Thursday, July 15, 2010

A charter for Christian, Muslim harmony

The library of St. Catherine’s Monastery which houses 3500 old Christian manuscripts is the second largest collection after the Vatican

By Dr Arif Alvi

IN a recent lecture in Germany, Pope Benedict angered the already seething Muslim population of the world by his remarks when he quoted a Byzantine emperor in a 1391 dialogue who said that “show me just what Mohammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

Pope Benedict insists that it is necessary to open a discussion on what Christianity interprets as forceful conversion and a tendency towards violence in Islam.

The Australian prime minister, John Howard, supporting the pope reinforced the same stating that he did not “note terrorist groups killing people and invoking the authority of the Church”. True, but he ignores an increasing cascade of revelations and evidence highlighting the neo-con religious movement whose radical ideas seem to be the hidden reason behind many orchestrated wars in the Middle East including the most brutal one in Iraq. Hundreds of thousands have died in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan to ensure among other things, the safety of Israel, a scenario which fits in well with the apocalyptical belief of the neo-conservatives of a “Greater Israel as a necessary precursor to the arrival of the Great Messiah”.

Historically the reaction of people under suppression is universal whatever their faith or colour. To demand “servility” and “renunciation of armed resistance” to brutal state suppression will never allow a constructive resolution of the conflict. No number of killings or ghettoisation over the centuries was able to exterminate the Jewish people or their faith. Neither would the wanton brutality and destruction in the Muslim world result in acceptance of the unfair, or a rewriting of Islamic religious doctrine.

Christians and Muslims are drifting apart but I believe a very important historical document exists today which can provide the foundation for an understanding between the two. This treasure has been preserved in the obscure reaches of the Sinai peninsula in the Monastery of St Catherine, located in a triangular area between the Desert of El-Tih, the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba.

The history of this place goes as far back as Moses. The Book of Exodus describes that one day, Moses, while tending sheep, saw a burning bush and as he came closer he discovered that the bush was on fire, but the flames did not consume it. God then spoke from the bush and said that “I am your father’s God, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”, and ordered Moses to speak to the pharaoh, because God had “heard the people’s cries”. Helena, the mother of Constantine I, in 330AD built a chapel on the site and later Emperor Justinian around 540AD constructed a monastery which came to be known as the Monastery of St Catherine.

The fathers of the monastery visited Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) in Medina in 625AD and requested protection. Apparently, the request was favourably granted and the so-called Ahitname (which is a Latinised version of the noun “Ahed-nama”), or “immunity covenant” was sent to them by Prophet Mohammed himself in 628AD. The historic document states as under:

“This is a message from Mohammad 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 (of Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).”

The English translation has been taken from the book Muslim History: 570 - 1950CE written by Akram Zahoor.

The “phobia” of Islam in the West unfortunately helps to mask the crimes perpetrated by a so-called “civilisation under threat”. The semantics of this struggle and the terminology used to describe these fears serve to raise the level of reaction to that of a “brutal war against terror” where the foe is debased to the sub-human level, not to be covered even by the Geneva Convention.

Writers like the late Oriana Fallaci became fierce, even apocalyptic, critics of Islam. Ms Fallaci feared that the unassimilated and inassimilable Muslim immigrants in the West whom she called “invaders” were turning Europe into “a colony of Islam” or “Eurabia”. In her book The Force of Reason published in 2004 she elaborated in great detail and attempted to cloak all such prejudices with a now familiar pseudo-rationality. For a people or a religion to be banished or ostracised, vilification is necessary. Sections of the media and writers throughout the Christian world are doing so with dangerous abandon, almost oblivious to the damage they are doing to the ideals of the very civilisation they themselves have nurtured over the past centuries. It now seems that the Church too is not impervious to these prejudices.

Interestingly, when Ms Fallaci was asked by Tunku Varadarajan, the editor of The Wall Street Journal, whether there was any contemporary leader she admired, she replied there were two. She said that Pope Benedict XVI was a man in whom she reposed some trust. “I am an atheist, and if an atheist and a pope think the same things (in her assessment of a Muslim invasion which needed to be resisted) there must be something true”.

This was long before the pope made his speech on “Faith and Reason” (a title similar to Ms Fallaci’s book). The other person she said she admired was George Bush who had the “vigour” to do something. After her death Bush introduced the term “Islamofascism” which Ms Fallaci uses frequently in her own book. But it was “Ratzinger”, as she insisted on calling the pope, who she said was her “ultimate soulmate”.

Strange indeed. Too many coincidences in this nexus to call the pope’s speech purely an innocent attempt for dialogue and as Tariq Ali very aptly says in Counterpunch “the Bavarian is a razor-sharp reactionary cleric. I think he knew what he was saying and why. In a neo-liberal world suffering from environmental degradation, poverty, hunger, repression, and in a planet of slums, the pope chooses to insult the founder of a rival faith”. By disparaging Islam as evil and inhuman before 250,000 onlookers and the world press, and then talk about a genuine dialogue between cultures is naive indeed.

The Monastery of St Catherine in Sinai, which also contains a mosque within its walls, seems to have the key to bringing Islam and Christianity together. The Covenant of Mohammad for followers of the Christian faith could be the healer so desperately needed. I wish Pope Benedict XVI had looked at history, particularly that recorded by the Church itself, through a fair light before he made his speech casting aspersions on the rationality and the spread of Islam. The revolutionary aspect of this document is that it is 1,500 years old, when there were no laws, no democracy, and no human rights. It is an excellent charter for the protection of Christians and minorities living under Islamic rule and would help the world understand this religion of peace.

The original article was published in Dawn on October 24, 2006

Also find this article with more illustrations titled as "Muhammad's Christian Covenant and Benedict’s Indictment" | at Answerbag here

This article is also published on the popular award-winning Pakistani blog - Teeth Maestro "Muhammad's Christian Covenant and Benedicts Indictment" here

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