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Islam Doesn't Allow Muslim Nations to Have Constitutions?

So I was reading an article by Daniel Pipes (you can find it here). He said an interesting about the ideology of Islamism, he said, "In particular, they seek to build an Islamic state in Turkey, replace Israel with an Islamic state and the U.S. constitution with the Koran."

While I won't speak on the politics of the Arab Middle East, or Turkey, it's the last part of that sentence I find interesting. Pipes makes the inference that anyone who prefers "Islamic Laws" for the country in which they live (in his articles case, radical Islamists) are people who advocate replacing Democratically instituted Constitutional Laws with Quranic Laws.

Sidestepping the crazy Islamists for a second (mainly, but not limited to Wahhabi's and Salafi's), let's assume that Pipes is speaking about any and all Muslims here. Again, is he inferring that anyone who believes in a system of laws based on Islamically ideal principles are actively looking to replace Constitutional laws with Islamic laws? Does he think that there is nothing similar or compatible about Western Democratic rule of law and Islamic rule of law?

I would argue that any true Islamic country, whether democracy, theocracy, or theomocracy*, would not only require a constitution, but would need one to remain in accordance with the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). I'm not sure if Daniel Pipes doesn't know, or forgot when writing that article, but history agrees that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) had established a social contract (and isn't that what a constitution essentially is?) for the citizens of Medina after he was invited to Medina in 622CE.

Read ahead for yourself now and tell me if you think, based on the historical evidence, that a nation whose laws are based on Islamic principles are incompatible with a constitution.

The Skinny
Towards the end of the 5th century, Jewish tribes of Yathrib* lost control of the city to two incoming Arab tribes from Yemen, the Banu Aus and Banu Khazraj. The opposing Arabs and Jews warred for 120 years. After the wars, the Jewish population lost and were subjected to become Clients of the Arab tribes. The Jewish tribes soon began a revolt that culminated with the Battle of Bu'ath in 620 C.E. This war involved all the clans and tribes in Yathrib. After the war, both sides agreed they needed a single authority to arbitrate conflicts if they were to ever maintain longstanding peace. In 620CE, a delegation from the 12 most important clans of Medina went to Mecca to invite Muhammad as the neutral party needed to serve as chief arbitrator for the city. Muhammad accepted, and in 622 the entire Muslim population of Mecca, followed by Muhammad (pbuh), emigrated in what became known as the Hijrah.

Upon his arrival in Medina, one of the first orders of business was to establish a social contract that would settle longstanding tribal grievances and unite the people of Medina into a federation bound by a common ethical standard. This contract became known as the Constitution of Medina. It delegated the rights and duties of all citizens and the nature of the relationships of different tribes in the community. The community was defined from a religious perspective, but also substantially preserved the legal forms of the old Arab tribes. Effectively, it established the first Islamic state.

Sohail H. Hashmi gave a great description when he wrote in his article Cultivating an Islamic Liberal Ethos, Building an Islamic Civil Society, "…the basis of the first Islamic civil society was literally a social contract. The so-called Constitution of Medina spelled out the mutual rights and obligations of all members of the Muslim society. It did not obliterate tribal identities; it superseded this tribalism with the umma, the community of the faithful. What made the formerly fractious tribes of Medina and their newly arrived guests from Mecca into a community was their acceptance of a common ethical standard, the still unfolding 'Qur'anic revelation, and the supreme authority of Muhammad. The precise role that Muhammad occupied in this society is still debated by Muslim scholars. What is clear is that the Prophet did not seek to eliminate previous tribal authority. His role seems to have been that of ultimate arbiter of any social disputes that may have arisen in that society."

Judging by the scholarship of Sohail H. Hashmi, the Arab Tribal leaders of Medina had their own say in their affairs, as did the Muslims, as did the Jews, and only when an agreement could not be reached, Muhammad (pbuh) was looked to as the agreed arbitrator.

Since Muhammad (pbuh) is the final authority on interpretation of the Quran and all Islamic traditions, it is necessary to accept that this first state led by Muhammad was the first Islamic State, and thus, an Islamic State in the purest form. As outlined in the mutually agreed upon Constitution of Medina, it was not a dicatatorship, or ruled by a singular person, or even a theocracy. The people of Medina enforced their own laws and lived according to their own mutually agree upon ethics, and were unified in this ordainment by necessity to have their conflicts arbitrated when they were unable to settle issues themselves.

So, now that we have some idea of what the Constitution of Medina is, can we say that the rule of law in a state based on Islamic principles must be determined by the Quran and not a Constitution?

The answer is no.

The Islamic State established in Medina was in accordance with Islamic principles outlined in the Quran and not in conflict with it. It cannot be argued that there was anything against the Islamic teachings since Muhammad (Pbuh) was the one who established this social contract. To argue that the Constitution of Medina was against Islamic teachings would be arguing against the Prophet himself. So if we extrapolate this we see that anything established in the Constitution of Medina must be included in any Islamic State. Thus, any Islamic State must be based on a Constitution. It would be conflicting for an Islamic state to be established in accordance with the Islamic tradition and not have a constitution. It would also be inaccurate to say that an Islamic state would abolish a constitution wherever it is established, in favour of the Quran. Only those who to not understand Islamic History would assume that to have a country based on Islamic principles would require abolishment of constitutional law. Whether ammendments would have to be made is an entirely different point to be made.

Thus, I would argue that Daniel Pipes is wrong in assuming that Muslims who would not mind living under a government established on the Islamic principles want to establish a state that replaces a constitution with the Quran. Unless by "Islamists" he means those Muslims who have radicalized views of political Islam that involve warring against Western (and Eastern) Democracies, and fighting against anything they view as abrogating or conflicting with Islam as established by the Rashidun (First 4 Caliphs), in which case, they're crazy, and probably lack an understanding of Islamic history themselves.

What can we take away from this?

Well, if we prorate the aforementioned arguments to modern geopolitics, we come to understand that Islam, and an Islamic State, is not conflicting in fundamental ideology with Democracy or a Democratic Society. In fact, if we understand the tribes to be representative of all the peoples of Medina at the time of the Constitution of Medina, we can easily see that they had their own say in their affairs, similar to a democracy, and that the role of Muhammad (Pbuh) was analogous to a modern day Supreme Court Judge, where cases that were unable to be decided by the people or accepted by the community-at-large, were arbitrated under the terms of the social laws and norms already established by the society.

What's the lesson here?

The lesson is that Muslim nations should be gravitating their national political ideologies towards social democracies based on Islamic Laws. Even the Muslims that seek to establish Islamic nations based on the rulings of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and the Rightly-Guided Caliphs should be advocating establishing nations that are not only not oppressive towards non-Muslims, or opposing Muslim sects, but accepting of them, their ideas, and their social norms, so long as it does not conflict with the national interests.

To read the Constitution of Medina for yourself, click here.

*Theomocracy is just a word I use to describe democracies whose laws are based on the principles of a particular religion. Examples of a theomocracies would be Israel and Pakistan.

*The name Yathrib was later changed to Medina. Derived from Medinta, the Aramaic word for city; it was used by the Jewish population to refer to the city, instead of calling it Yathrib.

1. Hashmi, Sohail H., "Cultivating a liberal Islamic ethos, building an Islamic civil society" Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, Vol. 27 No.1 (2007), p 3-16.
2. Guillaume, A., "The Medina Charter" The Life of Muhammad — A Translation of Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah, Oxford University Press, Karachi, (1955) p. 231-233.

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