Understanding the roots of Islamic social activism: The Pact of Chivalry
“Even if [highly prized] red camels were offered to me in exchange for [renouncing] the Pact of Chivalry, I would not accept them.” – Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)
Azzad has taken on a leading role in financial activism and social justice of late. This is inspired in part by an instance in the life of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) when he joined the Hilf-ul-Fudul, or Pact of Chivalry.
The Pact of Chivalry was an agreement among certain tribes of Arabia that began prior to Muhammad’s prophethood. Its purpose was largely economic, aiming to ensure safe and orderly access to markets and eliminate oppression and injustice. It was the result of a shaky truce among tribes following one of Arabia’s many wars in the sixth century CE.
Part non-aggression pact and part social justice regime, the group’s members pledged to help — without discrimination — anyone who had been wronged in Mecca, to aid the weak and downtrodden against the powerful. Muhammad’s clan, and by extension the man himself, agreed to take part.
One of the most important clauses in the oath of the Pact of Chivalry was a call for “equity in society.” This meant that even the humblest of citizens would be able to challenge and demand redress from the most powerful, a radical concept in practically lawless Arabia.
Only a handful of tribes participated in the pact, yet it was a revolutionary agreement. Previously, help had been given on the basis of tribal affiliation, and strangers and travelers who did not belong to Meccan tribes were considered ineligible for help.
After the first revelations and the start of his divine mission, Prophet Muhammad remained a member of the Pact of Chivalry despite the fact that many of the participants in the agreement rejected the message of Islam.
In a sign of his respect for the universal principles of social justice embodied by the agreement, he is reported to have said: “Even if [highly prized] red camels were offered to me in exchange for [renouncing] the Pact of Chivalry, I would not accept them.”
The agreement is recognized by many as the beginning of a system focused on the establishment of peace and equity through social justice, and it is cited by Muslims today as a prime antecedent and justification for protecting the marginalized.
This example is worth contemplating as Azzad and the larger Muslim community deepen our involvement in social causes in the United States.