In Arabic the word ummah means community. It shares the same Arabic root as the word for mother, which is umm. Therefore, an ummah is a deeply connected community, particularly an ideologically aligned community. There is also a dimension of nurture and care among an ummah, like what one may have within a family. In the time of the Prophet Muhammad, the ummah was initially classified as one’s tribe or blood relatives. This was later expanded to those who would bear witness to the pillars of Islam (Wadud, 2022).
In the 21st century, the Muslim ummah is not the unified collective with a single interpretation of things as they once may have been. Muslims are incredibly diverse in numerous ways and there are sincere divisions within Islamic communities. Many Muslims, particularly Black Muslims in the United States, disabled, queer, transgender, and non-gender binary Muslims, sit at the margins of mainstream Islamic communities. Ethnically, there is a spoken and unspoken notion that Muslim equals Arab. This likely stems from the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), but it is primarily modern-day Arab Muslims themselves who have established and reinforced this exclusionary notion. Gratefully, in recent years several Black Muslim scholars such as Rudolph Bilal Ware, Adeyinka Mendes, Ubaydullah Evans, Mustafa Briggs, and Dawud Walid have contested the erasure of Africa and Africans in history of Islam and denounced the blatant racism that Black Muslims in the U.S. face in predominantly Arab Muslim communities. Adeyinka Mendes writes in the translator’s note of his book The Spirits of Black Folk: Sages through the Ages (2021) that:
Black and African history is a significant part of Muslim history. Imam Fode Drame, a West African Islamic scholar, has mentioned that over 50% of the historical events reported in the Qur’an occurred in Africa. Therefore, one cannot have a deep understanding of such passages in the Qur’an without some knowledge of ancient African history, cultures, languages, and religions.
Although perspectives like these are becoming more prominent in some Islamic spaces, they are still marginal in the larger Muslim community. Another important inclusive and radical intervention has been made by the contributions of the “Lady Imam” Amina Wadud. Her vanguard book Qur’an and Woman (1992) was one of the first of its kind to offer a feminist interpretation of the Qur’an by providing a meticulous examination and analysis of the text itself, still through a gender binary lens, but one in which no single gender is situated as superior or dominant over another. Wadud has publicly acknowledged and critiqued the book’s gender binary contextualization and herself identifies as a non-binary person, using both she/her and they/them pronouns. She writes in the introduction to Qur’an and Woman (1992:1,7-8) that:
No method or Qur’anic exegesis is fully objective. Each exegete makes some subjective choices. Some details of their interpretations reflect their subjective choices and not necessarily the intent of the text.
I worked against the backdrop of common prejudices and attitudes among Muslims towards women which have not only affected the position of women in Muslim societies but also affected the interpretation of the position of women in the Qur’an. One such belief is that there are essential distinctions between men and women reflected in creation, capacity and function in society, accessibility to guidance (particularly to Qur’anic guidance), and in the rewards due to them in the Hereafter.
Consequently, men are more human, enjoying completely the choice of movement, employment, and social, political, and economic participation on the basis of human individuality, motivation, and opportunity.
As one can imagine, Amina Wadud has faced a lot of shaming and disregard from the broader Islamic community. However, and most importantly, she has provided a tool of empowerment for Muslim women, a new level of intellectual analysis, and opened a space for non-binary, transgender, and queer Muslims.
A final loving criticism of the Muslim community in the United States is its classism. According to a 2018 report from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), about 18% of Muslims in the U.S. report a household income above $100,000, compared to 31% of the general U.S. population. About 33% of U.S. Muslims make less than $30,000, compared to 24% of the general U.S. population. In summary, one-third of Muslims in the United States are at or below the poverty line. Racial disparity is illustrated in the finding that Black Muslim households are more likely to be low-income and Arab Muslim households are more likely to be high-income; these economic differences are hardly acknowledged in most Muslim communities.
Many new Muslim converts often feel pressure (by encouragement, suggestion, or shaming) to buy new clothing that is “modest” and often feel like they must purchase numerous types of Islamic paraphernalia (Qur’an translations, prayer rugs, hijabs, etc.) to best assimilate into the community. For Friday (Jummah) prayers, we are told to dress our absolute best, again applying pressure to clothes who may not have clothing they feel is nice enough. There is also an expectation that everyone will (and can) buy new clothing and gifts for Eid celebrations. Recently, a gentleman soliciting money for a local mosque fundraiser said to students attending the Friday prayer that they should call their parents and ask them for $1000 to donate to the mosque. He went on to say, “It’s only $80 a month.” These kinds of assumptions about the economic position of Muslims are rampant.
Muslims could benefit from taking on what Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh called a “proletarian piety”. In Confucianist philosophy, “filial piety” required children to deeply respect, honor, and obey their parents. Ho Chi Minh adapted this concept to the revolution of the proletariat, calling for revolutionaries to “deeply love, respect, and tirelessly serve the oppressed masses” (Nguyen, 2023:5). Instead of assuming that people have certain economic means, Muslim leaders should better learn their communities and the situations of the most marginalized and oppressed within them. This should be the starting point. Black Muslims have one of the highest levels of conversion to Islam and currently account for a fifth of all Muslims in the United States (Pew Research Center, 2018). As previously mentioned, they also tend to be less economically affluent than other Muslim ethnic groups.
We need a revolutionary ummah. A revolutionary ummah is one in which all Muslims personally feel like valuable members of the community and are systematically and structurally included and accommodated. Taking determining stances on anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, and anti-capitalism would help to resolve some of the contradictions between personal beliefs based on subjective interpretations of the Qur’an and Hadith of the Prophet and their ensuing actions. We need an ummah that does not align with the oppressive characteristics and practices that prevail in U.S. culture and society. In fact, we need an ummah that stands in radical opposition to these things. We need an ummah that reflects the rahman (compassion) and raheem (mercy) of the God we worship. Allah knows best and will be the final arbitrator of all things.