The State and the Umma

February 22, 2023

Bilal Muhammad is a Fellow and Research Assistant at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He is also an MA Candidate at the University of Ottawa Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, B.Ed at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and Honors BA in Political Science and History at the University of Toronto. He is an educator and researcher based in Toronto, Canada.

The State and the Umma

Aristotle begins the third book in Politics with an inquiry into the definition of citizenship. He correctly points out that a citizen cannot simply be one who lives within a geographical boundary, nor can a citizen simply be hereditary.[1] Indeed, there are always cases where a slave, a foreign diplomat, a foreign businessman, an enemy captive, or a refugee reside within a polis, and it is unreasonable to afford them the exact same rights and responsibilities that citizens have. With hereditary citizenship, Aristotle points out that hereditary status can become irrelevant in times of revolution and constitutional change, where the body of citizens changes.

He provides his own criteria for a citizen: one who participates in the legislation and the administration of the polis.[2] The citizen possesses the ability to both rule and be ruled, govern and be governed. He must also be someone with the leisure time required to cultivate virtue and devote themselves to the affairs of the state. This means that a citizen must be a natural master, who usually has a woman to tend to his children and a slave to tend to his property. After all, Aristotle believed that only men had the vision and the craft needed for politics.

Since a citizen for Aristotle is one who has “the power to take part in the deliberative or judicial administration” of a state,[3] this would automatically exclude most of the populace. Some modern countries have restrictive criteria for citizenship, while others only mandate obeying the law, paying taxes, and serving on a jury (if applicable). Citizens today are often encouraged to vote and be involved in the community. Some countries require their citizens to serve in the military or receive training. But direct democracy is seldom practiced in the world today – instead, modern democracies prefer representative democracy, where a professional politician advocates for their constituents’ interest.

Direct Democracy and Representative Democracy

Both direct and representative democracies have their advantages and disadvantages. A direct democracy encourages its citizens to be informed enough to debate and vote issue-by-issue. They feel free and effective, because they are not just one of millions of voters in a system with a handful of parties – they witness the fruit of their own political handiwork. Direct democracy is, however, time-consuming because of the frequency of meetings and votes. It is hard enough for modern democracies to get a majority of their citizens to vote once every four years; so, a direct democracy would inevitably be governed by a small group of very interested people with ample free time. Individuals are also more likely to vote on self-interest, as they would not typically vote for a necessary thing that requires a personal sacrifice. Individuals could also easily be bribed or manipulated by special interests, especially because they have no loyalty to a specific party or even a specific wing of the political spectrum. Direct democracies also have the potential for instability if the population must vigorously debate each issue. Not all citizens are equipped to make informed decisions on foreign policy, economics, education, health care, security, traffic, and mundane bureaucratic matters.

Representative democracies require only the occasional input of citizens. Politics is handled by popular representatives and competent bureaucrats, who keep the machine running on a day-to-day basis. Representatives are expected to have party discipline, which means that they usually vote along party lines. They may be more difficult to bribe or manipulate (though American politics really tests this thesis). The disadvantage to representative democracy, in comparison to direct democracy, is that the population is detached from the political process, which evolves in spite of them. In many cases, they are woefully ignorant of their surroundings, especially when partisan gridlocks obfuscate political issues. Representatives must secure the trust of their constituents, or else confidence will be lost in the system as a whole. This is difficult if they are making campaign promises that they don’t intend to keep in order to secure votes. Lastly, representative democracies often reward charisma over pragmatism – election campaigns favour good looks, rhetoric, elocution, resources, and pandering over intellect and moral fibre.

Transitions of Power

Some countries have attempted hybrids of both direct and representative democracy to varying success. For a democracy to hypothetically succeed, a polis requires a democratic culture. This includes a respect for the peaceful transition of power, where an incumbent administration is willing to hand over the keys to an incoming administration without any trouble. In this scenario, outgoing administrations would also be mostly immune from punishment for decisions made in office. Although peaceful transitions are taken for granted in many places, they are the historical exception and not the general rule. Even today, democracies and systems with term limits in Africa, such as in Burkina Faso, Niger, Zambia, Nigeria, and Malawi, have seen uprisings, coups, and attempts to hold onto power.[4] We even saw a rocky transition in the United States in 2021 with the January 6 riot in Washington. In Pakistan, leaders and opposition figures are regularly deposed after elections, including Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, and Asif Ali Zardari.

Without peaceful transitions, an election campaign can be a recipe for fragmentation, where various groups mobilize and energize their support base against one another. In most societies, divisive rhetoric between factions can indeed lead to physical violence. Western liberalism’s ability to retain stability and peace throughout cycles of elections is like catching lightning in a bottle, and it should not be underestimated. But this fine-tuned machine did not just spring into existence on its own: it took Europe centuries of war, revolution, tyranny, nationalism, genocide, independence movements, ideological experiments, and imperialism to achieve the fragile but potent order that it enjoys today. Hundreds of millions of people were slaughtered in the birth pangs of liberalism. Attempts to ferment democracy in the developing world, including the Muslim world, usually fail, because democratic cultures evidently require centuries of painful development to materialize. Western attempts to impose liberal democracy on Muslim countries by force have universally failed.

As a sidenote, it is important to highlight the difference between a philosophical analysis of democracy and a historical one. The past failings of some democracies in some areas does not necessarily cancel out the concept or legitimacy of democracy. Other modes of analysis must also be employed. For example: is the problem of peaceful transition in representative democracies innate to the nature of democracy? Or are these problems based on historical contingencies? Can political theory be evaluated purely from a historicist lens? Regardless to how we may answer these questions, the history of how we got to where we are is still relevant.

The Civic Religion

Secular democratic ideals were not always adopted organically in Europe. Napoleon’s career and resulting Code are a good case study on how liberal statism can be spread by the sword, replacing feudal monarchies with nation states with a centralized government, central bank, modern citizenship laws, and a higher education system. Before that, the French Revolution “invented not only the nation-state but the modern institution and ideology of national citizenship”[5] – not ex nihilo, but within the frame of a modern territorial nation state. In turn, the French Revolution stripped the once powerful Catholic Church of its executive authority, its property, and tens of thousands of its priests. Dechristianization quickly swept France, resulting in the destruction of churches, iconography, crosses, bells, as well as summary executions and the exiling of nonjuring priests. The French state then sponsored the short-lived atheistic Cult of Reason and deistic Cult of the Supreme Being. The Revolution permanently broke the back of the Catholic Church in Europe. In 1905, France officially separated Church from State entirely.

With that, a new religion was eventually born: a “civil religion”[6] or “civic religion”[7] called laïcité. Laïcité is sometimes translated as secularism, but it is more accurately described as the civic French religion that substitutes conventional religions, which have restrictions in the public space.[8] One exception is that France owns and maintains historic churches, not necessarily because the French state is motivated by a confessional intention, but because these buildings are markers of French history and identity. The term laïcité was coined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau to describe what he saw as the moral foundation essential for any modern society.[9] The civic religion is expressed through public rituals (such as anthems and oaths of allegiance), symbols (such as the national flag), and ceremonies on sacred days and at sacred places (such as monuments, battlefields, and national cemeteries). There is a veneration of past leaders and the use of the lives of these leaders to teach moral ideals. There are mythologized, exaggerated, one-sided tales about great leaders and events. There is an expressed reverence for the language, the state and its martyrs. Religions don’t have to be theistic to be considered religions: some forms of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Jainism do not require the belief in a supreme deity. Even modern religions like Scientology and Satanism do not believe in God. Secular nationalism and secular humanism have many of the components of a religion, including institutional authorities, rituals, and value systems.

Carl Jung argues that the state can be a force for mass-mindedness and against the individual.[10] Traditional religion is then presented as a counterbalance to this mass-mindedness. This may not be as ironic as it seems, because, according to Wael Hallaq, the state can demand the sacrifice of its citizens, while Islam never requires self-sacrifice.[11] The modern state sometimes takes the place of God: it tries to be omniscient, omnipresent, and benevolent, but it demands your loyalty and your tithes. It offers reward and punishment to its subjects. It proselytizes through hard and soft power. Its worship is also expressed through marches, taxes, conscription (and therefore self-sacrifice), and courts. While organized religion has its own group-mindedness and hierarchy, Jung points out that there is also one’s personal salvific relationship with God and one’s individual religious experience. In Islam, there is one’s relationship with his nafs as a microcosm (through self-knowledge, self-jihad and self-improvement), one’s critical thinking process (via mantiq, kalam, falsafa, and scholarly khilaf), one’s dreaming and inspiration, and one’s personal exegesis and interpretation of scripture. In this sense, Islam fits the individual as well as the group.

Whilst other countries have been described as having a civic religion, like the United States[12] and the late Soviet Union,[13] none quite take the cake like France, which has even banned oversized crosses, Jewish yarmulkes, and hijabs in public schools. This law (called Law 2004-228 of 15 March 2004) disproportionately targets Muslims, because Christians have no obligation to wear oversized crosses, and Jews have greater opportunities to enroll children in private Jewish religious schools owing to their long presence in the country.[14] In a word, France can be described as “the Wahabis of secularism”. The civic god is a jealous god that requires all other religions to yield to it. Dechristianization in France, in some sense, resembled the iconoclasm of some Christianization campaigns in the past.

The State in Context

In a modern world of states, institutions, NGOs, militias, and communities, the state is the highest actor on the international stage – every other actor is, theoretically, below the state. In the absence of a world government or empires, this makes sense. However, what secularism, nationalism, and civic religion does is turn the state into an end in and of itself rather than a means. For Aristotle, the polis is a means for humans to reach their end (telos), because man is a social and political animal, and the polis exists to facilitate human survival and happiness. Aristotle claims in his Nicomachean Ethics that happiness (eudaimonia) is the end (telos) of action (praxis).[15] Even in Metaphysics, he says that the final cause is an end that all other causes exist for the sake of.[16] The civic religion sacralizes the state, even though many states in the past derived their legitimacy from God. Greek city-states had patron gods, the Roman empire had the imperial cult of divinely-sanctioned authority (auctoritas), Persia had divine kings (khvarenah), and Europe had the political doctrine of the divine right of kings. Before the French Revolution, the French monarch was considered the ordained representative and image of God. Even the American Declaration of Independence cites the Creator. Of course, divine right sets itself up for exploitation because leaders become no longer accountable to earthly checks on their power; and a corrupt, power-hungry leader would jump at the opportunity of being considered a god. In the Qurʾan, Pharaoh even proclaimed to be the Most High God (79:24). But with secular states, we now have a problem: where do states derive their legitimacy from, and is the state its own end?

Some may retort by saying that the state’s legitimacy rests on the citizens’ perception of it. However: (1) it is the government of a state that defines the criteria for citizenship, (2) both governments and states rarely dismantle themselves when the numerical majority of their citizens are dissatisfied with them, (3) some state actors sacrifice their citizens to preserve the state, to which the citizens’ perception of the state means little in practical terms, (4) without an objective metric for good and bad governance, in a postmodern world, who gets to decide which states are legitimate and which are not? (5) should there be a difference between how immigrants and dual citizens view the state, considering the possibility of dual allegiance? (6) is there anything more precious to the state than itself?

The understated reality is that the modern nation state is a construct that was imposed on the Muslim world after colonization. The modern nation state is grounded in an ethnic identity, it has a central government that has a greater capacity to intervene in social and individual life, it operates under an assumption of international legal sovereignty and the juridical equivalence of states,[17] it has more fixed boundaries, it seeks monopoly and homogenization within its territory,[18] and it includes executive, legislative, and judicial bodies. The modern nation state is probably more organic to a post-Peace of Westphalia Europe, where it was crafted. The nation state, as understood today, is not what existed in the pre-colonial Muslim world, nor what existed in Aristotle’s time.

Hallaq writes, “The genealogy of European state discipline was inextricably tied to the rise of powerful monarchs whose main concern had been to tighten their hold over their populations while enriching their coffers.”[19] Sometimes, a state’s claim to legitimacy is more potent than its actual capabilities. States create a socially constructed nationalism that most people just accept at face value. So long as governments can keep up the façade, they gather more money and guns to maintain power. According to Neorealist Structuralists, on the international stage, states behave rationally – in a cost-benefit manner – to gain more power in their competition with other states. States do not adhere to a higher ethic, but instead, they are solely interested in upping their capabilities and resources. To quote Hallaq, “the Aristotelian final cause” of a state’s existence “is nothing more than its perpetual existence. The nation-state exists for its own sake. It is a means to no other end.”[20]

For liberals, this is not much of a problem, because the legitimacy of a liberal democracy is not based in objective metrics. Liberalism starts from notions of liberty. Thus, a serious question I have is: should states derive their legitimacy from higher principles? Past civilizations at least had an objective truth claim, and they avoided these circularities. Again, for Aristotle, the state has an end goal, and that is for man to reach his utmost potential – that is why he wanted men to be directly involved in the political process and moral development. Today, however, the state runs whether or not citizens participate in it; and the maximum participation that most citizens will enjoy is casting one of millions of ballots every few years (if that). That is a far cry from Aristotle’s idea that a citizen is to govern and be governed. In the meantime, states usually get to decide the legitimacy of other states, in an almost Darwinian process; and a state must ontologically put itself over any citizen. Humans today must be citizens of some kind, because there is no space outside of a state – a person cannot, for any reason, exit state-based affiliation.[21]

The Umma Transcends the State

Yann Martel has Pi say in Life of Pi, “If there’s only one nation in the sky, shouldn’t all passports be valid for it?” Outside of the realm of states, we have an Umma, and the two testimonies of the declaration of faith are sufficient to qualify for entry. Unlike many ancient societies, including Aristotle’s, becoming a member of the Islamic Umma is incredibly simple. Once one bears witness that there is but one God and that Muhammad is a prophet of God, they receive the full rights and privileges of a Muslim, including the security of their life and property, the protection of their honour, the sanctity and security of their privacy, and countless others. Their racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds do not matter. They can partake in the judicial system, the military, Islamic marriages, clergy, and halal businesses as equals. Their salaam is responded to, they are visited in their illness, their invitations are to be accepted, and the organization of their funeral is incumbent upon the community.

In this sense, the Umma is a different kind of body politic which transcends statehood. It is non-ethnic, it lacks a totalizing government, it is not seen as an equal to existing nation states, it does not arrogate legitimacy through the international system, and it does not have a fixed territory. Yet, it offers rights and duties to its members. In a sense, the closest thing the Umma can be compared to is the Corpus Christi, and even the Prophet Muhammad (s) compared his Umma to a suffering body.[22] The Umma even has the potential to go above states in the international realm, as it is larger than any single state, it has influence over dozens of states, it is not required to behave rationally in competition with states (rat choice), and it is not limited to the same rules as states. This would be a controversial suggestion in international relations theory, but it is a suggestion worth being taken seriously.

The easiness of conversion opens itself up to some danger; namely, the entry of hypocrites into the religion. Religions with a stricter conversion process are more capable of weeding-out less serious or subversive actors. It is the same with nation states. However, Islam gives the benefit of the doubt to converts, because even if they convert for practical reasons, their participation in an Islamic society (through public prayer services, weekly sermons, annual fasts, ritual practices of tahara, diet, and modesty, Islamic marriage and business) would have a gradual affect on them, their children, and generations to come. The conversion process gets them through the door. Even a hypocrite publicly leads an Islamic lifestyle, and they add to the Umma’s population and influence.

On the other hand, today’s Muslim nation states are usually far less open to immigration and naturalization than liberal states. For example, Iran’s Civil Code makes it difficult for most non-Iranians to obtain citizenship (including, in some cases, individuals born to an Iranian mother and a non-Iranian father).[23] According to the same Article, the Iranian state has the right to reject any person who is already a citizen of another country. While the Islamic Republic of Iran employs rhetoric claiming to be the government of God, the government of the Hidden Imam, and the government of Muslims, its citizenship laws are not much different from secular nation states. When I have brought up this point to ardent supporters of the Islamic Republic in the past, the responses were concerning. One PressTV employee told me, “The reformists and nationalists are powerful in the Iranian parliament, and they do not want to give Iranian citizenship to Afghan refugees – including the families of those Afghans that served Iranian interests in Syria.” Another said, “the revolution is to be exported to other nation states” (which implicitly and uncritically endorses the concept of a nation state). Among lay supporters, the responses were even more alarming: “we do not want race-mixing in Iran, because it will lead to genetic problems.” Another said, “immigrants would refuse to integrate, and they would form a fifth column in the country.” Even American Republicans seldom speak this way proudly in public. Indeed, Western democracies have made meritocratic immigration a lucrative endeavour, as it brings demographic balance, wealth, innovation, and jobs into the country. There is no shortage of young, wealthy, educated Shiʿa Muslim individuals and families around the world who will support Iran to their dying breath, yet Iran has no plan to offer them citizenship. It seems that, even after nearly half a century of Islamic rule, Iran has not broken away from colonial notions of citizenship.

Perhaps coincidentally, Khomeini’s theory of international relations comes very close to the neorealist model. For Khomeini, the state protects the obligatory acts (fara’idh) of the religion, and therefore the state must act pragmatically, in a cost-benefit manner, so that the state does not collapse and the fara’idh of Islam remain protected.[24] Thus, the end result is a state whose foreign policy is not guided by ethics, but purely by power relations. A similar argument was made by the Fatimid theologian Mu’ayyad al-Din al-Shirazi (d. 1078 AD), who said that the institution of caliphate protects the pillars and obligations of Islam, while the Twelver Shiʿa, who did not have an apparent caliph, were vulnerable to losing their practices.[25] The irony here is that it was the Ismailis who would later abandon (or radically reinterpret) the pillars of Islam, and the Twelvers who would retain them until modern times.

For Hallaq, after colonialism, the shariʿa became “a source” of law[26] (among others, like the Napoleonic code), and then it ironically became a feature of certain modern nation states. As a mere feature, the shariʿa becomes a gimmick that governments use to promote themselves when it is fashionable.

A universal truism of constitutional democracies today is the separation of executive, legislation, and judicial bodies of government.[27] The degree of separation, however, is a point of disagreement that confounds constitutional scholarship; and some see it more as a “distribution of power” than a true separation.[28] The state ends up creating, interpreting, and enforcing laws, based on the input of the populace or not. Premodern Islamic governments (“states”), however, were “not the repository of religious authority.”[29] Unlike liberal states, the moral-legal structure (shariʿa) of an Islamic society is rooted in a metaphysical framework, where God is the Legislator and the rightful Sovereign over all things. The shariʿa is not defined by the executive or the state, but “the Community, the common social world, organically (sic.) produced its own legal experts”.[30] The jurists were local civic leaders that took legal precedents not from courts of law but from juristic writings.[31] Law and society were “inextricably close”, without the barrier of lawyers and legal nomenclature, and with a “nonexistent” gap between courts and consumers of the law.[32] The law was a lived and living tradition, legal knowledge was widespread and free, and legal fees were remarkably low – all of which is good for poorer and marginalized communities. Law and court procedures was entirely the business of the shariʿa, the judges, and the jurists – not the state.

Historically, yes, executives did appoint and dismiss judges, but they were not to interfere in proceedings at all.[33] After all, ordinary, fallible rulers are not pharaohs who rule by a claim to divine right. The unique freedom enjoyed by Muslim judges, jurists, and courts would inevitably result in some asymmetry between cases in the absence of state involvement, but perhaps, when put in context, this is a cost worth enduring.

For Aristotle, the citizen should be involved in legislation and administration. An Islamic nomocracy interweaves citizens with the shariʿa. They are not just voting every four years – their involvement in the shariʿa is daily and hourly, and they can play a seamless role in the juristic process. This involvement is not just limited to free rich men either. Neither the citizen nor the sultan creates morality, because that is the remit of the Creator alone. Campaign financing, campaign rhetoric, and campaign promises hold no weight in the interpretation and implementation of the shariʿa. During times of war, poverty, instability, and political transition, Islamic courts require very little overhead cost and regulation, as they are run locally, and penalties can be implemented on-site, without the need for a prison-industrial complex. The Umma in Islam is not its own ends, but an organizational steward at the behest of the shariʿa. It does not create its own civic religion, nor does it try to be omniscient, because that is not the proper role of a community.

The Umma is itself an international community that manifests itself outwardly wherever it can. It is a body of brethren that governs and is governed. Each member is required to set his house in order, cultivate virtue, and dedicate himself to the affairs of the Umma. It can use either direct or representative apparatuses and institutions. It is not limited to Greek nor Jew, bond nor free, male nor female – all are one body, together.




[1] Aristotle, Politics, Book 3, Part 1-4.

[2] Ibid, Part 1.

[3] Ibid, Part 1.


[5] William Rogers Brubaker, “The French Revolution and the Invention of Citizenship”, French Politics and Society, Vol. 7, No. 3, pp. 30.

[6] Blandine Chelini-Point, Is laïcité the civil religion of France?,

[7] Charles G. Cogan, The French Civic Religion: It’s Called Laïcité,

[8] Ibid.

[9] Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book 4, Chapter 8.

[10] Carl Jung, “Religion as the counterbalance to mass-mindedness”, The Undiscovered Self, pp. 13-21.

[11] Wael Hallaq, The Impossible State, pp. 29-30, 69-70.

[12] Raymond Haberski Jr., Civil Religion in America,

[13] Nina Tumarkin, Lenin Lives! The Lenin Cult in Soviet Russia.

[14] Jennifer Fredette, Examining the French Hijab and Burqa Bans through Reflexive Cultural Judgment,

[15] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1097b22.

[16] Aristotle, Metaphysics, A2, 994b9.

[17] Hendrik Spruyt, “The Origins, Development, and Possible Decline of the Modern State”, Annual Review of Political Science, 5 (1), pp. 127–149.

[18] Josep M. Colome, “Empires Versus States”, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics.

[19] Wael Hallaq, The Impossible State, pp. 74.

[20] Ibid, pp. 29.

[21] Ibid, pp. 68, 78.

[22] Bukhari, Sahih, hadith 6011.

[23] Article 976

[24] Hamid Mavani, “Ayatullah Khomeini’s Concept of Governance (wilayat al-faqih) and the Classical Shi‘i Doctrine of Imamate”, pp. 2.

[25] Mu’ayyad al-Din al-Shirazi, Majalis, assembly 231.

[26] Wael Hallaq, The Impossible State, pp. 12-13.

[27] Ibid, pp. 36.

[28] Ibid, pp. 37-38.

[29] Sherman Jackson, Islamic Law and the State, pp. 224.

[30] Wael Hallaq, The Impossible State, pp. 44.

[31] Ibid, pp. 45.

[32] Ibid, pp.46.

[33] Ibid, pp. 49-50.

Published Date: February 22, 2023

Bilal Muhammad

Bilal Muhammad is a Fellow and Research Assistant at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He is also an MA Candidate at the University of Ottawa Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, B.Ed at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and Honors BA in Political Science and History at the University of Toronto. He is an educator and researcher based in Toronto, Canada.
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