SOCIAL activism by citizens is often looked upon as a modern-day phenomenon. What is not commonly known is that the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) started his social activism in his youth, much before his declaration of prophethood.
The deeds of the Prophet, even before that time, were in accordance with his noble character and the teachings which he later received. One of the major aims of his career was social reform. Even before Islam, the rite of Haj was observed at the Kaaba, and war was forbidden in that sacred month.
Once when this ban was violated and a visiting tribe’s members were looted and their local protector killed, a war broke out.
The war ended according to an agreement known as the Hilf-al-Fudul. According to M. Akhtar Muslim, in Quran aur Insani Huquq (‘The Quran and human rights’), around the year 586 CE, another trader visiting Makkah was deprived of his goods without being paid. He cried out for help. With regard to this, Dr M. Hamidullah writes in Muhammad Rasulullah (‘Muhammad the Prophet of Allah’) that Al-Zubair, the head of the Prophet’s family, convened a meeting. In this meeting, in which the Prophet took part as a young man, it was decided to bring a group into action under the revived Hilf-al-Fudul.
According to some scholars ‘fadal’ also means ‘right’, the plural of which is ‘fudul’. Therefore, one of the meanings of this could be, ‘the agreement for the protection of rights’. The group’s activists pledged to come to the help of anyone who had been wronged in Makkah, without discrimination, to favour the weak and downtrodden against their powerful persecutors. The tribes of Taim, Zuhra, Muttalib and Hashim took the oath for this agreement.
The important objectives and clauses of the Hilf-al-Fudul were as follows: lawlessness would be done away with; security of the travellers and newcomers would be ensured; victims of cruelty would be helped regardless of whether they were residents of Makkah or visitors; and the powerful persecutors would be stopped from being unjust to the weak. Dr M. Hamidullah in Rasul-i-Akram ki Siyasi Zindagi (‘The political life of the Prophet’) describes the oath as: “We swear by God that we will together become one (strong) hand. This hand will remain by the side of the weak and will continue to be raised against the strong and the unjust until the persecutor returns to the persecuted his right. This will remain so until the sea keeps the seashells wet and the hills of Hira and Thabir remain in their place. There will be equity in our society.”
The last sentence can mean that even the most humble of citizens would be able to challenge and demand redress from the most powerful. Only a handful of tribes participated in the Hilf-al-Fudul, yet it was a revolutionary agreement, the fundamental principle being non-alliance. Previously, all help had been given on the basis of tribes and the pacts made with them.
In this pact, it had been agreed that anyone and everyone who had been wronged, could ask for help. They went so far as to say that even those strangers and travellers who belonged neither to Makkah nor to any of its tribes would be eligible for help.
Previously, travellers were an open target for persecution. Not only were they robbed, but often their wives and daughters were taken away from them forcibly.
Another reason for its being a revolutionary agreement was that the Hilf-al-Fudul was not based on social class. Anyone who had been wronged, whether he was a free person or a slave, rich or poor, was eligible for help. Through this agreement, to a large extent Makkah became safe for the weak, the persecuted and strangers. The activists, acting with great speed, saw to it that the person who had been wronged was given back all that had been taken away from him forcibly.
Very soon, powerful thugs, including Abu Jahal, started to fear reprisal from the activists. The Makkans can be truly proud of the fact that at the time when the whole world was steeped in darkness and injustice, these conscientious activists were able to provide free protection and justice to the weak and the helpless through their humanistic ideals. In trying to create some kind of law and order in Makkah, the activists of the Hilf-al-Fudul were really helping to formulate some laws based on the concept of modern-day human rights. Dr M. Hamidullah says that the law of Islam in its early phase was the customary law of Makkah until such time as parts of it were specifically amended or abrogated. The principles of the Hilf-al-Fudul can safely be said to be a part of the law of Islam.
Even though many of the participants of the agreement remained non-Muslim, the Prophet kept acting on it after his declaration of Islam. He is reported to have said later: “Even if red camels were given to me in exchange for the Hilf-al-Fudul, I would not accept them.” This agreement can also be looked upon as the beginning of the attempt to codify laws and enforce a policing system with the objective of establishing peace and equity through practical social activism.
The pact also gives Muslims a precedent for the moral responsibility of all citizens to protect the weak and to speak for them, to critique the rulers and the powerful and the concept of establishing citizens’ groups that advocate and lobby for social rights.
The writer is a scholar of the Quran and writes on its relevance to contemporary issues.