Constitution of Medina
The Constitution of Medina (دستور المدينة, Dustūr al-Madīnah), also known as the Charter of Medina (صحيفة المدينة, Ṣaḥīfat al-Madīnah; or: ميثاق المدينة, Mīthāq al-Madīnah), was drawn up on behalf of the Islamic prophet Muhammad shortly after his arrival at Medina (then known as Yathrib) in 622 CE (or 1 AH), following the Hijra from Mecca.
The preamble declares the document to be “a book [kitab] of the prophet Muhammad to operate between the believers [mu’minin] and Muslims from the Quraysh tribe and from Yathrib and those who may be under them and wage war in their company” declaring them to constitute “one nation [ummah wāḥidah] separate from all peoples”. It established the collective responsibility of nine constituent tribes for their members’ actions, specifically emphasising blood money and ransom payment. The first constituent group mentioned are the Qurayshi migrants, followed by eight other tribes. Eight Jewish groups are recognized as part of the Yathrib community, and their religious separation from Muslims is established. The Jewish Banu Ash shutbah tribe is inserted as one of the Jewish groups, rather than with the nine tribes mentioned earlier in the document. The constitution also established Muhammad as the mediating authority between groups and forbids the waging of war without his authorization.
The constitution formed the basis of a multi-religious Islamic state in Medina.
The constitution was created to end the bitter intertribal fighting between the rival clans of Banu Aws and Banu Khazraj in Medina and to maintain peace and co-operation among all Medinan groups. Establishing the role of Muhammad as the mediating authority between the two groups and the others in Medina was central to the ending of Medinan internal violence and was an essential feature of the constitution. The document ensured freedom of religious beliefs and practices for all citizens who “follow the believers”. It assured that representatives of all parties, Muslim or non-Muslim, should be present when consultation occurs or in cases of negotiation with foreign states. It declared “a woman will only be given protection with the consent of her family” and imposed a tax system for supporting the community in times of conflict. It declared the role of Medina as a ḥaram (حرم, “sacred place”), where no blood of the peoples included in the pact can be spilled.
The division of the constitution into numbered articles is not in the original text and the numbering of clauses differs in different sources, but there is general agreement on the authenticity of the most widely-read version of the charter, which is found in Ibn Ishaq’s Sirah Rasul Allah.
In Muhammad’s last years in Mecca, a delegation from Medina from its twelve important clans invited him as a neutral outsider to Medina to serve as the chief arbitrator for the entire community. There had been fighting in Medina involving mainly its pagan and Jewish inhabitants for around 100 years before 620. The recurring slaughters and disagreements over the resulting claims, especially after the Battle of Bu’ath in which all the clans had been involved, made it obvious to them that the tribal conceptions of blood feud and an eye for an eye were no longer workable unless there was one man with the authority to adjudicate in disputed cases. The delegation from Medina pledged themselves and their fellow citizens to accept Muhammad into their community and to protect him physically as if he was one of them.
After emigration to Medina, Muhammad drafted the constitution, “establishing a kind of alliance or federation” of the eight Medinan tribes and Muslim emigrants from Mecca and specifying the rights and duties of all citizens and the relationship of the different communities in Medina, including that of the Muslim community to other communities: the Jews and the other “Peoples of the Book”.
Instead of the original document, several versions survive in early Muslim sources. The most-widely read version is found in the pages of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirah Rasul Allah; alternative copies are in Sayyid al-Nas and Abu ‘Ubayd’s Kitab al-Amwal. The historical authenticity of the document is acknowledged by both Muslim and Western scholars.
Montgomery Watt states that it must have been written in the early Medinan period because if the document been drafted later, it would have both had a positive attitude towards the Quraysh and given Muhammad a prominent place. Hubert Grimme states that it was drafted after the Battle of Badr. However, Leone Caetani claims that the document was complete before the battle.
According to RB Serjeant, 3:101-104 of the Qur’an refer to the constitution. He proposes it underwent recension, a hypothesis first proposed by Richard Bell. In its first recension, the text sanctioned the establishment of a confederation. In its second, it admonished the Aws and Khazraj to abide by their treaty. In its third, in conjunction with the proceeding verses, it is an encouragement of Muhammad’s adherents to face the Meccan forces they eventually fought at Uhud. He states that even if the proposal of three recensions is unacceptable, the verses must make reference to the two different treaties.
Muhammad’s Quraysh (or Quraish) tribe appear in the document as both a principal constituent of the community and the enemy. The Quraysh referred to are sometimes the followers of Muhammad as “migrants” or “believers”, but other times, the word refers to those members of the tribe who expelled Muhammad and his followers from Mecca, the Qurayshi capital.
Bernard Lewis claims that the charter was not a treaty in the modern sense but a unilateral proclamation by Muhammad. One of the constitution’s more interesting aspects was the inclusion of the Jewish tribes in the ummah because although the Jewish tribes were “one community with the believers”, they also “have their religion and the Muslims have theirs”.
L. Ali Khan says that it was a social contract derived from a treaty and not from any fictional state of nature or from behind the Rawlsian veil of ignorance. It was built upon the concept of one community of diverse tribes living under the sovereignty of one God.
It also instituted peaceful methods of dispute resolution among diverse groups living as one people but without assimilating into one religion, language or culture. Welch in Encyclopedia of Islam states: “The constitution reveals Muhammad’s great diplomatic skills, for it allows the ideal that he cherished of an ummah (community) based clearly on a religious outlook to sink temporarily into the background and is shaped essentially by practical considerations.”
Tom Holland writes, “The Constitution of Medina is accepted by even the most suspicious of scholars as deriving from the time of Muhammad. Here in these precious documents, it is possible to glimpse the authentic beginnings of a movement that would succeed, in barely two decades, in prostrating both the Roman and the Persian Empires”.
Significance of Ummah
Another important feature of the Constitution of Medina is the redefinition of ties between Muslims. It sets faith relationships above blood-ties and emphasizes individual responsibility. Tribal identities are still important to refer to different groups, but the “main binding tie” for the newly-created ummah is religion. That contrasts with the norms of pre-Islamic Arabia, which was a thoroughly tribal society, but Serjeant postulates the existence of earlier theocratic communities. According to Denny, “Watt has likened the Ummah as it is described in the document to a tribe, but with the important difference that it was to be based on religion and not on kinship”. That is an important event in the development of the small group of Muslims in Medina to the larger Muslim community and empire.
Rights of non-Muslims
The non-Muslims had the following rights on the condition they “follow” the Muslims:
- The security of God is equal for all groups,
- Non-Muslim members have the same political and cultural rights as Muslims. They have autonomy and freedom of religion.
- Non-Muslims take up arms against the enemy of the nation and share the cost of war. There is to be no treachery between the two.
- Non-Muslims are not obliged to take part in the Muslims’ religious wars.
- Watt (1956), pp. 227–228 argues that the initial agreement was shortly after the Hijra and the document was amended later, after the Battle of Badr (AH [anno hijra] 2, = AD 624). Serjeant argues that the charter is in fact 8 different treaties, which can be dated according to events as they transpired in Medina, with the first treaty being written shortly after Muhammad’s arrival (R. B. Serjeant. “The Sunnah Jâmi’ah, Pacts with the Yathrib Jews, and the Tahrîm of Yathrib: Analysis and Translation of the Documents Comprised in the so called ‘Constitution of Medina’.” in The Life of Muhammad: The Formation of the Classical Islamic World: Volume iv. Ed. Uri Rubin. Brookfield: Ashgate, 1998, p. 151 and see same article in BSOAS 41, 1978: 18 ff). See also Caetani (1905), p. 393 and Wellhausen (1889), p. 82f who argue that the document is a single treaty agreed upon shortly after the hijra. Wellhausen argues that it belongs to the first year of Muhammad’s residence in Medina, before the battle of Badr in 2/624. Wellhausen bases this judgement on three considerations; Muhammad is very diffident about his own position, he accepts the pagan tribes within the Umma, and he maintains the Jewish clans as clients of the Ansars: see Wellhausen, Excursus, p. 158. Even Moshe Gil, a skeptic of Islamic history, argues that it was written within 5 months of Muhammad’s arrival in Medina. Moshe Gil. “The Constitution of Medina: A Reconsideration.” Israel Oriental Studies 4 (1974): p. 45.
- Serjeant 1978.
- Firestone 1999, p. 118.
- “Muhammad”, Encyclopedia of Islam Online
- Watt 1956.
- Serjeant 1964, p. 4.
- Al-Dawoody, Ahmed (2011). The Islamic Law of War: Justifications and Regulations. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 19. ISBN9780230111608.
- Watt 1956, p. 225: “This document has generally been regarded as authentic….”
- Watt, The Cambridge History of Islam, p. 39
- Esposito (1998), p. 17.
- Alford Welch, Muhammad, Encyclopedia of Islam
- Cook Michael, Muhammad, Oxford University Press, pp. 65
- John Burton, Those are the High-flying Cranes, Journal of Semitic Studies, Vol 15 No. 2, pp. 265
- Tarif Khalidi, Arab Historical Thought in The Classical Period, Cambridge University Press, pp. 48
- Watt 1956, pp. 225–226.
- Serjeant (1964), p. 8
- Lewis, Bernard, The Arabs in History, p. 42.
- Berkey, Jonathan, The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600–1800, Cambridge University Press, p. 64
- “The Medina Constitution”. papers.ssrn.com. 2006-11-17. SSRN945458.Missing or empty
- Ramadan, Hisham M (2006). Understanding Islamic Law: From Classical to Contemporary. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ISBN978-0-7591-0990-2.
- Welch, “Muhammad”, Encyclopedia of Islam.
- Holland (2012), p. 383
- Williams, John Alden, Themes of Islamic Civilization, p. 12.
- Denny, Frederick (Jan 1977), “Umma in the Constitution of Medina”, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 36 (1), The University of Chicago Press, p. 44.
- Ahmad (1979), pp. 46–47
- Article 15, as quoted in Ahmad (1979), pp. 46–47
- Article 25, as quoted in Ahmad (1979), pp. 46–47
- Article 37, as quoted in Ahmad (1979), pp. 46–47
- Article 45, as quoted in Ahmad (1979), pp. 46–47
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