Long-overlooked Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad to Respect and Protect Christians

Although overlooked by Christians and Muslims for 1,300 years, the Prophet Muhammad gave Covenants to Christian communities to respect their religion and protect their churches and communities.  But, according to the 2018 concurring opinion of a Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, the terms of these covenants apply today and still bind all followers of the Prophet.

In his opinion, Justice Khosa affirmed that two Muslim women who had wrongfully accused a Christian woman of blasphemy had “violated a covenant of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) with those professing the Christian faith.”

Justice Khosa went on to affirm that the promise made by the Prophet in his covenant with the monks of the Monastery of St Catherine in Sinai

“…was eternal and universal and was not limited to St. Catherine alone. The rights conferred by the charter are inalienable and the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) had declared that Christians, all of them, were his allies and he equated ill treatment of Christians with violating God’s covenant. It is noticeable that the charter imposed no conditions on Christians for enjoying its privileges and it was enough that they were Christians. They were not required to alter their beliefs, they did not have to make any payments and they did not have any obligations. The charter was of rights without any duties and it clearly protected the right to property, freedom of religion, freedom of work, and security of person.”

Thus, if Muslims today honor and follow the commitments of the Prophet, Muslim-Christian relations would be most constructively revised and improved. Muslims could no longer marginalize, demean, despise, harm, or kill Christians. Reciprocally, Christians would no longer need to succumb to fear of Muslims following Sharia regulations for their personal conduct.

One of the important covenants given by the Prophet Muhammad was to the Christian community of Najran, a town in southwestern Saudi Arabia near its border with Yemen.  The Qur’an itself provides evidence that Christians from Najran met with the Prophet in Medina.

No original text of the covenants given by the Prophet survives, but numerous recensions are available. My colleagues at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar have found several in Christian monastic archives.  I have seen a recension of the Prophet’s covenant to the Syriac Christians, a copy made by the Ottoman government, having a seal of authenticity, and given officially to a community of such Christians.

Several provisions are common to the covenants:

Christian Monks and pilgrims on their journeys were protected from harm; no bishop was to be removed, or monk driven from a monastery, or hermit from his tower; no church was to be destroyed, nor money from churches taken to build mosques or houses for Muslims. Muslims were to provide assistance for the maintenance of Christian religious buildings and dwellings.

If a Christian woman enters a Muslim household, she is to be received with kindness and will be allowed to pray in her church. The Najran Covenant mandates that whoever forces his wife to act contrary to her religion “breaks the alliance of Allah and will enter into open rebellion against the pact of his Messenger and Allah will count him among the imposters.”

The Najran Covenant provided that no Christian would be made Muslim because “they are covered with wing of mercy”.  The Covenant with the Monastery of St Catherine also makes reference to the standard of “mercy” as applying to the treatment of Christians.  That Covenant also stipulates that there should be “no strife” with people of the book unless there is a dispute over what is good, an echo of Qur’an in Surah 5, verse 28.

Covenants provided that Christians need not serve a Muslim state in war, nor could they be compelled to bear arms. Muslims would protect them during conflicts. The Prophet’s horsemen, footmen, armies, resources would protect Christians wherever they were. The Najran Covenant also pledges that no Muslim will abandon the Christians, neglect them, or leave them without help and assistance

Covenants provide for punishment of Muslims who violate their terms and stipulate that Muslims must never contravene the Prophet’s promise of protection until the world ends.

However, to keep the covenant in force, Christians must not help any enemies of Muslims and must pay certain taxes

As the Prophet was illiterate, the covenants were written down by scribes and attested by witnesses, his close companions. Notably, the scribes were his son-in-law Ali, whom Shi’a Muslims revere, and also Ali’s intractable rival, Muawiyah, who consolidated the Sunni sect of Islam and founded the Umayyad Dynasty.

Early successors to Muhammad as leader of the Muslim community, or Ummah, also gave their own covenants to Christians which followed both the spirit and the express provisions of those previously given by the Prophet.  Muhammad’s successor Umar made a covenant with the Christians of Jerusalem and so entered the city peacefully as a protector of Christians and their churches.  In his covenant, Umar referred to the “revered and respected Patriarch Sophronius.” The fourth Caliph, Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, also made a covenant with Christians. 

Neither the Sunni nor the Shi’a traditions provided a place in their practice for remembering and honoring the Prophet’s covenants with Christians. The covenants were acts of statecraft, not religion, so they were not included in the Hadith books of the sayings of the Prophet, collections of instruction and guidance for Muslims on righteous living.

But as documents in the public record, the covenants can be directly accessed and read by everyone, making their terms part of the common heritage of humanity.

Taking a new look at the relationship of the Prophet with Jews living as his neighbors similar to our reappraisal of his Covenants with Christian communities might provide a most needed reframing of current narratives about Muslim - Jewish interactions in the early years of Islam.  For example, in his instructions for the governance of the different tribes living under his supervision in the city of Medina the Prophet Muhammad provided for Jews that they would be helped by Muslims and treated with equality and that "no Jew would be wronged for being a Jew".

Today the importance of the covenants to Muslims is that they were genuine acts of their Prophet and contain his authoritative guidance as to how Muslims should give consideration to Christians. They need to be accepted by all Muslims as definitive acts of the Prophet done on behalf of God himself as an agent of that divine intelligence and creative power and so to be followed by Muslims today in spirit and deed.

The Covenant with the Najran Christians recites:

“In the Name of Allah, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful. This document has been provided by Muhammad ibn 'Abd Allah ibn 'Abd al-Muttalib, the Messenger of Allah to all of humanity, who was sent to preach and to warn, who has been entrusted the Trust of Allah among His Creatures so that human beings would have no pretext before Allah, after his messengers and manifestation, before this Powerful and Wise Being.”

When Pope Francis visited Najaf in Iraq earlier this year to meet with the Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the Ayatollah proclaimed that “You are part of us. We are part of you.” This affirmation of inclusion and equity was put on large public billboards widely posted in Najaf. In his concise proclamation, Ayatollah Sistani revived the spirit and the intent of the covenants given to Christians by the Prophet Muhammad.

Graphic credit: Ben Wolf  CC BY 3.0 license

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