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…