Throughout the history of the world, all countries and nations operated under certain laws promulgated by their founders/rulers. From the codes of Hammurabi to the constitutions of today, treaties have evolved significantly over centuries.
Many historians consider the English Magna Carta to be the first written constitution; however, according to the research of Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah, one of the most eminent Muslim researchers and scholars of the 20th century, the Charter of Madina (Mithaq-ul-Madina) was the first constitution written by mankind. The Charter of Medina precedes the American constitution of 1787 and the English Magna Carta of 1215.
The Backdrop to the Charter of Madinah
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) delivered the message of Allah in Makkah for about 13 years in the face of staunch opposition. In 622 A.D. he finally moved to Yathrib (Madinah) together with his followers after receiving an invitation from the Arab tribes of Yathrib.
At that time, Yathrib was a pluralistic society composed of people of different religions with a large population of Jews. These tribes were engaged in bitter quarrels and often went to war over disputes that had been going on for generations. There were 12 tribes of Arabs divided between Aws and Khazraj and ten Jewish tribes including Banu Nazeer, Banu Quraiza and Bani Qainuqa.
The continuous state of anarchy in Madinah eventually forced the residents to seek options for peace. They agreed to make a prominent tribal chief, Abdullah ibn Ubay bin Salool, their king so that peace and harmony could be achieved. Around this time, Prophet Muhammad (SAW) arrived in Madinah and the tide turned against Abdullah bin Ubay. Since the Prophet was viewed as a respectable, honest and trustworthy person, he was requested to head the soon to be city-state of Madinah.
Creation of the Charter
After assuming a central role in Madinah, the Prophet recognized a few pressing needs, which included:
Determining the rights and responsibilities of the local population as well as the immigrants from Makkah
Making agreements with the non-Muslim population of Madinah, especially the Jews, to ensure peace and harmony
Creating a strategy and plan to defend the city against invasions
Making resources available for the immigrants to make a living
The strong need to create a centralized government in Madinah to end the prevailing anarchy culminated in the creation of the Charter of Madinah. The text of the charter has been preserved in its entirety by the scholars Ibn Ishaq and Abu Ubaid. It is divided into two parts; the first part deals with the rules and regulations for Muslim immigrants (Muhajiroon) and Muslim natives (Ansar) and the second part deals with the rights and responsibilities of the Jews of Madinah.
This charter contains 47 clauses, which laid the foundations of a sovereign nation-state comprising of Muslims, Jews and Pagans, having equal rights and responsibilities under a common citizenship.
Many historians believe that the charter was developed in two stages: the first part was written before the battle of Badr and the second part about relations with Jews, after Badr, when Muslims had gained a much stronger standing. The salient features of this charter include:
All parties included in the charter, i.e. Muslims, people of the book (Jews and Christians) and pagans, had freedom to practice their religion
All citizens of the state had equal rights and responsibilities and were protected against excess and oppression
A system of financial aid was developed within each tribe and between tribes. Communal funds were set up which were used in times of financial need such as to pay ransom or blood-money
In the event of a war or hostile attack from outsiders on one tribe, all tribes of Madinah (signatories of the charter) were required to come to the aid of the defending tribe
In the event of a dispute among the signatories, Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was the final authority for settling the dispute
The Quraysh of Makkah were to be boycotted commercially by all signatories and nobody was to extend any support to them
Significance of the Charter of Madinah
It is a landmark document, not only in Muslim history but also in the constitutional history of the world. This charter transformed all aspects of life in Madinah including political, religious and social life. Its biggest achievement was bringing belligerent tribes together to form a polity and establishing long term peace among them. It put an end to the prevailing anarchy and protected the life, liberty, property and religious freedom of all people included in the accord. It created a state where equal rights and responsibilities were truly provided for all citizens. The charter of Madinah replaced the traditional tribal kinship with a new social order and created a nation state with a new social fabric.
Dr. Hamidullah writes in his book, The First Written Constitution,
” … this new constitution … brought with it very important, and … to Arabia at least — very revolutionary change and improvement, by providing the people with a central public institution for seeking justice, in place of everyone seeking it with the power of his own hand or, at best, that of his family. This epoch-making innovation … brought an end for all times to the chaos of tribalism and which laid the basis for a wider institution, viz a State.”