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Coptic identity

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Title: Coptic identity  
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Subject: Coptic history, History of Oriental Orthodoxy, Copts, French Coptic Orthodox Church, Persecution of Copts
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Coptic identity

Copts have a long history as a minority among Egypt's Muslim majority.[1] While an integral part of ancient Egyptian society converted to Islam, Copts remained culturally and religiously distinct from their comrades.

The question of Coptic identity was never raised before the rise of pan-Arabism under Nasser in the early 1950s. Up to that point, Egyptian nationalism (also referred to as Pharaonism) was the major form of expression for Egyptian identity,[2] and both Egyptian Muslims and Egyptian Christians viewed themselves as only Egyptians without any Arab sentiment.[3] The struggle to ascertain this Egyptian identity began as Nasser and his regime tried to impose an Arab identity on the country, and attempted to erase all references to Egypt as a separate and unique entity.[4] Today, Copts and many Egyptian Muslims reject Arab nationalism, emphasizing indigenous Egyptian heritage and culture as well as their own unique ethnicity and genetic makeup, which are completely different from those of the Arabs.[4]

Copts as Egyptians

The term Copt designates the native population of Egypt, as opposed to the various invaders or settlers (Greeks, Romans, Jews, Arabs, etc.) who came to Egypt from other countries.

The word Copt was adopted in English in the 17th century, from New Latin Coptus, Cophtus, which is derived from Arabic collective qubṭ, qibṭ قبط "the Copts" with nisba adjective qubṭī, qibṭī قبطي, plural aqbāṭ أقباط; Also quftī, qiftī, Arabic /f/ representing historical Coptic /p/. an Arabisation of the Coptic word kubti (Bohairic) and/or kuptaion (Sahidic). The Coptic word is in turn an adaptation of the Greek Αἰγύπτιος "Egyptian".

After the Muslim conquest of Egypt, the term Copt became restricted to those Egyptians adhering to the Christian religion.[5]

In their own Coptic language, which represents the final stage of the Egyptian language, the Copts referred to themselves as rem en kēme (Sahidic) ⲣⲙⲛⲕⲏⲙⲉ, lem en kēmi (Fayyumic), rem en khēmi (Bohairic) ⲣⲉⲙ̀ⲛⲭⲏⲙⲓ, which literally means "people of Egypt" or "Egyptians"; cf. Egyptian rmṯ n kmt, Demotic rmt n kmỉ.

In the 20th century, some Egyptian nationalists and intellectuals began using the term Copt in the historical sense. For example, Markos Pasha Semeika, founder of the Coptic Museum, addressed a group of Egyptian students in these words: "All of you are Copts. Some of you are Muslim Copts, others are Christian Copts, but all of you are descended from the Ancient Egyptians".[6]

Copts take particular pride in their Egyptian identity. Over the centuries, they have always rejected and fought against other identities that foreign rulers attempted to force upon them, stressing their own Egyptian identity.[1] While an integral part of their society, Copts remained culturally and religiously distinct from their surrounding. For instance, while the Arab invaders of Egypt were accustomed to subjugation of women, the Coptic family and society of the late Middle Ages gave men and women equal rights, and Copts included their women in decision-making processes.[7] The last of these foreign identities to be imposed on the Copts was the "Arab identity", which was forced upon all Egyptians by Nasser in the form of pan-Arabism.[2] However, Copts today remain resilient against this foreign ideology.

Egyptian Liberal Age

Egypt's struggle for independence from both the Ottoman Empire and Britain was marked by secular Egyptian nationalism, also referred to as Pharaonism. When the Egyptian nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul met the Arab delegates at Versailles in 1918, he insisted that their struggles for statehood were not connected, stressing that the problem of Egypt was an Egyptian problem and not an Arab one.[8] Egyptian nationalism rose to prominence in the 1920s and 1930s. It looked to Egypt's pre-Islamic past and argued that Egypt was part of a larger Mediterranean civilization. This ideology stressed the role of the Nile River and the Mediterranean Sea. It became the dominant mode of expression of Egyptian anti-colonial activists of the pre- and inter-war periods. There was no place for an Arab component in the Egyptian personality at that time, and Egyptians had no Arab orientation as they saw themselves as Egyptians first and foremost, regardless of religion.[9] Foreigners visiting Egypt noted that Egyptians did not possess any Arab sentiment in the first half of the 20th century. As one Arab nationalist of the time put it "Egyptians did not accept that Egypt was a part of the Arab lands, and would not acknowledge that the Egyptian people were part of the Arab nation." [10]

Rise of Arab nationalism

Arab nationalism began to gain grounds in Egypt in the 1940s following efforts by Syrian, Palestinian and Lebanese intellectuals.[11] Nevertheless, by the end of the 1940s and even after the establishment of the Arab League, historian H. S. Deighton was still writing that "Egyptians are not Arabs, and both they and the Arabs are aware of this fact".[3]

It was not until the Nasser era - more than a decade later - that Arab nationalism, and by extension Arab socialism, became a state policy imposed on the Egyptians by the new dictatorship. Under Nasser, Egypt united with Syria to form the United Arab Republic in 1968, then became known as the Arab Republic of Egypt in 1971. The Egyptians' attachment to Arabism, however, was particularly questioned after the 1967 Six-Day War. Thousands of Egyptians had lost their lives and the country became disillusioned with Arab politics.[12] Nasser's successor Sadat, both through public policy and his peace initiative with Israel, revived an uncontested Egyptian orientation, unequivocally asserting that only Egypt and Egyptians were his responsibility. The terms "Arab", "Arabism" and "Arab unity", save for the new official name, became conspicuously absent.[13] (See also Egyptian Liberal age and Egyptian Republic.)

Copts and Arab identity

Coptic Orthodox Cross with traditional Coptic script reading: 'Jesus Christ, the Son of God'

While some non-Coptic authors claim that Copts in Egypt have an Arab identity while Copts in the West tend to identify as "non-Arab",[14][15] other non-Coptic scholars disagree, stating that "Copts are not Arabs" and that they predate the Arabs' arrival to Egypt [16][17]

On the other hand, almost all statements issued by Copts decry Arab nationalism. With their strong attachment to their own country, Copts have been always suspicious of Arabism, Arab socialism and pan-Arabism. They viewed Arabs as invaders and foreigners, and glorified the struggles of their ancestors against the Arab invaders between the 7th and the 9th centuries AD. Indubitably, the struggle against these foreign ideologies centered around the Coptic language:

In addition, Copts resisted Arab nationalism by stressing their pre-Arab identity. They saw themselves as the direct descendants of the Ancient Egyptians, and their language as a bridge linking the Copts to their Ancient Egyptian roots and their civilization that span over 6000 years.[18]

The strongest statement regarding Coptic identity came in 2008 from a prominent Coptic bishop, namely Bishop Thomas of Cusae and Meir, who gave the following speech at the Hudson Institute:

Bishop Thomas' words gained widespread approval within the Coptic community. One other Coptic bishop, namely Bishop Picenti of Helwan and Massarah commented on the issue saying: Other prominent Coptic figures who supported Bishop Thomas' statement included the Coptic writer Magdy Khalil who wrote in el-Dostoor newspaper: Thus, Copts today believe that Egypt and Egyptians are simply not Arab, emphasizing indigenous Egyptian heritage and culture. Their perception of their own identity and heritage can be summarized in Niloofar Haeri's words:

See also


  1. ^ a b Werthmuller, Kurt J. Coptic Identity and Ayyubid Politics in Egypt 1218–1250. American University in Cairo Press. 2009
  2. ^ a b c Haeri, Niloofar. Sacred language, Ordinary People: Dilemmas of Culture and Politics in Egypt. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2003, pp. 47, 136.
  3. ^ a b Deighton, H. S. "The Arab Middle East and the Modern World", International Affairs, vol. xxii, no. 4 (October 1946), p. 519.
  4. ^ a b
  5. ^ "The people of Egypt before the Arab conquest in the 7th century identified themselves and their language in Greek as Aigyptios (Arabic qibt, Westernized as Copt); when Egyptian Muslims later ceased to call themselves Aigyptioi, the term became the distinctive name of the Christian minority." Coptic Orthodox Church. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2007
  6. ^ qtd. in M. Hussein. el Ittigahat el Wataneyya fil Adab el Muʻaṣir [National Trends in Modern Literature]. Vol. 2. Cairo, 1954
  7. ^ Rizkalla, Ed. Coptic Culture: Christian Teachings and Thought, Part XIV.
  8. ^ Makropoulou, Ifigenia. Pan - Arabism: What Destroyed the Ideology of Arab Nationalism? Hellenic Center for European Studies. January 15, 2007.
  9. ^ Jankowski, James. "Egypt and Early Arab Nationalism" in Rashid Khalidi, ed. The Origins of Arab Nationalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990, pp. 244-45
  10. ^ Syrian Arab nationalist Sati' al-Husri qtd in Dawisha, Adeed. Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century. Princeton University Press. 2003, p. 99
  11. ^ Jankowski, "Egypt and Early Arab Nationalism," p. 246
  12. ^ Dawisha, p. 237
  13. ^ Dawisha, pp. 264-65, 267
  14. ^ Abraham, Nabeel; Shryock, Andrew (2000). Arab Detroit: from margin to mainstream (Illustrated ed.). Wayne State University Press.  
  15. ^ Randall P. Henderson (April 2005). "The Egyptian Coptic Christians: the conflict between identity and equality". Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 16 (2): 155–166.  
  16. ^ Prof. Constantine Gutzman, Chair of the Department of History at Western Connecticut State University: "Copts are not Arabs. Rather, they are the people who lived in Egypt before the Arabs arrived. The pharaohs were Copts, as were St. Athanasius and St. Anthony."
  17. ^ Washington Post: Copts are not Arabs. January 4, 1994
  18. ^ a b Takla, Hany. The Value of Coptic, The Ecclesiastical and Coptic Principles. Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite Society for Coptic Studies. 02/10/1996
  19. ^ Bishop Thomas of Cusae and Meir. Egypt’s Coptic Christians: The Experience of the Middle East’s largest Christian community during a time of rising Islamization. July 18, 2008
  20. ^ Ranya Badawi. An interview with Bishop Pecenti of Helwan and Massarah. El-Masry El-Yom Newspaper. November 11, 2009
  21. ^ . In el-Dostoor newspaper. 08/17/2008Copts are truly facing a problem of Islamization, and what Bishop Thomas said was said before by many Egyptian intellectualsKhalil, Magdy.
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