The Madinah Charter, written and promulgated by Prophet Muhammad for the pluralistic society, the multi-religious twenty thousand citizens of the City-state of Madinah in 622 CE:
It is truly a remarkable political-constitutional document. It was the first written constitution ever (FN1).
Aristotle's Constitution of Athens (FN2), written on papyrus, discovered by an American missionary in Egypt in 1890 and published in 1891, was actually not a constitution. It was an account of the constitution of the city-state of Athens. Other legal writings on the conduct of ancient societies have been found, but none can be described as a constitution.
The Madinah Charter is the first, and in this, it preceded the American Constitution of 1787, considered by Western authorities as "a landmark document of the Western world … the oldest written national constitution in operation" (FN3) by more than a thousand years! It also preceded the English Feudal Bill of Rights, the Magna Carta of 1215, by almost six centuries! United Nations Charter of Human Rights came into being only in 1945.
Not only is the Madinah Charter important in the sense that it is the first written constitution, it is also modern in the sense that it was promulgated for a plural society, giving equal rights to every citizen as well as giving them a say in governmental matters, as we shall see.
Considering these facts, it is amazing that those Muslim leaders and writers who talk and write about the Islamic state, seldom refer to this important seminal political document of Islam.
It is to be remembered that Muhammad (S) had been commissioned as a prophet, reciting God's revelations to his fellow Makkans, for thirteen years before he and his followers migrated to Yathrib, two hundred and ten miles to the north of Makkah. There were going to be another ten years to his mission before he completed the delivery of the Divine Message to the Arabs and to all mankind in God's Final Scripture, the Qur’an. The Madinah Charter was provisional in the sense that it would not contain all the provisions of statecraft contained in the Qur’an. Yathrib later came to be known as "The City of the Prophet" or simply Madinah. The reason for the migration was the growing opposition of the Quraish aristocracy to his teachings, persecution of the Prophet and his followers, and the receptive attitude of many Yathrib pilgrims to Makkah.
The whole text of the Charter has been reproduced, word for word, by Ibn Ishaq/Ibn Hisham and Abu Ubaid in their respective books from the original preserved by Ibn Abi Khithamah. (FN4)
The Charter consists of 47 clauses, but due to different methods of numbering, it may count to be 52 (FN5).
Clauses 1, 2 and 39 state the formation of a sovereign nation-state with a common citizenship, consisting of various communities, principally Muslim Arabs migrating from Makkah (the Muhajirin or Immigrants), Muslim Arabs from Yathrib (the Ansar or Helpers), the local Jews and others who were at that time still pagans. These constituted a unified citizenry (Ummah), having equal rights and responsibilities, as distinct from other peoples in the Arabian Peninsula.
It should not escape any mind that these two clauses established the first modern nation-state in the world. Although Madinah was just a city, its Charter was to last until the beginning of the Umayyad Dynasty in 661. Western historians erroneously cite the Treaties of Westphalia in 1648 as the beginning of the modern nation-state era. (FN6)
The Charter provided a federal structure with a centralized authority, with the various tribes in various districts constituting a unit and enjoying autonomy in social, cultural and religious diversity. Provision for this autonomy is repeated for each district. [Clauses 3 through 11 and 26 through 35]
Except for state security and national defense, the autonomous units had jurisdiction over all affairs. [Clauses 17, 36 (a) and 47]. Provisions for these centralized subjects are made in Clauses 13, 15, 17 and 44. Only the disputes that the units could not resolve, were forwarded for decisions to the Prophet (S) whose decision was final after he had made due consultation with the concerned district leaderships. [Clauses 23 and 41]
This new constitution brought with it a very important and revolutionary improvement by providing the people with a central public institution for seeking justice, rather than everyone seeking it with the power of his own hand or that of his family and friends. This epoch-making innovation brought an end to the chaos of Tribalism and laid down the basis for a wider institution, namely, a State under the rule of law. (FN7)
It should be noted that this loyalty to the State by its plural citizenry constituted a nation. It is in line with the teachings of the Qur’an.
49:13 O Mankind! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes so that you may affectionately come to know one another. Certainly, the most honored among you, in the Sight of God, is the one who is best in conduct. God is Knower, Aware. (FN8)
There were twenty districts each with a chief (Naqeeb) and deputy chiefs (‘Arif) and its specific meeting place, call it assembly (Saqeefah). Out of the total population of about twenty thousand, Muslims made up only a few hundred. Half of it were Jews and the rest were polytheists. (FN9)
It is noteworthy that the Charter ordained equality to its members and guaranteed them protection against oppression. [Clause 16]. The State proclaimed Brotherhood of believers and gave each one the right to give protection to any individual, excepting a common enemy. [Clause 15]. It also extended help to its members in debt or in financial difficulties in regard to payment of ransom or blood-money. [Clause 12]. It prohibited help or refuge to a murderer. [Clause 22].
A very important human right is given in Clause 25 where freedom is guaranteed for each community to practice its own religion. Each individual was free to choose his or her religion, the freedom proclaimed in the Qur’an in 2:193, 2:256. (FN10)
Another important principle of statecraft is Consultation with the people in all public matters. This is stated in Clause 37(a). The mutual consultation in the Saqeefahs and the Federal Center obviated a basic flaw in the Western democracy where the voice of the people, vox populi, regardless of whether that voice represents right or not, is given the highest value.
Another important principle of just governance was that no quarter was given to injustice or wrong-doing. This is stated in the Charter Clause 47.
As stated above, this constitution is Prophet Muhammad's vision at formulating a constitution when he was confronted with the task of administrating the City-state of Madinah. At this time, although completely downloaded on his heart, the entire Qur’an had not yet been recalled to the Prophet himself. This recall, on the intermittent prompting of the angel of Revelation, was conveyed to people only in stages. Therefore, he had to fall back on prevalent customs and precedents, and he did. Essentially, all constitutions are provisional in the sense that they must be adaptable to changing times.
Although a family may indirectly suffer the consequences of a crime committed by a member, (Clauses 25 and 36(b), no person would be punished except for the crime he personally committed. (Clause 46)
Perhaps, in the light of present Muslim interest in an "Islamic State", we should point out that this important constitutional document of Islam does not anywhere use the term "Islamic State" of "Islamic Society". The major principles governing an Islamic society were already present in the Charter: Principles like justice, brotherhood of believers, unity and cooperation among citizens of the state, freedom of religion, strict adherence to treaties, cooperation in doing good and preventing evil, encouragement of high moral conduct, and consultation as a method of government. It is also interesting to note that "Hudud laws" so-called by Islamic clergy are nowhere mentioned in the document.
It should be noted that the Charter, this first Islamic political-constitutional document, was given to the people of Madinah in the name of Muhammad the Prophet (Clause 1) and also in the name of God as well as Prophet Muhammad. [Clause 47]. Why two different ways of phrasing the ultimate source of power? It is to be remembered that during the Middle Ages in the West, the Church ruled supreme in the name of God, and God's name was, of course, much misused by hypocrites and opportunists. The modern Western practice of replacing God with the people has, of course, not helped matters very much. In the name of the people, oppression, wars, colonialism and aggressions have been incessantly launched.
Thus, even in this modern age of science and technology, mankind cannot ignore a power that is greater than itself. Mankind has an autonomous right to live, and to live happily, but they must do so in an environment subject to Divine Laws. It is in this sense, the Charter was given in the name of Muhammad the Prophet, who represented the principles of the good and right, which is higher than the individual. Likewise, in Clause 47 God's name was put first, as God represents the highest Good and the Highest principle of right reason. This is necessary to raise Man to higher and higher achievements.
THE MADINAH CHARTER (FN11)
With the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.
(1) This is a document from Muhammad the Prophet (governing the relations) between the believers (Muslims of Quraysh and Yathrib) and those who followed them and joined them and labored with them.
(2) They are One Community (Ummah) distinguished by their Faith.
(3) The Quraysh emigrants according to their present custom shall pay the bloodwit (ransom for murder to the grieved family) within their number and shall redeem their prisoners with the kindness and justice common among believers.
(4-8) The B. ‘Auf according to their present custom shall pay the bloodwit they paid in heathenism; every section shall redeem its prisoners with the kindness and justice common among believers. Bani Sa’dah, Bani Harith, Bani Jusham, and Bani Najjar will do likewise.
(9-11) Bani ‘Amr, Bani ‘Auf, Bani Nabit and Bani ‘Aus will have the same rights and obligations.
(12)(a) Believers shall not leave anyone destitute among them by not paying his redemption money or bloodwit in kindness.
(12)(b) A believer shall not take as an ally any man against the people.
(13) The God-fearing believers shall be against the rebellious or him who seeks to spread injustice, or sin or animosity, or corruption between believers. The hand of every man shall be against him even if he be a son of one of them.
(14) A believer shall not slay a believer for the sake of an unbeliever, nor shall he aid an unbeliever against a believer.
(15) God’s protection is one - the least of them may give protection to a stranger on their behalf. Believers are friends to one another to the exclusion of outsiders.
(16) To the Jew and non-Jew who follow us belong help and equality. He shall not be wronged nor shall his enemies be aided.
(17) The peace of the believers is indivisible. No separate peace shall be made when believers are fighting in the way of God. Conditions must be fair and equitable to all.
(18) In every foray a rider must take another behind him.
(19) The believers must not avenge the blood of one another shed in the way of God.
(20)(a) The God-fearing believers enjoy the best and most upright guidance.
(20)(b) No polytheist shall take the property of a person of Quraysh under his protection nor shall he intervene against a believer.
(21) Whoever is convicted of killing a believer without good reason shall be subject to retaliation unless the next of kin is satisfied (with blood-money), and the believers shall be against him as one man, and they are bound to take action against him.
(22) It shall not be lawful to a believer who holds by what is in this document and believes in God and the last day to help an evil-doer or to shelter him. The condemnation of God and His anger on the Day of Resurrection will be upon him if he does, and neither repentance nor ransom will be received from him.
(23) Whenever you differ about a matter it must be referred to God and to Muhammad.
(24) The Jews shall contribute to the cost of war so long as they are fighting alongside the believers.
(25) The Jews of Bani ‘Auf are one community with the believers (the Jews have their religion and the Muslims have theirs), their free men 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 Bani an-Najjar, Bani al-Harith, Bani Sai’ida, B. Jusham, B. al-Aus, B. Tha'laba, and the Jafna, a clan of the Tha‘laba and the B. al-Shutayba. Loyalty is a protection against treachery. The freed men of Tha ‘laba are as themselves - The close friends of the Jews are as themselves.
(36) None of them shall go out to war except with permission of Muhammad, but one shall not be prevented from taking equitable revenge for a wound. He who slays a man without warning destroys himself unless it be one by due process of law, for God will accept that.
(37) The Jews must bear their expenses and the Muslims their expenses. Each must help the other against anyone who attacks the people of this document. They must seek mutual advice and consultation, and loyalty is a protection against treachery. A man is not liable for his ally’s misdeeds. The wronged must be helped.
(38) The Jews must pay with the believers so long as war lasts.
(39) Yathrib shall be a sanctuary for the people of this document.
(40) A stranger under protection shall be as his host doing no harm and committing no crime.
(41) A woman shall be given protection with or without the consent of her family.
(42) If any dispute or controversy likely to cause trouble should arise it must be referred to God and to Muhammad the apostle of God. God accepts what is nearest to piety and goodness in this document.
(43) The fighting Quraysh and their helpers shall not be given protection.
(44) The contracting parties are bound to help one another against any attack on Yathrib.
(45)(a) If they are called to make peace and maintain it they must do so; and if they make a similar demand on the Muslims it must be carried out except in the case of Jihad of self-defense.
(45)(b) Every one shall have his portion from the side to which he belongs.
(46) The Jews of al-Aus, their freed men and themselves have the same standing with the people of this document in purely loyalty from the people of this document. Loyalty is a protection against treachery. He who acquires, ought acquires it for himself. God approves of this document.
(47) This deed will not protect the unjust and the violator of this document. The man who goes forth to fight and the man who stays at home in the city is safe unless he has been unjust and treacherous. God is the protector of the good and God-fearing and Muhammad is the apostle of God.
1. The First Written Constitution in the World, Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, Lahore, 1968. First published in England, 1941.
2. Translated by Frederic G. Kenyon, Internet. !996 The Avalon Project.
3. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th Edition, 1991.
4. The First Written Constitution in the World, p. 9. The translation of the whole text for A. Guillaume's Life of Muhammad is appended at the end.
5. Ibid., pp. 19-20.
6. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th Edition, 1991.
7. The First Written Constitution, p. 18.
8. Qur’an, 49:13.
9. Ibid., pp. 12-13.
10. There shall be no compulsion in religion: the right way is now distinguished from the wrong way." (2:256) Note that this statement of complete religious freedom comes immediately after the grandest statement of God's power to be found in any scripture. It is indeed significant!
This text is taken from A. Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad -- A Translation of Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1955; pp. 231-233. Numbering added.