The notion of citizenship in Islam

Bernard Lewis claims that the idea of citizenship is alien to Islamic political culture. There isn’t even a word for it.  I do not know of a possible transliteration of the word ‘citizen’ in Arabic.  In urdu, however, ‘shehri’ seems to be a very close transliteration.  But was the word shehri not also used for the ‘british subjects’ during the colonial times? While ‘shehri’ does seem to refer to what is called ‘citizen’ in English, it is also used to distinguish folks who live in cities from those who live in rural environs.  The word ‘citizen’ is incapable of performing such discrimination.

According to Bernard Lewis:

Another noteworthy historical and cultural fact is the absence of the notion of citizenship. There is no word in Arabic, Persian, or Turkish for “citizen.” The cognate term used in each language means only “compatriot” or “countryman.” It has none of the connotations of the English word “citizen,” which comes from the Latin civis and has the content of the Greek polites, meaning one who participates in the affairs of the polis. The word is absent in Arabic and the other languages because the idea–of the citizen as participant, of citizenship as participation–is not there.

“Islam and Liberal Democracy: A Historical Overview,” Journal of Democracy 7.2 (1996) 52-63

Comments, insights, knowledge?

About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts

8 Responses to “The notion of citizenship in Islam”

  1. پاکستانی معاشرے میں سول سوسائٹی سے مراد وہ تمیز دار اور مہذب معاشرہ ہے جن کو اشرافیہ کہا جاتا ہے۔موجودہ دور میں
    ان کا تعلق شیر کے کسی رئیس خاندان سے بھی ہو سکتا ھے اور گاؤں کے کسی جاگیردار گھرانے سے بھی۔ معاشرے میں ان کا کردار محض اپنے مفادات کا تحفظ کرنے تک محدود ھے۔ کبھی کبھی معاشرے کے پسے ہوے طبقات کے لئے بھی آوازاٹھاتے ہیں مگر اس میں بھی ُپس پردہ ان کے اپنے مفادات ہی پیش نظر ہوتے ھیں۔
    کل کے نیو یارک ٹائمز کے شمارے میں ایک مضمون شائع ہوا ہے جس میں لکھا گیا ہے

    The paper, by Paul K. Piff of the University of California, Berkeley, and four colleagues, reports that members of the upper class are more likely than others to behave unethically, to lie during negotiations, to drive illegally and to cheat when competing for a prize.

    “Greed is a robust determinant of unethical behavior,” the authors conclude. “Relative to lower-class individuals, individuals from upper-class backgrounds behaved more unethically in both naturalistic and laboratory settings.”

    March 4, 2012, 11:38 pm
    Other People’s Suffering

    [ Sir, it is not yet complete comment. don’t post it now. just for your reading]

  2. hello irfan sb.
    the post prompted me to ask a friend from lebanon about it. she’s suggested the word ‘mouwatin’ as having the literal meaning citizen. derived from wattan. im not sure if that’s the term Lewis refers to as meaning countrymen. Her view is different from his. We’re less sure, and interested to learn (so will try and do some digging), about whether the term is used in the same way and with the same connotations as the word citizen is.

    • Thank you so much Rabea. Please do dig and keep me updated as well. It would be great to figure this out a bit more. Since the language is rooted into local experiences it is more likely that these words do not carry ‘exactly’ the same meaning. I would love to know more.

    • Does ‘mouwatin’ means the same thing as ‘humwatan’ in Urdu. If so, it would be closer to what Lewis suggests.

  3. they use ‘ehl wattan’ for the equivalent of ‘humwatan’ which corresponds exactly with countrymen. and use ‘madani’ (roughly) for civilian. ‘mouwatin’ distinguished from these two. hope to get back soon about rest.

  4. Yesterday I read an article by Khalid Ahmad (Politics: The art of riding people) where he described the origin of word ‘horse’ and its translations in other languages and related vocabulary. This motivated me to search through web the meaning of citizen in different languages. Luckily I got a web based program available here:

    It provided the translations of words from different languages into the other. I just found some interesting facts here.

    The translation of citizen in urdu is shehri and in Arabic is Muwatain( as described in previous comments) . I tried to find its translation in Hindi which provided a word say ‘*****’. When this Hindi word was translated back in Urdu it was word ‘Civil’ written with Urdu alphabets. When I looked for meaning of ‘civil’ in Arabic it showed the words ‘Madni, Mutamadan, muhazab, lateef , mujamil’. [The ‘mujamil’ means ‘flatterer’ in English which has a meaning ‘Chaploos’ in urdu.]
    Next I tried to find the meaning of citizen Via Japanese and when Japanese word was translated into Urdu it gave ‘qoumi’, which is an Arabic word too, having meaning of ‘nationalist’ in English.

    You may wish to visit the site and explore more. it is convenient and easy to use.

    [See if it works]

    • Saima, thanks for the search. Very useful! I will try out the site as well. It will be interesting to find out the terms these countries use on the passport etc.
      The British clearly distinguished between the citizens and subjects even on the passports. Which means while citizens could participate in the running of the affairs of the British government, the subjects had little or no such rights. See, for instance, the image of Jinnah’s passport that says ‘British subject by birth.’


  1. Public Sphere as transient and contingent on action | Just questions! - 06/03/2012

    […] Hannah Arendt [HA]. [The other related posts that you may want to see are this, this, this, and this.] HA deliberated much on public sphere and the idea of citizenship. Her book The Human […]

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