The Speech that Started it All: The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad Come to Georgetown University

By Dr. John Andrew Morrow

(Delivered on March 5, 2014 in Washington, DC)

“O you who believe! Fulfill the obligations.” (5:1)

It is both a pleasure and a privilege to be here today in order to share a small fraction of my research with you. As you may know, I am Doctor John Andrew Morrow, the author of The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World, a work in which I provide a survey of the letters and treaties of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Almighty Allah be upon him and his household, along with a detailed study of six covenants concluded by the Messenger of Allah with Christian communities in the Sinai, Egypt, Palestine, Assyria, Najran, and Persia. Today, however, I will focus on a single text: the Ashtiname, namely, the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai.

The copy of the Sinai Covenant that dates from 1638 was graciously provided to me by Father Justin of Sinai from the Monastery of Saint Catherine in Egypt. It contains a copy of the original text dictated by the Prophet, peace be upon him, the signatures of his companions, an image of the Jami‘ Mosque, located at the heart of the Greek Orthodox complex, an image of the Mosque of Fatimah, located on the peak of Mount Sinai, along with the hand of Muhammad, the hand of Sultan Selim the First, and notarized statements by Muslim authorities confirming the authenticity of the manuscript in question. This is the Covenant that is displayed in the foyer in the monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai.

There are half a dozen Arabic copies of the Covenant of the Prophet in scroll format at Mount Sinai. Some are dated: 1800, 1778, 1737, and so forth. Others are undated may be much more ancient. There are several Arabic / Turkish copies of the Covenants in codices. One of them dates to 1638. Another one dates to 1561. There are also over forty Turkish translations of the Covenant of the Prophet in the library of St. Catherine. Copies of the Sinai Covenant are also found in other places, including Crete. There is also a copy at Mount Athos. Good luck getting in. If you think Harvard is selective, it looks like an unaccredited open admissions community college compared to the Simonopetra Monastery. At least Harvard gives you a rejection letter. The monks from Mount Athos do not acknowledge or respond to letters.

As most of you here are scholars and students, I can already hear you screaming inside your heads: I object! The document is too recent to be genuine. How can a five-hundred-year old covenant be considered authentic? Well, fellow colleagues, it is time to take a trip back in time: to the days before the beginning of Islam.

Muhammad, the son of ‘Abd Allah, was born in Mecca in the year 570 CE. His father died before he was born. His mother died shortly thereafter. He was cared for by his grandfather, who died as well, and then was entrusted to his uncle, Abu Talib, with whom he made one or two trips to Syria when he was in his mid-teens. He married Khadijah at the age of twenty-five and proclaimed his prophecy when he was forty. That’s all we know.

There is thus a period of ten years in the life of Muhammad, from the time he was fifteen to the time he was twenty-five, that is unaccounted for. There is also a second period of fifteen years, from the time he got married, at the age of twenty-five, until he declared his prophethood, at the age of forty, that is equally unaccounted for. These two blocks of time represent twenty-five years of silence. Where on earth was Muhammad and what was he doing? Well, according to the monks of Mount Sinai, Muhammad was working at the Monastery of Saint Catherine. Blasphemy, heresy, revisionism! I can hear all the Islamists and Jihadists sharpening their knives and a few moderate scholars fume as steams comes out of their ears. Others simply shake their heads in bewilderment.

This account, however, is not new. It is ancient. It has been passed down consistently and accurately for over 1400 years. It has been reported by travelers and scholars for over five hundred years. It is based on both oral and written tradition: the oral history of the Christian monks and the oral history of the Jabali Muslim Bedouins. It is based on an ancient treatise authored by a monk from Mount Sinai. It is based on accounts of Christian and Muslim pilgrims which are as old as history itself.

According to this account, Muhammad worked for the Monastery of Saint Catherine when he was a young man. Apparently, he was escaping socio-economic difficulties. Perhaps he was even escaping danger. Many accounts reveal that Muhammad’s life had been in danger from the day he was born. Many of them reveal that Christian communities had offered the child protection from his avowed enemies. These accounts are found in the most ancient of Muslim sources.

While most Muslims know that Muhammad joined caravans when he was a teenager, few know that this was his occupation when he was a young man and a full-grown adult. According to ancient Christian and Islamic sources, he was very well traveled. His journeys brought him to Egypt, to Syria, to Iraq, to Persia, to Oman, and perhaps as far as Abyssinia. It is therefore perfectly plausible that Muhammad traveled to the Sinai for purposes of trade. According to the monks from Mount Sinai, Muhammad used to lead caravans for them. He used to supply them. He spent many years living among them.

A contemplative person, Muhammad used to meditate in the Cave of Moses at the top of Mount Sinai, a site sacred to the Arab Bedouins of the region. One day, something deeply symbolic took place. While Muhammad was resting at the gate of the Monastery of Saint Catherine, an eagle appeared, and hovered over his head. The abbot, who witnessed the scene, realized its spiritual significance. The eagle is the symbol of the Angel Gabriel. The eagle is a messenger of God. Muhammad, it is related in ancient Muslim sources, was protected by Gabriel, who took the shape of a miraculous bird, when he was a child. Just like a cloud had followed Muhammad during his journeys to Syria, an eagle was circling over his head. The abbot interpreted this singular occurrence as a sign that Muhammad would become a great and powerful leader. As such, the abbot invited him into the monastery, treated him with the greatest hospitality, and kindly requested that Muhammad grant special protections to the monastery.

Muhammad, who was a poor camel driver who lived in exile, explained that he was not able to grant them protection. The abbot, however, insisted. As such, Muhammad granted them a patent of protection. He soaked his hand in a bowl of ink and signed a charter with his palm print. Many years later, relate the monks, Muhammad returned to Mecca, came into wealth, and eventually became the great and powerful leader that the abbot had predicted. And this is precisely what happened. He married Khadijah al-Kubrah, received revelation, proclaimed his prophethood, made the hijrah to Medina, and became recognized as a man to reckoned with: the leader of an emerging power that would soon dominate the region.

In the second year of the hijrah, a delegation of monks from Mount Sinai visited the Prophet Muhammad in Medina. They had not forgotten the promise that he had made nor had the Prophet forgotten his commitment. The monks had taken him in when he was poor and weak and now that he was wealthy and powerful, he intended to return the favor. As such, he provided them with the Ashtiname, the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai, which reads:

In the Name of Allah, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful.

This covenant was written by Muhammad, the son of ‘Abd Allah, the proclaimer and warner, trusted to protect Allah’s creation, in order that people may raise no claim against Allah after [the advent of] his messengers for Allah is Mighty, Wise.

He has written it for the members of his religion and to all those who profess the Christian religion in east and west, near or far, Arabs or non-Arabs, known or unknown, as a covenant of protection.

If anyone breaks the covenant herein proclaimed, or contravenes or transgresses its commands, he has broken the Covenant of Allah, breaks his bond, makes a mockery of his religion, deserves the curse [of Allah], whether he is a sultan or another among the believing Muslims.

If a monk or pilgrim seeks protection, in mountain or valley, in a cave or in tilled fields, in the plain, in the desert, or in a church, I am behind them, defending them from every enemy; I, my helpers, all the members of my religion, and all my followers, for they [the monks and the pilgrims] are my protégés and my subjects.

I protect them from interference with their supplies and from the payment of taxes save what they willingly renounce. There shall be no compulsion or constraint against them in any of these matters.

A bishop shall not be removed from his bishopric, nor a monk from his monastery, nor a hermit from his tower, nor shall a pilgrim be hindered from his pilgrimage. Moreover, no building from among their churches shall be destroyed, nor shall the money from their churches be used for the building of mosques or houses for the Muslims. Whoever does such a thing violates Allah’s Covenant and dissents from the Messenger of Allah.

Neither poll-tax nor fees shall be laid on monks, bishops, or worshippers for I protect them, wherever they may be, on land or sea, in east and west, in north and south. They are under my protection, within my covenant, and under my security, against all harm.

Those who also isolate themselves in the mountains or in sacred sites shall be free from the poll-tax, land tribute and from tithe or duty on whatever they grow for their own use, and they shall be assisted in raising a crop … for their personal use.

They shall be not obliged to serve in war, or to pay the poll-tax; even those for whom an obligation to pay land tribute exists, or who possess resources in land or from commercial activity, they shall not have to pay more than twelve dirhams a head per year.

On no one shall an unjust tax be imposed, and with the People of the Book there is to be no strife, unless it be over what is good [29:46]. We wish to take them under the wing of our mercy, and the penalty of vexation shall be kept at a distance from them, wherever they are and wherever they may settle.

If a Christian woman enters a Muslim household, she shall be received with kindness, and she shall be given opportunity to pray in her church: there shall be no dispute between her and a man who loves her religion. Whoever contravenes the Covenant of Allah and acts to the contrary is a rebel against His Covenant and His Messenger.

These people shall be assisted in the maintenance of their religious buildings and their dwellings; thus, they will be aided in their faith and kept true to their allegiance. None of them shall be compelled to bear arms, but the Muslims shall defend them; and they shall never contravene this promise of protection until the hour comes and the world ends.

This document is unknown to most Muslim scholars. Most have never heard of it. Those who have heard of it only have a vague idea about. Since it is allegedly not found in the ahadith or prophetic traditions, they state that it is contested. That pretty much sums up the state of scholarship among the ‘ulama’ or Muslim religious scholars. I’m sorry to say so. Ana asif wa lakin hadha al-haqq. [I apologize but that is the truth.] Simply because you ignore something does not mean that it does not exist or that it is not genuine. It just means that you are ignorant. What parades around as knowledge is often ignorance.

The situation among academics is radically different. So far over three dozen articles, reviews, and interviews have been completed on The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World. The book has been well-received by Muslim academics. The book has been well-received by Western Christian academics. I stress western for a reason. The only negative reviews the book has received come from some Middle Eastern Christians. They are people who would not identify as Arabs. They are those Middle Eastern Christians who believe that they are Europeans. Why do they reject the Covenants of the Prophet? Well, because they simply cannot conceive of Muslims as peaceful, tolerant, people, who treat religious minorities with respect. And you know what? I can’t blame them for that. As some of these Middle Eastern Christians have told me frankly: Who cares what the Prophet supposedly said 1400 years ago? Actions speak louder than words.

Christian churches are been bombed. Christian girls are being raped, tortured, mutilated, and murdered. Christian priests are being beheaded, chopped into pieces, and fed to dogs. Entire Christian villages are being razed to the ground. All of this in the name of the Prophet and the name of Islam. So why is it that it takes a man like me, a Native American, a man from the Métis Nation of Canada, a Western convert to Islam, to speak out against such atrocities and say: Enough is enough, not in my name, and not in the name of the Prophet!

Forgive me if I digress. Forgive me if I get political from this academic podium. However, Islam is politics and politics is Islam, and the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad are profoundly political in intent and nature. And while some people wish to disguise their political opposition to the Covenants of the Prophet under the guise of scholarly argumentation, their underlying intentions are evident. This is not to say that there are not sincere scholars who simply wish to ascertain their accuracy. My criticism is limited to a specific population: agents of the empire. Now that I have blown some steam, and raised my blood pressure to dangerous levels, running the risk of a hypertensive crisis, I will return to the honest arguments of my opponents:

1) The Covenant of the Prophet is too recent to be authentic. The copies we have are five-hundred years old. Big deal. There are copies of the completed works of Shakespeare printed in 2014. Simply because we do not have the originals written in Shakespeare’s handwriting does not mean that the works, we read today, are not authentic. The oldest complete Qur’an dates from three decades after the Prophet. The earliest books of Sirah date from 150 years after the Prophet. The canonical books of traditions date from three hundred to one thousand years after the Prophet. Yet they are all accepted as authentic.

2) The Christians had a motive to forge the Covenant of the Prophet. If the Qur’an, the Sunnah, the Shariah, the letters of the Prophet, the treaties of the Prophet, and the other Covenants of the Prophet granted Christians protection, the motive is non-existent.

3) The Covenant of the Prophet is not mentioned in early sources. This is false. Early Christian sources like Maris (d. 1140 CE), Amrus (14th c. CE), and Bar-Hebraeus (d. 1286 CE) all mention the Covenant of the Prophet. Early Muslim sources, like Ibn Ishaq (d. 768 CE), Tabari (d. 923 CE), Baladhuri (d. 892 CE), Ibn Sa‘d (d. 845 CE), and Abu Yusuf (d. 798 CE), also mention the Covenant of the Prophet. Some of these sources mention the Christian delegations that visited the Prophet in order to obtain charters of protection. Some of them mention that a treaty was concluded with the monks of Saint Catherine. Some of them even cite from the Ashtiname. To Qureshi, the Treaty of Najran, cited by Ibn Sa‘d (d. 845 CE), sounds like the Treaty of Saint Catherine. He estimated that it was concluded in the year 6 AH (628 CE). It reads:

Whatever goods that the neighbors of Allah and His Messenger have in their churches, monasteries and bishoprics, however small or great they may be, will remain in their possession. 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 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 Treaty of St. Catherine, as Qureshi calls it, and which seems to be a short version of the Treaty of Najran, is virtually the same as the Ashtiname. Most of the sentences are identical. Either this is a summary of the Ashtiname or it was a renewal of the Ashtiname. The Prophet, as most historians know, used to renew his treaties and covenants on a yearly basis. There is no doubt, whatsoever, that the Prophet made a treaty with the Monks of Mount Sinai. There is also no doubt that the Prophet made similar covenants with the Christians of Egypt, Jerusalem, the Levant, Assyria, Persia, and the world.

The Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai was respected by Abu Bakr (d. 634 CE), ‘Umar (d. 644 CE), ‘Uthman (d. 656 CE), and ‘Ali (d. 661 CE). It was even honored by the Umayyads of all people. Tufuh ‘alayhum [May spit be upon them]. It was followed by the ‘Abbasids, the Fatimids, the Ayyubids, the Mamluks, and the Ottomans, namely, from the seventh-century until the twentieth-century. The Monastery of Saint Catherine has 1,742 Arabic and Turkish fatwas, including 2,010 royal mandates from twenty-one Ottoman sultans in succession, confirming the rights that the Prophet Muhammad granted the monks.

These fatwas were issued by Maliki fuqaha’, Hanafi fuqaha’, Hanbali fuqaha’, Shafi‘i fuqaha’, and Shiite fuqaha’. Jurists from all schools of law authenticated the Covenant of the Prophet. One of the earliest edict dates from 975 CE and was issued by Ismaili Shiite scholars and the latest was issued in 1904 by Ottoman Sunni scholars. So, how can one claim that the monks forged the Covenant of the Prophet to protect themselves from the Ottomans in 1517? So, how can one claim that the monks forged the Covenant of the Prophet to protect themselves from al-Hakim, the so-called crazy Fatimid Caliph when he threatened to attack the monastery in the year 1000 CE? The Covenant of the Prophet already existed, and the Caliph’s predecessors had already endorsed its authenticity.

There are also hundreds of western scholars and religious authorities from the 1400s to the present who have confirmed the claims made concerning the Covenant of the Prophet with the Monastery of Saint Catherine. While most modern-day Muslims are not familiar with the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai, some of the leading contemporary scholars of Islam also treat it as genuine. In a recent statement, the Monastery of Saint Catherine had this to say about the Prophet Muhammad, his contacts with the monks of Mount Sinai, and the Covenant he concluded with them:

According to the tradition preserved at Sinai, Muhammad (as) both knew and visited the monastery and the Sinai Fathers. The Koran makes mention of the Sinai holy sites. In the second year of the hegira, corresponding to AD 626, a delegation from Sinai requested a letter of protection from Muhammad (s). This was granted and authorized by him when he placed his hand upon the document. In AD 1517, Sultan Selim I confirmed the monastery’s prerogatives, but took the original letter of protection for safekeeping to the royal treasury in Constantinople. At the same time, he gave the monastery certified copies of this document, each depicting the hand print of Muhammad (s) in token of his having touched the original.

While there will always be naysayers, doubters, and obstinate unbelievers who seek to cast doubt on anything and everything that might reveal Islam as a positive force, most academics will admit to the authenticity of the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai in the absence of definitive evidence demonstrating it to be a forgery.

To date, no meticulous and agenda-free scholar, or any obviously prejudiced scholar either, for that matter, has presented any solid proof that the Covenant of the Prophet is a fake. Anyone can claim that something is fake. That’s easy. That’s how you dismiss something you really don’t want to deal with. That is how you sweep something under the rug. The burden of proof, however, belongs to the accuser. This is not to suggest that the Sinai Covenant poses no problems. It poses all sorts of problems. However, these are the same type of problems that we face when dealing with documents that are 500, 1500, or 5000 years old.

If we consider Muhammad’s extensive travels throughout the Greater Levant, his confirmed interaction with Christians in various regions, the remarkable stability of the account of his contact with the Monastery of Saint Catherine, the historic recognition of the Ashtiname by both the monks of Mount Sinai and Muslim scholars from all schools of jurisprudence, the discovery of the firman of Selim I in a Turkish collection, and the comparative study of the Prophet’s numerous treaties and covenants, the evidence suggests that the Ashtiname is indeed authentic but, as we say in Islam, to be safe, Allahu ‘alam or God knows best.

Since I am in a scholarly milieu, I invite you all to spread the word of The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World. I invite you to conduct more research on the Sinai Covenant. Prior to my book, the only studies were conducted by Shuqayr in 1916 and Bernhard Moritz in 1918.

Although it generated centuries of scholarly discussion, from the 1600s to the early 1900s, the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World has been silenced for the past century. We need to renew scholarly interest on the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World published by Gabriel Sionita in 1630, by Johann Georg Nissel in 1655, and several others. I also urge you to examine the Covenant brought back to Paris by Father Pacificus Scaliger which dates to 1538. This is a discovery. This Covenant of the Prophet has never been published before. It appears for the first time in my book.

More work needs to be done on the Covenant of the Prophet with the Assyrian Christians which was brought to light by George David Malech in 1910. The same applies to the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of Najran, which was published in the Chronicle of Seert in the 9th century, republished by Addai Scher in 1919, by Muhammad Hamidullah in 1956 and by Muhammad ‘Ammarah in 2002.

I encourage you to study the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of Persia which only survives in a translation completed by Leon Arpee in 1948. There are also numerous other Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad in existence. They are found in Palestine, Syria, and Turkey. We must bring them into the light. I invite any and all scholars to contribute studies on the letters, treaties, and covenants of the Prophet Muhammad. This is a fascinating new field which, I hope, will stimulate scholarship for years to come. Thank you.

“And those who break the Covenant of Allah after its confirmation and cut asunder that which Allah has ordered to be joined and make mischief in the land; (as for) those, upon them shall be curse and they shall have the evil (issue) of the abode.” (13:25)