Islam ordains communal cohesiveness for nations living by the shari'a. The notion of jama'a appears across a variety of texts requiring Muslims to be united, prohibiting abandoning the community. The term however remains contested across the scholarly works.
The Arabic word jama'a literally denotes a group, a collective, a congregation and other synonymous words (Hans Wehr, p. 135). However its general linguistic definition is community. In jurisprudential terms it refers to the congregation of prayer.
Many ahadith abound with the notion of 'clinging to the community'. Notwithstanding these traditions the concept of jama'a seems to be contentious in both contemporary and classical theology. Al-Shatibi in his work al-Itisam lists the divergent views of the scholars regarding who the 'community' refers to;
Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz (d. 101/720), the fifth Rightly-Guided Caliph, argued the jama'a cited in ahadith refers to the companions only as they established the foundations of Islam and never agreed upon error. Those who agree with this view corroborate this assertion with other traditions hailing the virtue and authority of the Companions.
Ibn Ḥajar al-Asqalani (d. 852/1448) contends the collective refers to scholars (ahl al-ilm), the jurists and hadith masters. This designation would imply the jama'a comprise scholarly elite, excluding laymen who are followers. Alternatively, it could be interpreted as a two tier jama'a. Ibn Hajar argues the jama'a refers to 'the people of binding and loosening' (ahl al-hal wa al-aqd), including both scholars and political leaders. The obligation of having political leaders and following them has been discussed in the theological works (e.g., al-Nasafi in his Aqa'id).
Ibn al-Athir (d. 630/1233) explains that the jama'a is all people (jumla al-nas) the majority of whom are united upon the allegiance of the Sultan and the upright methodology (al-nahj al-qawim). Al-Shatibi asserts this jama'a consists of the mujtahid scholars of this community (ummah), those who practice the Shari'a and all those who follow them. It would seem from this that al-Shatibi is defining the great masses through the 'orthodoxy' of scholarship rather than virtue of themselves.
Ibn Jarir al-Tabari (d. 310/923) agrees with the above explanations of the jama'a, however he claims that the import of the tradition is maintaining the community by obeying whoever they have appointed as their emir; whoever rescinds his allegiance forfeits the claim to be part of the jama'a. It could be inferred from al-Tabari's statement this means all Muslims.
Effectively what is becoming evident here is that these scholars were attempting to make sense of their reality through the text. Four approaches can be identified in the appropriation of the word 'community'.
1. Sectarian: the claim to revere all of the companions would thus exclude Shi'ites and Kharijites.
2. Authoritarian: historically political powers (Umayyads and Abbasid dynasties) attempted to claim orthodoxy whereby God had assigned them positions of power and responsibility.
3. Clerical: Hanbali and Ash'ari scholarship claimed orthodoxy by virtue of being custodians of knowledge and heirs of the prophets.
4. Majoritarian: the natural order would be numerical and this compounds rigid orthodoxy as a body of people do not constitute a monolithic entity.
The scholars deem the 'community' (jama'a) refers to either the Companions, the scholars of sacred knowledge (ullama), political leaders, the masses or the community of Muslims under the leadership of the Imam/Caliph.
Al-Taftazani, Sharh al-Aqa'id al-Nasafiyya
Ibn al-Athir, Al-Nihaya fi Gharib al-Hadith
Taj ul-Islam, Scholastic Traditional Minimalism: A critical analysis of intra-Sunni sectarian polemics, The University of Exeter Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies
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