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  • Saïd Amir Arjomand

One of the oldest extant documents in Islamic history records a set of deeds executed by Muhammad after his migration (hijra) in 622 from Mecca to Yathrib, subsequently known as “the City [madīna] of the Prophet.” Marking the beginning of the Islamic era, the document comprising the deeds has been the subject of well over a century of modern scholarship and is commonly called the “Constitution of Medina”—with some justification, although the first modern scholar who studied it at the end of the 19th century, Julius Wellhausen, more accurately described it as the “municipal charter” (Gemeindeordnung) of Medina. In 1889, Wellhausen highlighted the text's antiquity, which has been acknowledged by even the most skeptical of contemporary “source-critical” scholars, Patricia Crone, who thinks that, in Ibn Ishaq's Sira, “it sticks out like a piece of solid rock in an accumulation of rubble.”

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Saïd Amir Arjomand is a Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Sociology, State University of New York, Stony Brook, N.Y.; e-mail:
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1 Humphreys, R. Stephen, Islamic History: A Framework of Enquiry (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991), 6583; Lecker, Michael, The “Constitution of Medina”: Muhammad's First Legal Document (Princeton, N.J.: Darwin Press, 2004).

2 Wellhausen uses the term in preference to “constitution” (Verfassung). Wellhausen, Julius, “Muhammads Gemeindeordnung von Medina,” in Skizzen und Vorarbeiten, 4 vols. (Berlin: Reimer, 1889), 4:6583; Behn, W., ed. and trans., “Muhammad's Constitution of Medina,” published as an excursus to A. J. Wensinck, Muhammad and the Jews of Medina (Freiburg, Germany: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, 1975), 128–38.

3 Crone, Patricia, Slaves on Horses: The Evolution of the Islamic Polity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 7.

4 Koselleck, Reinhart, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Tribe, Keith (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992).

5 Weber, Max, The Methodology of the Social Sciences, ed. Shils, Edward A. and Finch, Henry A. (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1949), 112.

6 Hamidullah, Muhammad, “Aqdam Dustur Musajjal fi-l-ʿAlam,” Islamic Scholars Conference 1 (1937): 98123; idem, The First Written Constitution in the World, 2nd ed. (Lahore, Pakistan: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1968), discussed in Lecker, Constitution of Medina, 1–2.

7 Serjeant, R. B., “The ‘Constitution of Medina,’Islamic Quarterly 8 (1964): 316; idem, “The Sunnah Jāmiʿa, Pacts with the Yathrib Jews, and the Tahrim of Yathrib: Analysis and Translation of the Documents Comprised in the So-called ‘Constitution of Medina,’” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 41 (1978): 1–41.

8 Lecker, Constitution of Medina, 185.

9 Ibid., 183–85.

10 Ibid., 3, 186–90; Gil, Moshe, “The Constitution of Medina: A Reconsideration,” Israeli Oriental Studies 4 (1974): 4466.

11 Lecker, Constitution of Medina, 3.

12 Whelan, Estelle, “Forgotten Witness: Evidence for the Early Codification of the Qurʾān,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 118 (1998): 114. The “revisionist” argument that the Qurʾan is a later plagiarized composition is, by contrast, unconvincing. See Angelika Neuwirth, “Qurʾan and History—A Disputed Relation: Some Reflections on Qurʾanic History and History in the Qurʾan,” Journal of Qurʾanic Studies 5 (2003), esp. 1–11.

13 Donner, Fred M., Narrative of Islamic Origins: The Beginning of Islamic Historical Writing (Princeton, N.J.: Darwin Press, 1998); idem, “The Qurʾan in Recent Scholarship: Challenges and Desiderata,” in The Qurʾan in Its Historical Context, ed. Gabriel S. Reynolds (London: Routledge, 2008), 42–43.

14 A notable exception is the Indonesian reformist Nurcholish Madjid (d. 2005), who found in the CM the source of inspiration for his Paramadina Foundation and advocacy of religious pluralism and democracy. See Bakti, Andi Faisal, “Islam and Modernity: Nurcholish Madjid's Interpretation of Civil Society, Pluralism, Secularization, and Democracy,” Asian Journal of Social Science 33 (2005): 492–95.

15 See Arjomand, Saïd Amir, “Islamic Constitutionalism,” Annual Review of Law and Social Science 3 (2007): 115–40.

16 See Chapter 1 of my forthcoming Constitutional History of the Islamic Middle East (University of California Press).

17 Some verses of the Qurʾan can be taken as references to and confirmation of its provisions, however, and have been so construed by commentators.

18 Denny, F. M., “Umma in the Constitution of Medina,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 36 (1977): 44, 52.

19 Arjomand, Saïd Amir, “Revolution in Early Islam: The Rise of Islam as a Constitutive Revolution,” Yearbook of the Sociology of Islam 7 (2006): 125–57.

20 Although the Meccan converts had been individuals, Medina witnessed the phenomenon of acceptance of Islam by whole clans. See Watt, W. Montgomery, Muhammad at Medina (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956), 170–71.

21 The text continues: “One man could be a Muslim and his father a polytheist, another, a Muslim and his brother a polytheist.” Report from Bayhaqi reproduced in Lecker, M., “Wāqidī's Account of the Status of the Jews of Medina: A Study of a Combined Report,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 54 (1995): 31. This report is quoted in preference to that of al-Waqidi, Muhammad bin ʿUmar, The Kitab al-Maghaza, ed. Jones, Marsden (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), 1:184, which is cited by Wellhausen, “Muhammads Gemeindeordnung von Medina” (1975 translation), 128; and Serjeant, “The Sunnah Jāmiʿa,” 2.

22 My references are to CM, the Constitution of Medina, Ibn Ishaq's text, as edited and line numbered by Lecker in Constitution of Medina, 7–9, with emendations, where indicated, on the basis of Abu ʿUbayd's text as edited by Lecker, ibid., 19–20.

23 Ishaq, Muhammad ibn, Sirat Rasul Allah, ed. Wüstenfeld, Ferdinand (Göttingen, Dieterich, 1858–60), 341; Guillaume, A., trans., The Life of Muhammad (London: Oxford University Press, 1955), 231, slightly modified.

24 Waqidi, Kitab al-Maghaza, 1:177.

25 Pace Lecker who argues (Constitution of Medina, Chapter 3) that none of these three was party to the constitutional deeds on the somewhat flimsy distinction between references to the Jewish clans as ḥulafāʾ (allies) rather than mawālī (clients). I am inclined to think the clan of Qaynuqaʾ were a party to the pact, which would explain why the leader of the Arab patron clan of ʿAwf, ʿAbdallah bin Ubayy, dared grab Muhammad by the scruff of the neck and demand their safe conduct into exile. See Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah, 546; The Life of Muhammad, 363. Lecker similarly makes too much of the distinction between muwādaʿa (truce), ʿahd (pact), and ʿaqd (contract). Because Muhammad's acts of settlement were something new, they were all of the above and yet none of them exactly, so our sources use various terms to refer to them. I argue that the clan of Qurayza was not originally included but was the new party added by the supplement.

26 This early timing, implicit in Ibn Ishaq, is made explicit in the introductory opening of Abu ʿUbayd al-Qasim bin Sallam's version in his Kitab al-Amwāl. See Lecker, Constitution of Medina, 19.

27 Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah, 344–45; The Life of Muhammad, 234–35.

28 Giannakis, Elias, “The Concept of Ummah,” Graeco-Arabica 2 (1982): 103; Amir-Moezzi, Mohammad Ali, La religion discrète. Croyances et pratiques spirituelles dans l'islam shiʿite (Paris: Vrin, 2006), 3940.

29 The rule of inheritance was later abrogated by the Qurʾan (Q.8.75 and/or Q.4.33, and/or Q.33.6). See Watt, W. M., “Muʾakhat,” in Encyclopedia of Islam (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1993), 7:254.

30 Amir Moezzi plausibly argues that the institution of brotherhood was embarrassing for the orthodoxy and was systematically ignored in the Sunni sources because Muhammad chose ʿAli as his own brother, thus also making him his heir. Moezzi, La religion discrète, 40.

31 Ibn Saʿd claims there were forty-five helpers, matching the number of emigrants, although he must have included later brothers. Even this number is quite small. Saʿd, Muhammad ibn, Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir (Biographien), ed. Sachau, Eduard (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1917), 1.2:1.

32 Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah, 552; The Life of Muhammad, 368.

33 Serjeant, “The Sunnah Jāmiʿa,” 32.

34 Bayhaqi's report as reproduced in Lecker, “Wāqidī's Account,” 32.

35 Lecker, Constitution of Medina, 75–80.

36 Muhammad's paracletic epithet (Q. 61:6)

37 Ibn Saʿd, 1.1, 103–104. See the paragraph immediately following.

38 Wensinck, A. J., Muhammad and the Jews of Medina, trans. Behn, W. (Freiburg: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, 1975), 3944, 50; Arjomand, Saïd Amir, “Islamic Apocalypticism in the Classical Period,” in The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism, ed. McGinn, Bernard (New York: Continuum, 1998), 2:238–83.

39 Welch, A. T., “al-Kur'ān,” Encyclopedia of Islam (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1986), 5:403.

40 Denny, “Umma in the Constitution of Medina,” 45.

41 Rubin, Uri, “The ‘Constitution of Medina.’ Some Notes,” Studia Islamica 52 (1985): 11.

42 Waqidi, Kitab al-Maghaza, 2:454–56.

43 Ibn Saʿd, Kitab al-Tabaqat, 2.1:51, 55.

44 Wellhausen, “Muhammads Gemeindeordnung von Medina,” 73.

45 Serjeant, “The Sunnah Jāmiʿa,” 38.

46 Ibn Saʿd, Kitab al-Tabaqat, 2.1:56; Kister, J. M., “The Massacre of the Banu Qurayza,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 8 (1986): 69.

47 Serjeant argued for the immediate recognition by the Muslims of the part here entitled the Covenant of Unity as a constitutional act, identifying it as al-sunna al-jāmiʿa (taken to mean the “Uniting Precedent”), which was accepted, alongside the Qurʾan, as the basis of binding arbitration in the treaty of Siffin between ʿAli and Muʾawiya in 656–57. The Siffin reference is probably anachronistic. More plausible and intriguing, however, is his identification of the deed with “the pact of God” (habl Allāh) in Qurʾan 3:101–04. Serjeant, “The Sunnah Jāmiʿa,” 5–8, 16; idem, “Sunna, Qurʾan, ʿUrf,” in Christian Toll and Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen, eds., Law and the Islamic World Past and Present (Copenhagen: Historisk-filosofiske Meddelelser 68, 1995), 34–41. Whatever the merits of Serjeant's arguments, the first section of the document is the act of foundation of the umma in Medina.

48 Serjeant's most ingenious finding is that the word muʾminīn in the document does not have the common meaning of “believers” and derives not from imān (faith) but rather from amān (security), citing, inter alia, the evidence of the Qurʾan (6:82). See Serjeant, “The ‘Constitution of Medina,’” 3–16; and “The Sunnah Jāmiʿa,” 12–15. The connotation of imān is there, but Serjeant shows convincingly that the term muʾminīn cannot be taken to mean “believers” in our document and must mean those who subscribe to and are beneficiaries of the pact of security with Muhammad as the Prophet of God. It can therefore not be a synonym for Muslim and does not function as such in the text. The word “covenanter” conveys the legal aspect of the status of members of the new community constructed by a pact of security with God. It does not, however, convey the inner dimension of faith in God as the surety to the pact, which was undoubtedly a double entendre intended by Muhammad (Q. 13:28, 16:108). See Bravmann, M. M., The Spiritual Background of Early Islam (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1972), 2631. I am therefore translating muʾminīn by two words: “faithful covenanters.” This seems preferable, despite the loss in parsimony, to leaving the term in Arabic, as Serjeant and Lecker do, or to translating it anachronistically as “believers,” as do most other interpreters.

49 The emendation “reside with them” is added from Abu ʿUbayd's text, following the suggestion by Rubin, “The ‘Constitution of Medina,’” 9–10.

50 I follow Lecker (Constitution of Medina, 99–102) in his emendation of rabʿa to ribāʿa in CM 3–11 on the basis of Abu ʿUbayd's text and Lecker's translation of the term. Wherever there is broad disagreement among translators, I indicate the one closest to mine.

51 According to the custom, any member of the clan could extend protection on behalf of the clan as a whole.

52 See Watt, Muhammad, 222, translation.

53 See Lecker, Constitution of Medina, 118, translation: “the Jews who join us as clients.”

54 See Wellhausen's translation as “einziger und allgemeiner.”

55 Lecker's proposed alternative reading on the basis of what is obviously a manuscript-orthographic corruption of umma in an isolated version must be rejected; Lecker, Constitution of Medina, 139–47. It is strange that, after his strict criticism of Serjeant's many unwarranted emendations, he adduced such flimsy evidence. In any event, his speculative argument for particularistic grant of security (amān) to specific Jewish clans runs counter to the undeniable thrust of the generality and indivisibility of peace and security, without which there could be no unified community (umma wāhida).

56 Gil's reading of dīn (religion) as dayn (debt) is implausible for at least two reasons: the clear religious connotation of the preceding term, umma, in the contemporary Arabic of the Qurʾan and the occurrence of dīn in CM.56. Gil, “The Constitution of Medina,” 63.

57 Lines 34–36 are made into one clause and translated in light of Lecker's explanation that the Banu Thaʿlaba was an Arab clan converted to Judaism, lines 35 and 36 being read as one line in the light of the identification of Banu Shutayba as a subclan of the Thaʿlaba in Abu ʿUbayd's text. Lecker, Constitution of Medina, 20, 31, 75–80.

58 See Serjeant, “The Sunnah Jāmiʿa,” 27, translation: “Observance of one's undertaking eliminates treachery/breaking of treaties.”

59 See Hamidullah, The First Written Constitution, 50, translation: “None of them shall go out (on military expedition) except with the permission of Muhammad.”

60 Abu ʿUbayd's text has the additional phrase “and support for the wronged.”

61 Lecker's alternative reading is problematic; idem, Constitution of Medina, 171–72.

62 This line is missing from Abu ʿUbayd's text.

63 Serjeant, “The Sunnah Jāmiʿa,” 4.

64 Wellhausen, “Muhammad's Constitution of Medina,” 131.

65 Rubin, “The ‘Constitution of Medina,’” 12–13.

66 Lecker, Constitution of Medina, 86.

67 Waqidi, Kitab al-Maghaza, 1:19. When the title was later assumed by the second Caliph, ʿUmar (r. 634–44), the distinction between muʾminīn and muslimīn had faded, and it came to mean, simply, the “Commander of the Faithful.”

68 Wellhausen, “Muhammads Gemeindeordnung von Medina,” 69.

69 Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah, 351; The Life of Muhammad, 239.

70 Ibn Saʿd, Kitab al-Tabaqat, 1.2:10.

71 Serjeant, “The Sunnah Jāmiʿa,” 11–12.

72 According to one important tradition, this verse was revealed on the occasion of the Prophet's decision to accept poll tax from the Magians (Zoroastrians) rather than requiring their forced conversion. See Kister, Meir Jacob, “Social and Religious Concepts of Authority in Islam,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 18 (1984): 8991.

73 I follow Ibn Saʿd (Kitab al-Tabaqat, 2.1:51) in considering the Qurayza as the subject of these verses.

74 Giannakis, “The Concept of Ummah,” 108.

75 Muhammad Hamidullah, “The Earliest Written Constitution of a State in the World: A Document of the Time of the Prophet,” Majallat al-Azhar (September 1969): 13.

76 Wolf, Eric R., “The Social Organization of Mecca and the Origins of Islam,” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 7, no. 4 (1951): 147.

77 This qualification was used to nullify their rights in practice, fatally in the case of the clan of Qurayza.

78 Ibn Saʿd, Kitab al-Tabaqat, 1.2:9.

79 Watt, Muhammad, 144–46. In the year 626, he made a special arrangement with 400 men from the Muzayna tribe, granting them the status of “emigrants” (muhājirūn) within their own territories—which meant they did not have to join the jihād, thereby making an exception to coupling of hijra with jihad as a condition of Islam. See Madelung, Wilferd, “Has the Hijra Come to an End?Revue des Études Islamiques 54 (1986): 231–32.

80 Watt, Muhammad, 247.

81 Ibn Saʿd, Kitab al-Tabaqat, 2:28–29, 36–38.

82 Watt, Muhammad, 233.

83 The preceding verse, Q. 4:58, commands the return of the amānāt to their owners. The term is commonly translated as “deposits” but more likely means pledges, because amān can mean a pledge of security. Serjeant, “Sunna, Qurʾan, ʿUrf,” 37.

85 See my forthcoming Constitutional History of the Islamic Middle East.

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