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What was the socio-political structure of Medina at the time of the Prophet (saw)?

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Islamic researcher, graduated from Al-Azhar University, Islamic Studies in the English language. I also studied at Temple University in the US.
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In a Nutshell:
There were two main religious traditions in Medina: the polytheistic Arabs and the Jews. Each had a number of tribes and geographical units, typically villages (qura), polities similar to states or countries of our time.
There were three main Jewish tribes, Banu Quraydhah, Banu al-Nadeer and Banu Qaynuqa, and two main Arab tribes, al-Aws and al-Khazraj, as well as other minor tribes for both groupings.

Socio-political Units

Scholars of Arab lineage (nasab) identify seven (or according to some six or eight) lineage strata for each place and tribe. These lineages go back to one ancestor from whom they started to divide into subdivisions who in turn could originate another new lineage stratum when they become wider and larger. (Suwidi, Saba'ik al-Dahab fi Ma'rifat Qaba'il al-Arab, p. 17)

There are mainly seven strata (the latter is the subdivision of the former and the former contains a number of the latter): Sha'b (the origin of a given tribe), Qabeelah, Imarah, Battn, Fakhdh, Asheerah and Faseelah.

Scholars disagree on the definition and the identification of each, but they all agree each category is an independent socio-political entity (state or polity) falling under another larger one.

The core social units were tribes and clans, which unlike a modern clan or family, were more akin to small autonomous states with their own elites, army, land, rights and so on.

For a more detailed answer concerning these categories, read this answer.

Historical Background

Medina (first known as Yathrib) was a very fertile place. Its history is not well known and documented because no serious research has been undertaken especially archaeological research. (al-Shareef, Tarikh Makah wa al-Madinah, p. 314)

At the time of Moses (as), as some historians argue based on narrations and ancient writings, a group of Jewish people migrated here. They used to cultivate and utilise the fertile soil of Medina, leading to savage attacks from the neighbouring tribes.

The Jews then started to build large forts. Each large clan had a number of forts.

They were likely to have been proceeded by a group of ancient Arabic generations called Abeel (or al-Arab al-Aaribah) then al-Amaleeq, then the Chaldeans, then the Romans for a short period. (Tarikh al-Tabari, Vol. 1, p. 127, ibn al-Athir, al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, Vol. 1, p. 62, Jawad Ali, al-Mufasal fi Tarikh al-Arab Qabl al-Islam, Vol. 4, 128, Badr, al-Tarikh al-Shamil, Vol. 1, p. 48, Shareef, Tarikh Makah wa al-Madinah, pp. 130-150)

Later on we don't know exactly when, another group of Arabs settled near the Jewish cities. The Jews fought them, and they endured a large number of attacks. The Arabs had to pay tributes to gain their alliance and agree to treaties for protection. (Hamawi, Mu'jam al-Buldan, Vol. 5, p. 83)

This Arab group was later divided into two tribes: al-Aws and al-Khazraj who were later known in Islamic history as al-Ansar.

Al-Aws and al-Khazraj began to ally and grow in power. When the Jewish states realised their growing power, wealth and territories would make them independent and autonomous, they violated the treaties, they broke the alliance and waged war against them. They in turn allied with a powerful Yemani state (al-Ghasasinah) resulting in victory for al-Aws and al-Khazraj in their wars with the Jewish states. This period is dated about 492 CE. (al-Asfahani, al-Aghani, Vol. 22, p. 102, Samhudi, Vol. 1, p. 178, Sami Himdan, Yahud al-Madina, pp. 45-51)

Whilst al-Aws and al-Khazraj were the victorious over the Jews, even taking some of their fertile lands, conflict and war erupted between each other, each seeking politico-economic dominance, whilst the Jews fuelled these wars seeking to create a wedge between the two.

There are several famous wars lasting for around 120 years, such as Sumair war, the war of Hasen, the war of Ka'b ibn Amr, the day of Sararah, the day of Deek and finally the day of Bu'aath (the final war before preceding the migration of the Prophet by a year or so).

Social Structure

There were two main faiths in Medina: the polytheistic Arabs and the monotheistic Jews. Each side had a number of tribes and villages (qura) similar to the notion of state or country of our time.

The social relationships in Medina were based on two major factors: economic and tribal, the former being more effective. It is for this reason we find Arabs fought each other and Jews fought each other.

The Polytheistic Arabs:

The Arabs in Medina were firstly known as Banu Qaylah (their great grandmother from the Ghasasinah) or Banu al-Samaa (the nickname of their great grandfather Amir).

When the tribe became large, it was split into two tribes: al-Aws and al-Khazraj. (Samhudi, Wafaa al-Wafaa, Vol. 1, p. 175)

Each of these tribes was also subdivided into several butun (large families) generally five for each. For Aws, they were attributed to Malik ibn al-Aws and al-Khazraj were attributed to his brother Khazraj.

Each of the five batn also generated other butun until they reached more than forty. This meant al-Aws contained in itself several independent political entities (states). (al-Shareef, Makah wa al-Madinah, p. 333)

This can be seen when the Prophet (saw) migrated, he when to ibn Ubbay. But ibn Ubbay rejected him saying, go to those who invited you:

اذهب إلى الذين دعوك فأنزل عليهم، فقال سعد بن عبادة: لا تجد يا رسول الله في نفسك من قوله فقد قدمت علينا والخزرج تريد أن تملكه عليها ولكن هذه داري
"Go to those who invited you and live among them. Saad ibn Ubadah (ra) said: don't be sad, O Messenger of Allah, because of what he said. (He said so) because al-Khazraj wanted to make him the leader before you came. But this is my home." (Diyar Bakri, Tarikh al-Khamees, Vol. 2, p. 36, Samhudi, Vol. 1, p. 201, Asimi, Samtt al-Nujum, Vol. 1, 362)

This could also be seen when the Prophet entered Medina seeking political dominance and military support, each batn used to pull the bridle of his camel asking him to live in their home. They used to say,

هَلُمَّ إلَيْنَا، إلَى الْعَدَدِ وَالْعِدَّةِ وَالْمَنَعَةِ
"Come to the (large) number, (best) equipment and protection." (Ibn Hisham, al-Seerah al-Nabawiyah, Vol. 1, p. 394)

But the Prophet (saw) would excuse them saying,

خَلُّوا سَبِيلَهَا فَإِنَّهَا مَأْمُورَةٌ
"Leave (the camel) because it is ordered (by Allah to sit in a certain place)." (Ibid)

The Jewish states:

Historians such as Samhudi argue (a ninth-century specialist historian) there were more than twenty Jewish tribes in Media: three major tribes were Banu al-Nadeer, Banu Qurayzah and Banu Qaynuqa who were called the Kuhaan or the priests because of their claim Prophet Harun and Yusuf – for Banu Qaynuqa – as their great ancestor; other minor tribes included Banu Hadl, Banu Auff, Banu Qasees, Banu Ikrimah, Banu Tha'labah, Banu Mahmr and others. (Samhudi, Wafaa al-Wafaa, Vol. 1, p. 142, Ibn al-Qaym, Zad al-Ma'aad, Vol. 3, p. 114-117)

The number of each tribe was between 600 to 900 members as their count was when the Prophet expelled them, and the three tribes could number 2000 member. (Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari, Vol, 7, p. 414, Ibn Saad, al-Tabaqatt, Vol. 2, p. 44, Ibn al-Qaym, Zad al-Ma'aad, Vol. 3, p. 170, al-Amiri, al-Mujtamaa al-Madani, p. 59 Ibn Hisham, al-Seerah al-Nabawiyah, Vol. 4, p. 315)

There were also other Jewish allies outside Medina, such as Khaybar whose number was more than ten thousand as well as other states in Taymaa, Wadi al-Qura, Fadak and Dawmat al-Jandal. (Bayhaqi, Dalalat al-Nubuwah, Vol. 4, p. 270, Maghazi, al-Waqidi, Vol. 1, p. 373, Maqrizi, Imtaa al-Asmaa, Vol. 1, p. 306)

Each batn of the Jews (as well as the Arabs there) used to have great forts (59 forts and only one tribe could have 20 forts) that protects generally the elites and their followers tend to shelter in them at the time of war and sieges, as they did when they fought against the Prophet. They also hated one another allied against each other. (al-Samara'i, al-Madhahir al-Hadariyah, pp. 20-23)

As Allah said about them:

لَا يُقَاتِلُونَكُمْ جَمِيعًا إِلَّا فِي قُرًى مُحَصَّنَةٍ أَوْ مِنْ وَرَاءِ جُدُرٍ بَأْسُهُمْ بَيْنَهُمْ شَدِيدٌ ۚ تَحْسَبُهُمْ جَمِيعًا وَقُلُوبُهُمْ شَتَّىٰ
"They will not fight you all except within fortified cities or from behind walls. Their violence among themselves is severe. You think they are together, but their hearts are diverse." (Qur'an 59:14)

Each of these tribes was politically separate and independent of one another. They were as our contemporary states and countries. The nineteenth-century historian al-Bustani argued:

فكان فيها قبائل وإمارات يهودية مستقلة بمثابة ممالك قائمة بنفسها في الحجاز واليمن
"It (Arabia) contained independent tribes and emirates similar to independent kingdoms in Hijaz (that includes Medina) and Yemen." (Bustani, Da'irat al-Ma'arif, Vol. 11, p. 672)

The Jewish tribes hated one another. For example, when the Prophet (saw) expelled one Jewish tribe, the other would not go and help it in its war against the Prophet (saw), except the ex-polytheist hypocrites' chef ibn Ubbay who begged the Prophet (saw) to forgive them. It is narrated in the expelling of Banu al-Nadeer:

واعتزلتهم قريظة فلم تعنهم
"Quraydhah left them (renounced) and did not provide help." (Ibn Saad, Tabaqat, Vol. 2, p. 58, Ibn al-Qaym, Zad al-Ma'aad, Vol. 3, p. 128)

For that reason, we would find two Jewish made the Prophet (saw) as their judge i.e. because they don't trust one another and some of them considered themselves as superior to the others. For example, Banu al-Nadeer doesn't pay the same diyah (blood-money) as Banu Quraydhah as the former considered the latter inferior. (Ibn Hisham, al-Seerah al-Nabawiyah, V. 3, p. 105, Daraqutni, al-Mu'jam al-Kabeer, Vol. 11, p. 227)

The Prophet (saw) when dealing with the Jews did not consider them as one nation or state, but separate and independent entities. So, he was referring to each one by its name in the treaty of Medina and punishing them for their mistakes individually.

The Political Realm

At the time of the Prophet (saw), the number of population was about 15-22 thousand citizens. (Muhammad Shawqi, Sukkan al-Madinah, pp. 30-33) The conflicts were at their peak as Jews were fighting each other, Arabs were fighting each other, some parties from the former group held alliances with the latter who had alliances against other allies. It was a very dangerous and unstable place.

For that reason, the Prophet (saw) did not migrate nor order all the companions to migrate when some Medinan influentials embraced Islam. Instead, he waited until he made the situation stable and the place safe to be the birthplace of the Islamic state.

Ibn Abbas described the scene at the time of the Prophet (saw) in Medina:

فكانوا فريقين : طائفة منهم بنو قينقاع وإنهم حلفاء الخزرج، والنضير وقريظة وإنهم حلفاء الأوس، فكانوا إذا كانت بين الأوس والخزرج حرب خرجت بنو قينقاع مع الخزرج، وخرجت النضير وقريظة مع الأوس، يظاهر كل واحد من الفريقين حلفاءه على إخوانه، حتى يتسافكوا دماءهم بينهم
"They were two groups: Banu Qaynuqa were allies to al-Khazraj and Banu al-Nadeer and Banu Qurayzah were allies to al-Aws.
When al-Aws and al-Khazraj have a war, each one would help his ally over his brothers until they shed their blood." (Ibn al-Jawzi, al-Muntadhim, Vol. 3, p. 36, Ibn al-Athir, al-Kamil, Vol. 1, p. 613, Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, Vol. 3, p. 161)

When al-Aws lost a lot of wars against al-Khazraj, they went to seek the alliance of Quraysh five years before hijra. They agreed at the beginning but later al-Waleed ibn al-Mughirah (or Abu Jahl in some narrations) refused and told them to break the alliance. (Samhudi, Wafaa al-Wafaa, Vol. 1, p. 385)

Before returning home, the Prophet (saw) presented himself to them, seeking protection and victory (man'ah and nusrah) and some of them accepted Islam and some refused. This was soon followed by the war of Bu'ath. It took place 5 years before hijra. (Samhudi, Wafaa al-Wafaa, Vol. 1, p. 388)

Aisha (ra) described this war:

كَانَ يَوْمُ بُعَاثَ قَدَّمَهُ اللهُ لِرَسُولِهِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ، فَقَدِمَ رَسُولُ اللهِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَقَدِ افْتَرَقَ مَلَؤُهُمْ، وَقُتِلَتْ سَرَوَاتُهُمْ، وَجُرِّحُوا، فَقَدَّمَهُ اللهُ لِرَسُولِهِ فِي دُخُولِهِمْ فِي الْإِسْلَامِ.|
"Allah caused the day of Bu'ath to take place before Allah's Messenger (saw) was sent so that when he reached Medina, those people had already divided (in different groups) and their chiefs had been killed or wounded. So, Allah made that day precede Allah's Messenger (saw) so that they (i.e. the Ansar) might embrace Islam." (Sahih al-Bukhari 3846)

Most of their key leaders (those who had a similar mentality to ibn Ubbay) who could hinder the dawa of the Prophet (saw) were killed as well as large numbers of their followers. Thus, the new generation wanted to unite again and utilised the offer of the Prophet (saw). (Samhudi, Wafaa al-Wafaa, Vol. 1, p. 389, Shireef, Tarikh Makah wa al-Madinah, p. 367)

The promise of the Jews to kill and destroy the polytheistic Arabs on the arrival of their next prophet made al-Aws and al-Khazraj move to accept Islam and give man'ah and nusrah. As al-Aws and al-Khazraj collectively could exert control over the Jews, they received the Prophet (saw) and were able to launch the Islamic state.

Conclusion

There were two main faith traditions in Medina: the polytheistic Arabs and the Jews. Each had a number of tribes and geographical units or villages (qura), similar to the notion of state or country of our time.

There were three main Jewish tribes (Banu Qurayzah, Banu al-Nadeer and Banu Qaynuqa) and two main Arab tribes (al-Aws and al-Khazraj) as well as other minor tribes for both sides.

References
Al-Amiri, al-Mujtamaa al-Madani
Al-Waqidi Maghazi
Asfahani, al-Aghani
Asimi, Samtt al-Nujum
Badr, al-Tarikh al-Shamil
Bayhaqi, Dalalat al-Nubuwah
Bustani, Da'irat al-Ma'arif
Diyar Bakri, Tarikh al-Khamees
Daraqutni, al-Mu'jam al-Kabeer
Hamawi, Mu'jam al-Buldan
Ibn al-Athir, al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh
Ibn al-Jawzi, al-Muntadhim
Ibn al-Qaym, Zad al-Ma'aad
Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah
Ibn Hajar, Fath al-Bari
Ibn Hisham, as-Seerah al-Nabawiyah
Ibn Saad, al-Tabaqatt
Jawad Ali, al-Mufasal fi Tarikh al-Arab Qabl al-Islam
Maqrizi, Imtaa al-Asmaa
Samara'i, al-Madhahir al-Hadariyah
Samhudi, Wafaa al-Wafaa
Sami Himdan, Yahud al-Madina
Shireef, Tarikh Makah wa al-Madinah
Suwidi, Saba'ik al-Dahab fi Ma'rifat Qaba'il al-Arab
Tabari, Tarikh al-Tabari


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