In Islam, What Is a Covenant With Allah?

The Quran describes Allah's covenants with humanity and the prophets.
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Like the Judeo-Christian scriptures, the Quran speaks of a covenant with God, who in Arabic is referred to as Allah. As Islam scholar Robert Darnell Jr. observes, the Quran describes a covenant with God as having three general features: the remembrance of God's favor, a promise of reward, and commandments to be followed. While Islam's understanding of the divine covenant may differ from other faiths in certain details, it can also provide a basis for tolerance and mutual respect.

1 Covenant

The word "covenant" generally refers to an agreement, such as a treaty or contract. The fundamental relationship is reciprocal: each party provides something of value to the other. In Islam, a divine covenant reflects this mutuality in that God gives benefits to human beings and they render obedience in response.

According to Quran scholar Gerhard Bowering in his overview of covenants in "The Encyclopaedia of the Quran," reciprocity is not the sole defining trait of the covenant with God, as the Quran also speaks of God imposing the divine covenant through a promise. This reflects God's absolute sovereignty; as Islam scholar Bernard Weiss observes, God can impose an obligation on people whether or not they agree to give him something in return.

2 Primordial Covenant With Humanity

Islam teaches that the root of all of humanity's sacred obligations and afterlife rewards is God's covenant with all humanity. The main verse of the Quran cited in the support of this doctrine is from Surah 7, verse 172, which states that when God asked "all the children of Adam" whether he is their sovereign, they responded by taking an oath and agreeing that he was indeed their God and creator.

Although, as Bernard Weiss notes, medieval Islamic theologians argued that this passage was a metaphor, it is now common to describe this in terms of an actual encounter. On what is called the Day of Alastu, or Promises, God brought forth the spirits of all humanity from Adam's newly created body, and their first act was to acknowledge God's unity and to pledge their submission to God as their absolute sovereign. This constitutes the first divine covenant. In giving humans life and reason, God imposes upon them an obligation to obey him and his messenger. As verse 172 goes on to explain, their universal acknowledgment of him as God and lord means that on the day of resurrection, they cannot claim that they were unaware of the need for obedience in order to enter into paradise.

3 Covenant With the Prophets

Because people forget the Day of Promises when they are born, God has throughout human history reminded people of the pre-temporal covenant by entering into covenants with various prophets and their followers, including Abraham, Moses, Jesus and, last of all, Muhammad.

According to Bernard Weiss, Islam's understanding of God's covenants is different from that of the Jews and Christians. Judaism teaches that God has chosen the Children of Israel as his people for all time, and Christians believe that God later added the Gentiles to this covenant. The Quran, however, sees all of God's covenants with monotheistic communities as essentially the same, though God's covenant with Muslims does differ in incidental details, such as not viewing circumcision as the mandatory sign of the covenantal relationship.

4 Perfect Covenant With Muhammad and His Followers

According to Islamic doctrine, both the Children of Israel and the Christians broke their respective covenants and corrupted their scriptures. By way of contrast, God's covenant with the prophet Muhammad and his followers is true and complete, calling believers back to the original divine covenant by reminding them of God's benevolence, teaching them his commandments, and promising the reward of paradise and forgiveness of sins for all who obey.

On a broader scale, observes Islamic scholar Joseph Lumbard, the fact that all of God's covenants are rooted in the original covenant in the Day of Promises can provide a theologically sound basis for an Islamic doctrine of pluralism in today's diverse society, inasmuch as the divine covenant binds all of humanity together as one.

John Green is an attorney who has been writing on legal, business and media matters for more than 20 years. He has also taught law school and business courses in entrepreneurship, business enterprise, tax and ethics. Green received his J.D. from Yale Law School and his Ph.D. in religion from Duke.