by Reza Aslan*
It may have been in Mecca where the Prophet Muhammad received the first revelations of the Qur’an and began his prophetic mission, but it was in Medina where his community of followers was forged. It is tempting to call the members of Muhammad’s community “Muslims,” but there is no reason to believe that this term was used to designate a distinct religious movement until many years into the Medinan period or perhaps after Muhammad’s death. It would be more accurate to refer to Muhammad’s community in Medina by the term that the Qur’an uses: umma.
Ceramic panel depicting the Mosque in Medina; 17th century. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
The problem is that no one is certain what the term umma meant or where it came from. It may be derived from Arabic, Hebrew, or Aramaic; it may have meant “community,” “nation,” or “people.” A few scholars have suggested that umma may be derived from the Arabic word for mother (umm); while this idea may be aesthetically pleasing, there is no linguistic evidence for it. To complicate matters further, umma inexplicably ceases to be used in the Qur’an after 625 C.E., when, as Montgomery Watt has noted, it is replaced with the word qawm, Arabic for “tribe.”
But there may be something to this change in terminology. Despite its ingenuity, Muhammad’s community was still an Arab institution based on Arab notions of tribal society. There was simply no alternative model of social organization in seventh-century Arabia, save for monarchy. Indeed, there are so many parallels between the early Muslim community and traditional tribal societies that one is left with the distinct impression that, at least in Muhammad’s mind, the umma was indeed a tribe, though a new and radically innovative one.
For one thing, reference in the Constitution of Medina to Muhammad’s role as “shaykh” of his “clan” of Meccan emigrants indicates that despite the Prophet’s elevated status, his secular authority would have fallen well within the traditional model of pre-Islamic tribal society. What is more, just as membership in the tribe obliged participation in the rituals and activities of the tribal cult, so did membership in Muhammad’s community require ritual involvement in what could be termed its “tribal cult,” in this case, the nascent religion of Islam. Public rituals like communal prayer, almsgiving, and collective fasting — the first three activities mandated by Muhammad — when combined with shared dietary regulations and purity requirements, functioned in the umma in much the same way that the activities of the tribal cult did in pagan societies. They provided a common social and religious identity that allowed one group to distinguish itself from another.
The point is that one can refer to Muhammad’s community in Medina as the umma, but only insofar as that term is understood to designate what the Orientalist explorer Bertram Thomas has called a “super-tribe,” or what the historian Marshall Hodgson more accurately describes as a “neo-tribe,” that is, a radically new kind of social organization but one nevertheless based on the traditional Arab tribal model.
There is, however, one great difference between the traditional tribal model and Muhammad’s super-tribe. While the only way to become a member of a tribe was to be born into it, membership in the umma was based neither on kinship nor on ethnicity. Instead, membership was predicated firstly on the recognition of Muhammad’s authority as prophet and lawgiver, and secondly on the acceptance of his revelations from God.
Here we must pause and examine those revelations – the Qur’an – for a clue about what Muhammad may have intended for the radically new kind of social organization he was building in Medina.
Folio with portions of Qur’an 5:14-15; North Africa, 13th century. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
The Qur’an repeatedly claims to be not a new scripture but the “confirmation of previous scriptures” (12:111). In fact, the Qur’an proposes the remarkable idea that all revealed scriptures are derived from a single divine source called umm al-kitab, “Mother of Books” (13:39). That means that as far as Muhammad understood, the Torah, the Gospels, and the Qur’an must be read as a single cohesive narrative about humanity’s relationship to God, in which the prophetic consciousness of one prophet is passed spiritually to the next: from Adam to Muhammad. For this reason, the Qur’an advises Muslims to say to the Jews and Christians: “We believe in God, and in that which has been revealed to us, which is that which was revealed to Abraham and Ismail and Jacob and the tribes [of Israel], as well as that which the Lord revealed to Moses and to Jesus and to all the other Prophets. We make no distinction between any of them; we submit ourselves to God” (3:84).
The Qur’an sets itself up as the final revelation in this sequence of scriptures, but it never claims to annul the previous scriptures, only to complete them. While one scripture giving authenticity to others is an extraordinary event in the history of religions, the concept of umm al-kitab may indicate an even more profound principle, namely that the Jews, Christians, and Muslims not only share a single scripture but constitute a single umma – a single super-tribe.
According to the Qur’an, Jews and Christians are “People of the Book” (ahl al-kitab), spiritual cousins who, as opposed to the pagans and polytheists of Arabia, worship the same God, read the same scriptures, and share the same moral values as the Muslim community. Although each faith comprised its own distinct religious community (its own individual umma), together they formed one united umma, a concept that Mohammed Bamyeh calls “monotheistic pluralism.” Thus the Qur’an promises that “all those who believe — the Jews, the Sabians, the Christians — anyone who believes in God and the Last Days and who does good deeds, will have nothing to fear or regret” (5:69).
The connection in Muhammad’s mind between umm al-kitab and ahl al-kitab can be seen in the Constitution of Medina. This document, which Moshe Gil aptly calls “an act of preparation for war,” makes clear that the defense of Medina was the common responsibility of every inhabitant regardless of kin, ethnicity, or religion. And while the Constitution clarified the absolute religious and social freedom of Medina’s Jewish clans, stating “to the Jews their religion and to the Muslims their religion,” it nevertheless fully expected them to provide aid to “whoever wars against the people of this document.” In short, the Constitution of Medina provided the means through which to discern who was and who was not a member of the community.
It was this belief in a unified, monotheistic umma that led Muhammad to link his community to the Jews when he first entered Medina. Thus, he made Jerusalem — the site of the Temple (long since destroyed) and the direction in which the Diaspora Jews turned during worship — the direction of prayer or qibla for all Muslims. He imposed a fast on his community, to take place annually on the tenth day of the first month of the Jewish calendar, the day more commonly known as Yom Kippur. He set the day of Muslim congregation at noon on Friday so that it would coincide with, but not disrupt, Jewish preparations for the Sabbath. He adopted many of the Jewish dietary laws and purity requirements, and encouraged his followers to marry Jews, as he himself did.
And while Muhammad much later changed the qibla from Jerusalem to Mecca, and set the annual fast at Ramadan (the month in which the Qur’an was first revealed) instead of Yom Kippur, these decisions should not be interpreted as “a break with the Jews,” but as the maturing of Islam as an independent religion. Muhammad continued to encourage his followers to fast on Yom Kippur, and he never ceased to venerate Jerusalem as a holy city. Moreover, the Prophet maintained most of the dietary, purity, and marriage restrictions that he had adopted from the Jews. And as Nabia Abbott has shown, throughout the first two centuries of Islam, Muslims regularly read the Torah alongside the Qur’an.
The fact is that nothing Muhammad either said or did would necessarily have been objectionable to Medina’s Jews. As Newby writes in A History of the Jews of Arabia, Islam and Judaism in seventh-century Arabia operated within “the same sphere of religious discourse,” in that both shared the same religious characters, stories, and anecdotes, both discussed the same fundamental questions from similar perspectives, and both had nearly identical moral and ethical values. Where there was disagreement between the two faiths, Newby suggests it was “over interpretation of shared topics, not over two mutually exclusive views of the world.”
Even Muhammad’s claim to be the Prophet and Apostle of God, on the model of the great Jewish patriarchs, would not necessarily have been unacceptable to Medina’s Jews. Not only did his words and actions correspond perfectly to the widely accepted pattern of Arabian Jewish mysticism, but Muhammad was not even the only person in Medina making these kinds of prophetic claims. Medina was also the home of a Jewish mystic and Kohen named Ibn Sayyad, who, like Muhammad, wrapped himself in a prophetic mantle, recited divinely inspired messages from heaven, and called himself “the Apostle of God.” Remarkably, not only did most of Medina’s Jewish clans accept Ibn Sayyad’s prophetic claims, but the sources depict Ibn Sayyad as openly acknowledging Muhammad as a fellow apostle and prophet.
That is not to say that there were no theological differences between Islam and the other People of the Book. But according to the Qur’an, these differences were part of the divine plan, for God could have created a single umma if he so wished, but instead preferred that “every umma have its own Messenger” (10:47). Hence, the differences among the People of the Book are explained as showing God’s desire to give each people its own “law and path and way of life” (5:42–48).
There were some differences that Muhammad found to be intolerable heresies created by ignorance and error. Chief among these was the idea of the Trinity. “God is one,” the Quran states definitively. “God is eternal. He has neither begotten anyone, nor is he begotten of anyone” (112:1–3). However, this verse – like many similar verses in the Qur’an – is in no way a condemnation of Christianity but of Imperial Byzantine (Trinitarian) Orthodoxy, which was neither the sole nor the dominant Christian position in the Hijaz.
At the same time, Muhammad lashed out at those Jews in Arabia who had “forsaken the community of Abraham” (2:130) and “who were trusted with the laws of the Torah, but who fail to observe them” (62:5). Again, this was not a condemnation of Judaism. Rather, Muhammad was addressing those Jews in the Arabian Peninsula, and only there, who had in both belief and practice “breached their covenant with God” (5:13). His complaints in the Qur’an were not about Judaism and Christianity, but about those Jews and Christians in Arabia who, in his opinion, had forsaken their covenant with God and perverted the teachings of the Torah and Gospels. These were not believers but apostates, with whom the Qur’an warns Muslims not to ally themselves: “O believers, do not make friends with those who mock you and make fun of your faith . . . Instead say to them: ‘O People of the Book, why do you dislike us? Is it because we believe in God and in what has been sent down to us [the Qur’an], and what was sent down before that [the Torah and Gospels], while most of you are disobedient?’” (5:57–59).
The point is that although Muhammad recognized the irreconcilable differences that existed among the People of the Book, he never called for a partitioning of the faiths. On the contrary, the evidence from the Qur’an and the Constitution of Medina indicate that his conception of the umma was as a “super-tribe” composed of monotheists of different religions bound together by a simple compromise: “Let us come to an agreement on the things we hold in common: that we worship none but God; that we make none God’s equal; and that we take no other as lord except God” (3:64).
Of course, the Muslim scriptural and legal scholars of the following centuries rejected the idea that Jews and Christians were part of the umma, and instead marked both groups as unbelievers. These scholars read the revelations to say that the Qur’an had superseded, rather than added to, the Torah and the Gospels, and called on Muslims to distinguish themselves from the People of the Book. But to understand Muhammad’s actual beliefs regarding the Jews and Christians of his time, one must look not to the words that chroniclers put into his mouth hundreds of years after his death, but rather to the words that legend says God put into his mouth while he was alive.
* Reza Aslan is Professor of Creative Writing at UC Riverside and Trustee at the Chicago Theological Seminary.
© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2014. All rights reserved.