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The Medina Charter As A Basis Of Nation Building

The following is written in response to an article sent in by Aloysious Mowe to The Nut Graph, which was latter republished on Malaysia Today. The writer is a Jesuit Priest with an academic interest in Islamic Law and History.

As in his writings he has mixed up a few issues together, I am not able to respond para by para. I will however, try to respond point by point.

The Medina Charter
The Medina Charter forms an agreement between the Prophet as the leader of the Muslims in Medina with its non-Muslim citizens. The non-Muslims were made up of the Jews and “the tribes of the Awf, Najjar, Harith, Saida, and so on” as mentioned in Aloysious’s article. These tribes were obviously non-Muslims and were polytheists but Aloysious insists elsewhere that the Islamic Government originally only recognised the ahlul-kitab (Christians and Jews) as legitimate non-Muslim citizens accorded the status of ahlul-dhimmah while the other non-Muslims, i.e. polytheists “had only two options: accept Islam or be put to death. They could not become protected people within the Islamic state”.

This statement however is in direct contradiction with the contents of the charter which Aloysious himself quotes from. The confusion is simply due to the fact that the Medina Charter was an agreement in partnership between all members of the Medinan Society when the Prophet (P.B.U.H.) arrived in Medina. It differs from the agreements signed by the non-Muslim communities in lands later liberated by the Muslim armies. His inability to differentiate the two has led to some confusion in his writing.

The Medina Charter placed all the parties as equal partners in the defence of the city state of Medina. While each had its own religion and legal system, which the Prophet allowed to co-exist with the Islamic system, they were equally responsible to ensure the stability and security of the state. This is why some writers have mentioned that the Medina Charter is the basis upon which an Islamic Political Leadership can be implemented in Malaysia. This is as all the communities can then become equal partners in the development and defence of the territory known as Malaysia based on principles agreed upon for the purpose of nation building. The pluralistic approach as used by the Prophet (P.B.U.H.) can be used for Malaysia. The approach is admittedly unique and demands much tolerance and cross religious/cultural understanding.

The Liberated Lands and the payment of Jizyah
Jizyah was not taken from the Jews and non-Muslims who signed the Medina Charter. It was however taken from the non-Muslims of the ‘Liberated lands’. Muslim historians never used the term ‘conquest’ or ‘colonise’ but instead have been consistent in using the term ‘fath’ or ‘opening’ or liberation. It is in line with the concept of liberating man from the domination of other men (the Kings that ruled with support of the religious institution) such that the common man can then freely choose their religion and way of life. When the Muslim General was asked why he came to the borders of Iran by his Iranian counter part, he replied, “ To bring man from servitude to slaves to the servitude to God; from the limitedness of the world to the infiniteness of the world and the hereafter”.

In the process of liberating these lands from the tyrannous kings, there were battles and wars which had to be fought. When the battle was won, the citizenry fell under the rule of the Muslims. Jizyah was received as an act of surrender and submission and acknowledgement of the new government. By paying the Jizyah they become ‘ahlul-dhimmah’ or people with whom the Muslims have a contract/agreement. The word used in the ayat quoted by Aloysious denotes admission of their submission and surrender, not humiliation. They admit that they are being governed by the Muslims and as a sign of their allegiance to the Muslim government, every able bodied member of the non-Muslim community paid the ‘jizyah’. In return it will be the responsibility of the Muslim Government to protect their lives, property and honor in the same manner that the lives, property and honor of the Muslim citizens are protected. The Muslim citizens pay the Zakat instead of the Jizyah. The protection of the honor of the ahlul-dhimmah went so far as to include protection from verbal abuse and villification by others, including the Muslims themselves. I append herewith a brief extract from Reading Islam with respect to this;
“Protection of Honor. The honor of Dhimmis is sacred in Islam, similar to that of Muslims. Imam Al-Qarafi Al-Maliki once said on this note, “He who transgresses against them (Dhimmis)—even with a mere word of injustice or backtalk— has jeopardized the covenant with Allah and His Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and the covenant of the religion of Islam” (Al-Furuq Part 3, p. 14). Moreover, there exist abundant additional texts to the same effect”.
There was a time when a Muslim general on being instructed to undertake a strategic withdrawal from one of the liberated regions, called the towns people and returned to them the Jizyah collected earlier as he could not fulfill his end of the bargain. He had to retreat to regroup by joining the other Muslim divisions and as such could not protect them. The towns people, who were Christians, were so impressed by his sincerity, insisted that he should return on the first oppurtunity he was able to do so. This was eventhough the advancing army was a Christian army.

The Norms and Practices
Mr. Aloysious also referred to a treaty signed by Umar, which specified the clothings allowed to the Christians and implied that the clothings were intended to humiliate them. This would be the logical conclusion of anyone of the twentieth century who did not understand the norms and practices of the time. The fact of the matter is that the people at that time dressed according to their religious persuasion and their place of origin or tribe. Normally a tribe would be homogenous in terms of the religious persuasion and the dressing helps to identify them according to their faith and loyalties.

As proof of this statement, look at the Orthodox Jews today in the States or in Israel, we will see that they are dressed in a manner unique to them. Similar is the case with the Scots and their kilts. So was the case for Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and the rest at that time where by their dressing it would be clear that they are of this or that religous persuasion. The treaty written by Omar specifies the dress code and prevents the Christians from wearing clothes similar to the Muslims and vice-versa. There were no ICs or the such at that time and clothing sufficed.

There were also stringent terms demanding the Christians to give up their seats to the Muslims should the Muslims require it. They were not allowed to ride horses or carry weapons. Yes, this does sound harsh but we have to bear in mind that the treaty was signed just after a war. The loyalties of the new subjects were still in question. Secondly, as the payment of Jizyah absolved the Christians from active military duty, there was no need for them to bear arms.

The acceptance of other non-Muslims as ahlul-dhimmah was nothing extra-ordinary as the polytheists were accepted as co-signiaturies during the Medina Charter. It was no stretch of the Islamic law, as implied by Aloysious, that the Hindus in India were thus accepted as ahlul-dhimmah. The reality of the situation is that Islam was sent to govern over all with the final objective of ensuring justice, including for its non-Muslim subjects.

Trust, Understanding and Pluralistic Society
The development of the society and the continued interaction between the people led to better trust and understanding. This led to the loosening of laws and regulations which were in the first place purely circumstantial and the result of political ‘ijtihad’ or opinion. There are no explicit instructions in the Quran or the Hadith which necessitates the implementation of the above laws. They were implemented as it was believed that it was necessary to set controls on a society which may still be ‘belligerent’ and combative. Political ‘ijtihad’ or opinion is made based on a study of the surrounding circumstances, what is the usual political practice at that time and what is intended. However, what is decided upon cannot go against the basic principles of Islamic justice as contained in the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet. Perhaps, at that time, in comparison to what was being practiced elsewhere, the terms of Umar’s treaty were more than acceptable. It was a time of forced conversions, religious persecution and even ‘genocide’ and the pluralistic society which was the Islamic state was not in existence in any other part of the world.

The uniqueness of the pluralistic society supported by Islam could not be supported by others at that time. Spain was a glaring example. The Muslims ruled Spain for 500 years and during this reign they lived and governed together with the Christians and the Jews. However, when the Christians took over, Spain was ‘cleaned’ of all Muslims and the Jews were persecuted. The Jews then sought refuge in lands under the Ottomans. Also, please see my earlier posting on: Can a Non-Muslim Hold Position of Power in an Islamic Government.

The scope of ijtihad is wide open, especially in the field of ‘siyasah syariiyah’ or Islamic political policies. Built upon the basis of the Medina Charter, many issues can be discussed and agreed upon as was done in the time of the Prophet (P.B.U.H). As such, much of the issues pertaining to human rights, freedom of conscience, citizenship etc mentioned by Aloysious can definitely be discussed and incorporated.

Differences of Political Opinion
In respect to differences of political opinion, there came into being a group of ‘anarchists’ known as the ‘khawarij’ in the time of Calph Ali. Ali told them that for as long as they do not take up arms to oppose his leadership, then the Commander of the Faithful (the term used for the Caliph- Amirul Mukminin), will not take up arms against them.

Similarly, when Greek philosophy was introduced into the Muslim Empire through translations to Arabic by some Muslim intellectuals, there appeared groups who were influenced and championed Greek thought including ideas akin to aetheism and agnosticism, ‘wahdatul wujud’ or unity of existence where everyone and everything is potrayed as an extension of His existence and the such. The issues were debated openly through speeches and writtings by scholars such as Al-Ghazali, Ibn Taimiyyah and others. Historically, the muslim State was more particular about the beliefs and philosophies influencing the Muslims themselves as the State saw itself as the defender of the Islamic belief system. It felt responsible to ensure the message of Islam is not distorted by inclusion or exclusion. Even then it pursued this objective through debate and scholarly pursuits leading to the development of impressive libraries of books, debating all issues of belief and as well as jurisprudence.

The State was less particular about what was believed in by the non-Muslims, seeing it as being of no concern to the State and as long as it did not lead to any form of armed rebellion, then it was not a problem. If a particular philosophy, popular amongst the non-Muslims began to influence Muslim thought, being understood as something coming from Islam itself, then it will be addressed.

I agree with Aloysious that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. However, with all due respect, I believe he has to increase his knowledge about Islam and islamic law, differentiating the commandments from those specific policies which were decided upon based on circumstances at that time. He must also be able to understand that Islam’s demand for justice and proper treatment of all subjects, be it Muslim or non-Muslim, is paramount in all its political policies. Any seeming deviation from this must then be professionally analysed and understood in the circumstances of that time. However, in the event that there is no reasonable explaination other than religious persecution, it must then be identified as nothing less than a deviation.

WalLahu 'Alam


Anonymous said…
YB, tolong lah tengok jalan kat shah alam tu..dah teruk sangat dah..saya undi YB sebab masalah ni lah..jadi saya pasti YB tak mau hilang satu undi next election nanti kan..

salam YB...
Anonymous said…
Wahai Dr. Sid.. Awat tak bagitahu tempat kejadian.. macam manalah pihak YB nak bertindak.. Agak2 la Dr. Sid..
Anonymous said…
It is difficult to take Khalid Samad’s letter about the Medina Charter seriously when it seems doubtful that he has ever read, let alone seriously studied, the text of the Charter. It is surprising to discover in a leading PAS politician such ignorance about so important a Muslim text. This may actually be a positive sign of the direction in which the young reformers of PAS want to bring their party, unencumbered, as it were, by the weight of the Muslim past.

Khalid begins his letter by claiming that the tribes of Awf, Najjar, Harith, Saida, and others whose names I did not mention in my original article, were non-Muslim polytheists. He makes this claim to undercut the point I made about Islamic law recognizing only ahl al-kitab (Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians) as ahl al-dhimma or protected people. His point is that the Medina Charter “was an agreement in partnership between all members of the Medinan Society when the Prophet (P.B.U.H.) arrived in Medina”.

It is unfortunate for Khalid’s argument that the text of the Charter is very clear on this point: the tribes mentioned above are all in the part of the Charter that deals with the Jews, and it is made explicit that these are all Jewish tribes. The other tribes mentioned are the Jusham, al-Aws, the Thalaba, the Jafna, the al-Shutayba, the ‘Amr b. ‘Awf, and the al-Nabit. What is interesting here is that the main and most powerful Jewish tribes of Medina, the Nadir, Qurayza, and Qaynuqa, are not mentioned in the Charter. While it is true that these latter three tribes made separate treaties with the Prophet after the hijra, these were basic treaties promising not to enter into hostilities with the Prophet. The Medina Charter obliges the Jews who participated in it to take on much heavier commitments, and it is significant that only a limited number of the Jewish population of Medina actually signed up to the Charter. So much for Khalid’s fantasy about an “agreement between all members of the Medinan Society”.

On the question of jizya, Khalid says that this poll tax was received “as an act of surrender and submission”, and “not humiliation”. There is a Muslim tradition that says that worshippers performing the ritual prayer should stand with their shoulders touching, so that the devil cannot walk between them. The devil would find it a tight squeeze to slip through the distinction Khalid attempts to make between surrender and submission, and humiliation.

The Muslim legal scholars are consistent in treating the payment of jizya as an act of humiliation and punishment for the ahl al-kitab. To cite just one of numerous examples, Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr al-Namari, in his Tamhid, says that the jizya is designed to punish and humiliate the People of the Book. This function of the jizya is highlighted by the famous (to those who bother to study early Islamic history) case of the Banu Taghlib, a powerful Arab Christian tribe that refused to pay jizya because they were keenly aware of the humiliation this represented. They insisted that they were Arabs and therefore should not be so humiliated in this way. It is in connection with this that Sarakhsi, in his al-Mabsut, says that the jizya cannot be imposed on Arabs because of the ensuing humiliation: therefore, they must either embrace Islam or be killed.

As to the word fath, or “opening”, for the Muslim conquests, it is a matter of perspective as to whether the non-Muslim inhabitants of the Persian and Roman empires experienced Muslim rule as a liberation. Conquerors and empire builders in history are apt to give pretty names to their acts of aggression. The Muslim conquerors needed to legitimize religiously their military adventures: hence the Muslim historians’ characterization of the conquests as a liberation from impious regimes and an “opening” up of the people to the message of God. The savage Japanese war in the Far East between 1941 and 1945 was described by the Japanese themselves as the establishment of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. My “liberated” parents remember this period as the Ubi Kayu era. The non-Muslim historical sources belie Khalid’s characterization of the Muslim conquests as a “liberation”: it is, as I have said, a matter of perspective.

Khalid’s argument that the imposition of dress codes on the ahl al-kitab was merely a making of distinctions, with no implication of humiliation, is shown to be fallacious both by the context of the Pact of Umar as well as contemporary accounts of the way the dhimma conditions were imposed. Khalid cites Orthodox Jews today who dress in a particular manner as proof of how people in the pre-modern period dressed to identify their religious persuasion. The difference is that Orthodox Jews choose what manner of dress they adopt: the ahl al-kitab have the manner of their dress imposed on them. Why would the treaty of Umar seek to make these distinctions?

All the other provisions of the Pact of Umar are designed to underline the lower status of the non-Muslims. It is instructive that Khalid’s letter cites the dressing provision, as it is the only one that he is able to “spin” into a more positive light. When it comes to the giving up of seats to Muslims, and the prohibition on riding horses and bearing swords, well, what can you do, Khalid says as he wrings his hands, it was just after a war, these were difficult times. On the restrictions on the way non-Muslims worship, and the prohibiting of the building of churches and the repair of existing ones, Khalid is silent.

An account by Ibn Taymiyya in his Iqtida’ al-sirat al-mustaqim illuminates the way restrictions on clothing served to humiliate non-Muslims. The Umayyad caliph, Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, deprived the Banu Taghlib of the right to wear turbans to humiliate them, and he also cut their forelocks. He forbad them to ride with saddles, and made them ride their animals with both feet on the same side. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya cites the same story in his Ahkam ahl al-dhimma to illustrate the humiliation implied by such deprivations.

Khalid claims that the Pact of Umar and other regulations were regarded as “purely circumstantial”, by which I take him to mean that they were meant to address a particular situation at a particular time, and have no general relevance for Islam. Not all Muslim scholars agree with him. Take for instance the fatwa produced by Sheikh Damanhuri of the al-Azhar in 1739, which can be found in his tract, Iqamat al-hujja al-bahira ‘ala kana’is Misr wa’l-Qahira. The Sheikh declares that all Christian churches should be either be destroyed or be allowed to fall into ruin. He cites Ibn Hibban’s version of the Pact of Umar, and says, “It follows that the practice of men who knew what is proper was to forbid the erection of new churches and to prevent the repair of old ones. This falls in with elevating the faith, thwarting unbelief, and humbling infidels…The Companions agreed upon these points in order to demonstrate the abasement of the infidel and to protect the weak believer’s faith. For if he sees them humbled, he will not be inclined towards their belief.”

Once again we have the motif of humiliation as the basis for the dhimma regulations, and this time more than a millennium after the Muslim conquests. Loosening of laws and regulations that were in the first place purely circumstantial, Khalid?

Khalid joins a long and distinguished line of people in citing the so-called golden age of Islam in Spain, where Jews, Christians and Muslims are all supposed to have lived in glorious harmony, until the nasty Ferdinand and Isabella of Aragon and Castile came along and spoilt everything, throwing out the Muslims and persecuting the Jews. There seems to be a particular strain of amnesia that affects anyone who starts speaking of Andalusian Islam. It is true that Catholic Spain after the reconquista did not see tolerance towards other religions as a positive notion. Nevertheless, the life of the greatest mind during the era of Muslim Spain, the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, should make us hesitate to paint so consistently rosy a picture of Islamic rule during the period. The Muslim rulers gave the Jewish community during Maimonides’s time three options: conversion to Islam, death, or exile from Spain. In fact, Maimonides’s Arab biographer, al-Qifti, claims that he was forced to convert to Islam, and only was able to revert to Judaism after leaving Spain. We really need a moratorium on selective citations of Muslim Spain as the exemplar of tolerance and harmonious co-existence.

I am in total agreement with Khalid with regards to how the precedents in Islamic law and history should be taken in their context, and not seen as having by necessity any kind of force for our time. I wish more Muslim scholars in Malaysia would think in this way, and ponder the writings of Muslim thinkers such as Khaled M. Abou el-Fadl. It is not I who needs persuading on this point, but rather those among Khalid’s co-religionists who wish to create a system of governance that ignores democratic principles and seeks to replicate a medieval theocratic state in 21st century pluralistic societies. Khalid is one voice; there are other, more strident voices in Islam that would disagree with him, some within his own political party. Who then speaks for Islam? Khalid Samad? On what authority?

Wa’llahu ‘alam
Anonymous said…
Who then speaks for Islam? Khalid Samad? On what authority?

Answer: As a Muslim.

MashaAllah. Brother Khalid, i was really happy when i saw your response to the earlier article. I knew it was not 100% right, but, i didnt have that much knowledge to counter the arguments.

I am looking forward to your response to the comment above.

Jazakallahu Khayr
Anonymous said…
Dear YB Khalid and Mr Mowe, I've followed this discussion with great interest. Thank you both for your contributions. I am inclined to believe that the Medina Charter is at best, inappropriate for our times as a basis for nation-building. It does seem to contain some moral elements (such as joint defence of Medina, mutual co-existence) that surely stood out as impressive in its day, but which we have already accepted and integrated into our modern society. The less pleasant parts about submission/humiliation we have already left behind. Surely as moral values change, we have to similarly adapt to the times, for he only way progress is made is by challenging old beliefs with new ones.
penulis said…
We are paying taxes aren't we? For what? Do you call that humiliation? There are various kinds of taxes during the Caliphs era. Muslims have to pay Zakat. Non-Muslims have to pay Jizyah.
That's not fair enough?

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WaLlahu 'Alam   KHALID SAMAD

Kisah Raja Najashi

Semasa saya terlibat dalam usaha dakwah di UK satu ketika dahulu, kami mendapati bahawa ramai dari kalangan penganut Kristian tidak tahu bahawa Nabi Isa (AS) diiktiraf sebagai seorang Rasul oleh Islam. Begitu juga Nabi Ibrahim, Nabi Musa dan hampir kesemua para Nabi yang diiktiraf oleh agama Kristian turut diiktiraf oleh Islam. Kecuali kumpulan yang tidak diiktiraf Islam ialah ‘Nabi’ selepas Nabi Isa, termasuk penulis Bible yang digelar sebagai ‘Prophet’ oleh mereka. Apabila mereka didedahkan dengan maklumat ini, maka ianya boleh menyebabkan mereka ingin tahu apa yang dikatakan Al-Quran mengenai Nabi Isa dan menjadi satu titik tolak bagi mereka untuk mendampingi Al-Quran.