The term umma is an Arabic word. It was used sixty-two times in the Qur˒an, in both the Meccan and Medinan periods. Its most common meaning is that of a group of people or a community, and it also refers to a religious community or a group of people who follow God's guidance. Most usages of umma in the Qur˒an, however, are not related to the community of prophet Muhammad.
The concept of a community of believers (umma) took shape during the Prophet's lifetime, first in Mecca then in Medina. In Mecca, the small group of the Prophet's followers shared certain common beliefs, values, and practices associated with the new religion, Islam, and gradually came to be differentiated from the rest of the Meccans. Meccan families were split; some followed the traditional religion of Mecca (paganism) while others followed the new religion. Religious affiliation became more important than family relationship or tribal membership. When the Prophet and his small group of followers fled Mecca to Medina, they formed, with the Muslims of Medina, a distinct community (umma) as opposed to, for instance, the Jewish community there. By the time of the Prophet's death in 632 c.e., his followers, known as "believers" or Muslims, had a distinct identity. The early struggle of this community with non-Muslims, either in the general Arab rebellion (632–633) against Muslim rule from Medina, or, after that, with the Byzantine and Sassanid empires in the wars of conquest, led to a sharper view of what the Muslim umma was; that is, it was based on belief in one God, in the prophethood of Muhammad, and in a supranational brotherhood.
Although some scholars have attempted to identify umma with ethnicity, the understanding of umma in the Prophet's time, and particularly in the post-prophetic period, became divorced from ethnic identity but remained firmly bound to the religious identity of Islam. In early Islam, this religious umma coincided with the political umma: Muslims united under one ruler during the periods of the Prophet, the Rashidun caliphs, the Umayyads, and the early Abbasids. However, this united political body became fragmented by the emergence of a series of separate political communities among Muslims from the beginning of the ninth century onward. Despite this, the concept of umma as a common brotherhood of all Muslims based on the two key ideas of shared beliefs and equality has remained an ideal to which Muslims generally aspire.
In the twentieth century, nationalism became an important force in Muslim lands, following on the history of fragmentation. In the same period, and despite debate as to its "islamicity," the nation-state model was adopted by Muslims, particularly after the abolition of the last, but at the time largely symbolic, Ottoman caliphate in 1924. There remains, however, significant unease among some Muslims as to where their primary loyalty lies: with the nation-state or with Islam, particularly where the objectives of the two do not necessarily agree. What is emerging is a view that the nation-state is a political reality that is here to stay but that effort must be made to ensure that Muslim nation-states as well as minorities across the globe are brought closer to each other within the framework of the religious umma. Instances of this are the creation of supra-national institutions such as the Organization of Islamic Conference and its subsidiaries, formed to promote political and economic cooperation. More importantly, the concept and ideal of umma are strengthened by common teachings and by religious institutions such as pilgrimage (hajj), an annual gathering of Muslims in Mecca. While these may bring the Muslim nations closer together, there are also divisive forces at work, represented in ideological, ethnic, linguistic and cultural differences.
Ahsan, Abdullah al-. Ummah or Nation? Identity Crisis inContemporary Muslim Society. Leicester, U.K.: Islamic Foundation, 1992.
Ali, Muhammad Mumtaz. The Concepts of Islamic Ummah &Shariah. Selangor, Malyasia: Pelanduk Publications, 1992.
Black, Antony. The History of Islamic Political Thought: from theProphet to the Present. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001.