The Compact of Medina:A Constitutional Theory of the Islamic State
M. A. Muqtedar Khan
The Qur'an was sent as a divine guidance to those who believe and contains principles and guidelines essential for social, political and spiritual guidance of humanity. The Qur'an should however not be mistaken as a manual. It is an essence of divine values, a collection of revealed principles the understanding and following of which will lead us along the straight path. The derivation of a manual from the divine principles is one of the most important responsibilities that come from being a Muslim. This responsibility is like a fard-e-kifaya (communal obligation). It is enough that someone take up this task in a given place and time.
As Muslims always in search of political autonomy and ethical authenticity we repeatedly return to Islamic sources in order to derive a manual for our times from the divine principles in the Qur'an and the Sunnah. One of the projects that contemporary Muslims are dealing with is the construction of a theory of an Islamic state. Several theories of the Islamic state have already been advanced. Some are more focused on the principle of shura and hence are more democratic in character while other theories are more focused on the divine authority of the Khalifa and are therefore more authoritarian models.
In this brief essay I wish to point out to one particular precedent set by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that not only supports the democratic theories of Islamic state but also provides a very important occasion for the development of political theory itself. The occasion I am referring to is the compact of Medina; some scholars also refer to it as the Dastur al-Medina (The Constitution of Medina). We must remember that everything the Prophet (PBUH) said and did is essentially an exegesis of the Qur'an. The Prophet s actions should be understood as an interpretation, a prophetic and divine interpretation, of the Holy Qur'an.
After Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) migrated from Mecca to Yathrib in 622 CE, he established the first Islamic state. For ten years Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was not only the leader of the emerging Muslim Ummah in Arabia but also the political head of Medina. As the leader of Median, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) exercised jurisdiction over Muslims as well as non-Muslims within the city. The legitimacy of his rule over Medina was based on his status as the Prophet (PBUH) of Islam as well as on the basis of the compact of Medina.
As Prophet of Allah (SWT) he had sovereignty over all Muslims by divine decree so profoundly manifest in the statement of Shahadah, Lailaha Illallah Muhammadur Rasoolullah (There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger). When Muslims declare their faith, they not only assert the sole divinity of Allah (SWT) but also the sovereignty of Muhammad (PBUH) as his messenger and agent on Earth. But Muhammad (PBUH) did not rule over the non-Muslims of Medina because he was the messenger of Allah. They did not recognize this particular credential of his. He ruled over them by virtue of the tri-partite compact that was signed by the Muhajirun (Muslim immigrants from Mecca), the Ansar (indigenous Muslims of Medina and the Yahud (Jews). It is interesting to note that Jews were constitutional partners in the making of the first Islamic state.
The compact of Medina provides an excellent historical example of two theoretical constructs that have shaped contemporary political theory and should therefore be of great value to those scholars who are involved in the theorizing of the Islamic state. Political theory relies heavily on the ideas of a social contract and a constitution. A social contract, made famous by the French philosopher Rousseau is an imaginary agreement between people in the state of nature that leads to the establishment of a community or a state. In the state of nature people are free and are not obliged to follow any rules or laws. They are essentially sovereign individuals. But through the social contract they surrender their individual sovereignty to the collective and create the community or the state. This state then acts as an agent of the sovereign people, exercising the sovereignty that has been delegated to it by the people through the social contract in order to realize the wishes of the people enshrined in the objectives of the social contract.
While western political thinkers like Rousseau and Locke have used this idea of an imaginary social contract as a fundamental premise for theorizing the modern state, there are really very few real examples of such an event in human history. In the American history, the Mayflower compact is one example. The writing and signing of the constitution after six months of deliberation in Philadelphia may be considered as another example of a social contract. But Muslims are fortunate to have the compact of Medina as a tradition upon which the foundations of a modern state can be built.
The second idea that underpins contemporary political theory is the concept of the constitution. In many ways the constitution is the document that enshrines the conditions of the social contract upon which any society is founded. The writing of a constitution is a very old idea. Aristotle himself had collected over 300 written constitutions in his lifetime. The compact of Medina clearly served a constitutional function since it was the constitutive document for the first Islamic state.
Thus we can argue that the compact of Medina serves the dual function of a social contract and a constitution. Clearly the compact of Medina by itself cannot serve as a modern constitution. It would be quite inadequate since it is a historically specific document and quite limited in its scope. However it can serve as a guiding principle to be emulated rather than a manual to be duplicated.
The compact of Medina also illustrates what should be the relationship between the revelation and a constitution. Muhammad (PBUH) if he so wished could have merely indicated the truth revealed by Allah (PBUH) shall serve as the constitution of Medina or the basis for the new community and force this revelation upon non-Muslims. But if he did that then he would have ruled Medina with the authority of Allah behind him but without the complete consent of those under his rule. Muhammad (PBUH) in his great wisdom demonstrated a democratic spirit quite unlike the authoritarian tendencies of many of those who claim to imitate him today. He chose to draw up a historically specific constitution based on the eternal and transcendent principles revealed to him and sought the consent of all who would be affected by its implementation.
In simple terms, the first Islamic state established in Medina was based on a social contract, was constitutional in character and the ruler ruled with the explicit written consent of all the citizens of the state. Today we need to emulate Muhammad (PBUH) and draw up our own constitutions, historically and temporally specific to our conditions and based on the eternal and transcendent principles revealed by Allah (SWT). We can use the compact of Medina as an example of how to develop manuals from principles.
In conclusion, I would like to summarize the principles manifest in Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) constitution of Medina. I recommend that all Muslims read this wonderful document themselves. I regret that there is no place in this brief column to reproduce it in its entirety. but readers are welcome to rad its entire text at:
The Constitution of Medina establishes the importance of consent and cooperation for governance. According to this compact Muslims and non-Muslims are equal citizens of the Islamic state, with identical rights and duties. Communities with different religious orientations enjoy religious autonomy. Which essentially is wider in scope than the modern idea of religious freedom. The constitution of Medina established a pluralistic state -- a community of communities. It promised equal security to all and all were equal in the eyes of the law. The principles of equality, consensual governance and pluralism are beautifully enmeshed in the compact of Medina.
It is amazing to see how Muhammad's (PBUH) interpretation of the Qur'an and the Maqasid al-Shariah was so democratic, so tolerant and compassionate, while contemporary Muslims (like the Taliban for example) interpretation of the same is so harsh, so authoritarian and so intolerant. I hope this discussion will invite us to look at the Sunnah of our dear Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), more closely. We must learn from him not only the principles of faith but also human virtues of mercy, compassion, equality, justice and tolerance. The constitution of Medina is an excellent manifestation of the Prophet's (PBUH) virtuous personality.