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The children of Adam: a study of the Islamic understanding of community (umma) from the classical to contemporary ages

posted on 30.01.2017, 22:38 by Stone, Mark Anthony
The Medina Charter was composed by the Prophet Muḥammad as a solution to conflict between tribal groups at Medina. This document defines community (umma) pluralistically, incorporating Muslims, Jews, possibly Christians, and non-Muslim Arabs. Scholars have variously defined the Medina Charter as a mutual defence pact, a secular agreement, or a community in which monotheistic religion replaces tribe as the central unifying principle. This research proposes another argument: that umma in the Medina Charter should be read as an intertextual application of Qur’ānic principles to society. The argument involves three closely related hypotheses: First, in the Medina Charter, umma is defined not by tribal membership, nor by adherence to a single religious law, but instead by attributes shared by all members of the agreement, modelled after the moderate Nation of Abraham. Moderation was the shared ethical space or common good where the various religions and sub-groups overlapped. This concept of a moderate umma was articulated further through the Qur’ānic concepts umma wasaṭ (moderate contingent among Muslims) and umma muqtaṣida (moderate contingent among non-Muslim monotheists). Second, although during and after the Islamic conquests following the death of the Prophet the term umma came to refer specifically to the Muslim community, as an exemplar of moderation and religious tolerance it was perpetuated into the caliphal period through Qur’ānic exegesis (tafsīr), Sufism (taṣawwuf) and law. This notwithstanding, in the new imperial context the ideal model was applied often according to essentially functional and pragmatic social imperatives. Third, the introduction of political ideologies within the context of colonial and postcolonial circumstances was, in some cases, influential in transforming the interpretation of umma into a more exclusive definition connected to the concept of the nation state. It is therefore argued that certain more ideological interpretations of umma in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries represent not a return to earlier classical definitions of community, but rather in some respects a divergence from them.


Principal supervisor

Salih Yucel

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

School of Philosophical, Historical & International Studies


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts