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