Islamic Perspectives

Peace and Conflict Resolution Concepts in the Madina Charter

By  Yetkin Yildirim
 
It is much easier to make contact with people from vastly different cultures and beliefs in the context of today’s world. Unfortunately, increased globalization has also broadened the scope of conflict throughout the world. Modern conflicts take place between societies with widely different cultural, religious, and philosophical backgrounds. In today’s globalized world, the Madina Charter can be a source for answers to many of today’s questions, presenting approaches to solving and preventing conflicts between groups based on differences in culture and belief.

The Madina Charter is a constitution that essentially established the Madina city-state. The Charter was the first written constitution in Islam and arguably the first constitutional law in society. Before Prophet Muhammad’s arrival from Makka, Yathrib (later known as Madina) had a population of 10,000 that was organized into approximately 22 tribes. Approximately half the population was Jewish and half was Arab. Regardless of religion, tribes sought power through military dominance over other tribes, with the numerous alliances forged between warring tribes greatly contributing to the aggression. Constant warfare was taking a toll on the tribes. While some sought external military assistance for the conflicts, many were making preparations for the enthronement of a leader from one of the tribes. However, it was unclear whether each tribe would acquiesce to the leadership of a single leader from one of the tribes and if such a leader would be able to establish political organization, create military defense for the city, reconcile tribal hostilities, and define local rights and obligations as well as address the issues of the growing immigrant refugee population from Makka.
God’s Messenger was requested by the tribes in Yathrib to act as a third-party mediator to try and help resolve the on-going conflict between them. He had a reputation for being an able mediator as he had helped to resolve conflicts in Makka and was able to fill the leadership void that existed in the area. It was also common practice of Arabs at that time to refer their conflict to outsiders, and the Prophet had already been given the title, "The Trustworthy" by the residents of Makka. Finally, while drafting the Charter, he consulted the leaders of each tribe, thereby demonstrating his willingness to listen to the needs of all tribes.

The methods God’s Messsenger made use of in the creation of the Charter are similar to trends that have emerged in modern conflict resolution techniques. These methods provide an important source for understanding the concepts of mediation and conflict resolution in Islam, and subsequently, can also offer effective means with which to approach dialogue with and within Islamic societies and among non-Islamic societies.

The Charter, which was the first declaration of the area of Madina as a city-state, established rules of government and addressed specific social issues of the community in an attempt to put to an end the chaos and conflict that had been plaguing the region for generations. The Charter outlined the rights and duties of its citizens, provided collective protection for all citizens of Madina, including Muslims and non-Muslims, and provided the first means of seeking justice through the law and community instead of via tribal military actions.

The Madina Charter, which contains 47 sections in total, addresses the power structures that contributed to the conflict in Yathrib. The Charter expressly identified the parties involved in the conflict; the first 23 sections of the Charter address the Muslim immigrants from Makka and the Muslims of Yathrib, while the second half of the document is directed towards the Jews of the community. Prophet Muhammad also identified immediate physical issues in Yathrib. In the second section, the people of Yathrib are defined as one community to the exclusion of all others. Prior to this proclamation, the boundaries of Yathrib were indistinct, each tribe occupying a certain territory, with the whole of the tribal territories in the area not being considered as one, united city. Once Yathrib was established as an integrated community, the Prophet addressed issues of community justice and protection. The Charter established the course of law for Yathrib. The right to seek justice was shifted from individuals to the central community. The Prophet’s arrangements for community justice and protection encouraged collective responsibility. The Madina Charter was also the first acknowledgement of religious divisions within the Yathrib tribal system. Though he did little to change the organization of inter-religious tribes, the Prophet called upon the deeply instilled values of Islam and Judaism to fortify the agreement. These stipulations enabled the participants of the agreement to look once again beyond tribal alliances, thus making tribal lines indistinct.

Along these same lines, the Charter focused on relationships rather than group dynamics: the Madina Charter eliminated tribal hostilities by realigning residents, shifting the focus from militaristic rivals to allied religious followers. In the event of religious dispute, the document continued to decree that the participants of the agreement must act in good faith with one another Finally, interaction goals, including specific desires to maintain one’s sense of self-identity, were left intact by shifting the alliance from tribes (which were hostile) to religion, enabling participants to abandon tribal hostility without loss of face.

Before the Charter, Yathrib was a community of constant tension between independent, hostile tribes. The Prophet addressed these power struggles by establishing common goals that would serve the whole community. The Charter specifically advises mutual influence with the declaration that the Muslims and Jews "must seek mutual advice and consultation, and loyalty is a protection against treachery." The Charter binds the parties of the agreement to helping one another against any attack on Yathrib. It dictates behavior for a specific instance of mutual influence. If the Jews "are called to make peace and maintain it they must do so; and if they make a similar demand on the Muslims it must be carried out." Also, reference to a higher authority was repeated in both sections. The Charter also explicitly pronounces that future disputes "must be referred to God and to Prophet Muhammad." The participants had placed a power that was external to their group that they would be able to draw upon in the event of their own power being or seeming insufficient. The power of the agreement was uniquely balanced due to its direction towards God. The Madina Charter addressed potential power complications by focusing the participants on their interdependence. The Madina Charter prohibited independent contention by participant groups that claim God’s protection, and states that the peace of believers is as one. Once again, the idea of being one community was emphasized and the participants of the agreement were made to recognize their power as a unit.

The solutions presented in the Madina Charter can be applied to questions concerning dialogue and conflict of today’s world: the Charter was created to address problems present in and created by a pluralistic society, the main characteristic of today’s globalized system. The constitution of the Charter created a federal-type structure with an authority that was centralized in matters of state security, yet provided the tribes a certain level of autonomy in social and religious issues. Prophet Muhammad only made final decisions in cases where tribes could not resolve disputes between themselves, and these decisions were based on the laws laid out by the Charter. The Madina city-state, while granting every citizen equal rights, protection against oppression, and a voice in the government, declared itself a brotherhood of believers, extending financial help to its citizens. Laws were also enacted to punish criminals, such as prohibiting help being given to a murderer. Finally, as prescribed in the teaching of the Qur’an, freedom of religion was guaranteed for each member of the community.

For a peaceful world, individuals must live within the boundaries of the lawfully created universe. In this modern age of science and technology, the Madina Charter could be a source for answers to questions about how to live together and how to solve and prevent conflicts between groups based on differences in culture and belief. The Madina Charter represents the principles of law and good and right reason, which is higher than any individual man. On the charter, God’s name comes first, as God represents the highest good and the highest principle of right reason. Thus, the Madina Charter can be a good model of ways to create and sustain dialogue in a pluralistic society, and of ways to build and conduct political and social relationships among different groups. 

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 March 2010 on page no. 28

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