John Andrew Morrow is a Canadian academic and Muslim convert (aka Ilyas ‘Abd al-‘Alim Islam). His major work is The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World, 400 pages of densely argued scholarship and commentary attempting to establish the authenticity of six covenants purportedly granted by Mohammed to:
the Monks of Mount Sinai
the Christians of Persia
the Christians of Najran
the Christians of the World
the Assyrian Christians
the Armenian Christians of Jerusalem.
He certainly believes they are genuine, in fact he says in an interview regarding the Covenant with the Monks of Mount Sinai “It would take a dangerous combination of ignorance and arrogance for any scholar to dismiss this document as a forgery when faced with its illustrious lineage of transmission.”
Beyond the scholarly arena, Dr Morrow hopes that his efforts will lead Muslims and Christians to see Mohammed as a more benign figure than generally understood from the Koran and the Sunnah, delegitimising jihadists and leading to relations between Muslims and Christians characterised by the tolerance shown in the covenants.
He has a job on his hands since none of the original covenants still exist, only copies of copies. Plenty of scholars have dismissed them as mediaeval forgeries by the various Christian groups with an obvious motive in claiming protection from surrounding Muslims. It would be good to see other scholars’ reactions to Dr Morrow’s book but since the author’s intention is also to reach out to the general reader, I feel justified in making a few observations.
Regarding Dr Morrow’s approach:
As a devout Muslim Dr Morrow starts from a position of reverence for Mohammed which only Muslims will accept. For instance:
“He was not simply the leader of the Muslim community. He was, as he says so himself, the Rightful Ruler of the World, by the grace of God, and the guardian, not only of Islam, but of all Abrahamic religions. As such he was the Patron of the People of the Book.”
“If a man’s word is gold, the Prophet’s word was made of platinum and the most precious and priceless jewels.”
These sentiments pervade the book, leading to the benefit of any doubt to be given to Mohammed, for instance:
“The beauty of the Qu’ran, the wisdom of the Prophet’s sayings, and his sublime ethics were so alluring that, for many, Islamic rule became simply irresistible.”
“Ultimately, the Prophet was a man of peace. As such, he promoted peace everywhere. Now it may seem paradoxical and disingenuous to present the Prophet as a person of peace knowing full well that he declared battle and waged war”.
Indeed it does. For anyone like me who thinks the only difference between Mohammed and Genghis Khan is Mohammed’s inspired addition of religion to the motivation of his murderous hordes, Dr Morrow’s presentation of the “perfect man” is unlikely to cut much ice. Nevertheless I do not complain. Dr Morrow has submitted to the will of Allah and is obliged to take that position, nor does he hide it. Accordingly his book has to be seen as part scholarship, part devotion, part propaganda (one of his stated intentions is to present Muslims in a positive light). We just have to bear this in mind when reading it.
Apparent contradictions with Islamic scriptures and traditions:
1. Regarding the Covenant with the Christians of Persia, Dr Morrow writes:
“As far as the Prophet was concerned caring for the ahl al-dhimmah or People of Protection is part of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. However this is taken up a notch by the Messenger of Allah who enjoins Muslims to care for Christians to the same extent that they would honour and respect the Prophet himself.”
What Golden Rule would that be? There is no golden rule in Islam other than a limited version between Muslims only. I have found few examples of any such benign reciprocity between Muslims and non-Muslims in the Koran or the hadiths, rather a relentless religious apartheid. If there was truly a universal golden rule in Islam then surely Muslims would have no objection to being placed in a situation of dhimmitude to Non-Muslims from time to time. But this has never been so. From its inception the adherents of Islam have followed Mohammed’s example in working to achieve dominance over whatever other religious groups they found themselves among.
This is the nearest Allah gets to a golden rule:
“Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. And those with him are hard against the disbelievers and merciful among themselves…” (48:29)
2. Along with the book goes a Covenants Initiative which Muslims are invited to sign. Among other things it says:
“…in the understanding that these covenants, if accepted as genuine, have the force of law in the shari’ah today and that nothing in the shari’ah, as traditionally and correctly interpreted, has ever contradicted them.”
That is quite a claim. Dr Morrow draws a distinction between “the true shari’ah as understood by traditional Muslim scholars” and “the Wahhabi/Salafi perversion of it that is in force in many places today”. This is surprising to hear since Salafis and other Sunnis work from the same books written by the various schools of jurisprudence in the middle ages. The major differences to be found in the legal codes of Muslim countries around the world today merely reflect how much or how little of shariah law is applied.
Regarding his central concerns of tolerance and interfaith relations I think he would have much to discuss with the distinguished professor of shariah Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee who wrote:
“This leaves no doubt that the primary goal of the Muslim community, in the eyes of its jurists, is to spread the word of Allah through jihad, and the option of poll-tax [jizya] is to be exercised only after subjugation [of non-Muslims].”
3. How do the Covenants compare to some of Mohammed’s other, undisputed, letters to neighbouring rulers? The following are quite uncompromising with Mohammed making offers which the recipients can hardly refuse:
To Haudha bin Ali, governor of Yamama:
“Peace be upon him who follows true guidance. Be informed that my religion shall prevail everywhere. You should accept Islam, and whatever under your command shall remain yours”.
To Jaifer, King of Oman, and his brother ‘Abd Al-Jalandi:
“Peace be upon him who follows true guidance; thereafter I invite both of you to the Call of Islam. Embrace Islam. Allâh has sent me as a Prophet to all His creatures in order that I may instil fear of Allâh in the hearts of His disobedient creatures so that there may be left no excuse for those who deny Allâh. If you two accept Islam, you will remain in command of your country; but if you refuse my Call, you’ve got to remember that all your possessions are perishable. My horsemen will appropriate your land, and my Prophethood will assume preponderance over your kingship.”
To John ibn Rubah and the Chiefs of the Christians of Aylah:
“I will not fight against you until I have written thus unto you. Believe, or else pay tribute. And be obedient unto the Lord and his Prophet…. Ye know the tribute. If ye desire to have security by sea and by land, obey the Lord and his Apostle, and he will defend you from every demand, whether by Arab or foreigner, saving the demand of the Lord and his Apostle. But if ye oppose and displease them, I will not accept from you a single thing, until I have fought against you and taken captive your little ones and slain the elder.… Harmala hath interceded for you. As for me, if it were not for the Lord and for this (intercession of Harmala), I would not have sent any message at all unto you, until ye had seen the army….”
Not that there is any compulsion in religion.
4. Dr Morrow is bitterly opposed to Wahhabis, Salafis and Takfiris (such as ISIS) who he calls essentialists and fundamentalists, as well as satanists, terrorists, apostates and infidels. He writes of them:
“They are truly those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and all of the values and ethics which true Islam teaches”
whereas true Islam is represented by his Covenants:
“The ‘Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad’ is about Islam; it is about true Islam; it presents Islam as it really is, in essence, in nature…”
“Essence” eh? That makes Dr Morrow an essentialist as well if I am not mistaken. He and his opponents just disagree about the details.
I wish I could buy his version but I cannot. I am not a scholar but I can read and am repeatedly assured by Allah that his revelations are clear, ie literal. I guess that makes me an essentialist too but it seems to me that the Salafis have it more or less right about Mohammed and Islam.
Dr Morrow starts from a position of idealising Mohammed and interprets his teachings and actions accordingly. My reading of the sources leads me to a very different version of Mohammed but at least I am not alone. An estimated 25,000 Western Muslims (or should that be Muslims with Western passports?) have flocked to join ISIS, noticing how exactly they seem to be following the example of Mohammed and his companions.
5. If the Mohammed of the Covenants regards Christians with respect and care he seems oddly out of kilter not only with the Mohammed of the Koran and the Sunnah but more importantly with Allah who thinks all unbelievers deserve to be tortured for ever. Here he is in full flow:
“…But as for those who disbelieve, garments of fire will be cut out for them; boiling fluid will be poured down on their heads, Whereby that which is in their bellies, and their skins too, will be melted; And for them are hooked rods of iron. Whenever, in their anguish, they would go forth from thence they are driven back therein and (it is said unto them): Taste the doom of burning.” (22:19-22)
Can anyone reconcile these markedly different outlooks? Dr Morrow certainly does not attempt to.
About the Covenant with the monks of Mt Sinai:
Why would Mohammed grant a covenant of protection in 623 AD to a group who would not come under Muslim control until at least 640 AD, several years after his death? Why would he release them from the obligation to pay the jizya tax which they were therefore not subject to?
You might say that Mohammed, a long term strategic thinker, was simply anticipating events (by 17 years). Well you might if you were already committed to Dr Morrow’s version of events but I think I’ll pass. In fact it seems to me conclusive proof that the Covenant had to be written after 640 AD by someone other than Mohammed and therefore fake. If Dr Morrow or any of his supporters can convincingly explain this anomaly I will gladly take down this blog post and wish him well, but I cannot get a response on the matter. Perhaps you could try.
Furthermore, the Covenant is written in a style (in grammatical terms the indicative mode) which gives the impression of referring to an already existing situation rather than one which will come about if and when the Monks come under Muslim control some time in the future.
It is not as though Mohammed did not otherwise use the conditonal mode when writing to leaders about events which were yet to be decided, for instance in the letter to the King of Oman and his brother quoted above:
“If you two accept Islam, you will remain in command of your country; but if you refuse my Call, you’ve got to remember that all your possessions are perishable. My horsemen will appropriate your land, and my Prophethood will assume preponderance over your kingship.”
No, for my money the Covenant was written after the monastery fell under Muslim control, possibly long after, by which time memories of who conquered who and when had become blurred. And who would have done such a thing – well, in whose interest was it?
What if Dr Morrow’s version is correct?
For me these covenants remain apocryphal until other, religiously uncommitted, scholars pick over Dr Morrow’s work and convincingly declare it sound.
But here’s the kicker – these covenants only refer to Christians under the protection (that’s subjugation to you and me) of Muslims. Even if Dr Morrow is right, and even if he could persuade all the world’s Muslims to see it his way, all the Covenants hold out is the possibility of a nicer kind of dhimmitude.
What will be the effect of the book?
One of the reviewers, and a signatory of the Covenants Initiative, writes “This book documents what is possibly the third foundational source of Islam”. The blurb on the back of the book says “It is nothing short of providential that these treaties have been re-discovered at this precise moment in history”.
Sounds like a momentous change is about to take place doesn’t it? Personally I find that view unsupported by Dr Morrow’s evidence, and believe it to be wishful thinking on the part of those who see the blood but cannot bring themselves to admit where it is coming from. I think we know what will happen, those wishing to push a benign vew of Mohammed and Islam will declare the Covenants genuine before we are in a position to do so, and use them for their own purposes.
We can expect to see the Covenants join The Golden Age and the Crusades in the ritual whataboutery exchanges in the Guardian comments columns (eg “Islam is an intolerant religion” “But what about Mohammed’s Covenants?” if you are unfamiliar with the routine).
But no doubt they will also find their way into the box of tricks employed by devious Islamic apologists with their own agenda. I am thinking of people like Mehdi Hasan who used the comically deceptive Fatwa against Terrorism by Tahir-ul-Qadri to prove that Islam is a Religion of Peace. I reckon it’s a toss up who seizes upon the Covenants first, Mehdi (1) or his transatlantic counterpart Reza Aslan.
What of Dr Morrow? Many will dismiss him as the good cop reasuring the kuffar with his “Peaceful Islam” fairy story while the Muslim Brotherhood type bad cops do their best to undermine us. I do believe it to be a fairy story but I don’t believe Dr Morrow is intentionally deceiving us. It is a mystery to me how he can read the Islamic scriptures, full of blood and casual cruelty, and believe in a saintly and benign Mohammed but I am sure that he does. In a recent interview Dr Morrow said:
“Traditional, true Islam is a religion of love, peace and understanding. We do not torture, kill, kidnap and, sure as hell, we do not rape. Those who do act against Allah!”
Just to take the story of Kinana ibn al-Rabi we see Mohammed do all four in the space of a few days. He had Kinana tortured and killed, and kidnapped and raped his wife (after marrying her first admittedly but the relevant entries in the Sira and the Hadiths make it clear that consent was not an issue).
But does it matter whether Dr Morrow believes his own minority version or not? Whatever his motives, or the motives of his supporters, Dr Morrow’s work will assuredly find its way into the misinformation about Islam being broadcast by a media outlet near you. I just hope that when we come across it, those of us still willing to make our own enquiries will be able to point out that it raises hopes which it cannot possibly fulfill.
(1) Well done Mehdi! From a Guardian article published four weeks after this post:
“Muslims need to rediscover their own heritage of pluralism, tolerance and mutual respect – embodied in, say, the Prophet’s letter to the monks of St Catherine’s monastery, or the “convivencia” (or co-existence) of medieval Muslim Spain.”