By Dr. Halim Rane, Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at Griffith University in Australia
The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad were written after his migration in 622 to Yathrib (Medina) from Mecca, where he and his companions endured intense persecution that ranged from public ridicule to physical assault and torture as well as the ostracism of Muhammad’s clan. Some of those who became Muslims in Mecca were forced to seek refuge across the Red Sea under the protection of the Christian Aksum Kingdom in Abyssinia (Ethiopia). One should not understate the Prophet Muhammad’s close relations and connections with Christians, including the Askum Negus Al-Najashi, Bahira the monk whom he met on a journey to Syria as a young man, and his wife Khadija’s cousin, Waraqa ibn Nawfal, whom he consulted upon receiving the very first revelation of the Qur’an in 610.
After migrating from Mecca to Medina, Muhammad received a revelation permitting Muslims, for the first time, to defend themselves against the continued aggression of the Meccan polytheists:
Permission [to fight] has been given to those who are being fought, because they were wronged. And indeed, Allah is competent to give them victory. [They are] those who have been evicted from their homes without right only because they say, ‘Our Lord is Allah.’ And were it not that Allah checks the people, some by means of others, there would have been demolished monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of Allah is much mentioned. And Allah will surely support those who support Him. Indeed, Allah is Powerful and Exalted in Might (Qur’an 22:39–40).
The second of these two verses is very significant as it calls on Muslims to also defend Christian and Jewish places of worship indicating that Islam was not intended to be exclusivist but to defend the right of diverse faith communities to peacefully coexist. The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad provide an even more detailed expression of the Qur’anic invocation to protect monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques (Qur’an 22:40).
When the Prophet Muhammad settled in Medina he formalized his already strong, peaceful and respectful relations with fellow monotheists. He wrote a Charter of Medina outlining the rights and responsibilities of the city’s various Arab and Jewish tribes, which stated that all belong to a single community (ummah). The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad are an extension of his pledge, in the name of Allah, to protect the rights of those outside of Medina—Christian, Jewish and other monotheistic communities—and defend their right to live in peace and security. El-Wakil provides the following summary of the contents of the Covenants in general:
1. The Muslims would protect the churches and monasteries of the Christians. They would not demolish any church property either to build mosques or to build houses for the Muslims;
2. All ecclesiastical property of the Christians would be exempt from every tax;
3. No ecclesiastical authority would ever be forced by the Muslims to abandon his post;
4. No Christian would ever be forced by the Muslims to become a convert to Islam;
5. If a Christian woman married a Muslim, she would have full freedom to follow her own religion.
The wording of the various Covenants is very similar in spite of the diversity of geographical locations and communities that possess them, which suggests a unique origin rather than a multiplicity of forgeries—examples of which include the Covenant with the Monks of St Catherine Monastery in Mount Sinai and the Covenant with the Christians of Najran. The original of the former was dictated by the Prophet Muhammad to his most trusted companion, cousin and son-in-law, Ali bin Abi Talib (d. 661), in the second year following the migration (around 624). The document also includes a list of 22 witnesses from among his most prominent companions. Historical records suggest that the original was taken from Egypt to Istanbul by the Ottoman Sultan Salim I in 1517. Analysis to date has been based on copies or recensions of the Covenants, while the search for surviving originals continues.
Although earlier scholarship dismissed these documents as apocryphal or pious forgeries, recent analysis of multiple Covenants across diverse non-Muslim communities with a specific focus on the dating, stipulations, phrasing, and lists of witnesses has led El-Wakil to conclude otherwise:
… the covenants of the Prophet with (1) the Christians of Najran, (2) the Monks of Mount Sinai, (3) the Armenian Christians, (4) the one written on Monday 29 Rabi al-Thani 4 AH, (5) the 1538 reproduction with the Christians of the World, (6) with the Jews of Khaybar and Maqna and (7) with the Samaritans—are all essentially authentic. The same applies to the covenants of Umar with (8) the Christians of Jerusalem and (9) the Christians of Mesopotamia, as well as (10) Ali’s covenant with the Armenian Christians. This gives us a total of seven authentic covenants that can be traced back to the Prophet and two that can be traced back to Umar, and one that can be traced back to Ali.
The Qur’an and Covenants clearly establish that the original Islam of the Prophet Muhammad accepted religious pluralism and cultural diversity and established peaceful coexistence as the normative basis of relations between communities. Considine contends that the Covenants provide a strong narrative for religious pluralism in Islam, which he associates with genuine social interaction, seeking understanding between diverse groups, commitment to various religious values and institutions, and inter-religious dialogue. This characterization of early Islam as embracing religious pluralism is corroborated by the writings of the first Christians that lived under Muslim rule, following the conquests of the Near East after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632). These Syriac texts, such as the letters of the East Syrian Catholicos Ishoyahb III (d. 659) to another bishop, state of the Arab conquerors:
Not only, as you know, do they not oppose Christianity. Rather, they are givers of praise to our faith, givers of honor to our Lord’s priests and holy ones, and givers of aid to churches and monasteries.
Such statements are consistent with the provisions of the Covenants and reflect other early Syriac writings about the good treatment of Christians under Muslim rule, such as The Book of Main Points by John bar Penkaye. Although we find that within a few decades there seems of be an erosion of adherence to the Covenants in many lands under Muslim rule, some Muslim scholars retained knowledge of them. For instance, a well-known Maliki jurist, Shahab Ad-Deen Al-Qarafi (d. 1285), stated in his book Al-Furuq:
The covenant of protection imposes upon us certain obligations toward ahl adh-dhimmah. They are our neighbors, under our shelter and protection upon the guarantee of Allah, His Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) and the religion of Islam. Whoever violates these obligations against anyone of them, by damaging his reputation, or by doing him some injury, has breached the Covenant of Allah, His Messenger, and his conduct runs counter to the teachings of Islam.
Over the centuries, the writings of non-Muslims under Muslim rule show they were increasingly subjected to discrimination and violations of rights in the name of Islam through rules that came to be part of the so-called dhimmi system of ‘protected’ minorities. The scholarly consensus seems to be that this mistreatment was based on a document referred to as the Pact of Umar (al-Shurut al-Umariyya), which is thought to have originated in the late 8th or early 9th century and to have replaced all previous agreements between Muslims and non-Muslims. There are two main versions of the Pact of Umar and two dates concerning its development. The first is recorded in books of historians such as Ya’qubi (d. 898) and al-Tabari (d. 923) and refers to the Covenant of Umar bin al-Khattab (d. 644) with the Christians of Jerusalem, which guaranteed protection and allowed freedom of religion—similar to the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad—without mention of any derogatory conditions, restrictions, or taxes. However, medieval Islamic jurisprudence sources refer to a different version, al-Shurut al-Umarīyah. According to Ezziti, this version first appeared in the book Ahkam Ahl al-Milal by al-Khallal Abi Bakr Ahmed al-Baghdadi al-Hanbali (d. 935) and then another by Abi al-Shaykh (d. 941) entitled Shurut Umar or Shurut al-Dhimmi.
Although the document’s attribution to the Caliph Umar (d. 644) is rejected by historians, its provisions became a standard by which books of Islamic jurisprudence articulated the rights of non-Muslims. For instance, the 14th-century scholar of Shafi’i jurisprudence, Ahmad ibn Naqib Al-Misri (d. 1367) states in his famous manual of Islamic law in the section on “Non-Muslim Subjects of the Islamic State” that non-Muslims are to be distinguished from Muslims in dress, wearing a wide cloth belt (zunnar), are not greeted with as-salamu alaykum, must keep to the side of the street, may not build higher than or as high as the Muslims’ buildings, are forbidden to ring church bells or display crosses, recite the Torah or Evangel aloud, or make public display of their funerals and feast days, and are forbidden to build new churches. These discriminatory and offensive provisions are not derived from the Qur’an and contradict the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad, which advocate religious freedom without external interference, restrictions or discrimination. They acquire their authority and legitimacy from the Pact of Umar. Muslims, past and present, have uncritically placed texts attributed to caliphs and jurists above those of the Qur’an and the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad and called it Islam. Adherence to such texts has encouraged intolerance of non-Muslims and a rejection of peaceful coexistence. Cogent religious instruction will, therefore, need to provide a critical-analytical, evidence-based approach to reading the various sources associated with Islam.
The claims of Islamist or Salafist jihadists that Islam allows offensive war to impose Islam and subjugate non-Muslims is not supported by the Qur’an, the Prophet’s Covenants or the consensus of classical Islamic scholars. The minority who interpret jihad to mean offensive war against non-Muslims rely on a discredited method of interpretation that is rejected by the majority… The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad, which, considered alongside a contextual reading of the Qur’an, provide a perspective of Islam’s original teachings on interfaith/intercommunity relations, advocating considerate, respectful and peaceful coexistence…
This article provides selected citations from the following scholarly study: Rane, H. “‘Cogent Religious Instruction:’ A Response to the Phenomenon of Radical Islamist Terrorism in Australia. Religions 2019, 10, 246. The full study in pdf format with complete references can be found at: https://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/10/4/246
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