The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World

I’ve been attending a halaqa (Islamic study circle) for nearly two years now – a small intimate group of ladies with whom I’ve grown very close to. Our halaqa is simple – we are studying, surah by surah the 30th juz (chapter) of the Quran, and we are studying, hadith by hadith, the Forty Hadith of Imam Al-Nawawi.

The structure and methodology of our halaqa was determined long ago. Since we don’t have any teacher or scholar leading us, we all take turns presenting a surah and a hadith. And, since none of us are scholars, we stick to an agreed-upon interpretation of the text and try not to deviate or thrust our own opinions into our study. (Any questions that arise are discussed with our local imam or a wonderful female scholar we know.)

Sometimes it can seem boring, like we’re straight-reading from text, but what I always enjoy are the discussions at the end once the halaqa wraps up – when we extrapolate from what we’ve just studied to what is going on with us in the now. And I enjoy the material we are studying – the surahs in the last juz of the Quran are some of the most frequently-recited surahs in our daily prayers. They are the (mostly short) surahs we tend first teach to our children.

And as much impact as the surahs of the Quran have over our halaqa group, sometimes the hadiths we study resonate more with me, and I suspect it’s because these are verified sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammed (saw)* – actions he took, advice he gave and things he said that are to help us map out a path to walk in our own lives.

But sometimes I am puzzled by what I read in the hadiths – what was the context behind the hadith? Why did the Prophet Muhammed (saw) say what he did, or advise what he advise? What are we – common, unscholarly Muslims — to extrapolate from his sayings and practices? As Muslims, most of us believe fully and without fail in the generosity, intelligence, love and utter faith of this man. How do we get the outside world to know what we know about him? And especially when it comes to interfaith relationships and our responsibilities as Muslims towards Christians, Jews and those of other faiths, what is the path we must follow?

Who was The Prophet Muhammed?

A new book, The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World (published by Angelico Press, 2013) makes great strides in debunking the accusations put forth against our beloved Prophet, showing that they are not based on scholarship and reasoning. Written by Dr. John Andrew Morrow, a scholar who completed his Islamic seminary studies and is a PhD from the University of Toronto, painstakingly  applies historical research and document analysis of covenants, treaties and letters written and created by the Prophet Muhammed (saw).

These are documents, Morrow argues, that have largely gone unnoticed by “both traditional Muslim and modern western scholarship and are practically unknown to the mass of believers.” As noted by Charles Upton in the forward to the book:

“The author of this book has opened up the world of the Prophet and his contemporaries as few before him. Who knew that, before the Crusades, Muslims on the Hajj has visited Christian and Jewish sacred sites on their way to Mecca? Who knew that Christians as well as Muslims in the time of the Prophet were called al mu’minin, ‘the faithful’? Who knew that Christian knights and warriors sometimes fought side-by-side with the armies of Islam? Who knew that even Crusaders were given safe-conduct by Muslim authorities to make pilgrimages to the Christian holy sites controlled by Islam?”

(Well, actually, I and many in my circle knew those things, but I know a vast population of Christians and Muslims may be unaware of these facts.)

Morrow’s book reviews Muslim, Christian and secular documents, including covenants of the Prophet to prove that “People of the Book” (Jews, Muslims and Christians) have moved away from the historical and sacred examples of “tolerance and co-existence.”

The book is divided into four parts, the first of which delves into The Prophet Muhammad’s (saw) early life and encounters with Christians, his interactions with the Monks of Mount Sinani, with the Christians of Persia, Najran and of the World. Part two moves on to analysis of various texts and covenants with the aforementioned Christian groups, while part three explores the challenges faced in breaking down these covenants. And finally, part four covers the “backmatter” of the book.

For example, in examining the covenant of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) with the Christians of Persia, Morrow provides a Turkish language copy of the document. This treaty says, among other things, that:

“All pious believers shall deem it in their bounden duty to defend believers and to aid them wheresoever they may be, whether far or near, and throughout Christendom shall protect the places where they conduct worship, and those where their monks an priests dwell. Everywhere, in mountains, on the plains, in towns and in waste places, in deserts, and wheresoever they may be, that people shall be protected, both in their faith and in their property, both in the West and in the East, both on sea and land.”

It’s truly interesting to read through these different interfaith covenants and more so delve into the interpretation and analysis through Morrow’s exacting scholarship. Bit by bit, by breaking down a number of covenants the Prophet Muhammad made with the Christian world, Morrow builds the case that interfaith harmony and peaceful interactions was part and parcel of The Prophet Muhammad’s makeup.

I look forward to reading this book more thoroughly, but the one thing I wonder about is how open Muslims and Christians will be able to learn from it and apply these lessons to interfaith interaction of today. Upton writes that with the publication of this book, “we may be witnessing — unexpectedly, miraculously, at this extremely late date – the emergence of a third foundational source for Islam, one that is entirely consonant with the first two [the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet].”

I have my doubts about that. That the Quran is the word of God and the book Muslims must follow, and after that that the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad is our foundational guidance to living our lives, has been the way for Muslims since Islam began. Never was there a mention of any other foundational source for our faith. But I do think that there are lessons to be learned and mindsets that can be expanded through this book.

*sallallahu alayhi wa sallam

The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World is a featured book in Patheos’ book club this month. Click here to read more reflections on the book, including this Q&A with the author and this call from the author himself to Muslims to sign “The Covenants Initiative.”

About Dilshad Ali

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