By Rabbi Allen S Maller
Al-Jumu’ah (June 7, 2019)
Aljumuah offers our series of articles by Reform Jewish Rabbi, Allen S. Maller, as a bridge-building effort to promote good relations among Jewish and Muslim communities. We share much in common due to the same source of our prophets and the revelations they received, namely the One God. Indeed, we are both stronger when we work together for justice, peace and mutual understanding. Our profound thanks to Rabbi Allen, who alone is responsible for the views and interpretations expressed herein.
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. For as the Qur’an states:
O mankind We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know (respect) each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things). [Surah Al-Ḥujurât, 49:13]
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.
As the Qur’an states [Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:136]:
“Say: “We believe in God, and in that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, and that which has been bestowed upon Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and, their descendants, and that which has been vouchsafed to Moses and Jesus; and that which has been vouchsafed to all the [other] prophets by their Sustainer: we make no distinction between any of them. And it is unto Him that we surrender ourselves.”
Two iterations of the document (henceforth, “the treaty”) are found in Ibn Ishaq’s Biography of Muḥammad (sirah) and Abu ʿUbayd’s Book of State Finance (Kitāb Al-Amwāl). Some argue that 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 dîn (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 three separate agreements with Muhammad. 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 converts to Judaism from 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 dîn (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.
Even if the Christian Covenants are documents from much later times, the very fact that they originated in a half dozen different Christian communities shows that Christians in general expected their religious communities would be treated as fairly as the Jewish community had been. No Jewish community in Medieval Christian Europe ever had that expectation.
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 wasatiyyah, a religious term in Islam for the middle path of temperance and reconciliation.
Extremists who deny the value of wasatiyyah should read Prophet Muhammad’s original Covenant of Medina, as well as the “The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World.”
Perhaps this is why Bahrain’s foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa told Israeli journalists recently (27-06-2019)[i] at the U.S. Mideast peace conference in Manama, “Israel is part of this heritage of this whole region, historically So, the Jewish people have a place among us.”
Sa’id Arjomand, “The Constitution of Medina: A Socio-legal Interpretation of Muhammad’s Acts of Foundation of the Umma,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 41.4 (2009), pp. 555-75.
Frederick M. Denny, Islam and the Muslim Community, 1998.
Muhammad Hamidullah, The Prophet’s Establishing a State and his Succession (1988);
The First Written Constitution in the World (1941, 1975 and 1986).
Uri Rubin, Between Bible and Qur’an: The Children of Israel and the Islamic Self-Image, 1999.