The Political Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ: Part 5 – The ‘Constitution’ of Madina

As we have seen in the previous parts of this series of posts, the Prophet ﷺ laid out for us in his sayings and practice a way of living which includes a political dimension – his political Sunnah. The classical scholars have authored numerous books on how our dīn determines we should deal with economic matters (such as in the Kitāb al-Kharāj of Imam Abū Yusuf, a student of Abū Ḥanīfah and Kitāb al-Amwāl (Book of State Finance) by Abū ‘Ubayd al Qāsim ibn Sallām), enact foreign policy (for example in the Al-Siyar al-Ṣaghīr of Imam Muhammad al-Shaybani, another of Abū Ḥanīfah’s students), how the Caliph should run the Islamic state (which is detailed in al-Mawardī’s Al-Aḥkām al-Sulṭāniyyah wa al-Wilāyāt al-Dīnīyah and in books with similar titles by other scholars such as Qadi Abū Ya‘la) and the obligations of both the ruler and the ruled (see for example alṬuruq al-ḥukmiyyah fī al-siyāsah al-sharʻīyyah of Ibn al-Qayyīm al-Jawziyyah).

An aspect of the political Sunnah which is not often considered is the Prophet’s ﷺ contribution to constitutional law.

Soon after he entered the city of Madina as undisputed leader and governor, the Prophet ﷺ drew up a document or charter (Ṣaḥīfah) governing the relations between the Muhajirūn, the Anṣār and the various Jewish clans and tribes of Yathrib (but not including those Jewish tribes living on the outskirts of Madina, with whom the Prophet ﷺ concluded treaties of non-belligerency later). The Integrated Encyclopedia of the Qur’an [IEQ] states that the Ṣaīfah “established the political authority of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, as the ruler of the city-state of Madina (Ibn Hishām, Sīra, al-Rasūl yuwādi‘ al-Yahūd). For this reason some modern scholars consider it a ‘constitutional document’ (Hamidullah, The First Written Constitution in the World; al-Būṭī, Fiqh al-Sīra al-Nabawiyyah) and indeed a model for modern constitutional law” [IEQ, Vol. 1, p. 158].

This document precedes the Magna Carta by several centuries, but is rarely discussed.

“The full text of the Ṣaḥīfah has been preserved by Ibn Hishām and other authorities” according to the Sudanese-born scholar Dr. Zakaria Bashier [Sunshine at Madinah, Islamic Foundation, Markfield, 2007, p. 85].

Professor Akram Ḍiya‘ al ‘Umarī cites al-Bayhaqī as relating that “The Messenger of Allah [ﷺ] had the document written beneath the palm tree at the residence of Bint al Ḥārith. After the death of the Messenger, the document was in the keeping of ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib” [al-Bayhaqī, Dalā’il al-Nubuwwah, 3:446-450; Abu Nu‘aym, Dalā’il al-Nubuwwah, pp. 176-177. Cited in Madinan Society at the Time of the Prophet, Akram Ḍiyā’ al ‘Umarī, International Institute of Islamic Thought, Herndon, 1992, Vol. I, p. 104]

Professor ‘Umari mentions that in addition to Ibn Hishām, the Ṣaḥīfah was reported by Abu ‘Ubayd al Qāsim ibn Sallām in Kitāb al-Amwāl and by Ibn Zanjawayh through al-Zuhrī in his book, also entitled Kitāb al-Amwāl. He also mentions that the “books of adīth reported many of its clauses” including the collections compiled by al-Bukhārī, Muslim, Imam Aḥmad, Abū Dāwūd, Ibn Mājah and al-Tirmidhī [op. cit., pp. 100-102]

The Western orientalist Michael Lecker affirms that “it is widely acknowledged as authentic and as dating back to the time of the Prophet” [Michael Lecker, The “Constitution of Medina”: Muḥammad’s* First Legal Document, The Darwin Press, Princeton, 2004, p. ix]

Dr. Bashier provides a full translation of the Ṣaḥīfah in Sunshine at Madinah. It begins:

“Said Ibn Isḥāq:

 ‘The Messenger of Allah [ﷺ] wrote a document (stipulating the relationship) between Muhājirūn and Anṣār in which he made a peace with the Jews and pledged himself to them that they will be established in security regarding their religion, wealth and property. He pledged to honour certain rights for them and demanded that they fulfil certain obligations.’ ” [Ibn Hishām, Sīra, Vol. I, p. 501, op. cit., pp. 104-105].

Dr. Bashier states that document should be “looked upon as a great advance for humanity. Perhaps for the first time in human history a state was founded on an ideological basis. The Muslims were declared as one Ummah, united by bonds of faith and brotherhood. The Prophet’s supreme authority was upheld. The Muhājirūn and Anār fused together as one entity…The Jews were considered full citizens of the Muslim state.” [ibid., p. 85]

Later on, Dr. Bashier writes that “the role which the Ṣaḥīfah assigned to the Jews indicates a willing and enthusiastic participation by them in the promotion and security of the new state. The Ṣaḥīfah committed the three parties to uphold and defend the authority of the Prophet [ﷺ] and to co-operate in the enforcement of law and order.” [ibid., p. 100]

Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah states that the document “was a unique achievement. For the first time in history the rights and obligations of the subjects and the sovereign were reduced to writing. The constitution of the state was drafted with the consent of all the parties concerned. Thus came into existence the historic document of the first written constitution of a state piloted by a man who was not able to write himself.” [The Emergence of Islam: Lectures on the Development of Islamic World-View, Intellectual Tradition and Polity, Muhammad Hamidullah, Islamic Research Institute, Islamabad, 1993, p. 159]

And in an article first published in 1941, Dr. Hamidullah states: “In this document the Holy Prophet (ﷺ) secured for himself the highest judicial, legislative, military and executive powers for himself, but a very important and remarkable difference between this authority and the autocratic royal authorities of other countries was that materialism had no part to play here. The Holy Prophet (ﷺ) introduced moral elements in politics. He regarded God as the source of authority and considered himself as His [M]essenger and agent; and alongside with this he declared the command and injunctions ordained for the people as equally applicable to his own self. And in view of very many cases of civil and tort nature brought against his holy person in his own lifetime, we can say that Islam rejected the theory that “the King can do no wrong.” And since the most powerful man in the state could not violate the laws at will, other officials and the people in general naturally observed them with greater care.” [Muhammad Hamidullah, The First Written Constitution in the World: An Important Document of the Time of the Holy Prophet]

This detailed article about the aḥīfah, including a translation of the text, can be viewed here.

Dr. Bashier comments:

“The Ṣaḥīfah must be acknowledged as a great achievement for the Prophet [ﷺ] at the beginning of his career as a stateman. It was way ahead of its time, perhaps the first written constitution in history governing political as well as legal relations of a state. Recalling that the Prophet Muhammad [ﷺ] had had no previous experience as a ruler, the acumen of this extraordinary document is truly impressive…The document heralded the birth of a unified community and a single government in Madina. The authority and prerogatives of the Prophet [ﷺ] were well defined and his position as undisputed ruler clearly established on a firm, contractual, legal foundation.” [Sunshine at Madinah, pp. 108-109]

This concludes the series of posts on the political Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ.

We need to follow the Messenger of Allah ﷺ in all aspects of his life. We follow him closely in how he worshipped Allah, and we take note of his role as a father and husband when we look after our families. His example as a carrier of the Islamic da‘wah, a ruler and statesman should not be overlooked, so that Allah does not hold us to account on the Day of Reckoning:

“Say,  O Prophet: ‘If you love Allah, then follow me; Allah will love you and forgive your sins. For Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.’ ” [Qur’an 3:31]

*Please read the salutation ﷺ where it is missing from a quote.

[To view the previous posts in this series please click on these links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4]

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