This article was first published by the author as “The Medina Constitution” in ‘Islam: A World Encyclopedia,’ ed. Cenap Cakmak (Turkey: Osmangazi University, 2016. It is has been adapted for the ‘Muslim Perspectives’ magazine
In 1 AH/622 CE, when Prophet Muḥammad (ﷺ) arrived in Medina, after his Emigration (Hijrah) from Makka (which had become hostile and destructive to preaching and practice of Islam), one of his top priorities was to establish political stability amongst the factious Arab and Jewish tribes. Thereupon, he promptly reorganized Medina’s political system, successfully negotiating a series of treaties with binding legal effect on all interest groups (Arab and non-Arab, Muhājirūn and Anṣār, and Muslim and non-Muslim). The most important of his treaties were collectively known as Ṣaḥīfa al-Madīna (“The Medina Constitution”). The literature on the Ṣaḥīfa is copious and scholars disagree on its title, authenticity, legal purpose, and modern relevance.
After 100 years of scholarly inquiry into the Ṣaḥīfa, two major and authoritative analyses prevail. The first analysis is that it is composed of two documents, which is discussed shortly. The second analysis is that—at its core—the Ṣaḥīfa is factual, thereby rendering it an authentic and reliable 7th century document of its period and place.
The Ṣaḥīfa, in part, reads as follows:
With the name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the All-Merciful
1. This is a prescript of Muḥammad, the Messenger of Allah, to operate among the Believers and Muslims, from among the Quraysh, Yathrib [Medina], and those who may be under them, join them, and take part in wars in their company.
2. Verily. they constitute a political unit (umma) as distinct from the (other) people.
3. The Emigrants (Muhājirūn) from among the Quraysh shall be (responsible) for their ward, shall pay their blood-money in mutual collaboration, and shall secure the release of their prisoners by paying their ransom themselves, so that the mutual dealings between the Believers be in accordance with the principles of recognized goodness and justice. . . .
The Authenticity of the Ṣaḥīfa
The oldest known report of the Ṣaḥīfa is Ibn Isḥāq’s (d. 767 CE) version, which Ibn Hishām (d. 833 CE) transmitted in his sīra (biography) of the Prophet (ﷺ) without any “chain of authorities” (isnād). But Aḥmad (d. 855 CE), Abū ‘Ubayd (838 CE), Zanjawī (865 CE), Ibn Abī Khaythama (890 CE), Ibn Abī Ḥātim (938 CE), Ibn Ḥazm (1064 CE), al-Bayhaqī (1066 CE), and Ibn Sayyid al-Nās (1333 CE) cited it with, albeit problematic, isnād. None of these historical reports, however, satisfy the ‘acceptance’ criteria of Ḥadīth scholars, which prevented them from grading the Ṣaḥīfa as ṣaḥīḥ (“sound”); rather, each report is ḍa‘īf (“weak”) due to a defect of the narrator or a missing link in the chain between the narrator and the Prophet (ﷺ). Nevertheless, al-‘Umarī, utilizing a fundamental principle of the Ḥadīth science, concluded that the multiple Ṣaḥīfa reports from different sources reinforce one another, thereby raising it from the status of ḍa‘īf to ḥasan (“good”)—specifically, ḥasan li ghayrih (i.e., “good with respect to other reports”). The macro Muslim histories (al-Wāqidī’s at-Tārīkhu wa-l Maghāzi, Ibn Sa‘d’s aṭ-Ṭabaqātu-l Kabīr, al-Balādhurī’s Futūḥu-l Buldān, al-Ṭabarī’s Tārīkhu, Ibn al-Athīr’s (al-Kāmilu fi-t Tārīkh), al-Dhahabī’s Tārīkhu-l Islām, et al) somehow ignored the Ṣaḥīfa—except Ibn Khaldūn (1406 CE) who, in his Kitāb al-ʻIbar, briefly stated, “The Prophet (ﷺ) made an agreement with the Jews, writing a kitāb for them, stipulating their rights and duties.” I have discussed elsewhere why I think they omitted references to the Ṣaḥīfa.
Questions About the Ṣaḥīfa
How many documents do the Ṣaḥīfa’s comprise? Learned opinions vary, ranging from one, two, to eight. The majority view is that it contains two separate treaties: one between the Muhājirūn and native Muslims of Madina (Anṣār) and another between the Jews and Muslims of Madīna. When was the Ṣaḥīfa written? Again, scholarly opinions differ. Research indicates that the entire document was probably drafted in 1 AH/622 CE or 6/627; the first section was drawn up in Anas’ house, implying a date before construction of the Prophet’s Mosque, circa 1/622; the second treaty—after Badr or before it; or the middle of 2/623. Who are the Jews mentioned in the Ṣaḥīfa? Several theories attempt to identify them. The widely accepted view is that they refer to Medina’s major Jewish tribes—Qaynuqā‘, al-Naḍīr, and Qurayẓa. Another view is that they were Judaized Arabs. A third view is that they were the smaller Jewish or Judaized social units—affiliates of Arab tribes—who had lost their original tribal structure.
The form of the Ṣaḥīfa consists of two sections, having concise—and quite a few repetitive clauses—in an Arabic register reminiscent of the early Islamic period. The first treaty contains 23 clauses, as per Wellhausen’s numbering adhered to by most scholars. Ḥamidullāh further divided a couple of clauses, bringing the total number of clauses in both sections to 52.
As for the Ṣaḥīfa’s content, it can be analyzed in terms of:
- That which is not new (i.e., pre-Islamic or jāhilī);
- That which is new (i.e., Islamic).
On the one hand, ‘Pre-Islamic’ is its utilization as a policy instrument. Arab and non-Arab tribes in Arabia extensively used ṣaḥīfa, kitāb, or ‘ahd, and the like as political means of solemnizing their collective and reciprocal duties and rights, mediating their conflicts, forming new alliances, or renewing old ones. Also ‘pre-Islamic’ is the Ṣaḥīfa’s recognition of political institutions related to kinship, blood-money transactions, ransom of prisoners, granting of political immunity (ijāra)—policies that maintained social (though not necessarily just) equilibrium. Indeed, the Ṣahīfa devotes at least 14 clauses to matters of blood-money and ransom of prisoners of war. Historically, these quasi socio-judicial institutions were well entrenched in the Arabian body politic, including Madīna, where the tribes of al-Aws, al-Khazraj, and Jews were pitted against one another for political supremacy. And ‘Pre-Islamic’ is the Ṣaḥīfa’s retention of the city’s name “Yathrib,” which the Prophet later changed to “Medina.”
A Testimony to Muhammad’s Leadership
On the other hand, the Ṣaḥīfa’s Islamic ‘newness’ is evident in its peculiar construct of the city-state’s legal sovereignty: “protection of God” and “recourse to Allah and Muḥammad”; theological orientation; recognition of the tribe as a political unit (umma) within the polity based on religion; guarantee of equal protection and security for every resident irrespective of creed; recognition of religious freedom for all, social equality among clients and patrons regardless of ethnicity, and judicial autonomy for Jews; territorial conception of state borders; affirmation of personal liability for commission of crimes within the state, individually and collectively; and a pragmatic approach to founding a state on mutual agreements—not imagined social compacts. That the Islamic State was ‘voluntaristic’ is evident, since the various interest groups were not forced into agreements, even though the Ṣaḥīfa appeared to be the Prophet’s unilateral decision. The 7th century Islamic State of Medina is perhaps the earliest historical example of a voluntaristic state—the idea in political anthropology that people can freely create a state for the common weal. The Ṣaḥīfa affirmed Muḥammad, as “Prophet” or “Messenger of God”; that is, head of state, identifying all Believers and Muslims, pagan Arabs, Jews, and their confederates, as subjects bound by the prescript. In sum, the Ṣaḥīfa is a testimony to Muḥammad’s leadership genius and sagacious statesmanship.
- Shuayb, Fiazuddin. “Structure of the Islamic State.” Who’s Better than God to Rule? – An Inquiry into the Formation of the First Islamic State (622-32 CE). Ph.D. dissertation – UCLA, 2012. Available online: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/87q494b4.
- Hamidulla, Muhammad. The First Written Constitution in the World. 2nd ed. Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1968.
- Wellhausen, Julius. “Muhammad’s Constitution of Medina.” In Muhammad and the Jews of Medina. Leiden: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, 1975.
- Al-‘Umarī, Akram Ḍiyā’. al-Sīra al-nabawī al-ṣaḥīḥa. 6th ed. 2 vols. Medina: Maktaba al-‘Ulūm wal-Ḥikam, 1994.
 Those Muslim followers of the Prophet (ﷺ) who emigrated with him from Makkah; hence, their name Muhājirūn (“those who emigrate” and Hijrah, “emigration”). As for Anṣār, they were the Muslims of Medina who pledged allegiance to the Prophet (ﷺ) and gave him refuge and help; hence, their name Anṣār, “helpers.”