The Islamic concept of one ummah is such a romantic and idealistic notion, but one that doesn’t seem achievable in this day and age. Many Muslims still identify so strongly with entrenched ideas of tribes and clans, nationality and race. In certain Muslim-majority countries like Somalia, tribal allegiances have resulted in civil wars between fellow Muslims.
It is true that Allah created us different from each other, but, as explained in the Qur’an:
“We have created you from male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another…” (49:13).
As Muslims, our differences in race or nationality should not be a source of discord or disunity. It should serve as an opportunity to learn from one another and adopt each other’s strengths in order to become better Muslims.
When I was studying in Sydney last year, I subconsciously shed my already weak cultural identity and considered myself as nothing more and nothing less than a Muslim. In many ways that helped me become a better Muslim because I became constantly aware and reminded of my obligations and responsibilities. It also helped me feel less alone in a city where my nationality and race makes up an almost insignificant minority.
While I did feel a sense of belonging with other brothers and sisters in Islam on my university campus, this wasn’t always the case.
I occasionally visited a Lebanese enclave about 15 kilometres away from the Sydney CBD. Its main thoroughfare dominated by halal restaurants and butchers, and shops selling Islamic books and paraphernalia, I could almost forget that I was in Australia and not some Muslim country!
Paradoxically though, it was there, amongst other Muslims, that I felt like an outsider. Perhaps because I was an unfamiliar face, or because I, with my dark skin and Indian features, look starkly different from the typical residents of that suburb, but I was disappointed when my smiles and friendliness were not reciprocated.
This phenomenon brought to mind what a Chinese friend once told me. She said that as a race, the Chinese are rather united and proud, and are quick to defend one another against the criticism of outsiders. Within the race however, they are divided by regional loyalties, by dialects, by clans.
Alhamdulillah, in Singapore I feel this is less rampant. You do still hear about certain Muslim parents or grandparents disapproving of their child’s chosen spouse on the grounds of race, and mean-spirited racist comments are not unheard of. But overall the relationship between Muslims of different races in Singapore tends to be warm and genial. We should all strive to not only maintain the status quo but to improve it such that we no longer differentiate each other as Malays, Indians or Chinese first, but acknowledge each other as Muslims first.
Shahirah is an aspiring journalist who is interested in social issues, women’s rights, the Middle East conflict, and Islam in the Western world. She is also interested in languages and would like to take up Arabic soon.