Redefining the Muslim Community: Ethnicity, Religion, and Politics in the Thought of Alfarabi

Redefining the Muslim Community: Ethnicity, Religion, and Politics in the Thought of Alfarabi

Redefining the Muslim Community: Ethnicity, Religion, and Politics in the Thought of Alfarabi

Redefining the Muslim Community: Ethnicity, Religion, and Politics in the Thought of Alfarabi

Synopsis

Writing in the cosmopolitan metropolis of Baghdad, Alfarabi (870-950) is unique in the history of premodern political philosophy for his extensive discussion of the nation, or Umma in Arabic. The term Umma may be traced back to the Qur'ān and signifies, then and now, both the Islamic religious community as a whole and the various ethnic nations of which that community is composed, such as the Turks, Persians, and Arabs. Examining Alfarabi's political writings as well as parts of his logical commentaries, his book on music, and other treatises, Alexander Orwin contends that the connections and tensions between ethnic and religious Ummas explored by Alfarabi in his time persist today in the ongoing political and cultural disputes among the various nationalities within Islam.

According to Orwin, Alfarabi strove to recast the Islamic Umma as a community in both a religious and cultural sense, encompassing art and poetry as well as law and piety. By proposing to acknowledge and accommodate diverse Ummas rather than ignoring or suppressing them, Alfarabi anticipated the contemporary concept of "Islamic civilization," which emphasizes culture at least as much as religion. Enlisting language experts, jurists, theologians, artists, and rulers in his philosophic enterprise, Alfarabi argued for a new Umma that would be less rigid and more creative than the Muslim community as it has often been understood, and therefore less inclined to force disparate ethnic and religious communities into a single mold. Redefining the Muslim Community demonstrates how Alfarabi's judicious combination of cultural pluralism, religious flexibility, and political prudence could provide a blueprint for reducing communal strife in a region that continues to be plagued by it today.

Excerpt

The overarching theme of this book is Alfarabi’s understanding of the Umma, an Arabic term most frequently translated as “nation.” the subject of the nation is, in most respects, a highly familiar one. the rise of nationalism has created a modern international community composed of nation-states, in which membership through national self-determination has come to be regarded as an almost sacred right. the terms “nation” and “nationalism” occur daily on the news, and have been the subject of a vast amount of scholarly research.

Yet when we turn to the history of political thought, the significance of the nation becomes somewhat harder to discern. It does not appear to have been a primary subject of concern for most of the major political philosophers. in ancient political thought, exemplified by Aristotle, the nation appears subordinate to the city, while in modern political thought, exemplified by Hobbes, it appears subordinate to the state. This sweeping formulation nevertheless helps capture the relative obscurity of the nation throughout much of the history of political philosophy. the marginalization of the nation changed only with Rousseau, who lived at the threshold of modern nationalism. I will eventually have occasion to discuss both the interest of Rousseau in the nation and the disinterest of some of his pre de cessors, along with the striking exception presented by Alfarabi. But I wish to begin with a more general question: why do we need to discuss the prenationalist nation at all? It might be argued that an examination of nationalism, through which the nation became an important political entity, is sufficient.

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