Morrow’s Lost Covenant

The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad (2013) by John Andrew Morrow is a study of letters and treaties attributed to the Prophet and preserved in documents or medieval Arabic historical literature. I bought a copy (on the recommendations of several Twitter followers) because I wanted to see how the book dealt with the Achtiname, a treaty ostensibly dictated by Muhammad for St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. The treaty survives in at least one copy produced during the early Ottoman period: it is therefore very late and, to my mind, better assumed a forgery – a beautiful and interesting forgery – than a reliable witness to the seventh century. So I was surprised by Morrow’s claim (p. 69) that the treaty is also summarised in a relatively early source:

“… a copy of a treaty with the Monastery of Saint Catherine does indeed exist in Islamic sources. Although there are some similarities in context when it comes to the protection granted by the Prophet Muhammad to the monks, the version cited by Ibn Sa‘d (d. 845 CE) is far shorter than the Covenant on display at the Monastery of Mount Sinai. …He essentially presented a citation from a treaty, while not necessarily being in possession of the full document.”

If this is true, then the Ottoman document can be seen as part of a tradition that extends back to the early ninth century and possibly much earlier. In itself, that fact would be very cool. It would not necessarily vindicate the treaty as authentically Muhammad’s; here it’s enough to say that Morrow and I have very different perspectives on how to interpret the Arabic historical tradition. But if his claim were true, and Ibn Sa‘d did reflect the Ottoman document, then Morrow would at least deserve credit for bringing an Ottoman artefact into discussions about early Islamic historiography.

Moreover, if true, the claim should be easy to prove: we need only reproduce the relevant passage from Ibn Sa‘d side-by-side with the text of the Ottoman-era document. Sadly Morrow has not done this, nor has he provided a reference to somewhere the work has already been done. He does quote Ibn Sa‘d’s report on the covenant (p. 45), but – strangely, for an Arabic speaker – he takes the quotation from a secondary study in English.

With much anticipation I ordered a copy of this book, Foreign Policy of Hadrat Muhammad by Prof. Muhammad Siddique Qureshi. I don’t know Qureshi; I don’t know which institution has accredited him as Professor. His credentials aren’t listed in the book and I can’t find them online. He could be anyone. What’s more, Morrow cites the right page (155), but his quotation differs from Qureshi’s text in a number of places. The changes are fairly cosmetic, but Morrow should have declared them. It is strange that he should cite this book, and dishonest that he should misquote it so.

That aside, I was happy to be near the end of the search for an Arabic source. Qureshi’s endnote cites Ibn Sa‘d, vol. II, p. 53: now, I thought, I would be able to find the passage in Arabic and judge for myself whether it reflected the Ottoman-era document. But when I consulted Qureshi’s bibliography, Ibn Sa‘d was present only in an Urdu translation: “Sa‘d, Muhammad b.; Tabqat, (, II, Tr. Allama Abdullah al-‘Imadi, Karachi”. (What appears to be an opening parenthesis there is probably meant to be a I.) Qureshi gives no date, but from sleuthing around I reckon this edition was published in 1944. I was still two steps removed from an Arabic source.

A little disheartened, I found what I understand to be this Urdu translation of Ibn Sa‘d online, and checked the page cited. The passage was not there. I asked some Urdu-speaking Twitter followers to check for me; in fact, they were kind enough to check the surrounding pages and even to look in volume I, in case Qureshi’s finger had slipped. The passage was nowhere to be found.

It is possible that I’ve overlooked something that would have made this whole wild-goose chase unnecessary. If I have, I’ll soon be corrected. But it does seem that, for Ibn Sa‘d’s testimony on the St. Catherine treaty, Morrow has relied on an English translation of an Urdu translation that does not exist.

It should be easy for Morrow to correct this. He is an experienced Arabic speaker who has written and spoken about the St. Catherine treaty many times. He must know Ibn Sa‘d’s report intimately. And a scholar with a doctoral degree in the humanities surely knows better than to rest his argument on a translation of a translation without checking how it corresponds to the original Arabic. If he could share the relevant passage with us, we would be in a far better position to assess his argument. The second edition of Covenants should then be a footnote heavier and not a page lighter.

Ian D. Morris

Ian D. Morris

Historian and occasional human, powered by tea and cat videos.

5 Comments

  1. I was looking for studies about the mentioned document, when I came across an early study by Louis Cheikho(Al-Machirq 1909). The study focused on a collection of covenants attributed to prophet Muhammad regarding the status of Christians. Unsurprisingly, his conclusion was that all of these documents (including the alleged covenant with the Monastery of Mount Sinai) are forgeries, and their authors were probably Christians. The irony here is that one of his main proofs was that nothing similar to these documents are found in Ibn Sa`d’s Tabaqat. And probably the earliest of them could be found in a 13th century “Nestorian” chronicle.

  2. I cannot say I am surprised that John Andrew Morrow apparently played fast and loose with the sources regarding Ibn Sa’d. My impression of his book was that scholarship always came a poor second to propaganda. Here are two more examples:

    1. This is the work by Bernard Moritz which Morrow refers to on p79:
    https://archive.org/details/beitrgezurgesc00moriuoft

    I cannot read German but I have heard that it contains fairly comprehensive arguments against the authenticity of the Achtiname. On p78 Morrow says he will spare his readers the German and provides instead a supposed summary by one Heinz Skrobucha. He only engages with Moritz in the form of an ad hominem attack on pp79-80.

    2. A blogger here points out the obvious problems with the dates, which Morrow must surely be aware of but does not address as far as I can see:
    https://ecawblog.wordpress.com/2017/07/28/the-definitively-fake-covenant-with-the-monks-of-mt-sinai/

    I hope more academics in the field will start to examine his claims closely.

  3. For a response to “Morrow’s Lost Covenant,” read: “Ian Morris: Lost in Translation,” a sub-section found in “Confronting the Critics of the Covenants,” the first chapter of the first volume of ISLAM AND THE PEOPLE OF THE BOOK: CRITICAL STUDIES ON THE COVENANTS OF THE PROPHET. Ed. John Andrew Morrow. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2017: 25-33.

    MORROW WRITES:

    As for finding it odd that I would cite a secondary source in English, by Muḥammad Ṣiddīque Qureshī, I have, as a rule, relied upon existing translations when available (and even fine-tuning them at times). After all, why re-invent the wheel? When many translations were available, I provided them all, including seven different translations of the Covenant of the Prophet Muḥammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai. Whenever possible, I also included the Arabic version of the most important documents. My goal is total transparency while providing scholars with various readings that they could compare objectively. What is more, I understood that most of my readers were not proficient in Arabic. While I always indicate the original source, such as Ibn Sa‘d in this case, I often provide references to English translations.

    Morris relates that he ordered a copy of Muḥammad Ṣiddīque Qureshī’s Foreign Policy of Hadrat Muḥammad to track down my citation of Ibn Sa‘d. Oddly enough, he calls the author’s competence into question, stating that: “I don’t know Qureshī; I don’t know which institution has accredited him as Professor. His credentials aren’t listed in the book and I can’t find them online. He could be anyone.” Although he casts doubt on Qureshī’s qualifications, Morris fails to provide any closure, leaving doubts lingering in the minds of readers.

    Rather than track down the Urdu translation of Ibn Sa‘d cited by Muḥammad Ṣiddīque Qureshī, Morris, as an Arabist, should simply have opened up the original Arabic version of the Ṭabaqāt. In the words of Morris:

    Morrow cites the right page (155), but his quotation differs from Qureshī’s text in a number of places. The changes are fairly cosmetic, but Morrow should have declared them. It is strange that he should cite this book, and dishonest that he should misquote it so.

    The complaint made by Morris is baseless for, as I mentioned in a section called “Conventions,” which is found at the beginning of The Covenants of the Prophet Muḥammad with the Christians of the World,

    When translations were particularly poor, and grammar, spelling, and syntax were incorrect, I have been either benevolent enough or audacious enough to improve the works of others rather than repeatedly splatter them with sic errat scriptum, thus it was written, to indicate that the spelling is incorrect. (xiv)

    The changes are, as Morris admits, cosmetic, and I did, indeed, declare them. Consequently, claims of “dishonesty” are unwarranted and offensive. There is no scholarly sin in correcting a typo, a misprint or a minor grammatical error, adding a tā’ marbutah here and there or inserting diacritical marks on words to standardize spelling.

    After much digging around, Morris located the Urdu version of Ibn Sa‘d and had some of his “Urdu-speaking Twitter followers” check the reference and surrounding pages in volume two and even look into volume one in order to locate the passage in question. It is ironic that Morris would criticize me for citing an English translation of Ibn Sa‘d when he himself relied on an Urdu translation that he never even examined. It is comical that he would question the integrity of my research methodology when he himself relies on social media. According to Morris (or, rather, his Pakistani Twitter friends), “[t]he passage was nowhere to be found.” Morris concludes that:

    It is possible that I’ve overlooked something that would have made this whole wild-goose chase unnecessary. If I have, I’ll soon be corrected. But it does seem that, for Ibn Sa‘d’s testimony on the St. Catherine treaty, Morrow has relied on an English translation of an Urdu translation that does not exist.

    Unlike some other scholars, who would have gone for the kill based on this claim, Morris was polite and professional, avoided absolutes, spoke in the conditional, admitted that he might be wrong, and extended me an invitation to correct his impression. As he wrote,

    It should be easy for Morrow to correct this. He is an experienced Arabic speaker who has written and spoken about the St. Catherine treaty many times. He must know Ibn Sa‘d’s report intimately. And a scholar with a doctoral degree in the humanities surely knows better than to rest his argument on a translation of a translation without checking how it corresponds to the original Arabic. If he could share the relevant passage with us, we would be in a far better position to assess his argument. The second edition of Covenants should then be a footnote heavier and not a page lighter.

    It is therefore my pleasure to respond in a dignified and dispassionate manner to this diligent young graduate student.

    MORROW THEN DEMONSTRATES THAT THE CITATION IN QUESTION IS FOUND IN ABU YUSUF, SHAYBANI, IBN SA’D, IBN ZANJAWAYH, BALADHURI, IBN QAYYIM, AND HALF A DOZEN COVENANTS OF THE PROPHET, PROVIDING THE ARABIC TEXT FOR THE PURPOSE OF COMPARISON…

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