By Roy Oksnevad
March 16, 2015 at Elmhurst College, for the annual al-Ghazali Lecture series, Dr. Katrin Jomaa  gave a lecture titled “The Qur’anic Vision for the Global Society.” She did an excellent word study of the use of the word Ummah in the Qur’an, which I believe her saying was during the 13 year Median period. Her nuanced redefinition of ummah was very interesting, positive, and enlightening. Her voice is one that needs to be heard in light of all that is happening. She called ummah an individual choice (7:34; 7:38-39), a source of identification and not identity (4:97-98), and related to din (43:21-24; 2:171) and al-kitab (45:28-29; 16:64). I found this quite innovative. Her conclusion that the ummah is a choice and a responsibility I believe would resonate with so many people who are tired of the heavy-handed ummah that we have come to know.
There was some confusion that was expressed in the Q & A afterward regarding her statement that ummah and din are tied to al-kitab. She defined al-kitab very broadly. She seemed to imply that ummah is tied to any book. In the classical sense this refers to the people of the Book (Jews and Christians and their scriptures). However, Dr. Jomaa, in her effort to be consistent with her conclusion, seemed to even open up this ummah to any ummah or community that has a book, which would include the Hindu ummah with its book—Bhagavad Gita, the Zoroastrian ummah and their book—Avesta, or the Jain ummah which has two sacred texts—the Akaranga and Kalpa Sutras (communities that Islam has defined as idolatrous which the Qur’an is openly against). The implication she drew is that Islam is open and tolerant of every religious community that has a book; a pioneering thought. She also implied that ummah was not just tied to religious communities but also to political entities that have a book such as a constitution. Even communists have a book, so she seemed to include them and any political nation-state. Therefore, Dr. Jomaa was rightly open to the charge that what she was presenting is classical pluralism while using Islamic terms. This very open understanding of ummah just does not correspond to reality.
I was left with many questions from Dr. Jomaa’s presentation.
1. I felt that Dr. Jomaa’s presentation stopped at the first part of such a study. It would have been good to hear from her how this worked out in the ummah in Medina in which she framed her study. For example: Surah Al-Ma’ida 5:32-34: “For that cause We decreed for the Children of Israel that whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind. Our messengers came unto them of old with clear proofs (of Allah’s sovereignty), but afterwards, lo! Many of them became prodigals in the earth. The only reward of those who make war upon Allah and His messenger and strive after corruption in the land will be that they will be killed or crucified, or have their hands and feet on alternate sides cut off, or will be expelled out of the land. Such will be their degradation in the world, and in the Hereafter theirs will be an awful doom; Save those who repent before ye overpower them. For know that Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” It seems from these ayat that the ummah is clearly defined, and there is a call for violence to anyone outside the ummah unless they repent before they are overpowered. How does this passage fit in with her understanding of ummah?
2. In Surah al-Baqara 2:40-94, Muhammad addresses Jews and Christians which seems favorable. Then in al-Baqara 2:97-141 there is a turn against the Jews. It is in ayat 142-152 that there is a shift regarding the religious community through the change in direction of the qiblah away from Jerusalem to Mecca. There is a major shift with Muhammad and the community after the battle of Badr. You find that Abu Afak and Asma bint Marwan are assassinated. Afak for writing a poem against Muhammad and Marwan for writing a poem against Muhammad and his followers for the murder of Afak. There were an estimated 10,000 to 36,000 or as high as 42,000 Jews living in Medina. Four months after the battle of Badr, Muhammad gathered the Banu Qaynuqa Jewish tribe together to order for them to convert to Islam. They refused and Muhammad was to execute them, except that Abdullah Ibn Ubayy made a passionate plea for Muhamad to be merciful and spare their lives. They were then expelled from Medina. Where is this generous open sense of ummah that should have room for all people even if they disagree with you as it was played out during Muhammad’s time in Medina? Dr. Jomaa hinted that it was the fault of the Jews, but this was not dealing with the facts. If it was the intention of Muhammad to establish an ummah as described by Dr. Jomaa, why did he treat the Jews so badly, expel them from Medina, and eventually kill over 600 Banu Qurayza, another Jewish tribe in Medina?
3. Muhammad, between the battle of Badr and Uhud, seems to put into policy the removal of political enemies in Medina. He allowed the assassination of Ka’b b. al-Ashraf, a Jew. After this event, Muhammad encourages his people to “Kill any Jew that falls into your power” (Ibn Ishaq 1955, p. 369). Though in the beginning Muhammad was favorable toward the Jews and Christians, his attitude toward them changes. He eventually is told in al-Ma’ida 5:57, “O ye who believe! Choose not for friends such of those who received the Scripture before you, and of the disbelievers, as make a jest and sport of your religion. But keep your duty to Allah if ye are true believers.” The last message to non-Muslims is al-Tauba 9:29: “Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture as believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, and forbid not that which Allah hath forbidden by His messenger, and follow not the religion of truth, until they pay the tribute readily, being brought low.” I find it hard to reconcile these ayat from the almost utopian version of ummah that Dr. Jomaa so articulately presented at this lecture.
4. Jomaa’s argument is based on the linguistic understanding of the word. Sure Ummah is a nation, any nation but in the context of the Qur’an it is mostly the Muslim ummah as it is the best Ummah brought out to mankind. So with the same logic, she could apply the term Muslim on any submitter to God, therefore counting Christians and Jews as Muslims too. If it is so, then why are these Christians and Jewish Muslims paying Jizziya?
5. In a good presentation it is not adequate to present one’s position in a vacuum of ideas, rather it would be very beneficial to engage the dissenting voices with the same scholarship. This is particularly relevant in light of the many voices from within the Muslim ummah concerning how the ummah is interpreted and lived out. I found her very causal dismissal of how significant and pervasive such groups are throughout the world almost offensive to our intelligence. This is not just a small group of the ummah that is a passing fad as she indicated. It is not just ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, Mujahedeen, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Taliban, but these groups are all over the Muslim world. Here is just a very short list: Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) – Philippines; Al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group, IG) – Egypt; Groupe Islamique Armée, GIA– Algeria; Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya: Islamic Resistance Movement) – Palestine; Arakat ul-Mujahidin (Mujahidin Movement, HUM) – Pakistan; Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IUM) – Uzbekistan; Islamic Renaissance Party – Tajikistan; Jaish-e-Mohammed (Army of Mohammed, JEM) – Pakistan; Al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group, IG) – Egypt; Munazzamat/Tanzim al-Jihad (Holy War Organization) – Egypt; Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) – Pakistan; Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – Turkey ; Lashkar-e-Tayyia (Army of the Righteous, LT) – Pakistan; Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO) – Iran; Munazzamat/Tanzim al-Jihad (Holy War Organization) – Egypt; and National Islamic Front (al-Jabhah al-Islamiyah al-Qawmiyah) – Sudan.
In conclusion, I found the initial presentation contained solid exegetical work on a particular word in the Qur’an. Yet I felt that it fell far short of where the study needed to go. Tying the study exclusively to the Qur’an and only to ayah which uses the word is incomplete scholarship. The Qur’an, Hadiths, and Sira give us the context of how this word and concept is lived out in Medina. That was a major missing ingredient. Islam has a sordid history of violence from the very beginning and these sources provide the example and theological backing for what some Muslims are following. This engagement is what I was looking for. There is a context for the words, and that broader context was not a part of the presentation. I left questioning if what I heard was a utopian hagiography of the ummah that was sterile from the life and times of Muhammad and the Rightly Guided Caliphs, which is always said to be the right example to follow. This is not an attack on Islam nor is it Islamophobic. I was looking for honest scholarship that deals with the hard reality which all people need to understand and acknowledge. Then again, her aim may not have been to place her scholarship in the historical past to define the word, but to re-create a new understanding based upon a worldview shaped by the 21st century’s understanding of what it means to live in a global world. If that is the case, then what role does the Sira, Hadith, and scholarship play in understanding how to interpret the Qur’an?
1 Jomaa completed her Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Studies at Indiana University. Her research interests include Islamic thought, political philosophy and Qur’anic exegesis. In addition to her interests in the humanities, Jomaa has a passion for science and technology. Her scientific background has informed her study of religion and politics as she employs structural analysis to the understanding of religious texts and political events. She teaches political science and philosophy at the University of Rhode Island.