By Catherine Shakdam
May 30, 2015
LONDON – Amid increasing anti-Islam sentiments in the West, Dr. John Andrew Morrow, a Western academic and senior scholar of Islam, released his new book, The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World, to spread hope of creating better understanding and relations between Christians and Muslims worldwide.
The book examines several of the covenants between the Prophet Muhammad and groups of Christians that he is said to have encountered in his lifetime. These groups include the Christians in Sinai and the Christians of Persia. Morrow also includes the Prophet Muhammad’s document with the People of the Book, in the Constitution of Medina.
Dr. Morrow is a Canadian scholar who reverted to Islam over thirty years ago and adopted the name Ilyas ‘Abd al-‘Alim Islam.
OnIslam.net is honored to run this interview with Dr. Morrow on his works and contributions to the interfaith work worldwide.
ONISLAM – You recently wrote The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World. Your book was actually hailed by many Islamic scholars and clerics. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Chairman of the Cordoba Initiative for example said, “This narrative has the power to unite Muslim and Christian communities. A work of scholarship, its release is timely, and its content critical in fostering mutual respect and religious freedom.” Can you please tell OnIslam readers of your book, and the motivations behind it?
Dr John Morrow – The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World chronicles the life of the Messenger of Allah while paying particular attention to his ties, connections, and relations with members of other faiths, with a special emphasis on the followers of Christ. The book provides, for the first time and in a single source, six covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with Christian communities of his time. Some of these, such as the treaty of Najran and the charter with the monks of Mount Sinai, are familiar to many informed Muslims. Others, such as the covenants made with the Christians of Assyria, Persia, and the World, will be novel to most of them and welcomed by many of them. As for the motivation behind this work, and all of my work, it is both scholarly and spiritual. I am not fond of intellectual activity that is detached from human reality. Scholars should serve the best interests of society.
ONISLAM – Your book actually touches upon a universal and very contemporary issue: sectarian hatred. The Covenants is very much a reaffirmation that Islam is a faith of tolerance, compassion and solidarity. What would like to see happen now in terms of inter-faith and intra-faith dialogue?
Dr JOHN MORROW – God is one and humanity is one. We are humans first and foremost. Our primary concern should be our survival as a species. As Almighty Allah says in the Holy Qur’an: “O humankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! The noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct. Lo! Allah is Knower, Aware” (49:13). The verb in question, yataʿarafu, does not merely mean “to know” or “to get acquainted.” It means, among other things, to acquire knowledge of one another to such an extent that there is mutual understanding and friendship. It equally expresses that neither party would boast to one another or believe that one is superior to the other since nobility is based on piety and goodness. The purpose of li-ta‘arafu is to break down religious, cultural, racial, ethnic, linguistic, national, and economic barriers to understanding so as to foster peace, good-will, understanding, acceptance, and co-existence. Good transcends everything. What I would like to see happen now is a move from inter-faith and intra-faith dialogue to inter-faith and intra-faith action. When I see Muslims making human chains around churches and synagogues in order to protect them from violent hate-mongers, I see the Covenants of the Prophet being put into practice. When I see Christians and Jews doing the same for Muslims, surrounding mosques to protect them from attack and arson, I see the outcome desired by the Messenger of Allah: unity and solidarity among monotheistic believers. Muslims are meant to be peace-makers and not peace-breakers. They are to stand for justice in the face of injustice. They are to stand with right in the face of wrong.
ONISLAM – You recently went on a bit of a tour of the Middle East. You were interviewed by Sky News Arabia, al-Arabiya News, and featured in The National. Al Khaleej Times also published a report on The Covenants Initiative. How were your efforts received in the Middle East?
Dr JOHN MORROW – The Covenants of the Prophet were well-received in the Middle East. Muslim and non-Muslim diplomats, along with Muslim intellectuals and religious scholars were all receptive to the content of the Muhammadan covenants. The principles espoused by the Covenants of the Prophet are not subject to dispute. The few concerns that were raised revolved around scholarly matters. Diplomats described the Covenants as fantastic documents with great potential that were worthy of implementation. Academics, jurists, scholars of traditions, and theologians described them as valuable tools that present the true vision of Islam. They were all open to engaging these texts in a scholarly fashion and were invited to contribute their findings in a forthcoming book titled Critical Studies on the Covenants of the Prophet, which is under contract with Angelico Press and Sophia Perennis.
The public lecture, which was held on March 10th, packed quite a punch as it portrayed Islam, not as the problem, but as the solution to the Muslim crisis. If the enemies of Islam are using pseudo-Islam to undermine true Islam, the solution is not secularism or any foreign models. We fight fake Islam with true Islam. We honor the name of God and defend the dignity of His Messenger, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah, peace and blessings be upon him. This was clearly comprehended by Mufti Ahmad al-Kubaisy and Shaykh Habib ‘Ali al-Jifri who concluded the event with two powerful addresses. Eyes were opened, minds were enlightened, and souls were inspired. The Covenants of the Prophet can truly touch hearts. They can help mend the divisions between Sunnis, Shi‘ites, and Sufis. They can help mend the divisions between Muslims, Christians and Jews. And they can even help all humanity unite under universal rights and freedoms granted, not by Man, but by God Almighty.
ONISLAM – Going back to your research and your book, can you share with us some of your findings? Any specific anecdote or meeting that stuck with you?
Dr JOHN MORROW – The thing that marked me the most in all of my research was the mercy that radiated from the Covenants of the Prophet. We talk a lot about “tolerance,” namely, “tolerating” people; in other words, “putting up with them.” This is literally what it means. Etymologically, it referred to tolerating pain. Even in the modern sense, the word means to allow the existence of something, without necessarily liking it, without interference. It means to endure or accept something unpleasant or disliked. The Prophet did not speak of tolerance in this sense; he spoke of respect and he spoke of love. He described his Christian subjects in the same fashion he described his Muslim subjects: “They are my flock.” He did not simply endure Christians. He said that “They are a part of my Ummah and an honor to me.” He did not ask Muslim men who were married to Christian women to merely put up with their Christianity. He stated that if they loved their Christians wives they would also love their Christian faith. Some Muslims become livid when they hear these words. The Covenants of the Prophet take tolerance to an entire new level. However, as the Messenger of Allah expressed himself, loving and respecting Christians and Christianity does not mean endorsing all of their beliefs in practice. It was meant to cultivate understanding. It was meant to foster good social relations. It was meant to encourage brotherhood and sisterhood. It was meant to keep Christians loyal to their alliance with Muslims.
Although some of these Covenants date to the final years of the Prophet’s life, they are all confirmed by, and in conformity with, the foundational document of the Ummah, the Constitution of Medina, which was made with Muslims, Jews, and some of their polytheistic allies, and which states unequivocally that “They are one Ummah,” namely, that they are one people, one nation, and equal citizens under the Islamic State, something that stands in stark contrast with the Pseudo-Islamic State. As the Prophet warned, “Whoever is unjust to a non-Muslim subject, I will be his enemy on the Day of Judgment” (Bukhari). Since any enemy of the Prophet is also an enemy of God, the wrath of Almighty Allah is upon those who have persecuted, tortured, and massacred, not only non-Muslims, but Muslims as well. They will be punished in this life and the life-hereafter. They cannot escape the divine decree. Consequently, we call them to repentance and atonement and warn them of the consequences of continuing on the path to eternal perdition.
ONISLAM – As a scholar and a teacher, what do you make of radical jihadism? Many experts have argued that terror radicals have put themselves outside Islam by preaching hatred and violence. Where do you stand on the matter?
Dr JOHN MORROW – Islam is a religion of moderation. Muslims should be neither extremely lax nor extremely strict in their observances. As we read in the Holy Qur’an, “Allah burdens not a person beyond his scope” (2:286); “[Allah] has not laid upon you in religion any hardship” (22: 78); and “Allah does not want to place you in difficulty” (5: 6). As Almighty Allah warns in the Holy Qur’an, “Do not exaggerate in your religion” (4:171), a verse that can also be translated as “Do not be fanatical in your faith.” The Qur’an also warms believers to “Beware of extremism in your religion” (5:77). In short, Muslims are supposed to be “a justly balanced nation” (2:143).
Although some scholars may argue that the reproach against extremism contained in the Qur’an applies to the People of Book, the Prophet explained that it was equally applicable to Muslims. In fact, he warned his followers to “Beware of extremism in your religion for it is that which destroyed the nations which came before you” (Nasai and Ibn Majah). In another tradition, he stated that “The religious extremists [mutanatti‘un] are destroyed” (Muslim and Abu Dawud). The Messenger of Allah also warned: “There are two groups of people from my Ummah who will not receive my intercession: oppressive rulers, and religious extremists” (Tabarani).
As the embodiment of the Qur’an, the Prophet Muhammad was a moderate man. When faced with two equally acceptable alternatives, he always opted for the one which was more straightforward. As the Messenger of Allah explained, “The religion is indeed easy, and no one contends with the religion except that it will overwhelm him” (Bukhari). He also warned, “Do not cause the worship of your Lord to become hateful to you” (Bayhaqi).
The Prophet also taught that moderation is the order of the day in all aspects of religious practice. After teaching a Bedouin how to perform the ritual ablution, the Prophet warned him, “This is the ablution. He who does more than this has done wrong, transgressed the limit, and oppressed himself” (Tirmidhi, Nasa’i, Ibn Majah, Abu Dawud). Furthermore, the Prophet clearly condemned the deviant interpretations of Islam made by religious extremists. As he explained, “Religious knowledge is protected from every deviated direction: the distortion of the extremists flees from it, as does the false assumptions of the infidels, and the misinterpretation of the ignorant” (Bayhaqi). The Prophet also warned against unjustly accusing Muslims of infidelity. “If a Muslim calls another Muslim a kafir…then he himself is a kafir” (Abu Dawud). And yet again, “No man accuses another man of being…a kafir but it reflects back on him” (Bukhari). As traditional scholars of Islam have always insisted, people cannot be accused of being infidels unless the openly profess their infidelity. In Islam, ignorance is an excuse. In Islam, only Allah knows what is hidden in human hearts and concealed in human souls. God and God alone judges faith.
The Qur’an is clear. The Sunnah is clear. The shari‘ah is clear. And the Covenants are clear. Islam is moderate and justly-balanced. It is the pivot, the axis, and the center. It is neither right nor is it left. It is neither black nor white but green: the middle color of the spectrum. It represents the middle-ground. Consequently, the problem is not with Islam, which condemns extremism and fanaticism: the problem lies in deviant and distorted interpretations.As Shaykh Habib ‘Ali al-Jifri told me in March of 2015, “We must make a clear distinction between Muslims and Islamists.” I cannot agree with him more. Islamists, Jihadists, and Takfirists have broken with the Ummah. They claim that the Ummah consists of apostates, heretics, and polytheists. They, a microscopic 0.001% of the population of the Muslim world, insist that they are the only saved sect while 99.9% of mainstream Muslims are infidels. There is no need for any of us to excommunicate these extremists as they themselves have expelled themselves from the Ummah of Islam through their beliefs, words, and atrocious actions. In supreme irony, they spend most of their time excommunicating and killing one another. The Prophet warned us of these people in his lifetime and foretold that they would rise again in the future during the trials and tribulations. Let us distinguish darkness from light.
ONISLAM – Do you believe Muslims share in the burden of guilt when it comes to radicalization? Western powers have often hinted that Muslims do to some extent – collective guilt.
Dr JOHN MORROW – It is unacceptable to accuse an entire population. We are not responsible for actions that we did not commit. We are not accountable for beliefs we do not hold. To blame 1.5 billion Muslims for the actions of some 100,000 terrorists is like blaming all Americans for the crimes committed by their special-forces and secret services during all of their dirty wars; it is like blaming all Brazilians for the destruction of the rain-forest; it is like blaming all Africans for Ebola or AIDS; it is like blaming all blacks for crime or all whites for racism, segregation, and apartheid; it is like blaming all Americans for all the gun crimes committed in their country; it is like blaming all men for sexism; and all Jews for the war crimes committed by the Israeli army. Takfiri terrorists do not speak for Islam. Takfiri terrorists do not represent Islam. They are to Islam what the Ku Klux Klan is to Christianity. They are to Islam what the Nazis are to Germany and what the Fascists are to Italy and Spain. They are to Islam what Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot are to Communism.
Takfiri terrorists are a diseased parasitic organism that has attached itself to the body of Islam and that must be removed with a saline solution. They are like an infected sore that needs to be disinfected. They are like a gangrenous toe that needs to be amputated. The traditional scholars of Islam, who represent the status quo, cannot be attributed culpability, neither can the majority of mainstream Muslims who simply wish to live and let live. There are those, however, who very much deserve to be blamed and merit the malediction of God and all of humankind. They are those who spread a radical, fanatical, intolerant, hateful, and viciously violent ideology that they falsely packaged and marketed as Islam, thus duping and deceiving both cultural Muslims and converts while soiling the image of our faith in the eyes of non-Muslims. And they are those who used these terrorists to advance their geo-political plans and globalist hegemonic designs. Ironically, the very people who seek to stigmatize all Muslims, notorious Western imperialists and nefarious neo-cons, have been, and remain to this day, the greatest covert, and often overt, supporters of the “radical Islamists” that they are so fond of denouncing. This is not to say that Muslims are free from any blame. They are responsible for allowing this ideological infection to spread unfettered in Muslim mosques in East and West. While most responsible Muslim leaders have denounced pseudo-Islamic terrorists, some have remained silent, and therefore complicit. There are others, as well, who may have rejected terrorism but who, so far, have refused to reject the ideology that is at the root of such extremism. So let the blame fall on the blameworthy; not on the community as a collective whole.
Despite what professional propagandists wish the masses to believe, Muslims are not all terrorists. According to “Odds of Dying in a Terrorist Attack,” people are 13 times more likely to die in a railway accident than from a terrorist attack; 12,571 times more likely to die from cancer than from a terrorist attack; six times more likely to die from hot weather than from a terrorist attack; eight times more likely to die from accidental electrocution than from a terrorist attack; 11,000 times more likely to die in an airplane accident than from a terrorist plot involving an airplane; 87 times more likely to drown than die in a terrorist attack; 404 times more likely to die in a fall than from a terrorist attack; 17,600 times more likely to die from heart disease than from a terrorist attack; 1048 times more likely to die from a car accident than from a terrorist attack; 12 times more likely to die from accidental suffocation in bed than from a terrorist attack; nine times more likely to choke to death on their own vomit than die in a terrorist attack; and eight times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist. Although terrorism continues to dominate television, the airways, and the written press, it only accounts for a tiny proportion of the world’s violence.
ONISLAM – Going back to your work, you mentioned your ambition to set up The Covenants Foundation. Can you tell us more?
Dr JOHN MORROW – Thanks to the vision of Charles Upton, the Covenants Initiative came into being. From the end of 2013 to early 2015, we have shared the Covenants of the Prophet with tens of thousands of people all over the planet. If they, in turn, shared the Covenants with ten other people, the word has potentially reached hundreds of thousands. Considering that al-Arabiya and Sky News have millions of viewers at any given time, the Covenants of the Prophet have reached the ears and eyes of millions upon millions of Muslims and non-Muslims. Clearly, the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad have moved from being merely a book to a worldwide movement of concerned human beings. In order to consolidate these gains, we must now move from being the Covenants Initiative to become something more concrete, the Covenants Foundation, which will dedicate itself to disseminating traditional Islam, promoting Islamic unity, improving interfaith relations, and defending human dignity through scholarship, engagement, and activism.
ONISLAM – How would you explain Islam to non-Muslims?
Dr JOHN MORROW – The Qur’an was in Muhammad and Muhammad was in the Qur’an. In other words, the Prophet was the embodiment of the Divine Word and the very manifestation of Islam. The best way to share Islam is not simply preaching by words but teaching by action. How would I explain Islam, in words, to non-Muslims? Islam is simplicity: believe in the Divinity and act accordingly. We believe in God. We believe that God is Just. We believe in God’s prophets and messengers, from Adam to Muhammad, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. We believe in the Day of Judgment. And we believe in the life hereafter. The consequences of these beliefs include: prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca, as well as charity, struggling for justice, promoting the good and forbidding the wrong. Islam is a religion of morals and ethics. It is a religion of mercy, compassion, and justice. Any action that appears immoral, unethical, unjust, intolerant, not to mention criminal, sadistic, and diabolical, should not, and cannot be associated with God, the Prophet, and the true teachings of Islam. Truth stands clear from falsehood.