Ummah or Muslim Social Club?

In the seventh century, the concept of Ummah was revolutionary. Seventh century Arabia society was a prodiminately pastoral nomadic society with some merchant communities. Arabian society centered around patriarchical clans. During that time, individuals owed their loyalty to their tribe/clan and to no one else. If anyone killed or attacked a member of your particular tribe, your tribe took their vengeance out against any member of your advesarial tribe. And there was not a concept of a community that transcended tribal lines. The clan provided protection and support and individuals could not survive in the harsh environment of Arabia. And during that time, in Arabia, there was not a concept of the individual.

Muhammad brought a revolutionary concept whereby the community of believers became brothers/sisters. Their bonds were not by bloodlines, but on faith. Many of Muhammad’s early followers were displaced people, slaves, and disaffected youths from powerful families. From a diverse group of people who followed his teachings, the first Muslim community formed under intense pressure from their powerful tribesmen who ascribe to shamanistic and pagan beliefs. Each tribe had its own deity and they were organized in a hierarchical pantheon in Mecca. The Muslims denied the many deities, claiming that there was only one God. The Muslims’ ties transcended tribe and family loyalties. Initially, they were under the protection of Muhammad’s uncle, Abu Talib. During this time, the loyalty of the clan still protected the nascent Muslim community. Then Abu Talib died. This was when th notion of Ummah developed further and became more independent of tribal loyalties. Muhammad left Mecca to Medina to flee the persecution of his power powerful tribesmen, the Quraysh. There, families of Medina became the helpers, Ansar. Muhammad’s emigration to Medina begins the first year of the Islamic calendar. This marks the most pivotal moment in the development of the religion and way of life that we call Islam. It was the development of the first Muslim community. The emigrants from Mecca allied with their hosts in Medina. The concept of Ummah was important for the survival of this fragile community. They were part of a universal brotherhood, believing in the tenets of faith laid out in the Quran and following its legislation. The rest is history and 1400 years later, the notion of Ummah is still important to both the reality and imagination of Muslims throughout the world.

What does Ummah mean now? It is still a concpet that draws many converts to the faith. Muhammad taught his community to respect individuals regardless of their lineage, race, or background. They were still part of the Ummah. Even the hypocrites, who outwardly professed Islam, but secretly undermined the Muslim community were tolerated. The first step, and most important card to the Muslim card carrying group was the declaration of faith. The admission that there was only one God and Muhammad was his Prophet.

But in any community, there are insiders and outsiders. Islam spread rapidly, and now there are a billion Muslims. Does the notion of Ummah apply now? How does one make sense of it in Iraq where sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi’ites make the the Crips and the Bloods look like they are playing tag football. What about Darfur? Hamas vs. Fatah?

We read about those ideals in books. Then the reality hits when you roll up to a mosque in America and you find out that they are divided along ethnic lines. We are one community, but there is an Afghan mosque, a Yemeni mosque, a Pakistani mosque, a Mosque for African Americans, a predominately Arab mosque?

I remember going to a mosque in the North of Oakland, one of the most integrated mosques and sitting there as a whole bunch of immigrant Muslim women surrounded two young white converts. They were so pleased that these two Wonder Bread white girls decided to join the Ummah. But my black ass, just sat there ignored. I was irrelevant. Maybe they were tired of seeing black folks in the East Bay. And the whiteness was refreshing. Or maybe their whiteness made them more special. It affirmed to them that Islam was an American religion. And that people who enjoy white privelege would convert to Islam, and this affirmed their faith in a stronger way that a marginalized individual like a black woman. There was no matter that this marginalized individual is also an educated elite (but not elitist). And that participation in the community is impactful because of the position that I am in as an educator of young elites. Some will be deciding national policy years down the line or directing some multi-national corporation. Maybe that’s why I decided to go to Stanford, I may be the only Black Muslim woman in a position of authority above them that they may interact with in their lives. But I digress.

So on that day I had drove all the way from Oakland from San Jose, where I had been living at that time, to go to Friday prayers. I was hoping to get a sense of the Ummah. That sense of the community that transcended race, ethnicity, tribe, city, and locality. Instead, I was dissillusioned by a bunch of petty females. This was not the first time, nor the last. Just the most memorable currently.

I used to be easily identified as Muslim. Did everything to try to fit the bill of being good Muslim. As with any club, there are certain things that you must do to have membership. Being Muslim is no different. Don’t eat pork, don’t drink, wear slippers in bathroom, say salaam alaikum, pray, wear hijab, put Quran on highest shelf, wear Allah necklace, have Islamic art put up in your house, prayer rug, etc., etc…

I’m used to being on the fringes of the Muslim community. Somebody asked me if I practiced or not. I said, I struggle. I’m a renegade Muslim of sorts. And I fit within a category of lax Muslim, oh the ones hated so much by Sayed Qutb.
But, I still have many Muslim friends from all walks of life. From the most nominal to the most strict. My faith even links me with people who are not Muslim but have grew up in Muslim societies. We have a lot to talk about, many common bonds and shared interests.

But at the same time, what does it mean to be part of the same faith based community? This Ummah, this community. This community, but is that a real community? Splintered, factional, sectarian, nationalistic, cliquish, and at times just down right petty. But, I still believe in the notion of Ummah. It was important for the survival of the early Muslim community. It still motivates a number of us to transcend our particular interests and ethnic identities and form ties with people who are very different from ourselves. Sometimes we try so hard to be liked by members of our community that we lose ourselves. And for some, they replace the notion of Ummah with something more on the likes of Muslim Social club.

During my early years, my friends were predominately immigrant from very strict families. We attended a strict gender segregated mosque. I was in a Muslim Social Club of Muslim-Student-Association-Sisters-who-wear-big-triangle-scarves (no necks, no earrings). Then I withdrew membership when I took off hijab. I’ve found other Muslim Social Clubs. Here’s a few I’ve seen:
I’m-So-Deep-and-Esoterical Muslim Social Club
Random-displaced-Muslim Social Club
I’m-Angry-at-My-Immigrant-Parents-who-Are-Not-Religious-But-Won’t-Let-Me Date Muslim Social Club
I-Think-Everything-is-Haram Muslim Social Club
Every-other-Muslim-is-wack-but-Us Muslim Social Club
I’m-into-Hiphop/House/Alternative/Punk-Muslim Social Club
College-Students-Who-Will-Save-the-World-One-lecture/Talk-at-a-Time Muslim Social Club or the Black/Latino/Arab/Desi/Asian/Indonesian/White/ etc. Muslim social club.

All these social clubs, but I still can’t find one that I can fit into. Being an individual means being lonely sometimes. From some of the attacks I have gotten, being an individual can take a lot of courage. Sometimes I wonder about my engagement Islam if my engagement with the Muslim community is so tenuous. But sometimes deconstructing a Muslim Social Club is important. We have to get to the roots of what lies beneath our social interactions. There is a difference between a Muslim Social Club and Ummah. A Muslim Social Club, we reinforce our own egos by surrounding ourselves by people like ourselves. We look for affirmation on who we are. We look for people who like us and people who approve of our conduct. Last year, I was desperate to meet Muslims like me. I was excited to meet artists and activists and creative people. I felt isolated at Stanford. I wanted to be around people who inspired me. But, I felt drained by the tensions and drama. For the most part, my relationships in the Muslim Social clubs turned out to be disappointing. That does not mean that I have not met some good folks. I’d have to say that most of the people are trying really hard. And those who are corrupt, are just mentally ill. But what I really mean is that the basis of the relationships lacks an honesty.

For instance, I know a lot of people don’t like me. Some just aren’t quick to say it. It would be cool if we Muslims were real. If I am really going to trust you to defend me like the Ansar did the muhajiroon, how can I trust you if you can’t be real with me? Can we tell a brotha or sista, “Yo, I really don’t dig your ways, but I respect you because we are Muslim.” Or “I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about you that rubs me the wrong way. I’d avoid you like the plague, but I support you because we are in the same ummah.” You don’t have to like me. But we can be supportive because we were working towards the same goal. We could put our egos aside and get the job done. As of now, it seems like we’re stroking each others’ egos. Winning points in a popularity contest.

Maybe this blog will have a part 2. I dunno. It took me days to get back to this. But I appreciate your thoughts…

16 thoughts on “Ummah or Muslim Social Club?

  1. What you said completely rings true for me. Being black person in a predominantly Arab/South Asian Muslim community certainly had me going through phases of exertions for belonging: changing prayer formats to match up with Hanafi or Hanbali edicts, altering the way I dress, and even holding back expression of my true feelings on a given subject.

    We need to move past petty differences and truly love each other for the sake of Allah. But, it’s only human nature to discriminate one way or the other, by race (perceived) level of religious practice or whatever other categories people come up with.
    Parrallel to this is experience of being Muslim in the Muslim world (completely turns that Muslim social club paradigm upside down… the sense of Muslim solidarity gives way to all types of divisions 😦

    At the end of the day, human beings are human beings, I’ve realized that it may be easier to be a loner until a later appointed time.


  2. Salaams Margari,

    Ahh, yet again, another perceptive essay. You know, in some respects, I’ve felt many of the things you describe – exclusion, group-menatality and so on. I guess it’s human nature.

    As an instant reaction, I’d say that the ummah is an ideal, something to be worked towards constantly. Unfortunately, many of us today act like it’s a birthright – by which I mean something that doesn’t need work!

    I can see what you mean about social clubs. I’ve often thought that many Muslim groups are broadly comparable to other student socities. Take the Rock Society, for example. It has its own code of behaviour, its own dress code, its own ‘in’ language, its own hierarchies and so on. It also has that strangely juvenile belief that it’s ‘our way or the highway’. If you give those same rock dudes thawbs and kufis and throw in a few arabisms, how familiar they seem!

    WIth your permission, I’d like to link to this post on my own blog.

    Ma’as salama,
    Abdur Rahman


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  4. As an introvert when it comes to faith, and as someone who is uncomfortable with really defining what kind of Muslim I am (great, another relativist, postmodern Muslim…), I really appreciate what you had to say.

    I fear the groupthink, but at the same time, I’m torn because the “ideal” (as Abdur Rahman described) of community is very appealing.

    I think that, push comes to shove, we’d like to stick together. Still, we constantly insist that the Muslim community is not the monolithic monster. On a broad level, we are now more of a loose organization, one that is varied and multi-faceted, thank God. I mean, it’s inevitable that there are so many smaller groups. It’s happened in every other human grouping in history, so why not us?

    It’s a sign of growth that the community mutates and forms smaller subgroups. As long as our goal remains goodness toward other life forms and in the sight of God, hey, we’re welcome to have different approaches to that goal. And that ought to be the goal, not having “my” group be right all the time. That tribalism needs to be put to an end. Islam was all about ending that kind of mentality, wasn’t it?


  5. This might be old or even too late to comment on but….life is short and you should live it well….hijab or not ….when the real hijab is lifted we are all naked in god’s light…many a MEN will be rendered in their true colors….degree, pedigree, pedogogy, dogma….what ever has kept you me and every other christian, jew, buddhist, and hindu from answering the call, the tug of ones soul to transcend the ephemeral (misspelld) and taste the sweet sucour of god’s gifts (meaning ….nappy hair and black skin… which is the color of our father ADAM who was described by the prophet alaihi-salam in all darknness)

    god will render us according to how honestly we answered his love…it is said that every lover must prove their love…

    the question is have we ?


  6. When I first became Muslim many years ago, I was 24 and searching. I learned after a few bitter episodes-that if I needed to be in one of the cliques then I would only be hurt and disappointed. I did not fit the mode; I wasn’t docile enough. People almost made me leave this wonderful religion, perfected by Allah Ta’ala. After the hurt I snatched the headpiece off and had a few boyfriends–may Allah forgive me. I only hurt myself. People will help you go to hell. I’m not in Islam for that! Only for Allah, myself and my children(who are now parents). I still see some painful happenings in the masjids- I do my best and I move on. I need the spiritual nourishment of Juma.
    When I don’t find, it I move on-or I just ‘ma sha Allah’ it and make the pray, because I need the blessings.


  7. Yep, I definately feel you on this one! I have visitied a number of mosques and I can’t help but see the invisible lines which exist between different races/ tribes/ communities etc.

    In the past I have felt that i would be required to fill a 24 page questionaire before I can even join a group of sisters sitting together or even earn a smile.

    But then it dawned on me that the Muslim Community is just like any other community. As humans, we won’t all get along. So trying to join the social club is futile – all it’s members received an invite and have been screened! Just because we share the same faith and the same ethos doesn’t mean that we will get along; it’s very unrealistic to expect this. Just be yourself and before you know it, you’ll meet others like you or who will like you and then of course once you have a large enough group of friends, someone else will accuse you of belonging to yet another MSC – muslim social club! Never mind, only Allah knows best anyway!


  8. This is the TRUTH sister. My shaykh of tasawwuf instructed me to pay close attention to matters of the heart and how I am perceived by people. In the process I’ve come across a hadith, narrated from Ibn Umar, that the Rasul, peace be upon him, said a believer that sits with the people and bears patiently with them is better than one who does not sit with them and does not bear patiently with them. It is truly unfortunate that we have to admit that there IS such a thing as a Muslim Social Club. Allah please rectify our hearts.


  9. Salaams sis,

    I am not sure if this is correct, but i think you should add the words (S.A.W)after the prohet’s name.


  10. Thanks for the suggestions,
    S.A.W. are not words. When I first became Muslim, I assumed that meant we were supposed to say “Saw.” But for our readers who aren’t Muslim, those are letters representing the SAL ALLAH-U-ALAIH-E-WASSALAM. When we pray, we do not say “Allahuma salli ‘ala Muhammad- ES-AY-DOUBLE-YOU wa alihi kama salata Ibrahim ARR-AY wa alihi….” I haven’t read the actual fiqh on this, but I do not know of any particular punishment that we will get for not saying it. Maybe it comes off impious to the sticklers who are all about formalities. But I get what you’re saying. S.A.W. is a formality, a shorthand for something I have in my heart whenever I mention the prophet’s name.


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  12. Salaamu alaykum,

    I was laughing as I read this, but my advice is don’t worry about people, worry about your deen in Allah. I am Somali, and let me tell you, I had an African American sister tell that she was ignored for weeks at this masjid that was predominately indo-arab in members,but she said a Somalian sister was the only one who made her feel welcome as she was about to give up coming to the masjid. So, it might be language barrier, or simply the love of the color white that is prevalent in Arab/Asian societies that makes them gravitate towards white reverts I guess. Anyways, we’re all brothers and sisters. Salaam!


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