The Importance of the Constitution of Medina
Rabbi Allen S. Maller
The Constitution, Charter or Covenant of Medina pre-dated the English Magna Carta by almost six centuries. It applied to the 10,000+ citizens living in Medina at that time. Remarkably, 45% of the total population in Medina consisted of pagan Arabs, 40% consisted of Jews, and only 15% were Muslims, at the start of this treaty. These numbers were recorded by Prophet Muhammad through a census he commissioned. So Prophet Muhammad’s Charter/Covenant of Medina was designed to govern a multi-religious pluralistic society in a manner that allowed religious freedom for all.
The Charter’s 47 clauses protect human rights for all citizens, including equality, cooperation, freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. Clause 25 specifically states that Jews and pagan Arabs are entitled to practice their own faith without any restrictions: “The Jews of the Banu ‘Auf are one community with the Muslim believers, their freedmen and their persons, except those who behave unjustly and sinfully for they hurt but themselves, and their families.
(26-35) The same applies to the Jews of the Banu al-Najjar, Banu al-Harith, Banu Sai’ida, Banu Jusham, Banu al-Aus, Banu Tha’laba, and the Jafna, a clan of the Tha‘laba and the Banu al-Shutayba. Loyalty is a protection against treachery. The freedmen of Tha‘laba are as themselves. The close friends of the Jews are as themselves. So the Covenant of Medina was the first political document in history to establish religious freedom as a fundamental constitutional right.
The “Charter of Medina” created a new multi-tribal ummah/community soon after the Prophet’s arrival at Medina (Yathrib) in 622 CE. The term “constitution” is a misnomer. The treaty was more like the American Articles of Confederation that proceeded the U.S. Constitution because it mainly dealt with tribal matters such as the organization and leadership of the participating tribal groups, warfare, the ransoming of captives, and war expenditure. Two recensions of the document (henceforth, “the treaty”) are found in Ibn Ishaq’s Biography of Muḥammad (sira) and Abu ʿUbayd’s Book of State Finance (Kitāb al-amwāl). Some argue the final document actually comprises several treaties concluded at different times.
According to Arjomand, the treaty is a “proto-Islamic public law.” Some clauses in the second part of the treaty, or the treaty of the Jews section (namely clauses 53–64), form a pact with the Jewish Qurayza tribe that was incorporated in this treaty at a later stage. However, clause 44 (“Incumbent upon the Jews is their expenditure and upon the muslimun theirs”) and, clause 45 (“They will aid each other against whosoever is at war with the people of this treaty”) clearly were part of the original pact.
According to Denny, the ummah of the Constitution is made up of Muslims and Jews; although the Jews also constitute a separate ummah “alongside” the Muslims. The treaty was a political-military document of agreement designed to make Yathrib and its people more secure. The Jewish tribes were a party to it as a special group, a “sub-ummah” with its own din (religion and law). Yathrib was to be “sacred for the people of this document,” which adds a factor of locality and religion. Kinship was not to be the main binding tie of the new ummah; for monotheistic religion was of much greater importance. The ummah is the tribe, a supertribe, with God and Muhammad as arbiters and authorities.
According to Goto, the three main Jewish tribes—Nadir, Qurayza, and Qaynuqaʿ had agreements with Muhammad that were separate. Muhammad himself made a document or documents for the three major Jewish tribes. The six Jewish groups called “yahud bani so-and-so” mentioned in the treaty were not the three large Jewish tribes, but refer to significant groups of Jewish converts to Judaism within the pagan Arab tribes of Medina (since most Jews married other Jews these groups grew into large clans within the larger pagan Arab tribe of which they were a part).
Muhammad Hamidullah divides the document into two parts: (1) The rules affecting the Muhajirun and the Anṣar that go back to the beginning of the first year after the Hijrah, and (2) the code for the Jews concluded after the Battle of Badr. In his view it was a constitution promulgated for the city-state of Medina. It included the prerogatives and obligations of the ruler and the ruled, as well as other immediate requirements (including social insurance for the needy).
According to Rubin, the Jewish participants were not the three main Jewish tribes, but Jewish groups that unlike the three main tribes, had neither a territory of their own nor a separate Jewish tribal affinity, because they were families and clans of converts to Judaism within the various pagan Arab tribes. Muhammad’s ummah was a unity sharing the same religious orientation (monotheism) and included the Jews as “an umma of believers.” They were entitled to complete protection for themselves that also included their din (religion and law).
The original Covenant of Medina influenced later generations of Muslims to include Christians within its provisions. There are a total of six different versions of such covenants with different Christian groups, which have been largely ignored by both Muslim and European historians.
A recent book by John Morrow “The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World” published by Angelico Press is a good exposition of these historical documents that should be read by everyone concerned with improving political relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims. The Qur’an strongly supports religious pluralism and wasatia, a religious term in Islam for the middle path of temperance and reconciliation.
Extremists who deny the value of wasatia should read Prophet Muhammad’s original Covenant of Medina, as well as “The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World”.
Rabbi Maller’s web site is: www.rabbimaller.com. His book ‘Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms: A Reform Rabbi’s Reflections on the Profound Connectedness of Islam and Judaism’ (a collection of 31 articles by Rabbi Maller previously published by Islamic web sites) is for sale ($15) on Amazon and Morebooks.