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.
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 ﷺ 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.