In Islamic history, after the Quran and Sunnah, one of the key documents from the life of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, is the Constitution of Madinah.
Written after he was declared the legitimate leader of the city-state of Madinah, upon the invitation of the two dominant tribes, the Aws and the Khazraj, Muslims consider it the first written constitution of the world. It lays down broad principles and guidelines for peaceful co-existence between various religious communities at a time when “minority rights” were hardly part of political parlance.
The constitution established a precedent for Muslims of how to interact with other religious communities in a way that was mutually beneficial and respectful of other ways of life.
Islamic civilization was dominant for about 1,000 years. However, it has not always been led by the same people. Sometimes its leaders were Arabs, but many were African, Central Asian, Turkic, slaves or other.
The capitals of Islamic civilization were also subject to change throughout history, starting in Madinah, then to Baghdad, followed by Damascus, Cairo, Spain, Timbuktu, Istanbul, Bukhara, Dehli, and Shiraz. Virtually every type of racial and ethnic group has been part of Islamic culture, civilization, and empire throughout history.
And among these people, as mentioned above, not all were Muslim. During the time of Rumi, a scholar and Sufi who is today America’s most popular poet, you will find that Jews and Christians all worked together to build society and civilization. The same dynamic was found in Baghdad, where scholars of different religions worked together in Bayt ul Hikmah, the House of Wisdom, to collect, translate, and transmit classical knowledge from places like Ancient Greece.
The same inclusive culture was also found in Islamic Spain, where the Spanish, Africans, Arabs, Muslims, Christians, and Jews worked together to build a society based on mutual respect for the common good. Many Jews describe this as their golden period. I would recommend a visit to the Jewish museum of Istanbul, which will give you an idea of why and how Jews preferred to land in the Ottoman empire instead of going to other places because they knew the inclusive heritage of Islam and Muslims.
In the twentieth century, when Pakistan emerged as a new Islamic state, it not only used vocabulary in its constitution that was inclusive of Christians and Hindus, as minority communities. It also volunteered to guarantee seats for non-Muslims. In its 60-plus years of existence, there have always been non-Muslims in parliament and in the government, ranging from its commander-in-chief, to its chief justice, to its chief of police. This is remarkable considering that Pakistan is a conservative Muslim country. And the only reason these guarantees of minority rights were there was because of an understanding of early Islamic history.
Muslims, however, cannot claim that they have always lived these ideals individually or collectively. Unfortunately, there are many examples, which show Muslims living below their own ideals. We must consider ourselves individually responsible for our personal neglect and collectively, for the transgressions of other human beings – their basic right to healthy and productive lives.
Why the Constitution of Madinah Matters Today
Today, it is critical to understand the key role of the Constitution of Madinah, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring. As former dictatorships fall and states try to establish a new framework for running governments and societies, the Muslim-majority Arab nations must keep the lessons of our history’s first constitution in mind.
In the Prophet’s Madinah, Muslims were numerically a minority. But instead of establishing dictatorial minority rule, the Prophet negotiated treaties with the pagan community, which was composed of about about nine tribes, as well as three Jewish tribes. The document that emerged was called in Arabic Sahifah. Others called it Wasiqah The twentieth-century Islamic scholar Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah described it as the world’s first written constitution.
Among the rights it guaranteed were freedom of religion and worship, freedom of speech, and freedom for each community to make its own laws and be subject to them. What bound these communities together was the agreement to defend their city-state, Madinah, and take on the burden of their own expenditures for this task.
Interestingly, in the constitution at the end of the articles, the Prophet described each of these pagan and Jewish tribes together with Muslims one people or “Ummatan Wahidah”. Today, we think exclusively of the global Muslim community when we use the term Ummah. However, at that time, the Prophet used the word “Ummah”, meaning a nation, to describe the members of the new Muslim city-state, both Muslim and non-Muslim.
This Constitution of Madinah is based on Islam’s basic belief structure: God created all human beings as a global community, one people, but it is human beings who divided and separated themselves; every human being has inherent dignity and worth; every human being has the right to choose his or her beliefs and way of life; Islam is not a new religion. Rather it is a reaffirmation of previous Divinely Revealed Scriptures; Islam holds in esteem the Messengers of the Bible and Torah, like Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Believing in these Prophets and Messengers of God, in fact, is a key tenet of Islam, and no one can claim to be a Muslim if they do not.
But Muslims are also taught that Messengers and Prophets have come to other peoples throughout history. This is why when Muslims went to Persia and found out about Zoroastrians, Umar ibn al-Khattab, the Muslims’ leader, decided that because they had a book they considered Divine Revelation, they were to be treated like the People of the Book, Jews and Christians. In practical terms, this established a relationship of peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Zoroastrians.
Islam has from the beginning taught a recognition of differences not just between human beings in terms of color and language, but belief systems as well. The attitude toward these divergences has been to accept that God is the ultimate arbiter Who will decide between all of us in the Hereafter. For this world, though, we can and should live together peacefully, striving toward common goals that benefit humanity across the board.
The Prophet realized the challenges of preaching the message of unity of humankind. Even in his farewell sermon shortly before his death, he made it a point to address this issue:
"O people, remember that your Lord is One. All mankind is from Adam and Eve. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black, nor [does] a black have any superiority over a white, except by piety and good action. Indeed, the noblest among you is the one with the best character (Taqwa).
His sermon was in a way an explanation of God’s command in the Quran:
"O Mankind, We created you from a single pair of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may know one another. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous of you" (Quran 49:13).
It was through the systemic incorporation of the concept of mutual humanity and shared space with other religions into Scripture, belief structures, laws and values that explain why Islamic societies, from the start, were racially diverse, multi-ethnic, and open to other faith communities. Whether it was Madinah, Baghdad, Andalus, Egypt, Timbuktu, Jerusalem, Shiraz, Istanbul, Bukhara or Delhi, one finds people of different races and religions living and working comfortably with each other by and large. Of course, we can find numerous occasions when, as I said earlier, the ideals have been circumvented or forgotten.
Rose Wilder Lane of “Little House on the Prairie” fame is also known as an important libertarian philosopher, as a result of her book “Discovery of Freedom.” She asserts that Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, was the second most important source for the assertion of freedom in the world after Prophet Ibrahim, peace be upon him, who she considers to be the first source of freedom.
Although Lane’s reading of the Prophet’s contribution and Islamic civilization might be difficult for some to stomach in today’s Islamophobic environment, it is one which most Muslims continue to remember to inspire them in their efforts to make the world a more just place of human habitation without religious and racial animus.
Rose Wilder Lane came to these conclusions about 70 years ago, when most of the Muslim world was still under colonial occupation. It was during these times that the ideals of Islam faced some of their major challenges.
Faced with the triple whammy of colonial occupation, cultural hegemony, and forced modernization, Muslims started reacting to events defensively instead of continuing to serve humanity at large and develop at their own rate of progress. Progress, which they helped define for a thousand years with their contributions to world civilization, that was open to all faiths and communities.
I hope that the text and the spirit of the Constitution of Madinah will be kept in mind as new democracies of the Arab Spring write their constitutions. I also hope that Muslims and their neighbors include this document into their reading of Islam.