For a PDF version of this essay click here: Whither the Umma: Hope in Times of Existential Crises
The ‘whither the Umma’ question has, of course, been asked before and under circumstances no less threatening than those which confront the Muslim Umma today; and with a similar sense of urgency, if not more: In 1924, when even the nominal Caliphate was abolished; in February 1258, when after thirteen days of bloodbath, plunder, rape, and burning of the City of Peace (Madinat al-Salām), al-Mustaʿṣim biʾllāh—who would be listed in the annals of history as the last of the 37 Abbasid Caliphs—was rolled up in a carpet and trampled under the feet of the Mongol horses. And this is not all.1
There are other times, higher on the historical arc of the life of the Umma, when questions about its survival loomed large: The first Fitna (35-41/656-661), which witnessed—among other tribulations—the “Battle of the Camel,” when those who had been bonded together through Divinely instilled love in the very presence of the Prophet found themselves facing each other with drawn swords on the battleground in Basra on a cold day, just 36 years after the Hijrah—a day which resoundingly manifested the obscuring of a very special Divine blessing of which the Prophet himself was reminded while in Madinah: And He put love in their hearts. If you had spent all that is on the earth, you could not have brought their hearts together; but Allah brought them together. Indeed, He is Exalted in Might and Wise.2 Basra, let us recall, was founded as a garrison city by the Companions, some of whom would be killed by others in the Battle of the Camel that left 10,000 dead.3 The Companions had founded the city when they were sent there by ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb (r. 13-23/634-644), Allah be pleased with him and all the Companions, and it became the headquarters of the Muslim army that would defeat the Sassanian empire and open Persia and Transoxiana—bilād mā warāʾ al-nahr (lit. “the lands beyond the river”, now called Central Asia)—a region that produced the best scholars of Islam for centuries.