"Islam is intolerant to other religions"; this is a claim used today around the globe to justify the growing fear of Islam and Muslims! However, the truth is entirely the opposite. The following is an example that provides insight into the true spirit of "accepting the other" in Islam: The Covenant of Medina, or as some call it: the Constitution of Al-Madinah.
The Covenant of Medina can be considered to be a turning point in Islamic history. It is regarded by many scholars as the most important written document dating from the era of the Prophet (pbuh). In addition to its legal significance, which is not the issue of discussion in this article, the document clearly sheds light on the status of the relationship between Muslims and Jews and between Muslims and non-believers in the Islamic state.
The Covenant of Medina was established in the first year of the hijrah (622 AD) after the emigration from Mecca to Medina; this was a period in which the two great powers of the time, the Roman and the Persian empires, were in conflict. The Arab Peninsula was in a state of anarchy, and the people were living a tribal life. There was no central authority nor was there a unified government. Each tribe constituted an independent political unit. Power was the dominating logic amongst tribes.
The conditions in Medina were no better. The community consisted of two tribes: the Aws and Khazraj, in addition to the immigrants who had left Mecca with their religion of Islam, and the Jews, who dominated the economic life in the city (Ali Jaffer Abdulsalam 1999). Due to the adverse political conditions that dominated in Medina at the time, the Muslims had to do something to maintain peaceful coexistence between the various groups of people living there. Thus the constitution of Medina came into being; this document established the first constitutional principles needed by a growing state to organise its social and political affairs on the basis of respect for human rights in the noblest form. The parties involved in the Constitution of Medina were:
1.The Prophet, who was accepted as the supreme leader in accordance with the constitution.
2.The citizens of Medina, regardless of their sects.
The subject of the document was the establishment of the State of Medina and the determination of relationships between all groups of people. The major principles of the constitution, which rendered equal rights for all the citizens, regardless of their faith, can be summarized as follows:
The main objective of the Covenant of Medina was to determine and define the basis for citizenship in the state. The document stated that Islam was the basis for citizenship in the new Islamic state with all that this implies for freedom and equality. Islam determined citizenship as its major goal. The tribal relationship was dominant before the advent of Islam, including all the inherent vices, such as chaos, pride in one's tribe, supporting the members of the tribe, whether right or wrong, and anarchy. Therefore, it was necessary to make a shift from tribalism to citizenship based on Islam (Muhammad Saleem Al-Awa, 1984). Imam Abū Zahrah (1963) says that while the Prophet was establishing the "Utopian" city of which philosophers used to dream, he noticed that the Muslims were from a number of split tribes and fanaticism still nestled in some of their hearts. Consequently, he established the principle of brotherhood between them, rendering Muslims brothers of one another who shared their means of living without abolishing the right to own property.
Although Islam was the basis of citizenship for the aforementioned reasons, the concept of citizenship was expanded to include all other faiths. The Jews, for instance, who were living in the state, joined as an independent nation governed by rabbinical court. Paragraphs 29 to 36 state that the Jews enjoy the same rights and duties as the Muslims. The freedom of belief was also guaranteed for the Jews:
Article 29Proportionate liability of non-Muslim citizens (the Jews) in bearing war expenses
The Jews (non-Muslim minorities) will be subjected to a proportionate liability for war expenses along with the believers as long as they (the Jews) continue to fight in conjunction with them.
Article 30Guarantee of freedom of religion for both Muslims and for non-Muslim minorities ( the Jews)
The Jews of Banu Awf (non-Muslim minorities) shall be considered a community alongside the believers. They shall be guaranteed the right of religious freedom along with the Muslims. The right shall be conferred on their associates as well as on themselves, except for those who are guilty of oppression or the violators of treaties. The latter will bring evil only on themselves and their family.
Article 31Equality of rights for the Jews of Banu Najjar and the Jews of Banu Awf
The Jews of Banu Najjar shall enjoy the same rights as those granted to the Jews of
Article 32Equality of rights for the Jews of Banu Harith and the Jews of Banu Awf
The Jews of Banu Harith shall enjoy the same rights as those granted to the Jews of Banu Awf.
Article 33Equality of rights for the Jews of Banu Sdida and the Jews of Banu Awf
The Jews of Banu Saida shall enjoy the same rights as those granted to the Jews of Banu Awf.
Article 34Equality of rights for the Jews of Banu Jusham and the Jews of Banu Awf
The Jews of Banu Jusham shall enjoy the same rights as those granted to the Jews of Banu Awf.
Article 35Equality of rights for the Jews of Banu Aws and the Jews of Banu Awf
The Jews of Banu Aws shall enjoy the same rights as those granted to the Jews of the Banu Awf.
Article 36Equality of rights for the Jews of Banu Thalabah and the Jews of Banu Awf
The Jews of Banu Thalabah shall enjoy the same rights as those granted to the Jews of Banu Awf, except for those who are guilty of oppression or who violate treaties; the latter will bring evil only on themselves and their family.
Article 37Equality of rights for Jafna, a branch of Banu Thalabah, and the Jews of Banu Awf
Jafna, a branch of Banu Thalabah, shall enjoy the same rights as those granted to Banu
Article 38Equality of rights for the Jews of Banu Shutayba and the Jews of Banu Awf
The Jews of Banu Shutayba shall enjoy the same rights as those granted to the Jews of Banu Awf. There shall be complete compliance (with this constitution) and no violation (of its clauses)
Article 39Equality of rights for all the associates of the Thalabah tribe
All the associates of Banu Thalabah shall enjoy the same rights as those granted to Banu Thalabah.
Article 40Equality of rights for all Jewish tribes
All sub-branches of the Jews shall enjoy the same rights as those granted to them (the Jews).
In the first year of the Hijrah, the covenant focused on unifying the city of Medina. Many people embraced Islam during this period thanks to this spirit of tolerance and openness, promoted by Islam, and due to the recognition given to other parties in the state, as well as the equal right to practice one's own beliefs. This was manifest in the fact that all the citizens in Medina enjoyed the same rights. As for people living outside the borders of Medina, the Covenant did not forbid establishing peaceful relations with non-believers who were living all over the Arab Peninsula. However, the document described Quraish (the tribe of Prophet Muhammad ) as enemies as they had initiated aggressions against the Prophet and his Companions, preventing them from practicing their religion and driving them from their homeland.
In fact, the Covenant of Medina is one of the major documents that laid the foundations for what Adam Metz called the "renaissance age" in Islam in his important book on this Islamic era. The era that Metz referred to was the fourth century Hijrah, corresponding to the twelfth century AD, when the Islamic state became an example of civilization for all times.
Finally, the Covenant of Medina is a call to Muslims and non-Muslims alike to consider a thorough review of Islamic history from the "golden days" and to realize that unquestionably, such glory was the natural outcome of understanding the true message of Muhammad.