by Zafar Bangash
The Covenant of Madinah has been rightly described as the first written constitution in world history. Never before had humankind been given such rights enshrined in written form. Hitherto, every society — big or small — was governed by the whim of the rich and powerful whose interests were considered paramount. Often, the king or tribal leader’s word was the law. The poor naturally suffered in such an environment. Today, this is still the case in many parts of the world. Not so in Madinah at the time of the Prophet (SAW) more than 1,400 years ago. When he migrated from Makkah to Madinah, the noble Messenger (SAW) established a society based on the rule of law in which the rights and obligations of all its inhabitants were fully recognized and respected.
Given its importance, both historical and religious, the Covenant of Madinah is being presented here in book form with detailed analysis. It is taken from a chapter in the author’s most recent book, Power Manifestations of the Sirah: Examining the Letters and Treaties of the Messenger of Allah (SAW), which has just been published (Rajab 1432AH/06-2011 CE) by the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT). The Covenant’s importance cannot be overemphasized; it is remarkable for a number of reasons. It not only laid down rules for governing society, but it did so in writing. And it recognized the unchallenged authority of the Prophet (SAW) even though Muslims were still a minority in Madinah.
The Prophet (SAW) not only addressed the needs and concerns of his followers — the Muslims from Makkah and Madinah — but also those of the non-Muslims that included both the ummiyun and Jews residing in Madinah. The Covenant thus established a framework in which the socioeconomic and political rights of all the people were guaranteed. Under the Covenant, every citizen, regardless of his or her faith or non-faith, was considered a “Muslim” in the civic sense. The rights of different faith communities were also recognized but the greater burden of responsibility lay on the shoulders of Muslims. For instance, Muslims were required to join military campaigns outside Madinah; the Jews and other ordinary residents of Madinah, on the other hand, despite being citizens of the state, were not required to do so, and they never did. They were only required to defend the state if Madinah was subjected to external aggression.
The issue of the rights of non-Muslims in an Islamic (ideological) State was not simple. Why would they abide by the rules if they were not convinced their rights and legitimate interests were guaranteed? Befitting the just sunan of Allah (SWT) and His chosen executives, the Prophets (a), these rules were not imposed by force. The consent of all the people was sought and obtained; and the rules were written down as testimony to each participating party’s voluntary endorsement. This also highlights the leadership qualities of the Prophet (SAW); everyone accepted him as the leader and agreed to follow the rules he ordained. This was spelled out in the very first article of the Covenant,
This is a document initiated by Muhammad the Prophet [Messenger of Allah], between [the following agreeing parties]: the mu’mins, and muslims from the Quraysh; the people of Yathrib and those who followed them, joined them, and fought alongside them…
The Prophet (SAW) was the one who proffered the Covenant and those who agreed to its terms did so accepting his leadership. This represented a paradigm shift in the way people conducted their affairs: from decisions based on personal or tribal loyalties to the principle of acting within the bounds of divine law. Both in matters of personal disputes and for waging war, they were bound by the authority of the Prophet (SAW) and could not initiate war without his permission. Article 36 of the Covenant placed complete authority in the hands of the Prophet (SAW) to declare war. This was a radical departure from conventional practice. Hitherto, tribal chiefs took such decisions based on parochial interests. The Covenant established new rules: decision-making became the exclusive domain of the Prophet (SAW) as head of state in Madinah. The concept of a state with a constitution, much less a written one, was not known at the time. The notion of a “social contract” between the state and its citizens was equally alien to them. Only tribal law, transmitted through an oral tradition, governed relations between members of society. To establish a state in such an environment and then implement its laws successfully was a remarkable achievement because most people tend to live in their “comfort zone” whose boundaries they are reluctant to breach. It requires a charismatic leader to motivate people to part with the old ways and adopt new ones.
The Covenant of Madinah must be viewed against the backdrop of the conditions that prevailed in Yathrib, as it was referred to before the arrival of the Prophet (SAW) there, and the overall framework of life in Arabia at the time. Madinah (formerly Yathrib) was an oasis town with palm trees and lush gardens. Agriculture was the mainstay of life. While the Madinan tribes were sedentary, life was not organized in the manner of Makkah where Dar al-Nadwah was established for the city’s notables to meet and discuss issues of mutual concern. Madinah was in a sense a sleepy political and social backwater. Several tribes resided in Yathrib at the time of the Prophet’s (SAW) migration. In addition to the two dominant Arabian tribes —the Aws and the Khazraj and their 12 sub-clans — there were three major Jewish tribes as well — Banu Qaynuqa, Banu al-Nadir, and Banu Quraydah. They had 10 sub-clans and were allied with the Arabian tribes in a manner that virtually ensured perpetual conflict in Yathrib: Banu Qaynuqa were allies of the Khazraj and lived inside the city while the other two, living on the periphery, were allied with the Aws. The Arabian tribes, Aws and Khazraj, were bitter rivals even though they were descendants of two brothers — Aws and Khazraj from the Yemeni tribe of Qahtan. They had fought numerous wars, finally exhausted by the Bu‘ath War, which left them even more vulnerable to exploitation by the Yahud. Their fortunes changed when the Prophet (SAW) met a group of Khazraj pilgrims during the Hajj in Makkah. Six of them embraced Islam. With this conversion, Islam gained a tentative foothold in Madinah — a situation that proved to be far more promising than the one in Makkah where scores of conversions had only served to increase antipathy against the Prophet (SAW). The conversions of some of the Madinan tribesmen led eventually to the two Pacts of ‘Aqabah paving the way for the Prophet’s (SAW) migration to Madinah.
While the persecution of the Muslims ended with their migration to Madinah, it did not end their problems. New ones emerged in Madinah even as old ones such as the disastrous rivalry between the Aws and Khazraj disappeared. There emerged a group of munafiqs — fifth columnists pretending to be Muslims while secretly conspiring with their enemies to undermine Islam and the Prophet (SAW) — who soon combined forces with the rabble-rousing Jewish tribes and their demagogic rabbis. The Prophet (SAW) made sincere efforts to befriend and seek the support of the Jews, hoping that as a scriptural community they would accept his prophethood since it was foretold in their books. To this end, he represented them as legitimate constituencies in the Covenant and recognized their døn, but their hostility borne of racism remained undiminished. And then there was the ever-present threat from the Quraysh, which had inflicted so much harm on the Muslims in Makkah. As the mere presence of Islam anywhere in the Peninsula was perceived by them to be a threat, just because the Muslims had left the city of their birth did not mean the Quraysh would let them live in peace. The Prophet (SAW) could foresee this threat and prepared for it. The best way to defend Madinah was to create internal cohesion. Given the generational tribal divisions, which had now become part of the city’s culture, this was not easy but through his wisdom and incomparable leadership qualities, the Prophet (SAW) was able to establish this itti˙oed fairly quickly without much opposition. It needs recalling that a majority of the people in Madinah had not yet accepted Islam so getting their agreement to an arrangement in which the Prophet’s (SAW) pre-eminent role and authority were recognized and accepted by all groups required great Hikmah. He achieved this through the Covenant of Madinah.
Did the Prophet (SAW) consult others before enacting the Covenant? Given his general approach in building commitment through a process of ownership, the Prophet (SAW) must have consulted the chiefs of Madinah and obtained their consent before committing to writing the charter that was finally established. One of the qualities of a great leader is his ability to foresee the future, especially insofar as it is determined by current decisions and attitudes, and plan for it accordingly. Based on revealed knowledge as a reference point, the Prophet (SAW) gave shape to Madinah’s (Islamic) future by following through with the Covenant, which outlined the rights and duties of each group as well as its allies. In Western political theory, the “people” are considered sovereign even though the word people and how decisions are made on behalf of this group has never been clearly defined in Western representative mechanisms. The theory suggests that the people are free to make all decisions based on their personal preferences exclusive of any other considerations, especially those related to the “oppressive” and “divisive” application of God’s laws. The people have the liberty to decide what is right or wrong at a particular moment in history.
Such thinking has led to the emergence of humanism and the disastrous wars it has spawned, resulting in the killing of at least 100 million people in the 20th century. Islam has a radically different perspective on these issues, particularly the concept of sovereignty. Man is not sovereign, only Allah (SWT) is. Man’s position is that of a khalifah (representative, vicegerent, or trustee) of Allah (SWT) on earth; he is not free to do as he pleases. Man must abide by the laws ordained for him by Allah (SWT). Islam’s laws are, therefore, not subject to human likes or dislikes at any particular time. In fact, man’s behavior is measured by the truth and not the other way around; truth is self-validating and self-evident, requiring no support from any other source, not even a human one, or even support from influential humans. This is how Allah (SWT) has structured the truth; one only needs to think about it to understand it and such faculties are equally available to every human being — and this is what is truly liberating.
This book has been compiled at the request of colleagues and associates who felt that given the importance of the Covenant of Madinah coupled with the paucity of information available on it, the subject matter should be published independently. We sincerely hope that it would serve the purpose for which it is intended. I am grateful to Afeef Khan for editing this book as well as the original, Power Manifestations of the Sirah: Examining the Letters and Treaties of the Messenger (SAW), from which it is extracted. Thanks are also due to Imam Muhammad al-‘Asi who helped translate the Arabic text of the Covenant to make it conform more closely to the original. He also helped with clarifying the meanings of many hadiths that often get distorted because of inaccurate or sloppy translation. Without their help, this book and the original one would not have been possible, at least not in the form in which they have appeared. Any errors or omissions are mine alone for which I seek Allah’s (SWT) forgiveness and the indulgence of readers. All comments are welcome and encouraged.
Director, The Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Rajab 18, 1432 AH (6-20-2011 CE)