In his new work “The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad” John Andrew Morrow offers both an argument for re-envisioning Islam’s relationship with non-Muslims, and an unfortunate measure of conceptual confusion. The latter greatly detracts from the popular and scholarly value of this volume, because authentic dialogue must be grounded in historical truth rather than idealizations and wishful thinking.
The argument of this is based around six “covenants” purportedly made by Muhammad with different Christian groups. In the second section of the book these are offered with both text and translation – an undoubted contribution to available literature in English. In the first and third section of the book Morrow offers a detailed account of the evidence for the authenticity of these documents. This he reiterates in the third part along with his analysis of their meaning.
It would take longer than this short blog to underline all of the problems with his arguments that these documents originate with Muhammad, but perhaps the Covenant with the Monks of Mount Sinai will provide an example. The earliest documentary evidence, or even account of this covenant comes from 800 years after the time of the Prophet. And it posits a visit to Sinai by the Prophet during a period for which even the most elaborate biographies of the Prophet offer no information. Most importantly, Morrow completely ignores the fact that the document first comes to light at a time when it was greatly in the self-interest of the monks to produce a document insuring the protection of their institution by a new form of imperial Islam. In short, despite his detailed accounts of the document and its appearance, and his argument that such a document could have existed, he offers no evidence whatsoever that known copies are authentic, or that the original ever existed.
The same can be said for every other document that Morrow offers.
Morrow dismisses such arguments against the authenticity of these documents as “the hermeneutics of suspicion” by those who intend ill for Muslim relations with non-Muslims. But this is no more an argument than it would be to accuse him of being naively driven by his own ideological commitments – very adequately and fully expressed on page 63. According to Morrow Imam Khomeini and the Hizubullah of Lebanon are models of inter-religious understanding while “the greatest periods of intolerance have concided with Western imperialist occupation.
And here we have the essential problem with Morrow’s effort. Every document or narrative that casts Muslim treatment of non-Muslims in a positive light is taken at face value, and every effort is made to demonstrate the possibility that it is authentic, while all documented evil treatment of non-Muslims by Muslims is regarded as an exception to the rule. On the other hand for Morrow every atrocity committed by Western Christians marks the rule, while any contradictory accounts mark the exception.
Arguments in this form, which riddle the literature on Christian-Muslim relations on both sides, ultimately undermine all efforts at establishing meaningful dialogue because you cannot build a house of truth on a foundation of fatuous self-congratulation.
Muslims and non-Muslims have treated each other with both sacrificial kindness and abominable hatred, and both have been done in the name religion. That is about all one can meaningfully say about the history of inter-religious relations. Everything else is propaganda designed to influence present behavior for better or worse.
And in any case, what are the chances that any Muslim, including those who endorse this book, will give these documents, completely unattested by proper isnad, the status of even the weakest hadith? None. So they will remain to the Muslim community historical curiosities with no religious authority whatsoever.
What Morrow and his supporters fail to understand is that a people’s understanding of its history and the foundational documents of their tradition is only one factor shaping its attitude and behavior toward other people. The Muslims in Egypt visiting slaughter upon Christians and destruction on their villages know that what they are doing is against the teaching of the Prophet – but they can and will also justify it by the teaching of the Prophet. When Khomeini distinguished between “zionists” and “jews” he knew the distinction was simply a license to kill every Israeli Jew without violating the letter of the Qur’an. In these cases, and all the others that render Christianity and Judaism endangered species across the Muslim world it isn’t the Qur’an or the hadith that are the problem, it is the teaching of community leaders (like their anti-Muslim counterparts in the West) that interpret them to justify creating misery and destruction. And Morrow, writing in English, will not persuade them to change.
This behavior by Muslims, like similar behavior of Christians and Jews, is driven not by religion but economic competition, a desire to settle old scores, fear of the other, and primitive religious and tribal affiliation of interest. And it won’t be ended by religion unless religion becomes a force to end poverty, overcome the desire for revenge, remove fear, and breakdown the forces of sectarianism and tribalism. Neither Islam nor Christianity in their present institutional forms have shown any great capacity for these transformations of human society.
Put another way: religious documents only transform human attitudes, individually and socially when they are in the larger context of a community of interpretation that tells its members and itself what they mean. Given the speciousness of its historical arguments, the only people likely to change their attitudes about Islam on the basis of this book are those living in communities of discourse already pre-disposed to do so. And even to sway the balance in those communities it would need to be far shorter and more accessible, and far less driven by its author’s ideological commitments.
Like many of its genre this book is enormously well intentioned. And if it persuades the few who wade through its 400 pages that they should adopt a different understanding of Islam and its teachings then its author should be gratified. But it would be a better book if it were a more honest book and recognized that these documents represent not the aspirations of the Prophet Muhammad, but of those religious minorities who fell under the rule of his successors.