Medium (December 23, 2017)
By Barbara Castleton
Even with so much information bombarding every one of us all day every day, it is still a rare moment when we can legitimately stop and say, “Wow! I didn’t know that!” Such was my reaction when a co-author and friend, Dr. John A Morrow asked me to review his book “The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of His Time” pre-publication. A rigorously researched book, The Covenants .. details documents composed by the Prophet Muhammad in the early days of his caliphate which granted unheard of rights to non-Muslims, including Christians and Jews.
Wait! Aren’t we told almost daily that Muslims despise these two groups? Certainly, some may think so, either out of true belief or politically driven agendas, but just as our plantation-owning southern forefathers thought slavery was a condition approved by God and promoted in the Bible, the modern reigning view of Islam has a not a few fallacious quirks as well.
As much as Muhammad was the prophet of God and the receiver of divine instruction, he was also the soul and architect of the Islamic state, or Ummah, a body of influence, culture, religious strength, and expansion that had more to do with acculturation than subjugation. His connections with the ultimate wisdom enabled him to see both the societies of the Middle East and beyond with clarity and pragmatism, but also to construct a vision of what steps would produce a society in which all were safe and received in brotherhood. Says Morrow, “ A visionary long-term planner, the Prophet understood that the spread of Islam could take centuries. What he sought to create were the conditions under which the seeds of Islam could be planted and watered, thus enabling Muslim seeds to sprout, grow, and spread. If a population preferred to remain heathen, Christian or Jewish, they were entitled to do so as long as they entered into a covenant with the Islamic State as protected people.”
It began with the Constitution of Medina, one of the first governmental texts of its kind. Muhammad and around 75 disciples and family members were invited to Medina to be a catalyst for peace and civility within a conflicted population. Composed within months of his arrival in Yathrib (Medina), in 622 CE, the Constitution detailed an explicit administrative and governmental structure and specific rights and benefits of all citizens, including, “To the Jew who follows us belong help and equality. He shall not be wronged nor shall his enemies be aided.”
Al-Waqidi, a historian writing 200 years after the fact, explains that “ …when the Messenger of God arrived in Medina, the Jews, all of them, were reconciled with him, and he wrote an agreement between him and them. The Prophet attached every tribe with its confederates and established a protection between himself and them. He stipulated conditions to them, among which it was stipulated that they would not help any enemy against him.” In addition to this, the Constitution of Medina drew up laws that took the Ummah, the Islamic nation state, from a mere theocracy, or even a strictly political entity, into a social construction that had never before been attempted, a hybrid state in which a benign umbrella was spread over all, regardless of whether they were Muslim, Christian, Sabean, or Jew, all monotheists in the Abrahamic tradition.
As Islam spread among the people of Yathrib and the Arabian Peninsula, the Prophet went further, reaching out to multiple communities with an eye to achieving a mutually beneficial relationship. Two of the first recipients were the Christian community in Najran, in what is now the southern part of Saudi Arabia, and strangely, the monks who occupied the Monastery of St. Catherine, located far away at the base of Mount Sinai.
Tradition as well as ancient religious writings place Muhammad on the Sinai in his early years, accompanying his uncle on caravans that took them far and wide. It is said that the abbot of the monastery spotted an eagle circling young Muhammad’s head as the cleric looked down from the abbey’s heights. He prophesied that the young man would become a great leader, and when, in fact, that is what happened, the leadership of the monastery asked the Prophet Muhammad to honor their long-term relationship. The resulting covenant, signed with Muhammad’s palm print, served to to protect the abbey, the monks, the service workers, and all the physical structures as long as the “sea wets the shells.”
The covenants laid out a system of behavior, rights, privileges, and expectations for both parties, the Islamic state and its Muslim adherents, and other members of the community. Prime among these was the ongoing respect and protection of the religious institutions of the non-Muslim citizens. In document after document, the same phrases appear, anchoring these concepts. In the Covenant with the Monks from the Monastery of Saint Catherine, written in 2 AH, or 624 CE, the dictated treaty stipulates, “ No bishop is to be driven out of his bishopric. No monk is to be expelled from his monastery. No changes will be made with regards to their rights and sovereignty or anything in their possession provided that they remain friendly [towards Islam and Muslims]. They will reform the rights incumbent on them. They will not be oppressed nor will they oppress.” The Covenant with the Christians of Najran echoes these ideas, “To the Christians of Najran and its neighboring territories, God’s protection and the pledge of His Prophet extend to their lives, their religion, and their property. It applies to those who are present as well as those who are absent. There shall be no interference with the practice of their faith or their religious observances. There will be no change to their rights and privileges. No bishop shall be removed from his bishopric; no monk from his monastery, and no priest from his parish. They shall all continue to enjoy everything they previously enjoyed great or small. No image or cross shall be destroyed. They will not oppress or be oppressed.”
Finally, in the The Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World, we can read, “Never should any Christian be subjected to tyranny or oppression in this matter. It is not permitted to remove a bishop from his bishopric, a monk from his monastic life, or anchorite from his vocation as a hermit. Nor is it permitted to destroy any part of their churches, to take parts of their buildings to construct mosques or the homes of Muslims. Whoever does such a thing will have violated the pact of Allah, disobeyed his Messenger, and become estranged from the Divine Alliance.”
In treaty after treaty, these core promises were transcribed onto parchment and upheld, with rare exceptions, for centuries as each successive caliph honored the Prophet’s intentions by rewriting verbatim the original texts as they aged flaked, cracked, and gradually disintegrated.
Dr. Morrow has authenticated over a dozen covenants, documents written for communities that criss-crossed what was then the Islamic world, and in every one, the terms resonated with acceptance, community, and tolerance. Just a portion of the covenants researched and verified include:
The Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Assyrian Christians
The Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of Persia
The Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Armenian Christians
The Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Jews of Maqna
The Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Yemenite Jews
The Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Zoroastrians
The Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Coptic Christians of Egypt
The Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Syriac Orthodox Christians
The Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Samaritans
The Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Zoroastrians
John Morrow believes in and has launched a campaign to promote the idea that it is incumbent upon Muslims to adhere to the divinely composed wishes laid down by the Prophet Muhammad. This Covenant Initiative asks that members of all sects of Islam sign off on a declaration which says, “We the undersigned hold ourselves bound by the spirit and the letter of the covenants of the Prophet Muhammad…with the Christians of the world, in the understanding that these covenants, if accepted as genuine, have the force of law in the shariah today and that nothing in the shariah, as traditionally and correctly interpreted, has ever contradicted them.” The declaration, mirroring the intention of the covenants themselves, continues, specifically seeking to rebuild the bridge first outlined by the Prophet Muhammad between all the major monotheistic religions.