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The Covenants of the Prophet: Read an Excerpt
If the content of the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai provides a rich source for academic exegesis, so do the notes found in the various copies of the treaty. The copy of the covenant that has been commented upon in this book is the one which is on display in the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai and which was copied by Moritz. The covenant in question notes that
This promise of protection ['ahd] was written in his own hand by 'Ali ibn Abi Talib in the Mosque of the Prophet, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, on the third of Muharram in the second year of the Prophet's Hegira.
Although it is accurate that 'Ali acted as the Prophet's scribe, as he did on many occasions, the year of composition may be a later addition. Until the time of 'Umar (r. 634–644 CE), the Arabs simply used to sign documents mentioning the day and month, but not the year. This explains why the dates of certain documents appear to be off. However, such a shortcoming is not grounds to dismiss the documents themselves. The scribe notes that
A copy of this covenant has been deposited in the treasury [khizanah] of the Sultan. It was signed with the seal of the Prophet, peace be upon him. It was written on a piece of leather from Ta'if.
This copy of the covenant is not dated but this could easily be done by determining the lifespan of the scribe and judge who are signatories. It appears, at this point, to date from 1800/01 CE. The meaning of "seal" here is somewhat ambiguous. Does it refer to the palm-print of the Prophet or to the actual seal from his ring which he would dip in ink and use to mark documents? The Arabic version in my possession clearly states that the covenant was written on jild or leather which is consistent with early prophetic practice. The surviving segments of the Qur'an, which were written by the scribes of Revelation, are all found on leather. Sidney H. Griffith, however, has translated the word as "parchment" (63). While it is possible that the original was written on parchment, this is not the accurate rendition of the Arabic word found on the covenant. The scribe in question clearly believed that the covenant was authentic. Otherwise, there would be no placed for the pious formula: "Blessed be he who abides by its contents. Blessed be he for he belongs to those who can expect the forgiveness of Allah." The document mentions that
This copy, which is copied from the original, is sealed with the signature of the noble Sultan [sharif al-Sultani]. This reproduction was copied from the copy that was copied from the copy written in the handwriting of the Leader of the Believers, 'Ali ibn Abi Talib, may Allah bless his countenance.
This confirms that the first official copy, provided by Selim I to the monks of Mount Sinai in 1517 CE, was sealed with his signature. The meaning of the following sentence is ambiguous. Does it indicate that the copy in question was the third copy of the original which had been written in the hand of Imam 'Ali (d. 661 CE)? Or does it indicate that the copy taken by Sultan Selim I was the third copy of the original document? Although the document provides more indications, they do not necessarily help to elucidate this mystery. It reads:
With the order of the noble Sultan [sharif al-Sultani], that is still in effect, with the help of Allah, which was given to a community of monks who inhabit the Mountain of Tur-Sina'i because the copy, which was copied from the copy written by the Leader of the Believers, was lost, in order that his document be a support of the Sultan's royal decrees which are evidenced by the records in the hands of the community in question.