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The Concept of 'Umma' in Early Islam

In this keynote lecture Fred Donner of the University of Chicago addresses the nebulous, often misunderstood concept of ‘umma’ in early Islam in general, and the Qur’an in particular. Fred discusses how the word has come to signify any and all forms of community in contemporary Arabic, a range of meanings that it has held since the seventh century at least. From at least the ninth century, however, it has also had the particular signification of the universal community of Muslim believers. It is this last meaning that Fred seeks to interrogate in the earliest period and Quranic text, in order to establish whether this was part of Islamic discourse from its earliest inception, or a development of the post-conquests era. Through a brilliantly close and erudite reading he picks apart the many strands and meanings of umma in the Qur’an, thereby clearly demonstrating that the sacred work has in fact a very contingent and context-based understanding of communities’ formation, rise and fall, even as it understands them as the basic organising social unit above that of the family. In the final part of his talk Fred moves on to discuss the workshop itself, and the ways in which this research is relevant - and very much not relevant - for understanding phenomena like Daesh (IS/ISIS/ISIL) in the contemporary world.