Religion, Nationalism and Ummah in Islam

It is without doubt that without the rule of law (judicially enforced or socially enforced), human society would not exist. It is also a fact that most of the man-made law of this world owes itself to religious laws in one way or another. Laws against stealing, cannibalism, rape, incest, the law of war, law of the seas, charity etc. all owe themselves to religion or to institutions that at one level or another, owed their legitimacy to religion.

At the heart of most religion lies the concept of faith, God, destiny and the afterlife — which are powerful concepts. Religions are almost invariably founded by humble, un-influential people with vast stores of empathy and conviction. Once they have done their good job, the new-found faith is extremely vulnerable to those who would rather exploit the powerful emotions for goals other than the betterment of humanity. On the other hand, without organized religion, the society envisioned by the religion would not be established and spread, and we would have needed a prophet, guru, or autar in every city and in every generation. Such remarkable individuals are extremely rare, so the need for a necessary evil — i.e. organized religion.

Why do I use the term ‘necessary evil’? Organized religion stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the worst tyrants of history as the perpetrator of murder and oppression on human beings — the very human beings that the relgion’s founder came to protect. On the other hand, organized religious bodies have played a good supporting role to nationalism, and from my review of history, I see this role in ancient Egypt, in the initial Islamic caliphates, in the Western expansion of the past few centuries and in the Japanese empire. With a stretch of the imagination, one can also say that the Marxist/Leninist organized religion was behind the rise of the Soviet Empire, and I hope you understand the thrust of the argument.

Nationalism is also something like faith, but the origins are much deeper — they are rooted in the tribal instinct — the instinct of association. One can change his/her faith, but not this instinct. In its ugly forms, it leads to racism, bigotry and the like. In its best form, national pride and unity has built the greatest civilizations the world has ever seen.

This is how I understand these concepts. My understanding may not be perfect and universal, but it provides an explanation of the relationship of the major world religions and their corresponding nations. I mention these as a foundation for subsequent discussion as realistic concepts of religion, faith, organized religion and nationalism. Utopian intellectuals, who dream of a perfect world, are usually oblivious to these realities that will always be with us. Similarly, religious absolutists may not also be comfortable with these definitions.

A compounding of these elements is required to understand Islam properly. Why is Islam so hard to understand for others? Aaha. The concept of Ummah — the Muslim nation! We have all seen the broad smile when one Muslim recognizes another, even of a different race and not even speaking the same language. In the current political situation of the world, few Western policymakers (Chirac excepted!) understand how an event in Palestine or Iraq can cause a spontaneous reaction in Indonesia or Toronto or the slums of Paris. I cannot resist quoting from the Qur’an (Al-Anfal:63) — and keep in mind that spending money for nation-building PR is a new concept! : And (moreover) He has put affection between their (the believers’) hearts: even if you had spent all that is in the earth you could not have produced that affection, but Allah has done it: for He is Exalted in might, Wise.

However, the Ummah is more like an supranational federation of the hearts, while ethnic, tribal, linguistic, racial and political affiliations and associations also flourish. Again, blaming one or the other affiliation when trying to diagnose the ‘problems’ with Islam would be too simplistic. For our discussion, it is enough to understand that they both exist, and interact with one another. This interaction can be progressive, or regressive.