A few months back, I opened the door of my new apartment in Amman, Jordan to find my new landlady, a mother of four and a grandmother of one, holding a plate of sliced watermelon. “Here,” she said, her headscarf pinned below her chin. “It’s hard for you to buy and carry a whole one yourself, so I cut it up for you.” Later that week, her son knocked on my door, offering a bag of purple grapes he’d picked off the family tree outside.
My blonde hair and American heritage gave away my Christian identity, a fact that bore no special bearing on their generosity. These gifts of fruit were simple but profound signs of welcome from my Muslim neighbors.
That same week in September, just 135 miles north of my new home, local Christians in Maaloula, Syria opened their doors to find hostility from some of their Muslim neighbors. Members of the rebel and extremist al-Nusra Front murdered at least 10 Christians, and the rest of the population fled this historically Christian town as a fierce battle between Syrian loyalist and rebel forces raged.
Reading daily about Muslim-Christian relations in the Middle East while living here on a year-long research grant, I’ve been struck by the contrast between the hospitality I have received and the hostility faced by other Christians in the Middle East. My experiences of Muslims’ generosity doesn’t align with images of violence in the news. Christians and Muslims coexist quite peacefully in Jordan, but in some surrounding states the persecution of Christians is a harsh reality.
In Syria, 12 nuns and two bishops were kidnapped, and in Egypt, in the wake of the ouster of Muhammad Morsi, some Muslims destroyed Christian churches and attacked worshippers. In Iraq, Christians have become a convenient target in the sectarian violence that has plagued the country since the United States invasion in 2003. In the last 10 years, almost a million Iraqi Christians have fled the region.
Does Islam teach violence or peace?
Which attitude—hospitality or hostility—is Islam’s true disposition toward Christians? What does the religion say about how to treat Christians?
Some have argued in the post-September 11 era that Islam is at its heart a “religion of the sword” hostile to Christians. Robert Spencer, who led the campaign against the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” has made a career out of arguing that Islam is inherently hostile. He’s cherry-picked and taken portions of the Qur’an and parts of Islamic history out of context to bolster his point. He cites verses which read “kill the polytheists” to claim that Islam sanctions the indiscriminate killing of Christians, while ignoring the surrounding context, other verses like “there is no compulsion in religion,” and the text’s constant emphasis on mercy.
In my studies and—more importantly—in my interactions with Muslims in the United States and abroad, I’ve learned that the acceptance of Christianity and other groups is in fact an Islamic value. A number of Qur’anic verses—most notably 49:13, 5:48, and 2:256— are the basis for Muslims’ belief that religious diversity is a blessing to be preserved. While much of Middle East, Eastern Europe, North Africa, and Central and South Asia were ruled by Muslim leaders after the religion’s founding, swathes of the population that were not Muslim enjoyed religious autonomy and freedom that was unprecedented in other empires of the time (e.g. Byzantium).
But the Qur’an’s poetic lines about religious diversity or the stories about Christians flourishing in Islamic lands do not fit in with the narrative Spencer promotes. And his narrative has taken hold in America, where for the last decade we’ve heard about suicide bombings and the persecution of some Middle East Christians on the evening news. Spencer and others profit from enlarging the gulf between Christians and Muslims—they’ve managed to sell multiple New York Times bestsellers—and they work hard to subvert the strong trend of mercy and hospitality that is threaded throughout the Qur’an, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, and Islamic history.
Though they’ve done their best to bury any signs that Islam calls its followers to respect and be hospitable toward Christians, they’ll have a harder time covering up a centuries-old document recently found in the sands of Mount Sinai. This text, along with four other covenants between the Prophet Muhammad and a Christian monastery in Egypt, is the newest and strongest evidence against those who wish claim Islam is inherently hostile toward Christians.
A covenant of protection
If a monk or pilgrim seeks protection, in mountain or valley, in a cave or in tilled fields, in the plain, in the desert, or in a church, I am behind them, defending them from every enemy.
No building from among their churches shall be destroyed, nor shall the money from their churches be used for the building of mosques or houses for the Muslims. Whoever does such a thing violates Allah’s covenant…
The sentiments expressed here might come as a surprise to audiences in the West, but these are the words of the Prophet Muhammad expressed in a covenant signed by the early Muslims and the Orthodox Christians of St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt.
By the end of Muhammad’s life, the Islamic community was expanding throughout the Middle East and coming into contact with Christian communities from Egypt to Persia. In order to assure Christians of their protection under new Islamic rule, Muhammad authored five covenants that express a deeply moral and religious message: it is Muslims’ collective duty to protect and welcome Christians.
Four of the agreements were composed to address specific Christian communities in Sinai, Najran, Assyria, and Persia; one is addressed to Christians globally. In all of them, Muhammad insists that the content is eternal and universal. His injunction to protect Christians extends to all the “members of his religion and to all those who profess the Christian religion in East and West, near or far”… “until the end of the world.” He uses forceful language to emphasize that taking care of the Christian neighbor is central to Islamic life: “He who does not abide by this covenant… will be rejected by Allah and by all sincere Believers.”
These covenants were virtually unknown to modern scholars and believers until they were recently rediscovered and translated into English by Dr. John Andrew Morrow. The timing of Morrow’s publication of these documents could not be better. The radical generosity and acceptance expressed through the covenants flies in the face of today’s common misperception that Muslims are intolerant of religious diversity and intent on eliminating it.
“Now that we are witness to widespread Islamist violence against Christians in places like Syria and Egypt,” Morrow writes, “it is nothing short of providential that The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World should see the light of day at this precise historical moment.”
The covenants, which are published online and for free, suggest that the violence and hostility we see directed at Christians is not coming from religious sources, but is instead a sad result of the mixture of politics, social instability, and humanity’s inclination toward sectarianism.
For me, the content of the covenants confirmed what I’ve encountered while living among Muslims here and at home. My identity as a Christian has not only been supported in the Muslim-majority country of Jordan, but also in the Muslim community at Georgetown University, where I went to college.
Though I grew up and still identify as Catholic, my first real spiritual home was the Muslim Students Association. Apathetic about my Roman Catholic upbringing and wondering whether Islam might be a better fit, I got involved in Islamic activities, and even started praying with my Muslim friends. It was on a Muslim students’ retreat that I had a personal and powerful prayer experience that was the major impetus for my re-embracing of Catholicism. Even as I began to find a place in Georgetown’s Catholic community, the Muslim group still remained a welcoming home where my Muslim friends supported the deepening of my Catholic faith.
A bishop shall not be removed from his bishopric… nor shall a pilgrim be hindered from his pilgrimage…
If the Nazarenes wish to build a church, their Mohammedan neighbors shall help them…
The covenants remind readers that the arson of churches and the kidnapping of bishops that we see today in Egypt and Syria go directly against what the prophet intended for an Islamic society. Instead, he may have pictured something more like the pluralism found in Jordan, a country heavily influenced by Islam. The tensions that do exist between some Muslims and Christians here are new; for centuries, the two groups lived together, celebrating each other’s holidays, and in many cases not even bothering to ask about the religious identity of friends and coworkers.
Many Muslims cite Qur’anic quotes like 49:13—“We [God] have created you nations and tribes, that ye may know one another”—as their reason for promoting a religiously diverse society. In Jordan, calls for coexistence echo from every level of society, from the ordinary cab driver to the king, who jumpstarted the United Nation’s Interfaith Harmony Week and has been a leader in addressing the challenges Arab Christians face.
The Christian population here is small but valued, and evidence of its significant place in Jordanian society can be witnessed in the skyline, where church bell towers rise alongside minarets. Christians hang rosaries on their rear-view mirrors, and Christmas trees fill shop windows in December.
One line in the Najran covenant seems to speak directly to my personal experience. It not only speaks of the necessity of welcoming the stranger, but also of facilitating the Christian’s own prayer life:
If a Christian woman enters a Muslim household, she shall be received with kindness, and she shall be given opportunity to pray in her church.
I have been invited to countless Muslim households, and greetings of welcome abound. The most common word I hear in Jordan is “ahlan,” which is generally translated as “welcome,” but more accurately means “you are family.” Muslims have helped me grow in my own faith as a Christian, touring me around ancient church mosaics in Madaba and wishing me “Merry Christmas.”
Doing unto Muslims as they’ve done unto me
When faced with such generous care, a response of reciprocity seems only natural. And indeed, the covenants require Christians not to aid “the enemies of Muslims.” When the covenant was written, these enemies would have been outside empires and military groups. Today, they might be repressive regimes around the world or those (often Christians) that discriminate against Muslims in the West.
As Muslims were being shot in Tahrir Square at the start of the Egyptian revolution, Christians joined hands to surround and protect Muslims during their Friday prayer. I also feel compelled to stand with my Muslim friends in the wake of September 11 and a decade in which the demonization of Muslims has soared. When as a high schooler I received a piece of hate mail about Muslims in my email inbox—a message sent from a Christian friend—I felt no choice but to speak up against this un-Christian sentiment and in defense of my Muslim friends.
I’d like to think that we were somehow meant to find these covenants now, to remind Muslims and Christians of their duty to take care of one another and to remind Christians that those who do persecute them (even in the name of religion) do so for ungodly reasons.
But even if these covenants had not been rediscovered, even if they were buried of the sands of time, Muhammad’s letter to me and the world’s Christians would not be lost. It is written on the face of the toothless old man, wearing a tweed jacket, who handed me a grapefruit as I walked to my Arabic lesson. It is scribbled on the hands of the imam at my alma mater, who often gives me fist bumps when I pass him on campus. It hangs on the strands of hair of a villager in Wadi al-Seer, who welcomes me into her home for tea. These people—my friends from the Muslim Student Association and the Jordanian cab drivers who I barely know—live the message of their God, whom they call “the Most-Compassionate, the Most Merciful.”
Without having ever read the covenants, the Muslims I meet unquestioningly live out the message of Muhammad’s letters: generosity, self-sacrifice, and treating your neighbor as yourself.
They [Christians] must be covered by the wing of mercy. Repel every harm that could reach them wherever they may find themselves and in any country in which they are.
I am grateful for the “wings of mercy”—the hospitality of my Muslim friends who greet me with watermelon and warm smiles—that abound around the world, and especially here in Amman. I’m reminded of them when see the doves and pigeons circle together around minarets and bell towers of Jordan, slipping between the rays of sunlight that shine on all of God’s creatures.
Jordan Denari is a recent graduate of Georgetown University, where she studied Muslim-Christian relations. She now lives in Amman, Jordan on a Fulbright U.S. Student Research grant.