Sociology and Anthropology

More Than the Ummah: Religious and National Identity in the Muslim World

Many scholars argue that Muslims are more likely to identify themselves in religious terms than as members of particular national political communities. As such, since they are more likely to claim a transnational, religious identity, they should consistently show weaker claims of national, regional, and municipal identity; be less willing to fight for their country; and show lower levels of national pride, regardless of country, region, and majority or minority status. Using data from the 1995-1997 World Values Survey from ten countries, which were supplemented by data from Zogby International and the Pew Research Center, I found that while Muslims tend to be very religious, they do not embrace transnationalism or lack strong national feelings to an exceptional degree when compared with non-Muslims. In fact, many are proud of their country and willing to fight for it. 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 (not that you may despise each other). (Qur’an 49:13)1



Like Christianity, Islam is a transnational, global religion. It is also the world’s second largest (behind Christianity) and fastest growing religion. But what is of particular interest here is not Islam’s rise and size, but its transnational, civilization-making potential.

Many scholars, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, have ascribed to Islam a transnational capacity that other religions lack. In other words, Muslims are said to be more likely than, say, Christians or Buddhists, to identify themselves in religious terms than as members of particular national political communities. This is because, as Bernard Lewis explains, “Islam is not only a matter of faith and practice; it is also an identity and a loyalty.”2 Islam, it is said, requires Muslims to make their common faith the highest marker of identity and the ummah Islamiyah (Islamic community of believers) the most important collective to which one can – and ought to – belong.3 As the Qur’an states: “You are the best of peoples, evolved for mankind, enjoining what is right, forbidding what is wrong, and believing in Allah” (3:110). Or, as Frederick Denny writes: “The ummah itself is the tribe, a supertribe, with God and Muhammad as final arbiters and authorities.”4

By implication, then, Islam is a transnational religion and the ummah is a transnational community bound by ties of faith, rather than by ties of blood or civitas. “Know that every Muslim is a Muslim’s brother, and that the Muslims are brethren.”5 Therefore, intranational and national identities are assumed to be subordinated to, if not rejected in favor of, a pan-Islamic identity that, ideally, will culminate in a world of peace when “all people come under the protection of an Islamic state” – when the whole world is dar al- Islam (house or territory of submission [to God]).6 Mir Zohair Husain writes: “The primary loyalty of Muslim citizens is to the ummah, rather than the [non-Islamic] state, and to the Shariah [Islamic law], rather than the ruler.”7

Nonetheless, the ruler did foster ummatic ties. For many centuries, according to Lewis, many Muslims lived under the earthly protection and authority of a single ruler, such as the Ottoman sultan, who was viewed as the legitimate successor (khalifah) to Prophet Muhammad, “the commander of the faithful” (amir al-mu’minin), and “a potent symbol of Muslim unity, even identity.”8 If there is an “Islamic exceptionalism,” Islamic transnationalism, rooted in the concept of ummah, may be one of its cornerstones.9

Scholars have made this same point in various descriptive and empirical studies. Lewis explains that unlike Christianity, which converted an empire and blended with Greco-Roman civilization, “Islam in contrast created a world civilization, polyethnic, multiracial, international, one might even say intercontinental.”10 Moreover, when nationalism emerged in the Middle East and other parts of the Islamic world, Lewis says, it was a European import.11 Mansoor Moaddel and Taqhi Azadarmaki relate that among the Muslim populations of Egypt, Jordan, and Iran, religious identity was by far a more important source of identity than national origin. James Zogby reports, based on survey data collected in 2002 by Zogby International, that Muslims in several Arab countries also have very strong Muslim identities.12

The ummah’s purpose is said to be twofold: to reflect God’s oneness and indivisibility (tawhid) on Earth, and to serve as “the vehicle for realizing God’s will on earth.”13 Both instances are ostensibly religious. Not surprisingly, many Islamic religious practices are intended to reinforce such ummatic ties, among them reading and memorizing the Qur’an in Arabic, praying five times a day in Arabic while facing Makkah, attending the Friday congregational prayer services, celebrating the annual eids (holidays), and performing the hajj (pilgrimage) to Makkah at least once in a lifetime, if able to do so.14 For instance, Malcolm X once said that what impressed him most about the hajj was its transnational character: “The brotherhood! The people of all races, colors, from all over the world coming together as one! It has proved to me the power of the One God.”15

But is the ummah merely a religious ideal? The notions of God’s oneness and the ummah as a “vehicle for realizing God’s will on earth” could be interpreted as having political implications. Several experts contend that even more than the religious rituals that promote the ummatic ideal, Islam indeed promotes a comprehensive, organic unity. Unlike the Christian tendency to separate the sacred and the profane, the religious and the political, Islam is said to bring such realms together.16 In Islam, as originally established by the Prophet, there is to be no separation of mosque and state, God and Caesar, laity and citizenry.17 Lewis writes: “From the lifetime of its founder, Islam was the state, and the identity of religion and government is indelibly stamped on the memories and awareness of the faithful from their own sacred writings, history, and experience.”18 In effect, Bassam Tibi states, Islam delegitimizes the secular, or “religiousless,” state.19 Thus, ummah is as much “a political society” as it is “a religious community.”20 In other words, Islam is frequently envisioned as a transnational religio-political project for which individual Muslims, wherever they may be, must strive to realize.21

I explore whether or not the Islamic ideal of transnational, ummatic identity is confirmed empirically at the micro-level. According to James Piscatori, this is a crucial academic task and one that he has tackled qualitatively. 22 It may also be of consequence to policymakers who have tended, in the recent past, to overlook religion’s capacity to provide a political community with its ultimate source of identity.23 Far too frequently, the ideal of Islam is taken as a truism without considering what Muslims actually say their primary markers of identity are. But more specifically, I explore whether Muslims are more likely, in multiple national/regional contexts, to identify themselves in transnational, rather than national, terms than non-Muslims. One should discover that Muslims in one country, regardless of region, continent, or status (e.g., majority, plurality, or minority), should  express opinions differing from those of non-Muslims and hold opinions resembling those of other Muslims. If this is the case, Islam would deservedly be classified as an exceptionally transnational faith, as it is often said to be in descriptive accounts. Beyond just exploring the micro-level opinions of Muslims in Muslim-majoritarian countries,24 the opinions of Muslim minorities will be explored as well.

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