The College of Islamic Studies (CIS), part of Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), is embarking on a scrupulous mission to document, collate and index copies of the covenants which the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) issued to non-Muslim communities.
The project, which is headed by Ibrahim Zein, Professor of the History of Religions at CIS, began in 2017 and builds on John Andrew Morrow’s The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World -- a 2013 publication which documented treaties granted by the Prophet to Christian communities. Prior to then, no one had collated and translated copies of these covenants, which exist in monasteries and ecclesiastical histories, and made them available to a larger audience. The book also goes into extensive detail in discussing the covenant of the Prophet at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Mount Sinai which, according to tradition, was frequented by the Prophet in his youth as it was part of the trade routes with Syria and Palestine.
“Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, and Samaritan traditions have all claimed to have received a covenant of protection from the Prophet,” said Ahmed El-Wakil, a researcher within CIS who is working on the project. “The covenant that exists in the Monastery of St. Catherine is particularly important because it has been repeatedly attested by Muslim authorities. Though some of the details of the covenants may be disputed, there is nevertheless a certain degree of consistency among the documents issued to different faith communities. This implies that they all originate from a common source and that on the whole they are textually accurate.”
As the religion of Islam remains subject to various forms of Islamophobia and counter-narratives, it has now become commonplace to accuse Islam of being at its very core an intolerant religion. According to El-Wakil, while Muslims indeed may have done unfavorable things in history, it remains important to try and understand the Prophet’s vision in trying to build bridges between people of all faiths. He believes that sufficient grounds can be made in favor of the historicity of the covenants.
“At one point rejecting these documents was an acceptable argument among academics because scholars were looking at the documents in silos,” notes El-Wakil. “Now, however, there are no solid academic grounds to make such arguments. How can scholars refute the similarities we find between covenants granted to Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian and Samaritan communities? Even if, for the sake of argument, we assume there was some interaction between them, there is no evidence that they ‘borrowed’ or contrived their respective texts from one another. This would have been an unlikely process for forging these documents.”
Like the majority of the letters and treaties of the Prophet and his Companions, the original covenants have not survived. “The word ‘authenticity’ is one that many of us can be uncomfortable with,” says El-Wakil. “As Professor Zein would put it, ‘authentic’ means that the original document that the Prophet issued exists today in a museum. “This clearly is not the case. However, there are a number of tests which we can apply to determine whether the copies we have today are faithful replicas of the original ones.”
The covenants reveal the Prophet and the Rightly-Guided Caliphs’ vision in encouraging and respecting interfaith relations. “The covenants clearly outline that the lives, property, wealth, and faith of the non-Muslims are all to be revered. Non-Muslims living in Muslim societies must always be treated with kindness and abusing their rights is a big sin before God,” said El-Wakil. “In that regard, the Prophet is frequently quoted to have stated ‘whoever harms a person living under our protection, then I shall be his foe on the day of Judgment’.”
The covenants also outline a framework for taxation (known as jizya), to be only levied according to their capability, prohibiting exploitation and advocating economic justice. Muslims are also to defend non-Muslims and relieve them from participation in wars. Additionally, a Muslim should never force a non-Muslim to embrace Islam.
“If you look at the American Declaration of Independence and how it refers to inalienable rights, you will see that they cannot be revoked under any circumstances,” says El Wakil. “The covenants offer a similar approach, and these documents remain valid until the day of judgement.”
An Evidence-Based Approach
The research team put rigorous measures in place to ensure that the study and analysis of the covenants should be done using historical and hermeneutical methods. “We are not here as apologists or acting as publicists for the religion of Islam,” says El-Wakil. “We have looked at an array of sources such as various manuscripts, inscriptions, historical references, cross-comparing different texts, and identifying echoes of the covenants’ terms and conditions in Islamic texts.”
Ultimately, the goal of the project is to provide a comprehensive library for academics, religious leaders, and researchers to have all the resources at hand to study the covenants in line with traditional Islamic teachings and jurisprudence.
“We have been examining the covenants now for three years,” explained El-Wakil. “There is still a lot of work to be done, and the more manuscripts become available to us, the more we will know about the origins of the covenants and why they have become obscured. The tradition of securing the rights of non-Muslims living in Muslim societies and promoting tolerance between different faith groups needs to be reconstructed and understood. The sentiments expressed in the covenants, especially in a world that is becoming more polarized, are perhaps now needed more than ever.”
Please give us an overview of your project; where the idea stemmed from; phases it is currently undergoing; any elements of practical implementation; and/or types of technologies used?
COVID-19 and previous efforts to contend with pandemics provided the backdrop for a recent webinar organized by the Sheikh Muhammad Bin Hamad Al-Thani Center for Muslim Contribution to Civilization (CMCC) at the College of Islamic Studies (CIS) at Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU).