Medina Charter-Drawn Citizen Model: Marrakesh Declaration

Scholar Abdallah bin Mahfudh ibn Bayyah crafted the framework that inspired the Marrakesh Declaration connecting early Islamic sources and the Prophet Muhammad’s Medina Charter with international human rights law for a model of equal, contractual citizenship as an Islamic principle

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In January 2016, Islamic scholars from 120 countries gathered in Morocco’s Marrakesh to discuss with representatives of other faiths a framework for the protection of minorities in Muslim-majority nations. The gathering was in the works since 2012 for the promotion of a greater minority representation in governance in Muslim states. But the focus turned to minority rights and freedoms with the rise of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The participants at the gathering included Hadi Baba Sheikh, who represented the Yazidi religious minority. Yazidis were among the worst sufferers of ISIS’s terror before the terrorist group masquerading as a caliphate was decimated in March 2019. Sheikh addressed the Moroccan King Mohammed VI and the United Arab Emirates-based Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies-sponsored gathering, which concluded with the adoption of the Marrakesh Declaration.

Medina Charter

The declaration called on Muslim-majority countries to protect religious minorities, citing the commitment to it in the seventh-century Medina Charter. The charter was adopted when the Prophet Muhammad founded the first Muslim state after he was forced to leave Mecca in the face of the nascent Muslim community’s persecution.

Many consider the Medina Charter this state’s constitution. The charter outlined the political rights and duties of all inhabitants of Medina irrespective of their faith. It sought to end conflicts and maintain peace among Muslims, Jews, Christians, and pagans. Medina was governed under the principles of socio-political justice enshrined in the Medina Charter; perhaps the first such document to have incorporated religious and political rights. 

Conflict Resolution

The charter provided means for conflict resolution. It sought to promote mutual respect, tolerance, and pluralism based on the commitment to human lives and religious minorities. The Medina Charter drew inspiration from the Quran, which mandates Muslims to respect all previous messengers, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, and their followers.

The charter recognized the equality of all Medina residents and their rights to peaceful coexistence. It gave all tribal, religious, and ethnic groups protection and the right to live as per their beliefs. The Marrakesh Declaration drew from the Medina Charter and sought to go beyond just tolerance to affirmative cooperation. It seeks to confer ‘full protection for the rights and liberties to all religious groups‘ while calling for concrete actions to achieve this.

The Driving Force

Mauritanian religious scholar Abdallah bin Mahfudh ibn Bayyah crafted the legal framework that inspired the Marrakesh Declaration. He drew from early Islamic sources and the Medina Charter in particular. Bayyah, who teaches Islamic studies at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdul Aziz University, connected the sources with international human rights law for a model of equal, contractual citizenship as an Islamic principle.

United States Institute of Peace director (religion and inclusive societies) Rev Susan Hayward, who attended the conference, called the Marrakesh Declaration a significant illustration of how religious sources can be drawn on to support and entrench human rights norms. She underlined it challenges those who claim Islam is incompatible with modern international law. Hayward noted the gathering and declaration focused on the adoption of an Islamic legal framework for citizenship, guaranteeing equal rights, protection, and religious freedom.

Reclaiming Islam

The declaration highlighted growing resentment among Muslims over the hijacking of Islam and to counter violence in its name. American Islamic scholar Sheikh Hamza Yusuf said the gathering was aimed to counter the idea that Muslims and non-Muslims cannot coexist and address the root causes of conflict and violence.

Bayyah, who specializes in four Muslim schools of thought, has been engaging with governments and seeking to introduce the framework widely. He has partnered with activists and organisations with expertise in mobilising grassroots action.

At the conference, Bayyah, who works through the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, described extremists as ‘uneducated’ and ‘ignorant fools’ distorting Islam. He called on Islamic scholars to ‘descend from their ivory towers’ to ‘expound sound understandings and a correct approach.’ Bayyah underlined the Medina Charter established the idea of ‘common citizenship’ regardless of religious belief. 

Call For Action

Hayward called the declaration a call for action, which sets a standard for accountability. She said the participants of the conference had the clout to cultivate sustainable peace efforts in their homelands. The declaration expressed concern over the use of violence as a tool for settling conflicts and imposing one’s point of view. It noted this situation has also weakened legitimate governments.

The declaration said the violence has enabled criminal groups to issue edicts attributed to Islam, but which, ‘in fact, alarmingly distort its fundamental principles and goals in ways that have seriously harmed the population as a whole.’

The declaration drew attention globally. US President Barack Obama was among those who hailed it. Speaking at a ceremony in Washington to honor recipients of the Righteous Among the Nations Awards honouring non-Jews, who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, Obama noted leaders from Muslim-majority countries globally held a summit in Morocco on protecting religious minorities, including Jews and Christians. He also praised Muslims—from Albanians to Arabs — who protected Jews from Nazis. 

The siege of Mecca, the overrunning of the American embassy after the Iranian revolution, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 triggered a chain reaction that among other things birthed transnational terror groups such as al-Qaida. These groups manipulated elements of ‘Islamic law’ to justify their acts and rally fighters.

Countering Radical Ideologies

Indonesia-based Nahdlatul Ulama (Reawakening of the Islamic Scholars), the world’s largest Islamic organisation with a membership of 90, is among those seeking to prevent this abuse of Islam as a political weapon. It has sought to reinterpret Islamic law in line with 21st-century norms to counter radical ideologies.

Founded in 1926, Nahdlatul Ulama has been working in the spirit of the Marrakesh Declaration. Nahdlatul Ulama backs equal citizenship, rejecting the distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims as legal categories. It has been working for inter-faith cooperation to promote peace globally.

Nahdlatul Ulama has joined hands with the World Evangelical Alliance, which claims to represent 600 million Protestants, to promote solidarity. It embodies the national ethos of Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim country, home to 12.7 percent of Muslims globally, and the third-largest democracy globally.

Nahdlatul Ulama recognises the legitimacy of nation-states and their legal systems. It rejects the idea of a global caliphate or that a single leadership should unite Muslims globally. In 2014, it began to focus on humanitarian Islam in response to the rise of ISIS.

Nahdlatul Ulama seeks a re-examination of elements of Islamic law on relations with non-Muslims, the structure of government, and the proper aims and conduct of warfare to challenge interpretations of groups such as ISIS. 

Indonesia, a secular country with full rights for religious minorities, has sought to engage with countries across the world and the United Nations to achieve a global consensus needed for the purpose and to ensure that groups like ISIS are unable to rear their ugly heads again. 

In an article published in Al-Bayyinah Journal, Faiq Tobroni of Indonesia’s Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University Yogyakarta argues that the philosophical spirit of the Medina Charter has been embodied in the Indonesian constitution, which has prioritized the peace and people’s welfare. He writes that the Constitution accommodates the spirit of protecting human rights regardless of religious background in line with the charter, which is in substance a symbol of peace, tolerance, and moderation.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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