From the Madina Charter to the Magna Carta

MORE THAN INITIALS IN COMMON: FROM THE MADINA CHARTER TO THE MAGNA CARTA.

Section 17: No Jew shall be wronged for being a Jew.

Section 21: Conditions of peace and war, and the accompanying ease or hardships must be fair and equitable to all citizens alike.

Section 30: The Jews (of the tribe Bani Awf) will be treated as one community with the Muslims. The Jews have their religion. This will also apply to their freedmen. The exception will be those who act unjustly and sinfully. By doing so, they wrong themselves and their families.

The sections above are neither from the Magna Carta nor from a modern, enlightened Bill of Human rights. They are taken from the seventh century Madina Charter, signed by the blessed Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) soon after he arrived in Madina after thirteen years of religious persecution in his homeland of Makkah. The Prophet knew full well the pain, death and damage caused by religious hate and intolerance. He also knew that the new faith he was preaching meant Peace (Islam). He further knew that the greeting of Muslims to one another was, May Peace be upon you (Assalamu alaikum). Through revelation, God Almighty was ordering him to work for peace, to forgive past wrongs and to shun any forms of injustice.

Injustice is alien to the Islamic ethos. The great historian Ibn Khaldun commented in his Al Muqaddimah that,

“Injustice should not be understood to imply only the confiscation of money or other property from the owners, without compensation and without cause. It is commonly understood in that way, but it is something more general than that. Whoever takes someone’s property, or uses him for forced labour, or presses an unjustifiable claim against him, or imposes on him a duty not required by the religious law, does an injustice to that person. People who collect unjustified taxes commit an injustice. Those who infringe on property commit an injustice. Those who take away property commit an injustice. Those who deny people their rights commit an injustice….This is what Prophet Muhammad had in mind when he forbade injustice. He meant the resulting destruction and ruin of civilisation, which ultimately permits the eradication of the human species.”

In Madina the Prophet was introduced to faith communities such as the Jews and Christians. An old monastery on the outskirts of the city was home to a thriving Order of monks. He agreed terms of peace, goodwill and co-existence with all these groups. But more importantly, the Prophet understood implicitly the notion of contractual citizenship regardless of faith. Later Muslim scholars have examined the Madina Charter and explained that it contains a clear understanding of eleven basic principles, all of which stem directly from the ethics contained in the Quran:

Kindness, human dignity, cooperation in goodness, reconciliation, human fraternity and mutual recognition, wisdom, welfare, justice, mercy and compassion, peace and loyalty.

It is clear from the Charter that the Prophet wished the various religious communities of Madina to feel they were an integral part of the life of the city. He also made it clear that the onus of responsibility lay with those in power to set the standard. The scholar Ibn Ishaq explained that the Charter secured the religious freedom and economic independence for the Jews and other minorities of the city. The Charter was signed in an atmosphere of peace and nation-building, with an explicit recognition of diversity and religious freedom. The Arabs of the era had been consumed with tribalism and tribal warfare; the Charter removed the sacrosanct understanding of this tribalism from the hearts of the various religious communities and institutionalised for the first time the concept of respectful cohabitation. The plural, multi-faith and multi-ethnic nature that characterised later Islamic empires such as the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Mughals and the Ottomans all took direct inspiration from the Madina Charter.

I sat in the lush décor of a Marrakesh hotel during the January 2016 conference hosted by the Moroccan Ministry for Endowments and Islamic Affairs, and the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. A host of grand Muftis, Shuyukh, Ministers of religion and government representatives sat in the room, headphones on their heads to listen to simultaneous translations. The Marrakesh Declaration was the resulting statement of this conference. Sheikh Abdullah Ibn Bayyah explained that the political structure of countries today was in complete contrast to the world in which the blessed Prophet lived. Empire-building was a central feature of political life, indeed political survival. The great empires of the Romans and the Persians were the super-powers of their time, and in order to survive, the tiny Muslim state had to fight tooth and nail. These great empires were, perhaps inevitably, supplanted by the Islamic empire. As Ibn Khaldun later commented, all empires and dynasties rise, peak, decline and ultimately fall, and the Islamic empire was no exception to this rule.

In the modern world, the concept of empire no longer exists, and nation-states are the new reality. Nations may sign contractual agreements for the benefit of member states, such as the European Union or NATO, but empires have long faded away. One of the main reasons for this is that allegiance and identity is no longer simply based on one’s religion but is a complex compound of ethnicity, religion, place of residence, perhaps even the football team supported. The rights of tribes and clans have been replaced with the right of the individual. Personal freedom and choice are the new sacred cows. The matter is further complicated by ease of travel; individuals still find it relatively easy to migrate in search of education, work, wealth or simply adventure. Even if the migrants cling on to the nationality of their place of birth, their children will see new vistas open for them. As a result, huge numbers of Muslims live comfortable, respected and productive lives in countries that are generally described as Christian and Western. They display a keen desire to integrate fully into the societies in which they live while retaining their religious identity, practice and values.

Furthermore, international covenants on civil and political rights have been ratified by many countries; in theory at least, if not always in practice. A culture of freedom and human rights, including rights of religious groups, ethnic minorities and women, is spreading across the globe. Witness the Arab Spring and the demands for justice and accountability from rulers.

According to recent statistics, there are 50 Muslim-majority countries today; Islam has 1.5 billion adherents worldwide, making up over 22% of the world’s population. Like the rest of the world, every Muslim country is also multi-ethnic and multi-religious in character. Jews, Christians, Bahais, Buddhists, Hindus and adherents of many other faiths live under Muslim rule in these countries. For thousands of years the Jews and Christians have lived in countries which are now Muslim-majority. They have exchanged values, customs, cuisine and fashion. A friend told me of a colleague who awoke at dawn, laid a mat on the floor, placed a scarf on her head, faced East and prostrated on the ground. She assumed the lady was a Muslim, only to discover she was an Orthodox Christian.

At the Marrakesh conference, a Christian lady sang a hymn in Arabic. Her voice was powerful, melodious and resonant. Phrases such as Allah and Anta Azeamu filled the air majestically. I feel disheartened when I learn that many Jews and Christians are fleeing Muslim countries because of persecution. They need to remember that the blessed Prophet was viciously persecuted for his religious beliefs. He endured starvation, bullying, physical assaults, public humiliation, death of close family, and finally the fear of expulsion. His crime was to preach a faith in One God. When he was invited by the people of Yathrib (later named Madina), he arrived fully cognizant of the horrors of religious persecution. One of his first acts as leader was to agree and sign the Madina Charter.

Isis is a historical, religious and political anomaly. It aims to revive an empire in an age when nation-states are the established norm. Nowhere does the Quran order Muslims to destroy existing societies and establish an Islamic empire. It aims to impose Islam on people in direct contradiction to Quranic verses such as,

There is no compulsion in religion.
[2:256]

Say, O Disbelievers.
I do not worship what you worship.
You do not worship what I worship.
I will never worship what you worship.
You will never worship what I worship.
You have your religion and I have mine.

[Surah 109]

Isis spreads hatred and violence when the blessed Prophet stood for peace, justice, reconciliation and civic harmony. It practices injustice when God has ordained justice. Muslims must reclaim their history, their Scripture and their faith. Just as we demand our rights in western countries, so we must fight for the rights of non-Muslims in Muslim countries. We cannot stand quietly and watch injustices being committed in the name of Islam.

By Ustadha Khola Hasan
February 2016.

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