Hopefully, this essay will provide some food for thought as we begin the arduous process of rethinking many of the fundamental ideas and institutions that developed during an age that is rapidly drawing to a close. As that age expires, many of the ideas accompanying it must be allowed to expire with it. If we attempt to cling dogmatically to outmoded ideas and institutions, we are only delaying their inevitable demise and handicapping the ability of coming generations to build a world that is a more realistic reflection of their resources, potential and limitations.
One of the most profound developments in the modern history of Islam has been the emergence of the Nation-state in Europe and its subsequent imposition on the Muslim world. Its profundity is illustrated by the fact that it has come to capture the imagination of all politically active Muslims. In the process, it became one of the principal means for consolidating the destruction of a viable Islamic civilization by introducing into the Muslim world an institutional and conceptual framework that helped to hasten the disappearance of the institutions and organizations that gave Muslim societies their unique character and identity.
To briefly illustrate both the pervasiveness and the destructiveness of the nation-state in the Muslim world, we can mention the statement of Dr. Sayyid Hussein Nasr that the Muslim nations are united in their destruction of their respective environmental richness. Hence, Qaddafi's Libya, Saddam's Iraq, The Islamic Republic of Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, etc. all share a reckless disregard for environmental protection and a total disregard of classical Islamic teachings relating to environmental stewardship and conservation. His point is that these Muslim nation-states, despite their varying ideological orientations, have all waged an undeclared war against their fragile ecosystems.
One of the reasons for this is the imperative that the Muslim nation-states 'catch-up' with its western counterparts in terms of economic and industrial development. In the context of a linear view of national development, the argument goes, Muslim nation-states cannot afford the luxury of considering the ecological consequences of their so-called development programs. Environmental protection can only come at the cost of slowing development and the strategic implications of lagging to far behind are too grave for ecological concerns to even be considered.
Before proceeding, let us mention that the nation-state as a modern political arrangement was unknown until 1648, at the earliest, in the aftermath of the signing of the Peace of Westphalia, which resulted in the break-up of the Holy Roman Empire. This is seen as the event that demarcates the birth of the modern nation-state. As far as Muslims are concerned, the idea of a sovereign nation-state is a 20th Century phenomenon. Most contemporary Muslim states did not achieve independence until after the Second World War through the expiration of various colonial mandates and decolonization struggles. There are a few exceptions to this chronology, such as the secular Turkish Republic, which achieved its independence in the aftermath of the First World War.
Prior to the 20th Century, hence, for most of the history of the Muslim Ummah, Muslims organized themselves, politically, according arrangements that primarily reflected tribal or geographical lines of demarcation. A sultan's (political leader) authority was demarcated by the limit of his tax-collecting and rebellion-suppression ability, not according to his claim to hold sway over a territory demarcated by fictitious lines drawn on a map. Similarly, although people may have accepted the authority of a particular sultan, their ultimate allegiance was, practically, to their tribe or clan.
Despite such practical ties, most Muslims held a sentimental attachment to the Ummah, in its conceptualization as the global Muslim community. There were instances when that sentimental attachment translated into tangible political action, such as the Turks soliciting volunteers from lands as far flung as India and Morocco to assist in the expulsion of the European occupiers from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the First World War.
In endeavoring to look at the question of what it means to be a member of the global Muslim Ummah in the context of the modern nation-state, we must look at the different ways we can examine the idea of the Ummah. We can examine it politically, socially, culturally and religiously. In many instances confusion arises when discussing issues related to this topic, we fail to make these distinctions.