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Medina Charter of Prophet Muhammad and Pluralism

By Sean William White

When the Prophet was forced to immigrate to Medina, the population was “a mixture” (akhlat) of many different tribes (predominantly Arabic and Jewish), who had been fighting for nearly a century, causing “civil strife,” and it was for this reason that the Prophet was summoned there (Peters 1994, 4). Tribal fighting and a lack of governance in Medina (known as Yathrib) meant disputes were dealt with “by the blade” on many occasions, which deepened the divides and fueled conflicts. Karen Armstrong explains aptly the mentality and workings of the tribal system dispersed through war-torn Arabia, where the Prophet was striving for peace (Armstrong 2006, 19). “The tribe, not a deity, was of supreme value, and each member had to subordinate his or her personal needs and desires to the well-being of the group and to fight to the death, if necessary, to ensure its survival” (Armstrong 2006, 24). Such a system was, in a political sense, representative of the little cooperation between the tribes in the Yathrib. In this region reigned power hungry strategies, an emphasis on arms and strength in military, and a belief that clearly mediation was unachievable except by a trustworthy outsider who had no connections to the issues or the tribes. Not only did the Prophet fit these prerequisites, but his personal ambition as given to him by God was also one of spreading peace and unity, creating a community, or ummah, made up of diverse groups, through the teachings of the Quran and in the name of Islam.
The Medina Charter reflects pluralism both in the content and in the history of the document. F. E. Peters explains that “the contracting parties, although they did not embrace Islam, did recognize the Prophet’s authority, accepting him as the community leader and abiding by his political judgments” (Peters 1994, 199). As there is no account of an uprising in history books and because the Prophet was there at the suggestion of the tribes, we know that he was never rejected. Because of the laws he introduced, the existing groups clearly did not feel threatened by his new presence or his new governance. The society was pluralistic, and it was not repressive. The Prophet – as clause 25 shows – never imposed Islam upon the people of Medina, which meant that they could still practice without disruption their religions and customs, aspects of life that were important to them. He did not create an ummah through denouncing all ways of life except for Islam or by recognizing Islam as the singular religion; instead he united all inhabitants of the city under one banner of ethical living and moral principles – commonalities between all humans and all religions.
The Medina Charter is arguably the first constitution ever written incorporating religion and politics (Yildirim 2006, 109-117). And even though the politics of the region have changed since it was written – in recent times for the worst – Islam’s values have continued to spread and are lived throughout the whole Muslim world. Despite the hold of power that some governments still have over their people, the true face of Islam shines through in how people live, communicate, and approach life. I speak from personal experiences when I traveled through Iran, Turkey, and Northern Iraq in January, 2009. And despite what the media had to say about the people in those lands, my time there was spent in the houses of complete strangers, who showered me with hospitality that transcended any I had experienced before. Although the governing body has changed, the points of the Medina Charter and tenets of Islam preached by Prophet Muhammad still exist amongst the people. My heritage was accepted with curiosity and respect – just as the Prophet implemented in Medina between the tribes. My place in the society was welcomed with honest enthusiasm, and I felt a part of a community – like the community that Prophet implemented in Medina. I was exposed to mainstream Islam, which we hear so little about in the West due to the confusion which unjustly joins Islam and extremism together. I saw tolerant Muslims who saw me as another person who wanted peace and respect – not treachery. This is what the Prophet also accomplished in Medina – a community which was not based upon religion or ethnicity but one built on unity and acceptance. One built on tolerance. One built on peace. It seems the Prophet was aware that spirituality and faith cannot be governed, and for this reason alone, he sought unity and respect as opposed to discriminating between tribes and their beliefs.
In contemporary times, an analysis of the Medina Charter can give us insight into Islam and religious pluralism (Sachedina 2001). Medina marked the first real occurrence of coexistence between religions and groups in Islam and mirrors the Quran which “in its entirety provides ample material for extrapolating a pluralistic and inclusive theology of religions” (Sachedina 2001, 26). The Quran is the unquestionable and the absolute; therefore, it is the key to understanding religious pluralism in Islam. Clause 39 of the Medina Charter says, “The valley of Yathrib is sacred for the people of this document” (Sajoo 2009, 97). And so too is the universe, which is sacred to all of humanity. The Quran reveals that “the people are one community” (2:213), so if we are one (which we are) in the world, in the universe, then regardless of religion, it is God’s mercy and compassion which will save us. By differentiating between beliefs, we neglect that under one sun we all pray to a greater entity, a greater being. We were all created by God, so unity seems imperative and practical.
The Medina Charter is very relevant to current tensions existing between the Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Unfortunately, it seems that ignorance and fear, suspicion and disrespect plague the interaction and stereotypes that exist between these three great Abrahamic religions. In the post-September 11th era, a new wave of antagonism has arisen, and people around the Western world generally fear Islam. Sadly, people confuse the actions of nationalists and fundamentalists, who so unjustly hide behind a Holy Book claiming that their intentions are those of God, with what the actual religion promotes. As Rumi believed, the essence of all religions is the same, for they all teach love. The deep philosophical and even deeper spiritual teaching of Rumi is based on a state of mind that seeks mutual vision and dialogue, which I hope will be achieved one day, breaking down the polarized world of different religious thought. Another verse of the Quran emphasizes this need for dialogue, unity, and tolerance: “Surely this community of yours is one community, and I am your Lord; so worship Me” (21:92).
Peace was achieved in Medina, not through the might of arms or the scale of wealth, but through the unyielding principles of Islam – tolerance, love, reason, and a belief in God – whether the God in the Bible, the Quran, or the Torah. The Medina Charter, arguably the first charter ever written, shows that Islam rejects the use of compulsion in religion and violence and that over centuries of human existence, the most effective way to resolve conflicts comes through mediation. The Medina Charter is an example that should be discussed and referred to in current conflicts. The creation of a community, or ummah, offers pluralism to everyone. For people are not judged on their beliefs, but on their actions. Persecution is the instigator of all tensions, and reason and tolerance is the essence of all peace. Just as in the streets of Medina, through tolerance and respect, we too may one day have a world-wide ummah, where a passing Christian will say, “Peace be upon you” to a Muslim, who will reply, “Peace be upon you too.”