Muslim Ummah and Minorities

Syed Sharfuddin

(This essay developed out of a discourse on the nature of Muslim Ummah and the rights of minorities).

Ummah أُمَّةً is an Arabic word which means community. But because of its Arabic origin it has acquired an association with the predominant faith of the people of Arabia. When someone uses the word Ummah, its meaning almost always is understood to be a community of Muslims. Furthermore, because of the Quranic commandment that all Muslims share a bond of fraternity with each other, the application of Ummah is not confined to a specific country or region but all over the world. Is this the correct approach to understand the meaning of Ummah or should one see it in the context in which this word is used and for what purpose?

This essay attempts to answer the question in the light of the teachings of the holy Quran and the Sunnah of prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah Subhanuhu wa Taala be on him, as well as the underlying question that if there is such a thing as a global Muslim Ummah, how do other communities of non-Muslim minorities sit in this Ummah? Is there any place in the Ummah for non-Muslim minorities to be equal citizens with full rights and responsibilities as those of the majority Muslim Community? There is also a related question of what is the status of a Muslim minority in a non-Muslim country and can one still call them Muslim Ummah?

In the holy Quran the word Ummah has been used in different contexts. Ummah is mankind. Ummah is plural communities with different faiths, value systems and leaders or apostles. Ummah can be used to describe a community of unbelievers, sinners and evil doers. Ummah also means a community of the faithful who believe in Allah and Muhammad as His messenger.

Ummah as Humanity

كَانَ النَّاسُ أُمَّةً وَاحِدَةً
“All mankind was once a single community.” [2:213]

وَلِكُلِّ أُمَّةٍ أَجَلٌ فَإِذَا جَاء أَجَلُهُمْ لاَ يَسْتَأْخِرُونَ سَاعَةً وَلاَ يَسْتَقْدِمُونَ
“And for all communities a term has been fixed and when (the end of) their term approaches, they can neither delay it by a single moment nor can they hasten it.” [7:34]

وَمَا كَانَ النَّاسُ إِلاَّ أُمَّةً وَاحِدَةً فَاخْتَلَفُواْ وَلَوْلاَ كَلِمَةٌ سَبَقَتْ مِن رَّبِّكَ لَقُضِيَ بَيْنَهُمْ فِيمَا فِيهِ يَخْتَلِفُونَ
“All mankind was once a single community, 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 Lord, all their differences would indeed have been settled (from the outset).” [10:19]

قُل لاَّ أَمْلِكُ لِنَفْسِي ضَرًّا وَلاَ نَفْعًا إِلاَّ مَا شَاء اللّهُ لِكُلِّ أُمَّةٍ أَجَلٌ إِذَا جَاء أَجَلُهُمْ فَلاَ يَسْتَأْخِرُونَ سَاعَةً وَلاَ يَسْتَقْدِمُونَ
“Say (O Prophet) ‘It is not within my power to avert harm from, or bring benefit to myself, except as Allah may please.’ A term has been fixed for all communities, and when the end of their term approaches they can neither delay it by a single moment nor hasten it”. [10:49]

وَلَوْ شَاء رَبُّكَ لَجَعَلَ النَّاسَ أُمَّةً وَاحِدَةً وَلاَ يَزَالُونَ مُخْتَلِفِينَ
“And had your Lord so willed, He could surely have made all mankind one single community but (He willed it otherwise, and so) they continue to hold divergent views”. [11:118]

وَإِنَّ هَذِهِ أُمَّتُكُمْ أُمَّةً وَاحِدَةً وَأَنَا رَبُّكُمْ فَاتَّقُونِ
“And, verily, this community of yours is one single community, since I am the Sustainer of you all: remain, then, conscious of Me.” [23:52]

وَتَرَى كُلَّ أُمَّةٍ جَاثِيَةً كُلُّ أُمَّةٍ تُدْعَى إِلَى كِتَابِهَا الْيَوْمَ تُجْزَوْنَ مَا كُنتُمْ تَعْمَلُونَ
“(On Judgement Day) you will see all communities kneeling down (in humility): all of them will be called upon to (see) their record: Today you all shall be requited for what you ever did.” [45:28]

Ummah as Plural Communities

تِلْكَ أُمَّةٌ قَدْ خَلَتْ لَهَا مَا كَسَبَتْ وَلَكُم مَّا كَسَبْتُمْ وَلاَ تُسْأَلُونَ عَمَّا كَانُواْ يَعْمَلُونَ
“Now those people have passed away; unto them shall be credited what they have earned, and unto you, what you have earned; and you will not be judged on the strength of what they did.” [2:141]

وَلَوْ شَاء اللّهُ لَجَعَلَكُمْ أُمَّةً وَاحِدَةً وَلَـكِن لِّيَبْلُوَكُمْ فِي مَآ آتَاكُم فَاسْتَبِقُوا الخَيْرَاتِ إِلَى الله مَرْجِعُكُمْ جَمِيعًا فَيُنَبِّئُكُم بِمَا كُنتُمْ فِيهِ تَخْتَلِفُونَ
“…And if Allah had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but (He willed it otherwise) in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good deeds. Unto God you will return. He will then make you truly understand all that on which you differed.” [5:48]

وَلَوْ أَنَّهُمْ أَقَامُواْ التَّوْرَاةَ وَالإِنجِيلَ وَمَا أُنزِلَ إِلَيهِم مِّن رَّبِّهِمْ لأكَلُواْ مِن فَوْقِهِمْ وَمِن تَحْتِ أَرْجُلِهِم مِّنْهُمْ أُمَّةٌ مُّقْتَصِدَةٌ وَكَثِيرٌ مِّنْهُمْ سَاء مَا يَعْمَلُونَ
“And if they would but truly observe the Torah and the Gospel and all (the revelation) that has been bestowed on them from their Lord they would indeed partake of all the blessings of heaven and earth. A community among them does pursue the right course; but as for most of them what they do is indeed vile.” [5:66]

وَلاَ تَسُبُّواْ الَّذِينَ يَدْعُونَ مِن دُونِ اللّهِ فَيَسُبُّواْ اللّهَ عَدْوًا بِغَيْرِ عِلْمٍ كَذَلِكَ زَيَّنَّا لِكُلِّ أُمَّةٍ عَمَلَهُمْ ثُمَّ إِلَى رَبِّهِم مَّرْجِعُهُمْ فَيُنَبِّئُهُم بِمَا كَانُواْ يَعْمَلُونَ
“But do not revile those whom they invoke instead of Allah, lest they revile Allah out of spite and in ignorance; We have made the deeds of every community pleasing to it. In time, (however) they will all return to the Lord and then He will make them (truly) understand all that they were doing.” [6:108]

وَمِن قَوْمِ مُوسَى أُمَّةٌ يَهْدُونَ بِالْحَقِّ وَبِهِ يَعْدِلُونَ
“And among the people of Moses is a community which guides by truth and by it establishes justice.” [7:159]

وَإِذَ قَالَتْ أُمَّةٌ مِّنْهُمْ لِمَ تَعِظُونَ قَوْمًا اللّهُ مُهْلِكُهُمْ أَوْ مُعَذِّبُهُمْ عَذَابًا شَدِيدًا قَالُواْ مَعْذِرَةً إِلَى رَبِّكُمْ وَلَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَّقُونَ
“And when a community among them said (to their prophet), ‘Why do you advise (or warn) a people (Sabbath breakers) whom Allah is (about) to destroy or to punish with a severe punishment?’ They [the advisors] said, ‘To be absolved before your Lord and perhaps they may fear Him’.” [7:164]

وَلِكُلِّ أُمَّةٍ رَّسُولٌ فَإِذَا جَاء رَسُولُهُمْ قُضِيَ بَيْنَهُم بِالْقِسْطِ وَهُمْ لاَ يُظْلَمُونَ
“Every community has had an apostle; and only after their apostle appeared (and delivered his message) a judgment was passed on them in all fairness; and they are never wronged.” [10:47]

وَلَقَدْ بَعَثْنَا فِي كُلِّ أُمَّةٍ رَّسُولاً أَنِ اعْبُدُواْ اللّهَ وَاجْتَنِبُواْ الطَّاغُوتَ فَمِنْهُم مَّنْ هَدَى اللّهُ وَمِنْهُم مَّنْ حَقَّتْ عَلَيْهِ الضَّلالَةُ فَسِيرُواْ فِي الأَرْضِ فَانظُرُواْ كَيْفَ كَانَ عَاقِبَةُ الْمُكَذِّبِينَ
“And indeed, within every community Allah sent an apostle (entrusted with His message which said): ‘Worship Allah and shun the powers of evil. And among those (past generations) were people whom Allah graced many with His guidance just as there were many among them who strayed away from the right path. Travel the earth and observe what happened to them in the end who falsified the truth.” [16:36]

وَيَوْمَ نَبْعَثُ مِن كُلِّ أُمَّةٍ شَهِيدًا ثُمَّ لاَ يُؤْذَنُ لِلَّذِينَ كَفَرُواْ وَلاَ هُمْ يُسْتَعْتَبُونَ
“On Judgement Day We shall raise up a witness out of every community whereupon they who were bent on denying the truth will not be allowed to plead (ignorance) and neither will they be allowed to make excuses.” [16:84]

وَيَوْمَ نَبْعَثُ فِي كُلِّ أُمَّةٍ شَهِيدًا عَلَيْهِم مِّنْ أَنفُسِهِمْ وَجِئْنَا بِكَ شَهِيدًا عَلَى هَـؤُلاء وَنَزَّلْنَا عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ تِبْيَانًا لِّكُلِّ شَيْءٍ وَهُدًى وَرَحْمَةً وَبُشْرَى لِلْمُسْلِمِينَ
“On Judgement Day We shall raise up within every community a witness against them from among themselves. And you (Prophet Muhammad) will bear witness regarding those (to whom your message may reach). We have bestowed upon you this Divine Scripture, step by step to make everything clear and to provide guidance and grace and a glad tiding to all who surrender themselves to Allah.” [16:89]

وَلاَ تَكُونُواْ كَالَّتِي نَقَضَتْ غَزْلَهَا مِن بَعْدِ قُوَّةٍ أَنكَاثًا تَتَّخِذُونَ أَيْمَانَكُمْ دَخَلاً بَيْنَكُمْ أَن تَكُونَ أُمَّةٌ هِيَ أَرْبَى مِنْ أُمَّةٍ إِنَّمَا يَبْلُوكُمُ اللّهُ بِهِ وَلَيُبَيِّنَنَّ لَكُمْ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ مَا كُنتُمْ فِيهِ تَخْتَلِفُونَ
“And do not be like the woman who untwisted her spun thread after it was strong (by) taking your oaths as (means of) deceit between you because one community is more plentiful (in number or wealth) than another community. Allah only tries you thereby. And He will surely make clear to you on the Day of Resurrection that over which you differ.” [16:92]

وَلَوْ شَاء اللّهُ لَجَعَلَكُمْ أُمَّةً وَاحِدَةً وَلكِن يُضِلُّ مَن يَشَاء وَيَهْدِي مَن يَشَاء وَلَتُسْأَلُنَّ عَمَّا كُنتُمْ تَعْمَلُونَ
“For, had Allah so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community; He lets go astray him who wants (to go astray), and guides him who wants (to be guided). And you will surely be called to account for all that you did”. [16:93]

وَلِكُلِّ أُمَّةٍ جَعَلْنَا مَنسَكًا لِيَذْكُرُوا اسْمَ اللَّهِ عَلَى مَا رَزَقَهُم مِّن بَهِيمَةِ الْأَنْعَامِ فَإِلَهُكُمْ إِلَهٌ وَاحِدٌ فَلَهُ أَسْلِمُوا وَبَشِّرِ الْمُخْبِتِينَ
“And (thus it is) unto every community (that has ever believed in Allah) We have appointed (sacrifice) as an act of worship, so that they might extol the name of Allah over whatever heads of cattle He may have provided for them. And (always bear in mind:) your Allah is the One and Only God: hence, surrender yourselves unto Him. And give thou the glad tiding (of God’s acceptance) to all those who are humble.” [22:34]

لِكُلِّ أُمَّةٍ جَعَلْنَا مَنسَكًا هُمْ نَاسِكُوهُ فَلَا يُنَازِعُنَّكَ فِي الْأَمْرِ وَادْعُ إِلَى رَبِّكَ إِنَّكَ لَعَلَى هُدًى مُّسْتَقِيمٍ
“Unto every community We have appointed (different) ways of worship which they observe. Hence, (O believer) do not let those (who follow other worship) draw you into disputes on this score but invite them all to your Lord; for, behold, you are indeed on the right way.” [22:67]

وَيَوْمَ نَحْشُرُ مِن كُلِّ أُمَّةٍ فَوْجًا مِّمَّن يُكَذِّبُ بِآيَاتِنَا فَهُمْ يُوزَعُونَ
“And on that Day We shall gather from within every community a host of those who lied about Our messages; and they will be grouped (according to the gravity of their sins).” [27:83]

إِنَّا أَرْسَلْنَاكَ بِالْحَقِّ بَشِيرًا وَنَذِيرًا وَإِن مِّنْ أُمَّةٍ إِلَّا خلَا فِيهَا نَذِيرٌ
“Verily, We have sent you (Muhammad) with the truth, as a bearer of glad tidings and a warner: for there never was any community where a warner (lived and) passed away in its midst.” [35:24]

كَذَّبَتْ قَبْلَهُمْ قَوْمُ نُوحٍ وَالْأَحْزَابُ مِن بَعْدِهِمْ وَهَمَّتْ كُلُّ أُمَّةٍ بِرَسُولِهِمْ لِيَأْخُذُوهُ وَجَادَلُوا بِالْبَاطِلِ لِيُدْحِضُوا بِهِ الْحَقَّ فَأَخَذْتُهُمْ فَكَيْفَ كَانَ عِقَابِ
“The people of Noah falsified him and after them all those (others) who leagued together (against God’s messengers) and each of those communities schemed against the apostle sent unto it aiming to lay hands on him; and they contended (against his message) with false arguments, so as to render void the truth thereby: but then I (Allah) took them to task – and how awesome was My retribution.” [40:5]

وَلَوْ شَاء اللَّهُ لَجَعَلَهُمْ أُمَّةً وَاحِدَةً وَلَكِن يُدْخِلُ مَن يَشَاء فِي رَحْمَتِهِ وَالظَّالِمُونَ مَا لَهُم مِّن وَلِيٍّ وَلَا نَصِيرٍ
“Had Allah so willed, He could surely have made them all one single community; He admits into His grace him who wants (to be admitted); whereas the evil doers shall have none to protect them and none to succour them (on Judgment Day).” [42:8]

Ummah as a Community of Evil Doers

قَالَ ادْخُلُواْ فِي أُمَمٍ قَدْ خَلَتْ مِن قَبْلِكُم مِّن الْجِنِّ وَالإِنسِ فِي النَّارِ كُلَّمَا دَخَلَتْ أُمَّةٌ لَّعَنَتْ أُخْتَهَا حَتَّى إِذَا ادَّارَكُواْ فِيهَا جَمِيعًا قَالَتْ أُخْرَاهُمْ لأُولاَهُمْ رَبَّنَا هَـؤُلاء أَضَلُّونَا فَآتِهِمْ عَذَابًا ضِعْفًا مِّنَ النَّارِ قَالَ لِكُلٍّ ضِعْفٌ وَلَـكِن لاَّ تَعْلَمُونَ
“Allah will say ‘Enter along with the communities which had come before you of jinn and mankind into the Fire.” Every time a community enters, it will curse its predecessor until, when they have all overtaken one another therein, the last of them will say about the first of them: ‘Our Lord, they had misled us, so give them double punishment of the Fire’. Allah will say, ‘For each is double, but you do not know’.” [7:38]

وَلَئِنْ أَخَّرْنَا عَنْهُمُ الْعَذَابَ إِلَى أُمَّةٍ مَّعْدُودَةٍ لَّيَقُولُنَّ مَا يَحْبِسُهُ أَلاَ يَوْمَ يَأْتِيهِمْ لَيْسَ مَصْرُوفًا عَنْهُمْ وَحَاقَ بِهِم مَّا كَانُواْ بِهِ يَسْتَهْزِؤُونَ
“And if We hold back from them the punishment of a community for a limited time, they will surely say: ‘What is preventing it?’ Unquestionably, on the Day when it will come to them, it will not be averted, and they will be overwhelmed by what they used to ridicule.” [11:8]

يَسْتَأْخِرُونَ مَّا تَسْبِقُ مِنْ أُمَّةٍ أَجَلَهَا وَمَا
“No community can ever forestall (the end of) its term – and neither can they delay it.” [15:5]

مَا تَسْبِقُ مِنْ أُمَّةٍ أَجَلَهَا وَمَا يَسْتَأْخِرُونَ
“No community can ever forestall (the end of) its term – and neither can they delay (its coming).” [23:43]

وَنَزَعْنَا مِن كُلِّ أُمَّةٍ شَهِيدًا فَقُلْنَا هَاتُوا بُرْهَانَكُمْ فَعَلِمُوا أَنَّ الْحَقَّ لِلَّهِ وَضَلَّ عَنْهُم مَّا كَانُوا يَفْتَرُونَ
“We will call forth witnesses from every community and will say (to the sinners): ‘Bring the evidence for what you have been claiming. And so they will come to understand that Allah is the Truth and all their false imagery will forsake them.” [28:75]

وَلَوْلَا أَن يَكُونَ النَّاسُ أُمَّةً وَاحِدَةً لَجَعَلْنَا لِمَن يَكْفُرُ بِالرَّحْمَنِ لِبُيُوتِهِمْ سُقُفًا مِّن فَضَّةٍ وَمَعَارِجَ عَلَيْهَا يَظْهَرُونَ
“And were it not that (with the prospect of boundless riches before them) all people would become one (evil) community. We might indeed have provided for those who (now) deny the Most Gracious, roofs of silver for their houses, and (silver) stairways whereon to ascend.” [43:33]

Ummah as a Community of Muslims

وَكَذَلِكَ جَعَلْنَاكُمْ أُمَّةً وَسَطًا لِّتَكُونُواْ شُهَدَاء عَلَى النَّاسِ وَيَكُونَ الرَّسُولُ عَلَيْكُمْ شَهِيدًا وَمَا جَعَلْنَا الْقِبْلَةَ الَّتِي كُنتَ عَلَيْهَا إِلاَّ لِنَعْلَمَ مَن يَتَّبِعُ الرَّسُولَ مِمَّن يَنقَلِبُ عَلَى عَقِبَيْهِ وَإِن كَانَتْ لَكَبِيرَةً إِلاَّ عَلَى الَّذِينَ هَدَى اللّهُ وَمَا كَانَ اللّهُ لِيُضِيعَ إِيمَانَكُمْ إِنَّ اللّهَ بِالنَّاسِ لَرَؤُوفٌ رَّحِيمٌ
“And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle path so that (with your lives) you might bear witness to the truth before all mankind, and that the Apostle might bear witness to it before you. And it is only to the end that We might make a clear distinction between those who follow the Apostle and those who turn about on their heels that We have appointed (for this community) the direction of prayer which you (O Prophet) have formerly observed: for this was indeed a hard test for all but those whom Allah has guided aright. But Allah will surely not lose sight of your faith; for, behold, He is most compassionate towards humanity, a dispenser of grace.” [2:143]

رَبَّنَا وَاجْعَلْنَا مُسْلِمَيْنِ لَكَ وَمِن ذُرِّيَّتِنَا أُمَّةً مُّسْلِمَةً لَّكَ وَأَرِنَا مَنَاسِكَنَا وَتُبْ عَلَيْنَآ إِنَّكَ أَنتَ التَّوَّابُ الرَّحِيمُ
“Our Sustainer, make us surrender ourselves unto You, and make from our children a community that shall surrender itself unto You, and show us our ways of worship, and accept our repentance: for, verily, You alone are the Acceptor of Repentance, the Dispenser of Grace.” [2:128]

وَلْتَكُن مِّنكُمْ أُمَّةٌ يَدْعُونَ إِلَى الْخَيْرِ وَيَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَأُوْلَـئِكَ هُمُ الْمُفْلِحُونَ
“And that there might grow out of you a community (of people) who invite unto all that is good, and enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong: and it is they who shall attain success”. [3:104]

كُنتُمْ خَيْرَ أُمَّةٍ أُخْرِجَتْ لِلنَّاسِ تَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَتَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَتُؤْمِنُونَ بِاللّهِ وَلَوْ آمَنَ أَهْلُ الْكِتَابِ لَكَانَ خَيْرًا لَّهُم مِّنْهُمُ الْمُؤْمِنُونَ وَأَكْثَرُهُمُ الْفَاسِقُونَ
“You are indeed the best community that has ever been brought forth for (the good of) mankind: you enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong, and you believe in Allah. Now if the followers of earlier revelation had attained to the faith, it would have been for their own good; (but only few) among them are believers, while most of them are iniquitous.” [3:110]

وَمِمَّنْ خَلَقْنَا أُمَّةٌ يَهْدُونَ بِالْحَقِّ وَبِهِ يَعْدِلُونَ
“Now, among those whom We have created there is a community of people which guides (others) in the way of the truth and acts justly in its light”. [7:181]

كَذَلِكَ أَرْسَلْنَاكَ فِي أُمَّةٍ قَدْ خَلَتْ مِن قَبْلِهَا أُمَمٌ لِّتَتْلُوَ عَلَيْهِمُ الَّذِيَ أَوْحَيْنَا إِلَيْكَ وَهُمْ يَكْفُرُونَ بِالرَّحْمَـنِ قُلْ هُوَ رَبِّي لا إِلَـهَ إِلاَّ هُوَ عَلَيْهِ تَوَكَّلْتُ وَإِلَيْهِ مَتَابِ
“Thus We have raised you (Muhammad) as Our Apostle amidst a community (of unbelievers) before whose time (similar) communities have come and gone so that you might propound to them what We have revealed to you; for (in their ignorance) they deny the Most Gracious Lord. Say: ‘He is my Provider. There is no god except Him. In Him I have placed my trust and unto Him is my recourse’.” [13:30]

إِنَّ هَذِهِ أُمَّتُكُمْ أُمَّةً وَاحِدَةً وَأَنَا رَبُّكُمْ فَاعْبُدُونِ
“O you who believe in Me, this community of yours is one single community and I am the Lord of you all; worship Me.” [21:92]


The above verses mentioning the word Ummah in various meanings present a very clear picture of the how a community of people may want to live in a plurality of faiths, ideas and races around the globe. The different communities in the present, and those which preceded us and are yet to come, will always be free to choose their faith and way of life. Only those who follow Allah and His messenger will belong to the community of Muslims. Those who are not Muslims follow other belief systems and form their own Ummah. Each of these communities with their sub-groups, clients and friends is distinct and to the exclusion of other communities. The reason why Allah has made different communities is to test them for their actions. Only the unbelievers, sinners and evil doers among them are warned that they will be held to account for their deeds on the Day of Judgement. Having given every one the freedom of belief and thought, Allah has named the Ummah of believers the best community because it forbids evil and enjoins the good.

Because the world is not homogeneously slotted into separate communities, Quran introduces tolerance and mutual cohabitation in a pluralistic society where many communities can live together with each according to its faith and social practices. According to Quran, Muslims are one community united in faith and having a fraternity of common ideas and way of life.

The first formal structure governing a pluralistic society was designed by prophet Muhammad soon after Hijrah in the year 622 Ad when he moved from Makkah to Madinah to practice Islam with his followers. The early Muslims were breakaway individuals and tribes from pagan Arabs and Jewish and Christian communities. They had crossed a major ideological and cultural barrier and needed a new code of social conduct under Islam. Prophet Muhammad’s first act in Madinah was to introduce the institution of brotherhood (Muwakhat) which was aimed at creating a fraternity of Muslims as one single community comprising the immigrant Muslims of Makkah, the settlers of Madinah and other tribes into one nation. This community was the precursor of Muslim Ummah.
وَاعْتَصِمُواْ بِحَبْلِ اللّهِ جَمِيعًا وَلاَ تَفَرَّقُواْ وَاذْكُرُواْ نِعْمَةَ اللّهِ عَلَيْكُمْ إِذْ كُنتُمْ أَعْدَاء فَأَلَّفَ بَيْنَ قُلُوبِكُمْ فَأَصْبَحْتُم بِنِعْمَتِهِ إِخْوَانًا وَكُنتُمْ عَلَىَ شَفَا حُفْرَةٍ مِّنَ النَّارِ فَأَنقَذَكُم مِّنْهَا كَذَلِكَ يُبَيِّنُ اللّهُ لَكُمْ آيَاتِهِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَهْتَدُونَ
Translation: “And hold fast, all of you to the bond with Allah, and do not be divided. And remember the blessings which Allah bestowed upon you. When you were enemies He brought your hearts together. Through His blessing you became brothers. And (when) you were on the brink of a fiery abyss He saved you from it. This is how Allah makes His signs clear to you, so that you receive guidance.” [Al-Imran 3:103]

After uniting a heterogeneous group of people from different social backgrounds and tribes who became Muslims, prophet Mohammad took the second important step of defining the relationship between the Muslims and other non-Muslim communities in Madinah. These included Arab Jews, Arab Christians, Pagan Arabs and Polytheists. Two years after Hijrah, he managed to get the agreement of ten Muslim tribes of Madinah and an equal number of Jewish tribes who were settled in Madinah to agree to a ‘Charter of Governance’ which defined the rights and obligations of each community as Muslims and non-Muslims. This was the first written constitution of the first Islamic state which settled the intricate issue of how Muslims living in a State where they were going to be an overwhelming majority were to behave with the minorities.

The Charter of Madinah

The Charter of Madinah which precedes the Magna Carta of Europe and the American Declaration of Independence is the oldest document in the history of mankind which defines the social and economic relationships between the majority population and minorities, dived by religion, ethnic identity and language. Unfortunately, Western scholars have not given it the importance it deserves because they see it as a document of exclusivity, favouring the majority and providing little or no minority rights. In examining this document from the modern perspective of citizens’ rights and the global human rights principles which have developed after the two world wars and the rise of multi-ethnic, multi-faith and culturally diverse societies, the fact is often overlooked that in the year 623 AD when this Charter was adopted, slavery was widely prevalent, women had no rights and the vanquished adopted the religion of the victor or were wiped off, irrespective of whether they were the indigenous people of the conquered land or were outsiders.

The Charter of Madinah laid down the foundation of an Islamic state and regulated relations between the immigrant and settler Muslims of Madinah on the one hand and between the Muslims and the Jews of Madinah on the other hand. The Charter also formally established the Muslim Ummah as a community “distinct and apart from the rest of the people and comprising the Messenger of Allah, the believers, the Muslims of Quraysh and Yathrib, and all those who followed, joined and laboured with them.” It also recognised the Jews of Madinah as a community (Ummah) of their own with their separate faith and practices.

The participants of the Charter included twelve Arab tribes mostly from Aws and Khazraj clans and many Jewish tribes who are mentioned in the document by name as Bani Auf, Bani Nabith and Bani Al-Aus and their sub-tribes known as Bani Harith, Bani Saidah, Bani Jasham, Bani Najjar, Bani Thalabah and Bani Shatbah.

Socio-Political Background

The background of the Charter of Madinah was the rising threat from the Quraysh of Makkah against the new Muslims who had migrated to Yathrib (Madinah) in order to set up a socio-political order governed by the holy Quran and the Sunnah of prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. In those days, there was no central political authority in Yathrib. The various tribes, clans and sub-clans were further divided by religion as Jews, Christians, Pagans and Muslims. This made Yathrib an unstable and diverse society which required some sort of socio-political order to maintain peace and guarantee the safety and security of all its inhabitants. Indeed, soon after the adoption of the Charter, the Quraysh of Makkah launched the Battle of Badar followed by two more battles to destroy the first Islamic state in Madinah. It is against this background that the clauses related to financial collections for self-defence, considering an attack on one community as an attack on all the participants of the Charter and not supporting and protecting the Quraysh can be better understood in the text.

Key Points of the Charter

The Charter gives recognition to believers, Muslims of Quraysh (Muhajirs) and Yathrib (Ansar) and all those who followed, joined and laboured with them as one Ummah (community) distinct and apart from the rest of the people. (Clause 1). It was important to do so because although they had embraced Islam they still had their deep conflicts of interest. They were after all friends and family members who were divided on religion but closely bound to each other by ethnicity, tribal affiliation and commercial and clan interests. In the Quran Allah says: “verily, this community of yours (believers) is one single as community, for I am your Lord; worship me. [21:92 and 23:52].

The Charter also recognises the Jews of Yathrib (Madinah) as an Ummah (community) of their own which shall enjoy freedom of religion and civil rights. It also guarantees freedom of religion to their sub-tribes, clients, friends and associates. (Clause 25). By defining the Jews as a distinct community with freedom of religion the Charter dispels any fears that the minorities will be forced to convert to Islam in Madinah and will not exercise their civic rights. In the Quran Allah says: “unto every community We have appointed (different) ways of worship which they ought to observe. Hence, (O believer) do not let those (who worship in a manner other than you) draw you into disputes on this score but summon them to your Lord; you are indeed on the right way [22:676].

Freedom of religion also required that those who had become Muslims should be guaranteed security of life and property against their powerful and more established friends and family members who had not accepted Islam. The Charter guarantees the safety of life and property of new Muslims by declaring that whosoever kills a believer without a just cause shall be subject to retaliation. (Clauses 20 and 21). The Charter also declares them friends of one another to the exclusion of all others to mould a community out of a heterogeneous group of people belonging to different tribes and families. The Charter also forbids believers to kill one another for the sake of an unbeliever or support an unbeliever against a believer. (Clauses 14 and 15).

The Charter introduces a system of communal fundraising for payment of compensation for unlawful murders through the concept of blood-wit and advises kindness and justice in all settlements. (Clause 40).

The Charter promotes peace by taking away the authority of tribal chiefs to declare war and empowers only Muhammad, peace be upon him, to make such a declaration. To create a deterrence, the Charter says that an attack on any one will be considered an attack on all the people of the Charter. It does not impose a war levy on the Jews but requires them to meet the expenses on war for their own community, similar to the Muslims who are required to pay for the expenses on war for their own community. The Charter also requires all the people mentioned in the document, whether Muslims or non-Muslims to seek mutual advice and consultation for self-defence. (Clauses 17, 36 and 38). Two important points underlined in the Charter about minority rights are: consultations with the minority community on matters of defence when Madinah is attacked (Clause 38) and the right of the minority to seek justice when one of their member or family is wronged (Clause 37).

The Charter declares human life as sacred. Safety of neighbours and families, irrespective of religion is emphasised in the Charter for those who go to war, as well for those who stay behind. It also declares the interior of Yathrib as sacred land. (Clauses 41, 42 and 49). Women are provided additional protection as the Charter forbids anyone offering protection to a woman outside his clan without the consent of her family. (Clause 43).

The Charter declares Muhammad, peace be upon him, as the adjudicator of disputes (chief justice) and head of state with the authority to declare war (Clauses 23 and 36). It also provides a dispute resolution mechanism both for the Muslims and Jews. (Clauses 24 and 44).


In later times when Islam spread to different continents and regions, the concept of Muslim Ummah gained further strength. It was easy to belong to Muslim Ummah as long as a person declared himself Muslim and agreed to follow the teachings of the Holy Quran and the Sunnah of prophet Muhammad. Even when the political institution of Caliphate weakened and broke up in different governorates, autonomous regions and nation states, the institution of Muslim Ummah survived because it was not based on nationality or ethnic or linguistic bonds; anyone could still be a part of the Muslim Ummah as long as he called himself a Muslim and practiced Islam.

In modern times where states are governed by democratic constitutions and the rule of law is enacted by parliaments, the place of Muslim Ummah as defined by the Quran and Sunnah holds ground. The Ummah co-exists with other communities both in a Muslim-majority country which declares Islam as its official religion, as well as in a secular Muslim country where there is a division of state and religion, or in a non-Muslim country where Islam is one of the many faiths allowed to be practiced in accordance with the fundamental rights written into the laws of that state.

In a Muslim state, the Muslim community has an obligation to recognise other non-Muslim communities as fellow citizens and grant them equal rights. However, the Muslim community retains its distinction to the exclusion of other communities in matters of Muslim faith. For example, in religious matters the obligation of five-times prayers, paying zakat and fasting in the month of Ramadan and application of Quranic laws specific to Muslims cannot be imposed on non-Muslim communities. The latter are also entitled to freely observe their religious freedoms and practices according to their faith and custom. In socio-economic interaction and civil and criminal jurisdiction, both Muslim as well as non-Muslim communities are subject to the constitution of the Muslim state which applies to all the citizens.

In a secular state where Muslims may be a majority, or in a non-Muslim country where Muslims are a minority, the role of Muslim Ummah is one of practicing its faith freely and safeguarding its rights as a religious community. In these countries the Muslim Ummah is an active participant in the development and progress of the country where it lives but ensures that its religious freedoms and interests, as a distinct community of Muslims in matters of faith, are adequately safeguarded and protected.

The world has moved on from empires to nation states and from having a central governing authority to devolved administrative units empowering local communities and grassroots representative institutions to protect their rights and decide their affairs. Likewise, the Muslim Ummah has moved on from the golden era of Caliphate to twenty-first century Muslim states comprising the members and observer states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. In whatever form global politics might evolve in the future, only time will tell. But for all religious purposes Muslims are and remain one Muslim Ummah.

(Photo credit OIC)

Also see: The Charter of Madinah

February 25, 2018






One response to “Muslim Ummah and Minorities”

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