Most probably in 1987, I was traveling with Professor Piscatori, the author of Islam in a World of Nation-States (1986) from UK to Morocco for a conference. During the flight we had a long discussion on the concept of Ummah and Islamic brotherhood. He was very skeptic about the efficacy of this concept in the current world of nationalism that was moving fast toward transnationalism. After a long flight and equally long discussion we landed at the Tangiers airport. Together, we approached the immigration counters. He had American passport and required no visa to enter Morocco. He went through immigration within no time. I had the Moroccan visa stamped on my Pakistani passport and all my papers were complete but it took me about half an hour to complete immigration formalities answering questions about the purpose of my visit and so on. The immigration authorities did not feel the need to ask Piscatori such questions. When I came out he was waiting for me. Laughingly, he remarked, “So where is your Ummah?” I was too exhausted to answer this question. Coming out of the airport, we took a taxi. Piscatori settled the terms with the taxi driver in fluent Arabic and we climbed into the car. Piscatori still wanted me to answer his question about Ummah. The driver looked in the mirror and said, “India?” probably asking me if I came from India. I said, “Pakistan”. The driver said, “Muslim?” I nodded my head. “Alhamdu Lillah” his voice seemed vibrating with joy. We exchanged some words about Pakistan, its beautiful cities and its political leaders in the same broken language. The driver gave some tips about Tangiers, about hotels and weather. I then turned to Piscatori, “You asked me about the Ummah. Well, this is the Ummah”. I was pointing to this instant brotherhood bond that Islam has provided to me and the taxi driver.
I began my presentation with this story to stress the fact that brotherhood, or Ummah for that matter, is an extremely complex concept. Its referents vary from one context to the other. In fact brotherhood is an ambiguous concept because it consists of several semantic fields of equivocal meanings. The concept of brother hood, particularly that of Islamic brotherhood is even more complex as its etymology points to several layers of meanings in its history of transformation. The term is so popular and familiar that we seldom notice its ambiguity. We expect that the mere concept of brotherhood should create solidarity among Muslims and that the Muslims must unite because they are brothers. It is only when the concept does not serve our acclaimed objective that we get frustrated. Still, we grumble more about the disunity of Muslims and less about the efficacy of the concept.
We question the current situation that does not correspond with our concept of brotherhood. We rarely wonder about the ambiguity of the concept in the contemporary context. Unless we analyze the etymology of the word brotherhood and clarify the ambiguities inherent in this concept, an appeal to this term will be mere rhetoric that cannot guarantee peaceful reconciliation.
The origins of the words ‘brotherhood’ in English, ‘fraternité’ in French and Ukhuwwah or Ikha’ in Arabic are in the biological or blood relationship found between individuals from the same parents. This relationship is both male and female but the concept of brotherhood gave it a gender perspective. Some societies also used the terms sorority and sisterhood but most probably this is a modern phenomenon. Brotherhood is essentially a tribal concept that defined loyalty and solidarity as natural moral values based on ethnicity. Brotherhood is a relationship as well as an obligation that a person is born with in a tribal social setting. It was a bond between siblings to support and assist each other in all cases. The rationality of this tribal morality was this relationship. This solidarity generated other moral values like manliness, honor, generosity, bravery, sacrifice, and friendship because they reinforced tribal solidarity. They were neither ethical in the abstract sense nor were they individualistic. In fact individual has no existence outside the tribe. A person who did not belong to a tribe nor had protection from a tribe was an easy prey. The honor of a person was with the tribe. An individual must belong to one or other tribe. If he was not born into a tribe he could join it through some rituals that symbolized blood relationship. ‘Blood brother’ meant a member of a tribe who went through such a ritual ceremony. This ceremony was necessary to make this bondage more natural than a metaphor. The reason was that this new relationship demanded same loyalty and solidarity as required in a natural biological brotherhood.
Human societies underwent various social changes; social organizations and social relationships developed in diverse forms. Interestingly, however, the new relationships were often conceived and defined in the same old terms, probably because the concept of this bondage came more natural or was more forceful. We see in the medieval and early modern period various brotherhoods which were not based on biological relationship, but on different common economic, social, spiritual, mystical, and economic, trade and religious interests. These associations, fellowships, orders and secret societies were called ‘brotherhood’ and their membership was naturalized by certain initiation rituals using symbols of blood and rites of passage. This was a social transformation but it appears that it derived its strength and legitimacy from older concepts of tribal solidarity; it carried with it the sense of tribal affinity and morality. For instance, in the early period of French Revolution that summed up its objectives in the slogan “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” we see the concept of fraternity degenerating into a tribal and ethnic battle cry for solidarity against those who opposed or resisted this Revolution. We also saw nationalist movements reduced into tribal and ethnic brotherhoods that defined just and unjust in terms of their national interests. In our view, the reason for this degeneration is the ambiguity of these concepts. These concepts were not designed to denote abstract, universal moral values. They denote relationships which are essentially tribal and ethnic and their analogous use for new relationship of association reinforces the old concept of solidarity rather than the universal ethical values.
Islam transformed this tribal concept of ‘brotherhood’ into a universal ethical value. The term “rahamatan lil Alamin”, the Qur’anic description of the mission of the Prophet Muhammad is the framework in which Islam defined Islamic brotherhood. Rahma, a derivative of rahm which originally referred to the biological relationship and to the tribal value of sila rahm gave a universal ethical meaning which transcended the idea of brotherhood from Islamic brotherhood to humanity. The concept of ‘brotherhood’ in the Qur’an and Hadith connected the two poles of Islamic identity: the individual and the humanity at large. It is in essence the individual who is accountable to God in the life hereafter, and morally responsible in this world. It is not the biological relationship but the moral and personal commitment that defines the role of an individual in a brotherhood; brotherhood expresses itself as an extended self at various levels: family (sila rahm, affection), tribe, nation, ethnic bond (ta’aruf, identity), Islamic brotherhood (ikhwah, Ikhwan, affinity), and humanity (rahma, mercy compassion). Our problem is that at every stage we turn the concept into a tribal solidarity (‘asabiyya jahiliyya) and ignore the reflexive and the ethical side. Consequently, we fail to understand the Qur’anic golden rule of rahma:
إِنَّمَا الْمُؤْمِنُونَ إِخْوَةٌ فَأَصْلِحُوا بَيْنَ أَخَوَيْكُمْ وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُرْحَمُونَ
The Believers are but a single Brotherhood: So make peace and reconciliation between your two (contending) brothers; and fear Allah, that ye may receive Mercy.
Al-Qur’an, 049.010 (Al-Hujraat [The Private Apartments, The Inner Apartments])
Text Copied from DivineIslam’s Qur’an Viewer software v2.910
Dr Muhammad Khalid Masud
Chairman, Council of Islamic Ideology
International Conference of Islamic Scholars (ICIS II): “Upholding Islam as Rahmatan lil Alamin, Toward Global Justice and Peace”, Jakarta, Indonesia, 20-22 June 2006.