The Medina Covenant: What is all the noise about?

Mahfuzur Rahman

Once in a while we hear about the Constitution of Medina. The subject pops up from time to time in the social media. I heard people talk about it on television talk shows, though not very often. More important, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has suggested at least once that the government of the country ‘would be run’ according to the Constitution of Medina. She has also said that the relationship between followers of the different religions in the country would be guided by the said Constitution. It is hard to know whether she means what she says here. It is easy, however, to put such remarks in the context of the Prime Minister’s frequent affirmation of her Islamic credential. They also go well with what looks like a growing fondness on her part for Saudi Arabia, though the Saudis themselves will almost certainly be amused by the idea of an ancient Constitution many of them may not have heard of.
The Islamists in the country of course love to talk about it. They, and strangely quite a few others, seem fascinated by what they call the first ‘constitution’ in the world, though, on close examination, it really does not look like one.
But, first, what is the Constitution of Medina? It is not a household name, and most people who talk about it have only the vaguest idea of the subject. The name Constitution is itself rather fanciful, as its details below will make clear, and the English translation “Covenant” is perhaps more appropriate, as is Medina Charter. Madina Sanad, the Bengali rendering, looks just as appropriate. In the present discussion I shall use Covenant.
The Covenant appears in the celebrated Life of the Prophet of Allah by Ibn Ishaq (d. 181 A.H.) Most scholars consider the document as genuine. The document is just over two pages long in the book’s English translation by A. Guillaume. The document itself does not bear a title, either of Constitution or of Covenant.
According to some, the Covenant was drawn up perhaps not long after the hijrah of the Prophet of Islam to Medina, perhaps a little before the Battle of Badr (A.H 2), though some scholars think it was put together after Badr. The latter possibility carries considerable weight. It is quite possible too that the document was modified with changing circumstances. The preamble to the document states that it was drawn up, in the words of the text, by Muhammad, the Prophet. The document ends with a declaration that Allah approves it. This, among other things, might suggest that the document was not strictly a covenant of equal partners.
The document was meant to govern the relationship between the Emigrant Muslims of Quraysh (the Muhajirun), the Ansar (Muslim hosts) of Yathrib (as Medina was then called) and between the Jewish tribes and Muslims and their followers. The polytheist Quraysh and their associates were mentioned as antagonists.
An important, and immediate, aim of the Covenant was to bring about reconciliation between the two major Arab tribes (as distinct from the Jewish) of Yathrib, the Aus and the Khazraj, who had been antagonists for generations. Indeed, it was these two tribes who had invited Muhammad to Medina in the first place, a major purpose of the invitation being to bring about reconciliation between them through his good offices. By the time the Covenant was written, the two tribes were very largely Muslim and mainly reconciled. The other large group of Muslim in Medina was the Muhajirun. Together, these Muslim groups were, in the Covenant, ‘One community (umma).’ There is no doubt that the document sought to strengthen solidarity among Muslims.
Early on, document prescribes how bloodwits (compensations for killings) by the individual constituent groups were to be paid and how captives were to be ransomed and treated. The importance that the practices of bloodwits and ransoming of prisoners occupies in the document was in consonance with the time; it would be just as irrelevant today.
The Covenant considers Jews of named tribes and clans (some ten of them) in Yathrib as part of the umma with the Muslims, and grants them right to pursue their religion. It says Muslims have their own religion, and the Jews have their own. Recognition of the rights of the Jews to pursue their own religion must be seen as the core of the Covenant. The induction of the document’s Jewish tribes in the ummah alongside the Muslims must similarly be seen as its most remarkable feature.
Elsewhere in the document, believers, or Muslims, are friends to one another. It places considerable emphasis on justice, fairness and reciprocity. A Jew who ‘follows’ Muslims is to be ‘helped’ and treated as an equal. A major provision of the document is that each tribe must help another in the event of an attack on Yathrib.
The document explicitly states that God approves it. It also says that if any dispute arises that is likely to cause ‘trouble’ must be referred ‘to God and to Muhammad, the apostle of God’. Finally, it proclaims that God is the protector of the good and God-fearing man and Muhammad is the apostle of God.’
The above, in essence, is the document. Other details need not concern us here. For a neutral observer it is impossible not to notice in the document the unmistakable tilt in favour of the members of the new and strengthening faith and its Prophet in relation to the other main contracting party, the Jewish entity of Yathrib.
The document lists the names of tribes and clans covered by it. The Jewish tribes and clans mentioned as participants were all allies or associates of one or the other of the two dominant Arab tribes: al- Khazraj and al-Aws. Both became predominantly Muslim before long, swelling the number of the followers of Muhammad. There were, however, three large Jewish tribes who were not mentioned in the document. The tribes were the al-Nadir, B. Qaynuqa, and B. Qurayzah.
Soon, there were only a few Jews in Medina. Jews rarely converted to Islam; the ranks of Muslims grew mostly by conversion of polytheists. The rapid decline in the number of the Jews has in fact led scholars to wonder why such attention to Jewish affairs was given in the document. (See, for example, W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad at Medina, Oxford. 1956. p.227). Medina emptied of Jew mainly by emigration, largely to areas near the Syrian borders. Of the three large Jewish tribes, the al-Nadir and B.Quaynuqa had been banished by the Prophet. The banishment of al- Nadir is the main theme in sura al-Hashr (sura 59) in the Koran itself. B. Qurayzah was punished with extermination for its alleged collaboration with the Meccan forces in the Battle of the Trench (A.H. 5), though the tribe is not mentioned in the Covenant as a party to it and facts over their role in the Battle are unclear. In about a decade after the death of the Prophet, Caliph Umar was to declare all Arab lands out of bounds to non-Muslims. Historical forces swept away the Jews; for the Covenant, invented for protection of the Jews, there remained only few of them to protect.
So ends the story of the Medina Covenant. Human society, in the meanwhile, made progress, by fits and starts, and has sought to nourish inter-communal harmony, through secular ideas of tolerance and pluralism, and not through appeal to some holy-grail of antiquity.