Madinah Market during the Prophet’s Time (Part 1)

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia


Islam is a comprehensive religion and a way of life. It came to raze people’s erring living patterns and furnish them with such as are based upon the heavenly paradigm instead. The Islamic theory of urban planning and development is as old as the Muslim community. Its fundamental principles have been comprehensively laid in the Holy Qur’an as well as in the sayings and practices of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Certainly, the best manifestation of the earliest planning and urbanization in Islam was the establishment of the Muslim community in the Prophet’s city of Madinah in the wake of the migration from Makkah (Hijrah) in 622 AC.


In Islamic vocabulary, the term Hijrah denotes the migration of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his followers from Makkah to Madinah in search of a better setting for the propagation and realization of the Islamic message. At the time of the Hijrah, the ongoing revelation of Islam was already about thirteen years old and the Muslims were yet to set up a free and autonomous state of their own. Once the city of Madinah with most of its inhabitants wholeheartedly welcomed the new religion, so fiercely disapproved of by many where it had originated, i.e., in Makkah, the wait finally came to an end and the stage was set for broadening the focus of the young community’s undertakings. As a result, the focus of revelation was likewise widened. The religion of Islam thus began to assert itself as a universal code of life overlooking no segment of human existence, a momentous development indeed, after it had been portrayed as an inclusive belief system alone during the precarious episode in Makkah. From the point of general planning, development and urbanization, the whole duration of the Islamic city-state of Madinah headed by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) — a period of approximately 10 years — was exceptionally eventful too.

It is the nature of Islam that provides humanity with basic rules of morality and guidelines of proper conduct in those spheres of life which are not related to prescribed ritual worship, such as the spheres of urban planning and development, for example. Upon such general principles and guidelines people can establish systems, regulations, views and attitudes in order to comprehend and regulate their worldly life in accordance with their time, regions and needs. Since every age has its own problems and challenges, the solutions and perceptions deduced from the fundamental principles and permanent values of life have got to be to some extent different. Their substance, however, due to the uniformity and consistency of the divinely given foundation and sources from which they stem, will always be the same. Islam is based on essential human nature, which is constant and not subject to change according to time and space. It is the outward forms which change while the fundamental principles, the basic values and the essential human nature together with man’s basic needs remain unchanged.

Islam and the idea of work

In the wake of the arrival of Islam and Muslims in Madinah from Makkah, a major change in the economic life of the former occurred. The phenomenon, however, was just a part of a total change that was sweeping across the Madinah oasis, and which appear to have been spontaneous and natural, after such splendid concepts of Islam as work considered a form of ‘ibadah (worship), almsgiving (Zakah), charity, honest and just wealth acquisition and distribution, equality and equity, financial prudence, humility, etc., had been comprehensively institutionalized and imbibed by the people. Such was the case also because – as Isma’il Raji al-Faruqi put it – “in contrast to Christianity’s separation of Church and state, Islam holds that the “church” demands the “state”; that the existence and good health of the state are of the essence of religion, and similarly, economic activity. The economy of the Ummah and its good health are of the essence of Islam, just as Islam’s spirituality is inexistent without just economic action.”[1]

Of the first things that the Prophet (pbuh) soon upon his arrival in Madinah has emphasized to both the Migrants and Helpers (al-Ansar or the natives of Madinah) was the idea of work as an act of worship and as an avenue to realizing some of the finest goals of the nascent Islamic community. The people have been fervently encouraged to seek work opportunities and labor vigorously so that everyone in line with his/her ability may be turned quickly into a community asset, rather than to remain its liability. The people were to satisfy their innate cravings for food, shelter and comfort, and to realize balance and harmony in their relations with men and nature. The earth was to be thus transformed into a beautiful, productive and friendly workshop or a plant, a fertile farm, and a beautiful garden or an orchard.[2] In doing so, nonetheless, spirituality was never to be bartered for the trivial delights of this world. Maximum efforts were always to be made towards absorbing fully the Word of God, putting it then into action and disseminating it to whoever, wherever and however possible, making it stand highest among all other sham and pretentious ‘words’. The net result of this strategy in the end could only be the procuring of benefits and the warding off of injuries for the perfection of people’s welfare in this world and in the next. 

The assertion that work and matters directly and indirectly related to it attracted a good deal of the Prophet’s attention could be backed up by the fact that the Prophet (pbuh) was habitually encouraging people to revive and cultivate the land, to build houses if they were homeless, and to do just any legitimate work so that they did not have to ask others to fulfill some of their basic needs. The bounty of Allah, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, is the privilege of nobody, and one of the best things that one could do is to eat from the earnings of his own manual labor. It is illegitimate for a healthy adult male to be dependent in terms of acquiring basic life provisions on another individual, organization, or the government. The Prophet (pbuh) said: “By Him in whose hand myself is, to take your rope and gather firewood on your back is better for you than that you come to a man to whom Allah has given some of His favor and ask him, so he gives to you or refuses.”[3]

Also: “Nobody has ever eaten a better meal than that which one has earned by working with one’s own hands. The Prophet of Allah, Dawud (David) used to eat from the earnings of his manual labor.”[4]

Also: “If anyone brings barren land into cultivation, it belongs to him, and the unjust vein has no right.”[5]

Also: “If anyone reaches a water which has not been approached before by any Muslim, it belongs to him.” The narrator of this hadith remarked that having heard these words the people went out running and marking (on the land).[6]

Also: “There is none amongst the Muslims who plants a tree or sows seeds, and then a bird, or a person or an animal eats from it, but is regarded as a charitable gift for him.”[7] Accordingly, land cultivation amounts to a form of sadaqah jariyah (long-lasting charity).

Also: “Whoever takes a piece of the land of others unjustly, he will sink down the seven earths on the Day of Resurrection.”[8]

Also: “Beware, if anyone wrongs a contracting man, or diminishes his right, or forces him to work beyond his capacity, or takes from him anything without his consent, I shall plead for him on the Day of Judgment.”[9]

However, if the idea of work and sustenance procurement is misconstrued, in turn becoming one’s egocentric goal of life, then the whole thing instead of being a vehicle for achieving God’s pleasure in both worlds, could turn out to be the source of one’s sorrow and misery in this world as well as in the Hereafter. Certainly, this the Prophet (pbuh) had in mind when he proclaimed on seeing a coulter (sikkah) and some land cultivation tools: “No sooner do these enter a house than God brings about ignominy to it.”[10] Material wealth is to remain a means, an instrument, a carrier of the spiritual. Islamic message never approves of it to be transformed into a goal of one’s existence; to do so is to renounce the spiritual.

Since work in Islam is a form of ‘ibadah it goes without saying that only those efforts which are infused with the spirit of excellence, merit and genuineness are acceptable, for the reason that God is good and He loves and accepts only that which is good. Premeditated mediocrity, procrastination, laziness, apathy, frivolity, ineptitude, and the other similar qualities, are all foreign to Islam and are thus intolerable. Striving for comprehensive excellence is in fact one of the major characteristics of Islam.

It should be borne in mind here that both men and Jinns have not been created save to worship God. They are to do so not only in their plain religious rituals and in the places designated for the purpose, but in every utterance, undertaking and thought of theirs, every time and everywhere, (al-Dhariyat 56). Hence, as far as the Muslims are concerned, the life is all about worship and total submission to God; it is all one sweet song of praise to the Creator and Lord of the universe. However, if the same is not anchored in talking, living out and proliferating comprehensive excellence, then it may remain short of reaching the state of stipulated perfection and, as such, may fail to secure God’s full appreciation and reward. God says: “Say: ‘Shall we tell you of those who lose most in respect of their deeds? Those whose efforts have been wasted in this life, while they thought that they were acquiring good by their works.” (al-Kahf 103-104)  

Madinah and its economic dynamism

When the Migrants migrated to Madinah, they came almost without anything in their hands, while the Helpers possessed lands and date palms. In actual fact, while in Makkah some Migrants were fairly rich, but on deciding to migrate as Muslims to Madinah, the Makkans did not let them transfer their wealth. Everything that they had left behind in Makkah, the Makkans dispensed with by either putting it up for sale or simply destroying it. A wholesome illustration of this appalling situation was the migration of a companion Suhayb b. Sinan. Suhayb was supposed to migrate together with the Prophet (pbuh) and Abu Bakr. However, the Makkans decided to prevent at all costs the migration of the Prophet (pbuh) and intending to kill him, they set several traps. The Prophet (pbuh) and Abu Bakr by Allah’s blessing evaded the traps, but Suhayb fell into one of them and so was hindered for some time from emigrating. Eventually, he somehow managed to get rid of the infuriated Makkans and instantly went following in the footsteps of the other Muslims across the desert. However, the Makkans sent their hunters to follow him. When they reached him, they agreed to take away his wealth in exchange for letting him go freely. The Makkans told Suhayb: “You came to us as a poor wretch.[11] Your money increased in our land and among us you claimed high rank and now you want to escape together with your money?” Suhayb guided his foes to the place where he had hidden his fortune, and then they parted their ways as agreed beforehand. Suhayb continued hurriedly his journey towards Madinah, and when he came into view, the Prophet (pbuh) was sitting surrounded by his companions. No sooner had the Prophet (pbuh) noticed him than he called to him cheerfully: “O Abu Yahya, a profitable sale, a profitable sale!”[12] Hereupon, the following Qur’anic verse was revealed: “And there is the type of man who gives his life to earn the pleasure of Allah; and Allah is full of kindness to (His) devotees.”[13]

Originally, after the Migrants had arrived in Madinah, the Helpers asked the Prophet (pbuh) to divide the date-palm trees between them and their brethren from Makkah, which he nevertheless disapproved of. Then they all concurred that the Helpers divide their properties with the Migrants on the condition that the latter would give half the fruit from the orchards every year, and they would recompense the Helpers by working with them and putting in labor. This situation continued for several years and was as good as over subsequent to the conquest of Khaybar in the seventh year when all the Migrants economically became virtually self-sufficient.[14]

So concerned have the companions of the Prophet (pbuh) been about planting and land cultivation – aside from other modes of work – that both the Migrants and Helpers were regularly dubbed as the people of planting and cultivation (ahl zar’).[15] Such a dominant milieu of Madinah has been implied, even though humorously, yet clearly, on an occasion when the Prophet (pbuh) narrated a story from the life in Paradise or Jannah. He said: “One of the inhabitants of Jannah will ask Allah to allow him to cultivate the land. Allah will ask him: ‘Are you not living in the pleasures you like?’ He will say: ‘Yes, but I like to cultivate the land.” The Prophet (pbuh) said that the man will be then allowed to sow the seeds and the plants will grow up and get ripe, ready for reaping and so on till they will be as huge as mountains within a wink. Allah will then say to the man: “O son of Adam, take here you are, gather (the yield); nothing satisfies you.” Of those who were listening to the Prophet’s address was a bedouin who remarked on hearing the account: “The man must be either from Quraysh (a Migrant) or a Helper, for they are farmers, whereas we are not farmers.” The Prophet (pbuh) just smiled (at this).[16]

The latest developments in Madinah made the management, distribution and consumption of water, land irrigation, and digging up and sharing inland waterways, of the most significant factors impinging on the Madinah economic reality. There is a well documented case in which a Helper argued with al-Zubayr, a Migrant, in the presence of the Prophet (pbuh) about the Harra canals used for irrigating the date-palms. The Prophet (pbuh), passing his judgment, said: “O al-Zubayr, irrigate your land first and then let the water flow to the land of others.” On that, the Helper said to the Prophet (pbuh): “Is it because he is your aunt’s son?” On that, the color of the Prophet’s face changed and he said giving al-Zubayr his full right: “O al-Zubayr, irrigate your land and withhold the water till it reaches the walls that are between the pits around the trees and then stop (i.e. let the water go to the other’s land).” The following Qur’anic verse was revealed in that connection: “But no by thy Lord, they can have no (real) Faith until they make thee judge in all disputes between them, and find in their souls no resistance against thy decisions, but accept them with the fullest conviction.” (al-Nisa’ 65)[17]

However, the appellation that both the Helpers and Migrants have been the people of planting and cultivation was more of a personification of the Prophet’s companions’ attitude towards the subject of work, production and sustainable development by means of agriculture, in particular, and towards the subject of realizing balance and harmony in their relations with men and nature, in general, rather than an attempt to categorize the real means of making their respective livelihoods. This is so because the Helpers were generally famous for their interest and expertise in land cultivation, whereas the Migrants were known rather as merchants both before and after the Hijrah. Then again, the Madinah society was so much oriented towards integration, brotherhood and unity that its radical transformation process before long started rendering the delineation of the Helpers as farmers and the Migrants as traders – in so far as the latest economic experiences of the Madinah city-state were concerned – something of an impracticality. There have been Helpers who were very successful traders prior to and after the advent of Islam and the Prophet (pbuh) in Madinah,[18] as there have been many a Migrant who quickly, against all odds, started excelling in agriculture. Even some women were reported to have been practicing a degree of trade in Madinah, under the conditions which had called for it, and the Prophet (pbuh) voiced no objection whatsoever to it.[19]

As a result, in addition to being a fertile oasis bent on agriculture, Madinah was likewise recognized as a noteworthy trade point in which the Jews, nonetheless, have been economically much stronger than the Arabs. The strategic geographical location of Madinah was pivotal in encouraging its people to indulge in business, not only internally but also with the outside world. It was lying near the bustling trade route between Yemen and Syria. The value of the trade done by the people of Makkah alone on this route – not to count that of Taif and other places – amounted to about two hundred thousand dinars annually.[20] It was thus logical that the Muslims after the Hijrah right away embarked on retaliating against the Makkans by blocking the said route and striking at their caravans. This kind of warfare was the immediate cause of the first and perhaps most decisive battle between the Muslims and Makkans, i.e., the battle of Badr. The battle took place in the second year after the Hijrah.

A companion ‘Abd al-Rahman b. ‘Awf has shed some light on the nature of the developments which the new Muslim community was putting up in Madinah in the wake of the Hijrah. He said: “When we came to Madinah as emigrants, the Prophet (pbuh) established a bond of brotherhood between me and Sa’d b. al-Rabi’. Sa’d b. al-Rabi’ said to me: “I am the richest among the Helpers, so I will give you half of my wealth and you may look at my two wives and whichever of the two you may choose I will divorce her, and when she has completed her prescribed period (before marriage) you may marry her.” ‘Abd al-Rahman replied: “I am not in need of all that. Is there any market-place where trade is practiced?” Sa’d replied: “The market of Banu Qaynuqa’ (the Jewish tribe).” ‘Abd al-Rahman went to the market the following day. He continued going there regularly, and few days later he came having traces of yellow (scent) on his body. The Prophet (pbuh) asked him whether he had got married and ‘Abd al-Rahman replied in affirmative. Then the Prophet (pbuh) asked him to give a wedding banquet (walimah) even if with one sheep.[21] ‘Abd al-Rahman b. ‘Awf ultimately emerged as one of the wealthiest Prophet’s companions dubbed alongside such as were like him as Khuzzan Allah (Allah’s treasurers).[22] 

The Prophet’s companion Abu Hurayrah once while disclosing the reasons why neither the Migrants nor the Helpers narrate from the Prophet (pbuh) as much as he does, portrayed vividly the state of the Muslims’ eagerness for work and productivity in Madinah: “My brothers from the Migrants were busy in the market while I used to stick to the Prophet (pbuh) content with what fills my stomach; so I used to be present when they were absent and I used to remember when they used to forget. And my brothers from the Helpers used to be busy with their properties and I was one of the poor men of suffah. I used to remember the narrations when they used to forget.”[23]

Isma’il Raji al-Faruqi wrote: “Upon arrival in Madinah, after his Hijrah, the Prophet (pbuh) asked the Ansar (Muslims of Madinah) to adopt the Muhajirin, their fellow Muslims who emigrated thence, running away from death at the hands of their enemies. Many of the Muhajirin accepted to be adopted, to be thus relieved of the trials of having to reestablish themselves. Some accepted a little loan to start with, and which they paid back later. Those who pleased the Prophet (pbuh) most, however, were those who were too proud to accept any aid. Without capital, tools, or a profession, they went to the open fields to gather timber for fuel, to carry it on their backs for sale in the city; and, little by little, they made for themselves a niche in the business world.”[24]

It was reasonable, therefore, that the Prophet (pbuh) after expelling the Jewish tribe Banu al-Nadir from Madinah in the fourth year, gave most of their land and plentiful date-palm trees to the Migrants, to the absolute consent and delight of the Helpers. Only to two Helpers did the Prophet (pbuh) grant of the abandoned property. He did so just because the two were truly destitute and so in need as much as the Migrants. The members of the Banu al-Nadir tribe were allowed to leave Madinah in safety carrying along of their riches only that which their camels could carry. Endorsing the actions of the Prophet (pbuh) pertaining to the treatment of Banu al-Nadir, as well as to the distribution of their confiscated possessions, the Qur’an said in the chapter al-Hashr (the Gathering or Banishment) which was revealed in consequence of the conflict with Banu al-Nadir:[25] “(Some part is due) to the indigent Muhajirs, those who were expelled from their homes and their property, while seeking Grace from Allah and (His) Good Pleasure, and aiding Allah and His Messenger: such are indeed the truthful.” (al-Hashr 8)

Praising the splendid  attitude of the Helpers, not only during the incident with Banu al-Nadir, but also throughout the trials and tribulations that they in particular and the Muslims in Madinah in general have been constantly going through, Allah says in the same chapter and aptly in the next verse: “And those (the Helpers) who before them, had homes (in Madinah) and had adopted the Faith, – show their affection to such as came to them for refuge, and entertain no desire in their hearts for things given to the (latter), but give them preference over themselves, even though poverty was their (own lot). And those saved from the covetousness of their own souls, – they are the ones that achieve prosperity.” (al-Hashr 9)

Yusuf Ali, the translator and commentator of the Qur’an, commented on the latter verse: “…Until the Ummah got its own resources, the Helpers regularly gave and the Refugees (the Migrants) regularly received. The Helpers counted it a privilege to entertain the Refugees, and even the poor vied with the rich in their spirit of self-sacrifice. When the confiscated land and property of the Banu al-Nadir was divided, and the major portion was assigned to the Refugees, there was not the least jealousy on the part of the Helpers. They rejoiced in the good fortune of their brethren. And incidentally they were themselves relieved of anxiety and responsibility on their behalf.”[26]

How Islam views the idea of work (seeking of Allah’s bounty) and how it can be related to other religious and societal duties at various stages or grades has been to some extent encapsulated in the verses wherein the Qur’an speaks about the Muslim weekly Day of Assembly, Friday, and its mandatory congregational prayer: “O ye who believe! When the call is proclaimed to prayer on Friday (the Day of Assembly), hasten earnestly to the Remembrance of Allah, and leave off business (and traffic): that is best for you if ye but knew! And when the Prayer is finished, then may ye disperse through the land, and seek of the Bounty of Allah: and remember Allah frequently that ye may prosper.” (al-Jumu’ah 9-10)

[1] Al-Faruqi Isma’il Raji, Al-Tawhid: its Implications for Thought and Life, (Herndon: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1995), p. 157.

[2] Ibid., p. 82.

[3] Malik b. Anas, al-Muwatta’, Book 58, No. 58.2.10.

[4] Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Buyu’, Hadith No. 286.

[5] Abu Dawud, Sunan Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Kharaj wa al-‘Imarah wa al-Fay’, Hadith No. 3067.

[6] Ibid., Hadith No. 3065.

[7]Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Muzara’ah, Hadith No. 513.

[8]Ibid., Kitab al-Mazalim, Hadith No. 634.

[9] Abu Dawud, Sunan Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Kharaj wa al-‘Imarah wa al-Fay’, Hadith No. 3046.

[10] Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Muzara’ah, Hadith No. 2153.

[11] When he was a boy Suhayb b. Sinan was brought to Makkah from Iraq as a slave. He was later emancipated by his master on account of his extraordinary intelligence and sincerity, becoming thereupon an active and affluent trader. (Khalid Khalid Muhammad, Men Around the Messenger, translated into English by Shaykh Muhammad Mustafa Gemeiah, (n.pp: al-Manarah, n.d.), p. 106)

[12]Khalid Khalid Muhammad, Men Around the Messenger, p. 109.

[13]Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Ikhtasarahu al-Sabuni Muhammad ‘Ali, (Beirut: Dar al-Qur’an al-Karim, 1981), vol. 1 p. 184.

[14] Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-Jihad wa al-Siyar, Hadith No. 4375. Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Hibah, Hadith No. 799.

[15] Al-Kattani, al-Taratib al-Idariyyah, (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi, 1980), vol. 2 p. 44.

[16] Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Muzara’ah, Hadith No. 538.

[17] Ibid., Kitab al-Musaqah, Hadith No. 548-550.

[18] Khalid Khalid Muhammad, Men Around the Messenger, p. 262.

[19] Al-Kattani, al-Taratib al-Idariyyah, vol. 2 p. 116.

[20] Abul A’la al-Maududi, The Meaning of the Qur’an, (Lahore: Islamic Publications Limited, 1992), vol. 4 p. 111.

[21] Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Buyu’, Hadith No. 264.

[22] Al-Kattani, al-Taratib al-Idariyyah, vol.2 p. 403.

[23] Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Buyu’, Hadith No. 263.

[24] Al-Faruqi Isma’il Raji, Al-Tawhid: its Implications for Thought and Life, p. 174.

[25] The Jewish tribe Banu al-Nadir was banished from Madinah because they, as a climax of their continuous wrongdoing and deceit, conspired to assassinate the Prophet (pbbuh) when he once paid a formal visit to them.

[26] The Holy Qur’an, English Translation of the Meanings and Commentary; see the commentary of the verse 9 from the al-Hashr chapter. (Note No. 5383)

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