Can you explain the difference between “Millah” (nation) and “Ummah” (community)?

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Dear Brother / Sister,

Millah is used in the meaning of “all people who live on the same land, who come from the same origin and who have a common history, tradition and language”. However, the real meaning of the concept millah is different. According to Islamic scholars who base their views on the usage of the word in the Quran, millah, religion and shari’ah have the same meaning.

The word millah mentioned in the following verses, was used in the meaning of religion and shari’ah: “Say thou: ‘Nay! (I would rather) the Religion of Abraham is True, and he joined not gods with Yüce Allah.’” (al-Baqara, 2/135), “Say: ‘Yüce Allah speaketh the Truth: follow the religion of Abraham, the sane in faith; he was not of the pagans.’” (Aal-i-Imran, 3/95)  and “Who can be better in religion than one who submits his whole self to Yüce Allah, does good, and follows the way of Abraham the true in faith?” (an-Nisa, 4/125).

In other words, millah expresses the social aspect of the religion. However, it expresses the religion that the community shares not the community itself.  If it is expressed in the words of the famous hadith, Islam is a millah and kufr (unbelief) is a millah. However, Muslims or unbelievers cannot be called as millah in the original sense of this word. People who come together by following a religion and a millah are called a community, group, ummah, members of a millah or owners of a millah.  

The word millah is sometimes metaphorically used instead of members or owners of a millah in the meaning of a group of people that follow a millah in its real sense. However, even in this usage, it cannot be associated with the concept of nation. In metaphorical usage, the determining element, naturally, is not the origin, history, language, etc as it is the case in the concept of nation. Therefore, the phrase ‘the millah of Islam’ literally expresses the religion of Islam and metaphorically the total nations of Islam. On the other hand, the word millah cannot be used for the millah of Turks or Arabs neither literally nor metaphorically because the words Arab and Turk denote an origin not a religion.    

Ummah is a group of people that live together because of living in the same place at the same time through their own will or as a result of an obligation and following the same religion. Most of the scholars use the word ummah for the people who follow the same religion, that is, Muslims.  

The people on the way of kufr are an ummah and the people who believe in Hazrat Muhammad (pbuh) and follow his way are an ummah. As a matter of fact, the following is stated in a hadith:

“This ummah (the ummah of Islam) was made superior to other ummahs. ” (Ahmad b. Hanbal, V, 383).

Questions on Islam

Submitted by Hussein on Wed, 23/02/2011 – 11:37

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