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.