by Navid Zaidi
St. Catherine’s Monastery, officially Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai, is the oldest monastery in the world (est. 565 AD). It is located at the foot of Mount Sinai near the town of Saint Catherine, Egypt. It is a world heritage site with its library possessing a huge collection of Christian historical icons, second only to Vatican. It is a treasure house of Christian history that has remained safe for 1400 years under Muslim protection.
In the year 628 AD, a delegation of monks from St Catherine’s Monastery came to Prophet Muhammad in Arabia and requested his protection. The Prophet responded by granting a written charter of rights with protection and other privileges to the Christians. Scribed by his cousin Ali Ibn Abi Talib, it is sealed with an imprint representing Prophet Muhammad’s hand.
According to the tradition preserved at the Monastery, the Prophet knew and frequently visited the Monastery, building relationships with the Sinai monks.
Historically known as the ‘Ashtinameh of Muhammad’ or the ‘Peace Covenant of Muhammad’, the document is preserved at the library of St Catherine’s Monastery and is reproduced here:
The Promise to St. Catherine:
“This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them.
Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by God! I hold out against anything that displeases them.
No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses.
Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate.
No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants.
No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).
The striking feature of the covenant is that it imposes no conditions on the Christians for enjoying its privileges.
In other words, it is a unilateral peace charter clearly protecting the Christians’ rights to property, freedom of religion, freedom of work and unconditional security without demands of anything in return.
These rights are inalienable, eternal and universal. The Prophet boldly declares the Christians, all of them, as his allies and equates ill treatment of Christians with violation of God’s covenant.
Unilateral peace may have a bad reputation in world history, but if the Prophet’s example is any guide to the Muslims of the world, as it must be, the knowledge of this charter can have an enormous impact on Muslim behavior toward Christians.
As Dr Muqtedar Khan, director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware, once said:
‘Muslims and Christians together constitute over fifty percent of the world. If they lived in peace, we will be half way to world peace.’
Now, the promise to St Catherine was not the first time the Prophet of Islam engaged in unilateral peace efforts in tribal Arabia. The same year, 628 AD, he entered into a peace treaty with the powerful tribe of Quraysh of Mecca. Known as The Treaty of Hudaybiyah, the terms of the signed document were considered by the companions of the Prophet to be demeaning and filled them with dismay to the point of rebellion and mutiny. The negotiations for peace and a unilateral withdrawal brought depression and stretched their loyalty to almost beyond what they could bear. The Prophet, however, was willing to try something entirely new for his times by choosing the road to peace.
What’s more, the Prophet seems to have made a specialty of drafting peace charters.
Six years earlier, in 622 AD, soon after his arrival in the city of Medina, the first Muslim State was founded in the security of a social contract, called the Constitution of Medina. The constitution promoted peace and freedom by establishing the rules of a Free State for a pluralistic community composed of Muslims, Jews and pagans.