"This ummah of yours is a single ummah, and I am your Lord, so fear me. But they cut off their affair of unity into sects, each faction rejoicing in what it has." [Sûrah al-Mu'minûn: 52-53]
Allah precedes this verse with mention of the Prophets Moses, Aaron, and Jesus (peace be upon them all).

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]

In these verses, Allah first emphasizes that the people were one ummah and not many. Then He mentions how they broke themselves up into sects.

These verses remind us of the problem of the ideological disputes that plague the Muslim Ummah, especially when such disagreements are not based upon Islamic evidence or correct principles, but instead upon personal inclinations and misconceptions. Such disputations result in diametrically opposed viewpoints, not merely a difference of opinion.

These verses remind us of the danger of such disputations and how ideological partisanship can lead to people assuming the mantle of knowledge while only taking selectively from the Book what they want and discarding what does not support their views. These disputations can also lead to people exaggerating the importance of some matters while neglecting others. This is why Allah says: "each faction rejoicing in what it has."

The disputations being alluded to here are not tenable disagreements grounded in correct principles, the type of non-divisive disagreements that even the Companions had with each other. Instead, these sects and schisms find their internal unity not in the inviolable principles of the faith but upon exceedingly specific particulars that they exaggerate to the exclusion of everything else. They draw their identity from a particular understanding, rejecting everyone who disagrees with them. Other groups do the same, with "each faction rejoicing in what it has".

All Muslims are agreed upon the basic and unambiguous teachings of Islam. They all believe in Allah and worship Him alone without partner. They believe in His names and attributes, in His Lordship, His Divinity, and in the fact that He alone is deserving of our worship. All Muslims believe that Muhammad (peace be upon him) is the final prophet and the leader of all the Prophets. They believe that he came with the last and greatest manifestation of Allah's Law that must be followed until the end of time. All Muslims face the same direction in prayer. They all read the same Qur'ân and attest to its absolute authenticity. They all assemble on he same Plain of Arafât when they perform pilgrimage. They share a single history and a single destiny. The challenges that face the Muslims face them all. When the Muslims are attacked, everyone is affected, whether they are strong in faith or weak, knowledgeable or ignorant, righteous or sinful. This shows us how important it is for us to work to realize our common identity.

Ibn `Abbâs pointed out to us the undisputed teachings of Islam that we must rally around when he said: "In the chapter of the Qur'ân entitled 'The Cattle' (Sûrah al-An`âm), there are clear and unambiguous verses that are the foundation of the Book." Then he recited those verses. [Mustadrak al-Hâkim (2/317)]

Ibn Mas`ûd said: "Whoever wishes to read the document upon which is the seal of Allah's Messenger (peace be upon him) should read these verses." Then he recited the same verses from Sûrah al-An`âm. [Sunan al-Tirmidhî (3072)]

These verses are as follows:

"Say: Come, I will rehearse to you what Allah has really prohibited you from: Do not join with Him anything in worship. Be good to your parents. Kill not your children out of want, for We provide sustenance for you and for them. Do not approach indecent acts, whether open or in secret. Take not a life that Allah has made sacred except in the dispensation of justice. Thus does Allah command you that perhaps you may learn wisdom. And do not approach the orphan's property except to improve it until he attains the age of majority. Give full weight and measure. No burden do We place on a soul greater than it can bear. Whenever you speak, speak justly, even if a near relative is concerned, and fulfill the covenant of Allah. Thus does Allah command you that you may remember. This is My Way leading straight. Follow it. Follow not other paths. They will scatter you all away from His Path. Thus does He command you that perhaps you might fear Him." [Sûrah al-An`âm: 151-153]

Think about these commandments and how important they are to us. Think of how much of our Islamic discourse focus on these matters. We have here clear and unambiguous statements concerning our beliefs, our ethics, our deeds, and our way of life. Allah commands us to do what is good and prohibits us from what is evil. He commands us to worship Him alone and prohibits us from polytheism. Here is the basis for Muslim unity. These are the matters from which nothing can be detracted and to which nothing need be added. Everything else falls into one of the following categories:

1. People often unite around matters which are merely misguided notions, innovations, and fables that they have mistaken as part of the religion. Sometimes they treat these notions as fundamentals of the faith, making them a basis for affinity, affiliation, and enmity. Sometimes, these notions are contrary to what the Prophet (peace be upon him) came with. Such things are commonplace in most Muslim societies. Every society has baggage that it inherited from its forefathers and mistook for a part of its religion.

2. There are matters that are part of the religion - in many cases juristic opinions based on the sacred texts - but which are either subsidiary matters or matters of scholarly dispute. People have a tendency to misconstrue these as fundamentals of the faith or as indisputable facts.

3. There are matters that are unquestionably part of the faith and may even be of its principles, but people exaggerate their importance far beyond what Allah intended. People often neglect other principles of Islam because of the matters that they are obsessed with. There are many examples of this behavior, as we shall see.

There are many alternatives to identifying oneself with this Ummah that, unfortunately, a number of reformers turn to. People seeking reform all have one thing in common. They see the deficiencies that exist in the Ummah and want to remedy those deficiencies. This leads some reformers to divert their attentions from the Ummah as a whole. Sometimes, they fail to recognize the brotherhood of faith at all.

There are those who think it is a waste of time to talk about the Ummah as a whole. They see that as showing a lack of focus. Such people always ask us why we keep bringing up the fact that the Ummah comprises over one billon people.

We say to them: Why should we hesitate to mention it? We need to emphasize this fact, because all of these billion people have some sense of belonging to the Ummah, except those among them who have truly left the faith.

Some of us never think about the Ummah until there is a crisis at hand. We seem to need a rude awakening to realize that we are actually a part of it. When a tragedy befalls the Muslims in Indonesia, for example, and the Muslims see on television the charred or mutilated bodies of their brothers in faith, or when they see people, out of hatred for Islam, eating the flesh of living Muslims, then they start feeling pangs of loyalty for their brothers in faith. These feelings, however, remain poignant for a short period of time. As soon as the crisis begins to subside, these feelings fall dormant again.

The Muslims might feel something for their brothers in Africa when they are stricken with famine, drought, or war - if, of course, the media bothers to cover the matter - but we become heedless of these tragedies as soon as we cease to be reminded of them. When the crisis in Afghanistan looms before us, we are compelled to think about it and fear for our Afghani brethren. Then, when the crisis passes, we fall back into our oblivious slumber.

There is a need for us to impress upon the average Muslim the importance of identifying with the Ummah. We need to do this in our schools, our study circles, and our nurseries. We need to instill in their hearts feelings of brotherly love for everyone else who belongs to this Ummah.

There are many other things and ideas that compete with the Islamic identity. Among the most important of these are the following:

1. Ethnicity

Islam is a universal religion with a global perspective. It makes no ethnic distinctions. It is not an Arab religion. Nor is it what some people like to call an "Afro-Asiatic" religion, referring to the fact that most of its adherents live in these two continents. We find Islam all over Europe, in Australia, and in North and South America. It continues to spread at a healthy pace, winning new supporters every day. I read a book written by Jamâl Hamdân many years ago which claimed that the Muslims numbered around 350 million people, representing about 1/7 of the world population and that they were expected to increase to 1/5 of the world's population in the future. If we read today's statistics, we can see that this has truly happened.

Islam is a religion that is in harmony with the natural aspirations of humanity and advances with the efforts of those who call towards it. If only there were enough sincere workers who knew how to present the message of Islam to the people and how to reach their hearts, then Islam would spread like wildfire.

Ethnic identity is an old issue. We find many people who identify with their ethnic or racial group before anything else. This is especially true of the Arab identity. These people are obsessed with their Arab heritage and Arab ethnic poetry. They know the famous verses penned by a Syrian Arab Christian:

Give me a religion that will make the Arabs a nation,
And then you may intern my body on the way of the Brahmans.

For I will embrace any unbelief that will unite them,
And then gladly welcome Hell as our collective fate.

They know the following verses as well:

I take the Arab Renaissance as my Lord without partner.
The Arabs are my religion. I have no other.

The most zealous bigots consider Arabism as an alternative to Islam and the Arab identity as a substitute for a Muslim one. Now we admit that the Arabs have their virtues and their honor, but being an Arab is no substitute for being a Muslim. Likewise, those who hate the Arabs are deviant in their Islam for doing so. Ibn Taymiyah has written on this matter in detail in his book entitled Iqtidâ' al-Sirât al-Mustaqîm wa Mukhâlafah Ashâb al-Jahîm.

Having an ethnic identity is not a problem. It is quite normal to have one. The problem is for this to become a person's primary identity, obscuring his Islamic identity and overpowering his loyalty to Allah, the Messenger (peace be upon him), and the believers. It is a real problem when this ethnic identity leads to chauvinism and negative attitudes towards other peoples. Whenever a problem arises, they band together with their "own kind" and fight against those who are different.

If, however, these various ethnic groups feel perpetual solidarity with one another, then there is no problem. A good example is that of Palestine. All Muslim peoples feel solidarity with them and feel the pain that they are suffering, including the Arabs, the Kurds, the Muslims in the West, and the Muslims all over the world. They feel for them, pray for them, speak about their cause, and support them.

2. Nationalism

Nationalism is often closely tied to ethnic identity. The issue here is basically the same. We do not condemn a person's natural love for his country. As a poet once wrote:

Men love the countries they came from,
For in them they spent their childhood years.

When they think of their homelands, they are reminded
And yearn once again for those bygone days.

Allah's Messenger (peace be upon him) mentioned the virtues of many Muslim lands, like Mecca, Madinah, the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen, Syria, Oman, Egypt, and other places. Merely identifying with a specific country is not a problem. The problem is where one's national origin becomes a substitute for what should be a person's primary identity.

This is the error that befell Ahmad Shawkî when he penned these unsavory lines:

It angers not your Lord that you take the face of Egypt
As an object of worship along with His face.

Turn your faces to it in calamity
And when you feel fear, worship it earnestly.

You can see how he takes the terminology of Islamic Law that are supposed to be used exclusively for the worship of Allah and uses them for his country.

The same can be said for al-Zarkalî when he penned these famous verses:

My country! It they fashioned for me out of it an idol,
I would approach that idol and kiss it.

At the same time, there are some turns of phrase that we should not employ, like mispronouncing the Arabic word for nationalism, "al-wataniyyah", as "al-wathaniyyah", which means idolatry. This can give the impression that Islam is opposed to serving the members of one's country and having love for them. This is incorrect. Allah has given one's neighbors special rights. The near neighbors have rights, as do more distant neighbors. One's relatives are more deserving of your good treatment than others, and the same can be said for one's countrymen. Therefore, a person should be concerned with the welfare, education, and Islamic guidance of his fellow citizens. Problems only arise when one's national identity supercedes one's identity as a member of the Muslim Ummah.

3. Tribalism

This is a common way for people to identify themselves. Allah says: "We made you into nations and tribes so you would know each other." [Sûrah al-Hujûrât: 13] Therefore, it is not a problem if a person identifies with his tribe.

Bigotry in the name of one's tribe, however, is another matter. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "There are four aspects of the times of ignorance that my Ummah will not give up: boasting about lineage, ridiculing others because of theirs…" [Sahîh Muslim (934)] It is wrong for a person to support his tribe when they are wrong. It is wrong for him to love and hate on the basis of tribal affiliations. It is wrong to practice favoritism and nepotism on behalf or your tribesmen. This goes for matters of government as well as business dealings and marriage. We should not place great weight on tribal lineage. It exists for identification purposes only.

4. Sectarianism

The different schools of thought in Islamic Law used to be a cause for schisms and disputes that sometimes even came to bloodshed. Families were torn apart on their account. Such disputes even afforded the enemies of Islam opportunities to penetrate through the Muslim's defenses and attack their lands.

5. Sheiks and Leaders

Many people are severely biased towards the sheikhs whom they follow. They are fiercely loyal to them and harbor enmity for others on account of that loyalty. Ironically, sometimes the sheikh is a person who teaches against blind following! In spite of this, they follow him blindly, abandoning others who are more worthy to be followed.

6. Groups and Factions.

Some of these groups are secular and some are political. You find many people supporting a candidate for a political party, even though they know that he has a secular platform or one that is hostile to religion. These people feel that they can separate their political loyalties from their religious identity. They feel it necessary to belong to this political faction or that.

This can also be a problem with some Islamic groups that encourage their members to identify solely with their group or with its ideology, compromising their identification with the broader Muslim Ummah. This tendency also leads to hostility between Islamic groups.

Another tendency that weakens the solidarity of the Ummah is that of students who debate incessantly about certain questions like whether ignorance can ever be an excuse. This topic has divided students into rival camps. Then we have the issue of Allah's unique right to legislate. Students have divided themselves into myriad factions over this issue in various aspects of it where juristic discretion plays a role. Another classic example is whether works constitute a part of faith. These issues are not pursued objectively as sober academic inquiries. There is no healthy exchange of ideas. If this was the case, then such pursuits would be laudable. What really happens, however, is that people become polarized to this opinion or that, even many who do not have a full grasp of the issues. These issues become causes of zealous devotion.

There are good reasons why we must strive to restore the identity of the Ummah. The divisions that we suffer from cause us no end of hardships. Every time we are faced with a new situation, we bicker wit each other and find no way to cope with it. Then there are the external challenges that we face, not the least of which is the globalization of politics, economics, culture, values, and power.

The road ahead is long. We need to prepare ourselves and develop our character. We must abandon the idea that we have to see the results of our efforts with our own eyes or within our lifetimes. We should give our utmost efforts to our cause, even if the results take long in coming and even if we will not see the fruits of our labor while we are still alive.

It is not our purpose to overturn all the loyalties that people have, especially when those loyalties are permissible in and of themselves. Revolutionary change often aggravates problems more than it solves them, since it always polarizes people into at least two camps: supporters of change and those who oppose it.

Among the Companions, there were the Emigrants from Mecca and the Helpers from Madinah. Islam did not seek to destroy this distinction. It recognized it and made it a basis for healthy competition in performing righteous deeds.

Trying to unite the ummah right now in any practical sense would be to no avail. Some people have a desire to see the ummah united or at least see its Islamic groups or scholars get together, but they have not the vaguest idea about what it is possible for them to unite around. What we need right now is to stop bickering and hating each other. We have to replace our anger with a sense of Islamic brotherhood.

We must begin to learn how to work together by helping each other in performing righteous deeds. We must unite the Ummah on the basis of their correct beliefs and work to teach them what they need to know about the principles of their faith. They must learn about their Lord, their Prophet, their Qur'ân, and their history. This we can do, even if we cannot realize true Muslim unity at this stage.

We must raise our children to identify with the ummah and not place any other identity before it.

Allah knows best. And may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon our Messenger Muhammad and upon his family and Companions.