Nation and Nationhood: What Would Muhammad Do?

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By Sariya Contractor


This is a difficult subject to write about.
As Muslims, we can get quite emotional and sensitive about our identities.
We sometimes think that our particular ‘version’ of Islam is better than others and unfortunately we can sometimes be quite narrow-minded.

Often people are naïve about the vast historical, political and social stimuli that impact the ways in which we think about the ‘Other’ who is different.

We often come across literature that talks about the ‘othering’ of Muslims, but there is also occasionally some ‘othering’ within the Muslim community. It is sad, for example some Pakistani Muslims would think that Indian Muslims cannot be ‘proper Muslims’ because they live in secular India and because they may have friends who are not Muslims. It is also wrong that some Arabic-speaking Muslims would have a sense of superiority over non-Arabic speakers, just as some Urdu-speakers also have a superiority complex.

In all three above examples, the word “some” is key, as many scholarly and also young enlightened Muslims recognize the richness and diversity of Islam.
Indeed as American academic Esposito quite concisely writes, albeit a little controversially, “there is not one but many Islams”. He also recognizes that some Muslims could take offence to this statement and says that they would argue, “there is only Islam and many Muslims” (223)

Well whatever the standpoint we choose to take, as we glide through the 21st. century, grappling our way through globalization, layered identities, e-communication, online social networking and the so-called ‘Arab-spring’, now more than ever before, we collectively need to give some thought to our social, cultural and indeed our national identities. For this article, we shall focus on national identity. Who are we as Muslims?
As usual I ask – What would Muhammad (peace be upon him) do?

So are we Muslims first or are we Egyptian, Malaysian, British, Somali or whatever?
What is our position within the global Muslim nation and can there ever be unity within this nation?
Where do our loyalties lie and where should they lie?


Lesson 1 – Loyalty to One’s Own
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was from the Quraysh tribe. This was an old and powerful tribe with a proud lineage and the important responsibility of looking after the Ka’bah and pilgrims to Makkah.
From various versions of his biography, it is evident that Prophet Muhammad loved his family and his tribe. He rejoiced when anyone accepted Islam but was particularly pleased when a member of his family or the Quraysh accepted Islam.


He was also saddened by the persistent opposition that he faced from some elements within the Quraysh. Despite the persecution that the early Muslims faced, they and the Prophet persisted here in spreading the message of peace. In the wake of persecution he left Makkah, but it remained in his thoughts and strategies and after much struggle, he returned in peace to reclaim Makkah for all Muslims till eternity. In his reclamation of Makkah, there was minimal violence in what was essentially a military exercise.
Furthermore, Prophet Muhammad was just and fair in his behavior to friends, family, foes and detractors alike. As he addressed the Makkans who sought his refuge, he quoted

Prophet Joseph’s (peace be upon him) words and said:

"This day there shall be no upbraiding of you nor reproach! May Allah forgive you, and He is the Utmost Merciful of all those who show mercy." (Authenticated by Al-Albani)
Is there a lesson to be learnt here?
Yes of course there is!


This is a lesson about loyalty, love and responsibility to one’s own family, tribe, culture, people and indeed national identities. In our current contexts of successful revolution and self-governance, this is an extremely important lesson that teaches us the importance of loyalty, resilience, fairness, justice and forgiveness. Power can be quite delusional and after overcoming tyrant dictatorships we must constantly remind ourselves not to become dictators ourselves.


Lesson 2 – Adopted Homes
But the lessons from Prophet Muhammad’s life continue. There is more to be learnt and we must move on.
When there is persecution, one must leave in search of places and contexts that are more hospitable. Prophet Muhammad and the early Muslims were not safe in Makkah, as they were being persecuted, tortured and had to endure an embargo.

So they decided to migrate to Madinah and the Prophet announced:
"I have been shown a place of your emigration: I saw a well watered land, rich in date palms, between two tracts of black stones." (Al-Bukhari)

This land of promise and hope was Madinah or Yathrib as it was known then. There he made his home, built his mosque and where he continues to rest. Madinah became a city that he loved and which millions of Muslims continue to love.
The lesson here is that it is possible to love an adopted home. Madinah was not where Prophet Muhammad spent his childhood or formative years, yet by many accounts he loved Madinah more than any other earthly place – it became known as the city of the Prophet. He loved it on account of the protection and shelter it offered him when he was persecuted. He also loved it for the opportunity it provided to build and consolidate the Muslim nation.


There is a lesson here that is to be heard by all Muslims who live in a globalized world but which is especially pertinent to us, as Muslims who live in our adoptive homes in the West. This is a lesson of loyalty and responsibility. Just as Prophet Muhammad loved and defended Madinah, we too have obligations towards our adoptive homes in London, Paris, Toronto, New York and elsewhere.
In our modern world, such responsibilities in addition to us being good Muslims also translate into being good citizens who are law-abiding, civic-minded and care for the environment. As Muslims, we must be representatives of our faith, who through our words and actions constantly challenge Islamophobic media.


Lesson 3 – Celebrating Diversity
The lessons continue and I am afraid this article is becoming quite long!
The Makkans who went to Madinah were not completely assimilated into Madinah. In addition to their religious, Islamic identity (which they shared with the companions in Madinah), they also retained aspects of their unique identities and a degree of pride in their origins. Prophet Muhammad described those who came with him from Makkah as the Muhajireen (the migrants) and the people of Madinah as the Ansar (the helpers) who supported the muhajireen in what was evidently a difficult time of transition.
Both groups shared their religious worldviews and their love for the Prophet. Both groups helped and worked with each other but they also retained their unique identities. There is an important lesson here around the synergies that are possible between our national and religious identities.


I am certain that this is not an antagonistic dichotomy where one competes with the other. Rather we are ‘Muslims’ and we are French, Saudi, American, Ethiopian, Moroccan, Indian, Jamaican, or Indonesian. These aspects of our identities do no compete with each other. Indeed they work hand-in-hand defining our lives and determining our choices and practices, including how we practice our faith.


We all agree that Muslims all over the world have the same foundational beliefs in the oneness of God, the Quran as irrefutably God’s word and in Muhammad as the final messenger of God. However who will disagree when I say that despite these similarities we are also very different from each other – we speak different languages, eat different cuisines, have different mannerisms and generally lead very different lives.
Our faith is situated within this cultural diversity which implies that we practice some things quite differently. For example ways in which women and men practice hijab or modesty – just look at the different styles of head coverings that Muslim men use and which range from kuffiyah of Middle Eastern men, to turbans, to little caps sometimes called kufis, to big furry hats and in some cases no head coverings at all! So whilst there is unity in Islam, there is also diversity within it that must be celebrated.


The Quranic mandate about diversity within the nation is quite clear and is encapsulated within this well-known verse:
{O Mankind, We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other. Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous of you.} (Al-Hujurat 49: 13)
Yes, there is diversity in our shared world, but this is so that we know each other. We have a duty to study our cultural and social diversities and appreciate that being different does not necessarily mean being dangerous. This verse is about all of humanity, whether Muslim or not and it has significant ramifications for the Muslim nation that incorporates within itself a diversity of nations, races, languages and cultures.


We must respect what is unique in ourselves and we must do the same for others. Prophet Muhammad is clear on this matter too, and in his final sermon he reminded us about diversity and the need for solidarity within the Islamic nation:
"All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.
Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood.

Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim which belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves." (Al-Bayhaqi)
So to end this article, this is what Prophet Muhammad said and did. And this is what all Muslims must do InshaAllah.


Works Cited:
Esposito, John. Islam the Straight Path. 3rd. edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998

Sariya Contractor is an Indian academic at the University of Derby specialising in the Sociology of Religion. She is the author of Muslim Women in Britain: Demystifying the Muslimah.


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