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ISLAMIC UNIVERSALISM and
THE CONSTITUTION OF MEDINA
© John S. Romanides
the honorary volume, presented to Professor
B. M. VELLAS
by his pupils, on his 40 years of Scholarly
work and 35 years of professorship.
The drafting of the Constitution of Medina is a crucial stage in the history of the evolution of the Muslim community and can be appreciated only in terms of 1) what is a carry-over from old tribal customs opperative in Mecca and Medina at the time of Hijra, and of 2) what can be considered as the original contribution of Muhammed's prophethood, irrespective of the question of Jewish and Christian influences, or the genuineness of his call.
Together with pertinent Quranic passages this document depicts the beginnings of the Islamic State within the context of Arab and Jewish tribal structures and patterns and makes clear the fact that Muhammed himself never envisioned any politico-religious organism apart from the old tribal constitution. That tribal or national or ethnic units are divinely created institutions was, according to the Quran, revealed to Muhammed by God Himself. "O mankind! Lo! We ... have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another (S. 49, 13)".It was God Who divided the Jews into twelve tribes or nations (S. 7, 160) and caused twelve springs (one for each tribe) to gush forth so that "each tribe knew their drinking place (S. 2, 60)". It would be a mistake to think that in either the Quran or in the Medinan Constitution Muhammed is passively accepting the tribal structures and principles of his contemporary Arab society while privately dreaming of a future pan-Arab or pan-Islamic dominion in which the tribal units of blood relations, with their confederate, client, and slave associates, would be abolished.
The fact that Muhammed's message can be understood, at least in part, as reaction against the cultural and social conditions fostered by the Meccan mercantile developments, which brought about a serious decay in the old tribal customs, values, and attributes, would indicate Muhammed's interest in counteracting this situation. He evidently did this, however, not by calling for a simple return to the old tribal ideals, but rather be way of internal tribal purification and inter-tribal unification along the pattern of the twelve tribe league of the Jews under the direct rule of God in the person of a Moses and in terms of the pure monotheism of Abraham. This is certainly strongly suggested by the predominance of the figures of Abraham and Moses in the Quran.
It is, therefore, not correct to point to the breakdown of the old tribal structure as preparing the way for a supposed politico-socio-religious non-tribal universalism similar to that of Greco-Roman Christendom. Rather it seems obvious enough that both Muhammed and his immediate successors could think of the spread of the new faith only in terms of the submission of the tribes and the assimilation of peoples who were not members of tribes by the traditional process of confederation, clientship, and slavery. In other words the very possibility of the spread of Islam beyond the confines of the Arab tribal system must have presented itself to Muhammed (if ever it did) and his immediate successors in terms similar to those of the twelve tribe Hebrew conquest of Canaan whose population was either converted by assimilation into the twelve tribe league, or simply (at least theoretically) annihilated. An essential difference was that Islam encountered people with scriptures who were accorded the position of protected neighbors and were permitted to exist as subordinate tribes alongside of the believing tribes. It is this that became the basis of the Milet system of governing the Christians and Jews by means of their own tribal customs and chieftens, and according to their own divine books of laws, which were considered valid, even though not as pure as the Quranic.
The later claim of Islamic writers that there are no genealogies in Islam and that all Muslims are equal cannot be found in the Quran and cannot be supported from the Medinan Constitution. The very fact that according to the Quran Muhammed learned from revelations that God created tribes and chieftens is a strong indication that the tribal structure, of which genealogies, at least, and perhaps confederates, clients, and slaves, were an essential part, was by the very nature of Muhammedís understanding of society included in his version of the ummah (Muslim community). Muhammed and his early and latter followers took for granted the existence of Muslim slaves, and there seems to be no indication either in the Quran or in the Medinan Constitution that a halif (confederate) or a mawla (client) upon becoming a Muslim was considered a full member of a tribe or clan with the same privileges and rights as the blood-members. Had this been the case one would have expected some clear statement on the matter either in the Quran or in the Constitution, especially since such a practise would undoubtedly have created some confusion in Medina where bloodwite exacted for mawali (clients) "was only half that for full members".
The general impression one gets is that Muhammed was not interested in altering the internal structure of the tribes. Rather in his capacity as prophet he was concerned with the religious content of tribal life and the relationship of tribes to each other under the direct rule of God. Thus it is not surprising to find in the Medinan Constitution those restrictions upon the mawali which latter made it impossible for the non-Arab Muslim mawla to transfer his allegience from one tribe or clan to another without the permission of the group whose mawla he was. According to the Constitution, "A believer does not take as confederate (halif) the client (mawla) of a believer without his (the latterís) consent ". In view of the possibility that this passage seems to be speaking of a promotion in status from that of mawla to that of halif, we would very well be confronted here by the regularization of the movements of Muslim mawali who may have already created a problem in Medina similar to that of later times. In any case even in the Medinan period the improvement in the status of the mawali, like that of slaves, was obviously not automatic, since the original master could veto the move.
There is no valid reason to believe that the existence of Arab or non-Arab Muslim mawali is excluded by the Quran. Rather the Medinan Constitution points strongly in the direction of their existence in Muhammedís understanding of the tribal social order. Since Muhammed accepted as a matter of course the existence of Muslim slaves there can be no reason to believe that he did not accept the existence of the mawali in accordance with current Medinan practise. It is very difficult to envisage the Medinans accepting Muhammend in their midst had they felt in any way that he threatened their tribal institutions. Most Muslim mawali in Medina would probably have been Arabs and it should not be surprising that the later non-Arab Muslim mawali of conquered territories ended up in a theoretically similar but actually much worse social condition. Perhaps the sources of the Kharijite insistance on the equality of all believers should be sought outside the Quran and the early Medinan community. The traditional arguments for the equality of believers based on Sura 49, 10, 13 are very weak, especially in view of the fact that verse 13 itself clearly states that God created the tribal system. The witness of the hadith are clearly tendentious attempts to trace the later mawali claims to the prophet.
Muhammedís acceptance of the tribe as a divinely revealed institution and his adherence to its legislative, judicial, and executive principles throughout his stay in Medina may seem to contradict his Meccan activities which perhaps threatened the foundations of the Meccan tribal structure and clan solidarities. However, the Meccan experience should not be used as a standard for judging Muhammedís theology of society, since the Meccans never gave him the opportunity to put his prophethood to work during his initial stay with them. Perhaps what frightened the Meccans most was the association of Muhammedís prophethood with that of Moses which to the Arab mentality would have meant an overlordship similar to the kingships of neighboring lands. Within the Meccan situation the acceptance of Muhammedís prophethood would have meant at least a consultative chairmanship within the malà (senate), if not outright control since accepting him would be tantamount to the acceptance of the direct rule of God, which no doubt was a preposterous idea to the powerful merchants of Mecca who could tolerate no interference in their traditional associations and business interests. This does not mean, however, that Muhammed ever contemplated any change in the tribal structure of society. Rather what he had in mind was the restoration of the tribal virtues and upright relations within the tribes and clans and the establishment among the tribes and clans of an inter-tribal association headed by a prophethood which would bring about a direct rule of the divinely revealed law, whose observance would be insured by the rule of revealed justice in this life and prompted by the promise of rewards and punishments in the next. Because each tribe was actually a nation in itself the only possible form that such an association of tribes under God could take was that of a unilateral suzerainty treaty of a king with his vassals - in this case between God through his prophet and the tribes represented by their chiefs. The parallelism between this inter-tribal system and that of the Hebrews in the time of Moses is very close, as it was probably meant to be by Muhammed himself.
The implementation of the prophetic office could never have become effective without the initial agreement of several tribes on a religious and political basis. Since within Arab tribal society there was no legislative, judicial, and executive principle apart from the factor of kin-relations and the lex talionis, the tribes had to give up, for the sake of a wider unity, a certain measure of their self-sufficiency to an inter-tribal structure, somewhat like our modern day United Nations, in return for sorely needed benefits. Such seem to be the circumstances reflected in the Medinan Constitution which was tailored to meet the needs of both the inter-tribal Medinan problems and what seems to be the minimum demands of Muhammedís prophethood. The impression of minimum powers in the hands of Muhammed seems to be borne out by the fact that the Jews as independent clans are included in the agreement. Without giving up their tribal and clan traditions the tribes and clans of Medina are accepting a wider group association based on the prophethood and ethical monotheism of Muhammed which survived its Medinan limitations only because of the circumstances of the expansive subsequent conquests and the ability of the early Caliphs and military chieftains to accommodate themselves to a rapidly changing situation. There are no indications in the Quran and the Medinan Constitution that provisions were made for successors to the prophethood of Muhammed and for the continuation of the inter-tribal system based on this same prophethood. Nevertheless, the institution of the Caliphate did not entail the abolishment of Arab tribal structures in the beginnings of the Islamic State.
It seems clear that Muhammed became the leader of the Muslim Arabs because his personal qualities and feats as a religious, military, political, legislative, and judicial leader proved to his followers that he was the charismatic leader that he claimed to be. It is very doubtful, however, that he would have been at all successful had he not respected to an absolute degree the internal structure and independence of the tribe and its leadership. Even his own personal followers, the Muhajirun, were accepted into the Medinan tribal system as members of an individual tribe responsible directly to himself. The geneological principle obviously prevailed since their being Muhajirun never meant that they ceased to be Quraysh. Also the idea generally prevailed that the successors to the Caliphate had to be Quraysh. This failure of the early community and of Muhammed himself to overcome tribal structures other than in the terms outlined gave rise to impossible problems with the subsequent conversion of great masses of people, culturally superior to the Arab clansmen, by means of clientship. This was not due to the lack of a universal religious outlook on the part of Muhammed or his followers, but rather to the inability of the Arab mind, including that of Muhammed, to think of society other than in terms of tribal structures.
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