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Covenant of Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mt. Sinai by Dr. John Andrew Morrow

Covenant of Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mt. Sinai by Dr. John Andrew Morrow
The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, are controversial. These documents, which are found in Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Samaritan, and Zoroastrian sources have elicited a great deal of debate and discussion. All have sought to answer a simple question: are they authentic?
There are many ways to authenticate a document. The first is to track its provenance; its chain of transmission; its chain of custody. The Covenants of the Prophet have been transmitted by hundreds upon hundreds of Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Samaritan, and Zoroastrian authorities, in dozens of different languages, for that past 1400 years. From the point of view of provenance, the Covenants of the Prophet appear to be authentic.
The second way to authenticate a document is by means of physical analysis. The scientific analysis of the paper, the papyrus, or the leather, as well as the ink, and the style of the script. The documents that have survived date from as recently as the 20th century as far back as the 7th century. So, we have, what presume to be, first hand copies, second hand copies, third hand copies, fourth hand copies, and fifth hand copies.
We can confirm, however, that the copies from the early 20th century are identical to the copies made in the 17th century and that the copies made in the 17th century are identical to the copies made in the 7thcentury. We can therefore confirm that the Covenants of the Prophet were transmitted accurately over the course of 1400 years. So, from the point of view of physical analysis, the Covenants of the Prophet appear to be authentic.
The third way to authenticate a document is by content analysis. Do the Covenants of the Prophet agree with the Qur’an? Do the Covenants of the Prophet agree with the authenticated sunnah? Can the Covenants of the Prophet be reconciled with the sirah or biography of the Prophet? Is the language an accurate reflection of the Arabic spoken at the time of the Prophet? The answer to all these questions is yes. So, from the point of view of content analysis, the Covenants of the Prophet appear to be authentic.
The fourth way to authenticate a document is by means of expert opinion. What have scholars said about the Covenants of the Prophet over the course of the past 1400 years. In some cases, opinion is divided. In other cases, most scholars have concluded that the content of the document is genuine. When we look at the dozens of Covenants that the Prophet concluded with different faith communities and denominations, we find that that the weight of scholarly opinion favors a conclusion of authenticity.
Today, we will examine a fifth way of authenticating a document, namely, the rulings of Muslim religious and political authorities throughout the ages. What did the Caliphs, Sultans, and Shahs say about the Covenants of the Prophet? Surprise, surprise: they had a lot to say and their conclusions and commands became the law of the land.
Let us take the case of the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Armenian Christians. It was authenticated by Caliph ‘Umar. It was authenticated by Imam ‘Ali. And it was authenticated by Salah al-Din. Let us take the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of Persia. It was authenticated by Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq. It was authenticated by Shah ‘Abbas, the Safavid leader.
Let us take the Covenant of the Prophet with the Monks of Mount Sinai. It was authenticated by Caliph al-Mu‘izz (953-974 CE), Caliph al-‘Aziz (975-996 CE), Caliph al-Hakim (996-1021 CE), Caliph al-Zahir (1024 CE), Vizier al-Afdal ibn Badr al-Jamali (1094-1121 CE), Caliph al-Hafiz (1134 CE), as well as by the Decree of Shirkuh (1169 CE). It was authenticated by the Ayyubids Caliphs (1195, 1199, 1201/02, and 1210/11 CE), by the Mamluk Decrees (1259, 1260, 1272, 1268/69, 1280 and 1516 CE), and by all the Ottoman Sultans from 1519 all the way to 1904.
If the Caliphs, Imams, Sultans, and Shahs, from the 7th century to the 20th century stated that the Covenants of the Prophet are authentic, then whom am I to argue otherwise. I take refuge in Allah from having the audacity and the insolence to believe that I know better than all the Caliphs, Imams, Sultans, and Shahs of Islam.
Since there are literally hundreds of firmans from the political leaders of Islam, and thousands of fatawa or edicts by the religious leaders of Islam, it would take me days to read them all to you and weeks to expound upon them. I will therefore limit myself to a short survey of imperial edicts from the rulers of the Muslim world that clearly confirm and renew the rights and protections that the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, provided to the People of the Book.
The first of the edicts that is I would like to quote was authored by Abu Muhammad ‘Abd Allah ibn Yusuf ibn al-Hafiz (1149–1171), known as al-ʿAdid li-Din Allah, the fourteenth and final of the Fatimid Caliphs. The original document, which measures ten meters long, reads as follows:
Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds. In the Name of Allah, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful. This edict was issued by our most noble leader, the supporter of Allah’s religion, and the Leader of the Believers… May the blessings of Allah’s be upon him, his virtuous ancestors, and his noble progeny… The Bishop of the Monastery of Mount Sinai and its monks, who live a life of seclusion and prayer, presented a petition in our presence with the habitual signatures. They have signed decrees from the days of al-Hakim and other records that they are honored to have received from these sublime ‘Alawite states. The monks asked us to renew the privileges that they currently have. We ordered that this edict care for them, protect them, and make matters easy for them. We ordered that they be treated as befits their customs and that they be hosted well. They should be helped so that they can manage their affairs well. They should be made hopeful and happy. They are to be protected wherever they are in the [Fatimid] State. And they should be helped to benefit from its bounties. The monks should be relieved of what governors asked them to pay in taxes…. The Arabs are forbidden from entering the residences of the monks and robbing them from the savings they use to host pilgrims. The monks should be exempted from taxes and duties in accordance with the decrees of the Prophet that they have in their possession and which prohibit all attempts to change or alter the privileges in question or prevent them from being implemented. The friends of the monks, and all those who work for them, must be protected. The same applies to those who gather money from them, be it tithe or alms. No harm should come to those who secure sustenance for them whether they are in Egypt, nearby countries or the rural areas. What is more, all taxes that were recently imposed on them must be dropped.
Anyone who reads or hears this decree — including leaders who oversee war in the east, may Allah support them, or those in charge of fortresses on Mount Sinai, may Allah keep them strong, and all the deputies and clerks — should abide by it, pay attention to its clauses, and be careful not to transgress it…. Written in Jumada II in 564 AH, March 1169 CE.
The decree of Abu Muhammad ‘Abd Allah confirms that the Sinai monks regularly requested the renewal of their privileges. It establishes that the monks had received decrees granting them rights and freedoms that dated back to the time of al-Hakim (996-1021 CE), the sixth Fatimid Caliph.
Not only were their ancient privileges renewed, Abu Muhammad ‘Abd Allah issued a long list of caring and compassionate commands that radiate love. His decree covers all the major points found in the Sinai Covenant; however, rather that focus on the letter, he stresses its spirit that is rooted in the Golden Rule. And like the Covenant of the Prophet, the decree of the last Fatimid Caliph warns against violating the rights of Christian contemplatives.
The second document that I wish to share with you this evening is the Decree that Sultan Selim I granted to the Monks of Mount Sinai in 1517. Remember, this is the Sultan who brought the Ashtinameh, the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai, back to the Chamber of Relics in the palace of Topkapi in Istanbul. It reads:
Since the monks of Mount Sinai have come to our sublime Divan, and have humbly represented that Muhammad al-Mustafa, peace and blessings be upon him, being heretofore by their Monastery hospitably received in his travels, and according to their slender abilities, adorned with all kinds of honor and reverence, graciously exempting this community of Christian monks from their annual tribute, and in confirmation of it was pleased to give a holy writing signed with his own hand [print], after his example, we also, out of our great clemency, do ordain that the aforementioned monks be free from the yearly tribute paid by the rest, and to suffer without molestation to enjoy their churches and rites according to their obsolete law.
To this end, we have graciously ordered them an authentic copy of the Covenant of God’s Holy Prophet, confirmed by our inscription. We therefore enjoin every person exercising dominion or jurisdiction throughout our whole kingdom, not to burden the said monks of the tribe of Jesus with tribute or other political contributions. And whosoever shall act contrary to our noble decree and mandate, know that he shall be certainly punished and chastised. Given in Cairo…
Sultan Selim, the Grand Vizier, the Chief Mufti, and all the leading Muslim scholars at the service of the Ottoman Empire examined and authenticated the Sinai Covenant. They were not of the ignorant.
The third decree that I would like to cite was issued by Sultan Mustafa I (1591-1639), who ruled from 1617-1618 and from 1622 to 1623, and directed to Bishop Ghafril the Fourth in 1618 CE. It proclaims:
To the greatest judges of the states of Rumelia, Anatolia, and Egypt, the Protected. To the greatest judges of Damascus in Syria, the city that smells like Paradise. To the greatest judges of Baghdad, the city that looks like Paradise. To the judges and their deputies. To all those in charge of money. To the military commanders. To the customs directors and the port directors. To the distinguished members of the Secretariat and to all men of authority. May Allah empower them. When this royal decree of mine arrives, it should be known that Pastor Ghafril IV, Bishop of Mount Sinai, based in that blessed mountain since days of old, presented to our highness a signed petition. In the petition in question, he asks us for a sacred decree in accordance with the records and deeds in the hands of the monks of the Monastery of Mount Sinai as well as the text of the Sacred Covenant which was offered to the monks in question by the Greatest of the Prophets, Muhammad. He granted the monks this document after they met with him and accepted the terms that apply to non-Muslims. This event took place when the Prophet was passing through the sacred wilderness on a visit to the Cave of Moses, peace be upon him, along with other noble pilgrims that he was taking to Mount Sinai. Based on the generous privileges provided to them by the Caliphs, may the blessings of Allah be upon them all, and by the previous Sultans, the protectors of religion. Based on the content of these decrees, records, and explanations preserved in the Royal Book. Based on the Sacred Covenant (of the Prophet) [mu‘ahadah muqqadisah] preserved by the two monasteries on the Mount of Moses, peace be upon him, and Mount Sinai since the Days of Ignorance, no military leader, nor any man of authority, should attack the monks, pastors or citizens of the two monasteries in question. They are not to be attacked during their travels to Rumelia and Anatolia, to Egypt and Damascus, to the Mediterranean and Black Sea destinations, or to any cities and rural areas in Islamic States. They are not to be attacked while they are performing their religious rituals nor are they to be attacked when traveling to gather alms from Christians to feed and clothe the ascetics who live in the two monasteries in question and who feed the foreigners who perform pilgrimage to their monastery. The monks of the monasteries in question are not to pay taxes or customs on their personal income or belongings in any place. Hence, when a monk passes away, neither the Secretariat nor any clerk in charge of dividing estates shall interfere with the property and belongings that were left behind by the deceased. This is because the property of deceased monks goes to the monks who are still alive… Similarly, the monks of these two monasteries have the right to own property by means of endowment to their monasteries, churches, farms, hostels, residences, fields, groves, and orchards, as well as their lands and winter pastures in Rumelia and Anatolia, their churches and palm orchards along the seaside (in the city of al-Tur), such as the monasteries and properties endowed in the Jawanyah District at Bab al-Nasr in the capital of Egypt, their orchards, plots of land, and winter pastures in Alexandria and Rashid, as well as those found in any other ports, regions, directorates, cities, and rural areas.
The monks also have the right to own property. This includes lands that they themselves purchased as well as lands that were endowed or given to them by other Christians. The monks are not to be prevented from using their lands in any place and no taxes or fines are to be imposed on them, either by the directors of the Directorates, by their agents, by the supervisors of the Sultan’s endowments, by collectors of money, by the revenue officers, by the agents of the Secretariat, by the collectors of personal tribute, by tax inspectors, or by military and royal clerks and their agents… No Patriarch or Bishop has the right, in any region or Directorate, to intervene with the affairs of the monks [from Mount Sinai] or terrorize them as these are the rights of their elected Archbishop. No one has the right to trouble them or treat them in any way that is contrary to the Sacred Covenant (of the Prophet) or the Decrees of the Sultans… I have issued my order to you so that you can abide by the sublime orders that emanate from our illustrious ancestors along with my venerable order while avoiding anything and everything that might go against it… Be aware of that and place your trust in my sacred decree. Written on the 11th day of Safar in 1027 AH, April 7th, 1618 CE.
As Sultan Mustafa I indicates in his decree, the delegation of monks from Mount Sinai did not simply provide the proclamations of previous rulers to support their petition: they also provided a copy of the Covenant of the Prophet. This is precisely what we can expect was done when the monks approached Fatimid rulers and those who preceded them. Not only did Sultan Mustafa I acknowledge the authenticity of the Covenant of the Prophet, he confirmed the historical account of its granting.
If some scholars claim that there is no record of the Sinai Covenant and the events surrounding its granting in Muslim sources, they are in evident error. The decrees of Caliphs and Sultans are Islamic sources. According to most accounts, the Covenant of the Prophet was provided to the monks in pre-Islamic times when Muhammad traveled as a young merchant. He is said to have worked as a caravan leader for the monks. If this is the case, he was bringing pilgrims to the Monastery of St. Catherine.
There is also another account, lesser known than the former, that is quoted by Nektarios of Sinai (269-271). According to his sources, Muhammad’s pilgrimage to Mount Sinai took place during his prophethood. A delegation of monks from Mount Sinai had gone to Madinah to seek privileges from the Prophet. After he granted them what they had requested, they invited him to return with them to see the holy sites. This took place during the second year of the hijrah.
The account transmitted by Nektarios of Sinai appears to be echoed by Jeanne Aubert. According to her, the Covenant of the Prophet was granted in the second year of the hijrah. A battle took place between Muslims and Christians in which many of the latter lost their lives. News of the death-toll spread throughout the Middle East resulting in numerous delegations of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Sabeans arriving in Madinah to offer their submission to the powerful new prophet.
Although the decree of Sultan Mustafa I does not indicate when Muhammad performed a pilgrimage to St. Catherine’s Monastery to visit the Cave of Moses, it does confirm that the event took place. As for the prophetic privileges themselves, Sultan Mustafa I did not simply repeat them: he interpreted and applied them in the most specific fashion. The fourth and final decree that I would like to share with you was issued by Sultan ‘Abd al-Hamid II (1842-1918) to the Bishop Burvirius II who was the Bishop of Mount Sinai in 1904. The edict of the last Caliph and Sultan of Islam reads:
The Ottoman Tughrah: “The Conqueror ‘Abd al-Hamid ibn ‘Abd al-Majid Khan, may he be victorious forever.” The Egyptian Khedive informed us that His Holiness Burvirius, the Archbishop of the Monastery of Mount Sinai, has retired because his age and illness and that the monks from the monastery met and elected His Holiness Burvirius Yougotis in his place. The Egyptian Khedive asked us to issue a decree accepting his election and appointing the said person as the archbishop according to established rules. The regulations were reviewed and it was found that electing ecclesiastic rulers was one of the rights that was given to the monks. It is for this reason that we issue this Sultanic decree appointing His Honor Burvirius Yougotis as the Archbishop of the Monastery of Mount Sinai. We order that no one interfere with their monasteries, churches, and orchards in the sacred Mountain of Moses and Mount Sinai; their church, palm orchards and olive orchards that are located along the seaside in the town of al-Tur); their monastery in the inner district at Bab al-Nasr in Egypt, the Protected; the two agencies on the right side of the mentioned district and its north; the church on the side of St. Catherine; their places of prayer and worship; their residences and agencies; as well as the other places of their endowments in Cairo. No law enforcement agents should enter their shops or stand in their way. No fees should be charged from their orchards, their fig and fruit trees, as well as their palm and olive groves. The same applies to what they store in the city of al-Tur, in Syria, as well as in Egypt. No one should stand in their way in their silk trade, their endowments, as well as their trees and farms in Cyprus. They should not be asked to pay customs and entrance fees in the ports of the Red Sea, the Western Sea in Alexandria, Rashid, Demiat, Cyprus, Damascus in Syria, Nadis, Hauran, Qistah, Ghazzah, Beirut, Seida, Tripoli in Syria, Latakia, and other ports. Customs should not be paid on soap, oil, grain, offerings, and alms coming from Islamic lands. They have the right to visit their cemetery in Damascus, in Syria, according to their traditions. No one should stand in their way of burying their dead. No one should interfere with their graveyards. The governors should fulfil their obligations [towards the monks] immediately and completely. They should prevent people from interfering with the rights [of the monks]. No judge, governor, trustee or civil servant should interfere with matters pertaining to the monks. No Alexandrian Patriarch or any other Patriarchs of other denominations should treat them badly nor should they interfere with their matters in any way. They are free under the rule of their Patriarch.
Since our Prophet Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah, gave the monks a blessed Covenant and considering that the Caliphs and the Sultans followed his honorable example by venerating his Covenant and his respect for the shari‘ah, they are to live in the mountain in question in complete security and equanimity. In accordance with the Covenant of the Prophet, the honorable decrees and obligatory orders [of the Caliphs and the Sultans], no one is permitted to attack or harm the monks. Anyone who fails to respect the Covenant of the Prophet and the orders that have been given deserves a severe punishment. It is for this reason that I gave my orders to them to follow. Written on 15th of Ramadan al-Mubarak in 1322 AH, November 22nd, 1904 CE.
Although the purpose of the decree in question was the appointment of Burvirius II as the Archbishop of Mount Sinai, it was also an opportunity to renew the Sinai Covenant. Consequently, Sultan ‘Abd al-Hamid II confirmed the historicity of the Covenant of the Prophet and acknowledged that the rights of the monks were confirmed in writing by the previous Sultans and Caliphs. Anyone who claims to believe in the Caliphate is therefore obliged to abide by the commands of the Caliphs. As for those who oppose the Covenants of the Prophet, violate them, deny them or disregard them, they have made a mockery of their religion, have insulted the Prophet, and have defied his religious and political successors. And Allah is the Best of Judges.
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