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Dec 8, 2017

Where Islam and Nationalism Collide

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Zaid Shakir 1

Zaid Shakir

Zaytuna College

Zaid Shakir specializes in Islamic spirituality, contemporary Muslim thought, Islamic history and politics, and Shafi’i fiqh.

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Where Islam and Nationalism Collide

Map In Frame Closecrop

The Umayyad caliphate's extent in 750 C.E.

Islam contains teachings that clearly argue against the most important elements of nationalism.

The nation-state, which involves wedding a specific people to a sovereign territorial entity, is a modern phenomenon. For example, the Italian city states did not unify into a coherent modern nation-state until the late 1850s. The unification of Germany under Prussia did not occur until 1871. Even though there were many French kingdoms, and even a French empire under Napoleon, it could be argued that France did not emerge as a viable modern nation-state until Jules Ferry established universal public education during the nineteenth century. Outside of Europe, excluding European settler states, such as the North and South American states established and dominated by European elites, with the notable and oftentimes neglected exception of Haiti, one cannot meaningfully discuss the existence of functional nation-states until the twentieth century. 

Nationalism, the sentiment inspiring a people to establish an autonomous state, is also strictly modern. It can be seen as a political offspring of Romanticism, part of a nineteenth century European reaction to the universalizing and anti-authoritarian tendencies of the earlier Enlightenment. There are, however, elements of nationalist thinking, along with the political arrangements they birth, that are ancient. Examples would be the civic pride exuded by Pericles in his famous speech on the eve of the Peloponnesian War and the Greek city states themselves. 

Islam contains teachings that clearly argue against the most important elements of nationalism. Foremost among these elements are the chauvinism and exclusiveness engendered by the nationalist project. It is worth contemplating whether Islam can play a role in shaping an effort to move beyond nationalism. 

A conversation with the author

A Deeper Look at Nationalism

Nationalism has been defined as “the belief that each nation has both the right and duty to constitute itself as a state.”1 According to this, and most other definitions, the essence of nationalism involves the wedding of a nation to a state. However, if we are to understand the dynamics involved in the formation of national consciousness, the organizational impetus that moves a nation to seek statehood, we need to understand five ideas: nation, state, fear, anger, and victimization. We will mention these ideas below and outline how Islamic thought might respond to them, before presenting a more coherent Islamic response to the idea of nationalism.

A nation has been defined as “an historical concept founded on a cultural identity shared by a single people.”2 Islam does not reject the idea of a nation. All of the prophets before Muĥammad were sent to specific nations. However, if the shared identity informing national consciousness leads to a scheme where the rights or humanity of other groups are denied by an exclusive quest for sovereignty on the part of an individual group, Islam questions the ensuing nationalist enterprise for the reasons that will be presented.

The state is a political unit defined in terms of a population, demarcated borders, and an autonomous government. The creation of a state is the ultimate objective of a nationalist movement, as is the case of most stateless nations. The potential destructiveness of nationalism is rooted in the fact that most states or the geographical regions they are based on are nationally heterogeneous, and most nations are stateless. If the nationalist aspirations of all people were vigorously pursued, a state of perpetual war and severe, ongoing persecution would likely ensue. This is one of the grave dangers created by the current rise in identity politics in Europe and America.

For example, here in the United States, the rise in white nationalism runs counter to the fact that white Americans will most likely soon be a demographic minority. That being the case, to orient the policies of the country in a way that narrowly prioritizes the interests of white folks would lead to a disaffected, disenfranchised, and dissident non-white majority. The opposite is also true. Normal political life would be severely compromised by such an arrangement, and the threat of violence as the final arbitrator in settling political disputes would be greatly enhanced.

Again, nationalism involves the effort of a nation to create or maintain an identity with a state. Three critical factors play a vital part of that identity formation process: fear, anger, and victimization. Fear is one of the principal factors motivating a nation to consolidate its control over a particular territory and create a state. Such fear revolves around a real or imagined enemy that is seen as a threat to the existence or interests of a particular nation. Although one of the positive benefits of group solidarity has often been security, when the promise of security is couched in fear and the ensuing emotions are manipulated for political purposes, the consequences can be extremely destructive.

Such manipulation has sadly been part of the formula that has led to most modern-day genocides. This security/genocide consanguinity is perhaps best illustrated in the horrific slaughter of Rwanda’s Tutsis by the majority Hutus in 1994. Commenting on the propaganda campaign that preceded and accompanied that genocidal episode, Samantha Power notes, “As genocidal perpetrators so often do as a prelude to summoning the masses, they began claiming the Tutsi were out to exterminate Hutu and appealing for preemptive self defense.”3 That appeal was answered, resulting in one of the most intensely brutal massacres in history.

Islam strives to remove fear as a motivating political force in human affairs. We read in the Qur’an, “Thus does Satan attempt to instill the fear of his dupes into you. Do not fear them. Rather, fear Me, if indeed you are believers” (3:175). In this verse, God tells the believers not to fear their enemies but to fear Him. Perhaps more importantly, as they establish their political community, they should establish it on the fear of God, not on the fear of a real or imagined human adversary, often described in contemporary discourse as “the other.”

Anger is the actualization of fear. In other words, anger is one of the greatest psychological factors urging people to act against the source of their fear. One of the greatest sources of such anger is a feeling of victimization. Ernest Gellner, one of the foremost writers on nationalism, explains the role of victimization in contemporary nationalist thought thus:

As the tidal wave of modernization sweeps the world, it makes sure that almost everyone, at some time or another, has cause to feel unjustly treated, and that he can identify the culprits as being of another “nation.” If he can also identify enough of the victims as being of the same “nation” as himself, a nationalism is born. If it succeeds, and not all of them can, a nation is born.4

As is the case with fear, Islam rejects anger as a motivation for political action. Commenting on the Qur’anic verse, “When the unbelievers had set up in their hearts the zealotry [for battle] which they had demonstrated during the days of ignorance, God sent calm and tranquility upon the Messenger and the believers…” (48:26), Imam al-Ghazālī says, at the beginning of the introduction to a chapter on the condemnation of anger in his famous Quickening the Religious Sciences, “The unbelievers are condemned for the unjustified zealotry they manifested due to their anger.”5

One of the keys to beneficial political decisions, or decisions of any type, is a firm intellectual calm and clarity. For this reason, Islam expressly forbids a judge from issuing a decision in a state of anger.6 The above verse extends this principle into the realm of political action. It was revealed concerning the critical negotiations between the Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ and his Meccan adversaries over the terms of the treaty that was struck at al-Ĥudaybiyyah. The followers of the Prophet ﷺ are praised for not allowing their anger over the apparently humiliating terms of the treaty to distort their better judgment, thereby preventing them from accepting what the Messenger of God ﷺ deemed advantageous to the Muslim cause. Here, anger is clearly rejected as a basis for political action.

Islam also argues against appeals to a sense of victimization. As opposed to seeking an external culprit or scapegoat to blame one’s problems on, Islam encourages individual and group responsibility. God says, in a revealed prophetic tradition,

Rather it is your actions which I reckon for you. Then I reward you fully for them. Therefore, whoever finds good, let him praise God, and whoever finds other than that, let him blame no one but himself.7

The Prophet himself ﷺ said, “Everyone of you is a steward, and each of you will be asked concerning his wards.”8 This cultivation of individual responsibility is so essential in Islam that the person who lacks any wards or possessions is to be reminded of his guardianship over his very body and to do those divinely sanctioned things that are best for the preservation of that body. Ibn Ĥajar al-¢Asqalānī comments on the above tradition:

The single person, who lacks a wife, servant, or child, is responsible for his very limbs, to insure that they implement the commandments, and avoid those things that are forbidden in speech, action, and belief. Therefore, his limbs, faculties, and senses are his wards.9

These and similar narrations make it clear that Islam wants each individual to take responsibility for his or her actions and to begin to address undesirable situations by seeing how he or she has fallen short in meeting the conditions God has established for the attainment of favorable outcomes. A similar analysis could be made for groups and their collective fates. In a worldly sense, they are responsible for their own uplift or debasement. God says clearly in this regard, “God does not change the condition of a people until they change the state of their souls” (13:11). Thus, the idea of waiting for someone else to change one’s condition runs counter to the divine scheme governing human society.

From the above discussion, it should be clear that Islam is against exploiting fear and anger, or cultivating a sense of victimization in order to create the fanaticism that drives a nationalist agenda. It should be noted that this fanaticism, which is closely described by what we will term fanatical tribalismaśabiyyah), has been specifically condemned by the Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ. When the Prophet ﷺ was asked about fanatical tribalism, he replied, “It is aiding and abetting your clan while oppressing others.”10 He also said, “One who is killed under the banner of fanatical tribalism, raises the banner of fanatical tribalism, or aids a party on the basis of fanatical tribalism has died a death of pre-Islamic ignorance.”11 These condemnations by the Prophet ﷺ are aimed at cutting off a dangerous source of disunity and discord within Muslim ranks, but they are applicable for all societies.

In the Muslim context, before accepting Islam, the Medinan tribes of Aws and Khazraj were engaged in long and destructive internecine warfare. Islam united their hearts and joined them politically under one banner. Their unity was subsequently threatened by the effort of a third party to stir up fanatical tribal fealty among them. That effort was staved off by the direct intervention of the Prophet ﷺ. The Qur’an condemns the fanaticism pulling the two tribes apart as disbelief: “O Believers! If you obey a party from those previously given the scripture, they will return you to disbelief after your faith. How could you ever revert to disbelief while the Scripture of God is yet being revealed and His Messenger is yet with you? Whosoever holds fast to [the Religion of] God will be guided to a straight path” (3:100-01). Again, the disbelief referred to in this verse is not their actually leaving Islam; rather, it is their reverting back to the divisive chauvinism that characterized their pre-Islamic condition.

These narrations illustrate that Islam in no way endorses the idea of mobilizing to pursue an exclusivist political agenda based on tribal or national bonds. Such mobilization, which lies at the heart of the nationalist venture, does not only run counter to clear Islamic teachings: it has been the source of many of the most brutal and costly wars in recent history and has also manifested itself in all modern genocidal campaigns.

A More Coherent Islamic Critique of Nationalism

It is interesting to note that, in Islamic teachings, Satan attempts to base his superiority on accidental physical differences. God mentions in the Qur’an, addressing Satan, “What prevented you from prostrating yourself to Adam when I ordered you to do so? He said, ‘I am better than him. You created me from fire, while you created him from clay’” (7:12). This prototypical racist appeal to physical differences is reflected in the rhetoric of many bigots, past and present. Satan, blinded by his arrogance, apparently forgot that Adam’s distinction lay in the fact that his supposedly low physical origin was mitigated by other characteristics, such as his incomparable intellect and his ability to spiritually transcend the limitations of his physical composition.

The Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ emphasized the fact that physical distinctions are irrelevant in the sight of God. He said, “God does not look at your physical forms nor at your wealth. Rather, He looks at your deeds and your hearts.”12 This prophetic tradition argues against using physical distinctions arising from the accident of birth as the basis for any claims of superiority, or as the focal point for the creation of chauvinistic movements or states.

Islam posits that humanity shares a common ancestry. God says in the Qur’an, “O humankind! We have created you from a single pair, a male and female, then made you into nations and tribes in order that you come to know one another [not that you may despise each other]. The most honored of you with God is the most pious of you. And God is Well Informed, Knowledgeable” (49:13). God also says, “O humankind! Be mindful of your Lord who has created you from a single soul, and created from that soul its mate, and has brought forth from them multitudes of men and women” (4:1). Humanity, as these verses emphasize, has a common ancestry, which creates inseparable bonds between us. Islam, in this regard, does not sanction schemes, such as conflicting nationalisms, that negate or trivialize those bonds.

Furthermore, Islam advocates the essential equality, human worth, and dignity of all people. God says, “And their Lord accepted their prayer, and answered them, ‘I will never allow the work of any of you, male or female, to be lost. You are of one another’” (3:195). These and similar verses emphasize that the fundamental worth of all humans transcends the divisions of race and gender. Understanding this equality is central to an understanding of how Islam approaches the issue of nationalism.  While recognizing the validity of national, racial, tribal, ethnic, and cultural differences, Islam views them as signs of God’s creative power, not as the foundation for the creation of mutually destructive political agendas. We read in the Qur’an, “And among His signs is the creation of the heavens and earth and the variation of your languages and colors. Surely in this are signs for those possessing knowledge” (30:22).

Islam also acknowledges that distinct peoples, nations, and tribes can be vested with unique historical missions. We read in the Qur’an, for example, “The Romans have been defeated, in a nearby land. However, after this defeat of theirs, they will soon be victorious, within a few years. And with God is the Command, in the past and the future. And on that day, the believers will rejoice” (30:2-4). The point here is that God decreed this victory for the Romans as a people. Their historical destiny as a people was to defeat the Persians. Conversely, the Persians, after their initial triumph, were destined to be defeated by the Romans. God also says concerning the idea of distinct nations, “Every nation has a fixed term. When that term expires, they can neither delay nor hasten [their inevitable demise]” (7:34). This idea of distinct historical missions is further borne out by the fact that nations, prior to the advent of the Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ, were addressed by prophets sent specifically to them. Noah (peace be upon him) was sent specifically to his people. Hūd (peace be upon him) was sent specifically to the people of ¢Ād. Śāliĥ (peace be upon him) was sent to the people of Thamūd. The message of these and other prophets was directed toward their respective peoples, constituting a divine affirmation of their distinct national identities.

Other national distinctions can be found in the following statements of the Prophet ﷺ: “The prayer call is for the Ethiopians,”13 “Faith and wisdom are Yemeni,”14 “The Europeans are the most forbearing of people in the face of tribulation, the quickest to recover from a calamity, the fastest to rally after incurring a defeat and the most merciful to the weak, the orphans, and the poor.”15 Narrations conveying distinctions of this type are quite numerous in the prophetic tradition.

One should not be led, however, to believe that the specificity of the prophetic missions that preceding Prophet Muĥammad's can be used as a justification for pursuing narrow nationalistic agendas. The specificity of the earlier prophetic messages was abrogated by the universality of the message of Muĥammad ﷺ. God says, describing that message, “Say to them, [O Muĥammad ﷺ!], ‘I am the messenger of God unto you all!’” (7:158).   This verse is especially significant in that it occurs after a lengthy description, in the seventh chapter of the Qur’an, of the earlier prophets and their messages. It is as if God is especially emphasizing the universality of the mission of the Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ by presenting it in contradistinction to the earlier messages. It is significant that this transition from specific messages to a universal one occurred at the advent of an era when the overland trade routes that would be created by the vast, functionally unified Islamic Empire would integrate the entirety of the known world to an extent unprecedented in history. That is to say, it came just when the world was prepared to receive such a message.

The universality of that message supersedes the idea that the division of humans into their respective nations, tribes, cultural and ethnic identity groups, possessors of distinct historical missions, or any other distinctions should constitute the basis for the creation of destructive, mutually exclusive, potentially belligerent agendas. It also rejects the idea of these distinctions being the basis for any claims of superiority. God reminds us that these differences, informed by the accident of birth, exist as a means for our mutual recognition as well as a display of the creative power of God. 

Moving Beyond Nationalism

The defenders of nationalism, while acknowledging its latent danger, point to its great triumphs; specifically, its role in stopping the advance of the twin totalitarian menaces of Nazism and Stalinist communism. However, even here, nationalism does not stand above indictment, if we view Nazism and Stalinist communism as grotesque manifestations of German and Russian nationalism, respectively.

In the lands of Islam, as in other parts of the developing world, nationalism has had its most profound impact on Western-educated elites. Those elites were instrumental in articulating a postcolonial national vision. That vision, as to the meaning, purpose, and direction of the postcolonial state, was initially greeted with significant mass support throughout the Muslim world. However, the systematic and oftentimes cynical negation of any meaningful mass participation in the political process has led to a widespread view of the nation-state as a euphemism for autocratic rule. This perception, coupled with the developmental and strategic failures of the nation-state in the Muslim world, have left many Muslims begging for new forms of political identity and a new basis for political action.

Neither the Muslim world nor humanity at large will be able to move toward a harmonious state where the actualization of true human unity and our collective security are realities if we do not move beyond the divisiveness of nationalism and the nation-state. Improved means of communication and transportation continue to shrink the world. Continuous improvements in weapons technology, conventional and non-conventional, greatly enhance our ability to kill each other. Global problems—such as economic imperialism, terrorism, the global narcotics trade and its associated violence, nuclear proliferation, pollution, climate change, and increasing economic inequality—defy unilateral solutions. In light of these and many other pressing facts, we can no longer accept a scheme where, in the words of William Pfaff, “a nation conceives itself licensed to validate itself by the victimization of another society.”16 The nationalist status quo is untenable. Mutual victimization, an unfortunate result of conflicting national interests, creates conditions that could well lead to our mutual destruction.

That said, nationalism and the nation-state are realities that lie at the heart of the contemporary global order. Therefore, transcending them will require more than a mere understanding of their inherent dangers. New ways of thinking about the meaning of life, humanity, and human civilization will have to be developed, and new institutions will have to be constructed. Many daunting problems related to the meaning of national sovereignty, self-determination, and citizenship will also have to be resolved.

Fortunately, many contemporary developments have already started that process. International financial markets and the real-time operations of the largest multinational corporations have already transcended the effective control of individual states. Although these developments currently facilitate oftentimes exploitative and irresponsible corporate behavior, they are part of an evolving global system that could potentially render the nation-state irrelevant.

At the level of the individual, the concept of human rights and the associated phenomenon of humanitarian intervention present additional challenges to the future viability of the nation-state. The concept of human rights implies that the rights accruing to states are subordinate to those accruing to individuals. The idea of humanitarian intervention accentuates that conclusion as, in the interest of assisting affected individuals, the sovereignty of the state where intervention occurs is oftentimes completely bypassed. Although the idea of humanitarian intervention has been callously exploited (most prominently in Libya, where the fabricated threat of an imminent humanitarian disaster in Benghazi served as the pretext for the American- and French-led toppling of the regime of Muammar Qaddafi), a more principled application of the idea could help us transcend the mortgage the nation-state holds on our collective future.

Likewise, a reevaluation is occurring around the meaning of national citizenship. One of the greatest issues here revolves around reconciling multiculturalism with the political role of collective identities. The critical question is how can a ruling majority, in whose interest the state was founded, meaningfully accommodate excluded, disenfranchised, or marginalized minorities who are also members of the state? If an effective resolution of this issue can be achieved within the legal and constitutional framework of individual states, replicating that solution within the framework of international law should be within the realm of possibility. Both developments, once achieved, will eventually translate into new social and political institutions that will contribute to new forms of politics that transcend the imperatives imposed by reigning forms of nationalism and nationalist thought.

Just as the institutions that facilitated the rise, consolidation, and entrenchment of both nationalism and the nation-state occurred in a distinctive social, cultural, and political milieu—a milieu that was in turn fostered by a distinctive social psychology—a new institutional reality, rooted in its distinctive sociopolitical culture, will require its own distinctive social psychology. Herein lays the contemporary relevance of Islam: Islam provides a set of beliefs and principles that simultaneously foster cultural distinction and universalism, and reconciling these two in an equitable fashion is one of the greatest political challenges of our times, as described above.

At the height of its civilization, Islam was able to meet and overcome this challenge by creating a culturally diverse, politically decentralized, but functionally integrated “global” realm that extended from Spain to China. The fact that an individual such as Ibn Baţţūţah, the great Moroccan traveler, could go from one end of that realm to another, communicate in a single language (Arabic) and be accepted as a judge in the distant Maldives testifies to the globalization fostered by Islam during that period.17

It should be noted that this realm, whose critical glue was Islam, was not exclusively Muslim. The Italian city states, such as Venice, were key players in that system, economically. The Mongol-based Yuan dynasty in China was key to the security of the Indian Ocean, one of the most critical regions in a vast network of economic and social exchange. It is interesting to note that the Yuan dynasty, perhaps the most critical individual actor in that system, had an administrative structure that was heavily manned at its higher levels by Muslims who had fled the ravages of the Mongol invasions a century and a half earlier. Were it not for the ravages of the bubonic plague during the middle of the fourteenth century, that system would have likely endured and played a crucial role in directly shaping what would become the modern world.18

One of the greatest keys to the emergence of that realm was the social psychology fostered by Islam. Perhaps the most important fruit of that social psychology was the creation of a political culture that discouraged the development of nationalist thinking. Such a political culture is desperately needed today as many people begin to struggle with new forms of transnational organization. If Islam is allowed, by both its enemies and advocates, to contribute to a new global sociopolitical consensus by helping to resolve the myriad problems associated with nationalism, both the Muslims and humanity will be well served.

A version of this article, titled “Islam and the Nationalist Question," originally appeared in Vol. 2, No. 1 of Seasons: The Semiannual Journal of Zaytuna Institute.


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