Book Review: The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World

Mosque of Madinah, first built in 1 AH

Mosque of Madinah, first built in 1 AH

Source: The Muslim Sunrise, the oldest Muslim publication of North America, spring 2014 volume – Muslim Sunrise 2014 spring

By Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

Epigraph:

“If we could view Muhammad as we do any other important historical figure we would surely consider him to be one of the greatest geniuses the world has known.” [Karen Armstrong in Muhammad – A Biography of the Prophet]

John Andrew Morrow, has recently published a much needed book of 466 pages, titled, The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World.

The Prophet Muhammad’s treaties with the Christians of his time, which John Andrew Morrow has rediscovered in obscure collections and often newly translated, uniformly state that Muslims are not to attack peaceful Christian communities, but defend them “until the End of the World.”

Dr. John Andrew Morrow is a scholar who received his PhD from the University of Toronto and completed the full cycle of Islamic seminary studies. He was raised in a multilingual family in Montreal and Toronto, Canada. Morrow is a Native North American of the Metis nation and proudly identifies himself as an “Aboriginal Person.”  He has served as a faculty member and administrator at numerous colleges and universities, and has authored and edited many books.

Morrow presents six covenants written by the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, to Christian communities and argues that these letters and treaties, which proclaim and define peaceful and mutually respectful relationships between the Muslims and the Christians are the foundation of universal compassion and brotherhood in Islam.

These covenants include, the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai, the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World, the Covenant with the Christians of Persia, the Covenant with the Christians of Najran and the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Assyrian Christians.

The text of these covenants, which is included in the book, can also be found online at The Covenants Initiative.[i]

Morrow has organized the book into four parts.  The first part is labeled as “context,” and describes the background and arguments for the authenticity of the documents and spans the first 200 pages of the book.  In chapter 7, which is about the Armenian Christians of Jerusalem, Morrow argues for the Covenant by the Prophet, by using two later documents, The Firman of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab with the Armenian Christians of Jerusalem and the Covenant of ‘Ali with Armenian Christians of Jerusalem.

The second part, which is approximately 120 pages, is about the text of these covenants and various translations.  For example, it gives six different English translations of the Covenant with the monks of Mount Sinai.  The extant Arabic manuscript is also included.  The first of these translations, is quoted from a book by Pocoke, detailed in bibliography, which is also quoted by John Davenport in his famous book, An apology for Mohammed and the Koran, published in 1869, which is available online in archive.org and the specific portion of the book, is also available online in a post in the Muslim Times.[ii]

In the third part of the book, spanning some 50 pages, Morrow discusses the specific challenges facing our understanding of these texts, including the records of witnesses associated with the various covenants, the transmission of the documents themselves and the broader contextual implication of the covenants.

The fourth part of the book, spanning some 75 pages, is an extensive appendix, detailed bibliography, maps, photos and a detailed index.

Morrow also examines “The Constitution of Medina,” a key document of the Prophet’s concerning the importance of human rights in Islam. According to Morrow, the “Constitution” created a community out of “a unique system which had never existed before and which has never been since despite honest efforts to emulate it.” He writes about the constitution:

Determined to bring an end to the bitter infighting between the Arab war lords of the tribe of Khazraj and their Jewish rivals, the Prophet prepared the Constitution of Medina and in so doing, established the first Islamic state. Identity and loyalty were no longer to be based on family, tribe, kinship, or even religion: the overriding identity was membership in the ummah of Muhammad. The Constitution of Medina decreed that the citizens of the Islamic state were one and indivisible regardless of religion. Be they heathen, People of the Book, or Muslims, all those who were subject to the Constitution belonged to the same ummah. In doing so, he created a tolerant, pluralistic government which protected religious freedom. The importance of this is so extraordinary that it is often misunderstood.[iii]

He further writes about the Constitution of Medina:

It could be argued in passing that the resemblance of Greek democracy to the current ‘liberal’ democracies of the Western world is no coincidence.  The Constitution of Medina can also be compared with that of the Roman Republic (509 BCE – 27 BCE). The Republican Romans also spoke of the ‘government of the people;’ however, this was more fictitious than real. The consuls–those who ruled the people–acted like kings, presided over the Senate and the People’s Assembly, which was composed of representatives of military units, and simply represented the economic elite. As for the Senate, made up of the dominant players in matters of politics, it represented the aristocracy.  Common people were simply numbers to be counted. (Ironically, in some present-day democracies, the roll of the populace in the political process is similarly nullified.) As for the plebeians (from plebs or masses), which comprised the vast majority of Romans, they could not rule, elect rulers or make use of land, all of which was reserved for the patricians or nobles. These same landowners controlled the Senate. However, in the community created by means of the Constitution of Medina, every single member of society enjoyed enjoyed before the law as all privileges of class  were abolished. The rich and the poor; the noble and the laymen; the Arabs and the non-Arabs; the blacks and the whites; the men and the women; and the children and the adults all had the same rights. Even Muhammad, as the Messenger of Allah was not above the law. As he himself said in a rhetorical question, even if his daughter Fatimah were to steal which, as a saintly soul is inconceivable, he would have given her the punishment for theft. Given the Constitution of Medina’s genuinely progressive mandate, one might question why this document is ignored in favor of the less democratic offerings from the ‘Greek democracy’ and the ‘Roman Republic.[iv]

The message of the six covenants, described in this book, is certainly in keeping with the Quranic message of brotherly relations with the Christians and other “people of the book.”  I quote three verses here in this regard:

And thou shalt assuredly find those who say, ‘We are Christians,’ to be the nearest of them in love to the believers. That is because amongst them are savants and monks and because they are not proud.  (Al Quran 5:83)

And:

This day all good things have been made lawful for you. And the food of the People of the Book is lawful for you, and your food is lawful for them. And lawful for you are chaste believing women and chaste women from among those who were given the Book before you, when you give them their dowries, contracting valid marriage and not committing fornication nor taking secret paramours. (Al Quran 5:6)

The Holy Quran defines defensive war or Jihad, as securing Churches, Synagogues and Mosques and religious freedom for everyone:

Those who have been driven out from their homes unjustly only because they said, ‘Our Lord is Allah’ — And if Allah did not repel some men by means of others, there would surely have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft commemorated. And Allah will surely help one who helps Him. Allah is indeed Powerful, Mighty.  (Al Quran 22:41)

Dan Wilkinson, who is a writer from Montana has nicely reviewed the book, online:

Thoughtful, accessible and scholarly, The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World offer important evidence for understanding Islam as a religion founded on ideals of respect and tolerance, ideals that, if evinced today in the way that Muhammad originally intended, have the potential to redefine modern religious and cultural interactions.

Karen Leslie Hernandez, a Theologian from Boston University School of Theology, wrote about this book:

How can this book do as Morrow claims, and maybe, ‘save a few lives?’ Since this is the most thorough examination of these covenants, I believe that Morrow has started something good. Identifying the actual authenticity is surely impossible, but, using these covenants as ideas on how the religious landscape looked back in the time of the Prophet, as well as how Christians were viewed by Muslims, is extremely important and relevant to what we are witnessing today in regard to violence in the name of religion.[v]

Since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, USA and allies have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and with the new events of Arab spring, there is upheaval in all the Muslim countries.  These events have led to erosion of different minorities especially Christians.  The Muslims in the Muslim majority areas have to realize that they cannot blame local Christians for the acts of foreign governments.  There cannot be guilt by Association.  If John commits a murder, we cannot hang Mark for it.  Such extension of guilt, real or perceived, is not sanctioned by these covenants or the teachings of the Holy Quran, which on scores of occasions urges believers to be just.  One of the often quoted verses of the Holy Quran states:

O ye who believe! be steadfast in the cause of Allah, bearing witness in equity; and let not a people’s enmity incite you to act otherwise than with justice. Be always just, that is nearer to righteousness. And fear Allah. Surely, Allah is aware of what you do. (Al Quran 5:9)

The “Covenants Initiative” within the book represents a movement by Muslims, both prominent and unknown, in support of Christians under attack, in the Muslim majority countries. In this context, these treaties desperately need to be better known among Christians, Muslims, and the general public, to promote Universal Brotherhood in our Global Village.

Dr. Bridget Blomfield of University.of Nebraska, who is also the director of the Islamic Studies program at UNO, has beautifully summarized the book in the following words, which are quoted from the back cover of the book:

This book documents what is possibly the third foundational source of Islam: the Prophet’s treaties and covenants among people of the Abrahamic faiths. Dr. Morrow

brings forth exceptionally important findings that dictate peaceful coexistence among Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and includes multiple translations for comparison of how the Prophet and his followers treated Christians and Jews with respect and care, far beyond a mere tolerance.

This book, is by no means the final word on research about these covenants, but, a good starting point, for a much needed subject.  It provides many difficult-to-obtain material: facsimiles of primary sources in Arabic and Persian; corrected versions in modern Arabic typescript; and alternate translations.

References


[iii] John Adrew Morrow. The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World.  Angelico Press, Sophia Perennis, 2013. Page 32.

[iv] John Adrew Morrow. The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World.  Angelico Press, Sophia Perennis, 2013. Page 32-33.

10 replies

  1. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
    Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
    Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
    Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
    Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5:5-9)

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