The Prophet’s Covenants

A basis for the fraternity of all people of scripture
Developing Just Leadership

Charles Upton [Sidi Akram]

Rabi' al-Thani 24, 1440 2019-01-01

Book Review

by Charles Upton [Sidi Akram] (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 47, No. 11, Rabi' al-Thani, 1440)

Islam and the People of the Book: Critical Studies on the Covenants of the Prophet by John Andrew Morrow (editor); Pub: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017, 3 volumes. Price: $245.22 Hbk.

To traditional Muslims the noble Qur’an — the very word of Allah (swt) transmitted directly to Muhammad (pbuh) — as well as well-attested accounts of the actions and words of the Prophet whose original witnesses could, with some degree of confidence, actually be identified, so outclassed all other writings as to cast a shadow over even the letters and covenants of the Prophet himself, which were undoubtedly seen as relatively “occasional” or bureaucratic documents of tertiary importance when compared with the Qur’an and the Hadith. And indeed, they are necessarily of lesser importance and authority to the Qur’an.

When compared with the Hadith, however, their secondary nature is debatable according to several criteria. The Hadith clearly hold preeminence in the total context of Islam, since the example of the Prophet, his words and deeds in various situations, is of secondary importance only to the majestic Qur’an itself; when his wife ‘A’ishah was asked about the Prophet’s character, she replied, “he was exactly like the Qur’an.” And since the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was more perfectly conformed to the noble Qur’an than any other human being ever has been, his spiritual, interpersonal, and political example must remain paradigmatic for all true Muslims. And so, from one point of view, the Hadith necessarily have preeminence over the letters and covenants, since they pertain to the essence of the din and provide much of the example of how Muslims are to live their lives in submission to Allah (swt), while the letters and covenants of the Prophet are the product of negotiations with non-Muslim groups, are limited to the political sphere, and properly apply (some would say) only to specific sets of conditions that are no longer in force.

But the fact is that most of the hadith collections that have come down to us were compiled around 300 years after the Prophet’s death, while his covenants and letters can in many cases be traced, based on both textual and historical evidence, back to the Prophet (pbuh) himself. Sometimes we can even determine the identity of the scribe to whom he dictated a particular document. Consequently, from the standpoint of western textual scholarship, the covenants of the Prophet are of much greater verifiable authenticity than the Hadith, seeing that the West considers tradition to be “mere hearsay,” while actual texts are the “horse’s mouth” of contemporary scholarship. But the question remains: how relevant are the covenants of the Prophet to present conditions?

Certainly, a number of these documents formed the basis of official state policy toward dhimmi communities — religious minorities — under the Ottoman Sultanate. But now that the Ottomans are no more, and in the absence of any universally-recognized Muslim political entity of comparable scope presently exercising rule in the modern world, what is to prevent us from considering the covenants mere historical curiosities, the fossil documents of a defunct bureaucracy?

We are not justified in considering the covenants of the Prophet to be historically moribund, superseded by more timely concerns, for two reasons: first, Muhammad (pbuh) tells us that these documents were composed via inspiration from Allah (swt), which places them in a category of importance comparable to the hadith qudsi. Secondly, in his Covenant with the monks of Mt. Sinai and elsewhere, he makes it explicit that these documents are applicable to all Muslims, and are to remain in force not simply until the fall of the Ottoman Sultanate, but until “the coming of the Hour” — the end of the world. Thus, the covenants of the Prophet with the Christians of the world, and with other religious communities, represent the clear wish and command of the Prophet of Islam; it is therefore incumbent upon all Muslims to obey them.

But in order for Muslims to obey the provisions of these covenants under conditions radically different from those under which they were originally composed, they must be placed in a more universal context than they occupied when they functioned specifically as treaties between the growing Muslim Ummah and various non-Muslim communities. In other words, it is the position of the contributors to Islam and the People of the Book: Critical Studies on the Covenants of the Prophet that the way Muslims are to treat non-Muslim people of scripture — with respect, friendship, material help and military defense — apply as undeniably to Muslims as individuals, or to Muslims living in non-Muslim societies, as they did to the Islamic Ummah as a whole in its first years. The bottom line of this legal principle is that no Muslim is to attack, rob, kill or defame another person simply because he or she is not a Muslim. By the same token, mere membership in a community of faith recognized as a People of the Book in no way exonerates an individual, or his or her religious community, in cases where that individual or that community attacks Islam or conspires with the declared enemies of Islam. Consequently, the covenants of the Prophet (pbuh) are every bit as applicable to the conditions of the pluralistic societies in which Muslim communities increasingly find themselves in the contemporary world as they were to the norms of dhimmitude vis-à-vis religious minorities in the growing Muslim domain.

Some, of course, would argue that this could never be the case. Dhimmi majorities and minorities were required to pay the jizyah to the Muslim authorities, so how could any provisions of the covenants be taken to apply to conditions where Muslims and other religious communities live side-by-side in pluralistic societies ruled by secular governments? Perhaps (taking a cynical view of the matter) a case could be made that Muslims would only be required, under the provisions of the covenants as applied to the contemporary world, to treat non-Muslims as respected equals if these non-Muslims were required to pay the equivalent of the jizyah as “protection” to the Muslims for this consideration.

We would answer that the jizyah was levied in lieu of military service, and since non-Muslims are not required to engage in combat solely to protect Muslims in today’s secular states, the jizyah or any possible equivalent are no longer applicable. Non-Muslims who paid the jizyah rather than serve in the military were thereby square with the Muslim Ummah on that score (illegal abuses and isolated instances of unwarranted oppression by Muslims notwithstanding). This means that the duties of aid and friendship toward non-Muslims that Muhammad (pbuh) directed Muslims to engage in were not seen as services rendered for pay, but rather acts of Islamic devotion for the purpose of establishing trust and solidarity between Muslims and non-Muslim members of the Prophet’s growing Ummah — a word that was used by him to designate all the members of his social order, not just the Muslims.

In view of these facts, it is clear that it was the Prophet’s intention to establish not an exclusively Muslim nation but a Confederation of the devoted subjects of God, including all the Peoples of the Book, sworn to aid and defend one another, a brotherhood of all who believe in the prophets, the angels, the Day of Judgement, and the Unity of God. Such a confederacy, in essential spirit if not in terms of social form, is not only still possible today, but is increasingly called-for in the face of growing inter-religious violence, a great deal of which is being fomented by outside, non-religious forces so as to destroy all true religion, and sweep the remnants of God’s revelations from the face of the earth. The covenants of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) call all believers of good will and social consciousness to stand shoulder to shoulder against the forces of globalization, militant secularism, and religious fanaticism that menace them all. Shema, Ysrael: Adonoi Elohenu, Adonoi Echad. Credo in Unum Deum. La ilaha illa Allah.

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