BOOK REVIEW: Prophet’s covenant with the Christians of the world

BOOK REVIEW: Prophet’s covenant with the Christians of the world

19th Jun 2015

The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World. By John Andrew Morrow. Tacoma. WA: Angelico Press. Pp 442. 2013. PB. £13.95

Dr John Andrew Morrow is currently a Professor of Foreign Languages at Ivy Tech Community College, Indiana, US. A Canadian by birth, Muslim by faith and an academic by profession, he specialises in Islamic studies, Spanish language and history, and world literature. He is an author and editor of several titles including Arabic, Islam, and the Allah Lexicon: How Language Shapes our Conception of God (2006) and Encyclopaedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine (2011).

The book under review is a timely and impressive contribution not only from a scholarly point of view but also for its relevance today. Indeed, this book goes a lot further by providing the textual basis for the ‘Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization’ as the academic and historian Richard Bulliet had argued back in 2004.

Consisting of a short introduction, three parts divided into seventeen chapters and endmatters (two appendices, bibliography and index), in this book, the author has collected, translated and contextualised Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be on him) covenants with many Christian communities of the time including the Monks of Mount Sinai, Christians of Persia, Christians of Najran, Armenian Christians of Jerusalem, Christians of Assyria, and the Christians of the World. The purpose of these agreements was to remove suspicion and strengthen trust and mutual understanding and co-existence between Christians and Muslims. These Prophetic covenants were clearly inspired by the following Divine command: “…and you are sure to find that the closest in affection towards the believers [Muslims] are those who say, ‘We are Christians’…”. (Qur’an, Chapter 5, Verse 82)

According to the author, the ‘covenants concluded by Prophet Muhammad (570-632 CE) with the Christians…are some of the most important, yet notably neglected, literary monuments in the history of Islam. Considering that the continued conflict between Christians and Muslims across the world has been artificially ignited by the forces of imperialism, especially in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, the content of these priceless historical documents can shed light on the early history of Islam…these covenants can serve as a source of inspiration for the establishment of insuperable harmony between the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.’ (p1)

Part one of the book consists of seven chapters, each dealing with a separate covenant of the Prophet except the first chapter where the author seeks to contextualise his discussion and analysis by exploring the Prophet’s encounter and subsequent relations with the People of the Book (Ahl al-Kitab). A critical yet impartial assessment of his interaction with the People of the Book shows that ‘…Prophet Muhammad was a man of peace…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. Yet, in reality, there is no contradiction at all. Rather, there is complete and total coherence. It is not the same to operate on the basis of social interest as it is to act on the basis of individual interests. The interest of the group takes precedence over the interest of the individual.’ (p43)

In other words, the author argues that if an individual wishes to turn the other cheek, that is his own choice but when the safety and security of the whole nation is at stake, the collective or common good of everyone must be the main consideration. Seeking peace and loving peace, and promoting cordial relations between all people is most desirable and noble, but surely this cannot be achieved by accepting and tolerating blatant injustice and oppression at home and abroad. To his credit, the Prophet wrestled with such issues and in so doing he became the standard-bearer of social justice and harmony in the world. This clearly did not please everyone and those with vested interests, both then and now, have continued to vent their hate and anger at the venerable Prophet. This perhaps explains why he is one of the most vilified religious personalities today especially in the West.

After contextualising his discussion, the author then analyses the Prophet’s covenants with the Christian communities by introducing each document, critically assessing their authenticity, followed by commentary on the text of the documents before summarising his research and findings. Although the issue of authenticity of the documents are important and there is much scope to discuss and debate this further, the author is equally right to point out that the contents and spirit of all the covenants are fully in accord with the historic Constitution of Madinah (Sahifa al-Madinah) issued by the Prophet which clearly stipulated the rights and obligations of all the people of that City-State, including that of the People of the Book, and the historicity of that document has been established.

Part two of the book consists of the texts and their translation for the benefit of the English-speaking world. The reproduction and translation of the Prophet’s covenants with Christians is significant because they not only remind but also command Muslims to protect and defend peaceful, law-abiding Christians, and not to attack them.

The author deserves to be commended for publishing all the documents into one volume, and in so doing making them accessible to other researchers and writers.
In part three of the book the author critically analyses the ‘challenges’ presented by the covenants including examining their sources, authorities, transmission, context, followed by conclusions and even suggestions for future scholarship on this topic.

Appendix 1 lists the names of witnesses to the covenants and Appendix 2 contains a diagram of possible modes of transmission of the covenants, followed by a list of beautiful illustrations – only if they were in colour – and an extensive bibliography for those interested in pursuing further research in this area. This book is an important and much-needed contribution and the author’s commitment and dedication to his task is highly commendable.

Muhammad Khan, author of The Muslim 100 (2008) and The Muslim Heritage of Bengal (2013)

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Dr. John Andrew Morrow is a senior scholar specializing in Islamic, Indigenous, and Hispanic Studies.