adoption, Charter of Medina, Constitution of Medina, divorce, dowry, economic reforms, environmentalism, equality, infanticide, inheritance, marriage, monotheism, Muhammad, persecution, pre-Islamic Arabia, Prophet, public construction, reformer, reforms, slavery, women, Yathrib tribes
Here is the second of four articles on Islam I wrote some time ago and published to the Helium writing site (now gone). Islam is a religion of peace and it seems that the views and actions of the terrorists are the complete opposite of this. I’m an atheist, by the way …
Muhammad was a prophet, warrior, businessman, statesman, orator and reformer, among other things. This article is about Muhammad as a reformer. Pre-Islamic Arabia was dominated by tribal fighting, tribal laws, murder, cruelty, exploitation, theft, adultery, infanticide, false contracts, usury, and few rights for women and children. The Constitution of Medina, or Charter of Medina, written by Muhammad in 622 CE, was in the form of an agreement between himself and the Yathrib tribes to stop their fighting and allow a series of reforms, including various rights and responsibilities, to apply to Muslims, Jews and pagans.
The constitution involved sweeping reforms that reads more like something from nineteenth or early twentieth century western society than from the seventh century. Under the charter, divine law overrode customary law, women and children were given rights, a system of law and order was put in place, religious freedoms were granted, aristocratic privilege was denounced, judicial and taxation systems were introduced, and there were new business regulations.
Muhammad condemned the inferior status of women and children in society and introduced many reforms in this area, including to marriage, divorce, inheritance, education, female infanticide, social security for women and her children, family values, and so on. The lack of limitations on males to marry or divorce was changed to the concept of restricted polygamy. A dowry, which had previously been given to the bride’s father, was retained by the woman as her personal property. Marriage itself became a contract, with the usual rules of offer and acceptance, rather than just a status symbol for the man. A woman’s consent was needed before there was a marriage contract.
Inheritance had previously been restricted to males. Muhammad changed this and gave women inheritance rights. Women became the legal owners of assets they brought into the family and of those resulting from their work. They were maintained financially while married and for a certain period after divorce. Before Muhammad, women were part of a man’s property, could not own property themselves, and any inheritance went straight to the man’s sons.
Under his reforms, children were no longer the property of their father’s. Muhammad gave them the right to have food, clothing and shelter, to be loved, to receive an education, and to be provided for in an inheritance. Siblings were to be treated equally. Female infanticide was outlawed. Adoption was replaced with the concept that people had to regard children of unknown origin in the same way as family members. A man was forbidden to have sexual relations with his mother or sister, something that occurred in pre-Islamic times. As an orphan himself, Muhammad declared that orphans were to be treated well.
Another important reform related to slavery. Muhammad ensured that a person had the right to be free, except in a few circumstances. While slavery was still allowed, it was regulated. Slaves had legal status and were given certain rights. They had to be treated kindly, in much the same way as other disadvantaged members of society. Slaves could receive alms or earn money and be released from slavery, which was something recommended by Muhammad. War captives received food and clothing either from the government or from the person who held them.
Equality was emphasized. Important positions within society were open to all comers instead of being restricted to the aristocracy, and value was placed on all individuals. All members of society were expected to be committed to and participate in the reforms. Feuding tribes were brought together. Monotheism was introduced to replace the previous multitude of gods. Emphasis was placed on piety and humility. People were expected to follow God rather than ancestral traditions or trying to achieve fame.
Economic reforms revolved around the economics of poverty. Muhammad was keen to see the poor given a better deal. Instead of paupers having to borrow at high rates of interest and suffer even more, the well-off were to provide alms to the needy, regardless of whether the parties knew each other. Goods were to be circulated, and purified, via charity. This was done without taxes or fees, buildings or profit. It was also to be done on a voluntary basis. Today we have elaborate taxation and social security systems to achieve the same thing.
Public construction occurred on a wide scale. Muhammad built wells and canals for the general public. By limiting the use of land and practicing urban planning, he made sure that resources were not over-utilized, thereby preserving the environment. He is regarded as a pioneer in environmentalism.
On the political front, Muhammad observed the warring tribes and the persecution. A series of conquests made the new Islamic state the region’s dominant power, although little was destroyed in the process. Muhammad’s reforms had resulted in greater tolerance towards those of other faiths. Christians were tolerated and, while they could only practice in private, they weren’t subjected to persecution. In fact, Jews and Christians enjoyed greater religious freedom than before.
In summary, Muhammad took a brutal tribal system where most people had few rights and converted it into an egalitarian society where everyone was given an opportunity, from women and children to slaves, the poor, and even those of other faiths.