The Compact of Medina: A Constitutional Theory of the Islamic State

Muqtedar Khan

After Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) migrated from Mecca to Yathrib in 622 CE, he established the first Islamic state. For ten years Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was not only the leader of the emerging Muslim Ummah in Arabia but also the political head of Medina. As the leader of Median, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) exercised jurisdiction over Muslims as well as non-Muslims within the city. The legitimacy of his rule over Medina was based on his status as the Prophet (PBUH) of Islam as well as on the basis of the compact of Medina.

As Prophet of Allah (SWT) he had sovereignty over all Muslims by divine decree so profoundly manifest in the statement of Shahadah, Lailaha Illallah Muhammadur Rasoolullah (There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger). When Muslims declare their faith, they not only assert the sole divinity of Allah (SWT) but also the sovereignty of Muhammad (PBUH) as his messenger and agent on Earth. But Muhammad (PBUH) did not rule over the non-Muslims of Medina because he was the messenger of Allah. They did not recognize this particular credential of his. He ruled over them by virtue of the tri-partite compact that was signed by the Muhajirun (Muslim immigrants from Mecca), the Ansar (indigenous Muslims of Medina and the Yahud (Jews). It is interesting to note that Jews were constitutional partners in the making of the first Islamic state.

The compact of Medina provides an excellent historical example of two theoretical constructs that have shaped contemporary political theory and should therefore be of great value to those scholars who are involved in the theorizing of the Islamic state. Political theory relies heavily on the ideas of a social contract and a constitution. A social contract, made famous by the French philosopher Rousseau is an imaginary agreement between people in the state of nature that leads to the establishment of a community or a state. In the state of nature people are free and are not obliged to follow any rules or laws. They are essentially sovereign individuals. But through the social contract they surrender their individual sovereignty to the collective and create the community or the state. This state then acts as an agent of the sovereign people, exercising the sovereignty that has been delegated to it by the people through the social contract in order to realize the wishes of the people enshrined in the objectives of the social contract.

While western political thinkers like Rousseau and Locke have used this idea of an imaginary social contract as a fundamental premise for theorizing the modern state, there are really very few real examples of such an event in human history. In the American history, the Mayflower compact is one example. The writing and signing of the constitution after six months of deliberation in Philadelphia may be considered as another example of a social contract. But Muslims are fortunate to have the compact of Medina as a tradition upon which the foundations of a modern state can be built.

The second idea that underpins contemporary political theory is the concept of the constitution. In many ways the constitution is the document that enshrines the conditions of the social contract upon which any society is founded. The writing of a constitution is a very old idea. Aristotle himself had collected over 300 written constitutions in his lifetime. The compact of Medina clearly served a constitutional function since it was the constitutive document for the first Islamic state.

Thus we can argue that the compact of Medina serves the dual function of a social contract and a constitution. Clearly the compact of Medina by itself cannot serve as a modern constitution. It would be quite inadequate since it is a historically specific document and quite limited in its scope. However it can serve as a guiding principle to be emulated rather than a manual to be duplicated.

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