Educating Charles Krauthammer on the Copts and Egyptian Islam

Educating Charles Krauthammer, Part 3 (see parts 1 and 2, here and here)

Tuesday evening (10/11/11) on Fox News’s Special Report “panel”, the resident journalistic eminence grise, Charles Krauthammer, attributed the murderous Muslim depredations against the Copts this past weekend to, “…the rise of Islamism throughout the region.”

What would the great and wise Krauthammer say about the following: Were the historical descriptions by historians Perlmann* in 1942, and Little** in 1976, (citing contemporary 14th century Muslim tracts, and chronicles) the  “machinations” of “Islamists,” or the effects of mainstream Islam upon its Egyptian Muslim votaries, resulting in the inexorable attrition of the Coptic population by the mid 14th century—the indigenous, pre-Islamic majority reduced to a permanent, vulnerable minority by the usual pattern of Islamization—massacre, destruction and pillage of religious sites, forced or coerced conversion, and expropriation, etc..?

(*M. Perlmann. “Notes on Anti-Christian Propaganda in the Mamlūk Empire”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 1942, Vol. 10, No. 4, pp. 843-861)

(**Donald P. Little “Coptic Conversion to Islam under the Baḥrī Mamlūks, 692-755/1293-1354”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 1976, Vol. 39,No. 3,  pp. 552-569)

Perlmann (1942):

“The  Mamluk empire contributed decisively to the crushing of the Copt element in Egypt.”

Perlmann quotes the pamphlet by a respected jurisconsult Asnawi (d. 1370), entitled, Earnest appeal on the employment of dhimmis, which was prototypical of the prevailing anti-Christian attitudes in Mamluk Egypt—as well as those of most Muslims in Egypt today, some 650 years later!

“Strangely enough, no country, either in the East or West, will recognize the appointment of dhimmis in the management of the affairs of Muslims, Egypt being the only exception. By God, how strange! What is wrong with this country, of all Muslim lands ? Is it not the greatest Muslim country, the richest in population and knowledge ? Now the employment of unbelievers brings great evils and appalling conditions, such as one would not wish for his enemy, much less should Muslims wish them to come upon the community of Muhammad.

…The Copts declare that this country still belongs to them, and that the Muslims evicted them from it unlawfully. Then they often steal as much as they can from the state treasury, in the belief that they are not doing wrong. As to the possibility of confiscation and punishment, torture, they hold that the chances of these happening to them are about equal to that of falling sick; that is to say, sickness does sometimes come upon a man, but is not likely to be frequent. They will deposit those funds in churches and monasteries, and other such institutions of the unbelievers; for they hold that so long as they, the Copts, are successful they are more entitled to these funds than are the Muslims. When they are put to torture they urge one another to bear the agony with fortitude, and display steadfastness. When they are compelled to pay they bring to light the smallest possible sum, hand over a portion of it, and pay some of it away in bribes until they are set free. Now, is it right to put in charge of public affairs people with such beliefs and capable of such acts ? Moreover, they will appropriate much of the property of the Muslims, the land which is a source of income to the Sultan, or the fiefs of the emirs and the troops, as well as many of the endowments for poor Muslims, e.g. the town of Nestru, and others, taking it for themselves, their churches, and monasteries despite its being forbidden to transfer anything of that kind into their own hands. Whosoever, being able to do so, refrains from interfering, thus allowing them to continue to steal and to retain all that is in their power, he is responsible for it in this world, and will have to render account for it on the day of resurrection.

Little (1976) concludes his discussion with a heavy emphasis on the observations of the great medieval Egyptian Muslim historian al-Maqrizi (d. 1442):

“Once again the umma ran amok, destroying churches in Cairo and attacking Christians and Jews in the streets, throwing them into bonfires if they refused to pronounce the shahada. The Copts had endured physical persecution before; what they could not endure, according to al-Maqrizi, were the new measures designed to prevent them from lip-service and backsliding. Formerly, as we have seen, a Copt in government service was allowed to retain his post if he was converted to Islam; as a result, al-Maqrizi says,

‘If they were denied government service, they outwitted the Muslims by professing Islam and then proceeding to do as much harm as they could. There was nothing to prevent them since they were outwardly Muslim and held the provinces in their grasp.’

Now, however, no dhimmi was to be employed in the government anywhere in Egypt, even if he declared his conversion to Islam..and those who were converted were required to visit mosques regularly. Once deprived of their influential positions in the government, the Copts were of course more vulnerable than they had ever been before, and though the Mamluks curtailed the worst outrages committed by the Muslim mobs, the sultan yielded to their demands and allowed them to destroy churches which they claimed had been illegally restored. Four churches and one convent were destroyed in the capital before the Mamluk governor of the city intervened and prevented the mob from destroying still another church. The Mamluks themselves destroyed the martyr’s finger which the Copts had resumed casting annually into the Nile and razed the church which had housed it. In addition, in the same year the government conducted a survey of all the lands in Egypt which were held as awqdf by Christian churches and monasteries. This land, amounting to some 25,000 faddans, was removed from the Christians’ control and redistributed as iqtas to amirs and a few fuqaha, effectively eliminating a major source of revenue for Christian institutions. Cumulatively, the measures taken against the Copts were apparently effective throughout Egypt; for the first time in Mamluk chronicles a historian, al-Maqrizi, explicitly states that conversion took place on a wide scale. In fact, he persuasively argues that as a result of the loss of their livelihood and the destruction of their churches, the Copts began to disappear into the Muslim population of Egypt.

‘Many reports came from both Upper and Lower Egypt of Copts being converted to Islam, frequenting mosques, and memorizing the Quran, to the extent that some of them were able to establish their legal competence and sit with the legal witnesses. In all the provinces of Egypt, both north and south, no church remained that had not been razed; on many of those sites mosques were constructed. For when the Christians’ affliction grew great and their incomes small, they decided to embrace Islam. Thus Islam spread amongst the Christians of Egypt, and in the town of Qaly-ib alone, 450 persons were converted to Islam in a single day (including al-Shams al-Qasi and al-Khaysam). Many people attributed this to Christian cunning, so repugnant did most of the umma find them. But this was a momentous event in Egyptian history. From that time on, lineages became mixed in Egypt, for those persons who professed Islam in the rural areas married women and had children by them. Later their offspring came to Cairo, where some of them became qadis, legal witnesses, and ulama. Whoever knew their way of life in its reality and the control they gained over Muslim affairs understood intuitively what they could not express openly.’

…al-Maqrizi’s logic is compelling, especially if we view the persecution of 755/1354 not in isolation but as one of the several campaigns of greater or lesser intensity to which the Copts had been intermittently subjected in the span of a lifetime. Even if the Mamluks did not follow a consistent policy of discrimination throughout this period [toward] their Coptic functionaries, memories of the terrors that the Muslim populace had brought down upon them in the recent past and could bring down upon them again in the future must have taken a psychological toll. With many of their churches in ruins, their pious endowments expropriated, the sumptuary laws once again in effect, the most promising avenues to their advancement blocked—all of which constituted evidence of a new and unprecedented harshness on the part of the Mamluk government—the Copts must have realized in significant numbers that their social and economic welfare lay thereafter in Islam. In this sense the year 755/1354, some seven centuries after the Muslim conquest of Egypt, may be regarded as a turning-point in Egyptian religious history, as the point in time when the second great transformation of Egyptian religion became virtually complete, as complete, at any rate, as it was to be for the next six-and-a-half centuries.”

Andrew G. Bostom is the author of The Legacy of Jihad (Prometheus, 2005) and The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism " (Prometheus, November, 2008) You can contact Dr. Bostom at

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