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Book Review: A different viewpoint on Muslim-Coptic relations

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Wednesday 6 Apr 2016
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Aqbat Misr..Al-Tareekh wa Al-Qadiyya (Egypt’s Copts: the History and the Issue) by Abu-Seif Youssef,  Al-Ain publishing, Cairo 2016. pp.291

Although there are many historical, intellectual, and political works written by Egyptian and Arab authors, along with Europeans and Americans, that have tackled Egypt’s Copts, it seems that Abu-Seif Youssef’s book about the same subject is the only book that bears a viewpoint rooted in historical materialism. This school of thought posits that history is not what the rulers write or order their scribes to record. History, instead, is the relationship of production and struggle between classes. Historical materialism also sees that history is the life of the people, their mutual relationships, and their constant pursuit of fulfilling simple hopes and dreams.

Abu-Seif Youssef (1922–2005) was engaged early on, in the 1940's, in political action and national struggle against both the British occupation and the despotism of the Egyptian monarch. Youssef was the editorial secretary of Al-Fajr Al-Jadid, which was considered one of the most important leftist magazines of the 1940's. He was detained in 1960 and was tried before a high military council. After his release, he wrote seminal books including On Marxist Philosophy: A Reply on Al-Aqqad, Documents and Standpoints of the Egyptian Left from 1941 to 1957 as well as the book Egypt Copts, which was first published in Beirut in 1987. This is the first edition to be published in Egypt.

The book covers the history of the Copts since the Byzantine era and then the Islamic era with all its stages up until the present. The book's significance can be attributed to the fact that the author records the political and social history of Egypt as a whole, and not just that of the Copts. When he writes about a political situation he explains the nature of the ruling class in every era, the system of government, the relationships of production, and the salient economic characteristics, such as the relationship between peasants – Copts or Muslims – and the agricultural land, yield, and taxation systems. In the social field, he pays attention to the conditions of every class and when he moves to the cultural field, he observes the prevalent intellectual currents in society.

According to the author’s introduction, the first hypothesis from which he launches his study is that one people live in the land of Egypt, which comprises a majority whose religion is Islam and a minority whose religion is Christianity, represented by the Copts. He was keen to point out that the terms majority and minority do not mean numerical ratio. This is a very important matter because the Copts as a religious minority do not constitute an ethnic, racial, or linguistic minority. This is what characterised the Egyptians with a high degree of social cohesion, complementarity, and integration.

As for the integration phenomenon, it is historically linked, in his view, to the process of “Arabisation, through which the Egyptians, Muslims, and Christians became Arabs via the use of the Arabic language as a tool for speech and cultural reference." Through the historical perspective, which the author embraces for interpreting the interaction, rises the peculiarity of relations between Muslims and Copts.

This does not mean that relations between Muslims and Copts were free from friction or even sometimes conflict. Here, Youssef moves to the second hypothesis in the study, what he calls “necessities of social integration." These necessities leaned in favour of integration rather than isolation and towards other notions, such as the existence of firm bases for coexistence and the consciousness of common destiny.

What is remarkable is that after the majority of Egyptians converted to Islam and after the Arabic language became everyone's mother tongue, Copts continued to be connected to the general cultural pattern of the bigger society while their subculture was focused on different material and intellectual manifestations related to religious beliefs.

As for the third hypothesis, investigating Egypt’s history shows that the links of integration between Copts and Muslims were affected by two intermingling groups of factors. One of them is related to the predominant political, economic, and social conditions in society while the other is related to the status of Copts themselves from the perspective of their political participation and economic activities and their relationship with the administrative government, as well as the role which the Coptic Church played.

The fourth hypothesis is that any effort exerted in order to formulate an advanced model for integration between Muslims and Copts will not achieve its objectives except when the constituents of this model are raised through a national, progressive and democratic perspective.

Through the book’s seven chapters, the author has relied on almost all available references to recount the peculiar relationship between Muslims and Copts.

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