By Sheikh Salman Al-Oadah at IslamToday.net
The Arabic word “ummah” is often translated as “community” or “nation.” In fact, this word appears in the Qur’an with numerous meanings which can be summarized into five general categories as follows:
1. A leader or role-model
We find this meaning in the verse:
إِنَّ إِبْرَاهِيمَ كَانَ أُمَّةً قَانِتًا لِّلَّهِ حَنِيفًا وَلَمْ يَكُ مِنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ
Abraham was indeed a role-model (ummah), devoutly obedient to Allah, and true in faith.
[Surah al-Nahl 16:120]
This conforms with how most commentators on the Qur’an understand the verse. Another interpretation of the verse is that Abraham was indeed a community unto himself. This interpretation was suggested by the Prophet’s Companion Ibn Abbas, and by the Successor Sa’id Ibn Jubayr, as well as others.
Farwah ibn Nawfal relates the following conversation he had with another eminent Companion, Ibn Mas’ud:
Ibn Mas’ud once said about his fellow Companion, “Mu’adh was indeed a role-model (ummah), devoutly obedient to Allah, and true in faith.” When I heard this, I said to myself, “Ibn Mas’ud has made a mistake. Allah sad that Abraham ‘was indeed a role-model, devoutly obedient…’” Ibn Mas’ud turned to me and said, “Do you know what an ummah is? Do you know what it means to be devoutly obedient? I said, “Allah knows best.” He said, “An ummah is someone who teaches people what is good. A devoutly obedient person is one who obeys Allah and His Messenger. This is Mu’adh ibn Jabal. He used to teach people what is good, and he used to obey Allah and His Messenger.”
2. A specific historical period
We find this usage in the Qur’an in the verse:
وَقَالَ الَّذِي نَجَا مِنْهُمَا وَادَّكَرَ بَعْدَ أُمَّةٍ أَنَا أُنَبِّئُكُم بِتَأْوِيلِهِ فَأَرْسِلُونِ
But the man who had been released, one of the two who had been in prison, and who now recalled after so long a space of time (ummah)…
[Surah Yusuf 12:45]
We find this usage again in:
وَلَئِنْ أَخَّرْنَا عَنْهُمُ الْعَذَابَ إِلَىٰ أُمَّةٍ مَّعْدُودَةٍ لَّيَقُولُنَّ مَا يَحْبِسُهُ ۗ أَلَا يَوْمَ يَأْتِيهِمْ لَيْسَ مَصْرُوفًا عَنْهُمْ وَحَاقَ بِهِم مَّا كَانُوا بِهِ يَسْتَهْزِئُونَ
If We were to withhold the punishment from them until a stated period of time (ummah), they would certainly say: What prevents it? Now surely on the day when it will come to them, it shall not be averted from them and that which they scoffed at shall beset them.
[Surah Hud 11:8]
We can discern a strong connection between the idea of an ummah as a nation and that of a specific historical timeframe, since a nation persists for a period of time and then comes to an end.
As Allah says:
وَلِكُلِّ أُمَّةٍ أَجَلٌ فَإِذَا جَاءَ أَجَلُهُمْ لَا يَسْتَأْخِرُونَ سَاعَةً وَلَا يَسْتَقْدِمُونَ
To every nation (ummah) is a term appointed: when their term is reached, not an hour can they cause delay…
[Surah al-A’raf: 7:34]
3. A way of thinking or a school of thought, whether correct or misguided.
لْ قَالُوا إِنَّا وَجَدْنَا آبَاءَنَا عَلَىٰ أُمَّةٍ وَإِنَّا عَلَىٰ آثَارِهِم مُّهْتَدُونَ
Nay! they say: We found our fathers on a path (ummah), and surely we are guided by their footsteps.
[Surah al-Zukhruf 43:22]
Though they were clearly misguided, they were steadfast in their adherence to the ways of their forefathers. Therefore, this usage of the word Ummah is appropriate here.
4. A faction or grouping of people, whether large or small.
وَلَمَّا وَرَدَ مَاءَ مَدْيَنَ وَجَدَ عَلَيْهِ أُمَّةً مِّنَ النَّاسِ يَسْقُونَ
When he arrived at the watering place in Madyan, he found there a group (ummah) of men watering their flocks…
[Surah al-Qasas 28:23]
We also find:
كُلَّمَا دَخَلَتْ أُمَّةٌ لَّعَنَتْ أُخْتَهَا حَتَّىٰ إِذَا ادَّارَكُوا فِيهَا جَمِيعًا
Every time a new group (ummah) enters the Fire, it curses its sibling group that went before, until they all follow each other therein.
[Surah al-A’raf 7:38]
5. People united by a common faith.
This is the usage that is most commonly found in the Qur’an, like where it says:
كَانَ النَّاسُ أُمَّةً وَاحِدَةً فَبَعَثَ اللَّهُ النَّبِيِّينَ مُبَشِّرِينَ وَمُنذِرِينَ
Humanity was a single community (ummah), and Allah sent Messengers with glad tidings and warnings…
[Surah al-Baqarah 2:213]
Ibn Abbas and others among the Companions and Successors relate to us that all humanity had at one time been united upon right guidance. For ten generations after the time of Adam, humanity remained united in religious belief and were steadfast in monotheism. Then, devilish elements lured them from their faith, so Allah sent prophets to humanity to warn them and give them glad tidings.
We need to give this some thought. We know that even among Adam’s own children, there were those who were disobedient and sinful. We see this in the story of Cain and Abel. Indeed, humanity has been tried and tested ever since Adam and Eve were sent out from Paradise. Therefore, it might be possible that the verse stating humanity was united in faith refers to the state of the overwhelming majority of people during those first ten generations, and not to every single person. And Allah knows best.
The Best Community
كُنتُمْ خَيْرَ أُمَّةٍ أُخْرِجَتْ لِلنَّاسِ تَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَتَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَتُؤْمِنُونَ بِاللَّهِ
You have been the best of communities brought forth for humankind: commanding good, forbidding evil, and believing in Allah.
[Surah Ali Imran 3:110]
What this verse is saying is that this is the community wherein the best of humanity is to be found. They are those who are not concerned with themselves alone. They do not simply fulfill their own needs. They exist for all humanity, to teach them, guide them, and show them the way to Paradise.
Ibn Abbas said:
They are the people who emigrated with Allah’s Messenger from Mecca to Medina.
Umar pointed out:
Had Allah wished, he could have said, “You are the best of communities…” Instead, He said, “You have been the best of communities…” This shows that the verse is speaking particularly about the Prophet’s Companions and those who follow their example.
Umar also said:
This verse refers to the first of us and not to the last of us.
He bases this interpretation on the verse’s use of the past tense verb. The Muslims, at the beginning, were as the verse describes them to be. They commanded what was right and forbade what was wrong on the strength of their faith. As for those Muslims who neglect these duties or who come together as a community on a basis other than faith, they are not proper witnesses for humanity and the verse does not apply to them. It is wrong to think that this honor of being the best of communities comes from merely identifying with Islam. It is not an ascribed status that the community inherits from its historical background.
Qatadah relates that Umar saw some people behaving badly during the Hajj pilgrimage. He recited the verse, “You have been the best of communities brought forth for humankind…” Then he said, “If you wish to be part of this community, then fulfill the condition Allah has placed on it.”
He meant that they must command what is good and forbid evil, united in their faith.
We should realize that even during the Prophet’s lifetime, his Companions read the verse with the past tense, “You have been the best of communities…” They understood from it that the past tense referred to Allah’s prior knowledge of their state as a community.
It is more likely that Umar’s understanding is based less on the past tense verb in this verse, but rather on another group of verses altogether:
فِي جَنَّاتِ النَّعِيمِ
ثُلَّةٌ مِّنَ الْأَوَّلِينَ
وَقَلِيلٌ مِّنَ الْآخِرِينَ
Those foremost in faith will be foremost in the Hereafter… a large number of people from the earliest times and a few from those of later times.
[Surah al-Waqi’ah 56:10-14]
In any case, the condition that Umar points out is a true qualifier for anyone wishing to be counted among the best of communities, “…commanding good, forbidding evil, and believing in Allah.”
(www.faithinallah.org / 25.08.2012)