After a ritual reading of a treaty that the Prophet Mohammad (s) made with the Assyrian Christians in the seventh century, a formal offering of the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad (s) was made at the Parliament of the World’s Religions which convened in Toronto, Canada, on Saturday 3 November 2018.
The offering was made by the Covenants Initiative, on behalf of all believing Muslims, to Jennifer Doane Upton, on behalf of all faithful Christian friends and allies. Jennifer Doane Upton, the Christian author and intellectual, shared the following words with the audience:
As we learn from Dr Morrow’s book, Muhammad (s) granted most of his Covenants with the Christians to monasteries, since these were often the centers of the Christian communities on the outskirts of the Byzantine Empire. And all these monasteries lie under the protection of the Theotokos, the Virgin Mary.
The Christian monasteries, as Muhammad (s) knew, accessed Eternity, but they accessed it through the darkness, the kind of darkness that in itself brings forth the Incarnation; when the Divine comes through material and bodily form, it must come through the darkness that some spiritual paths reject. This darkness, through which the monks could see the illuminating light, is the Virgin Mary in her aspect of unknowability and inexpressibility, reminding us of the statues of the Black Virgin to be found in various places throughout western Europe. The Black Virgin, in particular, represents the essence of Christian contemplation, especially apophatic contemplation. She is the Darkness without which we cannot discern the spiritual Light.
These monks are night watchers; their ability to see illumination in the darkness of the night sky is like the Christian ability to see the Divine incarnated in human flesh. It is true that the Muslims reject the Incarnation, but this is because God has given them a different Way. He has willed that the religions be diverse in their outward forms, even contradictory—nonetheless, they are one in the darkness of their Essence.
Muhammad (s) had contact with Christian monks as both a caravan leader and the prophet of his community; he could not repudiate them because he saw the depth of their contemplation. And because that contemplation penetrated the whole of Christian life, Muhammad (s) was commanded to protect Christians, not persecute them; it is the spiritual function of action to protect contemplation, not run roughshod over it. He knew that the Christians represented an older order of contemplativity, a particular form of esoterism that only they had full access to; consequently, he was impelled to actively defend them, as we might protect an ancient language to prevent it from dying out. In his book The Orthodox Way, Eastern Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware writes:
“One of the most ancient names for Christianity is simply ‘the Way.’ “About that time”, it is said in the Acts of the Apostles, “there rose no little stir concerning the Way” (19:23); Felix, the Roman governor of Caesarea, had “a rather accurate knowledge of the Way” (24:22). It is a name that emphasizes the practical character of the Christian Faith. Christianity is more than a theory about the universe, more than teachings written down on paper; it is a path along which we journey.”
Likewise, when Muhammad (s), in the 9th year of the hijra, received the diplomatic mission of Abbot Abraham, representative of the Katholikos of Armenia, and the Prophet asked him (strangely enough) about the symbolism of Sirius the dog-star that was current in his church, Abraham replied: “The star represents the illumination that St Gregory received on Mt. Ararat; the dog represents the Tariqah, which signifies the spiritual path.”
Christians are taught never to reject good will, whatever source it may come from, because good will is an aspect of love, and love is the essence of the Christian Way. We also know that love may sometimes come to us in unexpected disguises.
I am not a well-known Christian leader or hierarch, representing this or that particular church; if I were, some might accuse the Muslims of the Covenants Initiative of favoring one Christian denomination over another, perhaps in order to divide and conquer. But because I am, as it were, a nobody, I can hopefully step aside, and let the whole spirit of Christianity—the church militant, the church suffering and the church triumphant—accept these Covenants in my place. As for my own relationship to the Christian tradition, Catholic writer Jean Borella says it best:
“I went back to the ancient doctrines like a delighted child going from discovery to discovery, from treasure to treasure, from marvel to marvel. I recognized and loved this Christian past, its beauty not unworthy of the God it has honored with its liturgy, cathedrals and theologies. It was in me as flesh of my flesh, soul of my soul, heart of my heart, and I did not know it. Once discovered, fixing the gaze of my spirit on the holy Fathers and Doctors, upon the Clements, the Dionysiuses, the Gregories, the Augustines and the Thomases, I said: I too am of their race. Surely not by sanctity or genius, but by blood. Drinking in the freshness of the ages, I felt my Christian soul revive.”
To accept an offer of defense and protection from those who are not a part of one’s own community is a perilous proposition, one that requires both the harmlessness of the dove and the wisdom of the serpent. In any case, the Christians of today must wake up to the fact that Christianity, at least in some ways, is now the most persecuted religion on earth. Muslims may disagree with this statement in view of the extremely large number of the followers of the Prophet who have lost their lives in the wars following upon 9/11.
There is one form of persecution, however, that Muslims by and large have avoided, and that is persecution by those who were once their own people, but have now openly denied God. The western world has been Christian for 2000 years, but since World War II the nations of Western Europe, and increasingly those of North America, have turned against Christ, and thus against their own history and heritage. The Church is indeed “a voice crying in the wilderness” in these days. However, as Jesus Christ reminds us, “If the world hates you, know that it hated Me first; but be of good cheer, because I have overcome the world.” As exiles in our own lands, Christians must accept and welcome sincere offers of help and defense wherever they can find them.
The session concluded with Dr John Andrew Morrow granting Jennifer Doane Upton a copy of The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World.