Little over a decade after receiving his first revelations (610CE), the Prophet Muhammad and his ever-expanding group of followers, or ‘Believers’, were forced to flee Mecca for fear of persecution in a journey that would become known as the hijra (emigration) and which would signify the beginning of the Islamic era. They took refuge in Medina (then Yathrib) where Muhammad had been invited to act as arbitrator for the local feuding clans. The settlement of Muhammad and his followers in Medina resulted in the laying down rules and regulations for coexistence between the old and new Medinans of the Umma Document, or the Constitution of Medina, which as “one of the oldest extant documents in Islamic history” (1AH/622-3CE),1 is invaluable historical source. Two main questions arise from the Umma Document, namely who exactly were the members of this new community (umma),and, more importantly still, who constituted the group of Believers?2 This source analysis will therefore look to explore the answers to these questions, as well as the ways in which the Umma Document would go on to shape the expectations and ideals of the nascent Islamic community and the resultant Islamic world.
I will firstly look to answer the question of who was considered to be a part of the original umma in Medina. From the very beginning of the Umma Document, it is clear to see thatthe Jewish clans already residing in Medina were considered to be part of “one community” with Muhammad and his followers, “to the exclusion” of others.3 The Document then continues to detail the names of eight Jewish clans who, so long as they continue to “attach themselves to [the Believers] and struggle alongside them”, would be entitled to “[remain] in charge of their own affairs” whilst still operating within the umma.4 The inclusion of the Medinan Jewish tribes is made even more apparent with the explicit declaration that the
- S.A. Arjomand, ‘The Constitution of Medina: A Sociolegal Interpretation of Muhammad’s Acts of Foundation of the “Umma”’, in International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol.41, No.4, (2009), p.555
- It can also be asked whether those considered to be Believers changed over time, as the lines between the different religions in the Arabian Peninsula solidified.
- Umma Document, in F.M. Donner, Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam (Cambridge, MA,2010), p.228
- Ibid, pp.228-229
Document would not protect the Quraysh, or anyone who “acts unjustly or treacherously”.5 The fact that no phraseology of this kind is used when describing the Jewish clans starkly reinforces the idea of their stable position within the umma, so long as they comply with the rules of the Document.
Ira Lapidus suggests that the reason for the readiness of the Jews’ inclusion within the umma was due to both necessity and the similar Abrahamic and monotheistic nature ofJudaism.6 The fact that Medina was an urban settlement rather than a nomadic configuration meant that Muhammad and his followers would be required to live in close proximity to the town’s pre-existing population; a neighbourly and inclusive constitution would make co-existence far easier. Furthermore, the Jewish clans, as monotheists, would be far more sympathetic to Muhammad’s beliefs than perhaps other groups would be, especially considering that both sets of beliefs stem from the same Abrahamic traditions. These ideas can then be seen to justify the purposeful exclusion of both “polytheists” and those who act “treacherously [or: acts sinfully]” from the protection of the Umma Document.7 The Quraysh, Muhammad’s clan who refused to support his preaching in Mecca, would also be unprotected by the Umma Document.8 Anyone perceived as a threat to Muhammad, and Abrahamic monotheism in general, was unlikely to be included within the umma, leaving places for only those with the same or similar religious traditions to Muhammad and his followers within the original Islamic community.
Despite the fact that the Jewish inhabitants of Medina were considered to be a part of the original umma, it has been disputed whether they were ever considered to be Believers as well. The Umma Document does for the most part seem to distinguish between the Jews of Medina and the Believers/Muslims. For example, it is stated that the Jewish clans “are a community [umma] with the Believers”, whilst another section states that “the Jews owe their expenses, and the Muslims owe their[s]”, employing two distinct terms that
- Ibid, p.232
- I.M. Lapidus, Islamic Societies to the Nineteenth Century: A Global History (Cambridge, 2012), p.49
- Umma Document, pp.230-232
- Ibid, p.232
differentiate between the Jews and the Believers.9 Because of these attempts to signifying the differences between these two groups, and because it is never explicitly stated that the Jews are in fact Believers it can be suggested that these people, whilst sharing enough religious similarities to be placed under the protection of the early Islamic community, still had too little in common to be considered Believers.
Indeed, this idea is emphasised in many parts of the Qur’an such as in Sura 4:162, when it is stated that the Believers “believe in what has been sent down to [the Prophet Muhammad]”.10 In this case, since Muhammad is not a Prophet of Judaism, the Jews cannot be considered Believers. However, despite these seemingly clear distinctions between the Believers and others, both the Umma Document and the Qur’an appear to contradict themselves in regards to this. For example, it is suggested in one part of the Umma Document that to be a Believer, one must simply believe in “God and the Last Day”,11 an idea that is echoed in some parts of the Qur’an (for example Sura 3:114).12 These apparent contradictions can however be resolved by the fact that immediately after the hijra, “the lines between Muslim and Jew were not yet firmly drawn”.13 These lines were only made more clear-cut with Muhammad’s expulsion of the Jewish tribes Banu Qaynuqa (624CE) and Banu al-Nadir (625CE), and his execution of the men of Banu Qurayza (627CE),14 and it would make sense, therefore, that after these conflicts, the ideas surrounding who constituted as a Believer might have changed. This, along with the fact that we do not possess the original Document, only a “fairly accurate” transcription with “minor variations” from the original,15 could help us to understand why there are inconsistencies within the Document itself, with the transcriber perhaps choosing to echo the new socio-political realities of his current time.
- Ibid, pp.230-231
- A.J. Droge, The Qur’an: A New Annotated Translation (Sheffield, 2014), pp.60-61
- Umma Document, p.230
- The Qur’an, p.40
- C.F. Robinson, ‘The Rise of Islam, 600-705’ in ed. C.F. Robinson, The New Cambridge History of Islam, Volume
1: The Formation of the Islamic World, Sixth to Eleventh Centuries (Cambridge, 2010), p.189
- F.M. Donner, Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam (Cambridge, MA, 2010), p.227
I will lastly look at how the rules set out in the Umma Document affected those residing under it. The Umma Document can be seen to redefine the idea of the makeup of a community. Previously, communities tended to be formed based around familial and tribal affiliation, as is shown in the references to the numerous Jewish clans throughout the document.16 With the creation of the Document, a new kind of community appears to have been established; this community was less dependent on blood relations, favouring instead religious ties.17 The Document goes so far as to state that anybody “[spreading] treachery or enmity or dissension” would find the Believers “united against him, even if he is the son of one of them”, showing clearly that religious ties were considered far more important that familial ones.18 Furthermore, the Document explains that the Jews and Muslims have their own religions and laws, and that anyone found breaking these specifically religious laws would “destroy… himself and his kinsmen”,19 suggesting the utmost importance attributed to remaining faithful to one’s religious rules.
Alongside observing the Umma Document’s religious regulations, the people of the umma would also have had to accept the Prophet Muhammad as their leader who, as stated by Patricia Crone, “assumed the role of ultimate decision-maker”.20 Indeed, the Document opens by asserting that it is “from Muhammad the Prophet” and goes on the say that any disagreements should be referred to God and Muhammad for resolution,21 giving the Prophet ultimate authority over his community. We can go further than this and say that Muhammad had even created a new type of political institution: a “congregation and a state rolled together”, making the people within it both religiously and politically bound together.22 This concept therefore paved the way for the political makeup of the Islamic world for centuries to come, with Muhammad, and later his successors, being considered
- Umma Document, pp.228-231
- I.M. Lapidus, Islamic Societies to the Nineteenth Century, p.48
- Umma Document, p.229
- Ibid, p.230
- P. Crone, ‘The Rise of Islam in the World’, in ed. F. Robinson, The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Islamic World (Cambridge, 1998), p.7
- Umma Document, pp.228-230
- P. Crone, Medieval Islamic Political Thought (Edinburgh, 2005), p.13
both the heads of their state and of their religion. Muhammad’s umma therefore brought together religious and political authority together into a “single multi-purpose institution”,23 thereby influencing not only those living in the community under him, but those throughout the Islamic world across both time and space.
In conclusion, the Umma Document provides us an incredible insight into the makeup of the early Islamic community. It tells us who early Muslims considered part of their community, who they considered as outsiders, and who constituted the core of true Believers. In so doing, the Document changed the very nature of community in the early Islamic world; instead of the blood-based clan system of pre-Islamic Arabia, it was now religious ties that were most important within the Islamic community. To put it simply, the Umma Document forms the religio-social structure with which the Islamic world would continue to grow over the coming centuries.
A.J. Droge, The Qur’an: A New Annotated Translation (Sheffield: Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2014)
The Umma Document in Umma Document, in F.M. Donner, Muhammad and the Believers:
At the Origins of Islam (Cambridge, MA,: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2010)
Arjomand, S.A, ‘The Constitution of Medina: A Sociolegal Interpretation of Muhammad’s Acts of Foundation of the “Umma”’, in International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol.41, No.4, (2009), pp.555-575
Crone, P, ‘The Rise of Islam in the World’, in ed. F. Robinson, The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Islamic World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp.2-31
Crone, P, Medieval Islamic Political Thought (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005)
- Ibid, p.16
Donner, F.M, Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010)
Hoyland, R.G, ‘The Jews of the Hijaz in the Qur’an and in their inscriptions’, in ed. G.S. Reynolds, New Perspectives on the Qur’an: The Qur’an in its Historical Context 2 (London: Routledge, 2012), pp.91-116
Lapidus, I.M, Islamic Societies to the Nineteenth Century: A Global History (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2012)
Robinson, C.F, ‘The Rise of Islam, 600-705’, in ed. C.F. Robinson, The New Cambridge History of Islam, Volume 1: The Formation of the Islamic World, Sixth to Eleventh Centuries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp.173-225
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