Friday Sermon: The Concept of Ummah in a Religiously Pluralistic Society

By Babatunde Jose

There is no doubt we live in perilous times. For all intents and purposes, it could be the worst of times; a period of religious intolerance and wanton exploitation of the name of God to score cheap political points and a tendency to desecrate the hallowed name of God, His prophets, religions and their adherents. In this political melee there are fears that if care is not taken, we might end up in a tragic state of religious fracas. We can see it coming; hence the wise elders have started calling for a need to examine the concepts that govern the operations of the major religions with a view to explore if there are rooms for mutual accommodation, or what we politically term tolerance.

The first question asked by the elders is thrown at the adherents of the Islamic faith and it borders on the concept of Ummah or the Islamic community. It also asks about the workability or otherwise of the Ummah in a religiously pluralistic society or nation-state. It is therefore proper for us to start with a definition of the conceptual foci of our discourse.

Ummah is an Arabic word meaning “community”. It is distinguished from Shaʻb which means a nation with common ancestry or geography. … It is a synonym for Ummat al-Islam, ‘the Islamic community’, and it is commonly used to mean the collective community of Islamic people. Thus, it can be said to be a supra-national community with a common history.

In the Quran the Ummah typically refers to a single group that shares common religious beliefs, specifically those that are the objects of a divine plan of salvation. In the context of pan-Islamism and politics, the word Ummah can be used to mean the concept of a Commonwealth of the Believers

The faith of Islam helped various Muslim peoples in their struggle to gain political freedom in the mid-20th century, and the unity of Islam contributed to later political solidarity. But that was then and it is inconceivable that it would suffice in a modern nation state with a plurality of belief holders. Though at inception of the Islamic state, pluralism was addressed and tolerated, particularly with the promulgation of the Constitution of Medina.

Religious pluralism is an attitude or policy regarding the diversity of religious belief systems co-existing in society: A term for the condition of harmonious co-existence between adherents of different religions or religious denominations.

The Constitution of Medina (also called the Umma Document) is a political agreement between Muhammad, the early Muslims, the Jews of the city and other pagan tribes around 622 BC, its purpose was to end the city’s tribal warfare and “unify its warring factions”.

The history of religious tolerance and pluralism can be traced many centuries back; in some countries of the world, many religions were practiced without confronting each other. However, the struggle for religious toleration was started in the 16th century.

Next is the question of the most important belief in Islam; the oneness of God or Tawheed. The heart of faith for all Muslims is obedience to Allah’s will.

Tawhid meaning “oneness [of God]” also Romanized as Tawheed is the indivisible oneness concept of monotheism in Islam. Tawhid is the religion’s central and single-most important concept, upon which a Muslim’s entire faith rests. It derives its distinctive name from its teaching on the Godhead, which is popularly referred to as the “Oneness doctrine,” a form of Modalistic Monarchianism. This doctrine states that there is one God, a singular divine Spirit, who manifests himself in many ways, including as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; as espoused by Christians.

The point of departure between Islam and Christianity is therefore the concept of Tawhid and its incompatibility with the doctrine of Trinity and its supposition of the ‘Sonship’ of Jesus. Within Islam, however, such a concept of plurality within God is a denial of monotheism and foreign to the revelation found in Muslim scripture. Shirk the act of ascribing partners to God – whether they be sons, daughters, or other partners – is considered to be a form of unbelief in Islam. Possible Quranic references to the doctrine of “Trinity” are verses 4:171, 5:73, and 5:116.

Tawhid therefore, is the religion’s central and single-most important concept, upon which a Muslim’s entire faith rests. It constitutes the foremost article of the Muslim profession of faith. The first part of the Shahada (the Islamic declaration of faith) is the declaration of belief in the oneness of God.

In recent years, there has been a sharp rise in religious extremism and radicalization. The space for religious pluralism and tolerance seems deteriorating. A major reason is the mounting phobia for other’s faiths across the religious divide.

Pluralism and tolerance are strongly related concepts. The intertwine relation between the two terms requires understanding of both for implementation and factual practices. According to theological account, the term indicates agreement, union, and compatibility across different beliefs and religious tradition. The sociological reference of religious pluralism is more of descriptive in nature. Consequently, in sociology, religious pluralism refers to the multiplicity of various religious traditions within similar cultural area. It also accounts for the pattern of peaceful co-existence among various religious actors, individuals, societies and the state around culture, social, economic and political agendas.

Religious philosophers assert that various known world religious beliefs and practices are inherently equal in creating alternative access to get into Ultimate Reality. To put in other words no religion is superior or inferior to other; all religions are basically equal in so long as they all are good ways to realize the authentic truth. Thus, no particular religion has right to claim that it is an exclusive path to the truth.

Understanding religious pluralism in such way enables us to treat other religion with intimacy and open mindedness than distancing and leveling them under bad moral condition. Religious pluralism is therefore, the intrinsic condition of the society. In normative religious pluralism, the diverse beliefs and practices are held to be positive force in social life giving moral and spiritual depth to civic discourse enriching personal and family life, and even making the diverse religious communities themselves better representation of their faith.

Generally, pluralism can be made possible through examining the common phrase that “we agree to disagree”. That is to say in pluralistic society though we do not believe in the doctrine and practices of other religion; we have to agree to reckon with other’s religion; is inherently equal to ours at least in philosophical level.

In the words of Alxinger, “we all are seekers – since no person or institution possess absolute truth, tolerance means open-mindedness, willingness to learn the truth from other”.

Similarly, in diversified societies where multiplicity of beliefs and religious traditions occur, tolerance can be seen as a precondition for accommodation of such human character. The factual practice of tolerance can be archived by creating free space for other beliefs, accepting and appreciating their philosophy, distancing oneself from persecuting others and implementing their religion.

The world presents a cabinet of diverse faiths –Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, with all their sects and schisms, to say nothing of polytheistic cults. Confrontations with such radical heterogeneity fostered the deistic conviction that there are many ways to God, discoverable through nature, each acceptable to the Supreme Being, and hence deserving of tolerance.

We cannot examine every single one of the world’s scriptures; some scriptural canons are so huge that even the faithful do not attempt to read all the texts that they contain. But these scriptures prescribe different ways of living in harmony with the transcendent, but on one thing they all agree: To live in genuine relation with the unknowable ‘ultimate’, men and women must divest themselves of egotism. What the Greeks called kenosis (the ‘emptying’ of self) is a central scriptural theme. Furthermore, the scriptures all insist that the best way of achieving this transcendence of self is to cultivate habits of empathy and compassion. We hear a great deal today about the violence and hatred that scripture supposedly inspires. But, in different ways, the scriptures concur that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own people but must honor the stranger and even the enemy. It is hard to imagine an ethic that is more urgently needed in our perilously divided world.

Generally, tolerance is an essential element of moral virtue. It is inherently related to the intrinsic value of human being. From the point of religiosity, it is a requirement for peaceful and harmonious co-existence where there are diverse religious practices.

May the God of all Creation bring peace unto this nation; Amen.

Barka Juma’at and a happy weekend

Paper presented at a 2-man seminar on January 13, 2020

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