Egypt: conquered by the Arabs,
who are welcomed by the Copts as their deliverers from Byzantine rule.
Condition of the Copts under the Muslims.
Corruption and negligence of the clergy lead to conversions to Islam.—
THE SPREAD OF ISLAM AMONG THE CHRISTIAN
NATIONS OF AFRICA
A History of the Propagation of the Muslim Faith
T.W. Arnold Ma. C.I.F
Professor Of Arabic, University Of London, University College. Written in 1896, revised in 1913
Rearranged by Dr. A.S. Hashim
was first introduced into Africa by the Arab army that invaded Egypt under the command of Amr b. al-Aṣ in A.D. 640. Three years later the withdrawal of the Byzantine troops
abandoned the vast Christian population into the hands of the Muslim conquerors.
rapid success of the Arab invaders was largely due to the welcome they received from the native Christians, who hated the Byzantine rule
not only for its oppressive administration,
but also—and chiefly—on account of the bitterness of theological rancor.
The Jacobites (Copts), who formed the majority of the Christian population in
Egypt, had been very roughly handled by the Orthodox adherents of the court and subjected to indignities that have not been forgotten by their children even to the present day.
Some were tortured and then thrown into the sea;
many followed their Patriarch into exile to escape from the hands of their persecutors,
while a large number disguised their
real opinions under a pretended acceptance of the Council of Chalcedon.
To these Copts, as the Jacobite Christians of Egypt are called, the Muslim conquest brought a freedom of
religious life such as they had not enjoyed for a century.
On payment of the tribute, Amr b. al-Aṣ
left them in undisturbed possession of their churches and guaranteed to them autonomy in all
ecclesiastical matters, thus delivering them from the continual interference that had been so grievous a burden under the previous rule;
he laid his hands on none of the
property of the churches and committed no act of spoliation or pillage.
In the early days of the Muslim rule then, the condition of the Copts seems to have been fairly tolerable,
and there is no evidence of their widespread apostasy to Islam being due to persecution or unjust pressure on the part of their new rulers.
Even before the conquest was complete, while the capital, Alexandria, still held out, many of them went
over to Islam,
and a few years later the example these had set was followed by many others.
In the reign of Khalifa Uthman (A.D. 643-655), the revenue derived from Egypt amounted to twelve millions; a few
years later, in the reign of Mu'awiya (661-679), it had fallen to five millions owing to the enormous number of conversions to Islam: under Omar II (717-720) it fell still
lower, so that the governor of Egypt
proposed that in future the converts should not be exempted from the payment of the capitation-tax, but this the pious Khalifa refused to allow, saying that God had sent
Muhammad to call men to a knowledge of the truth and not to be a collector of taxes."
But later rulers recognized that for fiscal reasons such a policy was ruinous to the state, and insisted on
the converts continuing to pay taxes as before; there was, however, no continuity in such a policy, and individual governors acted in an arbitrary and irregular manner.
When Ḥafṣ b. al-Walid, who was governor of Egypt in A.D. 744, promised that all those who became Muslims would be exempted from the payment of jizyah, as many as 24,000
Christians are reported to have accepted Islam.
A similar proclamation is said to have been made by al-Saffaḥ, the first of the Abbasi Khalifas, soon after
his accession in A.D. 750, for " he wrote to the whole of his dominions saying that everyone who embraced his religion and prayed according to his fashion, should be quit of the
jizyah, and many, both rich and poor, denied the faith of Christ by reason of the magnitude of the taxation and the burdens imposed upon them."
In fact many of the Christians of Egypt seem to have abandoned Christianity as lightly and as rapidly as, in
the beginning of the fourth century, they had embraced it. Prior to that period, a very small section of the population of the valley of the Nile was Christian, but the
sufferings of the martyrs in the persecution of Diocletian, the stories of the miracles they performed, the national feeling excited by the sense of their opposition to the
dictates of the foreign government,
the assurance that a paradise of delights was opened to the martyr who died under the hands of his tormentors,—all these things stirred up an enthusiasm that resulted in an
incredibly rapid spread of the Christian faith. "Instead of being converted by preaching, as the other countries of the East were, Egypt embraced Christianity in a fit of wild
enthusiasm, without any preaching, or instruction being given, with hardly any knowledge of the new religion beyond the name of Jesus, the Messiah, who bestowed a life of
eternal happiness on all who confessed Him."
In the seventh century Christianity had probably very little hold on a great mass of the people of Egypt. The
theological catchwords that their leaders made use of, to stir up in them feelings of hatred and opposition to the Byzantine government, could have been intelligible to a very
few, and the rapid spread of Islam in the early days of the Arab occupation was probably due less to definite efforts to attract than to the inability of such a Christianity to
The theological basis for the existence of the Jacobites as a separate sect, the tenets that they had so long
and at so great a cost struggled to maintain, were embodied in doctrines of the most abstruse and metaphysical character, and many doubtless turned in utter perplexity and
weariness from the interminable controversies that raged around them, to Islam, a faith that was summed up in the simple, intelligible truth of the Unity of God and the mission
of His Prophet, Muhammad.
Even within the Coptic Church itself at a later period, we find evidence of a movement which, if not
distinctly Muslim, was at least closely allied thereto, and in the absence of any separate ecclesiastical organization in which it might find expression, probably contributed to
the increase of the converts to Islam.
In the beginning of the twelfth century, there was in the monastery of St. Anthony (near Iṭfiḥ on the Nile), a
monk named Balutus, "learned in the doctrines of the Christian religion and the duties of the monastic life, and skilled in the rules of the canon-law. But Satan caught him in
one of his nets; for he began to hold opinions at variance with those taught by the Three Hundred and Eighteen (of Nicæa); and he corrupted the minds of many of those who had no
knowledge or instruction in the Orthodox faith. He announced with his impure mouth, in his wicked discourses, that Christ our Lord—to Whom be glory—was like one of the prophets.
He associated with the lowest among the followers of his religion, clothed as he was in the monastic habit. When he was questioned as to his religion and his creed, he professed
himself a believer in the Unity of God. His doctrines prevailed during a period which ended in the year 839 of the Righteous Martyrs (A.D. 1123); then he died, and his memory
was cut off forever."
Further, a theory of the Christian life that found its highest expression in asceticism of the grossest type
could offer little attraction, in the face of the more human morality of Islam.
On account of the large numbers of Copts that from time to time have become Muslims, they have come to be
considered by the followers of the Prophet as much more inclined to the faith of Islam than any other Christian sect, and though they have had to endure the most severe
oppression and persecution on many occasions, yet the Copts that have been thus driven to abandon their faith are said to have been few in comparison with those who have changed
their religion voluntarily,
and even in the nineteenth century, when Egypt was said to be the most tolerant of all Muslim countries, there were yearly conversions of the Copts to the Muslim faith.
Still, persecution and oppression by their fellow Christians have undoubtedly played a very large part in the reduction of the numbers of the Copts, and the story of the sufferings of the Jacobite Church
of Egypt,—persecuted alike by their fellow Christians
and by the followers of the dominant faith, is a very sad one, and many abandoned the religion of their fathers in order to escape from burdensome taxes and unendurable
The vast difference in this respect between their condition and that of the Christians of Syria, Palestine and
Spain at the same period finds its explanation in the turbulent character of the Copts themselves.
Their long struggle against the civil and theological despotism of Byzantium seems to have welded the zealots
into a national party that could as little brook the foreign rule of the Arabs as, before, that of the Greeks. The rising of the Copts against their new masters in 646, when
they drove the Arabs for a time out of Alexandria and opened the gates of the city to the Byzantine troops (who, however, treated the unfortunate Copts as enemies, not having
yet forgotten the welcome they had before given to the Muslim invaders), was the first of a long series of risings and insurrections,—excited
frequently by excessive taxation,—which exposed them to terrible reprisals, and caused the lot of the Jacobite Christians of Egypt to be harder to bear than that of any other
Christian sect in this or other countries under Muslim rule.
Jacobite Christians of Egypt
filled the posts of secretaries and scribes in the government offices,
farmed the taxes,
in some cases they amassed enormous wealth.
The annals of their Church furnish us with many instances of ecclesiastics who were held in high favor and consideration by the reigning princes of the country, under the
rule of many of whom the Christians enjoyed the utmost tranquility.
To such a period of the peace of the Church belongs an incident that led to the absorption of many Christians into the body of the faithful.
During the reign of Salah al-Din (Saladin) (1169-1193) over Egypt, the condition
of the Christians was very happy under the auspices of this tolerant ruler;
the taxes that had been imposed upon them were lightened and several swept away altogether;
they crowded into the public offices as secretaries, accountants and registrars;
and for nearly a century under the successors of Saladin, they enjoyed the same toleration and favor,
and had nothing to complain of except the corruption and degeneracy of their own clergy.
Simony had become terribly rife among them;
the priesthood was sold to ignorant and vicious persons,
while postulants for the sacred office who were unable to pay the sums demanded for ordination, were
repulsed with scorn, in spite of their being worthy and fit persons.
The consequence was that the spiritual and moral training of the people was
utterly neglected and there was a lamentable decay of the Christian life.
So corrupt had the Church become that when, on the death of John, the seventy-fourth Patriarch of the
Jacobites, in 1216, a successor was to be elected, the contending parties who pushed the claims of rival candidates, kept up a fierce and irreconcilable dispute for
nearly twenty years, and all this time cared less for the grievous scandal and the harmful consequences of their shameless quarrels than for the maintenance of their
dogged and obstinately factious spirit.
On more than one occasion the reigning sultan tried to make peace between the
contending parties, refused the enormous bribes of three, five, and even ten thousand gold pieces that were offered in order to induce him to secure the election of one
of the candidates by the pressure of official influence, and even offered to remit the fee that it was customary for a newly elected Patriarch to pay, if only they
would put aside their disputes and come to some agreement,—but all to no purpose. Meanwhile many Episcopal sees fell vacant and there was no one to take the place of
the bishops and priests that died in this interval; in the monastery of St. Macarius alone there were only four priests left as compared with over eighty under the last
So utterly neglected were the Christians of the western dioceses, that they all became Muslims.
To this bold statement of the historian of the Coptic Church, we unfortunately
have no information to add, of the positive efforts made by the Muslims to bring these Christians over to their faith. That such there were, there can be very little
doubt, especially as we know that the Christians held public disputations and engaged in written controversies on the respective merits of the rival creeds.
That these conversions were not due to persecution, we know from direct historical
evidence that during this vacancy of the patriarchate, the Christians had full and complete freedom of public worship, were allowed to restore their churches and even to
build new ones, were freed from the restrictions that forbade them to ride on horses or mules, and were tried in law-courts of their own, while the monks were exempted
from the payment of tribute and granted certain privileges.
How far this incident is a typical case of conversion to Islam among the Copts it is difficult to say; a
parallel case of neglect is mentioned by two Capuchin missionaries who traveled up the Nile to Luxor in the seventeenth century, where they found that the Copts of Luxor had no
priest, and some of them had not gone to confession or communion for fifty years.
Under such circumstances the decay of their numbers can readily be understood.
A similar neglect probably contributed to the decay of the Nubian Church which recognized the primacy of the
Jacobite Patriarch of Alexandria, as do the Abyssinians to the present day.
 Amélineau, p. 3; Caetani, vol. iv. p. 81 sq. Justinian is
said to have had 200,000 Copts put to death in the city of Alexandria, and the persecutions of his successors drove many to take refuge in the desert. (Wansleben: The
Present State of Egypt, p. 11.) (London, 1678.)
 Renaudot, p. 161. Severus, p. 106.
 John, Jacobite bishop of Nikiu (second half of seventh
century), p. 584. Caetani, vol. iv. pp. 515-16.
 Bell, p. xxxvii. But the exactions and hardships that,
according to Maqrīzī, the Copts had to endure about seventy years after the conquest hardly allow us to extend this period so far as Von Ranke does: "Von Aegypten weiss
man durch die bestimmtesten Zeugnisse, dass sich die Einwohner in den nächsten Jahrhunderten unter der arabischen Herrschaft in einem erträglichen Zustand befunden haben."
(Weltgeschichte, vol. v. p. 153, 4th ed.)
 John of Nikiu, p. 560.
 Id. p. 585. "Or beaucoup des Égyptiens, qui étaient de
faux chrétiens, reniérent la sainte religion orthodoxe et le baptême qui donne la vie, embrassèrent la religion des Musulmans, les ennemis de Dieu, et acceptèrent la
détestable doctrine de ce monstre, c'est-à-dire de Mahomet; ils partagèrent l'égarement de ces idolâtres et prirent les armes contre les chrétiens."
 Qurra b. Sharīk (governor of Egypt from 709 to 714), or
his predecessor, appears to have insisted on the converts continuing to pay jizyah. (Beckeṛ Papyri Schott-Reinhardt, p. 18.)
 Ibn Sa'd, Ṭabaqāt, vol. v. p. 283.
 Caetani, vol. iv, p. 6l8; vol. v. pp. 384-5.
 “Sans aucun doute il y eut dans la multiplicité des
martyrs une sorte de résistance nationale contre les gouverneurs étrangers." (Amélineau, p. 58.)
 Amélineau, pp. 57-8.
Amélineau, pp. 53-4, 69-70.
Abū Ṣalīḥ gives an account of some monks who embraced the faith of the Prophet, and these are probably representative of a larger number of whom the historian has left no
record, as lacking the peculiar circumstances of loss to the monastery or of recantation that made such instances of interest to him (pp. 128, 142).
Lüttke (1), vol. i. pp. 30, 35. Dr. Andrew Watson writes: "No year has passed during my residence of forty-four years in the Nile valley without my hearing of
several instances of defection. The causes are, chiefly, the hope of worldly gain of various kinds, severe and continued persecution, exposure to the cruelty and
rapacity of Moslem neighbours, and personal indignities as well as political disabilities of various kinds." (Islam in Egypt: Mohammedan World, p. 24.)
Severus, pp. 122, 126, 143. One of the very first occasions on which they had to complain of excessive taxation was when Menas, the Christian prefect of Lower
Egypt, extorted from the city of Alexandria 32,057 pieces of gold, instead of 22,000 which 'Amr had fixed as the amount to be levied. (John of Nikiu, p. 585.)
Renaudot (p. 168) says that after the restoration of the Orthodox hierarchy, about seventy years after the Muhammadan conquest, the Copts suffered as much at its hands as
at the hands of the Muhammadans themselves.
Maqrīzī mentions five other risings of the Copts that had to be crushed by force of arms, within the first century of the Arab domination. (Maqrīzī (2), pp. 76-82.)
Renaudot, pp. 189, 374, 430, 540.
Id. pp. 432, 607. Nāṣir-i-Khusrau: Safar-nāmah, ed. Schefer, pp. 155-6.
Renaudot, pp. 212, 225, 314, 374, 540.
Wansleben, p. 30. Wansleben mentions another instance (under different circumstances) of the decay of the Coptic Church, in the island of Cyprus, which was formerly
under the jurisdiction of the Coptic Patriarch: here they were so persecuted by the Orthodox clergy, who enjoyed the protection of the Byzantine emperors, that the
Patriarch could not induce priests to go there, and consequently all the Copts on the island either accepted Islam or the Council of Chalcedon, and their churches were all
shut up. (Id. p. 31.)
Relation du voyage du Sayd ou de la Thebayde fait en 1668, par les PP. Protais et Charles-François d'Orleans, Capuchins Missionaires, p. 3. (Thevenot, vol. ii.)