By: Sayyid Ahmad Rahnamaei

There are two Qur’anic terms that imply more or less the notion of a nation. One of these is milla, which is mentioned seventeen times in fifteen verses. In defining the concept of milla, Raghib Isfahani, in his dictionary of Qur’anic words and expressions, states that milla, imlal and imla’ are all of the same root.

The infinitive imla’ meaning ‘to dictate’, contains the notion of something which is dictated from any divine or undivine, mighty or unmighty, holy or non-holy source. The word milla in its religious sense means a way, a path, or a cult which is dictated and presented by a divine [18] or perhaps undivine leader or group. Both cases have been exemplified in the Qur’an: “Say, verily, my Lord has guided me to the straight way, a right and steadfast religion, the milla (religion-trod) of Ibrahim, the true in faith, and Ibrahim certainly joined not gods with Allah.” [19]

This verse hints at Ibrahim’s milla as a divine path and religion. On the other hand, we recite in the Qur’an: “And the unbelievers said to their apostles, ‘Be sure we shall derive you out of our land, or you shall return to our milla (religion).’” [20]

Since a divine religion like that of Ibrahim was revealed and dictated by Allah, it is called milla in the sense that it is a dictated path that should be followed by the adherents of that divine religion. Thus, milla in its most elementary concept is employed to mean path, rite or religion itself, as it may be applicable to people who follow that rite or religion.

In either case, milla in its divine sense is also attributed to the prophet or to the leader of a religion. [21] According to the Qur’an, people are requested to recognize and practice the divine religion of the prophet Ibrahim: “Say, Allah speaks the truth, thus, follow the religion of Ibrahim (millata Ibrahim), the sane in faith; he was not of the pagans.” [22]

The milla of infidels, by contrast, is a satanic cult which is considered to contradict the divine paths of God’s prophets.

Islam is an Abrahamic religion, and Muslims are to honour the milla of their father Ibrahim [23] by following the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims then form an Abrahamic milla with especial qualifications, all of whose elements are based on divinity without taking any racial, territorial, linguistic, or other differences into consideration.

This is because, as we understand from the Qur’anic verses, there is an eternal togetherness between the nation of Islam and Islam itself. Hess Andrew C. mentions that the word millet [milla] though basically employed to mean “religion”, later in Islamic history is extended to include “religious community”, i.e., the community of Islam. [24]

The word ‘ummah’ is another Qur’anic term, referring to the religious nation of Islam. This word occurs more than forty times in the Qur’an as well as a number of other times in two other conjugations, i.e., ummatukum (your ummah) and umam (different ummahs).

The passages that contain the word ummah are so varied that its meaning cannot be rigidly defined.” But is the term in its Qur’anic concept identified with what R. Paret deems as always referring to “ethical, linguistic or religious bodies of people who are the objects of the divine plan of salvation”? [25]

We may take this definition of ummah as applicable in the case of some other ethical religious nations in reality; nevertheless, it seems a problematic concept when we are concerned with the notion of a Muslim community referring to the Qur’anic passages that contain the term ummah.

Accordingly, there is no supposition of elements like language or ethnicity as playing a role in the formation of the Islamic ummah. Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri says: In an Islamic state, Islam cannot be treated as a personal affair of an individual or a belief or faith of a particular group. … It negates the idea of duality of religious and secular life as it practically exists in present-day Christianity in the form of incompatibility between church and state. [26]

Thus, an Islamic state and secular life contradict one another. In a secular state, religion has no obligatory role in providing the authority; rather, it is the people themselves who are the source of its authority. Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri says: “But the authority of an Islamic state derives from the Almighty Allah … and Islam is the basis in polity in an Islamic state; it regulates both individual and state affairs.” [27]

The usage of “ummah” in the Qur’an and the concept of an Islamic ummah

To some extent, the usage of the term ummah in the Qur’an does not answer our understanding of the concept. On a few occasions, the exegetes of the Qur’an qualify the term as referring exclusively to the Islamic community. Allamah Tabataba’i [28] describes the literal concept and other usages of the word ummah in the Qur’an by offering four definitions:

1- It may be literally translated as ‘people’, meaning a group of people, as in the verse: “Mankind was but one single ummah (people, nation) …” [29]

2- Sometimes the word is meant to describe a single human being, as in the verse: “Surely Ibrahim was an ummah devoutly obedient to Allah.” [30]

3- ‘A long period of time’ is another usage of the word, as is implied in the verse: “And remembered after an ummah”, [31]

meaning after a long time.

4- ‘Religion’ is considered to be a fourth usage of the term, such as in the verse: “And surely this is your single ummah and I am your Lord, therefore, fear Me,” [32]

or in the verse: “Surely this your ummah is one ummah and I am your Lord, therefore, worship Me.” [33]

Allamah maintains that “In both these verses, according to some commentators, the word ummah … has been used for ‘religion’. [34]

Allamahh regards the first usage of the above-mentioned ones as the original meaning and remarks that the other kinds of usage are based on this fundamental one. [35] In the case of the fourth concept, he prefers to explain the word ummah in the sense of a ‘people.’ Accordingly, it represents the notion of one single Muslim nation that believes in Allah, worships Him and is faithful to Him.

Once again in dealing with the notion of the Prophet’s ummah, Allamah interprets the word ummah in the two latter verses to mean nothing more or less than a group of people. He furthermore states that the reference to Muhammad’s ummah, in the sense that it includes all those who have believed in his call, gained currency after the revelation of the Qur’an and the expansion of Islam. [36]

In his commentary on the verse: “Verily this is your ummah, the unique ummah, and I am your Lord, then worship Me,” [37]

Allamah mentions that the word ummah hints at a group which gathers around the same objective. Such a translation is understood from the first root of the word ummah, which is amma, i.e. “had an aim.”

Therefore, ummah is a company of people “which has a single aim, a single goal and a single ambition, and that unity of aim unites all the members, and makes them one people. That is why it is correct to use it for one human being as well as for many …” [38] On another occasion, Allamah maintains that the unification of the ummah springs from its unique shari‘a, that is, the Shari‘a of Oneness (Din al-Tawhid). [39]


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