After the recent spate of barbaric assaults on innocents by death-cult Islamists, the world seems as far as ever from a solution to the scourge. No amount of retaliatory or even pre-emptive violence stems the tide nor all the surveillance capacity at the disposal of modern states. The threat must be scotched at its roots in the mosques and madrasas, and across the internet – wherever unholy ideas germinate. That prospect too seems altogether too far-off for any present comfort. Yet, a little-known trove of documents once renowned and obeyed throughout the lands of Islam could stop the atrocities of ISIS, Al Quaeda and Salafists everywhere. According to scholars, the Ottoman archive in Istanbul contains a historically momentous document dating back to the prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) himself. Arguably, it has the power to defang Islamic radicalism and, at the risk of sounding Dan Brownish, even to prevent atrocities in the West by dint of ancient precedent.
In fact, there are three such original documents in existence with the prophet's own signature, actually his thumbprint, authenticating them. They were always legally binding on Muslims and exact copies were officially issued down the centuries with calligraphic precision by successive Caliphs. Oddly enough, their obscurity is only a relatively recent phenomenon. In the days of religious empires, up to World War 1, the world knew about them – they're well documented in the historical record – as did the Muslim faithful and their leaders who publicly abided by them. In our time, they have become more relevant than ever, and, despite considerable resistance, a movement spearheaded by scholars in the West (the Covenants Initiative) is pushing to return them to prominence. According to experts and increasing numbers of prominent Imams the message in the texts has the potential to halt the dynamics of radicalization in the Muslim world.
The documents are known as Covenants, specifically Covenant dispensations granted originally by the Prophet vouchsafing the protection of Christians and Jews by Muslims. Successive Caliphs then renewed the Covenants – explicit declarations of tolerance – down to the Ottoman period until the abolition of the Caliphate by the Turkish republic of Ataturk. The Covenants demonstrate incontrovertibly that the basic Wahhabist or Salafist notion of indiscriminate jihad amounts to heresy. And in the context of ISIS specifically, which purports to be a Caliphate founded on strict adherence to originalist tenets – they're a bombshell. With Muhammad's own imprint on them they represent the strictest orthodoxy. There's nothing mysterious about why people, and governments, forgot about the Covenants in the largely secular twentieth century. There was no need for Islamic law to protect minorities when most states adopted civil codes. Those that didn't, like the Saudis, had always resisted central authority and followed their own heterodox code, one that became – with the support of oil money – the standard for madrasas globally. As sharia makes a widespread comeback in the Islamic world, the message of the Covenants becomes acutely germane.
Below is the text of the Covenant in the Ottoman archives, actually an extract from the full text which is much longer. It was given by the Prophet in Medina to the visiting representatives of St Catherine's (Christian) monastery in Egypt's Sinai where it remained until the Ottoman Sultan Selim 1 conquered the Middle East and claimed the Caliphate. He gave them a fresh declaration in 1517 with his imprimatur and took the original back to Constantinople. The monks still possess the Sultan's version.
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 Allah! 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).
Two other comparable original documents remain extant, according to the leading academic in the field Dr. John Andrew Morrow, a Canadian convert to Islam from Toronto who now lives in Indiana, director of the Covenants Initiative and author of seminal books on the subject since 2013. One document belongs to a Christian monastery in Syria which, under threat from ISIS, is now in a secret location. The other belongs to an Armenian monastery in Jerusalem and is closely guarded. Dr. Morrow's research has also unearthed the texts of ancient Covenants with Jews retained down the centuries by communities from Yemen and Egypt. According to Dr Morrow, “very few Muslims today are aware of the Covenants generally. Most Muslim Seminaries don't teach them for whatever reason – wilful amnesia perhaps. There's a lot of money spreading dangerously partial knowledge. Our aim is to turn a scholarly pursuit into a movement to raise awareness worldwide among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. We have dozens of contributors, academics in many countries, working with us, translating into numerous languages. It's a pretty young endeavour but we're gaining ground.” Dr Morrow has visited the White House and the Pope was photographed holding up one of his books. He lectured crowds and gatherings of Imams in the Gulf in 2015 and many other conferences since. “It's amazing that we need to do this at all,” says Dr Morrow, “but these Islamist extremists don't read books. They're thugs who find an excuse to wield power. It's the age-old ignorance and bloodshed cycle that we're trying to break.”
It's a very odd circumstance that mainstream media in the West have almost totally ignored the Covenants despite growing awareness and numerous overtures by Dr.Morrow and others (including myself) to publicize their existence and spread their message. On at least one occasion a reluctant editor openly admitted that his publication didn't want to wade into “fatwa territory.” Yet the story itself is a sufficiently compelling one having all the elements of a historical, archeological, investigative yarn that has acute relevance in the present, may indeed save lives. One newspaper turned it down as too academic. And there's the rub because most mainstream media in the West wont wade into intra-Islamic controversy for fear of making mistakes or offending minority sensibilities. As the Covenants website shows, no such fastidiousness prevents the rest of global media from taking notice of the movement or its aims. According to Dr Morrow, the Covenants are supposed to be almost as important as the Koran to Muslim doctrine. They are, at the very least, a legitimizing instrument on the side of any Imam facing down his extremist rivals in a community or country. It's really astonishing, not to say egregious, that we in the West are not mobilizing this resource with so much at stake. What have we got to lose?
The article was first published on Forbes.com