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UMMAH is an Arabic term denoting a grouping of individuals constituting a larger community with a single identity. The term is often translated as "community" or "people," and the plural (umam ) is commonly used in Arabic with the meaning "nations." Other Semitic languages also employ this root (ʾMM) to designate social groups that share a common language, ethnicity, or set of laws and customs.

QurʾĀn and Islamic Exegesis

The term ummah and its plural occur numerous times in the Qurʾān, referring to groups of animals (Qurʾān 6:38) and people. According to Qurʾān 7:34 and 15:5, each ummah has an appointed time, which is fixed and cannot be delayed. To every ummah is sent a messenger (Qurʾān 10:47) or warner (35:24), calling each ummah back to the worship of God. Muslim exegetes relate that on the Day of Judgment the prophet Muammad will intercede on behalf of all the ummahs to whom prophets had been sent.

Perhaps this is reflected in Qurʾān 16:120, where Abraham is said to be an ummah obedient to God, being anīf, and not one of those who associate things with God. In Qurʾān 2:124, God tells Abraham that he is making him an example (imām ) for people. The terms imām and ummah are derived from the same root, and are sometimes understood as being a necessary pair. The imām shows by example and the ummah follows that example. Muslim exegesis on Qurʾān 3:94 equates the religion (millah ) of Abraham with the ummah of the prophet Muammad, and Qurʾān 4:125 refers to the millah of Abraham, being anīf, whom God took as a friend (khalīl). Qurʾān 43:2223 also uses the term ummah, as millah, to refer to a religion or a community following a particular religion.

Qurʾān 10:19 states that all people are a single ummah (ummah wāidah ), but the people disagreed. According to several early exegetes, this refers to the primordial existence of all humanity as a single ummah with a single religion, a state that was ruined by sin as exemplified by the murder of Abel by Cain. In Qurʾān 2:128, Abraham and Ishmael ask God to make their offspring an ummah submitting (ummah muslimah ) to God. In Qurʾān 3:103, God says that there will be an ummah that commands right and forbids wrong. Exegetes interpret this to be a reference to the faithful remnant of the original single ummah that, on the Day of Resurrection, will demonstrate the righteousness of those who submitted to God.

Islamic Law and Practice

Islamic law does not define the ummah in a direct sense, but it does outline in detail the structure of Muslim society. Human actions are divided into two types: rituals (ʿibadāt ) and social acts (muʿamalāt ). In general, rituals define a relationship between God and individuals, or between God and the ummah, as a whole. Laws relating to social acts govern relations among individuals within a society, and between different societies or nations, and vary according to different Muslim schools of law in certain respects.

Laws defining purity do not make social distinctions outside of allowing for certain variations in practice based upon natural differences. For example, menstruation requires women to perform certain purification rituals, but men are also required to purify themselves from blood flowing from their own bodies, such as from the nose or a wound. The causes of impurity include both substances (urine, feces, semen, vomit, blood, pus) and activities (sleep and unconsciousness, sex, menstruation, parturition, touching of certain body parts). Those substances and activities that require ablution (wuūʾ ) are natural occurrences necessary to human life. Activities and substances that require washing (ghusl) are all related to sexual reproduction and are thus necessary to the continued existence of human society.

Other rituals, such as prayer, offering, fasting, and pilgrimage, do make social distinctions. For example, in certain legal texts women are not to attend the group prayer (jum ʿah ) on Fridays and are not allowed to pray in mixed groups with men, nor are virgins allowed to perform any prayers or fasting during the month of Ramaān. The qualifications of the prayer leader are based upon social standing according to age, piety, and learning. Thus, the free person is better suited than the slave, the city dweller than the nomad, the healthy than the handicapped, the heir than the bastard. Similarly, the standing order for the group prayer places the pure before the impure, the literate before the illiterate, and the clothed before the naked. Other rituals are restricted to certain segments of society. Zakāt is only required of relatively wealthy people with extra income over and above that required for their regular upkeep, just as the ājj and jihād is not required for a person who does not have the means to both perform the duty and provide for his family during that time.

Certain rituals are made responsible upon the ummah as a whole. Islamic law distinguishes between individual ritual requirements (far ʿayn ) and communal requirements (far kifāyah ). Individual daily prayers, for example, are incumbent upon each individual. Those rituals that are incumbent upon the community as a whole, such as the group prayer (jumʿah ) on Fridays and defense of the ummah (jihād) are not obligatory on each individual. The ummah is required to provide a group prayer on Fridays, which would necessitate a certain number of individuals to attend, but not all eligible members of the ummah must attend.

Spatial and temporal distinctions are also demarcated through ritual. For example, when traveling outside of a civilizational center (mir ), people are not allowed to perform the congregational prayer. Nor is purification without water (tayammum ) allowed within the confines of a civilizational center. People traveling more than three days distance from their home are only required to pray three daily prayers. These rituals parallel commercial and criminal laws, such as the prohibition against a city dweller selling goods for a desert dweller, or a bailed defendant being deposited in a market (sūq ) but not in open country.

Laws regulating social acts differentiate a number of social spheres within the ummah. The most localized are individuals and their interactions with other individuals. In commercial law, exchanges are regulated between specific individuals. Jurists hold that the basic principle underlying commercial law is establishing equity between the two individual parties. Criminal law also regulates activity between individuals. Punishment for murder, for example, takes the form of an exchange between the murderer and the individuals affected by the murder. The payment of wergild is a compensation for the loss of the life. In adjudicating such exchanges or punishments, the role of the state is to facilitate the establishment of this "balance" (ʿadl) between indi-viduals.

The second major social sphere within the ummah is that of the family. According to jurists, personal law regulates the balance among family members. Laws of marriage, divorce, maintenance, and inheritance are designed to maintain the fundamental structures of the ummah. Fornication, which is defined as specific types of sexual activity outside of marriage, is punishable by death because it threatens the balance of the family and the relation of the family to the larger society. The laws of slavery, and particularly those concerning concubines, found in classical Islamic law are also based upon the principle of social balance.

The third major social sphere is that of the society as a whole. This includes laws relating to land reclamation, which would affect productivity and ownership rights of large areas pertinent to the ummah as a whole. It also includes the laws of jihād or siyār, which require certain segments of the ummah (capable adult men) to defend the ummah in case of attack. Jurists conceptualize two realms: the "Place of Islam" (Dār al-Islām ) and the "Place of War" (Dār al-arb ). The Dār al-Islām designates civilized area in which Islamic law is practiced, whereas the Dar al-arb is the place of barbarism, lacking law and order.

Political Theory and Practice

Medieval Muslim political theorists defined the ummah vis-à-vis the relation of the ummah to its ruler and the relation of both to God through the law as formulated by jurists on the basis of revelation. According to the political theorist al-Māwardī (9741058), the ummah is constituted by its allegiance to the imām in a sort of contractual relationship. The responsibility of the imām is twofold: to enforce laws pertaining to social relations (muʿamalāt ), and to ensure that the ummah can fulfill its ritual obligations (ʿibadāt ). Māwardī maintained that the office of the imām is required by revelation and necessary to the proper functioning of the ummah, but the legitimacy of any individual imām is based on his adherence to the well-being of the ummah. Ibn Khaldūn (13321406) similarly argued that God created human beings so that they would be required to work together as a society and develop civilization in order to survive on the earth after the fall from Eden. This requires a state that provides individuals with food, shelter, and the opportunity to abide by God's com-mandments.

Some contemporary Muslim theorists contend that the ummah can still only be constituted with an imām or caliph, and must be inclusive of all Muslims regardless of ethnic or national origin. Some older theorists, such as Ibn Jamāʿa (12411333) argued that any effective leader could be considered an imām. Others, such as Ibn Taymīyah (12631328) and the ayatollah Khomeini (19021989), maintained that jurists could take the place of an imām even when the ummah already had an otherwise de facto ruler. The Iranian-born Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (18391897) proposed a pan-Islamic ummah to replace the fragmentation of modern states. The Ottoman sultan Abulhamid II (r. 18761909) attempted to reestablish the caliphate and the notion of a pan-Islamic ummah.

Modern reformist movements, such as the izb al-Tarīr, have called for the return to a caliphal state as a means to reconstitute the ummah and defend Islam against colonialist and imperialist incursions. Reformist political theorists include Sayyid Qub (19061966) from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Mawdūdī (19031979), founder of the Jamāʿat-i-Islāmī in Pakistan, and ʿAlī Shariʿatī (19331977), a leader in the Iranian revolution. According to these theorists, Islam is in the midst of a new age of ignorance (jahilīyah ), which requires the reformation of the ummah under the aegis of an Islamic state upholding the principles of Islamic law.

Other groups define the ummah in more restrictive terms. ʿAlid or Shīʿī political theorists define the ummah more restrictively, based on its allegiance to an imām who is chosen because he possesses special attributes. Non-Shīʿī groups, such as the so-called Five Percenters, also restrict the ummah to an elect and narrowly construed group of believers, possessed of secret knowledge or other special characteristics. Early Kharijī leaders denied membership in the ummah to any Muslim who refused to follow the strict interpretation of the Qurʾān laid down by acknowledged Kharijī authorities. The Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad (18971975) delineated the ummah in exclusivist historical ties and racial terms.

In the modern period, nationalists have tied the definition of the ummah to ethnic and national identities. The Egyptian writer Rifāʿah al-ahāwī (18011873) argued for a national ummah based on patriotism for a homeland (waan ). Muammad ʿAbduh (18491905) broadened this national ummah to include all Arabs in a capacity that would allow Arabs to purify and establish a more international Islamic ummah. Muslim thinkers in East and Southeast Asia have called for a recognition of the Arab roots of the ummah while championing their own cultural and regional identities as the flowering of a true international ummah.

In 1924 Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (18811938) abolished the caliphate and founded the secular state of Turkey. Political movements in Arab states, such as the Ummah Anār or Sudanese Ummah Party founded in 1945 by supporters of the son of the founder of the Mahdist movement, sought to rally support for political causes with an ideology of the ummah. Many Arab states, especially in the 1960s, have legislated separate religious and national identities in an attempt to create a secular society distinct from and overriding religious allegiances. Some contemporary states with large Muslim populations sanction an official Islamic identity as a means to gain legitimacy and protect against threats from nonsanctioned religious groups. Certain forms of Islamic expression are considered subversive to the state and are outlawed as expressions of allegiance with an ummah that represents a different political order.


For a historical overview of the concept of ummah, see Riwān al-Sayyid, Al-Ummah wa al-jamāʿa wa al-sulah: Dirāsāt fī al-fikr al-siyāsī al-ʿarabī al-Islāmī (Beirut, 1984). This can be supplemented with Naśīf Naār, Mafhām al-ummah bayna al-dīn wa al-taʾrīkh (Beirut, 1978), and his Taawwurāt al-ummah al-maʿāirah (Kuwait, 1986). On ummah in the Qurʾān and exegesis, see Fred Denny, "The Meaning of Ummah in the Qurʾān," History of Religions 15 (1975): 3470, and his "Ummah in the Constitution of Medina," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 36 (1977): 2659. For studies on Islamic practice within the ummah, see Louis Gardet, La cité musulmane: Vie sociale et politique (Paris, 1954; 4th ed., 1976). An introduction to Islamic political thought with an emphasis on the ummah can be found in Erwin Rosenthal, Political Thought in Medieval Islam: An Introductory Outline (Cambridge, U.K., 1958). On the contractual relationship of the leader and the ummah, see Fazlur Rahman, "The Principle of Shura and the Role of Umma in Islam," American Journal of Islamic Studies 1 (1984): 19. Specific issues are treated in Louis Massignon, "L'Umma et ses synonymes: Notion de communauté sociale en Islam," Revista des études Islamiques (1947): 152; Elias Giannakis, "The Concept of Ummah," Graeco-Arabica 2 (1983): 99111; and H. A. R. Gibb, "The Community in Islamic History," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 107 (1963): 173176. On modern and contemporary thought, see Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 17981939 (London, 1962; reprint, Cambridge, U.K. 1983), and Leonard Binder, Islamic Liberalism: A Critique of Development Ideologies (Chicago, 1988). For studies of nationalism and the ummah, see Abdullah al-Asan, Ummah or Nation? Identity Crisis in Contemporary Muslim Society (Leicester, UK, 1992), and Hans Kruse, "The Development of the Concept of Nationality in Islam," Studies in Islam 2, no. 1 (1965): 716.

Brannon Wheeler (2005)