90 Miles From Tyranny : How a Fiercely Christian Nation Became Fanatically Islamic

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

How a Fiercely Christian Nation Became Fanatically Islamic

 One of the benefits of Adel Guindy’s new book, A Sword Over the Nile: A Brief History of the Copts Under Islamic Rule, is that it implicitly answers an important question: how and why did non-Muslim nations become Islamic?  In this case, how did Egypt go from being overwhelmingly Christian in the seventh century to being overwhelmingly Muslim in the twenty-first century? 

To understand the significance of this question -- and because pre-Islamic Egypt’s profoundly Christian nature is often forgotten -- a brief primer is in order:

Before Islam invaded, Egypt was home to some of Christendom’s earliest theological giants and church fathers, including Clement of Alexandria (b. 150), Origen the Great (b. 184), Anthony the Great, father of monasticism (b. 251), and Athanasius of Alexandria (b. 297), the chief defender of the Nicene Creed, which is still professed by all major Christian denominations. The Catechetical School of Alexandria was the most important ecclesiastical and learning center of ancient Christendom.  

Writing around the year 400, and further indicative of how thoroughly Christian pre-Islamic Egypt was, John Cassian, a European, observed that “the traveler from Alexandria in the north to Luxor in the south would have in his ears along the whole journey, the sounds of prayers and hymns of the monks, scattered in the desert, from the monasteries and from the caves, from monks, hermits, and anchorites.” 

Some Europeans, such as the British historian and archaeologist Stanley Lane-Poole (d. 1931), even claim that Coptic missionaries were first to bring the Gospel to distant regions of Europe, including Switzerland, Britain, and especially Ireland.  Most recently, both the oldest parchment to contain words from the Gospel (dating to the first century) and the oldest image of Christ were discovered in separate regions of Egypt. 

Accordingly, something very dramatic, very cataclysmic -- namely, violent persecution, as made clear by page after page of A Sword Over the Nile, which chronicles fourteen centuries of Islamic rule -- was responsible for transforming Christian Egypt into Muslim Egypt.

Should anyone consider the Coptic sources of being biased against Islam, it is worth noting that Muslim sources often confirm them.  For instance, in Taqi al-Din al-Maqrizi’s (d. 1442) authoritative history of Egypt, anecdote after anecdote is recorded of Muslims burning churches, slaughtering Christians, and enslaving Coptic women and children -- often with the compliance if not outright cooperation of the authorities.  The only escape then -- as sometimes today -- was for Christians to convert to Islam. 

Indeed, after recording one particularly egregious bout of persecution in the eleventh century, when, along with countless massacres, some 30,000 churches, according to Maqrizi, were destroyed or turned into mosques -- a staggering number that further indicates how Christian pre-Islamic Egypt was -- the Muslim historian makes an interesting observation: “Under these circumstances a great many Christians became Muslims.”  (One can almost hear the triumphant “Allahu Akbars”.)

Yet physical violence was not alone in making such a fiercely Christian nation become Islamic.  The dhimma system, Islam’s discriminatory rules for governing Christian and Jewish subjects (based largely on Koran 9:29 and the so-called Conditions of Omar), while providing some religious freedom, also stipulated a number of fiscal burdens (jizya), social inequality, and a host of other disabilities that, decade after decade, century after century, saw more and more Copts convert to Islam to alleviate their burdens and achieve some semblance of equality.

Thus, in his The Arab Conquest of Egypt (1902), historian Alfred Butler mentions the “vicious system of bribing the Christians into...

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