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The Prophetic Model

Recognising that the Qur'anic concept of khilafah entails a broad philosophy of human trusteeship of the Earth does not remove politics from the Islamic equation, but it does fundamentally reconfigure the way in which Islam views the political sphere, which differs from widespread assumptions.

Even though Islam cannot be used to legitimise the structure of the modern nation-state, nor of an empire-system, the Prophetic model as established in Medina provides an inclusive framework of pluralist, consensual, community-oriented governance. After attaining prophethood, Muhammed lived in Mecca for thirteen years, before migrating to Medina to escape persecution, where he lived for ten years until his demise. During this period, the Prophet devised a constitutional framework, Mithaq i-Medina (the Covenant or Charter of Medina), representing a mutual agreement between Medina’s multiple religious communities. In the words of Prof. Robert D. Crane from the Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies at Hamad Bin Khalifa University:

“When the various tribes living in Madina invited the Prophet Muhammad to become their leader as a means to overcome their inter-tribal rivalries and bring peace, prosperity, and freedom, there was no such thing as a state in the modern sense. In fact, such a modern concept was not invented until more than a thousand years later, even though there were empires, like the Persian, Chinese, and Incas, based on the modern concept of might makes right. In the Covenant of Madina the various autonomous tribes were incorporated in a single confederation with common rights and responsibilities. The Prophet called this confederation an umma or single community composed of different ethnic and religious ummas as sub-groups...

There was also a common law based on the practice of the Prophet Muhammad and the traditional laws of each religious group. The Islamic shari’a as a body of law and jurisprudence, like all the other Islamic disciplines, developed over the course of the centuries. At the time of the Madina Covenant there was no state machinery to enforce the law, no police and no regular military, and not even an established judicial system.  All social life was voluntary. This changed when the Prophet died and especially when peoples in distant places embraced Islam, which led to the growth of power centers that eventually evolved into independent empires based on principles that were un-Islamic from the perspective of the original community of the Madina Covenant.” (Robert D. Crane, “Islamic Social Principle of the Right to Freedom [Haqq al-Hurriyah]: An Analytical Approach”Arches Quarterly (Summer, 2009, Vol. 3, No. 4) pp. 8-9)

The Medina Covenant, whose authenticity is largely recognised by both Muslim and Western historians (John Burton, "Those are the High-flying Cranes", Journal of Semetic Studies, Vol 15, No. 2, pp. 265) provided a consensual framework for grassroots community governance. First of all, the Prophet’s position as ultimate arbitrator of disputes was not imposed through coercion, but in fact invited by the mutual agreement of the different tribal communities. This is crucial, as numerous verses of the Qur’an stipulate clearly that the Prophet’s role is not to coerce or impose anything, but simply give the message. Secondly, the Covenant itself was a document mutually accepted by the different communities of Medina in the context of inter-tribal rivalries and hostilities. Under the Covenant, protected groups included not only Jewish and Christian communities, but even pre-Islamic ‘pagan’ communities (Michael Cook, Muhammad, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983, p. 311).

Each community had its own distinctive religious and cultural norms, which were to be mutually respected. The Prophet exercised no juridical authority to impose Islamic religious and legal rulings on these other autonomous communities; in fact, even his exercise of the duty of arbitration amongst the Muslims of Medina illustrated significant scope for flexibility beyond any simplistic literalist reading of the Qur’anic text. Thus, the Jewish community joined the federation as an autonomous group governed by its own rabbinical court. Similarly, the Christians freely bought, sold and consumed pork and wine, although these were prohibited for Muslims. Thirdly, this meant that the different autonomous communities enjoyed protection of life and property, freedom and equality of religion, could wear their own traditional clothing, maintained their own language and customs, and followed their own religious law. Fourthly, therefore, the social injunctions of the Qur’an and the Prophet were only voluntarily implemented amongst Medina’s Muslim community with their collective consent (Asghar Ali Engineer, lslam and Modem Age: Intellectual approach to Islam, Mumbai: Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, 2002, p. 20. For a detailed comparison of the Medina Covenant with the US Constitution see Imam ad-Dean Ahmad, "On the US Constitution from the Perspective of the Qur'an and the Medina Covenant", American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, Vol. 20, No. 3-4, Summer/Fall 2003, pp. 105-24).

As noted by Prof. Noel Coulson, described by The Times (3.09.86) as the leading Western scholar of Islamic law of his generation, Islamic injunctions “could not form part of the tribal law unless and until they were generally accepted as such,” because it was “to the tribe as a whole [that] belonged the power to determine the standards by which its members should live. But here the tribe is conceived not merely as the group of its present representatives but as a historical entity embracing past, present, and future generations.” (Noel J. Coulson, A History of Islamic Law, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964) 

Even amongst the Muslim community in Medina, the people who first and foremost had already called upon the Prophet to act as their arbitrator in all issues, asked the Prophet for guidance and followed his pronouncements voluntarily. There was no state machinery, police, or regular army to enforce these injunctions, and as already noted the Prophet did not compel the different tribes of Jews or idol-worshippers to follow Islamic rulings. (Nehaluddin Ahmad, “The Modern Concept of Secularism and Islamic Jurisprudence: A Comparative Analysis”Annual Survey of International & Comparative Law, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 16-17)

This went much further than even traditional religious prohibitions such as over alcohol and pork, which non-Muslim communities could freely use due to their own customs and norms, but even encompassed issues involving sexuality. For example, Zoroastrian ‘self-marriages’ ruled as incestuous under Qur’anic injunctions were permitted because the practice was customary to that religious minority community. The Prophet himself did not forbid Zoroastrian ‘self-marriages’ although he was fully aware of the practice when he came into contact with Zoroastrians (Sherman A. Jackson, Islam and the Blackamerican: looking toward the third resurrection, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 144).

In effect, then, the Covenant of Medina was not merely the first written constitution, but in fact enshrined on the basis of Islamic principles the first secular public space, in which the multiple religious communities of Medina were mutually bound by a consensual treaty of protection, diversity and equality which neither required any particular religious beliefs, nor enforced any particular religious modes of behaviour (Imad ad-Dean Ahmad, “On the US Constitution from the Perspective of the Qur’an and the Medina Covenant”). 

While promoting pluralism and mutual respect for different faiths (including paganism), the Covenant guaranteed full freedom of religious and cultural expression for all tribes, and their members. It also established that the appointment of Muhammad as a political leader of this new inclusive community was not on the basis of a Divine right, but was simply premised on the mutual consensus of the multiple, free sub-groups present in Medina. (A. Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad – A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 231 -233)

Covenants of Freedom

In his seminal study of the Covenant of Medina, Professor John Andrew Morrow, Director of the Convenants Foundation, in his book The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World (Angelico Press, 2013), concludes: 

"Identity and loyalty were no longer to be based on family, tribe, kinship, or even religion: the overriding identity was membership in the ummah of Muhammad. The Constitution of Medina decreed that the citizens of the Islamic state were one and indivisible regardless of religion. Be they heathen, People of the Book, or Muslims, all those who were subject to the Constitution belonged to the same ummah. In doing so, he created a tolerant, pluralistic government which protected religious freedom. The importance of this is so extraordinary that it is often misunderstood."

The Medina Covenant introduced a radical egalitarianism that, Professor Morrow argues, has not been seen since:

".... every single member... enjoyed equality before the law as all privileges of class were abolished. The rich and the poor; the noble and the laymen; the Arabs and the non-Arabs; the blacks and the whites; the men and the women; and the children and the adults all had the same rights. Even Muhammad, as the Messenger of Allah, was not above the law."

It is worth noting that the Medina Covenant is not the only textual evidence revealing the pluralistic model of governance introduced by the Prophet. In his book, Professor John Morrow analyses a range of little-known historical documents, treaties and letters largely neglected by both classical Muslim and modern Western scholars.

One such document, the 'Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai,' exhorts Muslims to treat Christian churches and priests with respects, and to view Christians as their "brothers." The document, explains Morrow, constitutes:

"... a clear rejection of classism, elitism, and racism... all are equal before God for whom the most important thing is not language, skin color, social status or class position, which exclude others, but rather the degree of piety, humanity, love for others (which includes not only human beings but the entire natural order), sincerity of faith, the acceptance of His Commandments, and complete certainty as to the special place occupied by His Prophets, Messengers, and Imams."

Similarly, Morrow highlights the Treaty of Maqnah between the Prophet and Jews in Banu Janbah, in the Gulf of 'Aqabah, where Muhammad asserts that the Jewish community "may be in peace... When this letter of mine comes to you, you are in security [under my governance]... Towards you is no wrong and no enmity. After today you will not be subjected to oppression or violence... Furthermore, the Messenger of Allah has exempted you from jizyah (a tax) and compulsory labour."

The Ummah - the community of 'Surrender to the One' that Muslims are supposed to sustain and protect - was not an exclusivist political structure of domination, but an inclusive, pluralistic framework of people of all faiths and none, sanctified by Divine Command as revealed in the Qur'an and practiced by the Prophet. "[T]he Prophet recognized that there were nations and peoples within the Muslim ummah," writes Professor Morrow. "Whether they were Jews or Christians, and later Hindus and Buddhists, these communities represented a kind of United Nations under Islamic rule."