:: Muwaṭṭaʾ Roundtable :: Which is Superior: Medina or Mecca? The Muwaṭṭaʾ on the Unique Status of Medina and Its Scholarly Community

By Mariam Sheibani (Harvard Law School)

Muslim jurists unanimously agreed that Mecca and Medina were the most sanctified places on earth. They nonetheless debated which of the two was greater. On this question, the lines were drawn between the Mālikīs, who upheld the preeminence of Medina, and the other three schools who by and large championed Mecca. Both parties to the debate made recourse to the ample textual evidence available to support their view.

That the Malikīs championed Medina would come as no surprise to those familiar with early Islamic history. After all, Mālik was a leading representative of the Medinese juristic class, and in his legal reasoning, the understanding and embodied practice (ʿamal ahl al-Madīna) of the inhabitants of the town where the Prophet had resided for the last decade of his life provided a uniquely authoritative window onto the normative Prophetic precedent. Nonetheless, the reliability and the distinctiveness of Medinese legal understanding did not necessarily entail a claim for its absolute superiority over Mecca. In other words, the Medinese could possess more reliable legal knowledge even as Mecca retained its status as Islam’s most hallowed sanctuary.

While this seemingly trivial debate was continuously revisited in hadith commentaries and legal works, the Mālikī view on the superior status of Medina originated in the Muwaṭṭaʾ and in statements made by Mālik. Succeeding Mālikīs continuously restated and refined Mālik’s claim about the superiority of Medina over Mecca, often in the context of debates with members of other legal schools. Their claim of the superiority of Medina was made, repeated, and refined as a legitimating device to uphold the excellence of “the school of people of Medina” (madhhab ahl al-Madīna) and its epistemological and methodological foundations. This was an argument that Mālik made implicitly in the Muwaṭṭaʾ, which was carried on by his successors. In this short essay, I first survey the reports found in the Muwaṭṭaʾ and statements from Mālik underscoring the unique status of Medina and the knowledge of the Medinese. I then examine a vigorous exchange between Mālikī and Shāfiʿī jurists in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as a window onto the reception of Mālik’s claim of the superiority of Medina and his Medinese-centered legal epistemology.

In his Muwaṭṭaʾ, Mālik included a number of hadith reports evidencing the special status of Medina. Most of these were included in the early chapters of the “The Book of Miscellaneous Matters” (jāmiʿ) with which he ended the Muwaṭṭaʾ. Of the first six chapters of the Book of Miscellaneous Matters, five collected reports affirming the special status of Medina, addressing, among other things, the prayers the Prophet Muhammad made for its people, the virtues of residing in Medina, and its status as a blessed sanctuary.[1] Equally significant is the fact that Mālik did not compose similar Chapters underscoring the special virtues of Mecca, or for that matter Jerusalem, or other regions that the Prophet Muhammad commended, like the Levant and the Yemen.

Among the reports in the Muwaṭṭaʾ discussing the special status of Medina, two reports were the focal point of deliberation concerning the relative rank of Mecca and Medina in hadith commentaries. The first report no. 2565appeared in the Book of Miscellaneous Matters and was rendered in English by Fadel and Monette as follows:

According to Mālik, Yaḥyā b. Saʿīd reported from ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. al-Qāsim that Aslam, the freedman (mawlā) of ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb, informed him that he once visited ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿAyyāsh al-Makhzūmī, who was en route to Mecca. He noticed that ʿAbd Allāh had with him some water in which dried fruit had been steeped (nabīdh). Aslam said to him, “ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb loves this beverage.” ʿAbd Allāh then poured a draught of it into a large goblet and gave it to ʿUmar. ʿUmar raised it to his mouth and took a sip. He then lifted his head up and said, “What a great drink!” He drank some more and then passed it to a man on his right. When ʿAbd Allāh turned away to leave, ʿUmar called him over and said, “Are you the one who claims that Mecca is better than Medina?” ʿAbd Allāh said, “I merely said, ‘It is God’s sacred precinct (ḥaram), His sanctuary, and the place of His House.’” ʿUmar said, “I have no objections to what you have said about the House of God, or His sacred precinct.” ʿUmar then asked him again, “But are you the one who said that Mecca is better than Medina?” ʿAbd Allāh again said, “I merely said, ‘It is God’s sacred precinct, His sanctuary, and the place of His House.’” ʿUmar then said again, “I have no objections to what you have said about the House of God, or His sacred precinct,” and he left.

This report indicates that the relative superiority of Mecca to Medina was a topic discussed by Prophet Muhammad’s companions after his death. On its face, the report documents a leading authority of the Medinese school, the second caliph ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb (d. 23/644), expressing doubt that Mecca was superior to Medina. As is well-known, ʿUmar, his son ʿAbd Allāh (d. 73/693), and ʿAbd Allāh’s freedman (mawlā) Nāfiʿ (d. 117–20/735–38) formed what was arguably the most authoritative interpretive node for the Medinese scholarly community. Unexpectedly, some commentators on the Muwaṭṭaʾ noted that in this report, ʿUmar was not necessarily affirming a superior rank to Medina, but was only warning against the pre-Islamic bias towards Mecca and its exultation in a way that detracted from Islam’s new home in Medina.[2]

The second report in the Muwaṭṭaʾ that elicited discussion about the relative rank of Mecca and Medina is hadith no. 1331, in which the Prophet stated, as part of a longer hadith: “[…] ‘There is nothing equivalent to martyrdom, but there is no place on earth I would rather have contain my grave than this patch of ground here.’ He repeated this three times.”

The inclusion of these hadiths and others like them in the Muwaṭṭaʾ advanced a tacit argument for the superior status of Medina over other places, including Mecca. This implicit claim was buttressed by and read in light of other statements attributed to Mālik, in which he recurrently stated his preference for Medina over Mecca, and praised the distinctive knowledge of the early community that made its home there. Mālik enumerated many distinctions that sanctified Medina above all other places: God chose it as the refuge of his Prophet’s emigration, his place of residency and death, and the place where his hallowed soul and body continued to receive and bestow blessings from his burial place.[3] Accounting for these and other distinctions, Mālik asserted that Medina was more beloved to him and that he preferred it for residence, because “the Meccans expelled their Prophet, while the Medinese gave him refuge.”[4]

For Mālik, the residents of Medina were the best people after the Prophet, and the knowledge they safeguarded most reliably represented the authentic embodiment of the Prophet’s example to which all others should defer. As Mālik asserted:  everyone ought to follow the people of Medina” (al-nās tabaʿ li-ahl al-Madīna). In Mālik’s legal reasoning, the understanding and practice of the Medinese was foundational, as masterfully studied by Umar ʿAbd-Allah Wymann-Landgraf and explained by Fadel and Monette in the introduction to the present translation. Interestingly, Mālik’s belief concerning the special knowledge of the Medinese was not limited to the first generations of Islam, but extended equally to those who would inhabit the city at the end of time. Commenting on the famous hadith: “Islam began as a stranger and will return to being a stranger,” Mālik stated: “This means that it will return to Medina just as it originated there.”[5] Echoing Mālik, his student Abū Muṣʿab al-Zuhrī (d. 241 or 42/ 856 or 57) read into texts about the disappearance of knowledge and the decline of piety at the end of time an exception for the Medinese; they would retain authentic knowledge when it would be lifted from others who would be left to follow the ignorant.

Later Mālikīs restated and further developed and refined these arguments sustaining the superior status of Medina and the knowledge of its inhabitants, often in the context of debating with members of the other legal schools. One particularly animated episode was sparked in the sixth/twelfth century, when the North African Mālikī jurist Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ b. Mūsā (d. 544/1149) famously declared a consensus affirming that the Prophet’s grave was superior to all other places on earth, including the sanctuary of Mecca.[6] This triggered a new round of debate on the question. He apparently managed to convince some Shāfiʿīs, like Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī (d. 911/1505), who authored an entire treatise affirming why he believed Medina was superior to Mecca. Al-Suyūṭī also unreservedly affirmed Qāḍī ʿIyaḍ’s consensus, stating that the Prophet’s grave was superior to the Kaʿba itself – a claim that you may recall ʿUmar was reticent to make in the report cited in the Muwaṭṭaʾ.[7]

In contrast, the great Shāfiʿī jurist ʿIzz al-Dīn b. Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām (d. 660/1262) stridently upheld the normative Shāfiʿī position and introduced new arguments for the superiority of Mecca. He questioned the reliability of the transmission of Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ’s purported consensus and composed a section in his Qawāʿid al-aḥkām disputing the Mālikī position.[8] Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām relied not only on the textual evidence that emphasized the distinctive merits of Mecca, but also developed several maxims (sing. ʿida, pl. qawāʿid) broadly construing God’s designation of special merits to specific times and places.[9] The primary maxim declared that the relative sanctity of times and places was commensurate with the mercy and grace that God bestowed on the faithful in them. Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām used this principle to argue that what God bestowed upon the Prophet in his grave was specific to him, and therefore did not elevate the rank of his mosque or confer on Medina a special virtue elevating it above Mecca.[10] This was unlike Mecca, where innumerable blessings descended upon the faithful.

Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām’s student, the renowned Mālikī jurist Shihāb al-Dīn al-Qarāfī (d. 684/1285) defended the Mālikī doctrine of the superiority of Medina, especially the Prophet’s grave, against Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām’s assault. He argued that the reasons for preferment were numerous and could not be reduced to the single valuation of virtue in terms of reward as Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām had proposed. Al-Qarāfī stated plainly that he composed these principles to respond to what “some virtuous Shāfiʿīs had disputed from Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ,” referring here to his teacher Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām.[11] In the course of contesting his teacher’s critique of the Mālikī position, al-Qarāfī deployed the superiority of Medina as part of a larger argument for the more reliable epistemic foundations of the school – a claim, which we saw was made tacitly by Mālik, but was articulated here by al-Qarāfī more explicitly:

It is known that Medina was the refuge of the Master of the Messengers, the place where the religion was established, the believers’ call (daʿ) triumphed, and the burial place of the Master of the first and the last [of mankind]. In it [Medina] the religion was perfected, certainty was elucidated, and glory and strength were achieved. [And so] the transmission from its people is the most excellent transmission and the most reliable authority (aṣāḥḥ al-muʿtamadāt). This is because in Medina the sons relate from their fathers and succeeding generations from their predecessors. So [their] transmission is removed from the realm of mere opinion (ẓann) and conjecture (takhmīn) to the realm of knowledge (ʿilm) and certainty (yaqīn).[12]

In passages like these, medieval Mālikī jurists like al-Qarāfī constructed an argument for the uniquely dependable transmission of Mālikī doctrine that provided more certain and authoritative knowledge than the epistemology relied upon by the other legal schools. This line of reasoning grew out of Mālik’s claim for the superior rank of Medina over Mecca first made in the Muwaṭṭaʾ and in other statements from him. Mālik’s position later took on a life of its own, as evident in the consensus declared by al-Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ and then debated by Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām and al-Qarāfī. In the context of intra-madhhab debate, the question of the relative rank of the two sanctuaries, which in itself did not directly implicate any significant theological or legal consequences, assumed monumental importance.


[1] “Chapter 1. Supplication (Duʿāʾ) for Medina and Its People”; “Chapter 2. What Has Come Down regarding Residing in Medina and Departing from It”; “Chapter 3. What Has Come Down regarding Declaring Medina to Be a Sanctuary”; “Chapter 4. What Has Come Down regarding the Medinese Fever”; “Chapter 6. Miscellaneous Reports regarding What Has Come Down about Medina”.

[2] Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, al-Istidhkār al-jāmiʿ li-madhāhib fuqahā’ al-amṣar wa-ʿulamāʾ al-aqṭāʿ, eds. Sālim Muḥammad ʿAṭā and MuḥammadʿAlī Muʿawwad. 9 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 1423/2002), 8: 248.

[3] Al-Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ b. Mūsā, Tartīb al-madārik wa-taqrīb al-masālik li-maʿrifat aʿlām madhhab Mālik, ed. Aḥmad Bakīr Maḥmūd. 8 vols. (Rabat: Wizārat al-Awqāf wal-Shuʾūn al-Islāmiyya, 1965-83), 1: 34–35.

[4] Al-Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ b. Mūsā, Tartīb al-madārik, 35.

[5] al-Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ b. Mūsā, Tartīb al-madārik, 38.

[6] See al-Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ b. Mūsā, Ikmāl al-muʿlim bi-fawāʾid Muslim, ed. Yaḥyā Ismaʿīl (al-Manṣūra: Dār al-Wafā’ 1419/1998), 4: 511.

[7] Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī, al-Ḥijaj al-mubīna fī al-tafḍīl bayn Makka wa-l-Madīna, ed. ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad al-Darwīsh. (Damascus: al-Yamāma li-l-ṭabʿ, 1405/1985), 48.

[8] Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām, al-Qawāʿid al-kubrā aw Qawāʿid al-aḥkām fī maṣāliḥ al-anām, 2nd ed., eds. ʿUthmān Ḍamīrsiyya and Naẓīr Ḥammād. 2 vols. (Damascus: Dār al-Qalam, 2007), 1: 62–69.

[9] Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām, Qawāʿid, 1: 62–63.

[10] Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām, Qawāʿid, 1: 69.

[11] Shihāb al-Dīn Aḥmad al-Qarāfī, Kitāb al-furūq aw Anwār al-burūq fī anwāʾ al-furūq. 3rd ed., ed. Muḥammad Sarrāj and ʿAlī Jumuʿa. 2 vols. (Cairo: Dār al-Salām, 2010), 2: 679–80.

[12] Al-Qarāfī, alFurūq, 2: 676.

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