Unity of Humanity and their differences

Friday Khutba by Dr Zahid Aziz, for Lahore Ahmadiyya UK, 5 May 2023

“Mankind is a single nation. So Allah raised prophets as bearers of good news and as warners, and He revealed with them the Book with truth, that it might judge between people in that in which they differed. …” —ch. 2, v. 213

کَانَ النَّاسُ اُمَّۃً  وَّاحِدَۃً ۟ فَبَعَثَ اللّٰہُ النَّبِیّٖنَ مُبَشِّرِیۡنَ وَ مُنۡذِرِیۡنَ  ۪ وَ اَنۡزَلَ مَعَہُمُ  الۡکِتٰبَ بِالۡحَقِّ لِیَحۡکُمَ بَیۡنَ النَّاسِ فِیۡمَا اخۡتَلَفُوۡا فِیۡہِ ؕ

I have read here the first part of this verse. The words “Mankind is a single nation (ummat-an wāḥidat-an)” are translated by almost every translator of the Holy Quran in the past tense as: “Mankind was a single nation”. This is because of the occurrence here of the word kāna, which usually means “was”. They then interpret this verse to mean that, in very remote times in the distant past, the whole of humanity was one small community. Then as it spread in the world, it no longer remained a single nation. Its various sections started requiring guidance, and thus Allah raised prophets among them. However, the Lahore Ahmadiyya translator of the Quran, Maulana Muhammad Ali, writes that when the word kāna is applied to something it does not necessarily mean that “it was” or “it used to be”, but it can also mean “it has always been”. Therefore, this sentence means that mankind has always been a single nation. He adds that the Quran “thus lays down the principle of the oneness of humanity in the clearest words”.

Similar words occur in ch. 10, v. 19: وَ مَا کَانَ النَّاسُ اِلَّاۤ اُمَّۃً وَّاحِدَۃً — “And mankind is nothing but a single nation”, or as Maulana Muhammad Ali puts it: “And (all) people are but a single nation”. Others again translate it in the past tense, that mankind was once nothing but a single nation. The Maulana’s interpretation comes from his funda­mental view, stressed in the modern age by the Founder of the Ahmadiyya Movement, that humanity is becoming more and more like one nation because of different nations coming closer together by modern means of travel and communications.

Even if we take the traditional interpretation, that humanity “was” a single nation only in the beginning of human history, it can still mean that humanity will again become one community. Hazrat Mirza  Ghulam Ahmad, Founder of the Ahmadiyya Movement, has written that after human beings spread around the earth they became separate nations, disconnected from one another. So God raised different prophets in different nations with different books. Then means of travel and communications started being developed which made the various nations aware of other nations and established connections between them. He writes: “Each of the books before the Quran was limited to one nation,… that nation’s books and prophets had nothing to do with any other nation. But the Holy Quran, which came after them all, is an inter­national book, and is not for a particular people but for all the nations. The Quran came for a group of beings who were going to become a single nation gradually” (Chashma-i Ma‘rifat, pp. 67–68). So according to Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, even the words “humanity was a single nation” imply that it will again be a single nation in the end, after having been divided into separate nations with their own prophets.

Both the verses that I have mentioned (2:213 and 10:19) then go on to say that human beings differ and disagree among themselves. Moreover, there is a verse in the Quran which says: “And if Allah had pleased He would have made you a single people” — اُمَّۃً وَّاحِدَۃً (5:48). Does this contradict our interpretation that humanity is a single nation? No. All human beings are one nation because the same laws of nature, and laws of God, apply to each one of them. They all have the same needs and God fulfills their needs, whether physical or spiritual. But still, they also have different physical appearances from birth, they speak different languages, follow different ways and customs, cook different things etc. The Quran says in this connection: “And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colours. Surely there are signs in this for the learned” (30:22). Those who seek to gain knowledge, the learned, study this diversity and learn from these differences.

There is no contradiction between saying that humanity is one and that its sections are different. There is one international body known as the United Nations, meeting in one building. Yet its members differ with one another so much so that one might be at war with another. During the Covid pandemic all humans were vulnerable to the same virus. They had a common enemy. Yet the way of combating this enemy differed from one country to another, some having severe restrictions on people’s movements and others allowing mixing. Differences may be a cause of friction and war between nations, but this does not mean that they are a bad thing and must be eliminated. This applies not only to political or physical differences but also religious differences. Someone from a religion different from ours might be doing something which we ought to be doing but which we have neglected or given up. The problem arises when the followers of a religion fail to act on the basic principles of their own religion, yet they feel superior that they have the correct teachings while followers of other religions are in error. They believe that God is on their side, no matter what they do.

It says in the Quran: “O messengers, eat of the good things and do good. Surely I am Knower of what you do. And surely this your community is one community, and I am your Lord, so keep your duty to Me. But they split apart their unity into sects, each faction rejoicing in what it had” (23:51–53). The question arises: How could Allah address all His messengers simultaneously as if they were standing together in a group, and say to them: you messengers are one community (ummat-an wāḥidat-an)? The meaning of course is that the mission and work of all the prophets of God was so similar that it is as if He had addressed them all together, like a teacher addressing one class, and sent them on the same mission to different places.

Then it says about their followers that they split apart their unity into sects, with each faction rejoicing in what it had. This means that the followers of the various prophets stopped giving prece­dence to the primary message of their prophet, the message which was essentially the same for all prophets. Instead, they gave the highest importance to certain secondary matters, which were different across different religions, and began to believe these differences to be the key to a person’s salvation and to his being accepted by God as being on the right path. Each faction rejoiced in its particular differences with others, and each believed that God would be pleased with its members and would be displeased with all others.

What is wrong is not that there are different religions but that the followers of each of them are rejoicing that it is their differences with others which will make them enter heaven. Each is forgetting that its prophet and the prophet of another religion belonged to the same community of teachers. To deny and abuse the prophet of another religion is to deny and abuse all of them, including your own prophet.

Just as there are many religions, but Islam tells us to look at what unites them, there are many sects among Muslims. Their fundamental beliefs and practices unite them. But they declare each other as unbelievers, bound for hell, and punishable by Allah on some point of difference. But the fact is that no one sect is completely right on each and every point of difference it has with others. They can all learn from one another, instead of each one rejoicing that it, and only it, is bound for heaven. Some people, annoyed by this sectarianism, say that there should be no sects. This is just shallow and wishful thinking. It is simply impractical and an unattainable fantasy. These people cannot say how sects can be abolished. They do not realise that most sects came into being originally for the reform of Muslims, when they found that Muslims generally were deviating from some teaching of Islam. But often, the sects which came to reform others went to an extreme of their own. So the approach should be for sects to learn from the good works of other sects and avoid their mistakes.

The verses from chapter 23 that I have just been discussing occur in another place in the Quran as well. In the chapter entitled The Prophets (al-anbiya), after mentioning several prophets, it says at the end of their stories: “Surely this your community (ummah) is a single community (ummat-an wāḥidat-an), and I am your Lord, so serve Me. And they split apart their unity: to Us will all return” (21:92–93). I have said earlier that the words, addressing the prophets as “Surely this your comm­unity is a single community” —  اِنَّ ہٰذِہٖۤ اُمَّتُکُمۡ اُمَّۃً وَّاحِدَۃً  —mean that the prophets themselves are one community. Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad has given an interesting, different interpretation of this. He writes: “What this says is: O you prophets who were sent to different parts of the world, the Muslims who have arisen in the world from different nations, they are your Ummah, the Ummah of all of you, because they believe in all of you” (Chashma-i Ma‘rifat, p. 137). Allah is saying to all the prophets, be it Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon or Jesus, all of you have one and the same Ummah, and that is these Muslims because they believe in all of you and they have come from the various nations who call themselves your followers. That is to say, Muslims have not come from anywhere else but from the nations such as the Jews and the Christians. Usually we say that the Jews are the ummah of Moses, the Christians are the ummah of Jesus, and Muslims are the ummah of the Holy Prophet Muhammad. The Quran here says that Muslims are the ummah of all the prophets.

May Allah bring the realisation that  اِنَّ ہٰذِہٖۤ اُمَّتُکُمۡ اُمَّۃً وَّاحِدَۃً    “Surely this your comm­unity is a single community” to the minds of all sections of humanity, and also to the various groups and sects of the Muslims, ameen.