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By Dr. Aslam Abdullah
In 628 CE, Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, sent a charter of freedom of religion to St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai, during a time in history when no one was talking about freedom of religion, cultural pluralism and tolerance, or protection of human life.
Prophet Muhammad’s Statement to the Monks
Prophet Muhammad wrote the following to the monks:
This is a message from Muhammad bin Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily, the servants, the helpers, my followers, and I 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 [the Christians] 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].
Saint Catherine’s Monastery
The Monastery was built in the 4th or 6th century CE, according to various sources. It is located at the foot of Mount Sinai on one of Wadi al-Sheikhs branches, and rises about 5012 feet above sea level. The Monastery was constructed as a fortress for Sinai monks. It comprises several monuments that presumably date back to Christ’s era. In addition, the monastery houses a large library that is south of the church. The library consists of three adjacent rooms and houses about 6000 ancient historical, geographical, and philosophic manuscripts, written in Greek, Syriac and Arabic. The church manuscripts are written in many different languages. Most of the Christian heritage manuscripts are written in Arabic, especially the copies of the bible, including the Old Testament and the New Testament. (Read more: Christianity and Islam)
A new museum has been recently inaugurated inside Saint Catherine’s Monastery with help from American experts from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The new museum houses important collections of rare books and volumes written in Greek, Coptic, Syriac, Latin, and Arabic which date back to the first seven centuries CE. Al-O’hda al-Muhamadeias is one of the most significant acquisitions in the Monastery. This is the document on protecting Egypt’s Christians, signed by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). This document dates back to the second year after migration to Medina, approximately 626 C.E.
Fortunately, all these treasures have been kept and well-preserved in the dry weather in the heart of the Sinai desert for long centuries. Thus, they are still in good condition. Al-O’hda al-Muhamadeias, the charter of freedom sent to the monks so many centuries ago, stands as testimony to the ways by which the Prophet of Islam spread the religion. The existence to this day of St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt, itself, also speaks to the historical fact that Islam was no pretext for religious compulsion or societal destruction.
Contrary to being “spread by the sword,” Islam was disseminated by the strength, clarity, and transcendence of its message — a universal message speaking to the sanctity of life, freedom of conscience and religious choice, and salvation through surrender to God. That surrender propagates not violence, not coercion, not conflict, but a manner of living founded on and committed to peace.
Excerpted and adapted from an article published in Message Magazine.