Umma is a word that became prominent within the Arabian society after Prophet Muhammad had established an Islamic state covering Medina, Mecca and other parts of the Arabian Peninsula. The word ‘Umma’ appears repeatedly in the Qur’an as well as the Constitution of Medina, both texts that led to the reorganization of the Arabian society after the introduction of Islam (Watt 5). ‘Umma’ originates from the Hebrew language, where it refers to tribe. Though ‘umma’ is similar to the Arabic word ‘qawm’, it introduced a different dimension to the understanding of community in the Arabic world. Through the introduction of this new concept, the use of the word ‘umma’ in the Qur’an and the Constitution of Medina resulted in significant changes to the Arabic society regarding how people interacted with each other and their neighbors.
The word ‘umma’, as Prophet Muhammad used it, does not just refer to tribe but also an expansive community that encompassed several smaller groups. This distinction between ‘umma’ as a tribe and an expansive community is evident in various statements within the Qur’an. Initially, some analysts assumed that ‘umma’ referred to a large community that shared a similar faith. However, following an analysis of the Qur’an, Islamic scholars now believe the word to mean a natural community, which is distinct and unique by virtue of having a single language or ethnicity (Watt 10). This community does not have to share a single faith, but it does include different clans and tribes that are linguistically and ethnically similar. Upon its introduction, the concept of ‘umma’ served a crucial purpose in changing the way that people interacted with each other in the Arabian Peninsula. Previously, relations within Arabic society were focused on tribes and other blood ties. Cordial relations between different tribes facilitated the peaceful interactions of their members. Contrastingly, hostility between these tribes jeopardized the interactions of their members (Watt 6). The introduction of ‘umma’ served to unite these tribes under one entity that facilitated interactions that were more cordial. Additionally, it helped Prophet Muhammad spread the faith to people in the peninsula as one community, rather than several distinct and separate entities.
The inclusion of the word ‘umma’ in the Constitution of Medina as well as the Qur’an radically changed the shape of the Arabic society. The word’s inclusion into the two texts was supposed to bring unity to the society by uniting the tribes under a single community. The unity that ‘umma’ created resulted in several differences within the Arab society as it was before and after Islamization. The most significant difference was the diminished importance of tribe within ‘umma’. In the pre-Islamic society, tribe had been the focus of all political and legal issues. Watt gives the example of how lex talionis (an eye for an eye) was the preferred form of justice in pre-Islamic Arabia, with clans and tribes using the system to ensure safety in the vast deserts of the peninsula (Watt 6). The introduction of ‘umma’ changed this by creating a system where these tribes perceived themselves a single entity. Accordingly, justice applied in the context of the individual rather than tribe. Another difference between the ‘umma’ and pre-Islamic Arab society was the fact that the concept created a single united society in the Arabian Peninsula. This served many purposes. It allowed Prophet Muhammad to spread the faith to one entity rather than many. It also allowed the community to have a single political system that applied to all groups within it.
‘Umma’ is a complex concept in the Arab world. The word first emerged within the Constitution of Medina and the Qur’an and introduced a new standard in the Arab society. This led to changes in the way that people interacted with each other and diminished the important of tribes and blood ties. Using this new concept, Prophet Muhammad was able to spread the Muslim religion with relative ease and the Arab society advanced significantly from a primitive state.
Watt, Montgomery. Islamic Political Though: The Basic Concepts. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1980. Print.
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