Islamic Studies The Constitution of Medina
Michael Lecker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0209


The so-called “Constitution of Medina” (henceforward, “the treaty”) is the most significant document that survived from the time of the Prophet Muhammad. It created a new ummah, or community, not long after his arrival at Medina (Yathrib) in the Hijrah (622 CE). The term “constitution,” however, is a misnomer, because the treaty mainly deals with tribal matters such as the organization and leadership of the participating tribal groups, warfare, blood-wit, the ransoming of captives, and war expenditure. The two recensions of the treaty are found in Ibn Ishaq’s Biography of Muḥammad (sira) and Abu ʿUbayd’s Book of State Finance (Kitāb al-amwāl). The main bone of contention concerns the treaty’s unity—or lack thereof. Some argue that it comprises several treaties concluded at different times. While there is no consensus on this point, the best way to achieve progress is the introduction into the scholarly debate of new evidence from the primary sources.

General Overviews

Relevant sources include Lecker 2004, Wellhausen 1889, Gil 1974, Hamidullah 1975, Denny 1977, Serjeant 1964, Goto 1982, Rubin 1985, Arjomand 2009, and Rose 2009. Serjeant argues that “the problems of the ‘Constitution’ have largely been solved even if relatively minor adjustments have still to be made.” However, many problems are still open to further research.

  • Arjomand, S. A. “The Constitution of Medina: a Sociolegal Interpretation of Muhammad’s Acts of Foundation of the Umma.” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 41 (2009): 555–575.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0020743809990067

    According to Arjomand, the treaty is a “proto-Islamic public law.” Some clauses in the second part of the treaty, or the treaty of the Jews (namely clauses 53–64), form a pact with the Jewish Qurayza that was incorporated in the treaty at a later stage. However, in this case, clause 44 (“Incumbent upon the Jews is their expenditure and upon the muslimun theirs”) and, more so, clause 45 (“They will aid each other against whosoever is at war with the people of this treaty”) are even better candidates to have been part of the presumed pact. Arjomand quotes Qurʾan 8:58 (“And if you fear treachery from them, cancel the peace, for God does not like the treacherous people”) as evidence of the presumed pact with Qurayza. However, according to Waqidi and others, the verse relates to the Qaynuqaʿ.

  • Denny, F. M. “Ummah in the Constitution of Medina.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 36 (1977): 39–47.

    DOI: 10.1086/372530

    According to Denny, the ummah of the Constitution is made up of believers and Muslims, and quite possibly Jews as well (although they may constitute a separate ummah “alongside”). The Constitution was very much a political-military document of agreement designed to make Yathrib and the peoples connected with it safe. The Jews could be a party to it as a sort of special group, a “sub-ummah” with its own din (which can also mean “law”). Yathrib was to be “sacred for the people of this document,” which adds a factor of locality or territoriality. Kinship was not the main binding tie of the ummah, and religion was of greater importance. The ummah is the tribe, a supertribe, with God and Muhammad as final arbiters and authorities. Nothing in the document concerning the ummah contradicts what the Qurʾan says, and the two sources are mutually confirmatory and supplement each other.

  • Gil, Moshe. “The Constitution of Medina: A Reconsideration.” Israel Oriental Studies 4 (1974): 44–66.

    According to Gil, the treaty reflects Muhammad’s anti-Jewish policy that was already revealed at the ʿAqaba meeting on the eve of the Hijrah. However, his assumption is based on a corrupt text: the account of the ʿAqaba meeting has no mention of Jews. According to Gil, the Jews were not party to this treaty, but were included in it as clients of the Arab (i.e., the non-Jewish) clans. Some of Gil’s proposed amendments do not conform to Arabic usage.

  • Goto, A. “The Constitution of Medina.” Orient: Report of the Society for Near Eastern Studies in Japan 18 (1982): 1–17.

    DOI: 10.5356/orient1960.18.1

    According to Goto, the main Jewish tribes—Nadir, Qurayza, and Qaynuqaʿ—were not part of the treaty, and their agreements with Muhammad were not related to it. Apart from this treaty, Muhammad wrote a document or documents to the Jews who had formed their own tribes. The six Jewish groups called “yahud bani so-and-so” were not the groups of the Jews but those of the Arabs of Medina.

  • Hamidullah, Muhammad. The First Written Constitution in the World: An Important Document of the Time of the Holy Prophet. 3d rev. ed. Lahore, Pakistan: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1394/1975.

    This is an enlarged version of Hamidullah’s “The First Written Constitution on the World,” published in The Islamic Review in 1941. Hamidullah divides the document into two parts: (1) The rules affecting the Muhajirun and the Anṣar that go back to the beginning of the first year after the Hijrah, and (2) the code for the Jews concluded after the Battle of Badr. In his view it was a constitution promulgated for the city-state of Medina. It included the prerogatives and obligations of the ruler and the ruled, as well as other immediate requirements (including a sort of social insurance for the needy). The right of seeking justice was transferred from the individuals to the community (i.e., the central authority). The final court of appeal was to be the Holy Prophet himself.

  • Lecker, Michael. The Constitution of Medina: Muḥammad’s First Legal Document. Princeton, NJ: Darwin, 2004.

    This is so far the only book dedicated to the treaty. It includes a critical edition of the two versions of the document (i.e., Ibn Ishaq’s and Abu ʿUbayd’s) based on many sources, both in book and manuscript form. Each translated clause is followed by the translations of J. Wellhausen (“Muhammads Gemeindeordnung von Medina,” see Wellhausen 1889, below); A. J. Wensinck (Muhammad and the Jews of Medina, translated and edited by W. H. Behn: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, Freiburg im Breisgau, 1975, pp. 52–61); W. M. Watt (Muhammad at Medina, Oxford: Clarendon, 1956, pp. 221–225); and R. B. Serjeant (“The Sunnah Jāmiʿah,” see Serjeant 1964, below). The translation is interspersed with philological and historical discussions. The appendices look into the time of the document, its unity, its recensions, the preservation of Ibn Ishaq’s recension (which is sometimes accompanied with an isnad), and the term muwadaʿa.

  • Rose, P. L. “Muhammad, the Jews and the Constitution of Medina: Retrieving the Historical Kernel.” Der Islam 86 (2009): 1–29.

    DOI: 10.1515/islam.2011.012

    Rose adopts Serjeant’s theory, according to which the treaty is made of several treaties concluded at different times. It is “a skeletal framework onto which the Sirah’s data can be grafted so as to present a compatible integrated narrative.” A further control on the sirah is the detailed dating of individual verses of the Qurʾan by R. Bell. The treaty, the Qurʾan, and the sirah “may be harmonized to provide a narrative of probabilistic truth based on the interlocking of the three controls.” Rose’s article includes a useful survey of the secondary literature. However, it also includes several factual errors. For example, he argues that the Qaynuqaʿ were makers of arms and metal goods, whereas in fact they were goldsmiths; he also argues that the Nadir were the allies of the Aws, whereas in fact they were the allies of the Khazraj.

  • Rubin, Uri. “The ‘Constitution of Medina’: Some Notes.” Studia Islamica 62 (1985): 5–23.

    DOI: 10.2307/1595521

    According to Rubin, the Jewish participants were not the main Jewish tribes but nameless Jewish groups that, unlike the main tribes, had neither a territory of their own nor a distinct tribal affinity. They were clients of various Arab tribes in whose territory they dwelt and by whose names they used to be called. Muhammad’s new unity was based on territory, and the main Jewish tribes lived outside of it. Muhammad’s ummah was a unity sharing the same religious orientation and included the Jews as “an umma of believers.” They were entitled to complete protection that also included their din.

  • Serjeant, R. B. “The ‘Constitution of Medina.’” Islamic Quarterly 8 (1964): 3–16.

    Serjeant employs in his interpretation of the treaty tribal institutions in contemporary Yemen and Hadramawt beside certain passages from the Qurʾan. The treaty is made of several documents going back to different stages of Muhammad’s activity in Medina. Several clauses form “terminal formulae,” indicating that the treaty is made of eight different treaties. See also “The Sunnah Jāmiʿah, Pacts with the Yathrib Jews and the Taḥrim of Yathrib: Analysis and Translation of the Documents Comprised in the So-Called ‘Constitution of Medina.’” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 41 (1978): 1–42. The latter article was reprinted in The Life of Muḥammad, edited by Uri Rubin (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1998), pp. 151–192.

  • Wellhausen, Julius. “Muhammads Gemeindeordnung von Medina.” In Skizzen und Vorarbeiten. Vol. 4. Edited by Julius Wellhausen, 65–83. Berlin: G. Reimer, 1889.

    Wellhausen’s analysis is still valuable for its insights. However, Wellhausen’s assumption that Muhammad’s ummah comprised all the inhabitants of Medina can no longer be sustained: a significant part of the Aws tribe did not embrace Islam prior to the battle of the Khandaq (c. AH 5) and is unlikely to have been part of the ummah. Wellhausen assumed that the main Jewish tribes were clients of the non-Jewish ones, and hence did not appear in the treaty with their proper names. But he was misled by a corrupt text in Waqidi’s Maghāzī that presents the Muslims rather than the Jews as the owners of weapons and fortresses par excellence. English translation: W. Behn, ed. and trans., “Muhammad’s Constitution of Medina,” published as an excursus to A. J. Wensinck, Muhammad and the Jews of Medina [Mohammed en de Joden te Medina, Leiden, 1908] (Freiburg, Germany: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, 1975), pp. 128–138.

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