is that all humanity has the innate capacity to recognize the existence of Allah (swt), to be conscious of His authority, to appreciate His power, and thus to conform to His command and counsel. However, man’s capacity is constantly compromised by subservience to less worthy authorities, resulting in a progressive deviation away from his inborn characteristics. And had Allah (swt) chosen, such an estrangement of man from his fitrah would never have occurred, but this would have precluded his intellectual, moral and social development — meaning that Allah (swt) desires man to use his rational faculties, cultivated through prophetic example and guidance, to discover these universal truths. Rational confidence is a by-product of the exchange of ideas between thinking people, of a collaborative dialogue to test theses and hypotheses so that all those thus engaged can have certitude of the way reality ought to be. Developing a consciousness of Allah’s power presence, His authority, His omnipotence and His oneness is a joint effort, a cooperative exercise; in short, it takes an ummah. In other words, for an individual with his limited abilities, no matter how extensive they may be, to achieve this is problematic; but the collective consciousness of an entire society dedicated toward this recognition makes this possible. This is why Ibrahim (as) has been characterized as an ummah unto himself; he was uniquely able to accomplish what it would normally take an ummah to do,
Verily, Ibrahim was an ummah [a man who combined within himself all virtues], devoutly obeying Allah’s will, turning away from all that is false, and not being of those who ascribe divinity to any beside Allah; [for he was always] grateful for the blessings granted by Him who had elected him and guided him onto a straight way (16:120–121).
In the socio-political and civilizational context this means that an ummah in society or in the world is a group that is the core of the identity of that society, the source of its policy initiatives, and the foundation of its institutions; it is in the lead because of the pacesetting influence of its ideas and because it executes the responsibility of determining how the entire society will effectively respond to change. An ummah is composed of thinking people, not automatons or dittoheads. These are people who practically understand the mission in a way that constrains them to subsume all their decisions, plans, strategies, and workflows to the overall goal of achieving the mission. This does not suggest that all thinking people who make up an ummah are dedicated to a common purpose that is good. Indeed many ummahs have deliberately violated Allah’s (swt) command and have been willfully insistent on maintaining a deviant course; all of these will go straight to Hell,
And thus it is, whenever We sent, before your time, a warner to any community, those of its people who had lost themselves entirely in the pursuit of pleasures would always say, “Behold, we found our forefathers on an ummah [agreed on what to conform to] — and, verily, it is but in their footsteps that we follow!” [Whereupon each prophet] would say, “Why, even though I bring you guidance better than that which you found your forefathers on?’ [To which] they would reply, ‘Behold, we deny that there is any truth in [what you claim to be] your messages!” (43:23–24)
[And Allah] will say, “Join those ummahs of invisible beings and humans who have gone before you into the Fire!” [And] every time an ummah enters [the Fire], it will curse its fellow [ummah], so much so that, when they all shall have passed into it, one after another, the last of them will speak [thus] of the first of them, “O our Sustainer! It is they who have led us astray; give, them, therefore, double suffering through fire!” He will reply, “Every one of you deserves double suffering,” but you know it not (7:38).
With the foregoing development, we are now ready to identify what represents an ummah in the world we live in today. The finest example of an ummah in the contemporary world is a multi-national corporation. Such an assertion will most likely shatter conventional, nostalgic, and “religious” Islamic illusions of what an ummah is. Consider, for example, Microsoft Corporation. Its mission over the last two decades has been to reach a point where every desktop computer in the world is running Microsoft tools and software, that is, Windows or some other operating system developed by Microsoft. To a large extent, the company has been successful. The point is that, first, the corporation declared a mission, a target that it was after; and second, it spent the bulk of its executive efforts in aligning employees, customers, manufacturers, providers, lawmakers, regulators, and many others to this directional course. People from all around the world, across borders, who speak different languages, who hail from different cultures, who have different educational levels, and who comprise programmers, developers, third-world factory workers, sales personnel, lobbyists, managers, and top executives all help the corporation achieve its mission. This is not an insignificant achievement; but the achievement is representative of the efforts of an ummah. Nearly everyone working for the company, perhaps even down to the mailroom worker, is aware of its mission and knows what role he has to play so that the overall mission is realized. Along the way to global desktop dominance, the corporation has rationalized predatory, confiscatory, and anti-trust policies. Some who have worked for or partnered with Microsoft have dissented, but their individual efforts are obviously insufficient to curtail the combined force created by the aggregate exertions of the Micro-soft ummah, which remains focused on the execution of its mission.
Extending this idea to the global power players, we can see that the most powerful ummah in the world today is the United States federal government. This ummah is not limited strictly to federal employees or the military; it has partners including the once dominant but still vulturistic European colonial powers, proxies in the Muslim and extended third world, multinational corporations, media monopolies, individual US citizens, and those around the world who sympathize with American material culture. All of these help the United States expand its global, hegemonic, and imperial enterprise. All of these are intentionally cultivated through specific strategic programs, and continuously aligned to the overall mission of ensuring global USdominance. The Department of Defense, for instance, is not just comprised of the military, and it does not only develop security policy. Real private citizens who might be your neighbors, or whose children may go to the same school as your children, develop technologies used and commissioned by the DoD to rain destruction and degradation on much of the world’s masses. The DoD, and the large federal government of which it is a part, has tortuous tentacles that extend into the narrowest crevices of world society. Consider the case of ordinary citizens’ groups in New Orleans who are blowing the whistle on government incompetence and insensitivity after the levee-related Katrina disaster three years ago. These citizens are being harassed as blogger terrorists, their characters assassinated, by of all people the Army Corps of Engineers who were supposed to have fixed the levees, which broke during the hurricane, causing the entire city of New Orleans to be flooded. Why? Because these ordinary Americans who actually live in New Orleans have the gall to suggest that federal funds be prioritized for overhauling domestic infrastructure, rather than for lining the pockets of military carpet-baggers and corporate opportunists who are looking to finance martial adventures overseas. Voicing this kind of dissent is unpatriotic; it doesn’t fit into the overall mission of the imperial program. Therefore it must be marginalized. The point is, once again, only an ummah can sideline voices of truth and demands for justice. It is a great folly to believe that a few people hatching a conspiracy make global instability happen; indeed it is large blocks of people working in concert that make this possible. That is why entire ummahs so directed and involved will end up in the hellfire.
Muslim resistance to the American imperial agenda, unlike “unpatriotic” Americans, is not simply marginalized, but routinely squashed and its proponents killed. Muslims who considerthemselves to be “Muslim and American at the same time” or who characterize themselves as “American Muslims” cannot be clearheaded about the fact that part of America’s global mission is to abort any bona fide attempt at Islamic self-determination and Islamic state-building. Give the American leadership class credit. They know who their enemy is. They know that Islam and the American imperial enterprise cannot coexist in the same world; and they have enacted and executed policies to that effect. Over a million dead in Iraq in the past six years, at least a million dead in Afghanistan over the past 25 years, the rape of Bosnia, the annihilation of Chechnya, the dismembering of Somalia, the concentration-camp style gulag of Gaza, the hype that all Muslims living in the West are potential terrorists, the propaganda degrading Muhammad (pbuh), and on, and on, are all evidences to this effect. This is the concentrated impact of an ummah, not a bunch of cowboys. Recall the case of “ordinary” citizen Kenneth Haywood, a US missionary working in India, to whose laptop emails from the so-called Indian Mujahideen were traced as their origin. The Indian Mujahideen are purported to be an indigenous Indian “Islamist” group responsible for several bombings. Kenneth Haywood is widely regarded now to be CIA asset in cahoots with Indian nationalists, who are themselves looking for excuses to purge India of its historic Muslim presence. A thinking person may ask, “What has the global mission of Christianity (peace and love ostensibly) got to do with the imperial mission to occupy all the world’s people and their resources?” The answer is: nothing. Even devout Christians know that dominion belongs to God. But Christians raised in America are willing to subsume God’s authority to American military muscle. They are willing to have American firepower be the instrument upon which the “civilizing” gospel is carried to the rest of the world. American children are socialized into conflating God and nationalism from a very early age: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands: one Nation under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all (American pledge of allegiance, an oath of loyalty to the country, recited at the opening of all congressional sessions). Insiders who secretly and sometimes openly dissent with the wayward American establishment characterize the CIA as “Christians In Action.” To these “company” comptrollers of America, the Bible is as much a founding document of the American ummah as the US Constitution. So even the moral impulse of Christianity is used to rationalize the worldwide insemination of American popular culture, represented as it is by the tripartite revolving door of government, military and corporate big business.
Similarly, worldwide Jewry comprises an ummah. To be sure, as in all large groups, there are dissenting voices (Finkelstein, Chomsky, Goodman, Avnery, and others), but they are not loud enough, strident enough, or powerful enough to mitigate the ugly actions of their coreligionists in the monstrosity known as Israel, or the “Jewish” State. Whether they are employed in “legal” activities (media, the arts, business, law, banking, etc.) or “illegal” activities (drug-dealing, racketeering, arms-trading, whore-running, money-laundering, etc.), their primary focus is the continued existence of the Zionist State. In numbers, there are only about 15 million, but because they work in tandem with each other, they have been able to divert the world’s righteous indignation away from the 60-year genocide of the Palestinians. They are effective, even for a cause as despicable as theirs, precisely because they have a declared mission and the influential amongst them align the rank and file to the unified direction. All members of the rank and file, be they rich or poor, male or female, aristocrat or worker, know what they have to do individually to sustain the cause. And oh yes, they have partners. Contrary to popular belief, for nearly all the years of its existence, Israeli foreign policy initiatives are directed at the average American voter. This ordinary voter is manipulated, cultivated and indoctrinated into the Israeli Zionist vision by powerful Jewish lobbies in Washington and by media monopolies dominated by them. Dissenting voices from this propaganda line are routinely calumniated as antisemites, Nazis or Islamists. No potential American voter is excluded from the reach of this hyperbolic spin machine, not even “powerful” politicians, or even would-be legislators or executives.
Consider what Bettylu Saltzman (an out-of-the-public-view supporter of Obama since the beginning of his political career; her father, Philip Klutznick, was a legendary Chicago developer, Jewish leader, and statesman who served as secretary of commerce in the Carter administration and played a leading role in the development of the State of Israel) said about getting on board with Barack Obama and supporting his campaign, “…obviously I’m not going to support someone who is opposed to Israel and what it stands for. He’s right on all the issues when it comes to Israel. He’s in exactly the same place (Hillary) Clinton is, maybe even stronger. He’s a clearer thinker.” Never mind the economic meltdown, forget about Americans losing their homes, leave behind the environment — just worry about Israel, everything else comes later. And what does it take to get even desperately suffering Americans to look the other way when billions of their taxpayer dollars, not to mention several billions more from their employers, are being deposited into the bottomless and frostbitten sinkhole that is Zionist Israel? It takes an ummah. Give them credit too. They know what they are after. And they know who has the potential to stop them. The Zionist project knows that it cannot coexist in the same world as Islam — to wit, the demonization of Hamas, Hizbullah, Iran and by extension all the committed Muslims in the world who are dedicated to actualizing Allah’s (swt) will on earth, while simultaneously deconstructing corruption and its enabling institutions.
Only the Ummah (the ummah of Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings) can fight this combination of deviant and corrupting ummahs, and more importantly, win, restoring a balance of justice to the world and its people. The Islamic mission on earth is to execute this task. Properly communicated and packaged, this mission is something all Muslims would be willing to fight for, and they have demonstrated this attachment in times past and are now emerging in ever-greater numbers to discharge this responsibility once more.