This is a letter which was issued by Mohammed, Ibn Abdullah, the Messenger, the Prophet, the Faithful, who is sent to all the people as a trust on the part of God to all His creatures, that they may have no plea against God hereafter. Verily God is Omnipotent, the Wise. This letter is directed to the embracers of Islam, as a covenant given to the followers of Jesus the Nazarene in the East and West, the far and near, the Arabs and foreigners, the known and the unknown.
This letter contains the oath given unto them, and he who disobeys that which is therein will be considered a disbeliever and a transgressor to that whereunto he is commanded. He will be regarded as one who has corrupted the oath of God, disbelieved His Testament, rejected His Authority, despised His Religion, and made himself deserving of His Curse, whether he is a Sultan or any other believer of Islam. Whenever Christian monks, devotees and pilgrims gather together, whether in a mountain or valley, or den, or frequented place, or plain, or church, or in houses of worship, verily we are [at the] back of them and shall protect them, and their properties and their morals, by Myself, by My Friends and by My Assistants, for they are of My Subjects and under My Protection.
I shall exempt them from that which may disturb them; of the burdens which are paid by others as an oath of allegiance. They must not give anything of their income but that which pleases them—they must not be offended, or disturbed, or coerced or compelled. Their judges should not be changed or prevented from accomplishing their offices, nor the monks disturbed in exercising their religious order, or the people of seclusion be stopped from dwelling in their cells.
No one is allowed to plunder these Christians, or destroy or spoil any of their churches, or houses of worship, or take any of the things contained within these houses and bring it to the houses of Islam. And he who takes away anything therefrom, will be one who has corrupted the oath of God, and, in truth, disobeyed His Messenger.
Jizya should not be put upon their judges, monks, and those whose occupation is the worship of God; nor is any other thing to be taken from them, whether it be a fine, a tax or any unjust right. Verily I shall keep their compact, wherever they may be, in the sea or on the land, in the East or West, in the North or South, for they are under My Protection and the testament of My Safety, against all things which they abhor.
No taxes or tithes should be received from those who devote themselves to the worship of God in the mountains, or from those who cultivate the Holy Lands. No one has the right to interfere with their affairs, or bring any action against them. Verily this is for aught else and not for them; rather, in the seasons of crops, they should be given a Kadah for each Ardab of wheat (about five bushels and a half) as provision for them, and no one has the right to say to them 'this is too much', or ask them to pay any tax.
As to those who possess properties, the wealthy and merchants, the poll-tax to be taken from them must not exceed twelve drachmas a head per year (i.e. about 200 modern day US dollars).
They shall not be imposed upon by anyone to undertake a journey, or to be forced to go to wars or to carry arms; for the Muslims have to fight for them. Do no dispute or argue with them, but deal according to the verse recorded in the Quran, to wit: ‘Do not dispute or argue with the People of the Book but in that which is best’ [29:46]. Thus they will live favored and protected from everything which may offend them by the Callers to religion (Islam), wherever they may be and in any place they may dwell.
Should any Christian woman be married to a Muslim, such marriage must not take place except after her consent, and she must not be prevented from going to her church for prayer. Their churches must be honored and they must not be withheld from building churches or repairing convents.
They must not be forced to carry arms or stones; but the Muslims must protect them and defend them against others. It is positively incumbent upon every one of the follower of Islam not to contradict or disobey this oath until the Day of Resurrection and the end of the world.
For other translations of the Ashtiname, including the lists of witnesses, refer to The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World (Angelico Press / Sophia Perennis, 2013) by Dr. John Andrew Morrow.
According to the monks' tradition, Muhammad frequented the monastery and had great relationships and discussions with the Sinai fathers. The document claims that the Prophet (570–632) had personally granted by charter in the second year of the Hegira, corresponding to 626 AD, the rights and privileges to all Christians "far and near". It consists of several clauses on such topics as the protection of Christians living under Islamic rule as well as pilgrims on their way to monasteries, freedom of religion and movement, freedom to appoint their own judges and to own and maintain their property, exemption from military service and taxes, and the right to protection in war.
Several certified historical copies are displayed in the library of St Catherine, some of which are witnessed by the judges of Islam to affirm historical authenticity. The monks claims that during the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in the Ottoman–Mamluk War (1516–17), the original document was seized from the monastery by Ottoman soldiers and taken to Sultan Selim I's palace in Istanbul for safekeeping. A copy was then made to compensate for its loss at the monastery. It also seems that the charter was renewed under the new rulers, as other documents in the archive suggest. Traditions about the tolerance shown towards the monastery were reported in governmental documents issued in Cairo and during the period of Ottoman rule (1517–1798), the Pasha of Egypt annually reaffirmed its protections.
In 1916, Na'um Shuqayr published the Arabic text of the Ashtiname in his Tarikh Sina al-qadim or History of Ancient Sinai. The Arabic text, along with its German translation, was published for a second time in 1918 in Bernhard Moritz's Beiträge zur Geschichte des Sinai-Klosters.
The Testamentum et pactiones inter Mohammedem et Christianae fidei cultores, which was published in Arabic and Latin by Gabriel Sionita in 1630 represents a covenant concluded between the Prophet Muhammad and the Christians of the World. It is not a copy of the Ashtiname.
The origins of the Ashtiname has been the subject of a number of different traditions, best known through the accounts of European travellers who visited the monastery. These authors include the French knight Greffin Affagart (d. c. 1557), the French traveller Jean de Thévenot (d. 1667) and the English prelate Richard Peacocke, who included an English translation of the text.
Since the 19th century, several aspects of the Ashtiname, notably the list of witnesses, have been questioned by scholars. There are similarities to other documents granted to other religious communities in the Near East. One example is Muhammad's letter to the Christians of Najran, which first came to light in 878 in a monastery in Iraq and whose text is preserved in the Chronicle of Seert.
Some have argued that the Ashtiname is a resource for building bridges between Muslims and Christians. For example, in 2009, in the pages of The Washington Post, Muqtedar Khan translated the document in full, arguing that
Those who seek to foster discord among Muslims and Christians focus on issues that divide and emphasize areas of conflict. But when resources such as Muhammad's promise to Christians is invoked and highlighted it builds bridges. It inspires Muslims to rise above communal intolerance and engenders good will in Christians who might be nursing fear of Islam or Muslims.
The Ashtiname is the inspiration for The Covenants Initiative which urges all Muslims to abide by the treaties and covenants that were concluded by Muhammad with the Christian communities of his time.
The authenticity of the Ashtiname has been challenged by some commentators. American Zionist author Robert Spencer, for example, notes the following:
Muhammad is supposed to have died in 632; the Muslims conquered Egypt between 639 and 641. The document says of the Christians, “No one shall bear arms against them.” So were the conquerors transgressing against Muhammad’s command[?]...Did Muhammad draw up this document because he foresaw the Muslim invasion of Egypt? There is no mention of this document in any remotely contemporary Islamic sources; among other anomalies, it bears a drawing of a mosque with a minaret, although minarets weren’t put on mosques until long after the time Muhammad is supposed to have lived, which is why Muslim hardliners consider them unacceptable innovation (bid’a)...The Achtiname, in short, bears all the earmarks of being an early medieval Christian forgery, perhaps developed by the monks themselves in order to protect the monastery and Egyptian Christians from the depredations of zealous Muslims.
This view is however belied by the fact that Christian monks in Egypt had no arms borne against them in the Muslim conquest of Egypt (hence the continued existence of Christians in Egypt and in St. Catherine's monastery for the last 1400 years). The statement by Spencer that "there is no mention of this document in any remotely contemporary Islamic sources" has also been proven as manifestly false by Dr. John Andrew Morrow, scholar of the covenant, who points out that not only do we have the actual original covenant in the royal treasury of Turkey, but the very earliest Islamic historical sources reproduce the text of the covenant we still have, in full:
"According to the historical record, the freedoms granted by the Prophet to the monks of Mount Sinai, along with other communities, were honored by Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, and ‘Ali, as well as the Umayyads, and the ‘Abassids. The Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai is next attested by Muhammad ibn Sa‘d al-Baghdadi (784-845), the early Muslim historian and scribe of al-Waqidi (748-822 CE), one of the earliest historians of Islam and biographer of the Prophet, in a document called the Treaty of Saint Catherine which is cited in his Ṭabaqat or Book of Major Classes. While it is shorter than the existing copies of the famous charter of rights, protections, and privileges, it contains all of the major provisions, virtually word for word.
If Ibn Sa‘d simply provided a summary of the major points, Isma‘il ibn Kathir (1301–1373), the hadith scholar, Qur’anic commentator, jurist, and historian, describes the document in meticulous and minute detail, paraphrasing every single article. Speaking of the period right after the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, he relates the following in his Qisas al-anbiya’ or Stories of the Prophets: ' It was about this time [after the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah] that the Prophet granted to the monks of the Monastery of St. Catherine, near Mount Sinai, his liberal charter by which they secured for the Christians noble and generous privileges and immunities. He undertook himself and enjoined his followers, to protect the Christians, to defend their churches and the residences of their priests and to guard them from all injuries. They were not to be unfairly taxed; no bishop was to be driven out of his diocese; nor Christian was to be forced to reject his religion; no monk was to be expelled from his Monastery; no pilgrim was to be stopped from his pilgrimage; nor were the Christian churches to be pulled down for the sake of building mosques or houses for the Muslims. Christian women married to Muslims were to enjoy their own religion and not to be subjected to compulsion or annoyance of any kind. If the Christians should stand in need of assistance for the repair of their churches or monasteries, or any other mater pertaining to their religion, the Muslims were to assist them. This was not to be considered as supporting their religion, but as simply rendering them assistance in special circumstances. Should the Muslims be engaged in hostilities with outside Christians, no Christian resident among the Muslims should be treated with contempt on account of his creed. The Prophet declared that any Muslim violating any clause of the charter should be regarded as a transgressor of Allah’s commandments, a violator of His testament and neglectful of His faith."
Moreover, the document has been authenticated by more than 2000 Islamic scholars over the last 1200 years:
"Not only was the Covenant of the Prophet recognized and respected by the political and religious establishment, it was independently verified on a regular basis by the five schools of Islamic jurisprudence. The Monastery of St. Catherine’s possesses nearly 2,000 fatwas from Isma‘ili, Maliki, Shafi‘i, Hanafi, and Hanbali scholars from 975 to 1888 CE both implicitly and explicitly acknowledging the rights that they received from the Messenger of Allah."
Dr. Morrow concludes that in light of such evidence that:
"In terms of chains of transmission, the ‘ahd, ahdname or ashtiname granted to the monks of Mount Sinai seems to be the strongest of all of the Covenants of the Prophet. It has been passed down by Muslims and non-Muslims alike for nearly a millennium and a half. From a scholarly standpoint, it reaches the highest degree of certainty that we can expect from a document dating back from the 7th century. It would take a dangerous combination of ignorance and arrogance for any scholar to dismiss this document as a forgery when faced with its illustrious lineage of transmission. Not only is its chain of narration solid, so is its content, which is in complete agreement with the Qur’an and trustworthy Sunnah. While some may argue that the Covenant to St. Catherine’s Monastery was an exceptional act limited to a particular place and people and applicable only for a specific time, the Prophet himself stipulated that its provisions applied to all peaceful Christians, who were friends and allies of the Muslims, for all time to come."