The meaning of the Umma The West still has it wrong

September 13, 2003 12:00 AM

My Hungarian kindergarten teacher insisted that my name, “Tamim,” was the Arabic form of the Hungarian Tamash, (Hungarian for Thomas). Thomas comes from the Hebrew toma, which means “the twin;” in Arabic the twin is tawam. A tawam, like a “half,” is an entity whose identity is determined by the presence of the other, since if he had no sibling he would not be a twin. The incompleteness is thus the essence of the words twin, tawam, toma, Thomas and Tamash. While Tamim, in Arabic, comes from the stem tamm, which means completed, it is actually a formula of exaggeration ­ i.e. it means the one who is too complete and self-sufficient. Thus, my teacher changed the concept of my name to its opposite. Fortunately such an interpretation had no political repercussions.

During the last 200 years of Arab history, which also happen to be the 200 years of direct and indirect colonial rule in the Arab world, many politicians, linguists and political scientists have not been more successful  in translating vital concepts from Arabic into English and French. One of the most important is the concept of Umma, translated either into “nation” or “Islamic community.” Both translations are not only wrong, but mischievous. Both quarantine the concept outside of politics. Those who claim that the Umma is simply a religious community implicitly make the argument that the concept’s relation to politics is similar to that of the  Catholic community in Boston. To them, trying to use the concept in politics is a call for some form of medieval theocracy. On the other hand many of those who translate the term into “nation” face more serious problems. According to The Encyclopaedia of Social Sciences, nation is “a portion of mankind who desire to be under the same government, and desire that it should be government by themselves or a portion of themselves, exclusively.” Observers who would like to negate the existence of one Arab or one Islamic nation would argue that given recent Arabic and Islamic history there is no proof that a desire to live under the same one government is shared by all Arabs and Muslims. Those who want to prove that such a nation exists would struggle to interpret the same observation in a manner that indicates that such a desire exists. The end result is that the existence of a 14-century old Umma stays in doubt.

Umma comes of the stem amm, which means to follow, to mean, to aim at, go to, seek, demand, etc. The Umma is the body that follows. The entity that is followed is the imam: the guide. Again, etymologically, the imam can be a human being like the Prophet, or to Shiites, the 12 infallibles of his descent or it can be the Book, here meaning the Koran. In both cases, after the death of the Prophet and the 12 imams, the Umma is mainly guided by texts and interpretations of texts, because the lives of Prophet and his descendents turned into texts subject to different interpretations. These texts of the Koran and the Hadith define the Umma, provide metaphorical image of the community of Muslims, just as the pre-Islamic poem used to define the tribe, create an image with which every tribesman would identify. But in a poetic twist that unifies the journey and the destination, the Umma also means the imam, the people and their image are one. Throughout Islamic history, and up to this day, any ruler has to derive his legitimacy from some interpretation of the self-defining texts. All Muslim caliphs based their claim to power on some interpretation of the Koran, since the Koran is universal to all Muslims. Every caliph had to claim he was responsible for all Muslims in order to be a caliph, i.e. his legitimacy was derived from the whole Umma. But Muslims did not have to follow that particular caliph to be part of the Umma, because as long as they identified with the Koran and the Sunna (the record of the Prophet’s life) they were already part of it. This is the main difference between the concept of Umma and that of nation. While Muslims do not really have to demand a unified government, governments have to derive their legitimacy from the Koran, the Sunna and the community of Muslims. The concept is different than that of nation, yet it is as effective in political life. In the 20th century the term Umma was used more to refer to the Arabs rather than to all Muslims, but the meaning of the concept and the way it operated  politically stayed the same.

The above can explain how for example, an Arab president’s position on Palestine or Iraq can totally de-legitimize him in his own country, yet if you ran a referendum asking the population of that country whether they wanted a unitary government with Palestine and Iraq you might not necessarily find an overwhelming majority, because an Arab leader’s legitimacy is measured in reference to all the Arabs, without them having to come under his rule.

This also explains much of Arab public opinion, for an act that could be seen by foreign observers as serving the national interests of certain Arab country could be extremely unpopular among the population of that country and vice versa, because the reference in judging an act is not the individual country but rather the whole Umma. For example, asking for US intervention during the 1990 Gulf War is seen by many political analysts in the West as an act that saved Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf States. Yet, to many in Saudi Arabia, that act was extremely unpopular, and the frustration and anger of these groups is apparently explosive. The continuous refusal by political analysts, diplomats and policymakers to recognize the unique way in which the concept of Umma works is, therefore, blindly dangerous and self-destructive. Colonial attitudes usually are.

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