Algeria, the Caliphate and the Ummah

Ali Harfouch asks what does the Algerian soccer team’s goal against Germany, the announcement of a “Caliphate “ in Iraq and Syria, and the strikes against Gaza have in common?

The answer can be discerned from the global responses from Muslim communities around the world to these seemingly mutually non-exclusive events. A pervasive and perennial affiliation with a global community, the Ummah, continues to dominate the Muslim consciousness, one which transcends national-identity and ethnic or tribal affiliations

Muslims around the world rallied around Algerian national team during its matches in the World Cup, for no reason other than the fact that the team was from a Muslim country.

Spectators around the world responded both positively and negatively, to the announcement of a “Caliphate” precisely because the Caliphate is a normative issue par excellence in that the Caliphate represents Muslims by virtue of their religious-identity in contradistinction to the nation-state which represents Muslims only insofar as they belong to a particular nation in the way that Egypt represents Muslims in Egypt and Syria represents Muslims in Syria.

Similarly, the strikes against Gaza engendered outcry and condemnation from across the Muslim world, far beyond Gaza and the West Bank.

The Ummah

Western observers find this transnational phenomenon hard to understand, basing their reductive conclusions on analytical and interpretive frameworks which identify national-identity (and consequently national-interest) and material factors as the primary origins of political discourse(s), action and sentiments. The role of ideas on the other hand is relegated to a secondary status.

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Purely strategic and material interests however, or national-identity, fails to explain why multitudes of Muslims around the world affiliate with one another, even when belonging to different continents and races.


What is it that drives non-Syrian young men to leave the “luxuries” of Europe, the United States and the Gulf and take up arms in Syria? Dismissing it as being symptomatic of “extremist ideology” is both naive and misses the point. Sentiments, discourse(s) and action do not exist independently of the ideas that drive them. That idea being; the Ummah , an idea that is symbolically powerful and fundamentally political in nature.

That is not to say however that the concept of the Ummah is exclusionary or utopian in nature. Historically, it accommodated a diversity of cultures, tribal affiliations and geopolitical difference, the key point however is that it remained hegemonic and transformed cultures and pre-existing norms in order to conform to the moral and political precepts of Islam, making it both hegemonic and inclusive at once.

But why was this concept transformative and hegemonic, to the extent that it radically altered pre-existing norms whereas Christianity (as a marker of identity) did not transform the socio-political and economic reality of its time but was transformed by it? It is primarily because of the normative requirements of identifying with the Ummah and the historical realization of those normative requirements.

Associating with the Ummah meant associating oneself with the political manifestations of the Ummah; the Islamic State or the Caliphate and that one was bound by a universal set of legal rulings derived from a source which Muslims believe transcends space and time; the Qur’an and Sunnah.

The nation state

The nation-state and national-identity persist and remain robustly entrenched, not because of their ideological coherency, nor conviction on part of the Muslim world but because they are “matters of fact”, vestiges of colonialism that are only as deep as the “deep-states” which preserve them (also known as an Authoritarian Bargain).

Ironically, they are as ideologically legitimate as Islamist make them to be – meaning, the extent to which they conform to Islam. In other words, the nation-state in the Arab-Muslim world does not draw its legitimacy from its own metaphysics (as is the case in the Western world), but from an external criterion; an Islamic worldview.

From the onset, ideologues like Hassan al-Banna, Abu Ala al-Mawdudi and others, had to defend the universality and Islamicity of the “nation” as a primary-mode of organization in order to legitimize their accomodationalist approach and pragmatic discourse. Al-Banna, for example, considered the “nation” to be natural, timeless and our identification with a “nation” was understood to be part of divinely-endowed fitrah (i.e. our natural primordial state and disposition).

Western policy-makers and observers must come to terms with this phenomenon by understanding the normative basis and ideological origins of concepts that shape the Muslims’ consciousness. Realist and Liberal analytical frameworks fall short of doing so and are in need of critically reevaluation, all the way down to their epistemic assumptions and Eurocentricity.

And they must do so, not for the sake of mere theoretical amusement or insight, but because this concept, the Ummah, will continue to shape the Muslim world.

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