Some Muslims claim the “Constitution of Medina” proves that Muhammad* was a peace-loving ruler, who guaranteed Jewish (and Christian) rights. American Ahmadi apologist Qasim Rashid even claims it documents Muhammad’s establishment of the world’s first “unified secular state.” This would mean Muhammad* beat America’s founding fathers to it by over a millennium. On careful scrutiny, however, Rashid’s assessment of the document is highly exaggerated.
We should note three things at the outset. First, the so-called constitution comes from Ibn Hisham’s early ninth-century biography of Muhammad* (based on Ibn Ishaq’s biography). Even the most skeptical Western scholars accept the document’s authenticity, despite its lateness—about 200 years after the event it refers to. Second, it addresses three groups: 1) Muhammad’s Meccan followers—newly moved to Yathrib—2) Yathrib’s original residents (former pagans), and 3) its Jewish tribes. Third, the “constitution” isn’t a treaty (or constitution) in the modern sense. Rather, it’s a unilateral declaration on Muhammad’s part. Although the Muslim tradition says the Jew agreed to it, it seems unlikely that the Jewish tribes had no voice in it. Thus, it’s not as enlightened as many Muslims believe.
The declaration details the obligations, protections, restrictions and warnings relevant to the various groups in Muhammad’s newly declared umma, or community. And it states: “Whenever you differ on anything [with respect to this declaration], it shall be referred to God and Muhammad.” Hence, while
- It didn’t require Jews to convert to Islam,
- It required them to obey Muhammad’s every command, as God’s prophet
The declaration thus established Muhammad’s community, or umma, as a theocracy. While the Jews rejected his prophethood, they emphatically were not free to question it. Neither could they question Muhammad’s decisions—for example, to go to war—regardless of how misguided they believed them to be, since this document gave his every declaration the force of divine law. The Jews, then, were allowed to keep their faith, but as second-class citizens, due to their rejection of the umma’s state religion. Hence, it’s a gross distortion to present this as a secular constitution.
This declaration guided the early Muslims when they conquered Christians and Jews. It also guided the sharia’s framers, who outlined similar obligations, protections, restrictions and warnings—as dhimma.
From the Declaration of Medina, then, we learn three things:
- This was a religiously-based government, like those of all the surrounding kingdoms and empires
- Muhammad* wasn’t capricious, but rather sought to rule fairly, according to early seventh-century custom
- He made room for Jews, as second-class citizens, much the same as the neighboring Byzantines and Sasanians did
The document, however, does not tell us how peace-loving Muhammad* was. To determine that, we need a much fuller picture of his treatment of pagans, Jews and Christians.
* Peace be upon his descendants.
 Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) 42.
 That is, as second-class citizens. The problem with this, in every case, is that, while some level of religious tolerance was guaranteed, in reality it rose and fell, depending on the circumstances and the individual ruler.