The Prophet of Islam and the Monks of Christendom

st-catherines-monastery-sharmby Reza Shah-Kazemi

My starting point for the reflections which I intend to share with you in this talk is a personal experience—a deeply moving period of spiritual retreat at the monastery of St Catherine at Sinai earlier this year. This monastery has the distinction of being the oldest continually inhabited monastic establishment in Christendom. It not only bears witness to the continuing dynamism of the contemplative ideal in our days; it is also concrete evidence of the inter-religious co-existence—indeed harmony—that has permitted it to remain unmolested in its overwhelmingly Muslim environment for close to fourteen centuries.

Two vivid symbols of this harmony are to be found within the walls of the monastery: the first is a mosque, built by the monks for the Bedouins; and the second is the famous charter of protection granted by the Prophet to the monastery. The monks themselves are convinced that this charter, sealed with an imprint of the Prophet’s own hand, was instrumental in maintaining the safety and security of the monastery. The original document was written in Kufic script by Imam ‘Ali, and taken by the Ottoman Sultan Selim back to Istanbul in the 16th century. I was shown the Ottoman copy of this original

It is indeed a precious and remarkable document. Historians are somewhat divided over its authenticity, some claiming that it was in fact composed by the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim (ruled 996-1021). For my part, I agree with the opinion of the Greek historian, Amantos, who writes: ‘The monastery of Sinai could not possibly have survived without the protection afforded by Mohammed and his successors … Moreover, the great number of decrees which the Mohammedan [sic.] rulers of Egypt issued confirming the protected status of the monastery must have resulted from the fact that Mohammed himself had granted protection to Sinai.’  1


Egyptian Muslims Forget Muhammad’s Letter to Christian Monks at Mt. Sinai

1eg60One issue often discussed on news sites and blogs over the last several days is the many attacks on Egypt’s Christian communities. Several outlets have reported that violence by Mohammad Morsi supporters has left dozens of Christian churches, Coptic-owned businesses and properties burnt. Fears of widespread sectarian strife seem to be growing among Egypt’s Christian minority.

The violence against Egypt’s Christians reminds me of the important symbolism of Muhammad’s letter to Christian monks at St. Catherine’s, Mount Sinai (Egypt) in 628 AD.

In his letter, Muhammad championed universal peace and harmony between Christians and Muslims. Not only did he outline how Christians are to be treated by Muslims, but Muhammad also touched upon human rights, including freedom of conscious, freedom of worship, and the right to protection in war.

Here is an English translation of Muhammad’s letter:

“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).”