By Dr. John Andrew Morrow
Shafaqna (May 19, 2019)
At the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, in the ancient land of Egypt, lived a monk by the name of John the Chalcedonian. A man of faith and conviction, he had devoted his life to God, prayer, fasting, contemplation, and solitude. And what better place to serve God than in the Sinai Peninsula, at the foot of two holy mountains, Mount Sinai, where God spoke to Moses, and Mount Catherine, where the martyred and incorrupt body of Catherine of Alexandria, who had been tortured to death due her Christian faith, was transported by angels upon high in the fourth century.
Yes, this was the site of choice for any man of God. It was surrounded by sacred sites and relics: the cave where Moses prayed for forty days and forty nights; the stone upon which Moses broke the tablets; the site where the Golden Calf was worshipped and the site of its destruction; the rock from which Moses, by the grace of God, made water flow; the twelve fountains of the twelve tribes of Israel; the miraculous print of Aaron, marked in stone; a mysterious monastery in the mountains devoid of bells but from which bells miraculous sounded; the spot where Elijah fled from the evil King Ahab and wicked Queen Jezebel; and the burning bush itself, thriving at the heart of the monastery of St. Catherine, though it was thousands of years old.
Yes, indeed, this was the place for one given to piety. This was the promised land for a lover of God. The Monastery of St. Catherine was not a memorial to old miracles. It was a place of living miracles where thirteen lamps burned miraculously, without the need of oil, and which were impossible to extinguish. When a monk would die, the lamp would die but when a monk would replace him, the new lamp would light up, on its own, miraculously.
And while one could spend a lifetime wondering in awe at all the signs of God that surrounded a spiritual seeker at the Monastery of St. Catherine’s and its surrounding region, there was one precious document, which was hardly old at all, that intrigued the monk the most. Compared to items in the monastery’s library, some of which dated to the early days of Christianity, it was truly a novelty. The unique article was a black palm-print on the hide of a gazelle. It was a promise of protection that had been granted to the monastery decades ago by a young shepherd turned caravan leader. The Abbot at the time, St. John Climacus, the author ofThe Ladder of Divine Ascent, had made a famous prophecy that the praiseworthy one, the young Muhammad, would become a prophet to the pagan Arabs. It was he who had pleaded for a letter of peace from Muhammad. It was he who had placed it on display at the very heart of the monastery. Oh, how he had hoped to see the fulfillment of his prophecy. But alas, it was not the will of God, as St. Climacus passed away in 606, a mere four years before Gabriel would appear to Muhammad on the Mountain of Light in Mecca.
After Muhammad rose to prominence, the monastery sent a delegation of monks to Medina in the year 623, where he provided a detailed list of rights, freedoms, privileges, and protections. The Prophet himself returned with them, in the company of his closest companions, to perform a pilgrimage to Mount Sinai and to pray for the soul of St. Climacus who had believed in him from the very beginning. By the time Muhammad passed away in 632, the message of Islam had spread throughout Arabia and was now about to illuminate the rest of the Middle East. Some of the monks at Mount Sinai were pleased and at peace. Others, however, were anxious.
By the dawn of the Muslim Conquest of Egypt in 640, knowledge of Islam had increased in the region. Muhammad’s Meccan message resonated with them. It focused on faith and fear of God. It was moral, ethical, and apocalyptic. His sayings which had circulated throughout the region sounded like those of Jesus. Even his early message from Medina was sweet to their ears. The religion of Muhammad was not a new religion. It was the religion of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. He was simply a reviver. Had Muhammad stopped at that point, the Jews and the Christians would surely have accepted him as one of theirs. The message of Muhammad, however, changed.
After laying the foundation of commonality, and stressing issues of theological universality, the reviver turned reformer. He started to criticize the creeds of the Jews and the Christians. He entered the dangerous field of dogmatic debate. His knowledge of doctrinal diversity amazed his adversaries. He played one denomination against the other like a skilled theological tactician, always coming out on top, and correcting them on matters of Christology. Some were confused. Some were confounded. Some were astonished. Some were astounded. It suffices to say that by the year 640, the honeymoon period between the Prophet Muhammad and the monks of Mount Sinai had come to an end. So long as he had agreed with their beliefs, they respected and revered him as a man of God. However, as soon as he called into question elements of their creed and canon laws, some of them started to see him as a son of Satan and a beast who beckoned the Anti-Christ.
John the Chalcedonian was a man of faith and a man of reason. The warm attitude towards Muhammad and Islam may have considerably cooled by the time he joined St. Catherine’s Monastery; however, he was not a man to be shackled to dogma and doctrine. The volte-face of some of the monks reminded him of the Jews of Medina. They too had prophecies about an Arabian prophet. They too had initially accepted him. However, they too had turned their backs on him when he wished to modify some of their beliefs and practices. Religion could sure make people stubborn. John, however, was a thinking man, a prayerful man, a man of contemplation who trusted his heart and his heart had always told him that the message of Muhammad was true. After all, was he not foretold by St. Climacus himself? Was this not the symbolic passing of the spiritual torch from Christianity to Islam? Light upon light and saint to saint? The difference between Christianity and Islam was one of degree. The transition from Jesus, son of God, to Jesus, spirit of God was easy for John. When it came to Jesus, the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings were clear: it was not God who had become man but man who had become at one with God. His mind understood it and his heart confirmed it.
Many monks were anxious as word reached them of the spread of Islam into Egypt. Would their holy monastery be destroyed by the demons who followed the false prophet? John, however, found increasing inner peace as Islam approached. The Arabs tribes of the Sinai were invited to Islam and joined the Muslims armies. Commencing with the countryside, then the villages, then the cities, they systematically started to conquer Egypt. The fears of the monks were assuaged. The Muslim armies that they feared and dreaded steered completely clear from the Monastery of St. Catherine. It was as if the Ashtiname of Muhammad, the Letter of Peace of the Prophet, provided a perimeter of protection. The monks who had doubted the Messenger of God, and who had slandered his name, shed tears of shame. They would hold fast to their Christian faith. They would keep their monastery. They would not be taxed. They would be protected by the promise of the Prophet which they now cherished more than ever.
John the Chalcedonian sat in his cell in front of a beautifully ornate medieval Byzantine Bible and a sheathed Arabian sword, one of many the monks had amassed fearing they would be forced to protect themselves from the invading Muslims and die as martyrs. John looked at his Bible and looked at his sword. The time had come to make a choice. What was the best way of defending the Word of God? Should he fight the Muslims or join the Muslims? Should he stand with the Byzantines who had oppressed Jews and fellow Christians for centuries and who were now fighting the faith of Islam? Or should he side with the Muslims whose new and final Messenger of God had promised to protect all believers? He understood then that the best way of defending the faith of St. Catherine’s Monastery was by defending the principles of the Prophet Muhammad who had promised to protect it. At that crossroads of history and religion, the best way to defend the doctrine of Jesus was by defending the doctrine of Muhammad. He looked at his Bible and his sword one last time. He took God and the Angels as his witnesses. He picked up the sword, stepped out of his cell, and left the monastery to join the jihad and spread the message of Muhammad.
Professor John Andrew Morrow completed his doctorate at the University of Toronto where he studied Hispanic, Indigenous, and Islamic Studies. He is the author of Finding W.D. Fard, Islam and the People of the Book, Restoring the Balance, The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World, Islamic Images and Ideas, Religion and Revolution, Islamic Insights, the Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine, and The Allah Lexicon, among other scholarly books.
Along with Charles Upton, Dr. John Andrew Morrow directs The Covenants of the Prophet Foundation, a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization dedicated to promoting peace and justice according to the model of religious pluralism and interfaith friendship established by the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him and his progeny, in his Covenants, his Treaties, his Letters, his Sunnah, and the Holy Qur‘an.