NOTE: Is the Islamic world the same as the Umma?

by iyusufphd

So often in discussions about jihad, we hear the phrase “the Islamic world”, often used interchangeably with the “Arab world” (despite the fact that there are large numbers of Arab Christians and that only a minority of Muslims are native Arabic speakers) or “the Muslim world”. Occasionally we also come across the word Umma (also spelt Ummah) which may be roughly translated as the international Islamic community or even as the nation of believers in all things Islamic.

Are these two entities one and the same?

In 2003, a book co-authored by J Tolan, H Laurens & G Veinstein Europe And The Islamic World A History was published by Princeton University Press. They argued that the idea of dar al-Islam (“the house of Islam” or roughly the Islamic world) needs to be distinguished from that of umma. The Islamic world may be defined as all those lands or countries where Islam is the dominant religion. It is not occupied solely by Muslims.

The umma refers to the all Muslims including those living outside dar al-Islam. Hence it likely includes “emigrants to Europe or North America”. Or indeed Australia and New Zealand.


The authors argue that the concept of umma is recognised across Muslim circles and is “widespread among Arab authors”. It is a fundamental marker of Muslim identity of a very cosmopolitan kind. It provides a sense of inclusion and belonging to all Muslims regardless of where they might reside and what their formal or legal citizenship may be.

In my opinion, the sense of belonging to the transnational umma can be especially attractive to young Western Muslims who feel isolated from the mainstream. The idea of umma can be used to keep a tiny number of these young people attracted to violent forms of transnational jihad from walking down this path but it may require a sustained effort to convince young people that Australian Muslims are equally part of the umma. Hence thinking globally can be achieved by acting locally.

Such efforts, however, can be made more difficult by an environment of deliberate and sustained marginalisation by “public” Muslims (spokespeople, leaders etc) as well as by the “mainstream”.

These are very preliminary thoughts on my part.