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The Marrakesh Declaration and the Charter of Medina: Strange Bedfellows

In January, around 300 mostly Muslim dignitaries (and around 50 non-Muslim observers, including Christians) attended a conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, under the patronage of King Mohammed VI. The conference was entitled “The Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Communities: Legal Framework and a Call to Action,” and was ostensibly meant to address discrimination and persecution.

The meeting culminated with the 750-word Marrakesh Declaration, which links itself with the Charter of Medina, a treaty purportedly devised by Muhammad and the tribes of Medina after his arrival to assume leadership of the city in AD 622. Conferees claim that the 622 Charter provided “freedom of movement . . . mutual solidarity . . . and principles of justice and equality before the law.”

The Declaration sets six goals for the Muslim world: (1) a new jurisprudence of “citizenship,” inclusive of minorities; (2) a reform of Muslim educational systems to eliminate “material that instigates aggression and extremism”; (3) new constitutional contracts that include all citizens; (4) a new movement “for the just treatment of religious minorities in Muslim countries”; (5) conviviality in Muslim lands between all faith groups; and (6) the elimination of “religious bigotry” and “denigration of what people hold sacred.”

Although the Declaration has received little attention from mainstream media, there has been a steady flow of public responses. Outside observers have been especially enthusiastic. Rabbi David Fox Sandmel, Anti-Defamation League director of interfaith affairs, described it as “one of the most hopeful initiatives” in combating religious extremism. He accepted the Declaration’s premise that the 622 Charter of Medina guaranteed “autonomy and freedom of religion to the residents of Medina, including, explicitly, its Jewish population.” Robert Sellers, chair of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, declared that the document “is both historic and inspiring,” while Rick Love, associate director of the World Evangelical Alliance Peace and Reconciliation Initiative, urged support to enhance its chances of achieving its goals.

No fair-minded observer could oppose the call for improved interreligious relations and reduction of religious persecution, but linkage to the Charter of Medina is illusory. No wonder the Declaration lacks a single citation from the 7th-century code.

The Charter of Medina is recorded in the earliest biography of Muhammad, translated into English by Alfred Guillaume, and carries a pervasive undertone of Muslim social exclusivity, e.g., “A believer shall not slay a believer for the sake of an unbeliever, nor shall he aid an unbeliever against a believer”; and “Believers are friends one to the other to the exclusion of outsiders.” Furthermore, readers must not forget the historical context: It was written at the beginning of Muhammad's Medinan period, a decade in which he defined jihad as violent military engagement for the sake of the faith. During this period, the prophet took part in many battles himself, arranged for the killing of his enemies, and considered the battles won a reflection of God’s favor on Muslims. Given this context and the Charter’s insistence on the supremacy of Islam, it cannot be read in a manner consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The framers of the Marrakesh Declaration attempt to portray the charter as consistent with a modern pluralistic worldview. But to do so, rips the charter from its historical context. Indeed, the Charter of Medina seems more to be part of the problem than part of the solution.