Umma and Dawla: The Nation State and the Arab Middle East

Umma and Dawla: The Nation State and the Arab Middle East

by Tamim Al-Barghouti



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745327709
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 03/18/2008
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Tamim Barghouti is a fellow at the Berlin Institute for Advanced Study, and a lecturer at the Free University of Berlin. He is the author of Benign Nationalism: Egyptian Nation State Building under Occupation (2007). He studied at Boston University, USA, and the American University in Cairo. He is also a published poet.

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The Formation of the Canon


The study of political concepts in the context of a tradition that stretches over 15 centuries is almost impossible. Ideas are continuously being produced, changed and reproduced across time and space. It could easily be argued that assuming a definite or authentic meaning for a term or idea, like the Umma or the Dawla, that has been in usage for so long, would be a reflexive imposition of the present on the past. One occasionally comes across talk-shows on Arabic satellite channels in which a caller asks a jurist: 'What is the view of Islam on such and such an issue?' Whatever the answer, it is not the view of Islam, rather it is one of the views of the school of thought and jurisprudence to which the said jurist belongs. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that the caller chooses to phrase the question in such a manner, and that the jurist usually does have an answer that the caller accepts as the view of Islam.

At any given point in time and among any given group of people, there prevails an understanding of their culture that they see as the most authentic, essential and therefore eternal. This understanding changes from one era to another, yet in every era it is seen as unchangeable. This is not only true of Islam, even for the staunchest historicists, be they modernizing liberals or modernizing Marxists, the idea that history has its own logic, is considered 'scientific', 'natural' and therefore a timeless truth in and by itself. This illusion of truth or timelessness is necessary to legitimize institutions and practices. The practice of science itself is no exception. Even the most sceptical scientist acts on certain assumptions. The scientist might strive to change these, but only to substitute them with other assumptions that would be accepted as truths until they were challenged again. In other words, communities live in the shadow of truths that are temporarily believed to be eternal. I am not making the argument that the understanding of the concepts of Umma and Dawla presented in this book formed the essence of Islamic culture for the last 15 centuries. Rather, I am making the argument that the two concepts were believed to be essential to that culture by the majority of Muslims living in the Middle East in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Thus I deal with the concepts in the texts that have been regarded as canonical by modern-day Muslims, (since the canon has changed more than once throughout history). This chapter, as well as the next, dealing with the origins of the concepts of Umma and Dawla in the canonical Islamic texts is necessary to clarify the concepts to the English reader, so that he or she can make sense of the discourse analysis that follows in the rest of the book. It is also necessary because it shows why and how many forces in the modern Middle East could root their modern understandings of such concepts in those ancient texts and thus consider them authentic, essential and eternal.

The history of the canon is part of the canon. That is, an image of the history of Muslims is an essential part of any understanding of the religion. This is especially important because, unlike the differences between Christian sects, which revolved around metaphysical questions such as the human and divine nature of Christ, the main differences between Islamic sects revolved around purely political questions concerning the form of government, the rights, responsibilities and powers of the ruler and the ruled.

Since the study of the concepts of Umma and Dawla will involve recurrent references to the different sects of Islam: Sunnis, Shiites and Kharijites as well as to the various schools of thought within each one of the three major sects leading up to what constitutes the Islamic Canons today, a brief account of the context in which those sects emerged is necessary for comprehending the rest of the chapter. It is worth noting here again, that what is going to be presented below is but the current understanding of Islamic history. For example, the naming of Sunnis, Shiites and Kharijites as the three major sects in Islam, the third of which is much less influential than the other two, is a modern construct. For a good part of the Umayyad and Abbasid periods, the Sunni-Kharijite conflict was the one occupying the centre stage of Islamic history. Later on, in the second Abbasid period, the Ismailite Sevenist version of Shiism, now confined to tiny communities in Iran and Pakistan, was the version posing the most serious military and ideological threat to Sunnism and Kharijism, as well as to the Jafarite Twelvist version which has now become synonymous with mainstream Shiism.


A note on the tribal culture of Arabs before Islam (before 610 AD) might be necessary to understand the context of the following account of Islamic history. The mobile nature of the tribes in the Arabian Desert, moving from one place to another in search of water and grazing lands, deprived them from establishing the kinds of social bonds prevalent in settled societies. People did not associate on the basis of neighbourhood, economic specialization, or commercial and agricultural interdependence. The most basic of links, that of blood, was the basis of solidarity in most of the Arabian Peninsula. Thus the tribe became the predominant form of political association in ancient Arabia. Again, because of the nomadic nature of the society, it was quite impossible to establish great cities with temples, colossal statues, town halls or stadiums. The creation of symbols, which is essential for fostering and strengthening the ties between the individual and the collective, was therefore confined, in most cases, to language. Poems were texts in which the activities of tribes were recreated. The history of the tribe, its seasonal grazing lands, its ancestors and its friendly or hostile relations to other tribes would be recorded in poetry. Most tribesmen knew those poems by heart, and through them, identified with the tribe, or with the image of the tribe created therein. A tribe's poet was the tribe's spokesman. There were professional poets whose main function was to praise the leaders of the tribe, and sarcastically and bitterly attack their enemies. But members of the political and military elite in any tribe were expected to be able to compose poetry by which to record their historical decisions, wars, alliances and, sometimes, express their personal feelings. The word for 'poet' in Arabic, 'sha'ir', also means 'the knower', he who knows or senses or feels. Lines of poetry were used as proverbs and moral references. The more a line of poetry was beautiful, the more it was used as a proverb, and therefore as a moral authority. Such poems, or bits of poems, had yet another political function that depended totally on their aesthetic value; the better crafted a line of poetry was, the more likely it was to break the boundaries of the tribe and become current among all Arabs, thus boosting the status of the poet, and the poet's tribe, as a producer of art, and also, because of this proverbial tendency in Arabic poetry, as a supra-tribal moral authority. In other words, the more people liked a line of poetry, the more they believed in its truth and judgment. This link between beauty and truth, is important in understanding the Islamic argument that the literary beauty of the Quran, is the evidence for its divine origin, and therefore its truth. This epistemological axiom was then passed on to rule the debates between the various Islamic sects.

These roles related to the creation of identity in texts taken over by the Quran. A highly metaphoric and mostly rhyming text, whose literary and aesthetic value was unmatched by any other text in Arabic, whether in verse or prose, the Quran was set above poetry and therefore above the tribes. Instead of talking about the ancestors of individual clans, it spoke of the ancestry of Humanity, and of all Arabs, through the stories of Adam, Noah Abraham and Ishmael. Instead of attacking the enemies of a certain tribe, it attacked all evil, and evil's followers, the enemies of God and humanity, and, in less abstract terms, the political and military enemies of the Prophet's followers. Just like poetry, its beauty was the evidence of it being true and the condition for it performing its function as a textual expression of collective identity and source of political power. As shall be discussed below, the Quran created the Muslims. It produced a narrative of human history that culminated in a political community, an Umma, defined by moral and spiritual codes, common language and rituals, common enemies and allies, common history and future. It is worth pointing out here that the Arabic word for 'poem', 'qaseeda', and the word for 'political community', 'Umma', come from synonymous roots. We shall return to this point later when discussing the etymology of the term 'Umma'.

Just as lines of Arabic poetry were used as proverbs from which moral judgments were derived, the literary beauty of the Quranic expression was the evidence for its divine nature and thus for its authority as a source of moral judgment. And just like poetry, the Quran, or parts of it, was to be known by heart by the members of the community it described/created, as a sign of their membership.

Finally, since it was a current belief among Arabs that poetry was revealed to poets by friendly demons, jin, the argument that the Quran was revealed by God to His Prophet through an Angel sealed the superiority of the Quranic text over all other literary texts in source, recipient, medium, form, content and therefore authority.

Of course, despite, and because, of all these resemblances, it had to be asserted, by the words of the Quran itself, that the Divine text was not a poem, nor was the Prophet a poet. For classifying the Quran as poetry would have confined it back into the Arabian tribal context it was meant to surpass and transform. An authentic and revolutionary discourse, the Muslim Holy Text's entrenchment in the culture of its audience was, and has been, the vehicle by which to change and transform it.

The fact that the Quran was highly metaphorical had implications for the political community it created. Though the Umma was not a nation, and the Quran not a poem, the political effect of the metaphorical nature of the Quran could best be understood if one imagined a modern day nation with a poem as its constitution. In such a case, the whole political, legal, and social system would rely on the interpretation of the metaphorical text. Thus, in the following account of Islamic history, training in law, politics and literary interpretation were seen as inseparable. Every interpretation resulted in creating a distinct political, legal and social system based on the Quran. The Islamic sects whose history I shall briefly discuss below were therefore as much works in metaphysics and ethics as they were works in politics and literature.


The two main sects of Islam today are Sunnism and Shiism. The majority of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims are Sunnis, the largest minority is Shiite, and a relatively tiny minority belongs to various sects. Of those smaller sects, one has been considerably more influential in challenging and therefore shaping the two major ones, that is Kharijism. Zaidi and Ismailite Shiites played important roles at various points in Islamic history as well, but they were subsequently overshadowed by the mainstream Jafarite Twelvist Shiism, and were not as influential in shaping their rivals' theories during the formative years of the first Abbasid era. The sects discussed below will therefore be Sunnism, Twelvist Shiism and Kharijism. Of Sunnism I shall discuss three sub-sects; Murji'ite, Mu'tazilite and Ash'arite Sunnism. Only the latter one of the three officially represents Sunni Islam today, and Kharijism is confined to only one Muslim state, the Sultanate of Oman in southeast Arabia. Yet the polemics between political actors in the Middle East would be incomprehensible without discussing all three sects and three sub-sects. For example, in the discourse of violent Islamic organizations Arab governments are referred to as Murji'ite heretics, while those governments call violent Islamists Kharijites. Muslim quasi-liberal reformists call themselves, and are sometimes called by their opponents, Mu'tazilites. These labels are quite effective in legitimizing and delegitimizing political actors, despite the fact that all three parties; governments, reformists and Islamic violent groups, formally belong to the Ash'arite sub-sect of Sunni Islam.

The following lines should give a brief sketch of the context within which these sects and sub-sects emerged. This narrative, as will be shown, charts the movement of two formative forces in Islamic and pre-Islamic Arab culture; one is the authority based on words and metaphors, discussed above, and the other is the authority based on blood ties. It is strictly based on what contemporary Muslims regard as canonical sources, such as the histories of Mohammad Ibn Jarir Al-Tabari (838–922 AD), Ahmad Ibn Mohammad Ibn Abd Rabboh (d. 940 AD), Izz Al-Din Ali ibn Mohammad known as Ibn Al-Athir (1160–1233 AD), and the Prophet's biography by Abdel Malik Ibn Hisham (d. 833 AD) have been studied and taught by both Sunni and Shiite scholars from Cairo to Najaf.

The Hashemites and the Umayyads

It was mentioned above that the tribe was almost the only political unit in the Arabian Desert before Islam, with the exception of the settled Arab kingdoms in western Iraq, southern Syria and Yemen. Tribal alliances did occur, however they used to break down at the first disagreement over water or grazing lands. Tribes worshipped their own ancestors and a variety of deities, while in many cases believing them to be of a lesser rank than the One Creator. Each tribe had its own customs and practices that were linked to such ancestral beliefs. The monotheistic message of Islam thus had a political content. Believing that there was no other god but God entailed subjecting oneself to one law, and therefore subjecting the various tribes to one worldly authority that represented that law. Hence the first metaphysical 'shahada' (testimony) one has to make to embrace Islam literally goes: 'I bear witness that there is no god but God', and this directly leads to the political second 'shahada': 'and I bear witness that Mohammad is God's messenger', acknowledging the worldly authority of the Prophet and the Texts he delivered.

The Prophet was a member of Quraysh, a tribe of merchants residing in the commercial crossroads-city of Mecca, trading seasonally with Syria and Yemen. It also hosted one of the few commercial and cultural festivals held in the peninsula, Okaz Market. Most importantly, the city of Mecca hosted the Ka'ba, a building believed by Arabs to have been built by their ancestor Abraham, and a place of pilgrimage to most Arab tribes before Islam. The Ka'ba hosted more than 360 idols representing the various mini-gods of the visiting tribes. Paganism was therefore a central source of income to the tribe of Quraysh; the pilgrimage season usually resulted in an upsurge in commercial activity and flow of wealth. Of that tribe, there were two strong houses competing for the control of the city; the house of Hashem to which the Prophet belonged, and their rivals, the rich merchants of the house of Umayya. When Mohammad started calling for Islam in Mecca, the Umayyads seized on the opportunity to consolidate their grip on power against their rivals. The Hashemites were besieged, boycotted and eventually pushed out of their homes to the outskirts of the city. Weaker followers of the Prophet were systematically tortured and some were killed. Eventually this led to the Hijra (622 AD), the emigration of the Prophet and his followers form Mecca to Medina, a rival city to the north of Mecca. In Medina there were two tribes fighting for dominance, as well as a number of Jewish clans, allying themselves with either one of them. The Prophet's arrival seemed to provide the fighting tribes in Medina with an arbiter and a law for settling disputes. He was on the same footing with both warring sides, and his teachings were not yet rejected by the city's Jewish community. A series of wars followed between Medina under Mohammad's leadership, and Mecca under the Umayyads. The eight-year war ended with Mohammad's complete victory, conquest of Mecca (630 AD), and the subjugation of the leader of the Umayyads and all Meccans, Abu Sufian, who eventually embraced Islam.


Excerpted from "The Umma and the Dawla"
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Copyright © 2008 Tamim Al-Barghouti.
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Table of Contents

1. The Formation of the Canon
2. Definitions
3. The Precious Nothing
4. The Colonial Origins of Egyptian Nationalism
5. Arab Nationalism
Conclusion: A Working Compromise?

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