Early Islam and the Copts?
Institut für Orient- und Asienwissenschaften
Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn
Anyone who reads the international news on various events around the globe will have noted that the Egyptian Copts, the indigenous population of Christians in Egypt, have had many problems with Islamists over the years, and especially recently, what with the church burnings and drive-by shootings. This is somewhat ironic, according to some, since -- it has often been claimed -- the Copts welcomed the Muslims as liberators from the rule of Byzantium. I have had my doubts about this claim but never had the opportunity of looking into the evidence. Until now, for I see that the German scholar Prof. Dr. Harald Suermann, of the Institute of Oriental and Asian Studies, Bonn University, has written an article, "Copts and the Islam of the Seventh Century," published in Christian-Muslim Relations: A Bibliographical History, Volume 5 (1350-1500), which was published by Brill in 2013. Suermann looks into a number of texts and concludes with a paragraph showing the somewhat mixed views of Copts around and after the Arab conquest of Egypt:
Are some tentative conclusions about these attitudes possible? The History of the Patriarchs as well as the other texts show that relations between the Copts and their Muslim rulers were mainly good, and that the patriarchs were respected as holy men. On the other hand, the History of the Patriarchs also reports that the Copts were attacked under Patriarch Isaac (686-689): crosses were destroyed, and polemical statements against the doctrines of Incarnation and Trinity were written on the doors of churches. Furthermore, the Panegyric calls the Muslims 'oppressors'. This evidence suggests that the idea that the Copts received the Muslims as liberators is no longer tenable. (Suermann, "Copts and the Islam of the Seventh Century," page 109)The reference to oppression comes from the Panegyric, as noted, and reads, "neither let us fast like the Saracens, oppressors who follow after prostitution and massacre" (Suermann, page 108). The term "Saracens" is what Arabs were called, and in addition to being "oppressors," they were said to seek out "prostitution" and to engage in "massacre." These latter two accusations might be mere hyperbolic polemics, but given that Islamists today have no qualms about committing massacres and taking captive women as sex slaves, we might be ready to read such texts as the Panegyric as more historically accurate than they have previously been read.
The destruction of crosses, mentioned in the History of the Patriarchs, is certainly credible . . .