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Religion and Society

Three Parties for a Single Pact

Shortly after moving to Medina, Muhammad concluded a treaty with members of tribal groups, both Muslims (whatever this term meant so early in the development of the new religion) and Jews. The result was the earliest legal document of Islam. But without an attentive contextualisation, the risk of anachronisms always lies in wait.

The biography of the Prophet Muhammad by Ibn Ishâq (d. ca. 151/768) includes a unique legal document sometimes referred to as ‘the Constitution of Medina’[1]. Ibn Ishâq had compiled his work many years before his death and totally revised it several times. When the Abbasid caliph Mansûr asked him to write it down for him, he merely prepared a new copy of a text he had been teaching for decades. It must be immediately borne in mind that the biography has always been a sensitive text. At stake was the reputation of many of Muhammad’s Companions whose descendants were still alive when the biography was compiled. And the biography remains a matter of political and theological dispute to this very day. As to Muhammad himself, there has always been a built-in dissonance between his role as prophet and his roles as tribal leader, statesman, politician and diplomat. Had he not mastered his other roles so brilliantly, he would not have achieved his illustrious successes during the last decade or his life.

 

 

In his role as diplomat and statesman – and using his experience as a former merchant – Muhammad concluded many treaties with the tribes of Medina and northern Arabia. The use of written contracts was widespread in Medina and elsewhere in Arabia, even though literacy was rather rare. Recipients of his written documents had a vested interest in preserving them, especially when the documents recognized their right to, say, a grazing area or a well. At a later stage many documents were still available to historians who included them in their history books. But obviously many other documents were lost. Luckily, the so-called Constitution of Medina was among those preserved. Ibn Ishâq placed it among the events of the first year after the hijra that brought Muhammad from Mecca to Medina towards the end of September 622. Muhammad was then roughly 54 years old.

 

 

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[1] Ibn Ishâq’s biography is only available in the abridged and censored version prepared by Ibn Hishâm (d. ca. 218/833). A somewhat different version of the text of the ‘Constitution’ is found in Abû ‘Ubayd’s Kitâb al-amwâl.

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