The Constitution of Madina: The Beginning of Muslim-Jewish Relations

The City of Madinah - Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)'s final resting place and where the 'Constitution of Madinah' was written.

The City of Madinah – Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)’s final resting place and where the ‘Constitution of Madinah’ was written.

By Hamid Mahmood

The Constitution of Madina:  The Beginning of Muslim-Jewish Relations

ھذا کتاب من محمد النبی [رسول اللٰہ] ۔ انھم امۃ واحدۃ من دون الناس ۔[1]

This is a prescript (kitāb) of Muḥammad [2]…. Verily they constitute an ‘ummah’ (political unit) as distinct from all the people (of the world).[3]

و ان یھود بنی عوف امۃ مع المومنین ۔ للیھود دینھم و للمسلمین دینھم۔۔۔[4]

And verily the Jews of Banū ’Auf shall be considered as an ummah (community) along with the Believers, for the Jews being their religion and for the Muslims their religion…[5]

 

Introduction

 

In contemporary society one is bewildered and bemused at the arguments and sources presented by Islamists and puritans in order to justify their hate for the ‘other’.  I always believe it significant to understand the historical context for ascertaining the meaning of the Qur’an and Ḥadīth, however for puritans it is the ‘atomistic’ approach to the text that is more appealing.  Hence, I intend on analysing the text and historical background of a forgotten and not so appreciated document – ‘The Constitution of Madina’.  I will initiate the analysis by exploring the authenticity of the text and thereafter examining the historical background to the document.  I will then analyse the word umma and the Jews in the text of the document: and conclude by examining some aḥādīth (pl. of ḥadīth – traditions of the Prophet) from ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī regarding the Prophet’s relations with the Jews of Madina.

 

Authenticity of the Document, and its source – ibn Ishaq

 

It is immensely significant to analyse the authority of any text within Islam before any importance is given to it.  Hence, I will begin by looking at the isnād (chain of narrators) from the text of the Constitution:

و قد ذکرہ ابن ابی خیثمۃ فاسندہ: حدثنا احمد بن جناب ابو الولید ثنا عیسی بن یونس ثنا کثیر ابن عبد اللٰہ بن عمرو المزنی عن جدہ ان رسول اللہ صلی اللہ علیہ و سلم کتب کتابا بین المھاجرین و الانصار فذکر بنحوہ[6]

And indeed Ibn Abī Khaithamah mentioned (the text of the constitution) and hence illustrated the isnād: Ibn Abī Khaithamah > ‘Aḥmad ibn Janāb Abū al-Walīd > ’Isā ibn Yūnus > Kathīr > ’Abdullāh > ’Amr al-Muzaniyy >The Messenger of Allah.  The purpose of illustrating the text is of great importance here as there are many texts, which remain short of providing an isnād.  As in mainstream Islam isnād plays a significant role in ḥadīth authority, as Ibn Mubarak said, لو لا الاسناد لقال من شاء ما شاء, that if there was no isnād then one would merely say what they desired.

 

However, Denny contends that, ‘There is little doubt among scholars that it is authentic, and that it, like the Qur’an, is intimately connected with Muḥammad’s thought and activity.  W. Montgomery Watt has summarized the strong reasons which J. Wellhausen had earlier adduced in favour of its authenticity:

“No later falsifier writing under the Umayyads or ‘Abbasids would have included non-Muslims in the ummah, would have retained the articles against Quraysh, and would have given Muhammad so insignificant a place.  Moreover the style is archaic, and certain points, such as the use of “believers” instead of “Muslims” in most articles, belong to the earlier Medinan period”.[7]

I see Watt’s evidence for the authority of the document to be quite cogent.  Because, as it is known within ḥadīth isnād, there were many mauḍū’ ḥadīth (fabricated traditions of the Prophet) being created after the demise of the Prophet. And the men that fabricated ḥadith did so for political reasons, hence why would there be a need to interpolate into the texts just so that Jews could be a part of the ummah.

 

However, Sergeant has also located verses in the Qur’ān which maybe referring to the Madina document:

“…And remember the blessings which God has bestowed upon you: how, when you were enemies, He brought your hearts together, so that through His blessing you became brethren; and [how, when] you were on the brink of a fiery abyss, He saved you from it.   … that there might grow out of you a (umma) community [of people] who invite unto all that is good, and enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong: and it is they, they who shall attain to a happy state!  (Qur’an 3:101-104).

The struggle and strife between them referred to in these verses are the tensions and wars between the Aus and Khazraj, and those who allied with them, which could include the Jews.  The bringing together before falling into the ‘brink of fiery abyss’ here could ultimately refer to the constitution.

 

Background to the kitāb (Constitution)

 

It is of significance to note the geo-politics that were taking place in Madīna at the time. The tribes in Madina (specifically Aus and Khazraj) were surrounded by sustained conflict and desired an end to the wars their forefathers had instigated.  However, once the Prophet, alongside his ṣaḥāba (companions / disciples), had migrated to Madīna,[8] and including Yathribī converts, the Muslims were no more than a few hundred.  Similarly Ḥamīdullāh believes the total population of Yathrib at the time is estimated to be approximately ten thousand (10,000), of which the Jewish community contributed nearly a half (50%) and according to Yildrim, Christians formed from 1% to 4% of the total population of Yathrib.[9] [10]

Hence,     superficial statistics of the population  of Madīna was approximately 4500 – 5000 Jews; 4000 – 4500 polytheists (Arabs); 400 – 500 Muslims (Muhājirīn and Anṣār); and 100 – 400 Christians.

The most significant question as to why the Prophet was chosen to unite and lead the citizens of Madīna as opposed to the leaders of majority tribes.  For instance a sizeable portion of the Yathribis had made preparations to enthrone ’Abdullāh ibn ’Ubaiyy ibn Salūl, and according to the narrations of ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī ‘a crown had already been produced for the occasion’.[11]  But why, at this stage, did they give precedence to an ‘outsider’ despite him being from a minority group.

 

To understand why the Prophet was chosen to lead this diverse community, it is significant to explore the notion of ‘mediation’.   Yetkin Yildirim, in his article ‘The Medina Charter: A Historical Case of Conflict Resolution’, focuses on this aspect within the Madina Charter.  I believe some aspect of mediation or another plays a role in most societies and cultures of the world.  Yildirim contrasts the Western and Islamic approaches to mediation, he believes, ‘the Western approach to mediation frequently emphasizes the role of the individual through its dependence on legal procedures and settlements that defend individual rights and compensate individuals for their losses.  On the other hand, the Islamic approach, like other non-Western approaches, [I believe here specifically the Jewish community, as they emphasise the society over the individual] tends to emphasize the need to repair and maintain social relationships, framing conflict as a communal matter rather than an individual event’.[12] Here it is evident that Yildirim points to the difference in Western and Islamic approaches to ‘mediation’, the former focuses on the ‘individual’ whereas on the contrary the latter on ‘community’ – which could be felt throughout the Charter text, specifically through  the word ‘umma’.

 

However, also in the historical context of the constitution, ‘mediation’ was a widespread phenomenon among the people and tribes of Arabia.  Yildirim also points towards the very notion from the Talmudic law, ‘Mediation was a common practice among the Semitic peoples at the time of the Hijra.  The Jews followed the practises of p’sharah (arbitration) and bitzuah (mediation) in the Talmudic law and it was also a common practice of Arabs to defer their conflicts to foreigners’.[13]  It is for now evident the methodology used in ascertaining the leader of Yathrib, but again why Muhammad ibn ’Abdullah (the Prophet) was to be the arbitrator.  I believe, alongside Ḥamīdullāh and Yildirim, that it was the akhlāq (mannerism) of the Prophet that made him the most likely candidate for the leadership of Madīna.  I also believe two aspects of the Prophet’s life were most likely the reasons: that even before and after Prophethood, the Prophet was known as al-Amīn (the Trustworthy) and  al-Ṣādiq (the Truthful).  Secondly, he was famous for playing crucial roles in conflict resolving and mediation: one such incident is also recorded in ibn Ishaq, when the rebuilding of the Ka’ba took place, and in its final stage – the placing of al-ḥajr al-aswad (the Black Stone) – all the tribes within Makkah began to quarrel till swords were drawn and it was at this stage that the Prophet being the first to enter through the doors of the ḥaram (sanctuary) that he was called upon to resolve the conflict.  He did so by placing al-ḥajr al-aswad (the Black Stone) on a sheet of cloth and the leaders of all tribes held the cloth and then it was put in its place on the corner of the ka’ba by the Prophet himself.[14]  So I believe it was incidents like this which spread throughout Arabia, and it was also due to his truthfulness and trustworthiness in business that influenced Khadīja to propose to the Prophet.  And finally when he migrated to Yathrib – and later changed its name to al-Madīna – he gained initial trust by consulting the leaders of all the tribes when setting out the constitution of Madīna, in doing so he won over the hearts of the people by showing his capacity to listen.  Hence, came what we know today as the ‘constitution of Madina’ and how the Prophet related to the Jews.

 

Understanding Umma and Jews in the text of the constitution

 

The most significant of articles concerning the Jews are 25, 26-31 and 45/a:

  1. 25: And verily the Jews of the Banū ’Auf shall be considered as a community (ummah) along with the believers, for the Jews being their religion and for the Muslims their religion ….[15]
  2. 26-31: And verily the Jews of the Banu’nNajjār; Banu’lḤārith; Banū Sā’idah; Banū Jusham; Banu’l – Aws and the Banū Tha’labah shall [all] have the same rights as the Jews of the Banū ’Auf [mentioned in article 25]….[16]

Article, 45/a: If they [the Muslims] ask the Jews to make peace with any ally of theirs, they shall make peace with them; and if they ask us for a similar thing, the same shall be incumbent upon the Believers, except one who fights for the cause of religion.[17]

It is clear from article 45/a that the Jews were not just merely another tribe in Madina, but rather a political force: however, what stands most significant in the text is the attribution of the term ummah to the Jews.  This is a notion which majority of the Muslims have not heard of.  However, Denny argues that, ‘Serjeant believes that they [Jews] constituted a separate ummah alongside the Muslim ummah, and  [article] no.  25  may  be  interpreted in  that  way.  However on the contrary Watt  contends,  ‘that  the  Jews  are  included in  the  ummah,  although  he  admits  the  other [referring to alongside the ummah notion] possibility  too.  The  dating  of  this  article  is  an important concern:  if  the  Jews  are  allowed to  practice their  own religion  within  the  one  ummah,  then  this  ummah  is  no longer  a religious  community in  the  exclusive  Muslim  sense’.[18] Ahmad takes the position of Peters, ‘ Peters outlines the role of ummah in text is more to do with the purpose of salvation, ‘… the concept of the ummah as a political confederation of tribes and clans, including non-Muslims, Jewish ones, had inevitable to yield to Muhammad’s original understanding of a body whose foundation may be ethnic but whose reason for being is shaped by the divine purpose of salvation.  The Jews were such an ummah, and in Medina they were more than just a historical and literary illustration of a theological point:  they were a political reality’.[19]  However, I believe that this argument leads to a vast subject of literacy and the historic context behind the meaning of ummah, regardless of the three interpretations of ummah, all are positive and a way forward in contemporary Jewish – Muslim relations.

 

The Prophet’s relations with the Jews of Madīna ‘subsequent’ or ‘prior’ to  the Constitution

 

There is much debate regarding the dating of the document, but from an analysis of academic writing I believe the document was not all written in one place and time.   Rather articles were added as the need arose through community relations and consultation.  I am of firm conviction that the articles regarding the Jews came later, subsequent to the decisive Battle of Badr and Aḥzāb (Battle of the Trenches) and the reason for my conviction is logical, and I believe it to be of utmost importance to date the articles regarding the Jews.  My conviction comes from the fact that Banū Nazīr and Banū Qurayza, the two Jewish tribes who had allied with the polytheists of Makkah in the war, are not mentioned within the document, hence assuming that they had already migrated to Khaibar.  Barakat is also of this opinion.

 

Now, keeping in mind the dating and context of the document it would be interesting to explore different books of ḥadīth and how the Prophet related to the Jews and vice versa.  I therefore believe it significant to illustrate some examples from ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, a ḥadīth text, the authority of which is unshakeable within mainstream Islam, and including the puritan theory.

Narrated Jabir bin ‘Abdullah : A funeral procession passed in front of us and the Prophet stood up and we too stood up. We said, ‘O Allah’s Apostle! This is the funeral procession of a Jew.” He said, “Whenever you see a funeral procession, you should stand up”.[20]  In the following reminiscent ḥadīth of al-Bukhārī, the Prophet adds, “Is it not a living being (soul)?”.[21]

The Prophet clearly teaches his ṣaḥāba to view others as humans, and not merely to oppose them on the basis of their faith and religious views.  Due to this notion I believe the Jews of Madina found the Prophet an approachable man.  This is also evident from the fact that Jews would frequent his gatherings and he in return would visit them, which is also clear from the following tradition:

Narrated Anas: A young Jewish boy used to serve the Prophet and he became sick. So the Prophet went to visit him. He sat near his head and asked him to embrace Islam. The boy looked at his father, who was sitting there; the latter told him to obey Abu-l-Qasim [the Prophet] and the boy embraced Islam. The Prophet came out saying: “Praises be to Allah Who saved the boy from the Hell-fire”.[22]

The Prophet had financial dealings with the Jews of Madina:

Narrated ‘Aisha: The Prophet purchased food grains from a Jew on credit and mortgaged his iron armour to him.[23]

Despite there being no contemporary interfaith dialogue,  there was something similar – a neutral exchange of scriptural understanding:

Narrated Abu Huraira: The people of the Scripture (Jews) used to recite the Torah in Hebrew and they used to explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. On that Allah’s Apostle said, “Do not believe the people of the Scripture or disbelieve them, but say:– “We believe in Allah and what is revealed to us”.[24]

From this ḥadīth  it is unambiguous that there was a respectful and tolerant inter-faith scriptural dialogue taking place 1400 years ago in Madina between the Jews and Muslims.  Also the Prophet’s statement, “Do not believe the people of the Scripture or disbelieve them, but say:– “We believe in Allah and what is revealed to us” is a well suited model for a plural society co-exiting peacefully.  This ḥadīth of the Prophet also brings to mind Muhammad Iqbal’s thought, and strengthens his idea regarding the Prophet and his prophethood.  For Iqbal believed,

‘The Prophet of Islam seems to stand between the ancient and the modern world. In so far as the source of his revelation is concerned he belongs to the ancient world; in so far as the spirit of his revelation is concerned he belongs to the modern world’.[25]

Again, I believe as far as relations between the Jews and Muslims are concerned have always been peaceful, but always fragmented through political strife.  As again the world witnesses and begs for change.

 

The utmost reason for my examination of this document was to bring to the forefront; that an atomistic approach to verses and ḥadīth in isolation is one which invites difference.  Hence, the purpose was to feel the historical context in which the document was composed and treat it as an axis to see other verses related to ‘People of the Scripture’.   I therefore initiated by illustrating the authenticity of the document, a method which at the forefront in Islamic traditional methodology and then examined the political historical context to the document.  I then portrayed some of the academic debate around the word ‘ummah’ in the document and also the place of Jews in the polity of Madina.  I concluded by bringing some aḥādīth forward, that have usually been disclosed by puritans despite being part of the most authentic collection of ḥadīth to date.  I lastly looked at a ḥadīṭh which illustrated some form of pluralism in inter-faith dialogue and scriptural reasoning 1400 years ago.

 

 

Bibliography

 

The Qur’an: A New Translation by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem

 

Ahmad, B. (1979).  Muhammad and the Jews: A Re-Examination.  Vikas Publishing House PVT LTD: New Dehli

 

Ahmad, K. (2000).  A Short note on the Medina Charter.

Accessed online [05.04.2011]:

http://kassimahmad.blogspot.com/2007/03/short-note-on-medina-charter-by-kassim.html

 

Al-Ahmar, F.  (2010).  The Prophet Muhammad and Constitution of Medina in comparison with the British Magna Carta.

Accessed online [05.04.2011]:

http://www.masjidma.com/2010/12/04/between-constitution-of-medina-british-magna-carta/

 

Denny, F. M. (1977).  ‘Ummah in the Constitution of Medina’.  Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Jan., 1977), pp. 39-47.

 

Faizer, R. S. (1996).  ‘Muhammad and the Medinan Jews: A Comparison of the Texts of Ibn Ishaq’s Kitab Sirat Rasul Allah with al-Waqidi’s Kitab al-Maghazi’.  International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Nov., 1996) pp. 463-489.

 

Hamīdullāh, M. (1994).  The First Written Constitution in the World: An Important Document of the Time of the Holy Prophet.  3rd Revised ed. 1975.  Sh. Muhammad Ashraf Pulishers: Lahore, Pakistan

 

Ibn Ishāq (no date). Sirat Rasoul Allah: The Earliest Biography of Muhammad (An Abridged Online Version).

Accessed online [12.04.2011]:

http://ia600404.us.archive.org/32/items/Sirat-lifeOfMuhammadBy-ibnIshaq/SiratIbnIahaqInEnglish.pdf

 

Iqbal, M. (2008).  The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. 10th ed.  Kitab Bhavan: New Delhi, India.

 

Lecker, M. (1995).  Wāqidī’s Account on the Status of the Jews of Medina:  A Study of a Combined Report.  Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 54, No. 1 (Jan., 1995), pp.15-32

 

Qadrī, M. T. (No date).  Selected Articles from the Constitution of Islamic State of Madina: The First Written Constitution of Human History.

Accessed online [05.04.2011] in PDF:

http://www.theiceproject.sdsa.net/uploaded/files/Constitution.pdf

 

Sayyid al-Nās, M (1977): Uyūn al-athar fī funūn al-maghāzī wa-al-shamā’il wa-al-siyar  (عـيـون الأثـر في فـنـون الـمـغـازي و الـشـمـائـل و الـسـيـر)Dār al-Āfāq al-‘Arabīyah: Beirut, Lebanon

Accessed [11.04.2011] and downloaded as e-book [pdf] from:

http://www.al-mostafa.com/

 

Serjeant, R. B. (1978).  ‘The “Sunnah Jāmi’ah, “Pacts with the Yathrib Jews, and the “Taḥrīm” of Yathrib: Analysis and Translation of the Documents Comprised in the So-Called ‘Constitution of Medina’.  Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 41, No. 1 (1978), pp. 1-42.

 

White, S. W. (2009-2010).  ‘Medina Charter and Pluralism’.  Fountain Magazine, issue 76, July – August 2010

Accessed online [05.04.2011]:

http://www.fountainmagazine.com/article.php?ARTICLEID=1151

 

Yildirim, Y. (2009).  ‘The Madina Charter: A Historical Case of Conflict Resolution’.  Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, Vol. 20, No.4, pp. 439-450, October 2009.

 

Full Text of the Madina Charter.  Khilafa al-‘Alam al-Islami

Accessed online [05.04.2011]:

http://www.constitution.org/cons/medina/macharter.htm

 

 

 

[1] Hamīdullāh, M. (1994).  The First Written Constitution in the World: An Important Document of the Time of the Holy Prophet.  (p. 55)

[2] In all instances of a Muslim’s speech and traditional writings the phrase ‘Peace Be Upon Him (PBUH)’ (صلی اللہ علیہ و سلم) is followed by the name of the Prophet,  but in this article I intend the phrase, hence on the understanding  that it is intended and assumed no disrespect is intended.

[3] ibid., (p. 41)

[4] ibid., (p. 60)

[5] ibid., (p. 48)

[6] Sayyid al-Nās, M (1977): Uyūn al-athar fī funūn al-maghāzī wa-al-shamā’il wa-al-siyar  (p. 141 – 142) under chapter الموادعۃ بین المسلمین و الیھود))

[7] Denny, F. M. (1977).  ‘Ummah in the Constitution of Medina’. (p. 39) quoted from: Watt, Muhammad at Medina, p. 225

[8] Whilst the Muslims anxiously waited the Prophet’s arrival in Madīna it was a Jewish man who noticed him first and shouted as the Muslims were returning home, “O you ‘Arabs! Here is your great man whom you have been waiting for!” (Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī: book No. 58, ḥadīth No. 245) Accessed online [14.04.2011]: http://www.searchtruth.com/book_display.php?book=58&translator=1&start=0&number=245

[9] ibid., (p. 12 – 13)

[10] Yildrim, Y. (2009).  ‘The Madina Charter: A Historical Case of Conflict Resolution’.  (p. 447, Note No. 4)

[11] Hamīdullāh, M. (1994).  The First Written Constitution in the World: An Important Document of the Time of the Holy Prophet.  (p. 14)

[12] Yildrim, Y. (2009).  ‘The Madina Charter: A Historical Case of Conflict Resolution’.  (p. 442)

[13] ibid.

[14] For complete incident refer to: Ibn Ishāq. Sirat Rasoul Allah: The Earliest Biography of Muhammad (An Abridged Version). (p.17). Accessed online [12.04.2011]:

http://ia600404.us.archive.org/32/items/Sirat-lifeOfMuhammadBy-ibnIshaq/SiratIbnIahaqInEnglish.pdf

[15] Hamīdullāh, M. (1994).  The First Written Constitution in the World: An Important Document of the Time of the Holy Prophet.  (p. 48)

[16] ibid. (pp. 48-50)

[17] ibid. (p. 53)

[18] Denny, F. M. (1977).  ‘Ummah in the Constitution of Medina’. (p. 44)

[19] Ahmad, B. (1979).  Muhammad and the Jews: A Re-Examination. (p. 37)

[20] Choosing āḥādīth from only the ṣaḥīḥ of al-Bukhārī is significant to be mentioned here, as in traditional and majority, which includes the puritan and wahhābī ideology, this Canonical work of ḥadīth is accepted as ‘the most accepted authoritative book under the skies after the Qur’an.

Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, (Book 23, Hadith 398) .  Accessed online [13.04.2011]: http://www.searchtruth.com/book_display.php?book=23&translator=1&start=64&number=392

[21] Ibid., (Book 23, Hadith 399).  Accessed online [13.04.2011]: http://www.searchtruth.com/book_display.php?book=23&translator=1&start=64&number=392

[22] Ibid., (Book 23, Hadith 438).  Accessed online [13.04.2011]: http://www.searchtruth.com/book_display.php?book=23&translator=1&start=109&number=437

[23] Ibid., (Book 34, Hadith 282).  Accessed online [14.04.2011]: http://www.searchtruth.com/book_display.php?book=34&translator=1&start=19&number=281

[24] Ibid., (Book 60, Hadith 12).  Accessed online [14.04.2011]: http://www.searchtruth.com/book_display.php?book=60&translator=1&start=10&number=10

[25] Iqbal, M. (2008).  The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. (p. 126)

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