Skip to main content
The Perils of Nationalism
Oct 1, 2001

Third matter

Nationalism or ethnic differences have been unleashed in this [twentieth] century, particularly by European officials following the well-known principle of divide and rule. The target of this insidious assault is the Muslim world.

Nationalism gives some satisfaction but encourages self-pride and produces a power that sometimes is improper. Therefore it should not be abandoned, but people must realize that there are two kinds of nationalism: negative and positive. The first kind, which is ominous and harmful, is fed through swallowing others and sustained through enmity against others. As such nationalism causes mutual antagonism and discord, the Qur’an and the Prophet reject it: “Islam has forbidden the national (tribal) zealotry of the Age of Ignorance.”1

The Qur’an is explicit on this point: When non-believers set zealotry, the tribalism of the Age of Ignorance, in their hearts, God sent down His peace and reassurance upon His Messenger and the believers, and fastened to them the word of self-restraint and God-consciousness to which they have better right and of which they are worthy. God knows everything (48:26). The sacred and positive Islamic nationalism contains no negative partisan nationalism. What state with more than 1 billion members, other than the Muslim state, has so many eternal brothers and sisters?

Previous outbreaks of negative nationalism have harmed Islamic unity and the Muslim world. For example, the Umayyads preferred Arabs in their government and so offended other [non-Arab] Muslims and suffered many misfortunes. European nations because excessively nationalistic during this century, which caused the long-standing ominous French– German enmity to erupt into the vastly destructive First World War. And in our own history, just as Babylon was destroyed by internal tribal division, the beginning of the Ottoman State’s second constitutional period [declared in 1908] saw the formation of many minority-based groups or societies, particularly among the Greeks and Armenians. What befell the Ottoman State as a result illustrates negative nationalism's harm.

The national or tribal conflict between Muslim peoples or communities is so great a misfortune that it is like getting bitten by a snake to avoid a mosquito. At a time when the European powers resemble huge dragons just waiting to attack us to satisfy their insatiable greed, our national integrity is harmed by encouraging hostility and taking sides, because of national differences, against our citizens in the eastern cities and the coreligionists among our southern neighbors.

There is no reason to for enmity toward our southern coreligionists, from where the Qur’an’s light and Islam’s radiance came to us, for such national conflicts only benefit Europe. Also, such feelings may cause enmity toward the Qur’an and Islam, which would destroy all Muslims’ worldly and otherworldly lives. To destroy these two worlds’ cornerstones under the pretext of serving social life through nationalism or patriotism is stupidity.

Fourth matter

The second kind of nationalism is positive and, arising from social life’s intrinsic requirements. Thus it brings about mutual assistance and solidarity, produces a beneficial power, and strengthens Islamic unity.

Its goal should be to serve and protect-not replace-Islam, for the unity desired and established by Islam is manifold and counts in both the intermediate and eternal worlds. Since nationalist unity only can be as strong as one aspect of Islamic unity, trying to replace the latter with the former is as foolish as replacing the diamonds in a citadel with its stones. So, followers of the Qur’an! Your land has carried the flag of the Qur’an for 1,000 years, since the time of the ‘Abbasids, over three continents and challenged the world. You have made your national feeling and solidarity a stronghold to protect Islam and, by repelling the world’s dreadful assaults, are included in the meaning of: God will bring a people He loves, and who love Him, humble toward believers and stern toward unbelievers, striving in His way and not fearing the reproach of any reproachers (5:24).

You should be afraid of and avoid being led by the deceitful instigation of Europe and Westernized hypocrites, who are included in the meaning of that verse’s first part: O you who believe! Whosoever of you turns from his [her] religion...

Fifth matter

The awakening peoples of Asia blindly follow the European style of nationalism and sacrifice many sacred things for its sake.2 However, just as a suit made from the same cloth cannot fit every body and an elderly prayer leader does not wear clothes designed for a tango dancer, each people should strive for authenticity. If Europe is like a marketplace or a barracks, Asia is an arable field or a mosque. A businessperson may go to dance, but a farmer cannot. A barracks’ conditions differ from those of a mosque.

Most Prophets appeared in Asia, while philosophers usually emerged in Europe. This is a sign from eternal Destiny that Asian vitality and progress is possible through religion and spirituality. Philosophy and science should support-not replace-religion.

Indifference to religion is a grave mistake. Do not forget that Europe is devoted to its religion, and that such Western leaders as Wilson, Lloyd George and Venizelos are as fanatically devoted to their religion as a priest.3

Any comparison of Islam with Christianity is false. Europe progressed when it reformed its religion after 3 centuries of wars caused by the Church and religion’s misuse by despotic rulers and priests who sought to crush the masses and the intellectuals [to preserve the status quo, which favored their interests]. But in Islam, religious devotion caused only one internal war.4

Muslims realized a far greater progress than their contemporaries whenever they followed Islam earnestly, as seen in the Islamic state of Andalusia, the greatest teacher of Renaissance Europe.5 Whenever Muslims have been indifferent to religion, they have declined and fallen to a miserable state.

Through its numerous principles of compassion, such as mandating the prescribed alms (zakat) and prohibiting interest, Islam protects the masses. Through its many warnings, like: Will you not exercise your reason? Will they not contemplate and reflect? Do they not ponder?, it considers intellect and science as proofs for its truths, and protects and encourages scientists to conduct research. Since it is the citadel of the masses and scientists, no one should regret being a Muslim.

Islam differs from other religions because it is founded upon pure monotheism and so denies any intermediary or intermediate causal creative or formative effect. Christianity admits such influences, for it allows saints and elders a certain partnership in the manifestation of God’s Sovereignty by saying that God has begotten a son: They have taken as lords beside God their rabbis, monks, and the Messiah son of Mary, when they were commanded to serve but One God. There is no god but He, be He glorified from their associating partners with Him (9:31). Christians who rise to the highest worldly posts can remain Christians. They even become, like the late American president Wilson, bigoted and full of egotism. Their Muslim counterparts, however, are expected to renounce egotism and pride in order to be good Muslims. Followers of pure monotheism, Muslims who cannot do so either become indifferent to Islam or even lose their faith.

Sixth matter

To those extreme negative nationalists and separatists, I say the following: The Earth’s surface has been the stage of many changes and emigrations. Once the center of the Islamic administration was formed in our country, many peoples, like moths to a light, flocked to it to settle. As the resulting intermingling makes it impossible to determine their national origins, except by reading the Supreme Guarded Tablet, it is meaningless and harmful to build a society and our attitudes on nationalism…. When determining national identity, language, religion, and (geographical) land are key factors. Their joint existence means a strong national structure. But the lack of any one factor does not exclude the possibility of a strong national identity and sentiment.

Of the hundreds of benefits that Islam’s sacred nationality has given our country’s social life, I cite only two examples: First, the Muslim state has maintained its vitality and existence, despite its population of only 20 or 30 million and European hostility, because of the conviction that: “If I die, I will die a martyr; if I survive, I will survive as a holy warrior of Islam.” This conviction comes from the Qur’an’s light and is held by our state’s army. Thus equipped, that army has welcomed death with perfect enthusiasm and terrified Europe for centuries. What else could inculcate such a sublime quality of self-sacrifice in our soldiers' minds, make them single-minded and pure-hearted? What kind of nationalistic zeal can be substituted for it and cause soldiers to sacrifice everything, even their lives, for its sake? Second, whenever the dragons-the European great powers-afflict this Muslim state, it deeply affects and shakes the Muslim world. Those imperialist powers governing Muslim lands usually restrain their urge to attack this state, for they fear that the Muslims under their control will revolt. What other force can substitute for this continual, and certainly non-trivial, spiritual support (Muslim unity)? Those who offer it should not be offended by [being forced to project] a negative nationalism and patriotism that make us indifferent to other Muslims


  1. The Age of Ignorance: The pre-Islamic period of the Arabian peninsula.
  2. Bediuzzaman locates the traditional Muslim world in Asia, by which he means the contemporary Far East, Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa.
  3. Woodrow Wilson: American politician and president (1856-1924); Lloyd George (1863-1945), British statesman and prime minister; Eleutherios Venizelos (1864-1936): Greek statesman and premier.
  4. The Battle of the Camel (656), during which ‘Ali’s forces defeated the army led by ‘A’isha, Talha, and Ibn Zubayr.
  5. Andalusia is the name of Islamic Spain, which existed from 712 to 1492. At a time when most of Europe was lost in the Dark Ages, it was a beacon of knowledge and intellectual endeavor that attracted many European students. After is fall to Catholic Spain, its intellectual heritage was dispersed and was instrumental in Europe’s intellectual re-awakening and Renaissance. Adapted from Bediuzzaman's Twenty-sixth Letter, Second Topic.