In the West, Islam is popularly depicted as a religion rooted in hate and violence, as a belief system inherently antagonistic towards other religions — particularly Christianity — and as synonymous with terrorism and totalitarian theocratic rule.
But there is another face of Islam, a face that garners little attention on the evening news and is virtually ignored by those who traffic in — and profit from — divisive fear mongering. This is an Islam practiced by millions around the world, an Islam defined not by violence but by respect, an Islam that remains true to its founder’s revelation.
In The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World (Angelico Press), John Andrew Morrow sets out to offer concrete textual reasons, from the Prophet Mohammed himself, for an understanding of Islam that moves beyond stereotypes and reasserts the truly inclusive foundations of Islamic belief.
Morrow presents six covenants written by Muhammad to Christian communities and argues that these letters and treaties, which proclaim and define peaceful and mutually respectful relationships with Christians, have the potential to serve as a foundational source of Islamic belief and practice, on equal footing with the Koran and the hadiths.
Bringing modern historical scholarship and textual criticism to bear in his study of these rare and largely forgotten documents, Morrow refutes the notion that Muslims and Christians necessarily stand at odds with one another, instead offering “a compelling case that the original intent of Muhammad was not to create a strictly Muslim state, but rather a confederation of the People of the Book,” (xii) and presents persuasive reasons for believing that “tolerance of Christians who are at peace with Muslims forms an intrinsic part of the Islamic tradition.” (108)
Morrow opens his book with a detailed but accessible biography of Muhammad, focusing in particular on the Prophet’s formative interactions with Jews and Christians, interactions that were characterized by mutual respect. This respect didn’t stem from watered-down syncretism, but rather from a robust adherence to core beliefs and an honest acknowledgement of the similarities and the differences between the Abrahamic faiths. This tolerance was “… undoubtedly founded on the recognition that theological matters that went beyond the most fundamental tenets of monotheism … were best discussed among scholars, theologians and esoterics, in line with the wise and balanced Islamic separation between the Outer and the Inner, between that which must be accepted by all Muslims and that which will necessarily be understood only by the few.” (59)
It is against this historical backdrop that Morrow presents the six covenants, devoting a chapter to each and offering commentary and critical evaluation of these “controversial and highly disputed document[s].” (65) His discussion is even-handed, though at times overly sympathetic. Morrow interacts with textual difficulties adroitly, but invariably casts his lots in favor of authenticity, even when at times evidence supporting such a conclusion is entirely lacking. For Morrow, the spirit of Islamic belief is able to bridge such evidential gaps. Fortunately, Morrow doesn’t allow this tendency to trump the evidence itself, and he readily acknowledges shortcomings in the textual traditions.
The middle section of the book consists of the texts themselves: Arabic transcriptions, photographic reproductions of extant manuscripts and a variety of corresponding English translations. I appreciate the inclusion of actual source documents, but as a lay-person, they meant little to me — I assume that scholars will find them useful.
In the final section of the book, Morrow discusses the specific challenges facing our understanding of these texts, including the records of witnesses associated with the various covenants, the transmission of the documents themselves and the broader contextual implication of the covenants. He concludes with suggestions for areas of further study in this nascent field. The book closes with an extensive appendix, detailed bibliography, maps, photos and a detailed index.
Thoughtful, accessible and scholarly, The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World offers important evidence for understanding Islam as a religion founded on ideals of respect and tolerance, ideals that, if evinced today in the way that Muhammad originally intended, have the potential to redefine modern religious and cultural interactions.
More information about the covenants themselves can be found online at The Covenants Initiative , which also features an online petition for Muslims to sign declaring the binding nature of the covenants. More details about the book can be found on the Patheos Book Club page.
“And dispute ye not with the People of the Book, except with a means better (than mere disputation), unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong (and injury); but say, “We believe in the Revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; and our God and your God is One, and it is to Him we bow (in Islam).” Qur’an 29:46
Dan is the Executive Editor of the Unfundamentalist blog. He is a writer, graphic designer and IT specialist. He lives in Montana, is married and lives with two cats.