Emma Nash: Muhammad’s Leadership: Impartiality and Equity

Emma Nash

September 11, 2016

Muhammad’s impartiality and evenhandedness rank among his most important characteristics as both religious and political leader. Islam was born into a culture of tribalism and infighting. Tribes fought one another “in a murderous cycle of vendetta and counter-vendetta,” while the Quraysh, Muhammad’s own tribe, preyed on the poorer clans in its own ranks.[1] Muhammad’s message was itself a corrective to this crisis; however, in order to spread that message, he would first have to navigate Arab society’s contentious political terrain as it stood.

It was Muhammad’s demonstrable evenhandedness as an arbiter that initially gained him the respect of his own followers—and so the power to resolve conflicts peacefully both within his own community and within Arab society at large. Muhammad avoided implicating himself in tribal disputes not only in his quest to spread Islam, but also in his earlier life as an arbiter. Before he was a prophet, Muhammad was known among his people as “the trustworthy”; Muhammad was a skilled arbiter precisely because people trusted him to be impartial.[2] For example, when the Quraysh, while rebuilding the Ka’ba, quarreled over which clan had the right to put the famous black stone in place, Muhammad devised a solution fair that would be to all: He ordered the black stone to be put on a cloak, had members of the tribe raise the cloak together, then placed the stone with his own hand.[3]

Muhammad’s solution, which gave all the clans involved in the quarrel the opportunity to participate, was not only a demonstration of the high value he placed upon equity and communalism, but also proof of his own leadership by example; were Muhammad not already highly regarded for his moral integrity and impartiality, his placing the stone might be regarded as a usurpation of the rights of the clans—a dirty trick. Instead, this tale became an example of the kind of impartial and equitable decision-making that later served Muhammad as an arbitrator for disputes within the Muslim community.

This resolution might be taken as a metaphor for the larger strategy by which Muhammad later grew the Islamic faith. As in his resolution of the quarrel over the Ka’ba, Muhammad positioned himself (and Islam) as independent of the quarrels of the tribes. Muhammad’s demonstrable impartiality thus allowed him to position Islam as a unifying force within Arab society; Islam could encompass members of every tribe, for it implicated itself in the quarrels of none. Upon his arrival in Medina, Muhammad skillfully evaded implicating either Islam or himself in the area’s preexisting tribal and religious disputes. He did so first by delegating his choice of headquarters to his camel, constructing his mosque at the site where his mount first sat down; in deciding the location of his headquarters according to such arbitrary rationale, Muhammad so avoided making a statement of tribal or religious allegiance.[4]

By refusing to implicate Islam in preexisting tribal and religious disputes, Muhammad could position the Umma, the Muslim moral and spiritual community, as independent of—and superior to—the tribal organization of society. He could thus unite all the tribes under a law of honor and reciprocity, as he did in his “Constitution of Medina.” Loyalty to Muslim law, not to blood relationships, would be the foundation for the new society; Muhammad’s “Constitution of Medina” guarantees that all Believers “are friends to each other, to the exclusion of all other men [even blood brothers],” that they shall make peace as one, and that the conditions of their peace “must be just and equitable for all.”[5]

Though Muhammad conceived of a physical community founded upon a shared spiritual morality, conflict between the Muslims and other monotheistic religious communities was not inherent to Muhammad’s concept of the Umma. Rather, Muhammad felt that Christians and Jews could be reconciled with the Umma. This reconciliation depended upon Muhammad’s view of Islam as a continuation of earlier revelation; he did not insist that Jews and Christians accept Islam, because they had already received “perfectly valid revelations of their own.”[6] His “Constitution of Medina” thus explicitly states that Jews “shall have aid and equality, except those who do wrong or aid the enemies of the Muslims.”[7]

To say that Muhammad’s vision of political order reconciled other monotheistic religious communities with the Umma is not to say that he completely evaded conflict with these communities. The three main Jewish tribes in Medina resented Muhammad’s ascendancy, and Muhammad retaliated against them in turn. However, this retaliation was hardly permanent; after the massacre of the Qurayzah (one of the Jewish tribes opposed to Muhammad), the Quran continued to revere Jewish prophets, and smaller Jewish groups continued to live in Medina. Here, the spirit of reciprocity—of evenhandedness—underlying the whole “Constitution of Medina” is key: Muhammad was able to conceive of his struggle against the three rebel tribes as being solely against the three rebel tribes, not against Jews in general; his military leadership according to a principle of reciprocity (the enemies of the community being those who had wronged it, only so long as they continued to wrong it) so constituted a break from the tribal way of thinking, which pit factions against each other in ceaseless cycles of violence.

Finally, Muhammad’s appeals to communalism enabled him to gain the kind of following—and the kind of allies—necessary to launching his peace offensive. Since his Umma potentially encompassed members of every tribe, it inevitably grew in numbers. Moreover, being so founded according to Muhammad’s sense of equity, his Umma was unified in ways the tribes were not; while the clans of the Quraysh fought with and preyed on one another, the members of the Umma were bound to care for the poor among them and turned on their enemies as one. Muhammad’s equity as a leader and belief in the principle of reciprocity is, again, key to his community-building; he urged laws that would bring about a more equitable social order (that a woman should be financially compensated for the labor of her wifely duties, for example), and customs by which all members of the community would come to care for one another. While the tribes remained divided, Muhammad brought together larger, more unified numbers, ultimately allowing him the leverage to negotiate peaceful solutions with the Quraysh.


[1] Karen Armstrong. Islam: A Short History (New York: Random House, Inc., 2002), 3.

[2] Daniel W. Brown. A New Introduction to Islam, 2nd. Ed. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 53.

[3] Daniel W. Brown. A New Introduction to Islam, 2nd. Ed. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 54.

[4] Daniel W. Brown. A New Introduction to Islam, 2nd. Ed. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 61.

[5] John Alden Williams, ed. Themes of Islamic Civilization (Berkeley, California: University of California Press: 1981). 13.

[6] Karen Armstrong. Islam: A Short History (New York: Random House, Inc., 2002), 10.

[7] John Alden Williams, ed. Themes of Islamic Civilization (Berkeley, California: University of California Press: 1981). 13.


Armstrong, Karen. Islam: A Short History. New York: Random House, Inc., 2002.

Brown, Daniel W. A New Introduction to Islam, 2nd. Ed. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Murata, Sachiko and William C. Chittick. The Vision of Islam. St. Paul, Minnesota: Program

House, 2006.

Williams, John Alden, ed. Themes of Islamic Civilization. Berkeley, California: University of

California Press: 1981.