The Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai:
Issues of Historicity, Authenticity and Reliability
Dr. John Andrew Morrow, author of The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad, stands with copies of the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai, all issued and authenticated by Ottoman Sultans.
The Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai is attributed to the Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah, the Messenger of Allah. The document was written in the handwriting of Imam ‘Ali during the fourth year of the Hijrah which would place us approximately around 625 CE. Assuming the possibility that such dating was a later attribution, it is conceivable that the document was issued, or re-issued, during the Year of Delegations, which took place approximately in 630 CE. Not only have the monks from St. Catherine’s Monastery consistently upheld its authenticity since the early days of Islam, so have the Jabaliyyah Arabs of the Sinai. Although Islamic Tradition has been passed down almost exclusively by Muslims, this is one of the rare cases in which a Sunnah and a Hadith have been transmitted consecutively by both Muslims and Christians.
According to the historical record, the freedoms granted by the Prophet to the monks of Mount Sinai, along with other communities, were honored by Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, and ‘Ali, as well as the Umayyads, and the ‘Abassids. The Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai is next attested by Muhammad ibn Sa‘d al-Baghdadi (784-845), the early Muslim historian and scribe of al-Waqidi (748-822 CE), one of the earliest historians of Islam and biographer of the Prophet, in a document called the Treaty of Saint Catherine which is cited in his Ṭabaqat or Book of Major Classes. While it is shorter than the existing copies of the famous charter of rights, protections, and privileges, it contains all of the major provisions, virtually word for word.
If Ibn Sa‘d simply provided a summary of the major points, Isma‘il 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. (np)
Apart from historical works, firmans of political authorities contain direct references to the ashtiname. The earliest of these were issued by the Fatimids (r. 901-1171), and include decrees dating from 965, 1109, 1110, 1134, 1135, 1154, and 1156 CE. Case in point, the Fatimid Caliph al-Hafiz commanded his governors to respect the Sinai Covenant in 1134 CE. At the time, the document is said to have been several centuries old. The Ayyubids (r. 1174-1249) renewed the Covenant with the Sinai Monks in 1195, 1199, 1201/02, and 1210/11 CE. Both the Fatimid and Ayyubids issued medieval decrees with the monks of Mount Sinai that referred to the sijillat al-nabawiyyah or “Prophetic Decrees” (see 1169 Fatimid decree and 1505 Mamluk decree).
The Mamluks (1250-1517) confirmed it repeatedly in 1259, 1260, 1272, 1268/69, 1280 and 1516 CE. The Ottomans, who brought the ashtiname to the Royal Treasury for safe keeping in 1517, provided the monks with a certified copy which has served as the source of copies ever since, endorsing its authenticity either every year, every couple of years, or every few years from 1519 to 1818/19. In keeping with the spirit of the Covenant of the Prophet, the Sultan of Egypt made a treaty with the Order of St. John of Jerusalem in the year 1403 CE.
Prior to 1517, the original prophetic decree was stored at the Monastery of St. Catherine; it was this primary source document that was renewed by the Fatimids, the Ayyubids, and the Mamluks. Not only was the Covenant of the Prophet recognized and respected by the political and religious establishment, it was independently verified on a regular basis by the five schools of Islamic jurisprudence. The Monastery of St. Catherine’s possesses nearly 2,000 fatwas from Isma‘ili, Maliki, Shafi‘i, Hanafi, and Hanbali scholars from 975 to 1888 CE both implicitly and explicitly acknowledging the rights that they received from the Messenger of Allah.
The ashtiname was widely attested, mentioned, cited, and fully translated by many Western pilgrims, travel writers, clerics, and scholars from the 16th century to the present. Jean Thenaud, the guardian of the Convent of the Cordeliers of Angoulême, mentioned the ashtiname in his Voyage d’outremer (Égypte, Mont Sinay, Palestine) which describes his 1512 pilgrimage to St. Catherine’s Monastery. This debunks the claims of critics who allege that the Covenant of the Prophet was produced by the Sinai monks as a pre-emptive measure to protect them from the Ottoman conquerors. If the ashtiname was at Mount Sinai in 1512, then that proves that it existed prior to the Ottoman conquest of 1517. As Affagart noted during his 1533 trip to St. Catherine, the monks refused to separate themselves from the Covenant of the Prophet (191). Copies of the Covenant of the Prophet, dating as early as 1517 to the 19th century, also serve as proof of continuous and accurate transmission of its content, not to mention the 1517 firman of Selim the First which confirms that he took the Covenant, presented it to a committee of scholars who found it to be trustworthy, and replaced it with a certified copy. The event is also confirmed by Ioannis Tsernotas, alias Tsernotabey, a Greek soldier of the Christian Spahis cavalry of the Ottoman army, who participated in the campaign in Egypt with 2,500 Christians. A trusted advisor to Selim I, he was a witness to events that took place during the conquest.
The golden seal of Sultan Selim I, who had the Covenant authenticated by
the greatest scholars from throughout the Ottoman empire in 1517.
Although it has almost fallen into oblivion, a work by Feridun Ahmed Bey (d. 1583 CE), known as Majmu‘a munsha‘at al-salatin was published in the 16th century and republished in the 19th century, namely, in 1857/58. It consist of a collection of letters to and from the Prophet, the Caliphs, and the Sultans, as well as letters to and from the sovereigns of Europe, along with the treaties they signed, all compiled by the head of the Ottoman Chancellery. The individual in question was an influential preacher who served Sokollu Mehmed (1565-1579) who appointed him Secretary in 1570 and Chancellor in 1573. Atai (d. 1635) relates that he was trained in the household of the treasurer, ‘Abd Allah Çelebi. After Sultan Selim II (1566-1574) came to power, Sokullu Mehmed fell from favor, and Feridun Bey was dismissed in 1576. After the assassination of the former, Feridun Bey was recalled to Istanbul, married into the royal family in 1582 and was reappointed Chancellor. According to Virginia H. Aksan,
The Münseat was presented by Feridun Bey to Murad III when he ascended to the throne in 1574… According to Ahmed Resmi, Feridun Bey collected the registers and decrees and put them in good order while he was Reisülküttab, and then added the letters and other documents of former Ottoman rulers because he was inspired by a dream to present them. (6)
Famous for his historical works, Feridun Bey’s Munsha‘at al-salatin is simply priceless. Most importantly, and most revealingly, it contains a copy of the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai drawn from the Treasury of Topkapi. As one dynasty followed another, the relics of the Prophet, the Companions, and the previous Caliphs and Sultans were inherited by their successors, which explains, quite logically, why virtually all of the most ancient objects and manuscripts ended up in the collection of the Ottoman Sultan. Some were lost. Some were stolen. And some were misplaced. However, the Museum of Topkapi remains a rich repository of artifacts that confirm the historicity of Islamic accounts. Muslims are entitled to doubt purported letters of the Prophet passed down by Christian authorities. However, such skepticism cannot extend to the archives of the Caliphs and Sultans. The ahdname can indeed be tracked down through official Muslim channels on the authority of a man described as “a grave and distinguished individual, in whom were contained all the moral qualities” (qtd. Aksan 6). The Arabic original cited by Feridun Bey is identical to the dozens and dozens of copies of the Covenant of the Prophet found at Saint Catherine, Simonopetras, and elsewhere. Rendered into English by D.S. Margoliouth, it reads:
This is the certificate written by Mohammed son of ‘Abdallah, the Prophet of God, and His messenger unto all mankind, delivering both promises and threats, and having in his keeping the deposit of God unto His Creation, that men might have no plea after the coming of the Messengers. And God is mighty and wise. This he wrote unto the people of the Christian religion, and to such as profess the Christian religion in the East and West, near and far, clear-speaking and barbarous, known and unknown. He wrote it for them as a charter, and whosoever violates, alters, or transgresses the covenant that is therein, shall have violated the covenant of God, broken His promise, ridiculed his religion, and earned His curse, whether he be a sovereign or any other Moslem. If any monk or pilgrim entrench himself in mountain, valley, cave, township, level, sand or church, I shall be behind them defending them from any that shall envy them, by myself, my helpers, my people, my sect, and my followers, inasmuch as they are my subjects and the people of my covenant. And I exempt them from the vexation in victuals which is endured by the people of the Covenant in that they have to pay the tax, save so far as they themselves of their free will offer it, and there is to be no compulsion nor force employed. No Bishop is to be removed from his diocese, nor monk from his monkdom, nor ascetic from his cell, nor pilgrim from his pilgrimage, neither is any of their assembling-places or churches to be pulled down, neither shall any of the wealth of their churches be employed for the building of mosques or houses for the Moslems; and whoever doeth this shall have violated the charter of God and the charter of His Prophet; neither shall there be taken from monks, bishops, or ministers any poll-tax or fine. I shall maintain their security wheresoever they be, whether on land or sea, east, west, north, or south. They shall at all times and in all places be under my protection and within my covenant and immunity from all mischief. Likewise the hermits in the mountains and blessed places shall not have to pay land-tax nor tithe on that which they sow, nor shall a portion be taken from them seeing that it is only enough for their own mouths, nor shall they have to render assistance at harvest-time, nor shall they be forced to go out on service in time of war, neither shall more be demanded of them that pay the land-tax and the owners of property and estates and those that engage in merchandise than twelve dirhems altogether once a year. None of them shall be made to pay more than is due, neither shall they be striven with save in kindly dealing. They shall guard them under the wing of mercy by keeping off them the vexation of all mischief wherever they be and wherever they dwell. And if Christians dwell among Moslems, the Moslems shall satisfy them, and suffer them to pray in their churches, and shall not interfere in any way with the practice of their religion. And whoso violates the charter of God, and does the contrary thereof, shall be counted a rebel against His covenant and against His Apostle; further, the Moslems shall aid in repairing the Christian churches and places, which shall remain in keeping of the Christians on condition that they abide in their religion and act according to the charter. None of them shall be compelled to bear arms, for the Moslems shall protect them. And none shall violate this charter for all time, even unto the Day of Judgment and the end of the world. (qtd. Zaydan 123-124)
The tradition of Muhammad’s travels to the Sinai and the history and background of the composition of the ashtiname is also detailed in Balthasar de Monconys’ Le voyage en Egypte, 1646-1647, in which he claims to have seen the content of the Prophet’s firman engraved in stone (92). Further evidence in support of the authenticity of the ashtiname comes from Epitome tes hierokosmikes historias [The Epitome of Sacred World History] which was one of the first works of a Sinai monk to be published. The work was written by Nektarios (1605-1680), a monk from St. Catherine’s, known variously as Nektarios the Cretan and Nektarios of Jerusalem, based on the Arabic historical works that were available at the monastery at the time, many of which have now been lost. This work, written in 1660, and published in Venice in 1677, confirms the Prophet’s contact with the Sinai monks on the basis of early Arabic sources. Originally from Crete, he became archbishop of the Sinai, and eventually Patriarch of Jerusalem. Written in simple Greek, the Epitome provides an overview of the history of the Sinai and St. Catherine’s Monastery from the times of Moses to the conquest of Egypt. The final two sections deal with the history of Egypt and its conquest by Sultan Selim in 1517. The work confirms that the monks from Mount Sinai “had secured a deed of coexistence (ahtiname) from the Prophet Muhammad himself” (Merry 288).
In 1697, M.LM.D.C. published a short defense of the Covenant of the Prophet (Morrow 75). This was followed by Eusèbe Renaudot who wrote that the document was beyond dispute (Morrow 153). Even Johann Lorenz von Mosheim (1693-1755 CE), whose attitude towards the ashtiname was not favorable, admitted that: “[it] is …certain, that the Mahometans unanimously acknowledge it to be genuine” (1765; 330).
That Selim I brought back the Covenant of the Prophet from St. Catherine’s Monastery is not fiction: it is historical fact backed up by an official document from the Sultan himself which dates from the same year. Of the numerous surviving copies of the ashtiname, there are some as early as 1517 and others as late as 1858 CE. They are all identical in content. They confirm that the Covenant of the Prophet was passed down unadulterated from the early 16th century to the 21st century. There is no reason to assume that the transmission occurred otherwise from the 7th century to the 16th century. In fact, the fact that St. Catherine’s Monastery had been protected by the Prophet has a paper trail that dates from Fatimid times in the 10th century to the end of the Ottoman times in the 20th century. Year after year, for over a millennium, the Sinai covenant was confirmed.
In fact, the fact that St. Catherine’s Monastery had been protected by the Prophet has a paper trail that dates from Fatimid times in the 10th century to the end of the Ottoman times in the 20th century. Year after year, for over a millennium, the Sinai covenant was confirmed.
Although the achtiname or Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai was known to educated French readers, it was popularized among English speakers by Richard Pococke (1704-1765), an English prelate and anthropologist, in his Description of the East (1743) which features a rough translation of the text along with an account of its origins. The French invasion of Egypt in the late 18th century brought even more French leaders, linguists, and Orientalists in direct contact with the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai. On November 10, 1798, the Courier d’Egypte reported that:
Brumaire 17 (November 7th), General Bonaparte granted an audience to twenty-four deputees from the Arab tribes that lived in the land of Mount Sinai and al-Tur… The caravan was accompanied by a monk from Mount Sinai who acts as its interpreter… (2)
On Saturday, December 29, 1798, a detailed account of the meeting between the delegation from Mount Sinai and the new French rulers appeared in the Courier de l’Égypte. It reads:
The monk from the Greek monastery of Mount Sinai who accompanied the caravan of Arabs from al-Tur (see issue number 16) was entrusted by the monks of his monastery with the task of asking for the protection of the Commander in Chief and to ask him to confirm the privileges granted to their monastery by different Muslim rulers from the time of Muhammad to that of the ruling Sultan. He presented on that occasion some of the decrees that attest to the concessions that were made to them.
The first of them was a copy of the one that ‘Ali, who was the fourth of the Caliphs, wrote with his own hand upon the order of Muhammad. It contains provisions that are favorable to the monks of Saint Catherine and concludes in the following fashion:
“‘Ali ibn Abu Talib wrote this covenant with his own hand in the mosque of the Prophet, upon whom be blessings and peace, on the third day of the month of Muharram of the second year of the hijrah (year 623 of the Christian calendar.”
The authenticity of this firman could be called into question for during the second year of the Hijrah the success of Muhammad was far from being foretold. He had barely obtained success against a handful of Qurayshis. It is difficult to believe that the monks from Saint Catherine has renounced the protection of Heraclius, their emperor, at such an early stage, in favor of that of the Prophet who probably still appeared as some obscure trouble-making zealot.
When he conquered Egypt, Selim the First took hold of the original document and had a copy delivered that he signed and to which he added the following words: “this covenant, to which the Prophet had placed his seal, has been deposited in the Treasury of the Sultan; it is written on a piece of leather from Ta’if; blessed be he who abides by its dictates!”
The other firmans shared by the monk from Mount Sinai were given to his monastery by the reigning sultan, Selim III, in the year 1214 of the hijrah (1789), by Sultan Ahmet I in the year 1126 (1714) of the hijrah; and by the conqueror of Egypt, Selim I, during the year 923 of the hijrah (1517).
After the standard formulas, we read in this firman: “It is our desire, and in accordance with the divine precept, ‘do good in proportion to the bounties that you have received from the All-Powerful,’ to shower upon them the benefits of our powerful protection. Among those who deserve to be treated the most favorably on our behalf are the monks located in the monastery of the Sinai, that venerable mountain where God spoke to our lord Moses, upon whom be peace.”
After reviewing the various favors granted to the monks from Saint Catherine, by the Prophet himself, the first Caliphs, and several sultans, Selim confirms their privileges and expressly orders the magistrates from the city of Tur, to whom he addresses his firman, to refrain from demanding any contribution from the monks. He guarantees to the latter the enjoyment of their home, their gardens, and their corrals which are attached to them. He also forbids the Arabs to enter into the monastery, to impose taxes of any sort, not even one drachm, to ask even the slightest of gifts, to camp on their territory, unless they are merely passing through in which the law of hospitality, which was been practiced since the dawn of time, would apply, and he also forbids them from troubling those who visit their monastery.
“We grant these various favors to the monks of Mount Sinai,” states Selim, “in accordance to the honorable concessions that were made to them by our Prophet and his successors, in consideration of the commands that were granted to them by the sultans and, in light of the fact that they are our subjects, that they followed a divinely-revealed law, and that they are faithfully bound to our empire.” (Courier de l’Égypte 23, Le 9 Nivose, VII Année de la République)
The audience between Napoleon and the delegation from Mount Sinai is documented in further detail by a contemporary witness, Jean-Joseph Marcel (1776-1854), an Orientalist from the Société Asiatique, who worked as an administrator in the famous French expedition to Egypt, and who happened to be friends and neighbors with Shaykh Muhammad al-Mahdi, the secretary to the Ottoman Divan. In Les dix soirées malheureuses, Marcel provides us with the following inside information:
On the 17th of Brumaire of the year 7 (November 7, 1798), which corresponds to the 28th of Jamadi al-Uwwal of the year 1213 of the hijrah), a caravan of Arab tribes who inhabit the territory of al-Tur, arrived in Cairo: it was made up of approximately five hundred men and an equal number of camels. They stopped at approximately ten minutes walk from Cairo and set up camp around Fort Dupuy. From there, they send twenty four deputies to the Commander in Chief to announce their arrival and to ask permission to sell their merchandise in the city. According to Oriental custom, they brought gifts; their offering consisted of raisins, pears, apples, and other fruits from their land… The deputies were accompanied to the audience by a famous monk from Saint Catherine’s monastery which was established during the early centuries of Christianity on Mount Sinai.
This monk was entrusted by the monks of his monastery to ask for the protection of the Commander in Chief and to request the confirmation of the privileges that had been granted to the monastery by different Muslim rulers from the time of Muhammad until that of the Sultan currently ruling in Constantinople. He presented on that occasion some of the decrees that attest to the concessions that were made to them.
The first is the one that ‘Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet of Islamism, wrote with his own hand upon the order of Muhammad himself. It contains provisions that are favorable to the monastery, and finishes in the following fashion: “‘Ali ibn Abi Talib wrote this covenant with his own hand upon the order of the Prophet, upon who be the peace and blessings of God, on the third day of the month of Muharram in the second year of the Hijrah.”
This date corresponds to Thursday, July 7th, of the year 623 of the Christian calendar. If this decree is real and authentic, as it appears to be, and which the erudite Venture seems to believe that it was, it is the most precious document that exists from the early years of Islamism.” (162-164)
The authority invoked above, Jean Michel de Venture de Paradis (1739-1799), was Napoleon’s chief interpreter of Oriental Languages. Translator, interpreter, professor of Arabic and Turkish, and member of the Egyptian Institute, he was a man renowned for his erudition. He was one of many French scholars who believed that the Covenant of the Prophet was a faithful transcription of the original 7th century document. Jean-Joseph Marcel was himself a scholar to be reckoned with. A savant who served as a member of the Commission des Sciences et des Arts, a corps of 167 technical experts, who accompanied Napoleon’s 1798 campaign in Egypt, he was a gifted linguist who made important contributions to deciphering the Rosetta Stone. Appointed director of the Imperial Press in 1803, he had the Lord’s Prayer translated into one hundred and fifty languages in the presence of the Pope. As the publisher of an Arabic-French dictionary in 1830, his expertise in Arabic is unquestioned. His contributions to the French Republic were so impressive that he was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. In his capacity as linguist and Arabist, Marcel concluded that the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai appears to be authentic. This was not only his conclusion: it was the consensus of Napoleon’s Commission des Sciences et des Arts. It was as a result of this scholarly assessment that Napoleon recognized the claims of the monks from Saint Catherine.
As J. Gordon Melton reports in Faiths across Time: 5,000 Years of Religious History, Napoleon placed St. Catherine’s Monastery under his protection and granted recognition of its traditional status and privileges (1367). The decree reads:
Cairo, 19th December 
Bonaparte, General-in-chief, wishing to favor the convent of Mount Sinai
1st. In order to transmit to future races the traditions of our conquest;
2nd. Through respect for Moses and the Jewish nation, whose cosmology retraces the earliest ages;
3rd. Because the convent of Mount Sinai is inhabited by well-educated and polished men, living in the midst of the barbarity of the desert;
Orders, &c, &c. (239)
Not only did Napoleon grant religious and commercial privileges to the monks, and afford protection against the Bedouins, he signed his name on the ashtiname alongside that of Muhammad (239; Lockhart 124). In other words, Napoleon himself ratified the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai.
A full translation of the Covenant of the Prophet with the Monks of Mount Sinai appeared in Histoire de l'Égypte sous le gouvernement de Mohammed-Aly, ou Récit des événements politiques et militaires qui ont eu lieu depuis le départ des Français jusqu’en 1823 by Félix Mengin. He presented the piece as factual and described it as extraordinary (277-280). By 1835, word of the Covenant of the Prophet had reached the [National] Geographic Society who gathered to discuss it. In its “Proceedings of Societies,” The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal reported the following:
The convent on the mount was founded by Justinian who endowed it with the whole peninsula of Sinai. When Mahomet was spreading his religion with fire and sword over the East, he is said to have spared this convent in gratitude for an opportune supply of water and provisions; and, as the monks assert, gave them a firman, written by Ali, which confirmed to their order Justinian’s grant of the peninsula. Not being able to write, Mahomet spread ink over his hand, and laid it on the paper as his signature. The firman was sent to Constantinople, where Sultan Selim collected all the relics of the prophet; and the monks received another to the same effect, which, they say, is now at Cairo. (257-258)
In his 1844 Voyage au Mont Sinaï, Louis de Tesson describes coming face to face with the Covenant of the Prophet:
We were shown the firman of Muhammad that was granted, not only to the monks of Sinai, but to all Christians. For a long time, the Monastery of the Transfiguration was the home to the original written in Kufic characters on the hide of a gazelle and covered with the signature of the Prophet; namely, the ignorant law-giver of the Arabs placed the print of his hand soaked in ink on it, the very hand that did not know how to hold a pen. In 1517, the precious document was vindicated as a sacred relic by Selim the First and deposited in the treasury of his place; the monks received a copy on a parchment, certified by the sultan himself, which they preserve with care; it serves them as a safeguard during their travels. (168-169)
After the Munsha‘at al-salatin was republished in Istanbul in 1848, the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai started to circulate in diplomatic circles, and translations of its original Arabic commenced to appear in various European sources. In 1888/1889, Philippe Gelat cited it in French in his Répertoire de la législation et de l’administration égyptiennes (105-106). Yet another translation surfaced in 1907 in Des patriarcats: les patriarcats dans l’Empire ottoman et spécialement en Égypte by Sésostris Sidarouss and was also treated as historically sound (506-508). In 1858, award-winning poet Henry Day, published Sinai; a Poem, which refers to the presence of the Prophet at Mount Sinai:
High on the sovereign Rock, the Convent still
Rears its colossal form, and guards the site
Where sainted Catherine, angel-wafted, sleeps.
See! from its towers the standard of the Cross
Gives to the wind its blazoned folds, while far
The solemn cymbals sound the hour of prayer!
Hard by, communion strange! the glittering shrine
Of Yemen’s Prophet rises, he who came
Boy-pilgrim hither, and whose simple heart
Recked not of coming guile, or Hera’s grot
In a note to the poem, we read that:
The mosque of Mahomet rises close by the Church. Tradition relates that Mahomet, whilst yet a camel-driver in Arabia, wandered to the great convent, then not a century old. “As he rested,” so the story has with slight variations been told from age to age, “as he rested with his camels on Mount Menejia, an eagle was seen to spread its wings over his head, and the monks, struck by this augury of his future greatness, received him into their convent, and he in return, unable to write, stamped with ink on his hand the signature to a contract of protection, drawn up on the skin of a gazelle, and deposited in the archives of the convent. (19, note 21)
In 1861, the Reverend Joseph Wolff published an account of his travels which confirmed that the monks St. Catherine showed the hand and firman of Muhammad after which he granted protection to the monastery (488). In 1887, Samuel Sullivan Cox, who served as a diplomat in Turkey, provides a positive description of the Muhammad’s travels to the Sinai and an honest assessment of the content of the Covenant of the Prophet. In his words:
Mahomet was a driver of camels. While following this avocation he made the acquaintance of a monk from the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai. The monk, it is said, foretold to Mahomet the great eminence to which he would attain. In consequence of the revelation, he asked, in advance, for Mahomet’s indulgency in favor of the Christian community and certain privileges for the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai. Mahomet gave the promises.
According to Turkish tradition, Mahomet, acting under a sacred inspiration, abandoned his trade of camel-driver. He retired to a secluded hostelry. There he spent his time in prayer, religious meditation and fasting. It was while thus engaged that an angel appeared to him one night, and delivered to him the Koran. Mahomet, in his turn, communicated its precepts to his disciples, whom he called Houlifaï. These followers, in a very short time, swelled in numbers to such an extent that they soon constituted a powerful and well-disciplined, if not properly organized, army. At the head of this army Mahomet started on his religious expedition, proclaiming the new faith. This comprised a belief in one God, and in Mahomet as the prophet and emissary of that God.
In the course of his conquests and triumphal march through Arabia and Syria, Mahomet came to Mount Sinai; there he again met his old friend the monk of the monastery of St. Catherine. Having reminded Mahomet of his former promise, the monk obtained from him an “actinamen,” or official act. This conferred upon the monastery in question the promised privileges, and upon the Christians in general the free exercise of their religion. The actinamen was dictated by Mahomet himself. It was taken down by one of his followers, Ali Amboudalip. As Mahomet could not write, he made his mark on the document. He dipped his hand in the ink and brought it down on the paper, leaving thereon the impression of his five fingers. This incident is commemorated in the “toughra” or Imperial ensign, which may be seen on every Turkish official document and coin up to the present day…
The document was kept at St. Catherine’s monastery in Mount Sinai until A.D. 1517. Then the Sultan, Selim I, took it into his own possession as a sacred relic. He gave in exchange for it an authenticated copy, certified by himself. This is still preserved. It bears the following heading:
“This paper has been written by Mahomet, the son of Abdullah, and Emissary of God, the Guardian and Preserver of the Universe, to all of his nation and religion, to be a true and sacred grant for the race of the Christians and the offering of the Nazerites.” Is not this the fountain and origin of the “Capitulations” and toleration toward the Christian and other sects?” (210-212)
If the latest official copy of the Covenant of the Prophet was issued in the late 19th century, it started to circulate among scholars during the same time. In fact, in the late 19th century, Naufal Effendi Naufal published a Turkish translation of the Arabic text. Syed Ameer Ali (1849–1928), the distinguished Muslim jurist, may be the first scholar to expound upon the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai in the English language. He provided a detailed paraphrase of its content in 1819 in his admirable book titled The Spirit of Islam:
It was about this time that the Prophet granted to the monks of the monastery of St. Catherine, near Mount Sinai, and to all Christians, a Charter which has been justly designated as one of the noblest monuments of enlightened tolerance that the history of the world can produce. This remarkable document, which has been faithfully preserved by the annalists of Islam, displays a marvelous breadth of view and liberality of conception. By it the Prophet secured to the Christians privileges and immunities which they did not possess even under sovereigns of their own creed; and declared that any Moslem violating and abusing what was therein ordered, should be regarded as a violator of God’s testament, a transgressor of His commandments, and a slighter of His faith. He undertook himself, and enjoined on his followers, to protect the Christians, to defend their churches, the residences of their priests, and to guard them from all injuries. They were not be unfairly taxed; no bishop was to be driven out of his bishopric; no Christian was to be forced to reject his religion; no monk was to be expelled from his monastery; no pilgrim was to be detained from his pilgrimage. Nor were the Christian churches to be pulled down for the sake of building mosques or houses for the Moslems. Christian women married to Moslems were to enjoy their own religion, and not to be subjected to compulsion or annoyance of any kind on that account. If Christians should stand in need of assistance for the repair of their churches or monasteries, or any other matter pertaining to their religion, the Moslems were to assist them. This was not to be considered as taking part in their religion, but as merely rendering them assistance in their need, and complying with the ordinances of the Prophet which were made in their favor by the authority of God and His Apostle. Should the Moslems be engaged in hostilities with outside Christians, no Christian resident among the Moslems should be treated with contempt on account of his creed. Any Moslem so treating a Christian should be accounted recalcitrant to the Prophet. (79)
There are a few things that strike the erudite reader: 1) he places the Sinai Covenant after Muhammad’s conflict with the Jews, namely, in and around the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, which is consistent with the account of Ibn Kathir; and, 2), most important of all, he affirms that “[t]his remarkable document…has been faithfully preserved by the annalists of Islam” (79).
The palm print or 'signature' of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The black shading,
the heraldic colour of Ahl al-Bayt, represents the fact that the Prophet touched the original.
Within a few years of the publication of The Spirit of Islam, the Covenant of the Prophet with the Monks of Mount Sinai appeared in French (and presumably in Arabic) in L’Union Islamique / al-Ittihad al-Islami in 1898 CE. The article, which includes the full text of the ashtiname, was picked up Bessarione, an Italian journal of Oriental Studies, as well as Échos d’Orient, a French publication. The article from Échos d’Orient, titled “Décret de Mahomet relatif aux Chrétiens,” simply provides a condescending summary of the original piece that appeared in L’Union Islamique. It mentions that the original decree of the Prophet was still in existence and was stored in the Sultan’s library (170). It states that the existence of the ashtiname had been mentioned a few times in the West but that its content had never been previously disclosed (170). This is clearly incorrect as many travel writers from Europe had written about it and provided translations of it. Intriguingly, the article states that the covenant “had been published in the Orient by two Arab historians” (170).
Shortly after the ashtiname was shared with Arabic, Italian, and French readers, Anton F. Haddad brought word of the Covenant of the Prophet to the Americas where he published an English translation based on the Turkish translation in 1902. Although it underwent a process of double translation, the content was accurately conveyed. Abdullah al-Mamun al-Suhrawardy (1870-1935), the Islamic scholar, barrister, and academic, also mentioned the ashtiname in his 1904 lecture on “Islam and Toleration” that was published in the Asiatic Quarterly Review in 1905. In it, he mentioned that: “We are told that about the year 6 of the Hegirah, the Prophet granted to the monks of the monastery of St. Catherine, near Mount Sinai, and to all Christians, a charter which has been designated as one of the noblest monuments of enlightened tolerance that the history of the world can produce” (156). A rather detailed commentary of the ashtiname or “Prophet’s Charter” appeared in Jurji Zaydan’s History of Islamic Civilization which appeared in English in 1907. It reads:
There are current copies of a contract supposed to have been made by the Prophet with the Christians and their monks, called the ‘Prophet’s Charter,’ which agree in purport though they vary in wording. This Charter is supposed to have been written by the hand of ‘Ali, and deposited in the Prophet’s Mosque in the year 2 A.H. Different copies were made and transferred to various monasteries. One of these was guarded in the Monastery of Mt. Sinai, whence Sultan Selim the Conqueror removed it to Constantinople at the beginning of the sixteenth century A.D., after having exhibited it to an assembly of lawyers, by whom it was translated into Turkish. A Turkish copy was then deposited in the Monastery of Mt. Sinai, with charters confirming the monks in the rights guaranteed them by the Prophet’s Charter…. (124-125)
Arabs, especially Egyptians, learned about the ashtiname in 1916 after Shuqayr published a copy of the Covenant in Arabic in his book on the history of the Sinai. In 1918, Bernard Moritz, published the ashtiname in Arabic and German, thus exposing German and Austrian academics to the topic. The Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai was mentioned in the first Encyclopedia of Islam which appeared between 1913 and 1936.
The Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai is also treated as a historical reality by Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall (1875-1936 CE), who wrote that “[i]nnumerable monasteries, with a wealth of treasure of which the worth has been calculated at not less than a hundred million sterling, enjoyed the benefit of the Holy Prophet’s Charter to the monks of Sinai and were religiously respected by the Muslims” (qtd. Zahoor 5). In 1946, Joaquim Pedro Oliveira Martins related the tradition that “Muhammad was one of those nomads who served as a camel boy for the friars and who, out of gratitude ordered that the monastery of Sinai always be respected” (99). Muhammad Hamidullah also shared the Arabic version of the covenant in al-Watha’iq in 1956.
Positive views of the Covenant of the Prophet were provided by Albert Champdor in 1963. Akram Zahoor and Z. Haq were staunchly supportive in 1990 while Nikolaos Tomadakis, Konstantinos A. Manafis, and Demetrios Digbassanis were very objective in 1990. In his 1995 work, Joseph J. Hobbs adopted a very scholarly approach, presenting all the various points of view. Brucy Merry and J. Gordon Melton presented it in factual terms in 2005. As for Reza Shah-Kazemi, his belief in the ashtiname came through clearly in 2005.
Considering that the Prophet, the Qur’an, the Shari‘ah, the Sunnah, and Muslims as a whole have come under increasing attack in the early twenty-first century, a strong contingent of scholars have come forth in support of the Covenant of the Prophet with the Monks of Mount Sinai in an attempt to counter this narrative. They include: David Dakake (2009 CE), Muqtedar Khan (2009 CE), Zia Shah (2011 CE), Ahmed Shams (2011 CE), Raj Bhala (2011 CE), Hedieh Mirahmadi (2011 CE), Helen C. Evans (2012 CE), Father Justin of Sinai (2012 CE), Pave the Way Foundation (2012 CE), the Radical Middle Way (2013 CE), Dr. Fuad Nahdi (2014 CE), and the Tabah Foundation (2015 CE) which described the Covenants as “authentic, legitimate, and irrefutable.”
In recent years many authors and scholars have come forth to confirm the Covenant of the Prophet with the Monks of Mount Sinai. In his Eight Years Wandering in the High Mountains of the Sinai Peninsula, Ahmed Shams mentioned that:
Since the Arab conquest, the monastery was under the protection of the Muslims. Guarantees of protection were given to the monastery along its extended history through hundreds of trustees, starting with the one of Prophet Mohamed of the Muslims in the 7th century… Some historians have their own doubts about the trustee of Prophet Mohamed. Anyway, those doubts will not change the fact that all the Muslim kings, sultans and presidents respected the trustees. It is part of the Islamic values to protect the religious buildings of Christians and Jews. (15-16)
It is equally recognized by the following signatories to the Covenants Initiative: Feisal Abdul Rauf, Kathryn Qahira Santana, Marina (Nouria) Bouteillier, Yousef Casewit, Farah Kimball, Zachary Markwith, Charles Daines, Adam Deen, Alan Godlas, Kabir Helminski, Jeremy Henzell-Thomas, Irving Karchmar, Qaisra Ehsan Khan, John Parks, Saqib Safdar, Yusuf A.H. Salaam, Reza Shah-Kazemi, Kamal Southall, Hector Manzolillo, Aida Shahlar Gasimova, Omid Safi, Hisham M. Ramadan, Bridget Blomfield, Said Mentak, Mohamed Elkouche, Muhammad-Reza Fakhr-Rohani, Amar Sellam, Charles Upton, Rachida Bejja, Saimma Dyer, Daniel Dyer, Nigel Jackson, Cyrus Ali Zargar, Mahdi Tourage, Faysal Burhan, Safeer Siddiqui, Yasser Chaudhary, Arshad Sharif, James Parker, Baha’uddin Peter Hughes, Hesham A. Hassaballa, Sufi John Ishvaradas Abdallah, Khadija Fitzwilli Hall, Walid Radwan, Arnold Yasin Mol, Kevin Barrett, Alim Ali, Muslim Muhammad Arshad, Nebil Nuradin, Asif Merchant, Mike Mohamed Ghouse, Muqtedar Khan, Muhammed Haron, Wazir Bax, Bibi Ruqaiyah Baksh, Fazeel Mohamed Ferouz, Muhammad Yunus, Abdul-Rehman Malik, Osman Saffah, Osman Qureshi, Andrzej Ahmed Saramowicz, Latifa Chentouf, Jayde Russell, Humera Khan, Noor-Malika Chishti, Munawar A. Anees, President, Abdallah Schleifer, Shereen Williams, Bouchra Belgaid, Maged Agour, Sam Amico, Tevfirk Aydoner, Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore, Roger Abdul-Wahhab Boase, Rashid Patch, Salim Warda, Ryan Brizendine, Oliver S. Muhammad, Natalia Andujar, Shabbir Agha Abbas, along with other scholars and students of Islam.
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 7th century. 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. Where plants prosper and our visual sense sees nothing but green, we know that there must be water. The Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai is not simply supported by a spring, like an oasis; the greenery it produces comes closer to a tropical jungle, fed by sources, rivers, lakes, and an abundance of rain. The achtiname has been a source of life for Christians and Muslims for over a millennium and a half. May this covenant of hope continue to water seeds of peace until the end of time!
Affargart, Greffin. Relation de terre sainte. Paris: V. Lecoffre, 1902.
Aksan, Virginia H. An Ottoman Statesman in War and Peace: Ahmed Resmi Effendi, 1700-1783. Leiden: Brill, 1995.
Ali, Syed Ameer. The Spirit of Islam: The Life and Teachings of Mohammed. Calcutta: S.K. Lahiri & Co., 1902.
Atiya, Aziz S. A History of Eastern Christianity. Millwood, NJ: Kraus Reprint, 1980.
Balādhurī, Aḥmad ibn Yaḥyá, The Origins of the Islamic State. Vol. 2. Trans. Philip Khuri Hitti. New York: Columbia University Press, 1916.
Courier de l’Égypte. Caire: Imprimerie Nationale, 1798.
Day, Henry. Sinai; a Poem. Burton-on-Trent: W.B. Darley, 1857.
Gelat, Philippe. Répertoire de la législation et de l’administration égyptiennes. Np: Alexandrie, 1888-1889.
Ibn Kathīr al-Dimashqī. Imad al-Dīn Abū al-Fida Ismā‘īl. Stories of the Prophets. Trans.
Muḥammad Mustapha Geme’ah. Riyadh: Darussalam, 1999.
L.H.D. “Décret de Mahomet relatif aux Chrétiens.” Échos d’Orient. Tome 1, N. 6, 1898: 170-171.
Lockhart, John Gibson. The History of Napoleon Buonaparte. Vol. 1. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1835.
Merry, Bruce, ed. Encyclopedia of Modern Greek Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004.
Marcel, Jean-Joseph. Les dix soirées malheureuses: Contes d’Abd-errahmann. Paris: Jules Renouard, 1829.
Melton, J. Gordon. Faiths across Time: 5,000 Years of Religious History. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2014.
Mirahmadi, Hedieh. “The Middle Way.” Abraham’s Children: Liberty and Tolerance in an Age of Religious Conflict. Kelly James Clark, ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012. 218-237
Monconys, Baltashar de. Le voyage en Égypte, 1646-1647. Le Caire: Institut français d’archéologie orientale du Caire, 1973.
Mosheim, Johann Lorenz. An Ecclesiastical History, from the Birth of Christ to the Beginning of the Eighteenth Century. Volume 1. London: T. Tegg and Son, 1838.
---. An Ecclesiastical History, Ancient And Modern, From The Birth Of Christ, To The Beginning Of The Present Century. Trans. Archibald Maclaine. Vol. 1. London: Millar, 1765.
Nahdi, Fuad. “Christians and Muslims Have Co-Existed Peacefully Before and Must Do So Again.” The Guardian (November 18, 2014). Internet: http://www.theguardian.com/ commentisfree/belief/2014/nov/18/christians-muslims-co-existed-general-synod-religions-allies
Napoleon I. A Selection from the Letters and Despatches of the First Napoleon. Vol. 1. London: Chapman and Hall, Ltd., 1883.
New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal. “Proceedings of Societies.” New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal. London: Henry Colburn and Company, 1835.
Oliveira Martins, Joaquim Pedro. Los hijos de Don Juan: príncipes, guerreros, y navegantes, fundadores de un Imperio. Buenos Aires: Editorial Atalaya, 1946.
Pococke, Richard. “A Description of the East and Some other Countries.” A General Collection of the Best and Most Interesting Voyages and Travels in All Parts of the World: Many of which are Now First Translated Into English. Ed. John Pinkerton. London: Longman, 1809. 389-391.
Renaudot, Eusèbe. Historia patriarcharum Alexandrinorum Jacobitarum, a D. Marco usque ad finem saeculi XIII. Cum catalogo sequentium patriarcharum & collectaneis historicis ad ultima tempora spectanibus. Inseruntur multa ad res ecclesiasticas Jacobitarum patriarchatus Antiocheni, Aethiopiae, Nubiae & Armeniae pertinentia. Accedit epitome historiae muhamedanae ad illustrandas res Ægypticas. Parisiis, F. Fournier, 1713.
Shams, Ahmed. Eight Years Wandering in the High Mountains of Sinai Peninsula: a Tale of Two Maps. Sinai, Egypt: Lulu.com, 2011.
Sidarouss, Sésostris. Des patriarcats: les patriarcats dans l'Empire ottoman et spécialement en Égypte. Paris: Rousseau, 1907.
Stern, S.M. Fatimid Decrees: Original Documents from the Fāṭimid Chancery. London: Faber and Faber, .
Suhrawardy, Abdullah al-Māmūn al-. “Toleration in Islam: The Charter of the Prophet Muḥammad to the Christians, and that of the Caliph Ali to the Parsees.” The Asiatic Quarterly Review 19 37-38 (January-April, 1905): 152-161.
Thenaud, Jean. Le voyage d’outremer. Ed. Ch. Schefer. Paris: Leroux, 1884.
Wolff, Joseph. Travels and Adventures of the Rev. Joseph Wolff. London: Saunders, Otley, and Co., 1861.
Zaydan, Jurji. Umayyads and ‘Abbasids: Being the Fourth Part of Jurji Zaydan’s History of Islamic Civilization. Trans. D.S. Margoliouth. Leyden: E.J. Brill; London: Luzac & Co., 1907.
Zahoor, Akram. Muslim History: 570-1950 C.E. Gaithersburg, MD: AZP, 2000.
Dr. John Andrew Morrow is a Full Professor at Ivy Tech. In addition to receiving his PhD from the University of Toronto, he has completed the full cycle of traditional Islamic seminary studies both independently and at the hands of a series of Sunni, Shi'i and Sufi scholars. He has published a number of articles and several books, including The Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine, Islamic Images and Ideas: Essays on Sacred Symbolism, and The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World. Aside from his academic duties, Dr. John Andrew Morrow (Imam Ilyas Islam) is the Director of the Covenants Foundation, an organization dedicated to disseminating traditional, civilizational, Islam; promoting Islamic unity; protecting persecuted Christians; and improving relations between Muslims and members of other faiths. He regularly travels the world to promote peace and justice. For more information about Dr. Morrow and his work, visit johnandrewmorrow.com.