The Medina Charter and Islam’s False Claim of Democracy

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When I began to write my book Islam: Religion of Peace? — The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up a couple of years ago, I became fascinated with a video of an exchange between then-President George W. Bush and a student during a discourse on the global war on terrorism at Johns Hopkins University in 2006. The student prefaced a question to him: “Considering that it was, in fact, the Prophet Mohammed who established the first known constitution in the world—I’m referring to the constitution he wrote for the city of Medina—and that his life and the principles outlined in his constitution, such as the championing of the welfare of women, children and the poor, living as an equal among his people,…I’m wondering how might [you could] educate Americans about the democratic principles inherent in Islam?” To which Bush responded: “I think it is vital for our future that we encourage liberty, and…as you said, it doesn’t necessarily run contrary to what the Prophet Mohammad said.”

Many in the Muslim world, as in the West, maintain that the Medina Charter, traditionally delineated by the Prophet Muhammad in 622, was the first ever constitution to historically establish certain democratic principles and peace among nations. Far be it to challenge that it brought political harmony with the non-believers, let alone fostering human rights as the precursor to democracy, for historically, as soon as Muhammad had the upper-hand with the tribes and nomadic peoples he negotiated with, he reneged on his promises. It must first be pointed out that the Medina Charter was more of an agreement among tribal groups that singled out certain individual privileges and duties among them, as well as the limitations placed on non-Muslims. A constitution, instead, is the fundamental and organic law of a nation or state that establishes the institutions and apparatus of government, whereby the scope of governmental power is defined, in addition to guaranteeing individual civil rights, as our US Bill of Rights — something the Charter of Medina did not. That being said, a constitution presupposes democracy, something that is completely absent in a state that relies on sharia law.

The concept of an Islamic constitutional tradition is complex in light of orthodox Islamic understandings of the utter sovereignty and agency of Allah over the entire world, governments and governed alike. In any case, as the 20th-century Arab scholar Robert Bertram Serjeant explained, the Charter as a constitution is pretentious, especially since there is doubt among scholars as to whether it was written as a unitary document. There is also question as to its historicity—I being one of them—since only fragments from early Islamic sources survive; most of it can be found in Ibn Ishaq’s Sirah Rasul Allah, the first biography of Muhammad two hundred years after his death. 

Humoring the argument that the Charter is a constitution, two technical points are to be looked at, which would disclaim this. The first is the Medinan period, in which the Charter was apparently written, occurred after iMuhammad and a handful of followers were forced to leave Mecca since he was incapable of convincing his fellow Meccans to convert to his preaching. Having heard of his gift of prophecy, he was invited to Medina to act as a judge to mediate disputes between the various clans and clan chiefs. In Western terms, Muhammad was primus inter pares (first amongst equals) and the intent of the invitation did not include changing the status quo of power relationships within Medina beyond recognizing him as a prophet able to give rulings on behalf of God.

The second point would to be looked at as that Ibn Ishaq simply relates: “The apostle wrote a document concerning the emigrants and the helpers in which he made a friendly agreement with the Jews and established them in their religion and their property, and stated the reciprocal obligations.” This seems an odd introduction for something that is often referred to as a type of constitution. In the first place, it only mentions an agreement between the emigrants and the helpers’ and the Jews, rather than with the people of Medina, as one might expect. It clearly delineates a separate identity between the Muslims and the Jews rather than a unified populace. What one may assume is that this served the purposes of Ishaq’s narrative in explaining the eventual falling out between Muhammad and the Jews, an assumption bolstered by the fact that Muhammad himself went on to contradict this division when he asserted that various groups of Jews are one community with the believers.

President Bush, during his speech on the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy stated: It should be clear to all that Islam—the faith of one-fifth of humanity—is consistent with democratic rule. More than half of all the Muslims in the world live in freedom under democratically constituted governments.” This could not have been any farther from the truth. An Islamic country, my friends, because it cannot separate itself from its religion, since such unity is anthropologically based on the sharia—the daily guide for Muslims forged from the Quran and the hadiths—which negates any sort of equity or social development within the socio-political field. Such political stagnation and incongruity are what Kemal Mustafa Atatürk fought against and changed after the Turkish War of Independence when he eliminated the caliphate in 1924. He publicly maintained Islam was a “a theology of an immoral Arab, and while it might have suited tribes of nomads in the desert,” it is vitiated by its sharia-based antiquated structure; it was counterproductive for a modern and developing state. 

Democracy, from our Western perception, prevents government from making laws which prohibit the free exercise of religion, or abridge the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the right to peacefully assemble, or the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. Even those states that have adopted a “democratic” structure of government, such as Iran, Egypt, and the Kingdom of Morocco, in fact they apply draconian legislation, like the death penalty for apostasy or the suppression of the right to speak and press, not unlike that of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia where sharia is the prevailing law. So much for the democracy the Prophet of Islam instituted.