Faith and Unity: The ‘Ummah’ as the New Kinship Group

BradleyCollege Papers, History, Religion, Undergraduate Work2 Comments

The Quran and prayer beads.

In approximately 610 CE, a man named Muhammad ibn Abdallah went to a cave in the hills above Mecca to meditate, as he was accustomed to do. There, he had a powerful religious experience and began reciting verses of what would become known as the Quran, the holy book of Islam. While reciting the surahs of the Quran in Mecca, the Prophet Muhammad would find both converts and enemies. His message would inspire both devotion and enmity. The Quran appealed to people for its beauty and its insistence on returning to principles of equity, but this would place the Prophet in confrontation with his tribe and create tension between converts and their families. The conflict between the new Muslims and the Meccan community escalated to a point that it caused the Prophet to commit the Muslim community to something unthinkable by contemporary standards: an emigration based not on blood ties, but on communal faith and unity. This event was so significant that it would become known as the Hijra and set the date for the first year of the Islamic calendar in 622 CE.

In pre-Islamic Arabian society, status, position and even personal well-being were all based on membership in kinship groups. Society was divided into a series of (usually[1]) blood-related groups organized in a hierarchical structure. The family group was the smallest organizational unit and was subordinate to a clan, which in turn was subordinate to a tribe. In these kinship groups, there was essentially no individual identity.[2] A man was a member of his family, clan and tribe. All acts between individual members of tribes assumed collective responsibility, sometimes leading to vendettas where the victim’s tribe would seek redress against any member of the offending party’s tribe.[3] This created situations in which a person was victimized based on the actions of another member of the tribe, though it wasn’t seen as wrong, because honor and responsibility were attributed to the group, rather than the individual. The more powerful the tribe one belonged to, the surer one could be that their family would be safe and prosperous.

In Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time, Karen Armstrong details the loyalty of a man to his tribe using a quote from a Ghazziyya poet: “I am of Ghazziyya. If she be in error, I will be in error; and if Ghazziya be guided right, I will go with her.”[4] Tribal loyalties were so important that even if a man’s tribesman was in the wrong, he was obliged to help him for the sake of tribal solidarity. The concept of tribal solidarity would be both a boon and a problem for the Prophet Muhammad. Religion was not unknown to pre-Islamic Arab society, but it was tied to individual kinship groups. Each tribe had a deity, represented by an idol in the Ka’aba at Mecca, which was already an established pilgrimage site. Loyalty to the tribe also included loyalty to the tribal deity. This presented two problems to the success of the Prophet’s message. Converting to Islam meant forsaking the tribal deity and betraying the tribe, a violation of the tribal solidarity that is evidenced by the quote from the Ghazziya poet. More practically, the Prophet Muhammad’s message was an attack on the economic structure of Mecca, which relied on annual pilgrimages to the Ka’aba to remain viable. If people stopped worshipping the idols then they would no longer have a reason to visit Mecca. The Quraysh, the Prophet’s own tribe, would lose their source of income. In one stroke, the Prophet was insulting the tribe’s sense of community and attacking the economic foundation its prosperity depended on. The Quraysh were obligated to persecute the fledgling Muslim community.

The Prophet Muhammad’s attack on Meccan social norms was met first with resistance and then with violence, including a narrowly avoided assassination attempt. The Muslims initially benefited from the protection of the Prophet Muhammad’s uncle, Abu Talib, who was the head of the Banu Hashim, a respected clan in the Quraysh tribe. However, after his uncle died, the Prophet and his followers were left to fend for themselves, leaving them in a difficult position where they were open to violent retaliation from the Qurayshi families who felt both threatened and insulted by a perceived theft of family member loyalties.

This dilemma was resolved by a revolutionary idea, built on the foundation of the message that the Prophet preached in Mecca. The Muslims abandoned the idea of kinship groups based on blood and instead formed a new ‘tribe’ based on faith, known as the ummah. Membership in the ummah (as well as being a Muslim) required no family relation, no social status, and no prerequisite level of income; it only required acceptance of Allah as the one true God and of Muhammad as his Messenger. The ummah was a new community that offered the Muslims the protection and security they had previously received from their kinship groups.[5] The moment that defined the creation of this community is the Hijra, the emigration of Muslims to Yathrib. Prior to this, the Muslims had still considered themselves to be members of their own families, just with a different set of beliefs. Breaking away from their families and creating a new community based on faith rather than blood was an incredible social innovation, and clearly marks the birth of the Muslim community as an independent and functional social system, as well as a system of belief.

Eventually, the ummah would encompass all of Arabia, creating a new problem that challenged the traditional means of supplementing tribal income: raiding, which was known as ghazu. In times of scarcity, tribes would launch raids against each other to capture camels, cattle or slaves. Raids were carried out with precision and care, to prevent injuries or deaths that might result in blood fueds. These raids were an accepted fact of life and were not in any way morally reprehensible. They were instead a necessary means of redistributing wealth in an area of the world where there was often not enough to go around.[6] Unfortunately, this tradition conflicted with the new Muslim morality as defined by the Quran and the Prophet. Surah 3, ayah 103 of the Quran says, “Hold fast to God’s rope all together; do not split into factions. Remember God’s favour to you: you were enemies and then He brought your hearts together and you became brothers by His grace: you were about to fall into a pit of Fire and He saved you from it…”[7] Also, in his book, A History of the Arab Peoples, Hourani says that when the Prophet Muhammad made his last visit to Mecca in 632, he gave a speech and said, “…know that every Muslim is a Muslim’s brother, and that the Muslims are brethren.” He said that violence between Muslims should be avoided and old blood debts should be forgotten.[8]

As essentially members of one tribe, the ummah would have to reassess their society and find a new means of supporting themselves. Internal conflicts were no longer permitted under Islam, so the Arabs instead spread outward, taking their culture and religion with them. The outward spread of Arabs into the Middle East began as raiding parties in Syria and Palestine in the 630s,[9] but soon developed into full scale battle with the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires. The conquering Arabs would be victorious, creating a vast Islamic empire. The leap from pre-Islamic Bedouin society to Islamic Imperialism would again fundamentally alter Arab society.

Because of the principles of unity found in the Quran, the nomadic peoples of Arabia created a new social identity that revolved around faith. This was a clear break from the past and returned a sense of equity to the Muslim community. However, this new unity came with new problems. The Arabs had to find a new economic model to sustain their society. The Arabs solved this problem using traditional tactics. Since the tribe was replaced by the ummah, the push outward into the Middle East was a continuation of the tradition of ghazu, simply on a larger scale. Intentionally or not, a relatively simple people from the Arabian Peninsula quickly became a world power that would greatly influence world history, and continues to influence world history.

[1] On page 38 of The Great Arab Conquests, Kennedy states that membership in a tribe might increase or decrease based on the tribe’s level of success. New arrivals would claim that they “must have been in some way part of that kin all along,” maintaining the façade of biological kinship groups.
[2] Lapidus, page 13.
[3] Lapidus, pages 12.
[4] Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time, pages 12 – 14.
[5] Kennedy, page 38.
[6] Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time, page 11.
[7] The Qur’an; M.A.S. Abdel Haleem translation; Oxford World’s Classics version.
[8] Hourani, page 19.
[9] Kennedy, page 70.


Armstrong, K. (2007). Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time. New York: HarperCollins.
Armstrong, K. (2009). Islam: A Short History. London: Phoenix Press.
The Qur’an. (2010). (M. A. Haleem, Trans.) New York: Oxford University Press.
Hourani, A. (1991). A History Of The Arab Peoples. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Kennedy, H. (2008). The Great Arab Conquests: How The Spread of Islam Changed The World We Live In. Philadelphia: Ca Capo Press.
Lapidus, I. M. (2002). A History of Islamic Societies (2nd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.
This was a paper written for a college course titled “Middle East Under Islam.”  The final grade was 15/15, 100%.

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Bradley Farless

Thanks. I'm glad you enjoyed it.


Great essay. Well written and acurate