With his typical wisdom Pope Shenouda III extinguished the flames of sectarianism which flared last month in the wake of the bitter verbal exchange between the Islamic scholar and lawyer Mohamed Selim al-Awa and Secretary-General of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Church Anba Bishoi. The media capitalised on the incident and, what began as a war of words, threatened to turn into full-scale sectarian strife. Pope Shenouda said all Egyptians—Muslims and Christians—are children of the same nation and none is inferior to the other. His Holiness said he felt sorry that “our Muslim brothers have been pained. We are willing to conciliate them in any way possible since our relationship with them has always been good and strong.” He denounced any insinuation that Muslims in Egypt have been the ‘guests’ of the Copts, saying that quite possibly the Copts may be considered the ‘guests’, since the Muslims are the majority. “We are all guests in God’s land,” he said.
The Pope’s words were soothing and timely. I admire his Holiness’ initiative and encourage everyone to follow in his footsteps. The relation between Muslims and Christians in Egypt is an eternal one, and both are equally devoted to their homeland.
The incident brings to mind, however, what history has to say about Egyptians, and how authentically ‘Egyptian’ they are today. In order to wipe out any misunderstanding on the topic, and to engrain the matter in the minds of young people, I suggest the revision of the history textbooks taught in schools, so children grow up with a clear idea of the origin of today’s Egyptians. This would serve to forge a solid Egyptian identity and belonging.
To claim that Egypt’s Christians are the ones with pure Egyptian blood while its Muslims are of Arab origin is erroneous. Mugam al-Hadara al-Missriya al-Qadima (A Dictionary of Egyptian Civilisation), written by Georges Posener, Serge Sauneron and Jean Yoyotte, tells us that after the Arabs conquered Egypt during the sixth century, they did not mingle with the Egyptians, and intermarriage was very rare. Egyptian blood thus remained ‘pure’. Throughout the five centuries which followed, the Egyptian population shifted from a Christian majority to a Muslim majority, but the Arab identity did not replace the Egyptian one.
The Egyptologist Mohsen Lotfy al-Sayed explains that even though the Arab military leaders and rulers exploited Egypt and were taken by its lush nature and wealth, they were too arrogant to mingle with the Egyptians. Once again, this proves Egyptian blood remained ‘pure’; there was no intermingling with Arab blood. All Egyptians—Muslims and Christians alike—suffered under Arab tyranny and exorbitant taxation. True, history says the Arab rulers displayed a marked sympathy for Muslims Egyptians, as opposed to obvious disdain towards Christian Egyptians. But this is another story which has nothing to do with the purity of Egyptian blood.
“It is normal for the victorious conqueror to feel vain and superior to the conquered, but does the feeling of superiority persist even after the conquered people convert to the rulers’ religion?” wonders Ali Yassin in his book Egypt civilisation—2500 years of occupation: the origins of the Egyptians, rulers and people. “Consequently, does conversion lead a conquered people to deny their identity and assume that of the ruler?” Yassin relates the story of an Egyptian family who, after the Arab conquest, denied their Egyptian origin and claimed to be of Arab descent, only to be spurned by the Arabs. Yassin explains that the Arabs refused to link the Copts, literally the Egyptians, to Arabism; which meant the impossibility of the marriage of an Egyptian man—even if he converts to Islam—to an Arab woman. But Arab men allowed themselves to marry Egyptian women. The Arab rulers, moreover, refused to let Egypt’s Muslims assume religious or judicial posts. “This confirms the absence of mingling between the Arab and Coptic elements, due to Arab superiority and discrimination,” the author concludes.
I have cited proof of the purity of the Egyptian identity and blood in case of Muslims as well as Christians in order to put an end to occasional attempts to splinter the nation. But this is not to deny that Arab culture is a tributary of the more comprehensive Egyptian one, or that Egypt is part of the Arab region. Despite its unique history and civilisation, Egypt was never isolated from its Arab reality. The Egyptian identity and culture cannot be separated from the Arab element which it acquired through the centuries and added to the many other elements—African, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean—which together make Egypt what it is today.