Masood N. Khan M.D.

Perhaps no other concept has been so confusing or made confusing as the concept of a nation or nationhood. We have different definitions, modules and projected ideals, and to complicate it further, have also injected ‘Nationalism’ in the debate, a concept that has been very controversial; vehemently condemned by those who advocate pluralism and inclusive globalization while admired by those who see it as a virtue of patriotism and loyalty.

There is a verse in Quran (49:13) that reads:

شعوبا وقبایل لتعارفو۔ ان اکرکم عند اللہ اتقاکم۔ ان اللہ علیم خبیر

یا ایھا النا س ان خلقنکم من ذکر اوانثی و جعلنکم

“O mankind verily we have created you of a male and a female and made you nations and tribes that you may recognize one another. The noblest among you (worthy of honor) in the sight of God is the one who is the most upright in character. Indeed God is knower and aware.” “O mankind verily we have created you of a male and a female and made you nations and tribes that you may recognize one another. The noblest among you (worthy of honor) in the sight of God is the one who is the most upright in character. Indeed God is knower and aware.”

This verse is a divine confirmation that mankind in its creation is divided into tribes and nations so as to be recognized (with mutual respected). Accordingly and very appropriately, the verse is addressed to all people, regardless of their faith.

So what then constitutes a nation?

At the outset, any definition of nation should recognize the fact that division of mankind into nations and tribes is the order of creation, therefore the ingredients that go into defining any nation should also be of natural origin, not artificial. Only natural parameters, can either bring people together into one group or distinguish them from one another. And it is not difficult to ascertain them. They most possibly include:

  1. Language, though apparently an acquired characteristic, it is the part of human personality genetically transferred and nurtured since birth. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why we call the language so learned as “mother tongue”.
  2. Food habits which in their origin are directly connected with the produce of the local area and have deep effect on how people are associated with each other in their labor for its cultivation and jointly develop their taste-buds together from childhood.
  3. Ethnicity and race which are actually personified manifestations of one’s genetic and biological constitution, evolved over centuries of interaction with the climate and the land.
  4. Living habits and habitats which we know are strong determinants of culture and collective social behavior of any mass of population.
  5. Geographical areas which are organically defined by natural landmarks of land, mountains, sea and climate, unlike politically made-up by negotiated boundaries. People are naturally attached with the land of their birth and with their fellow-beings, the sons of the same soil.
  6. Sense of identity perhaps is the most important ingredient, which people with part or all of the above shared determinants, develop, feel and jealously guard. A shared history is of course a catalyst to the sense of identity.

Out of all these natural characteristics the sense of identity is an indispensable prerequisite to define a nation, without which any definition of a nation becomes phony. And in order to cherish a binding sense of identity, not all of the characteristics discussed above need be present simultaneously at a given time. People may speak different languages and sometimes have minor differences in life-style and culture, have mixed ethnicities yet feel belonging to each other with shared habitats, food habits, a common attachment to the land of their birth, a sense of shared history and aspirations. Indeed, any combination of natural ingredients, bound in a commonly-denominated sense of identity, is enough to define a nation with full validity and divine sanction.

In this connection, let us consider, what are some of the artificial man-made ingredients that, for sure, do not define a nation, even if they impart an imposed sense of identity on people? Such artificial ingredients have time and again resulted in non-sustainability, bitterness, violence and even wars. This is simply because they are mostly based on negotiated positions, political and economical gains that are temporal in nature and weaknesses and vulnerabilities that are exploited by vested interests.

Religion tops the list of such negative ingredients. Imagine if Egyptians or Turks clumped together with Indonesians to form one nation and placed in a common territory, just because they adhere to a common faith. Only good luck will have it, if they did not break up with violence and bloodshed. The most vivid and living example of this is creation of Pakistan comprising of East and West Pakistan based upon a common religion. We know what happened and at what expense. Thousands lost their lives and the country disintegrated into Bangladesh and the present Pakistan. Though this catastrophe has been blamed on conspiracies, bad judgments and poor leadership, the fact remains that underlying this tragedy, was a definition of nation built on an artificial ingredient.

Politics is another such negative ingredient. Examples are numerous; North and South Korea, East and West Germany, North and South Vietnam, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland all of them, formed against their natural character. The world has witnessed repeatedly that they either could not sustain long or have caused great strife, constant tension and bloodshed. Thousands died in Ireland until resolved by a fragile agreement that will very likely prove to be unsustainable.

Power mongering dictatorial autocracy is another such ingredient by which people have been artificially subjugated into one nation by destroying their identity, aspirations and their natural bondages. We have seen time and again, when the power structure falls, the disintegration of such artificially formed nations simply is a matter of time. This is what happened to Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in recent times.

Hypothetical and aspired definitions have also emerged at various times in the history of human civilization, when philosophers, political leaders, anthropologists and religious scholars have all tried to define a ‘nation’ as they thought fit. They have been debated in the academic circles and also are rioted on the streets. It seems, every time they have disregarded the natural ingredients, and injected artificial characteristics, regardless of how sincere they are, the nations so defined have failed and have resulted in violence, political oppression and injustice.

Talking about such academic or emotional definitions of nation, we cannot, in relevance to the subject, avoid mentioning Iqbal, a well known name in the subcontinent. In 1930, about 90 years ago, in his famous address at a Muslim League convention at Allahabad, India, he gave the status of a nation to the inhabitants of a Muslim majority area (within India) comprising of Punjab, Northwest Frontier, Sind and Baluchistan. In his address he first rejected the concept of nation-states artificially created in the west and then defined Muslims of the subcontinent who were living in the above regions as a homogenous group of people with a common religion which he termed as the ‘ethical ideal’. He proposed India should be a country where nations defined in such a way should enjoy full autonomy under a federal system of government. To quote him:

“India is a continent of human groups belonging to different races, speaking different languages and professing different religions. Their behavior is not at all determined by a common race-consciousness. Even the Hindus do not form a homogenous group. The principle of European democracy (by this Iqbal means the system of government) cannot be applied to India without recognizing the fact of communal groups. The Muslim demand for the creation of a Muslim India within India is, therefore, perfectly justified. The resolution of All Parties Muslim Conference at Delhi is, to my mind, wholly inspired by this noble ideal of a harmonious whole which, instead of stifling the respective individualities of its component whole, affords them chances of fully working out the possibilities that may be latent in them. And I have no doubt that this house will emphatically endorse the Muslim demands embodies in the resolution. Personally, I would go farther than the demands embodied in it. I would like to see the Punjab, North-West Frontier, Sind and Baluchistan amalgamated into a single state, Self-government within the British E or without the British Empire, the formation of a consolidated North-West Indian Muslim state appears to me to be the final destiny of the Muslims, at least of North-West India.”

With due respect to Iqbal’s sincerity and genuine concern for the rights of Muslims in an independent India, his definition of a nation, even though was very much based upon some valid natural ingredients, injected religion into it. The chain of political events that followed resulted into formation of Pakistan comprising of two wings East and West Pakistan geographically hundreds of miles apart but artificially clumped together in a single nation because of a common religion. In 1971 under the shadow of a war between India and Pakistan, the country so formed disintegrated with lot of violence and bloodshed.

Iqbal exercised deep influence among Muslims of the subcontinent and creation of Pakistan has been credited to his proposal. On the darker side however, perhaps encouraged by his aspired vision to unite and autonomize Muslims as a separate nation, distinct from Hindus, Muslim clerics and religious leaders, most of them Islamofascist, have been crying out, on top of their voice to call all Muslims of the world ‘One Nation’. Unfortunately majority of weak-minded, emotionally insecure and excitable Muslims, not in ignorable numbers, have immaturely sculpted unrealistic dreams of grandeur and domination without realizing that it is a misleading passion.

Ummat Vs Nation: Islam is no doubt a powerful and dynamic force that has brought Muslims of the world in an emotional bondage that upholds as in Iqbal’s words a common ethical ideal. Its manifestations are globally evident in their reactions to crises that Muslims face in different parts of the world, its belief structure and moral code that has revolutionized human lives and the international convention of Hajj. So how can one keep this dynamic force of Islam excluded out, in defining a nation that unites all Muslims at a global level? Yet at the same time, as discussed above, to make such a bondage of common beliefs and ideology that we call religion, a determinant of a nation, will be quite artificial. It will be antithetical to the powerful natural ingredients that create nations in compliance with the natural order of creation mentioned in Quran.

Quran resolves this contradiction for us by declaring Muslims who believe in One God and the Prophet, as a fraternity of believers termed as ‘the Ummat’ or sometimes as ‘millat’ used synonymously though with subtle difference. Ummat forms a universal and global party that links people who believe in one God and His last Prophet into one brotherhood while millat is a party, more local and associated with a particular Prophet of a particular time and/or an ideology driven lifestyle. The synonymy in these two Quranic terms lies in the fact that the divine message is the distinguishing characteristic of both.

Iqbal towards the end of his life seems to have somewhat reconciled his position, when he recognized the emancipated status of Islam and elevated Muslims into one universal Ummat, a fraternity and brotherhood. He clearly stated that Muslims globally comprise of not one but many nations. In his reply, (published in the paper “EHSAN” on 9th March 1938), to a statement by Maulana Ahmed Hussain Madani with who he was in intense debate about the concept of nation and nationalism as it related to Muslims of pre-independent India, he writes;

“So far as I have been able to see, no other word except Ummat has been used for Muslims in Holy Quran. If it is otherwise I would very much like to know it. Qaum (Nation) means a party of men, and this party can come into being in a thousand places and in thousand forms upon the basis of tribe, race, color, language, land and ethical code. Millat or Ummat, on the contrary, will carve out of the different parties (nations) a new and common party. In other words Millat or Ummat embraces nations but cannot be merged in them.”

So nations are organic and natural in their creation. They can only be defined by natural ingredients that in various combinations give them their respective sense of undeniable identity. Quran recognizes them as the order of God’s creation. To artificially derecognize them and/ or define them based upon man-made unnatural ingredients, is to invite disastrous results. Muslims therefore could very well be comprised of several nations. In the modern world, any nation that exists under a constitution and a system of government that treats the people as citizens, not as subjects and gives them equal rights , is called “Nation State”. World is today a big assembly of such nation states. To deny them and try to merge them in one nation on the basis of religion is not only to deny the reality, but also to deny God’s order of creation. However, at the same time if such nation states are created by artificial parameters disregarding the natural affiliations of people, they not infrequently have failed, and at times violently. It is such nation states that Iqbal rejected in his Allahbad address.

Muslims are bonded as an Ummat, a concept given in Quran, totally different from that of a nation. It is a global fraternity of believers. Ummat fundamentally is an affiliation to ideology and faith whereas nation is a sense of identity people cherish through shared natural characteristics.