This interview with Dr. John Andrew Morrow, Islamic scholar and author of the new book The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World (Angelico Press, 2013), is a follow-up to my review "New Book Sheds Light on Prophet Muhammad's Interfaith Views." In his response, Dr. Morrow brings us on his journey to Islam, his research on the life of Prophet Muhammad, and his spiritual quest to find divine unity among the peoples of the world. My interest in his scholarship arises from my own desire to understand Prophet Muhammad's legacy, which I have recently touched upon in the article "What Studying Muhammad Taught Me About Islam." I find Dr. Morrow's words uplifting and inspiring, and I am sure they will be to others as well.
Tell us a little bit about your background and your research. How did you become interested in Islamic studies?
I am a Métis Canadian, which means I am of mixed Amerindian and European ancestry. We are known as the Otipemisiwak, the people who own themselves, les gens libres or the Free People. At 500,000, we represent 1.5 percent of the Canadian population. Although we have European blood, we are indigenous by culture, and famous for being fiercely independent. While most of my ancestors who came from Europe were French, one of them was a Morisco from Portugal who settled in the New France in the 17th century. Genetic analysis demonstrates that he was not European, but Semitic. Not only was he Semitic, he was an Arab. Not only was he an Arab, he was an Arab with origins in the Hijaz. Not only were his ancestors from the Hijaz, they were members of the Household of the Prophet. Research has further shown that the DNA of my ancestor left Arabia during the early days of Islam, spread into North Africa and entered al-Andalus during the period of Muslim rule. His DNA is the same that is found among the descendants of the Moroccan Idrisids.
So, as a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad through his grandson, Imam al-Hasan, one can say that my interest in Islam, and my attachment to the Household of the Prophet, was innate. I was always drawn to Morocco and consider it my second home. I married a Moroccan woman who is a descendant of the Prophet through both her maternal and paternal lines. Even before I obtained genealogical and genetic evidence of my ancestry, I had written extensively about the Idrisids of Morocco, and had even made a pilgrimage to the tomb of Moulay Idris, the great-grandson of Imam Hasan, the son of Imam 'Ali and Fatimah al-Zahra and the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, in Zerhoun. It was there that I sent my salaams to the illustrious founder of the Idrisid Dynasty. Little did I know at the time that I was saluting my great grandfather, may the mercy of Almighty Allah be upon him. Evidently, descent from the Prophet does not denote spiritual status in and of itself. If anything, it is a heavy burden. For me, it is something to live up to and something shameful to betray. It serves to remind me of my obligation to adequately present the authentic teachings of Islam. For some, descent from the Prophet is a point of pride; for me, it is humbling and fills me with reverential fear.
Most of my indigenous ancestors were Huron, Algonquin and Nipissing, or belonged to First Nations that formed part of the Wabanaki Confederacy. They were all friends and allies of the French and among the first Native people to embrace the Catholic faith. Most of my European ancestors were Catholic. Some were Protestants who fled persecution in Europe, but were quickly assimilated into the Catholic majorities in Acadia and Quebec. Since most of my ancestors were followers of Catholicism, this is the religion in which I was raised, and it is a religion that I continue respect despite the fact that I disagree with certain dogmas and doctrines.
For as long as I can remember, and I can remember vividly all the way back to the time I was an infant, I was a strongly spiritual human being. As an infant, a child, a teen and an adult, I have always felt immersed in the radiance of divine love. I loved God, prayed fervently and enjoyed attending Church. While I was a Christian, I had never conceived of Jesus as God, and had never prayed to him. I had always believed that Jesus was the "Son of God" in a spiritual sense. To me, Jesus had clearly been created. "Son of God" was simply a title like "Spirit of God." As for the "Holy Spirit," I always envisaged him as the Angel Gabriel and the Messenger of the Creator. When I learned that many Christians literally believed that Jesus was God, and that God was composed of three beings, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, all of whom were God, I was dismayed. This sent me off on a spiritual quest.
By the time I was thirteen, I was reading one book per week. To the shock of my family, I read the entire Bible, both Old and New Testaments. I read all sorts of apocryphal literature and lost books. I studied all of the world religions along with their sacred scriptures. Eventually, I came across the Qur'an, and I was convinced that Islam was the religion that had always resided in my heart. I remember the actual moment that I recognized my primordial nature. It was during a ski trip to Vermont. I had been reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X for weeks. I finished it in the car, closed the book and said to myself: "I am a Muslim." I was sixteen years of age. From that moment forward, I would be an observant Muslim known in Islamic circles as Ilyas 'Abd al-'Alim Islam.
Since that time, my studies have never stopped. By the time I was an undergraduate student, I was devouring one book per night. By the time I was in graduate school, I had learned how to speed read, and was easily reading a dozen books per day. My desire was always to go to the East to study Islam. However, the clerics I associated with believed that I would be of more value to Islam if I completed my studies in the West. Some told me quite clearly that I would not find true Islam in the East, and that I would only find it in books. Fortunately, the University of Toronto has the largest collection of books in Canada. It has the third largest collection in North America. Its collection of Islamic manuscripts easily surpasses those found at the best universities in the Muslim world. I could therefore complete my theological studies in Toronto, which is precisely what I did, learning Islamic Studies both inside and outside of academia. I took religion and philosophy classes at the University of Toronto. I studied the history of Islamic Spain, the Moriscos and the literature that they produced. I delved into the Arabic and Islamic influence on Spanish and French Literature. I even studied the Muslim presence in the pre-Columbian Americas. At the same time, I learned Islam independently and at the hands of a series of Muslim scholars: Sunnis, Shi'ites and Sufis, essentially extracting all the information from them that I could. Eventually, when they could no longer respond to my questions, I sought the guidance of Grand Ayatullahs from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon whenever I stumbled across an issue I could not fully comprehend. While it took decades, it was in this fashion that I completed the three levels of traditional Islamic seminary studies. As a seeker of knowledge, of course, my research has never ceased.
Can you tell us about what The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad is about?
The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad is about Islam; it is about true Islam; it presents Islam as it really is, in essence, in nature and, quite often, in practice. This is not to say that "Islam is peace," that "Islam turns the other cheek," that "Islam is passive," and that "Islam is non-violent." If someone is raping your wife and killing your kids, you would be an emasculated idiot to remain non-violent. What Islam aims to do is establish a climate of peace. This can be established by diplomacy and dialogue. Sometimes, however, peace can only be achieved by eliminating the enemy. Peace is very much the absence of enemies. So, Islam is primarily a religion of the Word; however, when push comes to shove, it can also be a religion of the Sword. But even when it resorts to violence, it is defensive, as opposed to aggressive violence. It serves the purpose of protection: To counter the attacks of the enemies and to liberate the oppressed. It must also follow a set of clear ethical and moral guidelines.
Obviously, as Muslims, we are not going to wait until someone attacks us before we prepare to defend ourselves. If I know that someone is planning to attack me, to attack my family or attack my community, I have the obligation to prepare myself, to have specific strategies in place to prevent an attack and to neutralize the enemy in the most definitive manner possible. In other words, if what I desire is justice and its natural consequence, which is peace, I must be prepared militarily. As the saying goes, "If you want peace, prepare yourself for war." To put it plainly, Islam prefers peace. However, if attacked, Muslims must defend themselves. As such, Islam must prepare itself for any future attack by developing its defensive forces like any other nation in the world.
Not only did the early Islamic State protect Muslims, it even came to the defense of non-Muslims. Muslims went to war in al-Andalus to liberate the Jews and Catholics from the oppression of the Visigoths. Muslims went to war in Armenia to free the Christians from the oppression of the Byzantines. Millions of Muslim men and women fought against the Axis during World War II, not to support British Imperialism, but to oppose a greater evil. Many people cannot see beyond the negative portrayal of Muslims in the mass media. Muslims are very much demonized and de-humanized in the same fashion that Jews were targeted by Nazi propaganda. Muslims commit crimes; there is no doubt. Some Muslims engage in atrocities in the name of Islam. This is true. However, thinking people must distinguish between Islam and actions of misguided Muslims. After all, many Muslims also fought alongside the Nazis during the Second World War, as did many Christians. During the Spanish Civil War, Catholics and Muslims both defended, and fought against, fascism.
Millions of indigenous people died as a result of the European invasion of the Americas. 90 percent of deaths were the result of disease; however, 10 percent were killed in fighting. Millions upon millions of Aboriginal people were killed in the name of Christ as infidels worthy of death. Slavery, a scourge that killed an equal number of Africans, was also justified in the name of Christ. Between 1882 and 1968, nearly 3,500 African Americans were lynched by white supremacists. This is always portrayed as "political violence." This terrorism was committed by Christians, in the name of Christ, with crosses burning in the background. The Irish Republican Army used to kill civilians for the greater glory of the Catholic Church. Now, no Muslim in his right mind would ever blame these crimes on Jesus or Christianity. Likewise, Westerners must stop blaming Islam, the Qur'an and the Prophet for the evil actions of certain pseudo-Muslims. Muslims know that Klansmen are not true Christians. Likewise, Christians should know that Takfiri terrorists are not Muslims.
What inspired you to write The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad?
The choice of the verb, "to inspire," is most appropriate when speaking about this project. I never planned to write this book. I never intended to write this work. I never set out to write this book. On the contrary, I was inspired to write this work. I did write an article on "Jihad" for a university class in 1990. I expanded upon it in 2012 for inclusion in Islamic Insights: Writings and Reviews. I had cited part of the Prophet's charter with the monks of St. Catherine's Monastery at Mount Sinai; however, I wanted to track down the original Arabic source. This is what put me on the path of the covenants of the Prophet Muhammad.
What was it like actually researching the Prophet Muhammad's Covenants with the Christians of the world?
In the process of tracing the achtiname, I came across the Testamentum published by Gabriel Sionita in Paris in 1630. This eventually led to the discovery of a previously unpublished covenant of the Prophet which was transcribed in 1538 and the rediscovery of other letters, treaties and covenants of the Prophet, which had been ignored for decades and centuries. As an intellectual adventurer, I engage in academic archeology. I dig, and never quite know what I will come across...
What was the most surprising thing you learned about Prophet Muhammad?
The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessing be upon him and his holy household, was a man of sublime character. He was the embodiment of ethical excellence. Muhammad was the Qur'an and the Qur'an was Muhammad. He was the Pole of Poles, the Universal Axis, and a Perfected Person. This is reality, not hyperbole. This surely sounds insane for people who have been poisoned by hate propaganda. As one who walks the Path of Love, which has been preserved by the true Ahl al-Sunnah, Ahl al-Bayt and Ahl Allah [the people who follow the Prophet's practice, the People of the Prophet's family, the People of God]. I have been swimming in a sea of sacred sayings, the hadith qudsi, the spiritual and literary masterpieces which Almighty Allah shared with the Messenger of Allah. So, for me, I expect the Prophet Muhammad to be the example of justice and morality.
When I read the letters, treaties and covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with various Jewish and Christian communities, I was not the least bit surprised at his tolerance. What did, however, impress and amaze me the most was not his tolerance: It was the deep and profound love that he expressed towards other Judeo-Christian communities. He did not address them like a ruler; he addressed them as a father. He was paternal, not paternalistic. He combined stern warnings with words of warmth, love and affection. Not only did he command Muslims to love peaceful Christian friends and allies, he demanded that they love their religion. Truly, the Prophet saw beyond exoteric differences and stressed esoteric unity. He may not have agreed that Jesus was God, but he did appreciate the fact that the name of God was remembered in churches.
How does The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad apply to current events around the world today?
One day, the Prophet was about to witness the sunset. The sun was but a sliver away from setting. Only a thin line divided the sun from the horizon. The Messenger of Allah observed that the time that remained until the Day of Judgment was shorter than the distance between the setting sun and the Earth. On another occasion, he mentioned that the Day of Judgment was as close as the space between two of his fingers. The rediscovery of the covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the world is a portent, a sign or warning that something momentous or calamitous is likely to happen. Atheists and unbelievers will object, but most believers, be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim, will agree that we are operating in the Latter Days. The Prophet Muhammad predicted that righteous rule would be replaced by the rule of iniquity. He foretold that the Muslim world would be colonized by the West. He spoke of a time when believers would adopt the ways of the unbelievers. He described days when religions would fight one another and that various Muslim groups would massacre one another. He also provided vivid and disturbing details of the corruption that currently surrounds us.
When the Monastery of St. Catherine, a place of holy pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims for over one thousand years, is forced to close its doors due to the danger of Salafism/Wahhabism/Takfirism, I am not surprised. In fact, I am well-aware of the intentions of these Satanists. They seek to destroy the achtiname of Muhammad as a symbolic precursor to the extermination of the Christians of Egypt. When the rabid, Saudi-financed pit-bulls burn down churches and monasteries in Syria, I know their intent. A covenant of the Prophet Muhammad is secretly stored in Damascus and they seek to destroy it. When Wahhabi terrorists shoot rockets at Jerusalem, one of the holiest cities in Islam, they show their true nature. The Armenian and Greek Orthodox Christians of Jerusalem are custodians of covenants from the Prophet Muhammad, the Caliph 'Umar, Imam 'Ali, and Salah al-Din [Saladin]. I speak not of fantasy, but fact and historical precedent. When the Kurds decided to slaughter the Assyrians in the mid-nineteenth century, they first confiscated the Covenant of the Prophet with the Assyrian Christians. When the Young Turks decided to massacre the Assyrians, the first thing they did was to destroy this covenant. While it is only a theory, the original copy of the achtiname, which was taken to Istanbul by Sultan Selim I in 1517, may have been deliberately destroyed at some point in history, perhaps by the Young Turks, in ritualistic fashion, prior to killing over one million Armenian Christians.
Although the six covenants that I have brought forth pose a different series of problems, and the degree of reliability of these documents may vary, they all agree with the Qur'an, the Sunnah and the Shari'ah. Many Muslims accept them both in letter and spirit. Others may only accept them in spirit since they confirm what we already know from other authentic sources. These covenants are a test. They may even be a trial and tribulation for some. To obey or disobey, that is the question, and it is a question that was presented to Iblis as well [Iblis is the Muslim Satan]. I cease not to be amazed at the reaction of some Muslims who rely on the opinions of others to determine their own destiny and eternity. "I will see what my shaykh says." How about seeing what your heart says? "I will only accept it if Muslim scholars accept it as authentic." Am I not a Muslim scholar myself?
Temporarily setting aside the issue of authenticity, I propose the following in an attempt to make headway: "Do you agree with the content?" "I will have to ask Muslim scholars," one woman responds. I confronted the same problem when tackling the explosive issue of suicide bombings. "Suicide bombings are haram," I ruled authoritatively. "I will have to ask Maulana," one Muslim replied. "Do you really need someone to tell you that it is wrong to commit suicide while killing defenseless men, women and children?" "Seriously, now," I state, "If your shaykh says that it is halal to slaughter non-combatants, you should find a new shaykh." Perhaps they should also reconsider their religion, because if this is what they truly believe, they are far, far away from the faith of Islam.
Not only will the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World distinguish between believer and unbeliever, it will distinguish between people of faith and hypocrites. Jihadist terrorists will reject it, showing what little regard they have for authentic Islam. Abd el-Krim al-Jaza'iri, the Algerian revolutionary, had no such qualms. He rigorously abided by the covenants of the Prophet Muhammad and treated Christians with chivalry. Salah al-Din respected the covenants. Many Safavid, Ottoman, Moghul, Mamluk, 'Abbasid and even 'Umayyad leaders followed Islam's highly-developed theory of Just War. So did the first four Caliphs, who emulated the example of the Prophet.
Some scholars, I can confirm, have made a complete volte-face. When suicide bombings were committed against the Israelis, the French, and the Americans, they endorsed them. However, now that they themselves have become targets of the terrorism that they started, endorsed and encouraged, they rule that suicide bombings are forbidden and that suicide bombers have no religion. When blowing Muslim and non-Muslim civilians to bits serves their cause, they are "martyrdom operations." When the tables turn, and their politicians and diplomats are targeted, they are "suicide bombings" and "terrorism." This is sheer hypocrisy. If there are marriages of convenience, these clerics have "morals of convenience." The enemies of Islam, those career professionals who serve the Empire while pretending to sympathize with Muslims, have also crawled out of the woodwork, not because they believe in the covenants, but because they wish to co-opt them to make Muslims easier to conquer. There is a battle going at the heart of Islam and the Covenants of the Prophet are set to play a major part.
What does the legacy of the Prophet Muhammad mean to you?
The Prophet Muhammad is not dead. He is very much living. He lives in the Qur'an and its correct interpretation. He lives in the authentic Sunnah. He lives in all that is good about Islam. Over the course of the past fourteen hundred years, however, much extraneous material has accumulated around the person of the Prophet. Much of this material was falsified by the enemies of Islam, the usurpers of divine authority, the Umayyads, both past and present. If the Prophet is alive and well, so are his enemies. They are those who seek to soil the image of Islam from within. They undermine the Qur'an and Sunnah. They eat away at Islam like termites eat away at wood. They are the Pharisees of Islam and the Uncle Tom 'ulama. They are the sell-out scholars of Islam, the court-clerics at the service of kings, dictators and despots. They are modern-day Kharijites like these Takfiri terrorists who have no respect for life and no religion. They are the corporate, capitalist, liberal Muslims at the service of the Empire. The Prophet Muhammad is a pearl. His enemies can toss filth at him, but he will always come out clean. His opponents, however, are made of cloth and they do no nothing but stain their own souls.
If you could give one piece of advice to Christians and Muslims worldwide, what would that be?
If I could give one piece of advice to Christians and Muslims worldwide it would be that peace is possible, although it is not always profitable. Conflicts are caused by socio-economic and political interests. In the absence of conflict, conflicts will be created by the economic elite. On the battle-field opponents appear to be polarized. It seems that both sides are independent. This is merely because we see the puppets, but not the puppet-masters, those who create the conflict, play both parties against one another, and who profit from the death and destruction thus created. This not to say that people, politicians, presidents and military commanders do not cause wars, but we must realize that bankers are behind all of them. These international bankers and multinational corporations had no loyalty to the Axis powers or to the Allies, to Communism or Capitalism, to Arab nationalism or Islamism. They funded all parties and profited from the blood-shed. The presence of peace is not profitable; not when compared to the billions that are made by war and redevelopment.
Christians need to understand that Islam is not the enemy. Muslims need to understand that Christianity is not the enemy. The enemy of one religion is the enemy of all religions. What we are facing in the world today is a confrontation between Secularism and Religion, between Materialism and Spirituality, between the worship of Mammon and the worship of the Creator, between those who believe in this world and those who believe in the next world. By turning religions against one another, the power elites accomplish two objectives at the same time: to make money and to destroy any future possibility of opposition. As one would expect, the enemies of God cloak their cause in religion. Most so-called Christian and Muslim militants are unwittingly advancing the agenda of atheism. Surely, the prophets are brothers to one another. Moses, Jesus and Muhammad all followed in the footsteps of Abraham. The true believers among the Jews, Christians and Muslims must unite, as followers of Abraham, in order to fight their common enemies. Those who divide us seek to destroy us. The believers in Divine Unity must unite.