The Constitutional Foundations of a Cosmopolitan Umma | Bayan Al ‘Aabed

This essay by Bayan Al ‘Aabed is a commentary on Faisal Al Mahmood’s paper, “Citizenship and its Historical Development” (المواطنة وتطورها التاريخي), which was presented at the event “Society and State: Between Islamic and Civil Citizenship” (المجتمع والدولة: بين المواطنة الإسلامية والمدنية) on February 8, 2016 at Salmaniya Gardens.

Tribalism and the Constitution of Medina

As highlighted by Faisal Al Mahmood in Citizenship and its Historical Development, one of the aims of Islam was to unify the tribes of Arabia under the banner of Islam, instead of the banners of blood, kin and family names. However, that does not mean to suggest that Islam sought to abolish the idea of kinship, in fact kinship is highly encouraged. Rather it aimed to eradicate the forms of tribal warfare and competition, and to create a centralized government that ruled with the principles of justice and equity instead.

When the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) moved to Medina with the Muhajiruun, the Constitution of Medina was drafted to serve as a social contract that outlined the rights and duties between the residents of the city and between the two dominant religious groups, the Muslims and the Jews, organizing the community under new rules and creating somewhat of a stable society.

The Constitution of Medina created the “Umma”, and according to Montgomery Watt, an umma is a theocratic community designated by God to supplant the traditional kinship-based tribal order with social ties based on unified religious belief (Humphreys, 1991). Thus, this helped provide the basis for the concept of Islamic citizenship, which is defined by Al Mahmood as a trans-national relationship between a group of citizens and a state whereby the Islamic state upholds to protect the rights of its citizens and in turn citizens are obliged to uphold their responsibilities to the Islamic state. With the advent of Islam the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula were for the first time united as a community of Mu’mineen under the banner of Islam.

Nonetheless, it is important to note that the formation of the umma does not mean that traditional tribal ties were entirely wiped off, as Al Mahmood notes in his paper. In fact, later periods in Islamic history prove that relations of kin were to continue to play an important role in the organisation of the newly formed umma. For instance, the Umayyads centralized the government and appointed their family members as governors of different counties, thereby creating a family dynasty, and this would continue with the Abbasids and the rest of the caliphate dynasties.

New-Old Social Regulations

Additionally, the concept of lex talionis (which basically means an eye for an eye) remained as a form of public policy informed by tribal laws. For example, when Muwiya I wanted to avenge the death of Uthman, leading to the first civil war (The First Fitna), and the Constitution of Medina attempted to frame it within the idea of the Muslim umma:

“Whoever kills a believer without good reason, [the murder being substantiated] on the basis of sound evidence, shall be slain in retaliation, unless the next kin [of the slain] is satisfied [with blood money]. All the believers shall be against him; anything other than standing [united] against him shall not be allowed.” (Donner, 2010)

What the Constitution of Medina did was replace lex talionis with a more regulated system of qisas, where the perpetrator gets the same kind of punishment he inflicted on the victim, or in some cases pay blood money to the victim’s family. However, it still depends on the family (of the victim) whether they would accept the blood money or choose execution.

Therefore, despite the constitution touching upon these issues some of the social policies informed by tribal tradition continued to be points of debate amongst Muslims, which continues to this day.

Rights and Responsibilities

Moreover, the constitution highlighted the rights and duties of the community of Mu’mineen. For instance, if any disagreement between tribes occurs, then it should be referred to God and the Prophet to be resolved: “Whatever matters you disagree on should be referred to God and to Muhammed [for resolution],” (Donner, 2010). Since it is God who created the theocratic community through the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH), thus there is a shared acceptance of the authority of the divinely chosen prophet which served as a new form of political legitimacy (Donner, 2010).

The Constitution also outlined rules for social relations. For example, on the issue of betrayal it stated: “A man shall not betray his ally, and assistance belongs to the person wronged,” (Donner, 2010). Whereas on the issue of criminality, it warns:

“It is not permissible for the Believer who affirms what it is this treaty (sahifa), and believes in God and the Last Day, to aid a sinner [murderer?] or to give him refuge. Whosoever aids him or gives him refuge shall have upon him the curse of God and His wrath on the Day of Resurrection; and neither repentance nor ransom will be accepted from him,” (Donner, 2010)

The aforementioned article further emphasize the importance of unity, warning against treachery because it can fracture the whole of concept of the newly created umma that is based on belief (in God and the Prophet) and trust. Not to mention that this served as an early guideline (besides the Quran) for the civic duties and responsibilities that individuals had towards the umma.

A Homogenous or Cosmopolitan Umma?

However, building on some of the ideas put forth by Al Mahmood, were these rules only applicable to Muslims? And was this developing notion of Islamic citizenship only tied to the Muslims themselves?

The Constitution of Medina suggests that these rights and responsibilities applied to the Jews as well, since Medina’s population included a number of Jewish tribes, thereby meaning that the Prophet Mohammed alongside his followers had to create a constitution for the Muslims and their relations with the Jews, as well.  

However, there is still an ongoing debate as to whether the Jews and Christians were indeed part of the Umma, as the term might have been exclusively applied to Muslims. Because as mentioned before, the religion of Islam, finally united the Arabs and formed the Umma of Mu’mineen, but never directly stated whether it included the People of the Book.  

Some historians, like Watt, argue that since the constitution addressed both the Jews and Muslims, this does not mean that the term Umma refers to a homogenous religious community (qtd. in Humphreys, 1991). On the other hand, Wellhausen suggests that even though the Constitution included the Jews and Pagans of Medina, they were still considered to be clients and subordinate members (qtd. in Humphreys, 1991).

Co-existence or Equality?

Moreover, were those groups treated in a fair and equal manner? The Constitution outlines that the Jews have their own religion and/or laws:

“The Jews of Banu ‘ Awf are a community [umma] with the Believers; the Jews have their religion/law, their clients (mawali), and their persons…” and “The Jews of Banu Tha’laba have the [same rights and obligations] as the Jews of Banu ‘Awf, except that anyone who behaves unjustly and acts treacherously [or acts sinfully] destroys only himself and his kinsmen,” (Donner, 2010).

Jews were also to pay their share with the Believers as long as they engaged within warfare (Donner, 2010). This also creates another argument; if Jews had their own set of laws and religion, ones that are different than the Muslims were obliged to adhere to then does that mean they were actually part of the umma? However, this could be counter argued with a modern life example: Shia and Sunna in Bahrain have their own sets of theocratic laws managing marriage, divorce, zakat/khoms, Ramadan etc. Henceforth, just because there were some differences in legislation, we cannot assume either sect’s exclusion from the umma.

Therefore, legislatively speaking, the tribes of Medina and the Muslims did have their own rights and responsibilities. Some argue that non-Muslims were treated as second class citizens, while others like to believe Islam was an egalitarian religion that treated everyone as equals, and it also made co-existence possible. Thus, the question remains, can one be a full citizen if all citizens are not equal? And is coexistence the same as equality?

Works Cited

  • Humphreys, R. (1991). Islamic history. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
  • Donner, F. (2010). Muhammad and the believers (pp. 227-232). Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Bayan Al ‘Aabed is a MEPI Undergraduate Student at the American University in Cairo, pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication and Media Arts, and minoring in Arab & Islamic Civilizations.

Discussion on #Sakheer_Girl

Twitter discussion on the #Sakheer_Girl issue which sparked a national controversy about gender and public morals, in addition to the role of the law in regulating these morals and gender expressions.

You can view the full Storify here.


Report: Questioning The Veil Discussion Event

Serving as the first phase of the Tasa’ol تساؤل initiative, Questioning The Veil, was inspired by the book of the same name by Turkish writer and academic Marnia Lazreg, which raises questions about the Muslim hijab and it’s role in contemporary Muslim societies.

The book is written in the form of open letters, each dealing with a different experience of veiling, de-veiling and re-veiling. In these letters, central questions are raised: Are the justifications for wearing the veil sexist? Does it protect those who wear it from sexual harassment? Is the veil a symbol for religious identity and if so, should it be?

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Questioning The Veil discussion event poster

The Questioning The Veil discussion event was held at Words BookstoreCafe in Budaiya on May 17th, 2014. The event took the basic premise of Marnia Lazreg’s book and discussed veiling, de-veiling and re-veiling experiences using a personal and narrative-based approach. The speaker panel was made up of; Dr. Malika Mehdid, Fatima Qassim, Noor Bahman, Deena Al Saweer, Fatima Bastaki and Tamadher Al Fahal.

Dr. Malika Mehdid, Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Bahrain and researcher in Middle Eastern studies, opened the event by discussing the hijab from a historical and political perspective. Focusing on Algeria, Dr. Malika discussed the ways in which gender roles developed and expectations of women changed through the mid-20th century to today.

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Dr. Malika Mehdid (microphone) speaking about the history of the hijab in her home country of Algeria

The next speaker, Fatima Qassim discussed her personal experience with the hijab and how she ultimately made her decision to wear it. Growing up, she was the only one out of her sisters to wear the veil and to Fatima this was an empowering decision that was intimately connected to her faith in religion.

Noor Bahman took an academic approach by analyzing the way the hijab interacts with constructions of gender in society. She argued that the hijab is a product of social construction of gender because it rests on the belief that there is a gender difference that dictates a person’s entire life and identity.

Deena Al Saweer highlighted different veiling and de-veiling experiences in a broad presentation where she explained how people’s behavior and attitudes differ based on whether or not a person wears a hijab. Deena also highlighted how de-veiling can be a difficult experience because of the values society places on purity and piety and how de-veiling comes with a strong social stigma that is associated with “dirty” morality.

Tamadher Al Fahal, in her presentation, discussed her personal experience with the hijab, how it impacts and doesn’t impact her life and most importantly what the hijab means to her as an individual. Tamadher said that although the hijab dictates some of the dynamics of her relationships with others, she concluded that even these changes are minimal and don’t have an impact on her personality as a whole.

Fatima Bastaki raised questions about veiling, de-veiling and re-veiling through a narrative-based approach by telling the stories of three different women, including her own. In the first story, Fatima told us about Abrar and how growing up in a practicing Shi’a Muslim family meant that she was expected to wear the veil by the age of nine. Abrar’s family celebrated the veiling as a rite of passage into womanhood and although Abrar had some fleeting doubts about the hijab throughout her life, she still sees it as the right decision even if the decision was not entirely hers at the age of nine.

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The next story was about Marwa, also a Shi’ite Muslim which meant that she was also expected to wear the hijab by the age of nine, who grew up in a conservative society and environment. She believed very strongly in the hijab at first but started to question it later on once she saw that it was impeding her life. Marwa later moved to the United States away from her family and de-veiled, viewing it as an empowering decision that has allowed her to develop a deeper and more complex understanding of what the hijab means.

Fatima Bastaki concluded her presentation with a story about herself and her own veiling, de-veiling and re-veiling experiences. She describes herself as a “situational hijabi” because her stance on the veil changes widely from time to time. To her, Fatima believes that the hijab is a constantly shifting journey of introspection and self-reflection.

In between presentations, heated interactions and debates took place between audience members and the speakers. The discussion centered around questions about the importance of the hijab in being religious, whether the hijab is a religious symbol and whether it creates gender difference. The history of the hijab also took center stage in the discussion as some audience members and speakers argued that it was a modern development rather than being rooted in Islamic traditions. Others argued that there is more than just one way to view the hijab and although it can be considered a religious symbol, it may not be to others.