November 2020

In the first installment, I told the story of how St. Francis of Assisi was able to cross enemy lines in the Fifth Crusade in order to share his faith with Egypt’s ruler, Malik al-Kamil. In fact, the latter graciously received him and his fellow monk, Illuminatio, for three or four days. This sultan was in the habit of meeting with Islamic scholars, including some spiritual masters (or Sufi shaykhs, in Islam’s mystical tradition), so he invited them for an extended interfaith conversation with the two monks. From various sources, I concluded with Paul Moses (The Saint and Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace) that they separated as friends, both remaining in their respective faith traditions, yet enriched spiritually by the other.

Did Francis go with the intent to preach to Sultan al-Kamil so that he would embrace the message of Jesus and receive God’s eternal salvation? There is no doubt about that. But Paul Moses main objective is to trace the spiritual pilgrimage of St. Francis from a nobleman’s son who fights in a couple of battles, yet whose religious conversion transforms him into an indefatigable advocate of Jesus’ way of peace and nonviolent resistance to evil. Francis of Assisi very likely deplored the notion of bringing war to the “Muslim enemy.” Clearly, for him to seek a meeting with al-Kamil was a stunning act of love for enemy since he was risking his life, and, as it turned out, he too was blessed and changed by that encounter. There must be reconciliation between Muslims and Christians, Francis felt God saying, and this was indeed a mission of peace.

For obvious reasons, in an age when the vested interests of popes and European Christian kings were in pursuing crusades, this is not a message that the powers-that-be could tolerate. After his death at age 44 (1226), therefore, direct pressure was put on official biographers to delete any reference to his message of peace and reconciliation with Muslims. That is the subject of this post.

Part III of Paul Moses’ account of this historic encounter, “Uncovering the Story,” opens with this illuminating paragraph:


“The true story of Francis, the sultan, and their peaceful exchange was buried. It did not serve the purposes of popes who continued to drum up support for a string of ill-fated Crusades. Nor did it fit the needs of Francis’s order at the time when it had to fight off a heresy scandal. As the story was retold in the Christian world, Francis’s thirst of peace and the sultan’s noble treatment of the Crusaders at the close of the Fifth Crusade were downplayed and then forgotten; Francis was turned into a soldier who used the gospel as a weapon. The sultan became a malevolent foe” (197).


Specifically, there were two main phases of biographical writing that shaped the image of St. Francis until the modern period. To these we now turn. I will end with some remarks on the contemporary period.


Thomas of Celano’s two biographical works

Cardinal Ugolino was elected as Pope Gregory IX in 1227. A hardliner by any account, he is remembered for putting the Inquisition into overdrive. Those the Church deemed “heretics” were hunted down, summarily tried, imprisoned and/or executed. He waged another Crusade against Muslims, and, like his predecessors, he led battles against Emperor Frederick II to recover lands in Italy he considered his own. Not under his watch was any biographer going to portray St Francis (canonized in 1228) as a friar seeking peaceful relations with Muslims.

Thus, it is no surprise that the Franciscan he charged with writing the biography of his order’s founder, Thomas of Celano, dutifully excised from his text any reference to the friar’s desire to live peacefully among Muslims or even to “Francis’s vision for a life of radical poverty lived in strict adherence to the gospel” (200). Gregory from the beginning had forcefully imposed on the Friars Minor (what Franciscans were called at that time) the duty to recruit for his Crusade. As a corollary, he encouraged them to send missionaries into Muslim lands, stating in a 1338 document that “converting Muslims by preaching was akin to subduing them with weapons” (199).

Meanwhile, the order of the Friars Minor was multiplying exponentially, with members in the tens of thousands by the 1240s. Pope Gregory died in 1241, but the order’s leader at that time (“minister general”), Brother Crescentius, was very much in agreement with his perspective on St. Francis. Still, he had to deal with a vocal minority faction, known as the “Spirituals,” who from the beginning wanted the Friars Minor to return to their founder’s original vision for the movement. Yet when in 1244 the order asked Thomas of Celano to write a new biography, leaning much more this time on the treasure trove of anecdotes recalled by the brothers who had accompanied him from the beginning, Celano still had some choppy political waters to navigate.

That tome, The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, completed three years later, brought to light for the first time the story of Francis’s fighting in the war between Assisi and Perugia and his subsequent imprisonment. It recounted as well the dream he had on the way to fight in southern Italy and how he subsequently returned, gave up military service, sold all his wealth to the poor, “and tried to establish Jesus Christ dwelling within himself” (201). That was the beginning of his conversion. Still, in the story of the looming great battle between the Crusaders and Sultan al-Kamil, Celano writes carefully that Francis’s prophecy about the Crusaders’ defeat and his insistence that they forgo the battle was not an indictment of the Crusade as such. This is  likely Celano bowing to his superior’s direction. We know from so many other early documents that Francis loathed the use of war to further Christ’s purposes.


Bonaventure’s landmark biography

The year 1247 saw two events that impacted the future direction of St. Francis’s legacy. The first was Brother Crescentius’s stepping down from his minister general role. The second was the publishing of Celano’s second biography of St. Francis. That book at least had the merit of showing Francis of Assisi turning his back on the trappings of the nobility he was born into – wealth and military service. That was particularly significant in a year when King Louis IX of France was organizing another crusade, this time targeting Damietta, where Francis had met with Malik al-Kamil. Yet Crescentius’s departure provoked a chain of events that eventually all but buried Celano’s work.

In fact, the leadership transition that ensued poured fuel on the embers of dissent within the young order, because the man chosen to replace Crescentius, John of Parma, despite being a “gentle, articulate, and pious man who was a learned theologian but lived in simplicity” (202), was also an avid follower of mystic, monk and theologian Joachim of Fiore (d. 1202). On the one hand, Joachim was seen by popes and kings of his time as “gifted with divine illumination” and the founder of a small monastic movement in Italy. On the other hand, he was branded as a heretic by many others, and in particular because of his commentary on the book of Revelation in which he prophesied that after the Age of the Father (Old Testament) and the Age of the Son (New Testament), the new Age of the Spirit was about to break forth. This view in particular was one of the factors that led to the spectacular growth of both Dominican and Franciscan orders after his death.

In the late 1240s, however, John of Parma’s ties to Joachim of Fiore’s apocalyptic teachings spelled trouble for the order. Worse than that, around this time a treatise, Super Hieremiam, was circulating under the pen name of Joachim of Fiore (though it was a forgery), roundly criticizing the popes for their crusades. The “Spirituals” faction, which was at this stage growing exponentially, were reading this treatise with great enthusiasm. As Paul Moses has it,


“Some friars came to believe that Saint Francis was the angelic herald of the new age of the Spirit, his arrival foretold in Revelation 7. It was thought to be the time of peace the prophet Isaiah predicted, when swords would be beaten into plowshares . . . Salimbene [a Franciscan chronicler of the time] wrote that two fellow friars who followed Joachim had predicted to him in 1247 that the Crusade of Louis IX in Egypt would end in disaster, as it did three years later when Muslim forces captured Saint Louis and much of the French nobility and massacred many soldiers” (203).


These issues, meanwhile, were hotly debated at the University of Paris and turning a growing number of church leaders against the Franciscans and Dominicans, and they even called on the pope to dissolve them. This is when Brother Bonaventure, a respected Franciscan friar and professor at the university, took on the task of defending his order. His colleague and friend, the Dominican Thomas Aquinas, stood with him in the defense of their orders. Bonaventure (yes, the future St. Bonaventure), who had just been named minister general of the Friars Minor, succeeded in rehabilitating his order’s reputation through two spectacular moves. Now as judge of his predecessor, John of Parma, he proceeded to convict him of heresy. Fortunately for the latter, his life sentence was overturned by two cardinals who arranged for him to spend the rest of his life in a hermitage.

Bonaventure’s other action was to write a new biography of St. Francis, The Major Legend of Saint Francis. It was in fact mostly taken from previous accounts, but he added his own theological insights, spiritual meditations, and his own solutions to what he saw as his order’s political divisions. Beautifully crafted, it was nevertheless a text that “virtually wiped out Francis’s activities as a peacemaker who challenged the powers of his day to forsake violence. It did not even hint at the cheeky friar who warned ‘the rulers of all the people’ to shape up or face damnation” (206). Bonaventure’s The Major Legend in fact became the classic reference book on the life of St. Francis until the 20th century.


The trial by fire legend

Of the encounter between the Sultan and the friar, Celano highlighted Francis’s unadorned preaching, adding that the sultan “was deeply moved by his words and he listened to him very willingly” (144). This account, as you know, was by the first Franciscan tasked with writing their founder’s biography.

By contrast, even in the early text (a decade after the Fifth Crusade) of The Chronicle of Ernoul, the scene is fraught with tension. Francis from the beginning claims that if his arguments against the validity of Islamic law are not convincing, “then you can have our heads cut off” (132). In fact, this is exactly what the Islamic scholars declared upon discovering Francis preaching to their ruler: “We command you, in the name of God and the law, that you have their heads cut off immediately, as the law demands.”

It is likely, then, that by the 1260s when Bonaventure writes his account, multiple stories had been circulating about this encounter, all of them painting in one way or another a confrontational scene between saint and sultan. Bonaventure seized on one of them. As he tells the story, Francis asked the ruler to build a large fire and then declared, “I will go into it with your priests. That will show you which faith is more sure and more holy” (132). The sultan answered that his priests would do no such thing. Then “Francis supposedly offered to walk into the fire himself if the sultan and his people converted to Christianity, but the sultan refused that as well.”

That of course is the scene depicted in the above image, which inspired dozens of paintings and accounts in the following centuries. But it has no basis in fact. First, argues Paul Moses, Celano and the other early chroniclers would have mentioned this incident if it had actually happened. Second, we know that since his conversion Francis was deeply marked by Jesus’s command, “Love your enemies,” so much so that he quotes it five times in his writings. This legend of the trial by fire goes against everything Francis stood for in his mission of peace. Finally, Francis would have known and respected the edict of the Fourth Lateran Council that all trials by ordeal were forbidden.


Contemporary echoes of the saint and sultan

Charles de Foucauld (d. 1916) was a Frenchman whose life paralleled that of St. Francis. From a wealthy family in Strasbourg, he served in the French military in Algeria where he was impressed with the people’s Islamic spirituality. He later returned to North Africa as an explorer, during which time he experienced a deep spiritual conversion. He joined a Trappist monastery in the Holy Land, became a priest, and later came back to live to Algeria as a hermit among the Tuaregs in the Sahara. He learned their language and culture and engaged in religious dialog. Sadly, he was killed while witnessing a confrontation between some tribesmen and the French. Paul Moses touches just the surface of Foucauld’s profound influence on so many people, including myself during my nine-year stay in Algeria:


“Foucauld’s dream of brotherhood between Muslims and Christians did not die with him. Today eight spiritual associations and eleven religious orders trace back to him, including the Little Sisters of Jesus. Moreover, his legacy was kept alive by Louis Massignon, often described as the most prominent Western scholar of Islam. Foucauld was a mentor to Massignon, who was born in Nogent-sur-Marne, France, in 1883” (218-19).


I have so many wonderful memories of sitting in the simple apartments of the Little Brothers of Jesus having a meal or drinking tea or coffee with them, often with Algerian Muslims. I also got to know some Little Sisters of Jesus, because of activities we had in common, including some retreats sponsored by the Catholic Charismatic renewal movement. If you read my second blog post on Cardinal Duval, you will understand how deeply we, a handful of Protestant clergymen, were involved with our Catholic colleagues. I can testify that the influence of Charles de Foucauld is still pervasive in the lives and ministries of these Catholic brothers and sisters, starting with the late Cardinal Duval and the now elderly archbishop Henry Teissier.

Paul Moses draws out in great detail all the high-level, high-visibility initiatives by recent popes reaching out to Muslims in various settings (see also my friend Mohamed Arafa’s post just before this one, “The Imam and the Pope”). But I would like to end with the Franciscans, who in Damietta, Egypt in 1969 celebrated the 750th anniversary of St. Francis’s visit there by holding a joint prayer service with Muslims, first in a Catholic church, then in the city’s ancient mosque. In the next decade, Father GianMaria Polidoro founded Assisi Pax, a peace organization best known for its attempt to reconcile the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1984, they met Ronald Reagan in Washington and Mikhail Gorbachev while he was visiting Italy.

Two years later Pope John Paul II called for a World Day of Prayer for Peace to be held in Assisi, the occasion when he coined the phrase “the spirit of Assisi”:


“Representatives from twelve religions visited Assisi’s many sanctuaries to pray for peace, then gathered to pray side by side in the piazza outside the basilica of St. Francis. A blustery fall wind and chilling drizzle blew through the town, which was warmed with the colors borne by a multitude of religious leaders, from feather-bedecked Native American shamans to African witch doctors to saffron-robed Buddhists” (222).


In the online Catholic journal Crux in September 2016, the editor anticipates Pope Francis’s visit to Assisi in order to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s first World Day of Prayer for Peace, which he then repeated in 1993 and 2002. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI did the same in 2011. I must also mention the Community of Sant’Egidio, founded by Andrea Riccardi in Rome in 1968 on the heels of the Vatican II council. It is now a network of 70 communities worldwide committed to interfaith dialog, care for the poor and active conflict resolution. They have organized yearly meetings “in the spirit of Assisi,” ever since the historic 1986 global prayer gathering.

It was not surprising that Pope Francis, whose devotion to St. Francis and his spiritual ideals are well known, would use this platform now organized by the Sant’Egidio community to mingle with religious leaders from around the world and join with them in praying for peace. True peace, he declared, are not the result of “negotiations, political compromises or economic bargaining, but the result of prayer.” He also emphasized that “Violence in all its forms does not represent the true nature of religion. It is the antithesis of religion and contributes to its destruction.” To the contrary, religious leaders “are duty bound to be strong bridges of dialogue, creative mediators of peace.”

Paul Moses, then, rightly closes his book with these observations. It is true, he wrote, that the story of Francis and the sultan “was buried ever deeper in successive biographies of Francis and the artwork they inspired.” He goes on:


“The church Francis served is now cultivating the political implications in the long-buried story of his nonviolence and radical love. Francis continues to return Christians to their roots, nudging them to reject violence and to approach enemies with love. Though he is dead for close to eight centuries, the story of his encounter with the sultan is blossoming” (228).

[The author here is Mohamed ‘Arafa, my first guest author. I am only the editor this time. See his short bio at the end.]

In February 2019, Pope Francis made an apostolic trip to the Middle East, including a visit to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. There he met with Ahmad el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University, which makes him Egypt’s Grand Mufti, or top Islamic legal scholar. This visit, which has not received the kind coverage it deserves, resulted in a shared document signed by both religious leaders, “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.”

I will provide in this post a number of quotes from this document, seeking to highlight the concept of citizenship, both in the modern nation-state and in a more universal perspective, or citizenship in the family of world nations – hence, “human fraternity.” I do so as well from a Muslim point of view by tying this document of interreligious dialogue to the Prophet Muhammad’s Medina Charter, arguably the world’s first state constitution. Already in that text we see an emphasis on “religiosity,” rather than on “religion, on the kinship shared by people of all faiths, rather than by the devotees of one exclusive religious tradition.

Let me add that this reference to the Prophet’s charter (622 CE) is important to Muslims, as rules of international law must also be compatible with Islamic fiqh (jurisprudence; a copy of this charter is available as a pdf document here).


The Abu Dhabi Declaration

This document signed by the imam and the pope on relations between Christianity and Islam draws from other recent initiatives, starting on the Roman Catholic side with the Vatican II 1964 document, Lumen Gentium (“Light of the Nations”). For its part, the 1964 document represented a leap forward in the Catholic Church’s desire and commitment to engage in meaningful dialogue with people of other faiths, and with Muslims in particular.

On the Muslim side, the 2007 Common Word letter was a watershed document declaring that the common ground between Muslims and Christians was at the heart of both traditions – love of God and love of neighbor. More recently, the January 25-27, 2016 Marrakesh Declaration on “The Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Communities” and the Al-Azhar Declaration following the conference “Freedom, Citizenship, Diversity and Integration” drove home a common path on the theme of citizenship from minorities in Muslim-majority nations.

The Abu Dhabi document’s preface affirms that “Faith leads a believer to see in the other a brother or sister to be supported and loved”, and invites “all persons who have faith in God and faith in human fraternity to unite and work together.” Significantly, the pope and the imam speak “in the name of God who has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity”, “in the name of innocent human life that God has forbidden to kill”, “in the name of the poor … orphans, widows, refugees, exiles … and all victims of wars and persecution.” Al-Azhar along with the Catholic Church, “declare the adoption of a culture of dialogue as the main path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as a method and standard.”

This joint statement clearly expresses a belief in international law, or even some form of coordinated global governance:


We . . . call upon ourselves, upon the leaders of the world as well as the architects of international policy and world economy, to work strenuously to spread the culture of tolerance and of living together in peace; to intervene at the earliest opportunity to stop the shedding of innocent blood and bring an end to wars, conflicts, environmental decay and the moral and cultural decline that the world is presently experiencing.”


This is also a text about shared ethical values, as both leaders ask all people of religion, culture, and the media, to revive and spread “the values of peace, justice, goodness, beauty, human fraternity and coexistence.” Additionally, they decisively confirm their faith “that among the most important causes of the crises of the modern world are a desensitized human conscience, a distancing from religious values and a prevailing individualism accompanied by materialistic philosophies.”

At the same time, they take stock of the spiritual crisis in our world today. Although recognizing the positive steps taken by modern civilization, the declaration underscores the “moral deterioration that influences international action and a weakening of spiritual values and responsibility”, which leads many “to fall either into a vortex of atheistic, agnostic or religious extremism, or into blind and fanatic extremism.”

In terms of solutions, both leaders sustain the vital significance of the family, and the importance “of awakening religious awareness”, particularly among the youth, who need “to confront tendencies that are individualistic, selfish, conflicting, and also address blind radicalism and extremism in all its forms and expressions.” Both recall that the Creator “granted us the gift of life to protect it. It is a gift that no one has the right to take away, threaten or manipulate to suit oneself. Indeed, everyone must safeguard it from the beginning up to its natural end.”

Because of God’s wonderful gift of dignity to humankind and to each individual human being, they condemn all practices that represents a threat to life, like genocide, terrorism, abortion, human trafficking, forced displacement, euthanasia, etc. They insist that “religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood. These tragic realities are the consequence of a deviation from religious teachings. They result from a political manipulation of religions and from interpretations made by religious groups.”

Both leaders pause to recognize that religion has often been misused: “We thus call upon all concerned to stop using religions to incite hatred, violence, extremism and blind fanaticism, and to refrain from using the name of God to justify acts of murder, exile, terrorism and oppression.” We must recall, they add, that “God, the Almighty, has no need to be defended by anyone and does not want His name to be used to terrorize people.”

In light of all this, Islam and Christianity’s main message can be summarized in the following statements:


      • religions endorse human brotherhood;
      • religious freedom must be guaranteed to everyone, as it is justified by her/his faith;
      • only the collaboration between justice and mercy leads to basic conditions of human well-being;
      • The world’s problems can only be solved through dialogue, and
      • interreligious discourse must include common values, endorsing the good, and averting “useless debates.”


Human Rights and the Medina Charter

Further, the Abu Dhabi declaration stipulates that in the name of religious freedom, at the very least, all places of worship must be legally protected. They should never be attacked for purported religious motives, and terrorist activities shall be condemned by people of all religions, without any appeal. In this regard, the document reads, “the protection of worship places – synagogues, churches, and mosques – is a duty guaranteed by religions, human values, laws and international agreements [necessity to protect religious minorities]. Every attempt to attack places of worship or threaten them by violent assaults, bombings or destruction, is a deviation from the teachings of religions […] a violation of international law.”

The imam and the pope affirm that “everyone has equal rights and individuals are not subject to rights because of their membership in a particular group, whether a religion or an ethnic group. This is to prevent degrading any “minority” category (women, children, the elderly and the disabled).” For this reason, both religious leaders argue that all religious persons have rights as they are citizens, no matter the political arrangements of their particular nation. Every state in our globalized world, with its own unique mix of cultures and religions, should contribute to enriching other states by guaranteeing all of its citizens their fundamental human rights.

Accordingly, this document explicitly includes “legal” content and, in this regard plainly recalls the international human rights law norms. It emphasizes the important role of religions in the construction of world peace, and affirms:


“The firm conviction that authentic teachings of religions invite us to remain rooted in the values of peace; to defend the values of mutual understanding, human fraternity and harmonious coexistence; to re-establish wisdom, justice and love; and to reawaken religious awareness among young people so that future generations may be protected from the realm of materialistic thinking and from dangerous policies of unbridled greed and indifference that are based on the law of force and not on the force of law” (emphasis in the original).


 Circling back to the issue of religious freedom, the text reads: “freedom is a right of every person: everyone enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action. The pluralism and the diversity of religions, color, sex, race, and language are willed by God . . . This divine wisdom is the source from which [this right/freedom] … to be different derives. Therefore, the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture must be denied, as too the imposition of a cultural way of life that others do not accept.”

In 2016 King Muhammad VI of Morocco hosted an international Islamic conference on the rights of minorities. Over 250 Islamic scholars and leaders, including a number of government ministers from Muslim-majority nations convened for the occasion, no doubt all the more urgent because of the atrocities committed by ISIS at the time. The resulting Marrakesh Declaration draws inspiration from the Medina Constitution, as some scholars have put it, or simply the Medina Charter:


"Whereas this year marks the 1,400 Anniversary of the Charter of Medina, a constitutional contract between the Prophet Mohammad and the people of Medina, which guaranteed the religious liberty of all, regardless of faith . . .  along with representatives of Islamic and international organizations . . . to reaffirm the principles of [that Charter] . . . Declare Hereby our firm commitment to the principles articulated in [that] Charter, whose provisions contained a number of the principles of constitutional contractual citizenship, such as freedom of movement, property ownership, mutual solidarity and defense, as well as principles of justice and equality before the law; [that Charter] . . . provide a suitable framework for national constitutions in countries with Muslim majorities, and the UN Charter and related documents, such as the UDHR, are in harmony with the Charter of Medina, including consideration for public order […]"


Voices of Pluralism and the Medina Charter

The clash of civilizations, cultures, communities (tribes), and religions appears to be predominant throughout human history. At the same time, history discloses concurrent efforts to manage tensions and heal divisions which have fed hostility and animosity through negotiation, diplomacy, mediation, and dialogue. Some conflicts seem too complex to be seen solely as a “religious” issue, as struggles often revolve around land, economic grievances, or ethnic discrimination. So what perspective is best to investigate conflicts in a modern world that seems to be stirred up by finances and economics, natural resources, and racial/ethnic or religious clashes? Examining some of the clauses in the Charter demonstrates how Prophet Muhammad managed to take control and leadership in a divided city (Yathrib, later called Medina) and create a lasting peace. The most significant clause reads that, “They are a single ummah (community),” and it encapsulates the decisive message and goal of the rest of the charter. It points to the formation of a community, and it served as a unifying document in a city of diverse groups, cultures, religions, and languages.

 In the same vein, Iranian studies specialist Saïd Arjomand ties citizenship to “the institution of religious pluralism in Islam, which later developed into the recognition of ‘those to whom we have given the book’ (Q. 2:121; 6:21, etc.), or more frequently, the peoples of the book (Q. 2:63, 65, etc.) under the protection (dhimma) of God.” He adds, “Religious pluralism in Medina was endorsed in the Qur’an ‘There is no compulsion in religion.’”1

Thus, the political idea of inclusive citizenship for all citizens of any state, regardless of creed, race, gender or ethnic belonging, is related to the notion of “human fraternity” and its recognition as “vertical,” based in the Abrahamic faiths on God’s special creation of humankind as his trustees on earth. This brotherhood is not only emotional or sentimental; it is rather a solid message with political implications. Accordingly, it leads directly to the concept of citizenship: we are all brothers, and hence citizens with equal rights and duties, under whose shade everyone enjoys justice. Despite the Qur’anic concept of dhimma (protection Q. 9:29), at least as it was codified in medieval Islamic jurisprudence, we must do away with the notion of “minority,” as it leads to tribalism and mutual antagonism. Generally speaking, such interfaith declarations acknowledge the rampant use of violence to “enforce perspectives” and the fact that force can never resolve the many conflicts in the Muslim world. They also recognize the suffering endured by minority groups in the region over the centuries.

Accordingly, these international, interfaith declarations point back, at least from an Islamic approach, to Muhammad’s Medina Charter, and thereby underscore the main Islamic (Sharia) norms emphasized in various Qur’anic texts regarding the protection for minorities: prohibition of religious compulsion (Q. 2:256); crucial bonds of humanity among different societies and races (Q. 13:49); the need for kindness with others (Q. 60:8), and the obligation to respect contracts and covenants (Q.16:91). Also, Mohammad’s early followers were not called “muslimun” (Muslims), but rather muminun (believers).” Islamic Studies scholar Uri Rubin points to a clause in an early treaty Muhammad concluded with the Jews of Medina: li-Yahudi dinuhum wa li-l-muslimina dinuhum (The Jews shall maintain their own religion and the Muslims theirs).2 He comments, “the latter clause seems to convey the idea that the din (religion), of both parties has equal merit so...each party has the right to go on adhering to its own din and as a confirmation of ‘There is no compulsion in religion,’ and ‘For to you is your religion, and for me is my religion” (Q.109:6) and ‘Say: It is the truth from your Lord; so let whoever wishes have faith and whoever wishes disbelieve’” (Q.18:29).3

Moreover, these universal statements recently signed by Muslim spiritual leaders define a concept of pledged citizenship that focuses on a shape of relationship justified more on “religiosity” than on “religion.” Each religion has its own creeds and rituals, but in its spiritual orientation and ethics they have much in common. Hence, the idea of religious pluralism. In fact, Muhammad’s Medina Charter (or Constitution) adds two important elements to this discussion of citizenship. The first is that under Shari‘a norms, international treaties and agreements (mu‘ahadat) are crucial for promoting peace between nations. Though this document was an internal roadmap for bringing unity and peace between feuding tribes and religious entities (hence, a constitution), it points to an application on a wider scale to international treaties of peace between nations. The importance of these was enshrined both in the Qur’an and in subsequent Islamic jurisprudence.

The second element in the Medina Charter impacting citizenship is the stress on religious pluralism: Jews, Muslims, and Arab polytheists can coexist as members of a political entity on an equal footing. In this sense, religiosity is more important than religion. This understanding assumes that some religious messages are common to several religious traditions. In fact, the current collaboration among global faiths is a product of religious pluralism – respecting our differences while recognizing our common ethical values based on the inherent dignity of all human beings.

To be sure, we live in a very different context than Muhammad’s seventh-century Arabia. Hence, historical interpretation is crucial to understanding the document’s meanings in its original context. What I am arguing here is that this interreligious interpretation of the Medina Charter “generates” new cultural ideals to be applied in the modern discourse of human rights. Muhammad’s Constitution then becomes a model for contractual citizenship to guarantee equal rights for all under today’s international legal standards.

That is why we can only celebrate the call made by the Marrakesh and Abu Dhabi declarations to Muslim jurists (‘ulama) and authorities to use that Charter as a basis for evolving contractual citizenship models in their national constitutions and develop such a jurisprudence, as it is deeply rooted in Islamic Shari‘a principles and mindful of global changes. By avoiding any sort of discrimination or exclusion of any social group, the Medina Charter promoted policies founded upon religious, ethnic and social pluralism. Non-Muslims had the same legal rights and responsibilities as Muslims. Therefore, it declined to use “minorities” discourse and thereby stood against any form of discrimination, racism, and disloyalty that might jeopardize the state’s internal security.


The Status Quo in the Muslim World

To all the idealism of the above paragraphs one might object that this is hardly the reality of the contemporary Muslim world. I would like to suggest here that the best way to understand how many Muslim regimes limit religious freedom is to take into account their respective political theologies.4 By this I mean their notion of political authority, justice, and the appropriate relationship between state and religion. Based on this notion of political theology, we can see three categories of regimes. First, the "religiously free" Muslim-majority states (approximately 11 out of 47, concentered in West Africa) with "low" restrictions on freedom of religion, meaning that they advocate, endorse, and protect the freedom of individuals and communities to practice their creed. Despite the strong Muslim majority population, they are striking for their robust levels of respect for Christian and other minorities, and remarkably, religiosity levels are high in these countries.  In West Africa, it is not the absence of Shari‘a but rather the sort of Islam that promotes tolerance (Sufi spirituality), which stresses individual piety and sincerity, without imposing beliefs or practices on anyone else.

On the other hand, the 36 Muslim-majority states that are not religiously free can be described as having "moderate," "high," or "very high" levels of restriction on religious freedom. Further, they can be divided into "secular repressive" and "religiously oppressive" nations. The former (around 15 countries) exemplify a political theology of Western secularism, holding that the public inspiration of Islam ought to be muted so as to make way for nationalism, economic liberalization, and modernization. The standard bearer of this model is Turkey, created in 1923 by M. K. Atatürk on secular values. Egypt followed suit under Gamal Abd al-Nasser in the early 1950’s and after the 1971 adoption of the constitutional (religious) clause “the principles of Islamic law” by President Sadat, as did other Arab nations. This only goes to show that “Islam” (however interpreted) is not the cause of religious repression.

Those other states – 21 nations – that restrain freedom of religion display a political theology of "radical Islamism" that imagines law and government rule as a vehicle for applying a rigidly traditional form of Islam in all aspects of life – personal status and family law, economy, culture, human rights, religious exercise, education, dress, among many others.5 These are the states that make most Westerners think of Islam as being oppressive and extreme, and indeed Saudi Arabia and Iran are at the top of the list. But one could also point to the United Arab Emirates, which, despite its open and welcoming image, is a very conservative country. Like its Gulf neighbors, it treats its many foreign workers as virtual indentured servants, dirt poor with practically no rights. Many of them are Christian, for instance, but unlike in Kuwait (the only exception in the region), but building churches is forbidden, so they have nowhere to worship during their stay. So, one could be skeptical that nations like the UAE are very truthful about respecting international law norms in the areas of workers’ rights or religious freedom.

Thus, the religiously unfree portion of the majority-Muslim world must be understood in its complexity, as some states are secular-repressive ones, powered by borrowed antireligious zealotry, while others are religiously suppressive, by imposing medieval Shari‘a norms that clash with current human rights law. To name a few, dhimmi laws gave few rights to religious minorities. These are some examples: apostasy and blasphemy laws (often leading to the death penalty); Muslim women, unlike their male counterparts, forbidden to marry non-Muslims. Clearly, “Islam” is not responsible for these oppressive statutes. One only has to note the robust differences of opinion between Salafis (including the puritanical Saudi Wahhabi sect), traditionalists (like the jurists of al-Azhar University), and more liberal Muslims. What is certain, is that religious suppression is still alive and well in the Muslim world. It is imperative that these nations launch national protection systems for human rights defenders, who need an empowering environment in which all rights – especially religious freedom – are respected. The wider reality is that these are for the most part authoritarian regimes that pay only lip service to democratic ideals. One might also argue that religious repression correlates to political repression. In any case, nations with a free and active civil society, with a free press and political parties freely contesting elections within a particular constitutional framework are nations where religious minorities are also respected. That is the “inclusive citizenship” help up by the Marrakesh and Abu Dhabi declarations.


Parting Words

To conclude, the Medina Charter was neither a constitution in the modern sense (because it lacks the nature of a social contract between equals), nor was it the constitution of an Islamic state, however that might be defined. The Prophet was not interested in establishing a governmental system. Rather it appears to have been essentially a pact establishing a bond between “religious” people of various “religions” and thereby prioritizing religiosity over religious identity. The real purpose was to launch a new order to maintain security, self-government, and religious respect among all. In other words, it was to establish a confederation where the tie of religiosity would usurp the ties of kinship and religion, which were preponderant at that time, causing enduring conflicts and feuds in the Arab peninsula.

For this reason, my contention in this essay is that both the Marrakesh and the Abu Dhabi declarations build on this heritage. They offer a loose legal framework aimed at regulating the freedom of belief, especially for minorities in majority Christian and Muslim nations, and at seeking to motivate the behaviors and agency of the faithful. Scholars have noticed the presence of a global contest between secular and divine norms due to the resurgence of religion globally since the 1970s and the resulting appeal in many quarters to sacred legal customs. Religious traditions can provide the ethical underpinning and the symbolic appeal to strengthen the legitimacy of international human rights. They also contribute important resources, like a tradition of founding narratives, religious interpretations, conflict resolution standards, cross-border affiliations, global solidarity, and international mobilization capacity.

Finally, I believe such documents embody global law sources that are both different from the laws of states and of international organizations. They are not concerned with legal formalism, but are polycentric and adaptable to a variety of cultures and sociopolitical contexts. If we admit the presence and the legal implication of a great diversity of universal platforms such as legal norms, values, and procedures for managing global human rights, these agreements can and should be seen as directly contributing to those universal sources of regulation.



  • Saïd Arjomand, “The Constitution of Medina: A Sociolegal Interpretation of Muhammad’s Acts of Foundation of the Umma,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 41, 4 (2009): 555-575, at 562].
  • This is not a hadith, but rather a clause in Prophet Muhammad’s first treaty with the Jews of Medina, available here in English,; or in the Arabic original,وثيقة-المدينة/
  • Uri Rubin, “The Constitution of Medina: Some Notes,” Studia Islamica 62 (1985): 5-23. Available online,
  • I have mostly drawn the following material from these two sources: Allan Arkush, “Conservative Political Theology and the Freedom of Religion: The Recent Word of Robert Kraynak and David Novak,” Polity 37, 1 (2005): 82-107; Jean L. Cohen, “Political Religion vs. Non-Establishment: Reflections on 21st-Century Political Theology,” Part 2, Philosophy and Social Criticism 39, 6 (2013): 507-21.


Dr. Mohamed Arafa is a Professor of Law at Alexandria University Faculty of Law (Egypt); Visiting Adjunct Professor of Law at Indiana University McKinney School of Law at Indianapolis and an Adjunct Professor of Law at Cornell Law School. He was the Managing Editor of the Arab Law Quarterly in London. His teaching/scholarship focus on criminal law, white collar crimes, human rights law, Islamic law, comparative Middle Eastern law, and transitional justice.