The Arabic word "ummah" as it is used in these verses means: "people united by faith". This particular meaning for the word "ummah" is often see in the Qur'ân. For instance, Allah says: "Humanity was a single ummah and Allah sent Messengers with glad tidings and warnings..." [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 213]
"This ummah of yours is a single ummah, and I am your Lord, so worship me." [Sûrah al-Anbiyâ': 92]
This verse is preceded by a lengthy account where Allah relates to us the stories of various prophets like Moses, Abraham, Jesus, Zachariah, John, and others (peace be upon them all). Then Allah praises them, mentioning Mary, the mother of Jesus along with them, though she was not a Prophet, and concludes by saying: "This ummah of yours is a single ummah, and I am your Lord, so worship me."
This context allows for two possible interpretations. The first is that the Prophets themselves are a single ummah, and the second is that the verse is talking about the followers of the final Prophet.
The commentators of the Qur'ân differ on this matter. The best interpretation in my view - and Allah knows best - is that these verses establish the fact that the ummah is one ummah, giving all the stages of development that it has gone through during the course of history, starting with Adam and culminating with Muhammad (peace be upon them both). Muhammad (peace be upon him) was the Seal of the Prophets and their leader in this world and the Hereafter. The ummah of Muhammad (peace be upon him) is the best and last ummah. It has inherited the guidance and teachings of all the Prophets who came before it.
No other ummah since the time of Muhammad (peace be upon him) has ever carried with it anything like the illumination of the Qur'ân, the book that Allah has protected from corruption and alteration. It is the book about which Allah says:
"Fasehood cannot approach it from before it or from behind it." [Sûrah Fussilat: 42]
"We have indeed sent down the Message, and We are indeed its guardians." [Sûrah al-Hijr: 9]
This ummah that, from generation to generation, represents the values set forth in the Qur'ân, carries out its commandments and eschews what it prohibits, no matter how imperfectly, is superior to every other scriptural ummah. It retains within its active life the knowledge, guidance, and faith of the Prophets to a degree that no other nation can boast. It carries with it a light by which it would completely reform itself if it would only act upon it. This light is the Qur'ân and Sunnah.
Then Allah says:
"But they were cut off from one another in the matter of their unity, and yet they will all return to Us." [Sûrah al-Anbiyâ': 93]
Here Allah is speaking about the scriptural communities that came before and how they fell into division and disputations. It is a warning for the Muslim ummah that it must remain a single ummah and strive to maintain its unity and not share the fate of the People of the Book who had been united in faith at one time, then fell into dispute, each faction taking with it a part of the truth.
Allah has established the bonds of brotherhood between the believers. The Prophet
(peace be upon him) stressed this relationship on many occasions when he talked
about the rights a Muslim has on his brother Muslim. Some of these rights are
1. Rights on the heart. By these I mean the love and affection that a Muslim must
harbor in his heart for his fellow Muslim. He should avoid beings suspicious of
his brother and harbor no malice towards him in his heart. A Muslim should share
in his fellow Muslim's joys and sorrows. When a Muslim learns of something good
that has befallen his brethren, he should rejoice. He should feel as if he were
the recipient of such good fortune. Likewise, he should feel the pain of his fellow
Muslims anywhere in the world who have been stricken by tragedy. He should feel
the pain when Muslim women are being raped or when a Muslim country is being afflicted
with hardships or attacked. This grief and commiseration is the least of his obligations
towards his fellow Muslims in such times. Allah has not commanded us merely to
feel grief. However, such grief is the fuel that carries people to action.
2. Rights on the Tongue. Your fellow Muslim has the right upon you that you return
the greeting of peace when he greets you. You should pray for Allah's mercy upon
him when he sneezes. You must praise him when he does something deserving of praise.
You must teach him when he is ignorant. You must enjoin what is right and forbid
what is wrong. You must pray for him.
These are all outward expressions of the feelings that you must cultivate in your
heart for your fellow Muslims. Praying for them is not a minor thing. Allah might
remove some affliction from the Muslim Ummah because of your prayer. Allah commands
us in the Qur'ân to pray to Him and tells us that he will answer our prayers.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "Supplication is worship."
[Sunan al-Tirmidhî (3247) and Sunan Abî Dâwûd (1479)]
If nothing comes out of all of these feelings and all these good words but a true
realization of belonging to this Ummah, then that would be enough. A person cannot
rightly claim to belong to this Ummah and fail to share in any aspect of life
with its other members, neither feeling joy at the Ummah's success or sadness
when tragedy befalls it. We must identify with our religion and feel for our brothers
and sisters in faith, and profess this with our tongues. The least we can manage
is to speak the truth publicly and offer prayers for our fellow Muslims when we
3. Rights on the Purse Strings. These include the duties of Zakâh and of
charity that are imposed upon us. We must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and
fulfill all the other rights that Allah has granted to our fellow Muslims with
respect to our wealth. Allah says: "And in their
wealth, the beggar and the needy have their rights." [Sûrah al-Dhâriyât:
19] Some scholars have said that there are rights on money
other than the prescribed Zakât tax. There are times of hardship, poverty,
and severe need when those who enjoy affluence must spend their wealth to support
and assist their brothers.
4. Rights on the Body. These include the rights other Muslims have on you that
you defend them when they are oppressed, secure their release when they are war
captives, provide relief for them when they are in desperation, and give to them
all possible assistance.
There is another way to categorize these rights besides the breakdown given above.
It is the idea of the hierarchy of needs that is articulated by many contemporary
scholars. The fundamental human needs can be broken down into five categories:
Physiological needs: These include the need for food, drink, clothing, shelter,
and marriage. If a person is deprived of such things, he must occupy himself with
securing them and can provide no service to the Ummah, his country, or his family.
Therefore, these things are his primary rights. We find the same consideration
given to them in the Qur'ân.
Safety needs: A person must feel secure in his basic needs, like food clothing,
and shelter and not fear being deprived of them. He must also live free from fear
of physical and psychological abuse. We find in the Qur'ân many verses like
"Who provides them with food against hunger and with security
against fear." [Sûrah Quraysh: 4] Allah begins with survival needs
and then moves on to safety needs. In another verse, Allah
says: "Allah sets forth a parable: a city enjoying security and quiet,
supplied with sustenance from every place. Yet it was ungrateful for the favors
of Allah, so Allah made it taste of hunger and fear because of what its people
wrought." [Sûrah al-Nahl: 112] A person living in fear
is unable to be productive or do anything positive.
Belonging (love) needs: Allah created the human being as a social creature. People
crave the company of others. Some people, if denied the ability to interact with
others for a protracted period of time, may even die. Once there was a king of
Cyprus who collected a group of children and placed each one of them in total
isolation, providing for their every need but not speaking to them or allowing
them to speak to anyone else. Eventually, all the children died.
You can often see a person telling his troubles to someone else, but he is not
complaining as much as he is getting his troubles off his chest to a sympathetic
ear. A person has a need to belong and cannot live without others.
We can observe how the Qur'ân addresses people collectively:
"O humanity" "O believers" "By time. Truly humanity is
at loss, except those who exhort each other to truth and exhort each other to
patience." "Say to the believers: lower your gases." "Help
each other in righteousness and in fearing Allah and do not assist each other
in sin and transgression."
All of this alludes to the human need to belong. It also shows us that the full
meaning of Islam cannot be realized without this need being fulfilled. Prayer
is a congregational duty. So is the pilgrimage. In Ramadân, we fast together.
We cannot put the moral values of Islam into practice without living in a community.
How can we show kindness, patience, generosity, and courage without interacting
Esteem needs. A human being, after belonging to this Ummah, has a natural need
to be esteemed by others who also belong to it. He must feel useful and valuable
and that he has some impact on those around him. When needs are not fulfilled,
people sometimes resort to destructive and irrational behavior in order to assert
We can see how Allah's Messenger (peace be upon him) used to praise different
people, tribes, ethnic groups, and countries. He pointed out the efforts of different
individuals. We see this often in the Sunnah. Some scholars have written books
just on this topic. Ahmad b. Hanbal wrote a book entitled The Virtues of the Companions
wherein he records many of the words of praise the Prophet (peace be upon him)
offered to His Companions. It is a great honor indeed for a person when Allah's
Messenger (peace be upon him) praises him.
Moreover, Allah praises the Companions in the Qur'ân: He says: "Allah
has turned in favor to the Prophet, the Emigrants, and the Helpers" [Sûrah
We see that the Prophet (peace be upon him) would praise those who were new to
Islam. Sometimes he would do so indirectly, like when he said, before entering
Mecca: "Anyone who enters the home of Abû Sufyân will be safe."
[Sahîh Muslim (1780)] He mentioned the home of Abû Sufyan
specifically out of respect, though he had also said: "Anyone who closes
the door to his home will be safe, and anyone who enters the mosque will be safe."
[Sunan Abî Dâwûd (3022)] We cannot expect anyone to
leave his home or the mosque and prefer to seek safety in Abû Sufyân's
house? The Prophet (peace be upon him) made specific mention of Abû Sufyân
to acknowledge him, since he had just accepted Islam. Likewise, he reconciled
the hearts of many people by giving them gifts and acknowledging them in other
ways. A person's reputation has no less value to him than material wealth. A person's
need for esteem is a natural part of his makeup that Allah has placed within him.
Therefore, Allah's Law comes with what protects and completes this esteem.
Self-Actualization. A person needs to be self-actualized. This is an internal
calling. Islam seeks to enhance this need, channel it, and bring it to fulfillment.
We find that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "When a person dies, his
deeds end, except for three: charity that continues to benefit people, knowledge
that he taught which continues to provide benefit, and a pious child who prays
for him." [Sunan al-Tirmidhî (1376)] and Sunan al-Nasâ'î
(3651)] Many are inspired by these words and try to increase their efforts
and their productivity, seeking to immortalize themselves with their deeds, hoping
for their reward with Allah. People seek to leave behind some works of charity
that will continue long after they die to benefit people. Others seek to impart
useful knowledge. People seek to raise pious children who will carry on their
legacy and pray for them after they die.