Ideas Hub: The Problem with the Marrakesh Declaration, By Michael Mumisa (Shaykh)

By Myriam Francois|May 9, 2016|Ideas Hub|1 comments

The Problem with the Marrakesh Declaration

By Michael Mumisa (Shaykh), Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge




In January this year (2016), the “Marrakesh Declaration on the Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Communities” was launched in Morocco amid much fanfare. It was described as a response to the persecution of religious minorities by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Key among the declaration’s proposals, and as a solution, was the development of constitutional laws based on the objectives of the Charter of Medina “in countries with Muslim majorities.” It was also argued in the same declaration that “the United Nations Charter and related documents, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), are in harmony with the Charter of Medina.” If this is indeed the case, then why not just call for the strict implementation of the UDHR in all Muslim countries?


When I first heard about the Marrakesh Declaration, I did not pay it any attention or bother reading it because I knew what to expect.  This is not the first declaration of its type.  After much campaigning against the UDHR by Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan and Pakistan on grounds that it did not reflect the diversity of UN member states in terms of their histories, cultural traditions and religious beliefs, member states of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) adopted the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI) in 1990. It still remains the only Muslim declaration which has been formally endorsed by almost all Muslim governments. However, it is also a very flawed declaration which was not designed to protect fundamental human rights.

There has since been many similar Muslim or interfaith “declarations” including the “First Alexandria Declaration of the Religious Leaders of the Holy Land” in 2002 which, like the Marrakesh declaration, brought together Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians, activists and political leaders to declare their “commitment to ending the violence and bloodshed that denies the right of life and dignity” in Israel and Palestine.  Yet today, relations between Arab and Jewish communities are at their lowest point. Similarly, in March 2014, Egypt’s Grand Mufti Shawki Allam, alongside Al-Azhar University and representatives of a few NGOs, launched the “Alexandria Declaration on Women’s Rights in Islam”.  However, none of all these declarations has so far resulted in concrete positive measures to achieve their stated goals. Instead, they have unwittingly provided PR cover to the various governments and religious establishments which signed them in the worst violations of Islamic principles and fundamental human rights.


It was only after I had been asked for an opinion on the Marrakesh Declaration that I decided to study the documents’ contents. It is our duty and responsibility as scholars not to be seduced by the usual razzmatazz that often accompanies the launch of such declarations, and to be able to see through the PR hype. Since what follows is not an academic paper but a think piece for publication on an academic site accessible to general readers, I am going to dispense with the usual academic conventions and analyse the Marrakesh Declaration documents with a non-specialist audience in mind.

Some of the documents are freely available on the Marrakesh Declaration’s official website. As someone who has always been suspicious of translations, I decided to closely read the original Arabic documents alongside their English versions, and here is what I discovered:


  • There is what is described as the “Executive Summary of the Marrakesh Declaration on the Rights of Religious Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Majority Communities”. This is available in English (2 pages), Arabic (2 pages), Dutch (3 pages) and Italian (3 pages).
  • On a different page, on the same website, there is what is described as a “Booklet”. It is available in Arabic (32 pages) and English (16 pages). Oddly, the “Booklet” is not the original version of the declaration. It is Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah’s lecture notes. The lecture notes of the other speakers who attended the Marrakesh conference are not included in the “Booklet” or anywhere on the official website.


The original version of the Marrakesh Declaration upon which the “Executive Summary” is based was not available online. On 23 April, I sent an email to the organisers of the Declaration asking whether it existed. I finally received a copy of the original Arabic declaration on the 1st of May. After studying all the documents, it is clear that Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah’s lecture notes (the “Booklet”) form the basis of the declaration. This brings us to his “Booklet”.


The English version of the “Booklet” is described as an “Abridgment” of the Arabic “Booklet” and, as such, significant sections which are found in the Arabic version have been edited out of the English version, or have not been translated. This is understandable.


The sections edited out of the English version include an important but brief discussion on the basic principles of Islamic jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh) well known to students of classical Islamic law and Qur’anic hermeneutics. There is also a section on traditional definitions of Jihad, ahl al-dhimma and jizya. The key hermeneutical principle discussed in the section on usul al-fiqh in the Arabic “Booklet” concerns the intertextual unity within the Qur’an, hadith corpus, and intertextual relationships between different parts of the Qur’an, hadith and other texts. It emphasises the need to meticulously study and examine all texts and sources on a topic in their original Arabic, and the relationship between them, before rushing to conclusions. Genuine scholars (al-rasikhun), argues Abdullah bin Bayyah, pay special attention to this important research method.  On the other hand, the “juhhal” (dunderheads), a term used by Abdullah bin Bayyah in the Arabic “Booklet” (p.12), engage in selective reading of sources to support their positions.

While the methodological point that Abdullah bin Bayyah makes in his lecture notes is known to any student of classical Islamic disciplines, it has surprisingly been missing in all the publications produced in Britain, for example, among government sponsored Muslim groups and think tanks claiming to be committed to the fight against extremist ideologies. We have recently seen the proliferation of mediocre reports, documents and policy papers on aspects relating to Islam and Muslim written in a manner that betrays a shocking ignorance of the key Islamic sources and texts on the subject. The worst offenders in this practice have been among the self-styled “imams” and “shaykhs” working on the government’s Prevent programmes. Perhaps this is why Abdullah bin Bayyah prefers to use the term “al-rasikh”, not merely an “alim”, to describe the ideal scholar who is intimately familiar with the intertextual interrelationships between various texts.


Unsurprisingly, the methodological point highlighted by Abdullah bin Bayyah is also missing in the conceptualisation of the Marrakesh Declaration itself! The Declaration is primarily focused on the Charter of Medina as “the best suited primary basis for the institution of citizenship.” It is a selective reading of historical sources which betrays a careless approach to the Sira (biography) of the Prophet of Islam. And here lies the crux of the problem. Thus, we have the highly curious situation of a group of Muslim scholars meeting in Marrakesh to call for the adoption of the Medina Charter as a source of Muslim constitutional law in response to the brutality of ISIS, about two years after ISIS invoked the same Charter of Medina as a basis of its own constitutional proposals, producing horrific results!


The Charter of Medina is without doubt an important historical document. I teach it to my students as an example early Islam’s pluralism. However, the fetishisation of its contents (not the processes that produced it) as the basis of Muslim constitutional law among modern Muslims is part of the reason why Muslim countries whose constitutions are supposedly based on “Islamic principles” can still claim to believe in the Charter of Medina while at the same time producing laws which violate its general principles (kulliyyat).


For me, the most important lesson modern Muslims should learn from the Charter of Medina is not its contents, as the Marrakesh Declaration and similar proposals suggest, but the processes that produced such contents. Although the Charter of Medina makes references to God, it is a product of deliberations, consultation and consensus between the various communities of Medina, not of divine revelation. In that sense it is a purely secular document. It did not fall from heaven like the tablets of Moses as mentioned in the Qur’an and the Bible, nor were the contents of the Charter revealed to Muhammad through Gabriel. Thus, the real general message (kulliyyat) of the Charter of Medina is that modern Muslims should be able to develop their own constitutional laws through deliberation, consultation and other democratic processes without the need to invoke divine revelation.


The Marrakesh Declaration entrusts that responsibility into the hands of “Muslim scholars and intellectuals around the world to develop a jurisprudence of the concept of citizenship”, with the Charter of Medina and “Islamic tradition and principles” as the basis.  This is based on the assumption that Muslim jurists around the world reading the same Charter and “Islamic tradition” will produce the same inclusivist meanings needed for a modern age. As someone trained and qualified in classical Islamic law and jurisprudence, I know too well that this is a fantasy.


For example, how would Islamic jurists reading the contents of the Medina Charter in Mauritania, Pakistan, Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Afghanistan, to mention only these few countries, interpret article 14? It states that:


“A believer will not kill a fellow believer for the sake of a disbeliever.”


How might jurists working within the Shafi‘i, Hanbali, Shi‘a Imamiyya and Zahiri schools of Islamic law interpret the clause while developing their “jurisprudence of the concept of citizenship” as proposed by the Marrakesh Declaration? For centuries, Muslim jurists and traditionists (hadith scholars) have debated (without coming to any agreement) what article 14 of the Medina Charter means.  They wanted to know whether this meant that a Muslim could not be punished for killing a non-Muslim citizen living under an Islamic jurisdiction, if the life of a non-Muslim citizen was worth that of a Muslim and whether the blood money paid for killing a non-Muslim citizen should be equal to the blood money paid for killing a Muslim. According to Shafi‘i, Hanbali, Shi‘a Imamiyya and some Maliki legal traditions, article 14 meant that the death penalty could not be applied upon a Muslim found guilty of murder if the victim was not a Muslim.


On the other hand, classical Islamic jurists operating within the Hanafi school of Islamic law strongly opposed this interpretation on grounds that exempting a Muslim from punishment for killing a non-Muslim citizen undermines the very concept of justice enshrined in the kulliyyat (universal principles) of Islam. They argued that according to their reading of Islamic texts, Islam makes no distinction between the life and property of a non-Muslim and that of a Muslim. Moreover, the Prophet Muhammad famously said:


“Whoever harms a non-Muslim citizen, I shall bear testimony against him on behalf of that citizen in front of God on the day of judgement?” (This tradition was narrated through various chains of transmission, some of them stronger than others)


Thus, if the Prophet promised to represent a non-Muslim citizen against a Muslim on the day of judgement it suggests that their blood is the same/equal in the eyes of God and the law.


We can see from the above brief discussion that having a text as the basis of law, and a group of jurists “entrusted” with the responsibility of interpreting that text, does not guarantee equal rights and justice for all citizens.


The approach adopted by the Marrakesh Declaration is part of a post-9/11 trend which saw Muslim organisations and communities adopting sophisticated public relations strategies which involve emphasising and focusing on disseminating the “positive” or “inclusive” meanings of Islamic texts while avoiding any public discussion on the “problematic” or “exclusivist” ones. While this approach may have been successful in presenting a “favourable image” of Islam to “outsiders” and the media, it has at the same time been alienating young and inquisitive Muslim men and women who feel that their Islamic scholars are failing to engage directly with the primary texts and sources of Islam in a manner that interrogates and enriches the received tradition while producing new meanings informed by people’s lived realities, here and now. Only Islamic feminist scholars of Qur’anic and legal hermeneutics have felt the fierce urgency to engage directly with both texts and the readers’ lived realities (al-waqi‘). A good example of this is the recently published book entitled Men in Charge? Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition (2015). There are other numerous examples.


The Marrakesh Declaration is based on the assumption that relations between the various communities of Medina which signed the Charter of Medina remained the same. In fact, war did eventually break out between the signatories of the Charter. Anyone who studies the Qur’an, the history of the Medina Charter and other early Islamic sources will find that while the Qur’an adopts what appears to be a firm and uncompromising stance against the Quraysh Arab tribes of Mecca who were at that time engaged in war against Muhammad and his followers,  its position towards the ahl al-kitab (People of the Book) reflects the shift in relationships between the Prophet, his early followers, and the 7th century Jewish and Christian communities with whom they came in contact in Medina and surrounding areas.


The idea that the contents of the Medina Charter should form the basis of Muslim constitutional laws and concepts of citizenship in modern Muslim states predates the Marrakesh Declaration. It has been a recurrent theme in twentieth century Muslim political theories. In the aftermath of the so-called “Arab spring”, it has become a favourite topic of discussion and debate among some Islamic scholars.


In 2010, Rached Ghannouchi, founder and leader of Tunisia’s Islamic political party, Ennahda Movement, wrote an Arabic essay entitle al-Islam wa al-muwatana (Islam and citizenship) invoking the Medina Charter.

In 2011, the then grand mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, wrote a short Arabic article in Al-Ahram on the Medina Charter as an example of coexistence. He also went on to discuss “The Concept of Citizenship in the Medina Charter” on Irqa’ TV.

Similarly, Yusuf al-Qardawi discussed the same topic on his popular programme al-Shari‘a wa al-hayah (Sharia and Life), on Al Jazeera TV.


The Marrakesh Declaration and Abdullah bin Bayyah’s lecture notes focus primarily on the contents of the Medina Charter and its inclusive message. A lot of space is dedicated to this in the Arabic “Booklet”. The Charter should have been analysed alongside “problematic” and “exclusivist” hadith traditions which speak of the expulsion of Jewish communities from the Jazirat al-Arab. For example, the traditions in Sahih al-Bukhari under the title Bab ikhraj al-yahud min jazirat al-‘arab [3768]; Sunan Abu Dawud, under the same title [3029]. These are the kind of traditions often cited by groups like ISIS. It is therefore not enough to simply speak in general terms about the need to engage in contextual reading without demonstrating how to engage with such “problematic” texts.


And finally, the Marrakesh Declaration states that:


“The Charter was not borne of war or conflict, rather, it was the result of a contract between groups living peacefully together to begin with.”


This is not entirely true and it contradicts established historical accounts (e.g. early commentaries on Qur’an 3:103) and what Abdullah bin Bayyah himself states in his lecture notes in the Arabic version of the “Booklet” (p. 25/line 32 – p.26/line 1-14) that the Charter was born of a long war and conflict between the various communities of Yathrib (Medina) prior to the arrival of the Prophet and his followers. Indeed, Prophet Muhammad was invited by the residents of Medina to come and broker a peace deal between the warring tribes in exchange of protection from his Meccan enemies. The war between the Banu Aws and Khazraj Jewish tribes had been going on for 120 years before Muhammad’s arbitration.


It is true, as Abdullah bin Bayyah warns that selective reading of texts is dangerous. The problem, however, is that declarations such as this, by their very nature, are exercises in selective and decontextualised reading of sources. They tend to privilege one set of texts over others. In this case, it is the Medina Charter and its “inclusivist” message which was privileged over other “problematic” and “exclusivist” texts.


Michael Mumisa (Shaykh) is a Cambridge Special Livingston Scholar at Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge. His research profile is available here:

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About Myriam Francois

This is the official blog for the SOAS-CIS. It aims to encourage scholars to debate and engage with the wider public on the basis of their research and will foster discussions about mainly UK and also European Integration discourse as relates to Islam and British Muslims. We tweet @SoasCis

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