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.”
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.
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. 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.”
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.
(© 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. However, all the Muslim schools of law agree that Muslims could not marry Zoroastrian women, or consume meat slaughtered by them.
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. 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. This was also the position of the Hanafi school.
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.
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?
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.