“But they denied the truth when it came to them, so they are in a confused condition.” (50:5)
Mubasher Hussain published a book review of The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World (Angelico Press / Sophia Perennis, 2013) in Islamic Studies 57:3-4 (2018): 311-322. For this I am a grateful as it helps stimulate research, debate, and discussion on these interesting documents. Much of his review is descriptive, as it should rightfully be. For the sake of concision, I will not focus on our areas of agreement but rather delve into those in which we disagree.
A Source is a Source is a Source
Hussain alleges that the six covenants studied in my work “are surprisingly not recorded in the classical Islamic sources, such as the Qur’an, the hadith collections, the sirah writings, books of Islamic history, and manuals of Islamic law. Four of them have no mention at all in Islamic sources. However, two of them… have a couple of indications which may lead one to trace some of their sentences back to Islamic sources. For that reason, the authenticity of these covenants has been questioned by both … Muslim and Western scholars” .
As far as Muslims are concerned, the Qur’an is the revelation of God to Muhammad. It contains the word of God. It does not contain the word of Muhammad. Hence, why would one be surprised that the covenants of the Prophet are not recorded in the Qur’an? The Qur’an, however, does allude to the Covenant or Constitution of Medina numerous times as confirmed in many commentaries (2:74; 2:84-86…). The Qur’an also contains key verses that corroborate the content of covenants of the Prophet with the Jews and Christians (2:62; 3:61; 3:64; 3:77-78; 3:113-115; 3:199; 5:69; 9:12; 29:46; 52:1; 95:1-2…).
The Qur’an uses the word ‘ahd and mithaq over eighty times. These terms for “covenant” can refer to the covenant between God and human souls in the world of shadows or particles; the covenant between God and Adam; the covenant between God and the Children of Israel; the covenant between God and the Christians; and the covenant between God and the Muslims. Some of these verses may also refer to the covenants that the Prophet made with the People of the Book that were binding on believing Muslims. Case in point, the early Medinan verse that warns against breaking God’s covenant after it is ratified (2:27) as well as numerous others commanding Muslims to keep their promises, fulfill their oaths, and honor their covenants (2:40; 3:110-112; 9:3; 9:8; 13:20; 13:25; 16:91-92; 16:95; 17:34).
Speaking of the People of the Book who resisted the Prophet, God says that “Shame is pitched over them (like a tent) wherever they are found, except when under a covenant (of protection) from God and from men” (3:112). Ibn Kathir explains that this “covenant from God” refers to “the dhimmah or covenant of protection from Allah” while the “covenant from men” refers to “pledges and protections and safety offered to them by Muslim men and women.” When interpreting this verse, Ibn ‘Abbas said that it referred to a covenant of protection from Allah and a pledge of safety from the people. This opinion was shared by Mujahid, ‘Ikrimah, ‘Ata’, al-Dahhak, al-Hasan, Qatadah, al-Suddi, and al-Rabi‘ b. Anas.
Speaking of the pagans, Almighty Allah asks: “How (can there be such a league), seeing that if they get an advantage over you, they respect not in you the ties of either kinship or of covenant” (9:8). According to Ibn Kathir, this verse affirms that the idolaters “do not deserve to enjoy a covenant of peace.” Relying on the authority of ‘Ali b. Abi Talhah, ‘Ikrimah, al-‘Awfi, Ibn ‘Abbas, al-Dahhak, and al-Suddi, he asserts that dhimmah means covenant. Unlike the People of the Book, this verse asserts that the polytheists were unworthy of receiving covenants of protection due to their dishonesty, disloyalty, and treachery. Consequently, this verse alludes to the pledges, promises, treaties, and covenants that the Prophet Muhammad concluded with the People of the Book.
“As for the claim that the covenants of the Prophet Muhammad are not found in classical Islamic sources, this is inaccurate. The original copy of Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of Najran reportedly formed part of the collection of the Bayt al-Hikmah of Baghdad…”
As for the claim that the covenants of the Prophet Muhammad are not found in classical Islamic sources, this is inaccurate. The original copy of Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of Najran reportedly formed part of the collection of the Bayt al-Hikmah of Baghdad. Its rediscovery in 878/879 CE by Habib the Monk, as recorded in the Chronicle of Seert, was considered a major historical event at the time. None of the Muslim scholars from that period disputed it. Prior to that, the Covenant of Najran was cited in various fragmented forms by Abu Dawud (d. 889), Ibn Zanjawayh (d. 865), Ibn Sa‘d (d. 845), Abu ‘Ubayd (d. 825), al-Waqidi (d. 822), Yahya b. Adam (d. 818), al-Shaybani (d. 805), Abu Yusuf (d. 798), al-Balkhi (d. 767), and Ibn Ishaq (d. 761 or 770). It forms part of a continuum. It was transmitted, in one form or another, from the time of the Prophet Muhammad until the 21st century.
The authenticity of the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Sinai was confirmed by Muslim Caliphs from early Fatimid times until the end of Ottoman times. It is mentioned, quoted or reproduced in full in firmans, fatwas, and ahdnames from the 10th century until the 20th century. Is Hussain suggesting that the documents preserved and produced by the ‘Abbasids, Fatimids, Ayyubids, Mamluks, Safavids, and Ottomans are not Islamic sources? Is he suggesting that the proclamations of the caliphs and sultans were devoid of Islamic legitimacy?
“I acknowledge that the gap between the Prophet Muhammad’s era and that of the early Fatimids is not unsubstantial and I can understand why some more skeptical historians would doubt the veracity of such a text. Is the dating of the document a problem? Not necessarily so.”
I acknowledge that the gap between the Prophet Muhammad’s era and that of the early Fatimids is not unsubstantial and I can understand why some more skeptical historians would doubt the veracity of such a text. Is the dating of the document a problem? Not necessarily so.
The oldest surviving documents dealing with the ‘Ahd al-Nabi or Covenant of the Prophet from St. Catherine’s Monastery date from the same period as most prophetic traditions, namely, two to three centuries after the fact. However, unlike the ahadith, which were transmitted orally, the Covenant of the Prophet with the Monks of Mount Sinai, like the other prophetic covenants with the People of the Book, has a chain of custody: it was passed down in written form which, most historians would agree, is far more stable and reliable than the oral tradition.
Obviously, we would all prefer to have an autograph, namely, a manuscript in the handwriting of the author or his scribe; however, that standard is unreasonably high. And even if we had a seventh-century copy of the Ashtiname, there would certainly still be scholars who dispute it. After all, several original letters of the Prophet Muhammad have survived the test of time; however, there are academics who continue to call their authenticity into question.
If the caliphs and the sultans, for over one thousand years, considered the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai to be authentic, legal, and binding, until all times to come, then so be it. Does Hussain believe that the political and religious successors of the Prophet Muhammad took such matters lightly? Does he believe that they made such decisions without consulting with the greatest religious authorities in their empires? Muslim scholars studied the original copy of the Ashtiname or Sinai Covenant and concluded that it was genuine. Sultan Selim said that it was so in 1517. And so did Feridun Bey (d. 1583), the chief of the Ottoman Chancellery, in his Münșeâtu’s-Selâtin, a compilation of the letters and decrees of the Prophet Muhammad and the caliphs, an authoritative Islamic source if there ever was one.
“It is beyond dispute that the covenants of the Prophet are found in Muslim sources. They appear, in part or in whole, in biographies of the Prophet Muhammad, in books of prophetic traditions, in historical works, and in manuals of Islamic law. I am not claiming that all the six covenants that I have studied appear verbatim in Islamic sources.”
It is beyond dispute that the covenants of the Prophet are found in Muslim sources. They appear, in part or in whole, in biographies of the Prophet Muhammad, in books of prophetic traditions, in historical works, and in manuals of Islamic law. I am not claiming that all the six covenants that I have studied appear verbatim in Islamic sources. The Ashtiname most certainly does. Feridun Bey reproduced it in full: copied directly from the certified original. The Covenant of Najranappears in short, medium, and long versions; however, none as long as the purported original found in the Chronicle of Seert. Mubasher Hussain should read “The Provenance of the Prophet’s Covenants,” the first chapter of the second volume of Islam and the People of the Book: Critical Studies on the Covenants of the Prophet (1-213). It tracks down the references and evaluations of the covenants of the Prophet throughout history.
The covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians are so similar that some specialists on the subject contemplate the possibility that we are dealing with different transmissions of a single original document. Ahmed El-Wakil has attempted to recreate this Master Template in “The Prophet Muhammad’s Covenant with the Armenian Christians” which is found in volume two of Islam and the People of the Book (469-526). It seems that the Messenger of Allah granted a set of standard rights, freedoms, and obligations to all the major Christian communities of his time. Consequently, if the authenticity of one of these documents can be confirmed, it can help authenticate the rest of them. The same applies to the Jewish, Samaritan, and Magian covenants.
Critics could argue that the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Jews, Samaritans, Christians, and Zoroastrians are appropriations, namely, that certain communities applied the principles found in the Covenant of Medina, the Covenant of Najran, and the Covenant of Maqna, which are found in classical Muslim sources, to themselves. What difference would it make? None, in my mind. The principles instilled by God and His Messenger are meant to be universal. If God and His Messenger provided rights to peaceful Christian and Jewish allies of the Prophet who lived in Arabia, then such rights should also apply to other faith communities regardless of where they reside.
“Critics could argue that the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Jews, Samaritans, Christians, and Zoroastrians are appropriations, namely, that certain communities applied the principles found in the Covenant of Medina, the Covenant of Najran, and the Covenant of Maqna, which are found in classical Muslim sources, to themselves. What difference would it make?”
The core protections that the Prophet Muhammad provided to the People of the Book are found in the Treaty of Najran as duly documented in classical Muslim sources. Unless one can prove that the truncated version that was transmitted by Muslims is a complete and total forgery, one does not have grounds to cast aspersions upon the complete version which was preserved and transmitted by Christians. The same goes for the Jewish covenants. The same goes for the Magian covenants.
As for those who claim that the Covenants of Najran is a Christian document, and cannot be trusted, this argument is untenable. The Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of Najran may have been published by a Christian chronicler, however, it was reportedly found in the Bayt al-Hikmah of the Muslims. If this is correct, then not only is it a Muslim document, it is one that is attributed to Muhammad himself. Why, then, should we not accept it? Who cares if the scribe who made a copy of the original was a Christian? If its author was the Prophet Muhammad, and it was written down by one of his companions, then it is an Islamic document. What is more, the Prophet himself employed pagans and Jews as scribes. If he could trust righteous non-Muslims, there is no reason that we should not. After all, when he fled Mecca, the Prophet placed his life in the hands of a pagan Arab Bedouin guide. If the Prophet could trust the Christian king of Abyssinia with the lives of his companions, why can we not trust a Christian chronicler?
Should we reject all the accounts of early Islam written by non-Muslims out of prejudice? Even those that confirm important historical events, beliefs, and practices, as well as those that portray the Prophet Muhammad positively? In 647 or 648 CE, Ishoyahb III, the Nestorian Patriarch from Iraq, wrote that the new Muslim rulers “do not fight Christianity” and that “they even commend our religion, show honor to the priests and monasteries and saints of our Lord, and make gifts to the monasteries and churches.” In his Universal History, written in 687 CE, John Bar Penkaye, an Eastern Syriac Nestorian, refers to the covenants of protection that the Prophet concluded with the Christians and mentions that similar commitments were made with other faith communities. Should we reject these early accounts as lies simply because they were related by Christians?
“In the last couple of centuries, original letters of the Prophet Muhammad have been found. Take, for example, the letter of the Messenger of God to Muqawqis: it was found inside a Coptic Bible in a Christian monastery at Ahmin, near Saide, in Egypt, by a Frenchman named Barthlmy. Should Muslim scholars have rejected it as a forgery because it was found by a Christian in a Christian monastery?”
In the last couple of centuries, original letters of the Prophet Muhammad have been found. Take, for example, the letter of the Messenger of God to Muqawqis: it was found inside a Coptic Bible in a Christian monastery at Ahmin, near Saide, in Egypt, by a Frenchman named Barthlmy. Should Muslim scholars have rejected it as a forgery because it was found by a Christian in a Christian monastery? This would not be a meaningful conclusion by any account. Whether they are originals or copies, we should only accept or reject material attributed to the Prophet Muhammad after having exercised due scholarly diligence.
And since when are scholars and academics limited to considering only evidence found in hadith collections, sirahwritings, books of Islamic history, and manuals of Islamic law? God did not create the Heavens and the Earth so that we would be forced to use Bukhari, Muslim, and other traditionists as an excuse to ignore all other sources. We are not limited to the books produced by classical biographers, historians, and jurists. They are not the end all and be all. They are just links in the chain. They are predecessors. They were fallible human beings. Their opinions are not written in stone. They were not divine in nature. Islam was not freeze-dried a thousand years ago. Scholarship can and must develop constantly. We must always reassess and re-evaluate. Truth is eternal: it is not confined to a time period. We should not live in the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, or the Iron Age. We must live in our age. Islam belongs to the time: our time.
The prohibition of bid‘ah, innovation, can only refer to essential practices and doctrines such as the Five Pillars or the belief in God, the angels, the prophets and the Last Day; it is obviously impossible to apply it to all the changes in human society and technology over the past 1400 years. If this were the case, then every conclusion reached by either Mubasher Hussain or myself would have to be thrown out, since they were arrived at with the help of computers and the Muslims of the Prophet’s time did not have computers.
As for Muslim morality, it can only be shown to be relevant to our own time if we understand it in terms of the essential moral principles exemplified by the character of the Prophet, not if we reduce it to a mass of details that have no relevance to a time when we pay our debts with credit cards instead of sheep or camels. And the same is true of scholarship. We must employ every methodology available to us in our own time when studying a subject. In short, there is more than one way to authenticate a document. Anyone who argues otherwise is not following a Living Tradition, he is following a fossilized faith that has gone the way of the dinosaurs. Such people study statues. They worship idols of their own making. They limit all their knowledge to staring at a stuffed and mounted animal in the office of a taxidermist rather than studying the living and breathing species in its natural environment.
The Part is not the Whole
Hussain claims that I have presented five criteria to prove my claim that the six covenants of the Prophet are authentic:
First, some of these covenants have their shorter versions in the Islamic sources. For instance, the treaty of Najran, which is also cited in Ibn Sa‘d’s al-Tabaqat should be considered authentic on the ground that its version found in the Islamic sources is simply a summary of the complete covenant found in the Christian monastery (p. 354). Second, he holds that the content analysis of these covenants proves them to be sound (p. 353). Third, while they contain certain variations due to scribal negligence, the content of these covenants is in complete agreement with the true teachings of Islam (p. 353). Fourth, they are witnessed by a number of Prophet’s companions (p. 353). Fifth, with reference to certain covenants, the absence of definitive evidence of forgery, in author’s view, is a proof of their authenticity (p. 98) .
Hussain gives the misleading impression that my case is built entirely upon these five criteria when, in fact, I have presented innumerable arguments in favor of the authenticity of the covenants of the Prophet in The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World and in Islam and the People of the Book: Critical Studies on the Covenants of the Prophet. Selecting a handful of arguments suggests to readers that the study under review is superficial. Rather than rely on the reductionist reading of Hussain, readers should open-mindedly study the two works in question, consider all the arguments presented in their totality, and come to their own conclusions regarding the authenticity of the covenants of the Prophet.
Upholding Baseless Hadith (31:6)
Hussain claims that:
Since the only primary sources of Islamic law are the Qur’an and authentic Prophetic traditions, these treaties allegedly concluded between the Prophet (peace be on him) and different religious communities cannot attain the status of a source of Islamic law if their authenticity is not established on the criterion set by early hadith scholars and jurists, which certainly rejects any tradition, document, or report transmitted either on behalf of a Christian/non-Muslim authority or without a chain of transmitters, or with a broken chain of narrators [312-313].
Islamic law is based on the Qur’an and the authentic hadith literature. While Muslim jurists do not question the Qur’an, they do question prophetic traditions. What is authentic to Sunnis of the four extant schools of jurisprudence is not necessarily authentic to Twelvers, Zaydis, Ismailis, ‘Ibadis, Zahiris or Mu‘tazilis. Even among these respective schools, jurists have differences of opinion regarding the authenticity of certain collections of traditions or specific traditions. While some sects, such as the Sunnis, have canonized certain collections of traditions, and view them as set in stone, this is not the case with others, like the Twelver Shi‘ites, who believe that the process of authenticating prophetic traditions should never be closed, that scholarship should always advance, and that all traditions and books of tradition must constantly be scrutinized by each scholarly generation. The Twelver Shi‘ites do not treat any book of traditions as authentic in toto. They consider each tradition individually and assess its merit or lack thereof.
To claim that scholars, for all times to come, are bound to the “criterion set by the early hadith scholars and jurists” in the ninth and tenth centuries, and even later, is retrograde, anti-intellectual, and irrational. The fact of the matter is that the authors of the canonical books of traditions never even expounded on the methodology they employed to authenticate prophetic traditions. Who says that their standards were sound? The fact that their “genuine” collections of traditions contain thousands of sayings that contradict the Qur’an, not to mention scientific fact, reason, morals, ethics, justice, and logic, calls into question their authoritative nature.
“Even the so-called sahih or genuine collections of ahadith contain spurious sayings that were falsely attributed to the Prophet. Muslims are required to accept authentic sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. They are not required to blindly, uncritically, and unquestionably accept sayings that were transmitted orally for centuries prior to being recorded.”
Even the so-called sahih or genuine collections of ahadith contain spurious sayings that were falsely attributed to the Prophet. Muslims are required to accept authentic sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. They are not required to blindly, uncritically, and unquestionably accept sayings that were transmitted orally for centuries prior to being recorded. The earliest surviving sayings were recorded one hundred and fifty years after the passing of the Prophet. Most of the canonical Sunni books were compiled two hundred years after his death. The four Shi‘ite books date from three centuries after the fact. One of them was compiled one thousand years after the events in question. And yet others include material that was only consolidated in the twentieth century.
There are some genuine traditions that have survived the test of time; however, they are few and far between. Out of over one to two million sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, the Sunnis speak of twenty-five thousand authentic traditions while the ‘Ibadis argue that only one thousand are genuine. Tim Mackintosh-Smith feels that five thousand might be a more reasonable number. That means that the ratio of authentic to spurious traditions in the Sunni tradition is 200:1. Throw in the traditions from other Muslim sects and it might rise to 500:1. The problem is that Qur’anic commentators and jurists have drawn extensively from this ocean of falsehood for fourteen hundred years. The Qur’an is the criterion. If prophetic traditions agree with the Qur’an, we can consider their candidacy for authenticity, so long as they can plausibly trace back to the Prophet, in one way or another, so long as they are just, moral, ethical, and egalitarian, and so long as they are theologically sound. Most purported prophetic traditions, however, are fabrications.
Radicals and extremists claim that anyone who rejects an “authentic” saying of the Prophet is an unbeliever. The fact of the matter is that there are scores of “authentic” ahadith that are racist, sexist, violent, intolerant, unjust, as well as immoral and unethical, according to the criterion of the Qur’an. They are an insult to God and the Prophet. Consequently, I contend that anyone who accepts these types of traditions is someone who has gravely violated the very basic Islamic norms and principals and has potentially stepped outside the boundaries of Muslim faith. Our sources may be the Qur’an and the Sunnah; however, we must never ignore the overarching importance of reason. Reason cannot firmly establish the articles of faith and the canons of practice by its own power, but it can certainly point out the places where Islamic practice has been perverted and the Islamic faith betrayed. We should not accept a tradition as authentic simply because it bears a subjectively sound chain of narration which any competent Muslim scholar could have forged. That is tantamount to believing that a ten-dollar watch is a genuine Gucci simply because it features the brand name. As Khaled Abou El Fadl has established, when we read a tradition, we must ask ourselves some serious questions: Is it just? Is it fair? Is it logical? Is it moral? Is it ethical?
Christians Cannot Be Trusted
Hussain claims that “the criterion set by early hadith scholars and jurists … certainly rejects any tradition, document, or report transmitted either on behalf of a Christian/non-Muslim authority or without a chain of transmitters, or with a broken chain of narrators” . This is patently false. The truth is the truth regardless of who proclaims it. According to al-Shafi‘i, the Prophet said: “Narrate [traditions] from the Children of Israel for there is nothing objectionable in that.” The hadith literature is full of traditions cited on the authority of Jews and Christians. Ibn Ishaq used to cite traditions on the authority of Jews and Christians. Imam Malik, Ibn al-Qattan, and Imam Ahmad distrusted him for doing so; however, Ibn Shu‘bah considered him to be absolutely trustworthy. Certain companions of the Prophet had no qualms about quoting traditions from Jews and Christians. They produced a vast body of Isra‘iliyyat. They did not hesitate to quote the sayings of Jesus and Moses, as well as prophets, which had been passed down through oral tradition hundreds and even thousands of years. Such material has a degree of historical or religious value clearly inferior to the documented canonical sources and even apocrypha. Yet some Muslim scholars accept such sayings as genuine but doubt the covenants of the Prophet.
“The earliest Islamic sources were devoid of chains of narrations. The earliest chains of narrations were very basic. They grew increasingly detailed over time. Chains of narration are not necessarily proof of authenticity.”
The earliest Islamic sources were devoid of chains of narrations. The earliest chains of narrations were very basic. They grew increasingly detailed over time. Chains of narration are not necessarily proof of authenticity. For some critics, they prove the contrary. Any competent hadith scholar can forge a solid isnad. And that is what many of them did. Likewise, a partial chain of narrations is not proof that a tradition is false. As far as some scholars are concerned, the isnad system is a fundamentally flawed method of authentication because it is not independently verifiable. There is no way of confirming that every single person in the chain stated what he is claimed to have stated. There is no supporting documentary evidence. There are no witnesses. In fact, most traditions are transmitted on a singular authority, namely, a single companion who supposedly claimed that the Prophet said something which nobody else heard or confirmed. The works on the Science of Men provide little information about the narrators. Hadith scholars from different sects disagree as to which narrators, followers, and companions were trustworthy. The fact of the matter is that the oral tradition is intangible whereas the written tradition is tangible. Manuscripts have a genealogy. The paper trail is palpable. The oral tradition is impalpable. It is vaporous. Written documents are far more reliable.
Chained to Chains of Transmission
Hussain also claims that “A report with [a] reliable chain of narrators can also be challenged if it contradicts the Qur’an or other more authentic Prophetic traditions. However, contrary to this criterion, Morrow maintains that it would be foolish to reject a tradition which agrees with the Qur’an and Sunnah simply because its chain of authorities is absent or incomplete (p. 77)” .
Hussain claims that the Covenants of the Prophet can be called into question if they contradict the Qur’an or more authentic prophetic traditions. Hussain claims that I contradict this criterion by accepting traditions that lack or have incomplete chains. How is this a contradiction? His position and my position, as he quotes it, are substantially identical. I specifically stated that I only accept such traditions if they agree with the Qur’an and authentic traditions. If I came across an ancient manuscript attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, and it contradicts the Qur’an and genuine traditions, I would reject it without hesitation. However, if I came across an ancient manuscript, like one of the covenants of the Prophet, which is amply confirmed in Muslim sources, and which agrees with the Qur’an and verified traditions, then I would be open to accepting it as authentic. And unlike certain Muslim scholars, I would never accept anything immoral and unethical regardless of its supposed authenticity.
I simply refuse to accept the dogma that there are no authentic traditions outside of a set series of compilations. The covenants of the Prophet agree with the Qur’an and they agree with a significant set of authentic traditions: the tolerant ones. They do, I agree, conflict with the intolerant, hate-filled, and violent traditions that, I am convinced, were falsely attributed to the Prophet and which, shamefully, were granted the status of sahih by scholars who have wrongly been granted an aura of sanctity and infallibility.
The covenants of the Prophet should surely give some Muslims a crisis of conscience, particularly those who have professed that all the tolerant verses of the Qur’an were abrogated and that Muslims must be in a state of perpetual war against infidels until they are all killed, converted, or forced to pay the jizyah. As a wise man once said: “Check yourself before you wreck yourself.” It is clear, however, that some Muslim scholarship went seriously astray centuries ago; it remains for the Muslims scholars of today, with the sophisticated tools of research and analysis now available to us, to set the record straight.
The Supposed Silence of the Sahabas
Hussain alleges that “these covenants mention certain companions of the Prophet (peace be on him), but none of them passed down any information about these documents to their students and successors!” . This is falsehood made manifest. The companions in question are listed as witnesses on dozens of different covenants concluded with Jews, Samaritans, Christians, and Zoroastrians. Some of them have been preserved in Jewish, Samaritan, Christian, and Zoroastrian archives; however, others were preserved in ‘Abbasid, Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluk, Safavid, and Ottoman archives. Various versions of them are also found in Muslim sources: books of prophetic biography, traditions, history and law. The Magian covenants were recorded by Abu al-Shaykh (d. 979), Abu Nu‘aym (d. 1038), Ibn Shahrashub (d. 1192), Khwandamir (d. 1534), Kashfi Tirmidhi (15th to 16th century), Majlisi (1678), al-Madani al-Shirazi (d. c. 1708/1709), Jejeebhoy (1851), Tabarsi (d. 1902), and others.
“Time and again, the companions of the Prophet appear as witnesses to the covenants concluded with Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. The evidence is indisputable. The companions of the Prophet passed down these documents to their students and successors.”
Time and again, the companions of the Prophet appear as witnesses to the covenants concluded with Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. The evidence is indisputable. The companions of the Prophet passed down these documents to their students and successors. As to why they were not included in certain Muslim sources, or only cited piecemeal, the question must certainly be asked. The socio-historical evidence suggests that they were suppressed in certain circles for religious and political reasons. The fact remains, however, that they were accepted as legislative by many Muslim dynasties, the most notable of which were the Fatimids and the Ottomans. The same applies to some of the Safavids.
It seems that when one’s head is stuck in medieval texts, and one is blinded by books, one misses out on much. This is the problem with a textual Islam that is completely decontextualized. Those who operate within this framework are blind to anything beyond their narrow study of the Qur’an, the Hadith, and Islamic jurisprudence. Try studying history, culture, and civilization. Try studying dozens of other fields. The mullahs are like millennials who miss out on life because they have their faces stuck in an iPhone all the time. They live in boxes and under stones. They are like the Japanese holdouts who only surrendered in 1974, convinced that World War II had not ended nearly thirty years earlier. These mullahs, however, have minds that have not evolved for a thousand years. If they are so enamored of the prophetic hadith then let them consider this one: “Seek knowledge, even if you have to travel to China to get it.” Clearly the spirit that inspired the scholars of Baghdad under Harun al-Rashid and other caliphs that led them to translate many of the great works of classical antiquity into Arabic, thereby initiating a Muslim Renaissance that spread from al-Andalus in the west to Persia in the east and contributed substantially to the Renaissance of Christian Europe, no longer animates the Muslim scholars of today.
Hussain claims that “these covenants bear the names of certain companions as witnesses to them. However, one may ask many questions about them. For instance, do the other historical records affirm the presence of these witnesses when these covenants were finalized? Were they Muslims when these covenants were signed? If they were not Muslims when these agreements were written, in which capacity they accompanied the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him)? The author admits that many of these witnesses ‘were not Muslims at the time, some were dead, and others cannot be identified in any of the works of ‘ilm al-rijal’ (p. 353) In such a case, how can these covenants be regarded as authentic documents? .”
God requires human beings to think and exert effort. It is called contemplation and critical thinking. It is called objectivity and introspection. Things are not black and white. The world is full of shades. There are hues. There are nuances. Only people who make idols out of so-called absolutes other than Allah dare to speak in absolute terms. Unless God speaks directly to all of humanity, then there is no absolute certainty. There is no way to have such absolute knowledge. We examine the evidence. We listen to our mind, our heart, and our soul, and, if we are convinced, then we believe. People have freedom of thought. People have freedom of belief. No Muslim is obliged to accept the covenants of the Prophet. However, every Muslim has the right to believe in them if he or she believes that the case in their favor is convincing. Basically, it boils down to one’s image of the Prophet Muhammad.
The hadith collections are radically divided, divided against themselves, when it comes to the character of the Prophet. They show us a man who speaks of slaughtering Jews and breaking crosses, and one who says to protect them; a man who calls upon people to honor and respect women and another who says beat them and rape female prisoners; a man who prohibits torture, and another who encourages torture; a man who prohibits the killing of non-combatants, and another who justifies the killing of children; a man who says that all humans are equal, and another who says the most racist things imaginable about Blacks. One is the Prophet of God; the other shows every indication of being the Prophet of Satan — and both versions are based on traditions that are classified as authentic by certain scholars. How can we explain this?
Was the Prophet a cynical opportunist who said whatever he felt the situation demanded with no regard for the truth? To believe this is to accuse Muhammad of vice and corruption. Was he a mentally deranged person affected with Multiple Personality Disorder? To believe this is to call Muhammad a madman. These are the very slanders against the Prophet that the Takfiri Jihadists class as capital offenses — yet those same Takfiris accept the validity of hadith that promote the identical slanders! Maybe their attraction to suicide bombing is due to the guilt they feel for blaspheming the Prophet in the very same terms they believe give them the right to kill anyone else who uses them.
Instead of accepting hadith collections as undeniably authentic that require us to conclude that the Prophet must have been either a reprobate or a madman or both — and the criminal actions of the Takfiris obviously promulgate this very slander in the most emphatic terms — let us lose no time in submitting the hadith to a rigorous re-evaluation based on the norms of the Qur’an as seen in the light of his covenants, his letters and his Constitution of Medina — of written documents that do not rely upon “he said she said” but are susceptible to sound textual and historical validation. Which is more outrageous, more blasphemous — questioning the hadith or slandering the character of the Prophet?
“As for the covenants of the Prophet, their lists of witnesses continue to be subjected to scholarly scrutiny; in and of themselves they do not make or break the content of the covenants. They can, however, be reconciled.”
As for the covenants of the Prophet, their lists of witnesses continue to be subjected to scholarly scrutiny; in and of themselves they do not make or break the content of the covenants. They can, however, be reconciled. I proposed various ways this might be done in The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World, in the section “Tracking the Transmissions” [331-332]. Ahmed El-Wakil and Walaa Nasrallah, however, have taken the analysis of these witnesses to a higher plateau in “The Prophet Muhammad’s Covenant with the Armenian Christians: A Critical Edition Based on the Reconstructed Master Template” which is found in volume two of Islam and the People of the Book (469-526).
In their view:
The objections raised by Hamidullah over the names of the witnesses, though inconsistent with the Muslim historical source material, are in perfect harmony with the Covenants. Of the 26 witnesses to the Covenant with the Armenian Christians, 9 of them reoccur in the four Christian Covenants which we have examined as part of our cross-comparison. These 9 witnesses are Abu Bakr al-Siddiq; ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab; ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan; ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib; Abu al-Darda’; Abu Hurayrah; Abu al-Fadl ibn ‘Abbas; and Talhah ibn ‘Ubayd Allah. This number could theoretically be 12 rather than 9 as the repeated name of ‘Abd Allah ibn Sham‘un and the names of Sa‘d ibn Had and Sa‘d ibn ‘Iyad are in all probability typos. The correct names in the original document would most likely have been the well-known Companions ‘Abd Allah ibn Mas‘ud, Sa‘d ibn Mu‘adh, and Sa‘d ibn ‘Ubadah (Appendix 3). This supposition is further reinforced by the way Sa‘d ibn ‘Ubadah’s name is written as ‘Sa‘d ibn ‘Iyadah’ in Cheikho’s recension of the Source Covenant with the Christians of the World (Appendix 4). The names of the next 11 witnesses reoccur in at least one of the other four Covenants used as part of our cross-comparison: Mu‘awwiyah bin Abi Sufyan; Abu Dharr; ‘Abd Allah ibn al-‘Abbas; Hamzah ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib; Thabit ibn Qays; Zayd ibn Thabit, Zayd ibn Arqam, Usamah ibn Zayd, ‘Uthman ibn Madh‘un, Abu al-Daliyah, and ‘Ammar ibn Yasir (512-513).
If Hamidullah and Hussain question the covenants of the Prophet, it is because their lists of witnesses stand in conflict with Islamic sources that they consider to be reliable. However, as Ahmed El-Wakil and I have shown in our studies, some of these sources have certainly been tampered with. Consequently, the covenants of the Prophet should not be judged based entirely on Islamic sources. Rather, Islamic sources should be judged, in part, on the covenants of the Prophet. The witnesses to the covenant of the Prophet do not disprove them. On the contrary, they help to prove them. In fact, after meticulously examining the lists of witnesses to the covenants of the Prophet, Ahmed El-Wakil concluded that they confirm their authenticity.
On the Origins of Photography
In terms of content criticism, Hussain contends that “the treaty titled ‘The Prophet Muhammad and the Monks of Mount Sinai’ (65–98), about which the author admits that its original copy is lost (pp. 77, 82), contains an impression of a hand which is claimed to be of the Prophet (peace be on him) (see pp. 81, 222). However, the impression surprisingly shows the outer side of the hand, which is possible only if it is taken using a camera!” .
Is Hussain, a Fulbright scholar and Assistant Professor of Islamic Law at Harvard University, suggesting that a seventeenth century manuscript features a photograph? Or is he claiming that the seventeenth century manuscript, which has been confirmed by carbon dating, was forged after the invention of the camera? The original Ashtiname or Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai was said to have been stamped by the Messenger of God’s palm-print. Some of the surviving copies of the document contain artwork, drawings or paintings, artistically symbolizing the fact that the Prophet Muhammad had touched the original document with his blessed hand. Some copies feature depictions of the hand of the Prophet, typically in black, as this was one of the heraldic color of his Household. Some also feature depictions of the hand of Sultan Selim, in gold, in recognition of the fact that he brought the original Covenant of the Prophet to the Ottoman Chancellery in 1517, had it copied into the Registry, stored in the Chamber of Relics, and granted certified Arabic and Turkish copies of the document to the Monastery of St. Catherine.
There is a photograph of the Covenant of the Prophet on page 222 of my book. It explicitly states that it is a “Turkish language copy of the Achtiname or Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai from 1638.” Nobody has ever claimed that this is the original. It is a copy of the original made in the 17th century. To my knowledge, there were no cameras back then. Yes, the impression on the lower right shows the outer side of the hand. That is called “art.” It is a painting. And good artists show depth and texture. They can even create three dimensions on a flat surface.
Until the Day of Judgment Do Us Part
Hussain claims that “in contrast to the authentic covenants of the Prophet (peace be on him), these covenants (such as those with the Christians of Najran and the Monks of Mount Sinai) read, ‘This must not be violated or altered until the hour of the Resurrection, Allah-willing’ (pp. 220, 300, 310) .
Hussain operates on the assumption that the covenants of the Prophet that are found in classical Muslim sources are authentic while the six covenants of the Prophet studied in my work are forgeries. I never approached the study of this subject from a partial perspective. I was neither for nor against the covenants of the Prophet. I assumed an attitude of neutrality and allowed myself to be guided by the facts as opposed to prejudice, pre-conceived notions, dogmas and doctrine. The evidence suggests the opposite of what Hussain purports, namely, that the six covenants of the Prophet are authentic while the fragmentary versions recorded in the classical sources were tampered with by parties who were less than tolerant and who wanted to limit the rights of non-Muslims for political and ideological reasons.
“Hussain bases his belief that these documents are not bona fide on the fact that they conclude with words commanding that they are not to be violated or altered until the end of times. However, the Prophet expressed the same ideas in other documents.”
Hussain bases his belief that these documents are not bona fide on the fact that they conclude with words commanding that they are not to be violated or altered until the end of times. However, the Prophet expressed the same ideas in other documents. In the Treaty of Ashjah, for example, he stated that the treaty he concluded was “valid so long as the Mountain of Uhud remains standing and the sea wets the shell” (Morrow 2013: 45). In the Treaty of Damrah, he also asserted that the treaty was valid “so long as the sea wets the shells” (Morrow 2013: 45). This is the very expression used in some of the covenants of the Prophet.
The most damning or blessed evidence comes from the Qur’an itself which commands: “Surely, the covenant (al-‘ahd) shall be asked about (on the Day of Judgement)” (17:34). The Qur’an also warns that “those who break the Covenant of God, after having plighted their word thereto, and cut asunder those things which God has commanded to be joined, and works mischief in the land; on them is the curse; for them is the terrible home” (13:25). Ibn Kathir explains that this verse condemns the wretched ones who break their covenants. He quotes from the Prophet who said that one of the signs of a hypocrite is that “whenever he makes a covenant, he breaks it.”
The Qur’an commands Muslims to “Fulfil every covenant for every covenant will be enquired into” (17:34). In the Tanwin al-Miqbas min Tafsir ibn ‘Abbas, this is interpreted as meaning “keep the covenant that you pledged in the name of Allah between you and people.” The commentator adds that “the one who breaks the covenant (will be asked) why he broke it on the Day of Judgment.” Clearly, the Covenant of God is a covenant made between people and communities. As can be appreciated, the phrase from the covenants of the Prophet that Hussain presents as proof of inauthenticity is drawn from the Qur’an and echoes many verses. If anything, it helps confirm the fact that they are rooted and inspired in the word of God.
What is more, the statement found at the end of the covenants is confirmed by the Prophet Muhammad who warned that he would testify against anyone who oppressed a dhimmi or mu‘ahad, namely, a protected person from the People of the Book, on the Day of Judgement (Bukhari, Abu Dawud, Mawardi, Abu Nu‘aym, Baladhuri, Jalabi, Bayhaqi, Ibn Zanjawah, Suyuti, Abu Yusuf). Anyone who has any questions concerning this matter should read “‘Whoever Harms a Dhimmi I Shall be His Foe in the Day of Judgement:’ An Investigation into an Authentic Prophetic Tradition and its Origins from the Covenants” by Ahmed El-Wakil that was published in Religions in 2019.
It’s All Greek to Me
Hussain claims that “many language expressions used in this covenant do not resemble to those of the Prophetic expressions preserved in the authentic hadith collections” .
Which language expressions do not resemble those preserved in hadith collections? Hussain has made a claim; the burden is upon him to prove it. He provides nothing at all as evidence. The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad have been studied by many Arabists and Islamologists, including Ahmed El-Wakil, Arnold Yasin Mol, Mehdi Arab, and myself. It is our informed opinion that they are written a style that is comparable to the Qur’an and the oldest sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and that they contain parallel linguistic and literary conventions. This is a promising line of enquiry that deserves a complete comparative study.
“…they are written a style that is comparable to the Qur’an and the oldest sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and that they contain parallel linguistic and literary conventions. This is a promising line of enquiry that deserves a complete comparative study.”
Particularity or Universality?
Hussain claims that “these covenants were concluded with particular Christian communities, but their texts surprisingly include all Christians of the world (pp. 218, 222, 305, 315)” .
Yes, indeed. Likewise, the Qur’an was revealed in Arabic to an Arab who recited it to Arabs and yet it oddly addressed Jews, Christians, Sabeans, pagans, women, and all of humanity. The Qur’an did not speak solely to the Jews of Medina: it spoke to all Jews. The Qur’an engages in theological debate with specific Christian denominations and yet addresses Christians as a whole. It is called universality. It is what makes the Qur’an a literary classic.
The Tower of Babel
Hussain claims that “one of the covenants titled ‘The Prophet Muhammad and the Armenian Christians of Jerusalem’ was written in Persian (see pp. 191-202, 315-20). The present author is of the view that the Prophet (peace be on him) had an excellent command of Persian (177-78) — and even if he did not there were certainly fluent speakers of Persian among his companions, Salman Farsi for example. However, the proof he has provided does not support his claim” .
On pages 191-202 of The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World I make it clear that The Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Armenian Christians exists in Arabic. The treaty that survives in Persian is the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Assyrian Christians (177-190). There is ample evidence in Muslim sources, particularly Shi‘ite ones, to support the claim that the Prophet, by the grace of God, could communicate in any language, including Persian. I state that the document was “allegedly composed in the Persian language” (177); however, I point out how silly this view is when one considers that it commences with the words “The translation of the holy messenger’s treaty, peace be upon him and his family” (178). The document was unquestionably translated into Persian from Arabic.
Bahira Beyond Belief?
Hussain alleges that “the episode of Bahira, a monk [who] lived in Bosra (Syria), which is also referred to in the classical sirah literature without a complete chain of trustworthy narrators … has been considered by the mainstream Muslims a spurious one” .
“The account of Bahira the Monk is widely recorded in early Muslim sources, including Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Sa‘d, al-Tabari, al-Zuhri, and ‘Abd al-Razzaq, among others. It is also found in early Christian sources in both Syriac and Arabic.”
The account of Bahira the Monk is widely recorded in early Muslim sources, including Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Sa‘d, al-Tabari, al-Zuhri, and ‘Abd al-Razzaq, among others. It is also found in early Christian sources in both Syriac and Arabic. It is not a hadith, a saying of the Prophet. It is a historical account that predates Islam. Consequently, it is illogical to expect it to have an isnad of any sort, much less “trustworthy narrators” which, according to Hussain, can only be Muslims. Well, there were no Muslims at the time of the event. So, even if it featured a chain of Christians or Arab pagans, it would not live up to the “stringent” or better yet, the hide-bound standard set by certain Muslim traditionists. Both Arab Muslims and Arab Christians agreed that this event took place. Since when do historical events require chains of narrations from the companions of the Prophet and their followers? We should study accounts from all sources to see where they agree and where they diverge. This is what sound scholarly methodology demands.
Merchant Messenger or Provincial Prophet?
Hussain claims that “the following points discussed in the book are of special concern due to their conflict with established concepts of mainstream Muslims: The Prophet (peace be on him) spent twenty-five years of his life out of Arabia; Christians and Jews are also considered ‘Mu’minin;’ Madinah was a pluralistic state; and Islam was a broader movement of monotheistic believers” . Hussain writes that:
Contrary to the traditional Muslim standpoint, the author held that there was a period of about twenty-five years which Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) did not spend in Arabian [P]eninsula! He lived this period among the Christian monks at the monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai. This period starts when he was fifteen years old and ends when he was forty years old. To prove his claim, Morrow associates [the] Prophet’s encounter with monk Bahira, his early life (teenage) as a shepherd, and his travel to lead Khadijah bint Khuwaylid’s trade caravans to Syria, with a series of events related to the monks of Mount Sinai, completely drawing upon certain non-Islamic sources (pp. 6–12, 68–70, 98). Moreover, the author’s claim that the Prophet spent most of his pre-Prophetic life out of Arabian Peninsula contradicts the Qur’an which proclaims that most of his pre-Prophetic life was spent among the Makkans (10:16) .
Hussain has misunderstood and misrepresented my views on the subject. Never have I claimed that Muhammad spent a total of twenty-five years completely outside of the Arabian Peninsula. I argue, based on the evidence found in both Muslim and Christian sources, that Muhammad was employed in the caravan trade. He travelled intermittently in and out of Arabia for decades. The evidence in this regard is compelling and convincing for those who follow documented facts as opposed to religious dogma. Consequently, my claims do not contradict 10:16 which simply states that the Prophet lived among his people, the Arabs, in Arabia — which, by the way, included the Sinai. For the Romans, Arabia Petraea included the Mediterranean coast of Syria, Palestine, the Sinai, and Egypt. Hussain should study some pre-Islamic maps of Arabia. He would learn that “Arabia” included the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. The “Land of the Arabs” was where Arabs lived, and they have lived in the Sinai since ancient times.
A Believer is a Believer is a Believer
Hussain presents three paragraphs of citations from the Covenant of the Prophet with the Christians of Persia which describe Christians as believers along with some of my arguments supporting that view. He claims that “Traditional Muslims would not accept such a view because they find no support for this in the traditional interpretations held by Muslim scholars relying upon the available authentic sources of Islam” .
Traditional Muslims, namely, the partisans of Islam’s spiritual tradition, including the likes of Rumi and Ibn al-‘Arabi, would have no qualms in describing monotheists, like the Jews and Christians, as mu’minin, namely, believers in God. The Prophet himself describes Jews as mu’minin or believers, and Muslims as muslimin or submitters in the Constitution of Medina as he does in some of his other covenants.
If “classical Muslim scholars” were supposedly ignorant of these easily confirmed facts, so much the worse for them. Their conclusions were certainly not based on the Qur’an, the Constitution of Medina or the Covenants of the Prophet. This is ijtihad against the texts. The Qur’an clearly states that “those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve” (2:63).
Hussain’s categorical claim that traditional Muslim scholars do not accept the view that Christians are believers is unbelievable. Some held this view. However, others recognized that there were believers among the People of the Book. After all, Almighty Allah asserts that “Among the People of the Book is an upright community… They believe in God and the Last Day, enjoin right and forbid wrong, and hasten unto good deeds. And they are among the righteous” (3:113-114). When interpreting this verse, al-Maturidi mentioned that there were believers among the People of the Book. Is Hussain suggesting that the author of Ta’wilat Ahl al-Ssunnah was not a traditional Muslim who relied on the authentic sources of Islam?
Since anyone who believes in God is a believer, it logically follows that the Jews, Christians and Sabians who believe in God are believers. Jews believe in God and in Judaism. Christians believe in God and in Christianity. Muslims believe in God and Islam. They are all believers in God and in their respective faiths. Of course, perhaps Hussain holds that this verse, along with the one hundred and twenty-four verses promoting pluralism, tolerance, and peace, has been abrogated by 3:85 and 9:5. I hope this is not the case.
Can Anyone Compare to the Prophet?
Hussain writes that “Morrow holds [that] ‘The Prophet Muhammad’s Community was a unique system which had never existed before and which has never been seen since despite honest efforts to emulate it” (p. 32; emphasis mine). Such a view implies that even the rightly guided caliphs failed to maintain the system established by the Prophet (peace be on him)!” [315-316].
Is Hussain suggesting that Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, Uthman, and ‘Ali were able to perfectly maintain the system established by the Prophet Muhammad? History confirms that the early caliphate of the “rightly guided” was fraught with problems. The companions turned against one another. They waged wars against one another. They killed one another and they accused one another of apostasy. Fitnah prevailed and the caliphate devolved into kingdoms, dynasties, and despotism.
Is Pluralism an Anachronism?
Hussain writes that:
Elaborating the characteristics of this ‘unique system’ established by the Prophet (peace be on him), Morrow writes, ‘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 so doing, he created a tolerant, pluralistic government which protected religious freedom’ (p. 32).
Hussain takes issue with the fact that “depending on the Constitution of Madinah, the author preferred to label the first Islamic state a pluralistic government in the modern sense” .
Any honest academic, who objectively studies the Constitution of Medina and the covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the People of the Book, cannot help but conclude that the Messenger of God created a pluralistic society in which Jews, Christians, Muslims, and the members of other faiths, co-existed harmoniously on equal footing.
Yes, this understanding of Islam conflicts with the absolutist and supremacist interpretation that came to prevail after the passing of the Prophet Muhammad, particularly during ‘Abbasid times; however, this original vision of Islam was the inspiration of the Ottoman Empire’s millet system: autonomous religious communities consisting of Jews, Christians and Muslims united under the might and mercy of Islam.
I do not, have not, and will not label the Prophet’s community “a pluralistic government in the modern sense.” On the contrary, I speak of “the model of religious pluralism and interfaith friendship established by the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him and his progeny, in his Covenants, his Treaties, his Letters, his Sunnah, and the Holy Qur‘an.” I have not falsely projected pluralistic government back in time to Medina, but have recognized that Medina was the precursor to the pluralistic governments of today. Hussain has inverted my argument.
I contend that the constitutional law, civil rights, human rights, and pluralism found in the modern Western world finds its precedents in the Ummah of Muhammad as it is rightly called and as the Prophet himself called it: the Mother Land and not an “Islamic State,” in the modern Islamist understanding, a term that was never used by God or His Prophet and which is an innovation produced by the partisans of Political Islam.
As I clarified in “The Madinah Charter: A Model for Muslims and a Hope for Humanity,” “The Islamic State is a misnomer. The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, never, ever, described his system as a dawlah, a khilafah, a sultanah, a jumhuriyyah or a dimukratiyyah; he never described his system as a State, a Caliphate, a Sultanate, a Republic or a Democracy. On the contrary, he described it as an Ummah, a Motherland, a Homeland, a Federation or a Confederation.”
The Ummah was never a state solely by and for Muslims in which so-called “Islamic” law was imposed on all indiscriminately. This was not the practice of the Prophet or Imam ‘Ali. They judged Muslims according to the Qur’an and Sunnah; however, they judged Jews and Christians according to their own respective religious codes.
The Prophet and the People of the Book: History or Revisionism?
Hussain writes that “In a commentary on the contents of the covenant of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) with the Christians of Najran, the author supports Fred Donner’s (b. 1945) claim that the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be on him) Believers’ Movement included, not only Muslims, but Jews and Christians as well and that they both fought alongside the Muslims and also played important role in early Islamic administration” .
It is not a claim that Jews and Christians supported the Prophet and the early caliphs: it is a historical fact. Mukhayriq, the Jewish rabbi, died a martyr fighting for the Muslims in the battle of Uhud, and the Christian Jawn ibn Huwai was martyred fighting alongside Husayn in the Battle of Karbala. The evidence of Jewish and Christian support for early Islam is overwhelming and indisputable. It is confirmed in early Muslim and Christian sources.
The Teaching of Jacob, written between 634-640 CE, reported the rise of Muhammad and the widespread support he had received from Messianic Jews. It reads: “We Jews were overjoyed. And they were saying that the prophet had appeared, coming with the Saracens, and that he was proclaiming the advent of the anointed one, the Christ who was to come.” This is but one of many examples.
Tampering with Tradition
Hussain writes that:
[Morrow] quotes the Prophet (peace be on him) saying, ‘All of the Arab chiefs, all of the leading Muslims, and all the People of the Vocation, from around the world sent me letters expressing the fondness of Christians towards my cause, their zeal to push back the incursions made along the fortified borderlines of their religion, their determination to observe the treaty which they contracted with me when they met with me and which I granted them. For, truly, the bishops and the monks showed an unshakable loyalty in their attachment to my cause and the devotion of their persons to confirm and support the spread of my mission’ (p. 129). In his covenant with the Christians of Najran, however, this portion has not been recorded by the early Muslim historians .
If it was not recorded, the reason seems obvious: it does not form part of the Covenant of Najran itself. The segment he is citing comes from a letter that preceded the actual charter. What is more, as any specialist in hadith studies will recognize, the compilers of traditions were not photocopying machines. They did not simply scan documents. They did not copy them verbatim. They were selective. They edited the material that they documented for scholarly, theological, and political reasons. A comparative study of the surviving accounts of the Covenant of Najran, found in Sunni and Shi‘ite sources, clearly shows this to be the case. The same can be said of the Treaty of Maqna that was reproduced in mutilated form by Ibn Sa‘d and Baladhuri.
When we compare the original content of the Covenant of Najran — which was reportedly rediscovered by Habib the Monk in the Bayt al-Hikmah, and which was preserved in the Chronicle of Seert — with the segments that survive in Muslim sources, and when we compare the original content of the Treaty of Maqna, as preserved in the Cairo Geniza, with the segments that survive in Muslim sources, the conclusions are clear: the Muslim traditionists sometimes acted dishonestly. Sorry to burst the bubble of those who innocently believe that their great, classical, religious authorities were infallible, but times have changed: we now hold the scholarly tools to objectively evaluate them.
Hussain writes that “All the covenants reproduced in this book witness that the Christians of the time of the Prophet (peace be on him) had a friendly, harmonious, loyal and sympathetic relationship with the Muslims, something which was noticeably absent with regards to the Jewish community” .
If Hussain questions the authenticity of these covenants, he should be cautious about drawing such conclusions regarding Muslim-Christian relations. As for his allegation that Muslims did not have positive relations with Jewish people, this is untrue. As I explain in the book he reviewed, “History bears witness that the Messenger of Allah was actively engaging in signing treaties with the people of all professions of faith during his final year… Merely because some Jews in Medina had broken their treaties, the Prophet was not prevented from issuing charters of protection for other Jewish communities, such as those from Maqna” (354). What is more, if they are indeed authentic, the covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Children of Israel, which Ahmed El-Wakil and I have studied, suggest that the Messenger of God had excellent relations with some loyal Jewish communities in the Yemen and northwestern Arabia.
Primary or Secondary Sources
Hussain claims that “Morrow … has strangely consulted only the secondary sources of the sirah (for instances, see pp. 45, 47, 49, 84, 113, 117, 118, 126) while the original sources are widely available. The reviewer could not find a single reference to primary sources of sirah throughout the book” . Strangely, I have cited al-Waqidi (4, 28, 39, 40-41, 52, 54, 56, 118, 188) and Ibn Ishaq (2-4, 6-8, 13-15, 31, 37-41, 46-47, 52, 56, 58, 112, 118, 127, 130, 154, 188, 327, 361, 363, 366) profusely along with other early sources on the biography of the Prophet Muhammad.
To Quote or Not to Quote: That is the Question
Hussain also claims that “many citations lack the reference at all (see pp. 83, 115–116, 122) and some of them have incomplete references (see pp. 43, 47, 56, 78, 122)” .
Strangely, the citations on pages 83, 115-116, and 122 do indeed include references and the ones on pages 43, 47, 56, 78, and 122 include complete references. According to standard scholarly practice, there is no need to provide the name of the author prior to the page number if the author is mentioned prior to the citation. Yes, the citation on the top left side of page 122 indicates that it comes from page 526. However, if one looks at the top of the quote, on page 121, it states that it is drawn from my study on the “Pre and Early Islamic Period” found in a Cultural History of Reading. This is therefore a complete reference, easy to locate in the bibliography at the end of the work. The critic may wish to review his MLA or Chicago style sheet. As for prophetic traditions, it is customary to simply cite their source, namely, Bukhari, Muslim, etc. rather than include page numbers. They can be easily located by any scholar in the field. Moreover, most Muslim scholars should know these sayings by heart. Finally, there is no need to provide references for matters that are common knowledge and accepted facts.
Hussain concludes that “the book contains highly disputed documents and many controversial findings” (317). If that is the case, all I can say is alhamdulillah, all praise is due to Allah. The Qur’an was, and remains, a highly disputed and controversial document. Controversy is in the eye of the beholder. If my study has challenged Mubasher Hussain’s preconceptions of Islam, then I am pleased to have stimulated the thought processes of him and others like him. To those who are confined in conceptual cages of their own creation I say: “Sleepers, awake.”
I contacted the Islamic Studies journal and requested the right to respond to the review written by Mubasher Hussain. The editor accepted. After I submitted my rebuttal, the journal in question refused to publish it unless I made substantial changes to suit their own normative inclinations. I found that unacceptable and would like to thank Maydan for publishing this response that I hope will further academic and intellectual exchange.
Morrow, John Andrew, ed. Islam and the People of the Book: Critical Studies on the Covenants of the Prophet. 3 vols. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017.
—. The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World. Tacoma, WA: Angelico Press and Sophia Perennis, 2013.
Hussain, Mubasher. “Book Review: The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World.” Islamic Studies 57:3-4 (2018): 311-322.
Morrow, John Andrew. “The Provenance of the Prophet’s Covenants.” Islam and the People of the Book: Critical Studies on the Covenants of the Prophet. Vol. 2. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017. 1-213.
Wakil, Ahmed El- and Walaa Nasrallah. “The Prophet Muhammad’s Covenant with the Armenian Christians: A Critical Edition Based on the Reconstructed Master Template.” Islam and the People of the Book: Critical Studies on the Covenants of the Prophet. Vol. 2. Ed. John Andrew Morrow. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017. 469-526.
John Andrew Morrow received his PhD from the University of Toronto where he studied Hispanic, Native, and Islamic Studies. He worked as a university professor for two decades. He taught for the University of Toronto, Park University, Northern State University, Eastern New Mexico University, the University of Virginia and Ivy Tech Community College. He has a research fellow at the University of Chicago, Purdue University, and Harvard University. He received an Interfaith Leadership Award from the Islamic Society of North America in 2016 and a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition by the US House of Representatives in 2017.
After reaching the rank of Full Professor, he retired from academia to devote himself entirely to scholarship and service. Professor Morrow has authored a vast body of scholarly works in numerous fields. He has published hundreds of scholarly articles and dozens of academic books, including The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World (2013), which has been translated into Spanish, Italian, Arabic, and Indonesian. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Islam and the People of the Book: Critical Studies on the Covenants of the Prophet, a three-volume encyclopedic work on the letters and treaties of the Prophet Muhammad.