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Malaysia isn’t Medina

IN recent weeks, I have come across two articles devoted to the issue of interfaith relations in Malaysia proposing the Charter of Medina as a model for governance. One writer described the charter given by the Prophet Muhammad to the people of Medina as a “brilliant constitution“, because “every member of that Islamic nation was a citizen and accorded equal rights: Muslim and non-Muslim.” The writer went on to claim that in the charter “social, legal and economic equality is promised to all loyal citizens of the state.”

Potion bottle
Your mileage may vary (© Alexandre Jaeger
Vendruscolo / sxc.hu)

I feel moved here to quote Alexander Pope (1688-1744), the English poet:

“A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.”

A cursory reading of the Charter of Medina, divorced from any kind of larger context, will intoxicate us with its apparent tolerance. If we look more closely at the charter, a degree of sobriety begins to set in.

We should first of all note that the non-Muslims to whom protection and tolerance are extended by the charter are Jews, members of tribes such as the Awf, Najjar, Harith, Saida, and so on.[1]

It is not possible for the reader to regard the charter as extending, by analogy, the same protection to all non-Muslims. Only the People with a Revealed Scripture, ahl al-kitab, were considered a “protected people” (ahl al-dhimma) in traditional Islam. Muslims could marry their unconverted women, and consume meat slaughtered by them. Most important of all, they could practice their respective religions.[2] As the charter expresses it, “The Jews have their religion and the Muslims have theirs”.

Civil and political rights

In return for the right to practise their religion, the ahl al-dhimma paid a poll-tax, jizya. The payment of the jizya by the ahl al-kitab is based on Sura At-Tawba:29 in the Quran, which stipulates that these people should be fought “until they pay the jizya out of hand, while being humiliated.”[3]

It is true that the ahl al-kitab were given rights, but these were hardly rights equal to those held by Muslims. In the first place, they did not have equal political rights. The Islamic state was a theocratic polity, ruled according to God’s revelation. Unbelievers, by definition, could not hold the highest office in the land or contribute to policy.

The ahl al-kitab who paid jizya were also clear as to the position they held in Muslim society: the jizya, and other stipulations, were there to show that while they were a protected people, they were also a subject people. Some of these conditions may be seen in another early Muslim document, the Pact of Umar, which is regarded as the standard agreement imposed by the Islamic state on the subject ahl al-kitab.[4]

Silhouette of a pope
(© Kriss Szkurlatowski / sxc.hu)

According to the pact, the ahl al-kitab could not proselytise, and had no right to prevent members of their community from being converted to Islam. They had to wear clothes that distinguished them from Muslims and marked them out as inferior members of the polity. They had to give up their seats to Muslims. They could not ride horses, or bear arms in public the way Muslims could. They had to clip the hair on the fronts of their heads.

There were also limits to the religious freedom given to the ahl al-kitab. Christians could neither display crosses in public nor ring bells in their churches. The houses of the ahl al-kitab had to be lower than those of Muslims. They could neither build new churches or synagogues, nor repair any existing ones if they were to fall into disrepair.

What if you were neither a Jew nor a Christian? The Quran refers to Zoroastrians in Sura Al-Hajj:17 as one of the faiths that will be judged on the Last Day, but has nothing to say about how Muslims are to treat them. There is a tradition (hadith) according to which Umar b al-Khattab was told by Abd al-Rahman b Awf that the prophet levied the jizya from the Zoroastrians of Hajar, and had told the Muslims to treat them as they would treat the ahl al-kitab.[5] However, all the Muslim schools of law agree that Muslims could not marry Zoroastrian women, or consume meat slaughtered by them.[6]

Non-Muslims who were not ahl al-kitab were generally regarded as idolaters or polytheists (mushrikun). For the followers of the Shafie school of law, which includes the overwhelming majority of Malaysian Muslims, polytheists had only two options: accept Islam or be put to death. They could not become protected people within the Islamic state.[7] The Hanbali school of law also took this line, though Ibn Hanbal himself seemed to have believed that only Arab polytheists should be killed, while non-Arab polytheists could pay the jizya and retain their religion.[8] This was also the position of the Hanafi school.[9]

Adaptability and flexibility

Muslim rulers and legal scholars have in fact proved themselves in some admirable cases to be more flexible than the Muslim sources seem to allow. Muslim conquerors in India, for example, adapted to conditions where they found themselves ruling a large population that would have been regarded by traditional Muslims as idolaters and polytheists. For the most pragmatic of reasons, Hindus in Muslim India had to be considered ahl al-dhimma, though it was agreed that they were not ahl al-kitab.[10]

Arabs praying in the desert
Arab Muslims at prayer (source: Library of Congress)

The fact that Muslim rulers proved adaptable, however, should also act as a cautionary lesson to those who look to early Muslim sources such as the Charter of Medina as a model for governance in a modern nation state. The seemingly benign aspects of the charter cannot be read in isolation. The charter is just one facet of the Islamic conception of the state. It has to be read in conjunction with the Quran, the tradition (or sunna) of the Prophet as expressed in the hadith, and the working out of Muslim practice as seen in the legal literature of Islam. That is how Muslims have read the charter, and they know the modalities of their history and their faith.

The position of the ahl al-dhimma, at least as found in the classical sources in Islam, is not one to which any non-Muslim living in Malaysia should be aspiring. Neither the Charter of Medina nor any of the early Muslim sources can provide a model for any modern nation. We need to go beyond these historical religious sources if freedom of conscience, equality, and citizenship are to have any meaning for Malaysians.

I would even suggest that the Rukunegara, usually regarded as a benign and liberal national ideology, should be critically reexamined, or at least reformed. If “kepercayaan kepada Tuhan” is an essential part of being Malaysian, what place do we have in our nation for atheists and religious skeptics?

End Notes

1.    ^ There are two available versions of the charter in the Arabic sources: in Abu Ubayd’s Kitab al-Amwal, and in Ibn Hisham’s recension of Ibn Ishaq’s al-Sira al-nabawiyya.

2.    ^ See Abu Yusuf, Kitab al-Kharaj; Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, Ahkam ahl al-dhimma; Ibn Qudama, Al-Mughni; Shafie, Kitab al-umm; Sanani, al-Musannaf.

3.     ^The Muslim jurists consistently cite this verse of the Quran to justify the imposition of the jizya poll-tax on the ahl al-kitab. See Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, Ahkam ahl al-dhimma. The citation of the verse from Sura At-Tawba is also to be found in the Islamic administration manuals known as Kitab al-kharaj or Kitab al-amwal.

4.    ^The text of the pact may be found in many Muslim sources. One version, that of al-Turtushi in Siraj al-muluk, is widely available on the internet.

5.     ^Abu Yusuf, Kitab al-kharaj; Baladhuri, Futuh al-buldan.

6.     ^Ibn Taymiyya, Majmu fatawa; Sarakkhsi, Al-Mabsut.

7.     ^Shafie, Kitab al-umm; Baydawi, Anwar al-tanzil.

8.     ^Ibn Qudama, Al-Mughni.

9.     ^Abu Yusuf, Al-Radd ala siyar al-Awzai.

10.    ^Baladhuri, Futuh al-buldan, cites the case of Muhammad b al-Qasim, the conqueror of an Indian town at the beginning of the 8th century, saying that the temples there, filled with idols, were no different from the churches of the Christians, the synagogues of the Jews, and the fire-temples of the Zoroastrians.


Aloysious Mowe, SJ is an International Visiting Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University, Washington, DC. He is a Jesuit priest with an academic interest in Islamic law and history.

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8 Responses to “Malaysia isn’t Medina”

  1. hassan says:

    Kewl stuff. I learned a lot, very informative.

  2. stirittup says:

    The political rights of the citizens are indicated here only in the context of the various schools of Sunni Islam.

    To my knowledge, in the Shia dynasties of the middle ages, pluralism was celebrated; meritocracy took precedence above one’s faith. This was a defining moment in Islamic history, often described as Islam’s Golden Age.

    These social and political values are clearly identified in Shia documentary sources, and also through arts and crafts that have prevailed to date.

  3. Aloysious Mowe says:

    To <stirittup>

    These are a selection of Shia-related fatwas from the State Fatwa Councils in Malaysia:

    Kedah
    Jawatankuasa Fatwa bersetuju:
    i. Bahawa umat Islam di Negeri Kedah D.A. hendaklah mengikut undang-undang Islam dan ajaran Islam yang berasaskan pegangan Ahli Sunnah Wl Jama’ah dari segi ‘aqidah syariah dan akhlak
    ii. Bahawa ajaran Islam selain pegangan Ahli Sunnah wal Jama’ah adalah bercanggah dengan hukum syarak dan dengan yang demikian penyebaran apa-apa ajaran lain selain pegangan Ahli Sunnah Wal Jama’ah adalah dilarang
    iii. Bahawa penerbitan, penyiaran dan penyebaran melalui buku, risalah, filem,video atau dengan apa-apa cara lain pun yang berkaitan dengan ajaran yang bertentangan dengan pegangan Ahli SunnahWal Jama’ah adalah dilarang.

    Terengganu
    Bahawasanya menurut Seksyen 26 (3) Enakmen Pentadbiran Hal Ehwal Agama Islam 1986 Duli Yang Maha Mulia Tuanku Al-Sultan telah perkenan supaya fatwa yang terkandung di dalam ini disiarkan dalam Warta.
    Oleh yang demikian, pada menjalankan kuasa-kuasa yang diberi di bawah Seksyen 25, Enakmen Pentadbiran Hal Ehwal Agama Islam 1986, Jawatankuasa Fatwa Majlis Agama Islam dan Adat Melayu Terengganu dengan ini membuat dan mengeluarkan fatwa berikut :
    1. Bahawasanya:
    (i) Umat Islam di negeri Terengganu hendaklah hanya mengikut ajaran Islam yang berasaskan pegangan Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah dari segi aqidah, syariah dan akhlak.
    (ii) Penerbitan-penerbitan dan penyebaran apa-apa buku, risalah, filem, video dan lain-lain berhubung dengan ajaran Islam yang bertentangan dengan pegangan Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah adalah diharamkan.
    2. Oleh yang demikian :
    (i) Mana-mana orang Islam adalah dilarang –
    (a) mengajar, mempelajari, mengamalkan, berpegang kepada atau menyebarkan ajaran-ajaran dan fahaman-fahaman Islam selain daripada pegangan Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah dari segi aqidah, syariah dan akhlak.
    (b) menerbit, menyiar, menyebar apa-apa buku, risalah, filem, video dan lain-lain berhubung dengan ajaran Islam selain daripada pegangan Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah dari segi aqidah, syariah dan akhlak.

    Negeri Sembilan
    1. Adalah ditetapkan bahawa Umat Islam di Negeri Sembilan hendaklah mengikut undang-undang Islam dan ajaran Islam yang berasaskan pegangan Ahli Sunnah Wal Jama’ah dari segi ‘aqidah, syariah dan akhlak.
    2. Adalah diperakukan bahawa ajaran Islam selain pegangan Ahli Sunnah Wal Jama’ah adalah bercanggah dengan Hukum Syarak dan dengan yang demikian penyebaran apa-apa ajaran lain selain pegangan Ahli Sunnah Wal Jama’ah adalah dilarang.
    3. Adalah ditetapkan bahawa penerbitan, penyiaran dan penyebaran melalui buku, risalah, filem, video atau dengan apa-apa cara lain pun yang berkaitan dengan ajaran yang bertentangan dengan pegangan Ahli Sunnah Wal Jama’ah adalah dilarang.

  4. eekmal says:

    Untuk perkara berkaitan:

    “According to the pact, the ahl al-kitab could not proselytise, and had no right to prevent members of their community from being converted to Islam. They had to wear clothes that distinguished them from Muslims and marked them out as inferior members of the polity. They had to give up their seats to Muslims. They could not ride horses, or bear arms in public the way Muslims could. They had to clip the hair on the fronts of their heads.

    There were also limits to the religious freedom given to the ahl al-kitab. Christians could neither display crosses in public nor ring bells in their churches. The houses of the ahl al-kitab had to be lower than those of Muslims. They could neither build new churches or synagogues, nor repair any existing ones if they were to fall into disrepair.”

    Bolehkah penulis memberikan sumber rujukan. Terima kasih.

  5. Aloysious Mowe says:

    Eekmal,

    There are numerous Islamic sources for the pact of Umar (referred to in the sources as ‘ahd Umar, or ‘aqd Umar, or al-shurut al-umariyya). Apart from the version of Al-Turtushi cited in my article, versions of the pact can also be found in: Abu Bakr al-Khallal, Al-jami’ li-masa’il al-imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal; Ibn Khaldun, Kitab al-‘ibar; Muwaffaq al-Din b. Qudama al-Maqdisi, al-Mughni; and Ibn Hazm, Kitab al-muhalla. There are four versions of the pact in Ibn Zabr al-Qadi, Juz’ fihi shurut al-nasara, while ibn Asakir, Ta’rikh madinat Dimashq, gives us five versions.

    Wansharisi, al-Mi’yar al-mughrib, has a version of the pact that is attributed to a lost work of Ibn Hibban. There is an interesting connection between Ibn Hibban’s version and the current fatwa controversy in Malaysia. His version of the pact was cited in a fatwa issued in 1739 by Sheikh Damanhuri, “Presentation of the Clear Proof for the Obligatory Destruction of the Churches of Old and New Cairo”. If Sheikh Yusuf Estes is correct in saying that Muslims should accept all fatwa produced by scholars, the fatwa of Sheikh Damanhuri would entail the destruction of churches by Muslims everywhere.

  6. Bob Yazid says:

    The more I know and the more I learn, the more I reach a deep realisation that I’d rather not learn and know more because at the end of it…it leaves me confused.

  7. Dear all,
    Please visit <a href=”http://www.khalidsamad.com/2008/12/medina-charter-as-basis-of-nation.html”>www.khalidsamad.com</a> for the corresponding response to this article by Khalid Samad, MP for Shah Alam. Many thanks.

  8. Aloysious Mowe says:

    A response to Khalid Samad’s letter regarding this article:

    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”.

    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 forbade 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?

    Wallahu a’lam


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