Alleged Anomalies in the Ashtiname

By Masihi Theophilos
The Network (May 14, 2018)

A British man who hides behind the acronym ECAW claims that the Ashtiname or Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai suffers from three anomalies and, therefore, is “definitely fake.” For the sake of honest individuals who might be misled by the writings of the individual in question, I have stepped up to the stage. Consequently, in the following paragraphs, I will concisely debunk these allegations.

Anomaly # 1

ECAW asks: “Why would Mohammed grant a covenant of protection in 623 AD to a group who were not under his control and he was therefore not in a position to protect?” He also argues that:

Since Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar, that means it was written just one year after the Hijra, Mohammed’s migration to Medina. By that time Mohammed had not yet fallen out with the other religious and tribal groups in Medina. In fact, the only substantive thing he is reported to have done in his first year was to set up the Constitution of Medina which gave equal rights and responsibilities to Muslims and non-Muslims.

The fact of the matter is that the Prophet Muhammad was already signing treaties, making covenants, and forging alliances before he migrated to Medina. In fact, the Sirah of Ibn Ishaq reports that he received a delegation of Christians in Mecca (Morrow, 2017, vol. 2: 16). This is independently confirmed by early Christian sources.

Not only did the Messenger of Allah sign covenants of good-will with religious communities and denominations, he also made agreements with the Negus of Abyssinia (Bangash 41-60). The Messenger of Allah was acting like a head of state even when he was stateless. This infuriated the idol-worshiping infidels of Mecca. As a result of the First and Second Pacts of ‘Aqabah, the landless leader soon found himself at the head of the Medinan State.

From the time he settled in Medina to the time he passed away, he wrote hundreds of letters and signed dozens of treaties with communities of all kinds. “Prior the Battle of Badr… of 2 AH,” writes Zafar Bangash, “there were a total of eight expeditions” to the tribes west of Mecca (161). Another two expeditions were sent to Yanbu‘ and to Safawan (161). The Prophet Muhammad offered treaties to the Tribe of Damrah, the Tribe of Juhaynah, the Tribe of Zur‘ah, the Tribe of Rab‘ah, the Tribe of Muzaynah, the Tribe of Mudlij, the Tribe of Ghifar, and the Tribe of Ashja‘ (159-190).

By the second year of the hijrah, the Messenger of Allah had placed most of north-western Arabia under his protection from Medina all the way to the Sinai. This fact is confirmed by Nektarios of Sinai (c. 1600 to 1676 CE). As he explains in his Epitome, which was written in 1659 or 1660, and based on ancient Arabic manuscripts from the Monastery of St. Catherine:

In the second year of Muhammad’s hijrah his religious and military power increased. During that time, two Christian rulers …  gathered some men with the aim of waging war against one of Muhammad’s companions… The latter sustained defeat and all his men were killed. Once this became known to Muhammad, he took all the men that he had with him at that time, around three hundred and ten in number, and when the two parties met, they swiftly fought. The Christians were only one hundred and ninety and subsequently lost the battle. Seventy of them were killed, whilst only fourteen from Muhammad’s side perished. This was the first war Muhammad had with Christians and by God’s providence, he defeated them.

This victory became the source of fear for many people, who turned to him to pay tribute, bounding to pay taxes in order for him to let them retain their Faith. These were idolaters, who came from Persia and worshiped the sun as God, along with Jews and many other Greeks. [Among them] there were also many Christians from the region of the Red Sea, [the Erythraean Sea] who came to visit him, as well as the monks from Mount Sinai along with the Christian slaves they had from the period of Justinian.

A Christian ruler named Paxikios came to Muhammad and when the latter saw his merits, he offered him great hospitality and knelt before him. His companions then asked him why he did so and he replied to them that “you should also honor these people, for their Faith is righteous and true and their Books, as I read, were sent by God.” He then asked the monks what they required from him, and they replied: “we see that everyone turns to you and wish to make an agreement to stay unmolested by your people. Therefore, we came to ask for your permission to keep our Faith and monastery unharmed.”

He then asked them where their Monastery was and when he heard that they came from the Mount where the Law [Ten Commandments] was given to Moses, he revered them greatly and affirmed to them that “you should not have any fear nor feel that someone would harm or be unfair to you, for he who would treat you like that, may God smite him. I am also planning to visit that holy Mount and there I will grant you a letter, so that no one will cause you or the Christian people any harm for all eternity. From you, I do not wish for any payment perpetually, since you are the worshippers of that holy place, however, from the rest of the Christians I will demand that they pay tax and their faith will not be threatened.”

Once the monks had heard these words, they went on their way. Shortly after and within the same year, Muhammad himself, traversing the desert sands, came to the monastery and climbed up the mountain. He highly honored and venerated the place as holy; he also ordered his companions to do the same and revered the peak of the mountain as holy. For, according to him, this was the place where God had a long discussion with the Prophet Moses. Even today, this event is known to the most learned Turks. He [Muhammad] then climbed down the mountain, and the abbot along with the rest of the fathers, had a great feast with him, offering him hospitality for an extended period of time. Far from the monastery, in an area half the size of a lodging house, the local Arabs, in fact, indicate a place and claim that this is where he stood and spoke. This place is venerated and worshiped by Arabs with piety, when they pass by there.

While staying at the Monastery, he [Muhammad] granted a Letter to them, known as the Covenant or agreement as he calls it, which encompasses a wide range of worthy subjects for the monks of that Monastery, as well as for the whole of Christendom. This Letter should certainly be considered quite noticeable, as it was not written by any human but through God’s providence. For, if the Letter had not been composed then no monastery nor any monk would have existed. All the lay Christians through this Letter, may maintain their Faith unharmed and unmolested, because the Letter includes some beneficial articles for them. (Morrow, 2017, vol. 2: 434-435)

Granting a covenant to the monks of Mount Sinai in the second year of the hijrah is not an anomaly: it formed part of an established and strategic pattern that lasted the entire course of Muhammad’s prophetic mission.

Anomaly #2

ECAW asks: “Why would he release them from the obligation to pay the Jizya tax which they were therefore not subject to?”

The fact of the matter is that the Prophet Muhammad offered to make alliances with non-Muslims throughout the Middle East and beyond. If they pledged loyalty to the Prophet, as opposed to the Byzantines and Persians, he promised to offer them freedom of religion and freedom from onerous taxation. Only those who violently opposed the Prophet were subject to conquest and tribute. Call it the carrot or the stick. The Christians of Najran, the Sinai, Assyria, Armenia, and Persia actively sought the protection of the Prophet Muhammad from their oppressive overlords. The same can be said of the Jews and Samaritans from Palestine, the Jews from Yemen, and the Jews of Maqna. The same also applied to the Zoroastrians. As Nektarios of Sinai noted, polytheists, Magians, Jews, and Greek Christians submitted to the Prophet Muhammad during the early years of his rule in Medina. As Stephen J. Shoemaker has shown in The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad’s Life and the Beginnings of Islam, “The oldest Islamic biography of Muhammad, written in the mid-eighth century, relates that the prophet died at Medina in 632, while earlier and more numerous Jewish, Christian, Samaritan, and even Islamic sources indicate that Muhammad survived to lead the conquest of Palestine, beginning in 634-35.” If this is correct, the spread of Islam into the Sinai and Palestine did not take place during the reign of the first two Caliphs: the Prophet Muhammad had himself consolidated Islam in all of Arabia, and several surrounding regions, during his own lifetime.

Anomaly #3

ECAW alleges that “[t]he Jizya tax which the Covenant exempted the monks from paying did not yet exist, even in Medina.”

The fact of the matter is that the jizyah, which simply means “tribute” or “tax,” has existed since time immemorial. For those who possess a Wikipedia level of understanding of Islam, let us quote from its entry on the subject:

William Montgomery Watt traces its origin to a pre-Islamic practice among the Arabian nomads wherein a powerful tribe would agree to protect its weaker neighbors in exchange for a tribute, which would be refunded if the protection proved ineffectual. Jews and Christians in some southern and eastern areas of the Arabian Peninsula began to pay tribute, called jizya, to the Islamic state during Muhammad’s lifetime.

Jizyah, therefore, existed before the rise of Islam. Among the Arabs, it was tribute paid for protection. Among the Byzantines and the Sassanians, it was a system of taxation and tribute. According to Morrow, “The jizyah, which is a Persian as opposed to Arabic word, was a continuation of a national tax from Sassanian times.” (vol. 2: 448). “As for the jizyah,” he explains, “it was not a late introduction as traditionally believed by Muslim scholars. In fact, it was a Persian tax that was adopted by the Prophet.” (vol. 2: 452).

When Morrow wrote that “the jizyah did not exist in the early days of Islam” (2013: 94), he was apparently referring to the Meccan period and the initial Medinan period. The Prophet, for example, did not impose jizyah on the non-Muslim citizens of the Ummah in Medina. The Jews of Medina, with whom the Prophet concluded the Constitution of Medina, were not subject to the jizyah. The same cannot be said of the Jewish Opposition, namely, the three tribes that lived on the outskirts of Medina and who were apparently not parties to the Constitution of Medina.

The only agreement that existed between the Prophet and the Banu Qurayzah, for example, was a pact of non-aggression which the Jews violated. “Despite having broken their treaty obligations,” writes Morrow, “the Prophet’s emissary urged the Banu Qurayzah to enter, once again, into an agreement with the Messenger of Allah. Otherwise, they were offered the opportunity to pay the jizyah” (2013: 40). As Morrow explains, “The Banu Qurayzah, however, remained defiant, and stated that they preferred to die than to pay taxes” (2013: 40).

The jizyah did not apply to citizens of the Ummah who were subject to the Constitution of Medina nor did it apply to covenanted communities of priests, monks, and rabbis. It did, however, apply to allied non-Muslims as well as belligerent populations that were subjected by force. However, even they could be excused from the jizyah in return for military service. Simply because verse 29 of chapter 9 of the Qur’an, which commands Muslims to fight unbelievers until they pay the jizyah, was reportedly revealed in the year 630 CE, namely, year 9 of the hijrah, does not mean that this form of taxation did not previously exist. In fact, it is mentioned in prophetic traditions that date from the seventh, fourth, and second year of the hijrah.

As for ECAW’s allegation that the jizyah was discriminatory, he can be pointed to Morrow’s study on the subject. As the good professor explains,

jizyah was not punitive nor was it intended to be a financial burden. Consequently, any Muslim ruler who used and abused jizyah to oppress the People of the Book committed a grave sin… The jizyah is not the end all and be all of Islam. It is not absolute. Its meaning and mode of application varied… According to a precedent set by ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, the jizyah is not an obligation and can be replaced by an alternative form of taxation… In fact, in India, Akbar the Great (r. 1556-1605 CE) did away with seven centuries of Muslim rulers imposing the jizyah on non-Muslims…

As to whether jizyah has any place in modern times, my jurisprudential position is clear; it is … null and void, and none but Imam Mahdi and Jesus could reinstate it by divine decree. Until then, either all citizens pay taxes or they do not pay taxes. There is no place for a two-tiered or three-tiered tax system. Since the sum of jizyah and zakat were more or less equal in the time of the Prophet, citizens should not be taxed at different rates on the basis of their religion. The only people exempt from certain types of taxes are rabbis, monks, priests, nuns, and other clerics. In short, any non-profit engaged in charitable work can request tax-free status…

According to the Covenants of the Prophet, levels of taxation can only vary based on income: those who have more are both expected and obliged to contribute more to society… As for the jizyah, the various schools of jurisprudence imposed its upper limits in accordance with the Covenants of the Prophet. Rather than increase taxation, many Muslim rulers, like Mu‘awiyyah, Yazid, and ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, lowered it, as they did with the Najranites who now lived in ‘Iraq and, in the case of Harun al-Rashid, went so far as to abolish it completely…

Finally, while some critics of Islam insist that the jizyah was oppressive and discriminatory, they conveniently ignore the fact that a similar tax was imposed by Christian rulers upon Muslim minorities… “In the context of the early history of Muslim-Christian encounters,” concludes Green, “Islam, not Christianity, often proved more accepting of religious diversity” … As for the issue of jizyah, it is important to remember the words of Caliph ‘Abd al-‘Aziz who said: “God has sent the Prophet Muhammad to invite people to Islam and not as a tax collector”… (Morrow, 2017, vol. 1: 145-149)

As empirical evidence demonstrates, there is no basis to anomaly 1, anomaly 2, and anomaly 3. They are not anomalies. They are not inconsistencies. They are misinterpretations. “If the promoters of the Covenants Initiative can refute my objections,” promises ECAW, “then I will apologise and wish them well but, going by past experience, they won’t even try.” Well, I have tried and, many will argue, I have succeeded in debunking the allegations of ECAW. Will he then honor his word?

Sources

Bangash, Zafar. Power Manifestations of the Sirah: Examining the Letters and Treaties of the Messenger of Allah. Toronto: The Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought, 2011.

Morrow, John Andrew. The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World. Tacoma, WA: Angelic Press and Sophia Perennis, 2013.

—. Islam and the People of the Book: Critical Studies on the Covenants of the Prophet. 3 vols. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017.

Shoemaker, Stephen J. The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad’s Life and the Beginnings of Islam. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.

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