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Covenant of Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 661) to the Christians of Armenia

In the course of my research, I stumbled across a very interesting document dated to about the year 660 A.D. and attributed to none other than Imām ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib.

Historical context and Authenticity

This treaty came about during the ongoing Byzantine-Arab war in the mid-7th century. The Armenians, who were being pressured to adhere to a Chalcedonian (Diophysite) doctrine they deemed heretical, opted to enter into an alliance with the Arab Muslims in order to maintain their autonomy and their beliefs.

The manuscript itself was brought to public light in the 18th century after the original Arabic text was “discovered.” It was first translated into Armenian by Gregor Campan, on the 15th January 1767, in Astrakhan, and afterwards by M. Saragian, authenticated by Joakim Gregor Bagratuni of Istanbul in the year of 1804. A lot of Islamic texts and treaties make implicit reference to this charter, and sometimes replicate it, as with numerous Safavid and Ottoman-era charters to the Armenians. Although we can never be sure that these are the exact words of ‘Alī, it is clear that there was a treaty between the Arabs and the Armenians, which preserved various privileges for the Armenian Church as laid out in this document.

[Citation: “A Covenant of ‘Ali, Fourth Caliph of Baghdad [sic!], Granting Certain Immunities and Privileges to the Armenian Nation” by Johannes Avdall, Esq., M.A.S. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal Vol. XXXIX, Part I (1870): pp. 60-64.  http://www.globalarmenianheritage-adic.fr/0ab/b_ali_firman.htm]

Text

In the Name of God, the Beneficent and Merciful from Whom we solicit help.

Whereas certain of the Armenian nation, men of distinction, famous for their erudition and honored for their dignity, namely, Jacob Sayid ‘Abdul-Shuyúkh and the son of Sahan, and Abraham the Priest, Bishop Isaiah, and several others, forty in number, having communicated with me, and being present in the enactment of this Covenant, solicited me to do this, and have rendered every assistance in their power to our agent whom we had sent our forts and frontiers, (which was the occasion of our conference and the enactment of this Covenant)–Therefore I have made this Covenant with them on my behalf, as well as on behalf of all tribes of Islam shall prevail, and the doctrine of Christianity shall continue. It shall be the duty of all potentates and of all princes, and of all men to carry out our Covenant by the help of God, so long as the sea shall be capable of wetting will, tufts from the earth, and stars shall give light, and the moon shall rise upon aliens and strangers. No man shave dare to violate or alter this Covenant, nor increase and decrease or change the same; because he that increases it, incenses his punishment, and decreases our patience.

And those who violate this Covenant, shall be considered intriguing infringes of that which I have bestowed on them (the Armenians), and in league with those who do not profess loyalty to me. They also become transgressors against the divine ordinance, and thus incur the just indignation of the only God.

Moreover, the testimony of the Sayyid (Arch)Bishop and of the others, whose names have written before, is a binding and sufficient authority. Because the principal followers of Christmas requested me to establish a Covenant and a treaty among all the Christians, placed under the shadow of the rule of the Muslims, now, by virtue of this Covenant, there shall be perpetual peace and tranquility between Christians and Muslims. The contents of this Covenant are indubitable and true, and I have given to them (the Armenians) of my own accord and with a cheerful countenance. I shall abide by this Covenant and act accordingly, so long as the Armenians shall be faithful to me and continue in their loyalty to my government, and take no part in opposing the religion of my people. If they remain steadfast in the observance of this Covenant, they shall resemble the Muslims and the Believers.

Moreover, I have convened together the grandees of the Muslims and the leading men of my elders and dignitaries and in their presence have established my Covenant, which the Christian nation requested of me and desired to possess. I have written down and recorded for them conditions and stipulations, which are hereafter to stand firm and remain in force. Should, in future, any monarch or prince, or any person of rank and authority, oppress them and treat them with cruelty, they should produce and present this record of my Covenant, because it is incumbent on monarchs, and on all Muslims to act according to our behests ; but the Armenians also, by acts of fidelity and loyalty, should comply with our mandates and obey our will, and conform with the contents of the treaty which I have made and established with them. There shall be no disobedience or opposition to my commands and wishes. Moreover, it is politic and expedient, not to molest and oppress the Christians, so that by the adoption of conciliatory course, they might be induced to comply with the stipulations contained in this my Covenant.

Thus my Covenant is a burden and an obligation to its recipients, and wearisome and irksome to maliciously disposed and evil-minded persons, and I desire that there should be no contention between the Christians and my exalted nation. But if any one shall act against all that I have written concerning the Christians, who have proved themselves worthy of my favor and benevolence, such a person acts against the will of God, who inspired me with grace to do this act of goodness to that nation and to save them from troubles and vexations; for I have entered into a Covenant of patriarchs, of prophets and of all holy men from the first to the last. And the word of God to the holy prophets, which was brought down from heaven by the angel, enjoins obedience to the laws and performance of duties, and also faithfulness to my divine Covenant. Because the Christians under my authority are my subjects, and I am ruler over them, it is my duty to have a paternal eye over them, and to protect them from all evils and troubles; and thus a good reward shall be given both to me and to my nation which is scattered in different parts of the world.

And the scale of taxation fixed by me for those nobles should be strictly adhered to. No demand should be made from the beyond what was already written down and sanctioned. They should not be molested or oppressed. Their country should not be taken from them. They should not be alienated from their country. The priests should not be converted from Christianity. The monks and hermits should not be disturbed in their solitudes, nor removed from their monasteries. Their preachers should not be prohibited to preach. Their habitations and their hereditary lands should not be devastated. Nobody should remove or to pull down the bells from the steeples of their Churches. This is the law which I have made for them. But, those who shall infringe my Covenant, by disobeying my behests, shall be transgressors of the ordinance of God, and shall suffer severe punishments and eternal penalties.

Let no crowned head or man of authority of the Muslims or believers compel the Christians to profess the religion of Muslims. Nor let them hold any controversies with them on matters of religion, but let them treat them with kindness and tenderness ; and, under the shadow of their mercy and clemency, protect them from all sorts of oppression and tribulations, wherever they may be found or wherever they may reside. And the Christian people be in want of money or in need of pecuniary help for the building of Churches and monasteries, for their national and social assemblies, and for their civil and domestic purposes, the Muslims ought to assist them and supply them with the necessary means, by granting them a position of their superabundant and disowned property. And this should also aid them by good advice and suggestions in their transactions, because doing so is pleasing and acceptable in the sight of God and his apostle. But, if any one should infringe the contents of this my Covenant, he is an unbeliever and an apostate from the divine prophet, and he will assuredly be deprived of his merits, and the prophet shall look upon him with anger and displeasure. If the stubborn and refractory shall prove themselves unfaithful and disobedient to the Covenant which I have established, they cannot remain faithful and obedient to the son of Abū Ṭālib, the exalted. For, whatever he may command and ordain, it is the duty of Muslims to carry out his orders, by succoring and commiserating them (the Armenians) at all times, so long as this world shall last. Glory to the Creator of the Universe!

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3 Comments

  1. Maria Naqvi says:

    can you mention any reference or proper citations?

    • ballandalus says:

      As I mentioned in the introduction, the history of this document is very confusing and nothing solid exists to confirm it earlier than the 1700s. For this reason, many scholars consider it to be a forgery which was intended to establish certain rights for Armenian minorities in the 18th century.This particular translation was given to me by a researcher who is currently working on these manuscripts. Should you like to read more about this covenant and others like it, I would suggest: http://books.google.com/books/about/The_Armenians_in_the_Medieval_Islamic_Wo.html?id=PISM5LDJIQMC

    • ballandalus says:

      I have been able to trace a full bibliographic reference for you as well:

      “A Covenant of ‘Ali, Fourth Caliph of Baghdad [sic!], Granting Certain Immunities and Privileges to the Armenian Nation” by Johannes Avdall, Esq., M.A.S. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal Vol. XXXIX, Part I (1870): pp. 60-64

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