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Constitution of Medina

Constitution of Medina

The earliest written constitution of a state in the world.1

- Muhammad Hamidullah

This quote gets to the heart of how significant the Constitution of Medina was, not just for Muslims but for the history of the entire world. The Constitution of Medina is one of the oldest documents in existence that deliberately set out to create a new kind of political community. Whilst the study of history in the West has tended to see all 'significant' political developments as happening in European civilisations, the Constitution of Medina proves otherwise.

However, the Constitution of Medina still remains a document shrouded in mystery, and historians disagree hugely on what it was and what it meant. Let's dive in and take a closer look.

Constitution of Medina Charter of Medina StudySmarterPiagam Madinah/Charter of Medina, BP52Nurdi - Wikimedia Commons

Constitution of Medina Definition

The Constitution of Medina was a document created by the Prophet Muhammad during his early years in Medina.

The city of Medina was originally known as Yathrib. The Prophet Muhammad changed its name to Medina after he arrived there.

Why was the document created?

For a long time, Medina's tribes had been fighting amongst one another. The main two Arab tribes in Medina were the Aws and the Khazraj. One of the reasons these tribes welcomed the Prophet Muhammad to rule over them was because they hoped he would act as an arbitrator so that the violence would stop.

In 622, the Prophet Muhammad and his followers made the hijra migration to Medina to escape persecution in their hometown of Mecca. This meant that Medina became home to three very different groups:

  • Muslims from Mecca
  • Pagan Medinan Arabs who were interested in Muhammad's teachings
  • Jews in Medina

The Hijra was the 200-mile migration that Muhammad and the first Muslims made from Mecca to Medina. They migrated to Medina because of the fierce persecution they were experiencing in Mecca due to their religious beliefs.

Pagan

People who believe in local deities rather than 'mainstream' religious deities such as Allah or Christ

One of the Prophet Muhammad's first actions when he arrived in Medina was to create a document which outlined how these three groups in Medina would live alongside one another peacefully under the leadership of the Muslims. This document is normally known as the 'Constitution of Medina'.

However, not everyone agrees that this document should be thought of as a constitution because it was created in an era before nation-states, and constitutions are usually thought of as modern documents for nation-states.

Constitution

A basic set of rules that sets out how a nation-state will function.

Nation-state

A territory in which citizens identify themselves as a nation. Often the citizens share a common language, history and culture.

Scholarly Definitions

So, what exactly was the Constitution of Medina? Historians have come up with different answers:

Definition Meaning of the DefinitionHistorianArguments 'for' Arguments 'against'
Constitution of a stateA set of principles that lays out how a political state should be governed Muhammad HamidullahThe Constitution of Medina did represent a set of principles for a political community. Medina was not a 'state' but a town/city. Nation-states only really came into existence in the 19th century.
Municipal Charter A legal document which establishes a city or town and gives the inhabitants certain rights and privileges Julius Wellhausen This definition avoids importing modern-day terms like 'state' onto the Constitution of Medina. It also takes Medina's nature as a city into account. This uses a Eurocentric term to explain Arabic culture.
Proto-Islamic public lawAn early form of legal document that guided the development of the Muslim world by creating a political communitySaid Amir ArjomandHonours the similarity of the Constitution of Medina to the Magna Carta. This definition also tries to put current Islamic constitutionalism into historic perspective. The political motivation of the scholar to construct a 'similar' historical story for Arabia as for Europe
Pact of security A non-legal document made by consensus of the parties involved to guarantee every pact member's securityR.B.SearjeantThis definition was not imported from European history but made by comparing 7th century Arabia with contemporary Arabian tribal society and customs. This makes it more accurate to the culture of the Constitution of Medina. The object of the Constitution of Medina was the creation of a new political community - this gets overlooked in this definition.
Treaty of the Believers and Treaty of the JewsA formal written agreement made between different political groups; this definition splits the document into two parts: the treaty of believers and the treaty for the Jews.Michael LeckerTakes into account the structure of the Constitution of Medina as two separate parts. Avoids importing European political terms onto 7th-century Arabian culture.This definition overlooks the fact that the Constitution of Medina created a new kind of political community - more than "just" a treaty.

All the information for this table, together with references to the different historians' works, can be viewed in this source.2

Eurocentric

A tendency to interpret the world according to European experiences, and importing European language to explain customs of non-European societies

Constitution of Medina: Analysis

This section analyses some of the key features of the Constitution of Medina.

1. The Constitution of Medina brought into creation what was known as the 'umma'.

The concept of the 'umma' was a community which formed an official political entity. This was the most important and revolutionary concept within the document since it represented the creation of a totally new community. The heart of the 'umma' community was the Muslims, but the umma also included Arabs from Medina and Jews.

Umma

A political community founded on a belief in one God and the agreement to follow the Prophet Muhammad

Constitution of Medina: Muhammad at Medina StudySmarterMedieval Manuscript Illustration Portraying Muhammad at Medina, Public domain - Wikimedia Commons

2. The Constitution of Medina redefined relationships between Muslims.

Muhammad's document eradicated the previous system where the central organising principle which gave someone validity and identity was the tribe into which they were born. Instead, religion (specifically monotheistic religion) was now the most important identity marker of who belonged in the umma and who did not.

3. Jews were sort of included in the umma.

It was noted that the Jews were one community with the Muslims, even while the document acknowledged they had their own distinct religion. Read more about the nuances of this Muslim-Jewish pact in the next section.

4. Non-Muslims had certain rights...

on the condition that they "followed" the Muslims. They were, however, expected to help pay for the warfare of the entire umma.

5. The structure of the Constitution of Medina was complex.

Historian R.B.Serjeant argues that the original Constitution of Medina was split into no less than eight constituent parts.3 In contrast, Said Amir Arjomand argues that the Constitution of Medina was divided into three parts, each compiled at a slightly different point in history and which were later unified into one document.4

The Structure of the Constitution of Medina according to Said Amir Arjomand.

Part One: The foundation of the umma in Medina

This comprised the Muslims who had migrated from Mecca and the Medinan Arabs who embraced the Prophet Muhammad's teachings.

Part Two and Three: Created after Part One

The reason for the addition of these two parts was that the Prophet Muhammad had ordered one of his prominent Jewish opponents in Medina to be assasinated. This led to fear among the Jewish people about their safety. Therefore, their leaders approached the Prophet Muhammad, who took the opportunity to make a pact with them which guaranteed the status of Jews as members of the umma but which stipulated that in exchange, Jews had to "follow" Muslim rule and pay the war tax.5

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Constitution of Medina

Let's look in a bit more depth at constitution, by assessing its pros and cons.

Treatment of the Jews

There are both positives and negatives to how the Constitution of Medina treats the Jews living in Medina.

PositivesNegatives

The Constitution of Medina officially instituted religious pluralism, by allowing the Jews to safely continue practising their own religion under the Muslims' leadership.

Religious pluralism

Enabling different religions to coexist peacefully without taking away the rights of any religion

Most scholars tend to agree that:

the position granted to the Jews within the new unity of the umma put them on an inferior level with respect to the Muslims.6 - Uri Rubin

The Constitution of Medina treated Jews as a subordinate community distinct from the Muslims and Arab tribes who form their own closed umma.

Constitution of Medina: Muhammad receiving submission from the Jewish Banu Nadir Study SmarterIllustration showing Muhammad receiving the submission of the Jewish clan Banu Nadir, a tribe he defeated in Medina, Public domain - Wikimedia Commons

The Jews in Medina were less powerful than the Arab tribes. They practised their own distinctive monotheistic religion. The Prophet Muhammad was initially quite sympathetic to the Jews because of their monotheism. This created a natural tie between the new Islamic beliefs and the Jewish beliefs. The Muslims called the Jews 'the People of the Book' because of the importance of the Jewish scriptures.

Attitude towards Violence

The Constitution of Medina has a complex relationship with violence, aiming to minimise it between certain groups, and legitimising/ordering it in other cases.

On one hand...On the other...

The Constitution of Medina was a document specifically designed to minimise violence within Medina.

The concept of the 'umma' was at its heart one of peace - the idea was that everyone in the community had the responsibility to protect others in the community as well.

The document was a diplomatic move calculated to reduce friction between the members of the community.

Article 9 of the Constitution of Medina writes that the 'divine purpose' of the umma was to be warfare in the name of God.7

In particular, all those in the new community were obligated to fight against the Quraysh tribe of Mecca.

Another indication of this centrality of warfare to the Constitution of Medina was that the Prophet Muhammad was given the title 'commander of the faithful covenanters' - a military term.

Why did the Constitution of Medina order violence against the Quraysh of Mecca?

The Quraysh tribe were the dominant tribe in Mecca. They were polytheistic, meaning they believed in many gods. Therefore, they fiercely opposed the Prophet Muhammad's teaching that there was only one God, Allah.

The Quraysh started to persecute Muhammad and the Muslims. The reason the Prophet Muhammad and the Muslims had to flee to Medina in 622 was because of a plot against his life organised by the Quraysh.

The Quraysh, therefore, represented the new umma's main enemies, which is why the Constitution of Medina made warfare against the Quraysh such an important part of the umma.

Significance of the Constitution of Medina

The Constitution of Medina represented a totally new way of thinking about belonging and community in the Arabian peninsula. Before the Constitution of Medina, community and identity were founded in tribes. Tribes were constantly at war with each other, and people from different tribes could not marry.

The Constitution of Medina made a new kind of community, the umma, which was a kind of 'supertribe' where God and the Prophet Muhammad were the central authorities. People from any tribe could belong in the umma and were expected to treat one another with respect. The only category for belonging was the belief in Allah and readiness to follow God's Prophet, Muhammad.8

Tribal affiliation became secondary to whether or not one belonged to the umma; the Constitution changed the central organising principle of society from kinship to religion.

Constitution of Medina: Illustration showing Muhammad destroying idols Study SmarterIllustration showing Muhammad and his army destroying idols, Public domain - Wikimedia Commons

Constitution of Medina Summary

The Constitution of Medina was a significant document created by the Prophet Muhammad to create a new political community, the umma. Its central purpose was to organise how the Muslims from Mecca, the Arab tribes of Medina, and the Jews of Medina would get along with one another in this new community. The Constitution of Medina fundamentally changed the way society was knitted together from tribes to religion.

Constitution of Medina - Key takeaways

  • The Constitution of Medina was created by Muhammad in the early years after he arrived in Medina.
  • The Constitution of Medina created a new political community, the 'umma'.
  • Historians define the Constitution of Medina in many different ways. Some think it was a constitution or proto-legal document. Others see it as a security pact or a treaty/charter.
  • Although Jews were included in the umma, they were also seen as an inferior sub-group within the umma. Moreover, it is possible that the parts of the document relating to Jews were added later after the assassination of a prominent Medinan Jew to make them pay the war tax.
  • The Constitution of Medina changed the basic organising principle of society from tribes to religion.

References

  1. Muhammad Hamidullah, 'Aqdam Duster Musajjal fi-l-Alam', Islamic Scholars Conference (1937), pp.98-123.
  2. Said Amir Arjomand, 'The Constitution of Medina: A Sociolegal Interpretation of Muhammad's Acts of the Foundation of the "Ummah"', International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 41 (2009), pp.555-558.
  3. R.B.Serjeant, 'The "Sunnah Jamiah" Pacts with the Yathrib Jews, and the Tahrim 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 (1978), pp.8-9.
  4. Said Amir Arjomand (2009), pp.557-559.
  5. Said Amir Arjomand, pp.555-561.
  6. Uri Rubin, 'The "Constitution of Medina" Some Notes', Studia Islamica 62 (1985), p.12.
  7. Said Amir Arjomand, p.566.
  8. Frederick M.Denny, 'Ummah in the Constitution of Medina', Journal of Near Eastern Studies 36 (1977), p.47.

Frequently Asked Questions about Constitution of Medina

The Constitution of Medina was important because it represented the creation of a new political community, the 'umma'. The umma was not based on tribal kinship networks, but on religious affiliation - whether one believed in Allah and agreed to follow his Prophet Muhammad. Therefore, the constitution changed the basic organising principle of society from tribal kinship to religious affiliation. 

The Constitution of Medina was a document that Muhammad created early on during his time in Medina to set out the rights and responsibilities of the three groups living in Medina. These groups were: the Muslim emigrants from Mecca, the Arab Medinans who welcomed the Muslims, and the Jews living in Medina. 

The Prophet Muhammad created the Constitution of Medina. It was one of his diplomatic triumphs. 

The Constitution of Medina guaranteed safety and peace for the people living in Medina, whether they were Muslim emigrants from Mecca, Arabs in Medina or Jews in Medina. This security and belonging within the 'umma' community was guaranteed in exchange for the willingness to follow Muhammad and the Muslims and the war tax payment. 

 Nobody knows exactly when the Constitution of Medina was written. Historians think it was probably created early on during Muhammad's years in Medina. However, they disagree as to whether it was created in one go or whether different sections of the document were added at later intervals as situations changed. 

Final Constitution of Medina Quiz

Question

Why was the Constitution of Medina created?

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Answer

To help the Muslim emigrants, Medinan Arabs and Medinan Jews to get along without violence. 

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Question

What is a constitution? 

Show answer

Answer

A basic set of rules that sets out how a nation-state will function

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Question

What is the major issue with calling this document a constitution? 

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Answer

Medina was not a nation-state. It was a city. 

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Question

What is a municipal charter? 

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Answer

A legal document which establishes a city of town and gives its inhabitants certain privileges. 

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Question

What is the modern political motivation behind calling this document 'proto-Islamic public law'? 

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Answer

The desire to create a similar historical story for Arabia as for Europe. 

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Question

What is the pro and con of calling the document a 'pact of security'?

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Answer

Pro: More accurate to the culture of the document

Con: Overlooks the fact that this document created a new political community. 

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Question

What does Eurocentric mean? 

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Answer

The tendency to interpret the world according to European experiences and to import European language to explain customs of non-European societies. 

Show question

Question

What was the umma? 

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Answer

A political community based on belief in God and willingness to follow Muhammad. 

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Question

What conditions were non-Muslims expected to fulfil in order to get certain rights within the umma? 

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Answer

To follow the Muslims and help pay for the warfare of the umma. 

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Question

What is religious pluralism? 

Show answer

Answer

Enabling different religions to coexist peacefully without taking away the rights of any religion. 

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Question

Were Jews included in the umma? 

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Answer

Sort of. They were included in the umma as a distinct sub-group on an inferior level to the Muslims. 

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Question

What military title did the Constitution of Medina give Muhammad? 

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Answer

Commander of the faithful covenanters. 

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Question

Why did the Constitution of Medina order violence against the Quraysh of Mecca? 

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Answer

The Quraysh had been enemies of the Muslims in Mecca. It was due to the Quraysh persecuting Muhammad and the Muslims that they had to flee to Medina in the first place. 

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Question

When was the Hijra migration to Medina? 

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Answer

622 C.E.

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Question

What was the significance of the Constitution of Medina? 

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Answer

It changed the organising principle of society from kinship in the tribal system to religious affiliation in the umma. 

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