Scholars have dedicated much time and effort to unpack the various kinds of nation-building projects, but the distinction between “civic nation” versus “ethnic nation” is perhaps the most widely-employed conceptual building block in the study of nationhood and national identity. While these types of nations share common elements like historical territory and common culture, they have distinct features.
An ethnic nation bases national group membership upon qualities such as ancestry, marriage and blood. In this sense, an ethnic nation is an exclusive nation because it places emphasis on historical experiences and the resulting phenotypes which outline the boundary of the “native” community. Some scholars argue that Eastern European and Asian countries are historical examples of ethnic nations while Western European countries and the United States are historical examples of civic nations.
A civic nation can be viewed as the opposite of an ethnic nation. A civic nation determines national group membership upon citizenship rights, rather than that of ancestry, marriage, or blood, as commonly found in an ethnic nation. A civic nation can be defined as a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values (Ignatieff, 1993: 6).
Civic nation building envisions “one people” with a common sense of “we,” but not in the sense that “we” derive from a particular ethnicity or religion. Civic nationalism separates culture and state whereas ethnic nationalism joins them (Kymlicka, 2001: 204). In summary, a civic nation allows individuals to define the national community rather than having the national community define the individual, which is not necessarily the case in an ethnic nation. As such, an ethnic nation abandons the idea that national belonging is a choice and not an inheritance.
Prophet Muhammad insisted that the Muslim national group boundary is not the property of any particular religious or ethnic group. In this regard, he can be seen as being a “political pluralist” in that he desired “a political culture of non-centralized action, which endows civic centers of activity with initiative rather than imagining that the state has to license and delegate everything from the top ” (Kamali, 2009: 40). For the state to give preference to one or more group means devaluating citizens based upon their ethnic or cultural backgrounds. The Prophet did not want to inflict harm on Christians, nor interfere or encroach on their privacy or private property. In the Covenant with the Christians of the World, he laid down the injunction:
The covenant of Allah is that I should protect their land, their monasteries, with my power, my horses, my men, my strength, and my Muslim followers in any region, far away or close by, and that I should protect their businesses. I grant security to them, their churches, their businesses, their houses of worship, the places of their monks, the places of their pilgrims, wherever they may be found… (Prophet Muhammad, 2015: 48).
This is the sanctity of privacy and property rights that Muhammad granted Christian citizens in an Islamic state. The rights he granted them are “not simply a claim of individuals against the state but a claim of individuals that the state itself underwrites for the good of all” (Schudson, 2006: 600). These rights include property rights of individuals as a basic condition for democratic citizenship (ibid.).
Prophet Muhammad instructed his followers to follow these commands, and stated that any Muslim that disobeys them acts against the will of God. Muslims who disrespect his ordinances are “[enemies] on the Day of Judgment among all the Muslims” (Prophet Muhammad, 2015: 54). In the Covenant with the Christians of the World, a civic conception of the nation was developed by Muhammad in the sense that ethnic or cultural unity was not a requisite for belonging to the ummah. People in a civic nation are united by such traits as common citizenship, respect for law and state institutions, and belief in a set of political principles (Shulman, 2002: 560).
You can keep reading on the civic national boundaries of Prophet Muhammad’s Muslim nation by visiting Religious Pluralism and Civic Rights in a “Muslim Nation”: An Analysis of Prophet Muhammad’s Covenants with Christians.
Ignatieff, M. (1993). Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.
Kamali, M. H. (2009). Diversity and Pluralism: A Qur’anic Perspective. Islam and Civilisational Renewal 1: 27-54.
Kymlicka, W. (2001). Politics in the Vernacular: Nationalism, Multiculturalism, and Citizenship. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Prophet Muhammad. (2015). The Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World. In: Six Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of His Time: The Primary Documents. Edited by John Andrew Morrow. Kettering: Covenants Press.
Schudson, M. (2006). The Varieties of Civic Experience. Citizenship Studies 10: 591-606.
Schulman, S. (2002). Challenge the Civic/Ethnic and West/East Dichotomies in the Study of Nationalism. Comparative Political Studies 35: 554-85.