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The Covenant of Prophet Muhammad with the monks of Mt. Sinai

There is a covenant that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, asked Imam Ali, may Allah be pleased with him, to write with the monks of Mount Sinai and which is an example of the way in which Muslims should relate to those that follow other beliefs and forms of worship.

On the authenticity of this treatise, Dr. John Andrew Morrow writes:

In terms of chains of transmission, the ‘ahd, ahdname or ashtiname granted to the monks of Mount Sinai seems to be the strongest of all of the Covenants of the Prophet. It has been passed down by Muslims and non-Muslims alike for nearly a millennium and a half. From a scholarly standpoint, it reaches the highest degree of certainty that we can expect from a document dating back from the 7thcentury. 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. Not only is its chain of narration solid, so is its content, which is in complete agreement with the Qur’an and trustworthy Sunnah. While some may argue that the Covenant to St. Catherine’s Monastery was an exceptional act limited to a particular place and people and applicable only for a specific time, the Prophet himself stipulated that its provisions applied to all peaceful Christians, who were friends and allies of the Muslims, for all time to come. What is more, the authenticity of the Sinai Covenant can increase the credence of other surviving covenants, whose validity and chain of transmission may not be as well documented and therefore doubted.

Regarding is recognition and implementation by the rightly guided Kaliphs -and practically every Muslim Leader- he continues:

According to the historical record, the freedoms granted by the Prophet to the monks of Mount Sinai, along with other communities, were honoured by Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, and ‘Ali, as well as the Umayyads, and the ‘Abassids. 

And basically by every Muslim leader since -and many non Muslim ones-. (To read a full account of this and see the sources, click here).

The treaty, whose source is reliable and has been transmitted by Muslim and non-Muslim sources, says the following (English translation by Anton F. Haddad):

This is a letter which was issued by Mohammed, Ibn Abdullah, the Messenger, the Prophet, the Faithful, who is sent to all the people as a trust on the part of God to all His creatures, that they may have no plea against God hereafter. Verily God is Omnipotent, the Wise. This letter is directed to the embracers of Islam, as a covenant given to the followers of Jesus the Nazarene in the East and West, the far and near, the Arabs and foreigners, the known and the unknown.

This letter contains the oath given unto them, and he who disobeys that which is therein will be considered a disbeliever and a transgressor to that whereunto he is commanded. He will be regarded as one who has corrupted the oath of God, disbelieved His Testament, rejected His Authority, despised His Religion, and made himself deserving of His Curse, whether he is a Sultan or any other believer of Islam. Whenever Christian monks, devotees and pilgrims gather together, whether in a mountain or valley, or den, or frequented place, or plain, or church, or in houses of worship, verily we are [at the] back of them and shall protect them, and their properties and their morals, by Myself, by My Friends and by My Assistants, for they are of My Subjects and under My Protection.

I shall exempt them from that which may disturb them; of the burdens which are paid by others as an oath of allegiance. They must not give anything of their income but that which pleases them—they must not be offended, or disturbed, or coerced or compelled. Their judges should not be changed or prevented from accomplishing their offices, nor the monks disturbed in exercising their religious order, or the people of seclusion be stopped from dwelling in their cells.

No one is allowed to plunder these Christians, or destroy or spoil any of their churches, or houses of worship, or take any of the things contained within these houses and bring it to the houses of Islam. And he who takes away anything therefrom, will be one who has corrupted the oath of God, and, in truth, disobeyed His Messenger.

Jizya should not be put upon their judges, monks, and those whose occupation is the worship of God; nor is any other thing to be taken from them, whether it be a fine, a tax or any unjust right. Verily I shall keep their compact, wherever they may be, in the sea or on the land, in the East or West, in the North or South, for they are under My Protection and the testament of My Safety, against all things which they abhor.

No taxes or tithes should be received from those who devote themselves to the worship of God in the mountains, or from those who cultivate the Holy Lands. No one has the right to interfere with their affairs, or bring any action against them. Verily this is for aught else and not for them; rather, in the seasons of crops, they should be given a Kadah for each Ardab of wheat (about five bushels and a half) as provision for them, and no one has the right to say to them ‘this is too much’, or ask them to pay any tax.

As to those who possess properties, the wealthy and merchants, the poll-tax to be taken from them must not exceed twelve drachmas a head per year (i.e. about 200 modern day US dollars).

They shall not be imposed upon by anyone to undertake a journey, or to be forced to go to wars or to carry arms; for the Muslims have to fight for them. Do no dispute or argue with them, but deal according to the verse recorded in the Quran, to wit: ‘Do not dispute or argue with the People of the Book but in that which is best’ [29:46]. Thus they will live favored and protected from everything which may offend them by the Callers to religion (Islam), wherever they may be and in any place they may dwell.

Should any Christian woman be married to a Muslim, such marriage must not take place except after her consent, and she must not be prevented from going to her church for prayer. Their churches must be honored and they must not be withheld from building churches or repairing convents.

They must not be forced to carry arms or stones; but the Muslims must protect them and defend them against others. It is positively incumbent upon every one of the follower of Islam not to contradict or disobey this oath until the Day of Resurrection and the end of the world.

Ibn Kathir (1301–1373), the hadith scholar, Qur’anic commentator, jurist, and historian, describes the document in meticulous and minute detail, paraphrasing every single article. Speaking of the period right after the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, he relates the following in his Qisas al-anbiya’ or Stories of the Prophets:

It was about this time [after the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah] that the Prophet granted to the monks of the Monastery of St. Catherine, near Mount Sinai, his liberal charter by which they secured for the Christians noble and generous privileges and immunities. He undertook himself and enjoined his followers, to protect the Christians, to defend their churches and the residences of their priests and to guard them from all injuries. They were not to be unfairly taxed; no bishop was to be driven out of his diocese; nor Christian was to be forced to reject his religion; no monk was to be expelled from his Monastery; no pilgrim was to be stopped from his pilgrimage; nor were the Christian churches to be pulled down for the sake of building mosques or houses for the Muslims. Christian women married to Muslims were to enjoy their own religion and not to be subjected to compulsion or annoyance of any kind. If the Christians should stand in need of assistance for the repair of their churches or monasteries, or any other matter pertaining to their religion, the Muslims were to assist them. This was not to be considered as supporting their religion, but as simply rendering them assistance in special circumstances. Should the Muslims be engaged in hostilities with outside Christians, no Christian resident among the Muslims should be treated with contempt on account of his creed. The Prophet declared that any Muslim violating any clause of the charter should be regarded as a transgressor of Allah’s commandments, a violator of His testament and neglectful of His faith.