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Copto-Arabic Literature - Coptic Wiki


Coptic literature per se, a subject treated elsewhere, is confined to the writings in the Coptic language during the early centuries of medieval Egyptian history when that language was the spoken language of the people as well as their only written instrument. After the CONQUEST OF EGYPT in the seventh century, the use of Coptic survived in the administrative structure of the government for some decades. Gradually, bilingual documents appeared in which Coptic and Arabic were used in parallel columns, mainly for clarification of administrative affairs to the Arab governors, who did not understand any Coptic.

Then in the year A.H. 85/A.D. 705, the Muslim administration of the country decreed that Arabic be exclusively used in all administrative offices and all accounts. This revolutionary decision led ultimately to the establishment of Arabic as the accepted official language in the country—at the expense of Coptic. The state functionaries found it necessary to be proficient in the language of the conquerors in order to retain their positions in the administration as tax collectors and scribes. The Copts were very able linguists and soon mastered Arabic. In time, however, Arabic became preponderant in daily life and Coptic declined steadily, until sometime in the later Middle Ages it became defunct. As early as the tenth century, however, we begin to find works written in Arabic by noted Coptic personalities.

Two major works written in classical Arabic appeared in that period. The first was a book of chronicles, Kitab al-Tawarikh, by Sa‘id ibn al-Bitriq (877-940), known as Eutychius, Melchite patriarch of Alexandria. The other was Tarikh Batarikat al- Iskandariyyah al-Qibt, the famous history of the Coptic patriarchs, begun by SAWIRUS IBN AL-MUQAFFA‘, bishop of Ashmunayn. Although the Coptic language was still the spoken language of Egypt at the time, it is obvious from these works that the authors became proficient in their knowledge of classical Arabic, and their works marked the beginnings of a vast Copto-Arabic literature, which eventually became an established discipline among the Copts in medieval and modern times.

Sa‘id ibn al-Bitriq wrote another book, also in Arabic, entitled Al-Jadal bayn al-Mukhalif wa-al-Nasrani, a polemical treatise in which he defended against non-Christians and tried to justify his Melchite creed against the predominant non- Chalcedonian orthodoxy of the Coptic people. But his historical work, Kitab al-Tawarikh, which he addressed to his brother ‘Isa, remains his major contribution. He intended thereby to cover the whole span of world history from Adam to his own day. Apparently, he covered the period of Islamic history to the Abbasid caliphate of al-Radi (934-940).

From this point his work was continued by Yahya ibn Sa‘id al-Antaki on a more massive scale covering most of the rest of the Abbasid period from the caliphate of al-Muttaqi (940-944) to the caliphate of al-Zahir (1225-1226). We must remember that Yahya spent a great many years in Egypt and that he included in his accounts, beside Islamic episodes, a considerable amount of external history including the Christian patriarchates of the Eastern provinces. His work may be treated here on the periphery of Copto- Arabic letters.

On the other hand, the strictly Coptic native product is the HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS by Bishop Sawirus ibn al- Muqaffa‘, who was a much more prolific writer in the Arabic language. He is credited by Kamil Salih Nakhlah with the composition of some thirty-eight works. Though many of the works of Sawirus have been lost, others of particular importance have survived. Apart from the monumental biographical history of the patriarchs, he wrote a treatise in refutation of Sa‘id ibn Bitriq’s Melchite attack on Coptic orthodoxy.

His work on the ecumenical councils, entitled Kitab al-Majami‘, has survived in toto. Most of the other works deal with theological subjects of the highest importance, such as the Incarnation of Jesus, a book on the first principles of the Christian prepared for the vizier Quzman ibn Mina, commentaries on several biblical texts, traditions and liturgies of the Coptic church, a treatise on heresies, another on fasts and feasts, and a multitude of other works on purely religious and moralistic subjects.

On the margin of religious studies, he wrote also in Arabic on such subjects as psychology and psychic medicine, and several brochures on educational matters as well as a discussion of Arabic proverbs. In a word, he seems to have inaugurated a substantial amount of Copto-Arabic literature. It is thought that other, unknown treatises composed by him have been lost. On the whole, the contributions of Sawirus to this field are still open for further inquiry.

The compilation executed by Sawirus ended with the biography of his contemporary, Pope SHENUTE I (858-880). He depended on a certain Bidayr al-Damanhuri who later became bishop of Tanis, Buqayrah al-Rashidi, and Yu’annis ibn Zakir, as well as Tidra or Tadrus of Minuf, in assembling his material from original Coptic sources.

His work was continued by later compilers, of whom the first was the above-mentioned bishop of Tanis, Mikha’il, who appears to be responsible for the biographies of KHA’IL III (880-907) to SHENUTE II (1032-1046).

Afterward, this monumental work was continued by other writers in Arabic. These included Mawhub ibn Mansur ibn Mufarrij for the period 1069 to 1079, followed by Yuhanna ibn Sa‘id ibn Mina al-Qulzumi for the period from 1092 to 1128. The patriarch MARK III (1167-1189) is known to have written about three of his predecessors, from 1131 to 1167.

Ma‘ani Abu al-Makarim ibn Barakah ibn Abu al-‘Ala’ covered the period from 1131 to 1167, and Yusab, bishop of Fuwwah, the period from 1224 to 1261. The rest of the work was filled out by anonymous contributors until we reach the modern period, where the name of a certain hegumenos, ‘Abd al-Masih, emerges in the seventeenth century. After him, the most famous name in the Arabic literature of the Copts is that of ‘ABD AL-MASIH SALIB AL- MASU‘DI, a monk of Dayr al-Baramus.

In subsequent centuries, the Coptic literary heritage in Arabic kept multiplying in all manner of disciplines, sometimes by the pen of Islamized Copts who apostatized in order to retain their high positions in the administration of the country, but mainly by great writers of the highest merit among the Copts themselves who dealt with purely Coptic subjects.

One of those who converted to Islam in the twelfth century is the author of a rare text of the highest importance entitled Kitab Qawanin al-Dawawin, written in the year 1209. The author, who was a distinguished Copt and a minister of state in the Ayyubid dynasty and who converted to Islam to keep his high position, was ibn al-Muhadhdhab ibn Zakariyya ibn Qudamah ibn Mina Abu al-Makarim ibn Sa‘id Abu al-Malih. Since his Islamization he has been known as IBN MAMMATI, the Arabic corruption of the Coptic “Mahometi.”

He was a Christian native of the city of Asyut. Apparently he descended from a well-known Coptic family, his father being a contemporary of BADR AL-JAMALI and the caliph al-Mustansir Billah (1035-1094), for whom he attained the dignity of chief scribe of the diwan, a position his son inherited toward the end of Fatimid rule in the caliphate of al-‘Adid (1160-1171). The caliph laid a heavy hand of persecution on the Copts and forced al-As‘ad to apostatize. Consequently he was promoted to an even higher position at the head of the diwan of the army, which he retained under Salah al-Din (Saladin; 1169-1193) and his son al-‘Aziz ‘Uthman (1193-1198). Ibn Mammati presumably wrote his book for the later Sultan al-‘Aziz, mainly as a record of all the provinces and districts of Egypt.

He supplemented it with a statement of taxation for each province or district in four volumes, of which only one has survived, since all financial statements were regarded as confidential and restricted to the state records. The work as it stands, however, is a tremendous mine of information, not only in the field of the historical geography of Egypt but also on the agricultural calendar of the Nile Valley. The details contained in it are closely associated with the Coptic agricultural reckonings, which indicate the author’s familiarity with the Coptic calendar of the martyrs.

Ibn Mammati’s life has been detailed by Ibn Khallikan in his work Wafiyat al-A‘yan, as well as al-‘Ayni’s ‘Iqd al-Juman, al- Maqrizi’s Khitat, and Yaqut’s Irshad al-Arib ila Ma‘rifat al-Adib. All seem to be in full agreement about his stature in the administration of Egypt and on his literary excellence. He is known to have written a number of other works besides Qawanin al- Dawawin and to have composed a fair amount of poetry, quoted by his biographers, on literary as well as political subjects. A few lines quoted by al-Maqrizi sound like an appeal by a Muslim on behalf of the Copts and the imposition of restrictions on the type of dress they wear. Ibn Mammati died in Aleppo in 1209. His death was lamented by the poets of his time in obituary poems that indicate his unusual place in twelfth-century Egypt.

Contemporary with Ibn Mammati, a Coptic priest named ABU AL-MAKARIM was busy assembling materials of a similar geographical nature between 1177 and 1204. But this time the author concentrated on a purely Coptic subject. The title of his book in Arabic is Tarikh al-Kana’is wa-al-Adyurah (The Churches and and Neighboring Countries). It is interesting to remark that its unique manuscript, now deposited in the in Paris, was purchased in Egypt by the traveler J. VANSLEB in 1674 for the pitifully small price of three piasters. This Arabic text was owned by ABU SALIH THE ARMENIAN, whose name was inscribed on the manuscript.

Owing to the importance of its contents, it attracted Western scholars and was first published at Oxford in 1895 by B. T. A. Evetts mistakenly ascribed to Abu Salih the Armenian; in 1969 the English translation was republished. A Coptic monk of Dayr al-Suryan, Samu’il al-Suryani, issued a new edition (1984) of this invaluable work. The text is a complete listing of the churches and monasteries of Egypt, classified under provinces and cities as they stood in the twelfth century.

The author, Abu al-Makarim, attempted to use classical Arabic, but his peculiar style indicates beyond doubt that he could have been a Coptic-speaking native using a foreign language. Though his Arabic style is full of peculiarities that must have been current among the Copts of that period, the contents are of the highest importance for Coptic annals and historical geography of Egypt in the Middle Ages.

In the thirteenth century, and specifically under the Ayyubid dynasty, Arabic Christian literature flourished and its products multiplied. The most eminent authors of that period were members of the family of AWLAD AL-‘ASSAL. Their life and work mark the peak of productivity in the Coptic families whose members occupied eminent scribal positions in the Egyptian administration. They are known to have resided in the famous Coptic district of Harit Zuwaylah, with its historic churches, in Cairo.

Most eminent among them for his contributions was al-SAFI IBN AL-‘ASSAL, whose name is associated with the great jurisprudential compilation entitled al-Majmu’ al-Safawi, in which the author assembled all the available materials concerned with two wide subjects from the orthodox point of view. The first was the question of religion and Coptic orthodox religious tradition; the second comprised all the items of civil jurisprudence, to which he applied the rules of classical Islamic works on this subject.

The first section consists of many chapters and deals in the first instance with the position of the patriarch, who is the equivalent of the imam or caliph in Islamic society. The capital difference is that the Muslim position is both religious and civil, whereas the patriarchal dignity is restricted to the religious surveillance of the Coptic community. The civil section of this work treats the material life of individuals within the context of biblical and orthodox traditions. Details of contractual conditions for sales, rentals, witnesses, and the like are surveyed in more or less the same system as the Islamic fiqh (works of jurisprudence).

Other subjects such as inheritance are treated from the orthodox outlook, which varies from the Islamic system, in which, for instance, the female inheritance is estimated as half the male, contrary to the Coptic, in which the two sexes are equal. Moreover, in marital relations, divorce is not permitted except within the restricted condition of adultery. Numerous other legal and fiscal items are surveyed in this comprehensive work. ibn al-‘Assal is known to have composed some Arabic poetry on subjects treated by him, including a long iambic poem (urjuzah) on the subject of inheritance among the Coptic Christians.

One of the greatest contributions of the AWLAD AL-‘ASSAL family in the field of religion was the translation of the New Testament into Arabic, which they based on Coptic, Greek, and Syriac original languages, with which they were thoroughly acquainted. A copy of their original translation of the four Gospels, signed by Jirjis Abu al-Fada’il ibn Lutfallah, is dated A.M. 1057. This is available at the patriarchal library in Cairo and is a true reproduction of the autographed original by Abu al-Faraj Hibatallah himself.

Members of the family of Awlad al-‘Assal have also become famous for their exquisite Arabic penmanship, which became known to posterity as the As‘adi style of Arabic writing. Among al-Safi’s legacy are a series of religious homilies or orations in which he extemporized eloquent pronouncements in rhymed Arabic equal in beauty to any similar texts known in Islamic literature. The Awlad al-‘Assal left behind them a number of other works on religious questions including a significant treatise entitled Nahj al-Sabil fi al- Radd ‘ala man Qadaha al-Injil, a kind of literary defense against those who deprecated the Gospels. Apparently they were highly proficient in their knowledge of the Coptic language, for they compiled a Coptic-Arabic dictionary as well as a grammar of the Coptic language.

During the same century, other Coptic writers distinguished themselves by their works in Arabic, including Jirjis ibn al-‘Amid, known as Ibn al-Makin, a scribe in the Ayyubid military diwan, who wrote a considerable universal history concentrating on Muhammadan dynasties. The first section of that work reviews world history to the reign of the Roman emperor Heraclius and the spread of Christianity. The second section is devoted to Islamic history from the time of the prophet Muhammad to the reign of al- Zahir Baybars (1260-1277). This history was supplemented by another Copt named al-Fadl ibn Abi al-Fada’il under the title Al- Nahj al-Sadid, wa-al-Durr al-Farid fima ba‘d Tarikh ibn al-‘Amid. Al-MAKIN IBN AL-‘AMID left another work entitled al-Hawi, comprising a defense of the Christian and a on sections of the Gospels.

To the same century and of considerable renown in Copto- Arabic literature belongs another writer, ABU SHAKIR IBN AL- RAHIB, also known as Abu al-Karam ibn al-Muhadhdhab, the son of a leading Coptic scribe, who retired from the sultan’s service and, after losing his wife, became a monk and was nominated priest of the historic Church of Abu Sarjah. His son Abu Shakir became a deacon of the Church of Our Lady known as al-Mu‘allaqah in 1260. He was a contemporary of Popes III (1235-1243) and ATHANASIUS III (1250-1261) as well as GABRIEL III (1268-1271) and JOHN VII (1262-1293). He may have also survived to the reign of THEODOSIUS II (1294-1300).

Ibn al-Rahib distinguished himself during those patriarchates by his prolific writings in Arabic, which showed his vast knowledge in theology, the exact science of Coptic astronomy, and the history of his church. His literary heritage included the following works: (1) Kitab al-Burhan, on theological subjects and Coptic traditions in fifty-two chapters; (2) Kitab al- Shifa fi Kashf ma-Istatara min Lahut al-Masih wa-Ikhtafa, a treatise on the divinity of Jesus Christ; (3) Kitab al-Tawarikh, on the definition of the Coptic epact and the major feasts of the Coptic church in fifty-one chapters; (4) Kitab al-Tarikh, a succinct universal history from the creation to his day; (5) Kitab al-Majami‘, a survey of the ecumenical councils; and (6) Usul Muqaddmat Sullam al-Lughah al-Qibtiyyah, a scala and introduction in Arabic to the Coptic language and Coptic grammar.

His compilation of the patriarchal biographies and the computations of the dates of the patriarchs is considered the most invaluable source in this connection on account of his meticulous astronomical and mathematical knowledge.

Next in succession to Abu Shakir ibn al-Rahib, we have an equally distinguished name in Copto-Arabic literature, Abu al-Barakat, better known as IBN KABAR. He lived until the decades of the fourteenth century and his work marked the peak of the golden age of Coptic belles lettres. He descended from a wealthy Coptic family and received all the education available at his time, thus becoming conversant with Coptic as well as with classical Arabic. In addition he was proficient in Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac. He occupied a high scribal position in the government administration, but decided to retire in the year 1283, even before the sultanate of the Bahri Mamluk al-Ashraf Khalil ibn Qalawun, who declared that he wanted no Christian in his administration.

In 1300, he was unanimously nominated by the Coptic archons as priest of the important Church of Our Lady known as al-Mu‘allaqah in Old Cairo. He was a contemporary of the patriarchs John VII, Theodosius II (1294-1300), JOHN VIII (1300-1320), and JOHN IX (1320-1327). His theological acumen and vast knowledge of Coptic religious traditions are evident in the array of his encyclopedic works, comprising the following items: (1) Kitab Misbah al-Zulmah fi Idah al-Khidmah, a kind of encyclopedia of Coptic religious knowledge and traditions in twenty-four sections with numerous supplements.

This is undoubtedly the most comprehensive record of Coptic jurisprudence. In it he meticulously discussed every detail imaginable concerning the church, ending up with a history of the patriarchs from Saint Mark to Pope MARK IV, the eighty-fourth patriarch in 1363; (2) a collection in eloquent classical Arabic style of fifty-one miscellaneous obituaries, orations, and epistles; (3) the Sullam or Scala, a comprehensive lexicon of all available Coptic terms and their Arabic equivalents, classified in thirty-two chapters; (4) Kitab Jala’ al-‘Uqul fi‘Ilm al-Usul, in eighteen chapters, on theological problems comprising a detailed account of Christian beliefs and doctrines, from the oneness of godhead to the Trinity and the Lord’s incarnation.

This work is sometimes identified with a similar text by Ibn al-‘Assal under the title Tiryaq al-‘Uqul fi Ilm al- Usul (On the mysteries of the Christian faith), also associated with Butrus al-Sadamanti; (5) a polemical work in refutation of and Islamic attacks on Christianity, of which a single manuscript is preserved in the Vatican Library, still unpublished; (6) Risalat al- Bayan al-Azhar, written in refutation of the arguments in behalf of the doctrine of predestination.

Even after his retirement from government service, Ibn Kabar continued to assist his superior and friend, the Bahri Mamluk amir Rukn-al-Din Baybars-Jashankir (1308-1309), in the compilation of a historical treatise on Islamic history entitled Zubdat al-Fikrah fi Tarikh al-Hijrah. This is ascertained by two famous Muslim historians, Abu al-Mahasin Yusuf ibn al-Maqarr and al-Maqrizi.

From the above statements, it may be deduced that Ibn Kabar’s work stands at the peak of Copto-Arabic literary accomplishment. The last years of his rich life were spent in complete seclusion away from the eyes of persecutors of the Copts, and it must be assumed that he spent those years in concentrated revisions of his vast literary products. The date of his death is known with certainty to be 15 Bashans A.M. 1040/10 May A.D. 1334.

Yuhanna ibn Zakariyya IBN SIBA‘, who was a contemporary of Ibn Kabar, produced a work on the same subject as Misbah al- Zulmah (Lamp of Darkness); the work is more modest, but worthy of a citation nevertheless. Little is known about Ibn Siba‘ except that he lived in the latter part of the thirteenth and the first part of the fourteenth century. In fact nothing is known about him beyond the fact that he wrote a work entitled Al-Jawharah al- fi‘Ulum al-Kanisah, the annotated text of which has been edited with a Latin translation by Vincentio Mistrih under the title Pretiosa Margarita de Scientiis Ecclesiasticis (Cairo, 1966).

The work begins with a biblical introduction to the nativity of Jesus Christ in twenty-two chapters. This is followed by a summary of the rise of in ten chapters. In the rest of the book, consisting of eighty chapters, he deals with Coptic traditions and gives a meticulous display of the Coptic church offices and officers from the deacon and the archdeacon to the presbyter and the HEGUMENOS, to the bishops, the archbishops, and the patriarch. Ibn Siba‘ goes into every detail of the liturgical offices and the ecclesiastical instruments. Several chapters are devoted to the feasts and fasts of the church with a concentration on Holy Week and the Easter season.

Later chapters deal with the burial offices and the sacrificial offerings for the souls of the deceased. He records the patriarchal duty of assembling all the priesthood every week for a moralistic homily. The patriarch is also supposed to keep an eye on his flock and to follow their increase or decrease numerically. The last chapters define the meanings of the ringing of the church bells during the liturgical celebration.

The steady decline of the Coptic language during the later Middle Ages had the inevitable effect of the rise of a new form of Copto-Arabic literature. The above-mentioned works from the tenth century onward reached their peak in the works of authors of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Parallel to the Arabic translation of the Gospels, we should not overlook the other purely religious works, hitherto employed in the liturgies of the church in Coptic.

It was gradually becoming necessary for the Coptic hierarchical authorities to translate some of the Coptic literature into Arabic so that the congregation, who had started to speak Arabic as a substitute for the spoken Coptic, could understand it. It is difficult to fix a precise date for this translation, but we can safely assume that it must have taken place in the later medieval period, at least parallel to the translation of the Gospels.

This formed a class of Copto- Arabic letters that has been the subject of numerous studies in the area of theology and ecclesiology. Here we must be content with quoting such literature as Kitab al Khulaji al-Muqaddas, edited by HABIB JIRJIS and sung throughout Coptic Christendom. Other works, such as Kitab al-Turuhat wa-al-Absaliyyat, which contains songs of the church edited by Qummus Bakhum al-Baramusi and ‘Iryan Faraj, are a sample of Coptic religious literature generally published in both Coptic and Arabic. Perhaps the Coptic versions are used only in the monasteries. But the Arabic is used as much as needed by the priests within their churches.

On the whole, we must regard the age of Ibn Kabar and Awlad al-‘Assal, together with these liturgical texts, as the golden age of Copto-Arabic literature. Perhaps the work of Ibn Siba‘, despite the importance of his endeavor, should be considered as the inception of the decline precipitated by the advent of Ottoman rule.

With the dawn of modern history and the subjection of Egypt to the Ottoman yoke in 1517, Egypt seems to have gradually lost its intellectual flair among both Muslims and Copts. Whereas a faint ray of sunshine kept flickering in the ancient fortress of Muslim education at al-Azhar University, Coptic education became restricted to the primitive kuttab (scriptoria) affiliated with the churches under the supervision of the Coptic cantors (sing. ‘arifs, pl. ‘irfan), who were generally blind and offered only limited religious instruction.

Assistants conducted programs of reading and writing of liturgical texts, as well as intensive courses in practical mathematics and accounts in order to prepare the candidates for scribal offices and tax collection in the government. The Copts could not attend al- Azhar University for a higher education in jurisprudence, advanced grammar, logic, and prosody on a religious basis, though the Hanifite sect raised no objection in principle to the admission of Copts. The period of nearly four centuries until the advent of the French occupation in 1798-1802 proved to be one of the darkest in Egyptian annals.

We must thus cross from Ibn Kabar’s age to modern history to discover any real awakening of Copto-Arabic literature. The seeds of modern education were sown among the Copts by Pope IV (1853-1861), known as the “Father of Reform,” who devoted his attention to the establishment of schools with teaching staffs of high quality. His example was followed by a number of Coptic benevolent societies such as the TAWFIQ COPTIC SOCIETY, and Coptic schools sprang up, not only in Cairo and Alexandria but also in most provincial towns in Lower and Upper Egypt.

A number of the graduates of these schools even managed to attend al-Azhar University under borrowed and rather anomalous names. These included Mikha’il ‘Abd-al-Sayyid, who later established the daily newspaper al-Watan; Tadrus Wahbi, the eminent Coptic educator; and the journalist Jindi Ibrahim, who among Muslims was known as Shaykh Ibrahim al-Jindi. The three became leading stars in Copto- Arabic literature, and all memorized whole sections of the Qur’an, which they quoted frequently in their written works.

In the meantime, numerous Copts attended study circles held privately by the rector of al-Azhar, the famous Shaykh al-Islam Muhammad ‘Abdu, who did not object to their participation but welcomed it. The Coptic poet Francis al-‘Itr, who was the son of a well-known Coptic priest, was a regular participant in Shaykh Muhammad ‘Abdu’s study circles throughout the year 1902.

In this way, Coptic literary scholarship and Coptic education in general gave birth to a new class of young people with literary tendencies that became evident in Coptic literary creativity and in Coptic journalism. The old Coptic newspapers al-Watan and Misr became the forum in which the literary products of the age were amply demonstrated.

The educational reform movement was extended to female instruction and the liberation of women from past traditional restrictions. Here perhaps the Copts were pioneers, though the national leader of this movement in Egypt happened to be a progressive Muslim by the name of Qasim Amin. This movement found outspoken supporters in the poetry of noted Coptic poets of the day, especially Nasr Luzah al-Asyuti, who sang its praise in delicate Arabic poems as early as the first decades of the twentieth century. In the provinces, poets such as ‘Ayyad Bishay followed suit. Numerous poems are quoted by the historian of Coptic literature, the Muslim Muhammad Sayyid Kilani, in Al-Adab al- Qibti (1962). Somewhat obscure Coptic poets such as Basta Bishay, Riyad Ghubriyal, Rufa’il Nakhlah, and in particular the better known Nasr Luzah al-Asyuti have written poetry to commemorate progressive educational events among the Copts.

The reform movement in general education found its echo in the Coptic religious institutions, where the CLERICAL COLLEGE slumbered until one of its students, Malati Sarjiyus, eloquently attacked its stationary status and pleaded for its reform. A long poem by Ibrahim Hunayn al-Bibawi was published in Kilani’s al- Adab al-Qibti. It supports Boutros Pasha’s position against the retrogressive attitude of Pope V.

Hitherto the Copts seemed to act as a separate community within the body politic of the Egyptian nation and prided themselves on their direct descent from the pharaohs. This separatist tendency was intensified as a reaction to the rising movement toward universal Islamic unity, which the Copts regarded as antinationalistic. This tendency reflected itself in the Coptic press and became the origin of the movement that led to the COPTIC CONGRESS OF ASYUT to fight for equal rights for the Copts, who felt barred from principal administrative positions in the state.

In the early twentieth century a campaign reviling the Copts by Shaykh ‘Abd al-Aziz Jawish, the editor of the leading Muslim daily newspaper al-Mu’ayyad, resulted in a counterattack in the Coptic daily al-Watan, where Jawish was accused of being a foreign meddler of Tunisian extraction. Well- meaning Muslims and Copts, however, repudiated this wave of hatred among segments of the same nation, and poets on both sides preached brotherhood and love and unity.

On the Islamic side, we read pacifying poetry by ‘Abd al-Rahman Shukri and Mahmud Ramzi Nazim, and on the Coptic side, by ‘Awad Wasif and Ibrahim Hunayn. These were even joined by noted Coptic politicians such as WISSA WASSEF and Murqus Hanna. The literature of both Muslim and Coptic poets is quoted by Kilani (pp. 80-84).

This situation was not helped by the assassination of Boutros Ghali on 21 February 1910, which precipitated a new wave of tearful literature. Lamenting the murder of an illustrious Coptic prime minister, Coptic versifiers poured out their hearts in poems of bitter grief, tinging this literary stage with sorrowful eloquence (Kilani, pp. 145ff.). The battle of words was resumed with vehemence on the pages of the dailies al-Mu’ayyad and al-Watan.

An avalanche of literary output reflected the universal support of the Coptic people for the principles for which the COPTIC CONGRESS OF ASYUT (1911) stood. Kilani (pp. 106-113) quoted Coptic poets who explicitly praised the just requests of their coreligionists. These included Bulus al-Shamma‘, Riyad Ghubriyal, Nasr Luzah al-Asyuti, Tadrus Wahbi, Ibrahim Hunayn, and Zaki Wasif. The Coptic press overflowed with articles from the pens of eminent journalists and politicians. The Muslim reaction in holding a parallel meeting known as the EGYPTIAN CONFERENCE OF HELIOPOLIS, counterpart to the Asyut Coptic Congress, is interesting but outside the scope of this article.

The Copts were pleased by the death of the British Commissioner, Sir Eldon Gorst, who sympathized with the Muslim majority against the Coptic minority. But Coptic hopes were not raised by the appointment of Lord Kitchener as his successor. A ray of hope appeared on the Egyptian political horizon when U. S. President Theodore Roosevelt visited Egypt. He spoke out for constitutional liberties and the American conception of equality among all citizens irrespective of their or color.

The Copts were unreserved in their literary praise of the American president. Riyad Ghubriyal published a long poem in praise of Roosevelt. In fact, the Roosevelt visit to the Near East and his outspoken pronouncements seem to have sparked a budding movement toward nationalistic aspirations that blossomed in the 1919 revolution under the leadership of SA‘D ZAGHLUL, who managed to bring Muslims and Copts closer together in the ensuing battle for independence.

The Wafd party of Zaghlul was composed of Muslims and Christians on an equal basis, and the nearest person to Sa‘d Zaghlul was a young and eloquent Copt, MAKRAM ‘EBEID. Though the British instituted a new policy of protecting the minorities through the declaration of 28 February 1922, this protection was refused by the Copts. This time there was complete unity of purpose, and while the Muslims preached independence in churches, the Copts attacked the British occupation in mosques.

Qummus Sarjiyus delivered memorable orations at al-Azhar mosque, where he was applauded by the Muslim ‘ulema’. This new development on the Egyptian scene generated a new phase in Coptic literature in which poets spoke out for the total and undiminished independence of Egypt, together with a multitude of writers who professed national unity. The leading Coptic poet, Nasr Luzah al-Asyuti, recited verses glorifying the unity of the crescent and the cross. Poetic obituaries were unrestrained in their glorification of Sa‘d Zaghlul on his death in 1927. The Coptic literature inspired by Sa‘d’s death included significant poetry by Nasr Luzah al-Asyuti, Qustandi Dawud, Philip ‘Atallah, and others (Kilani, pp. 167-78).

The problem after the realization of independence for Egypt was a constitutional one, on which the Copts held varying opinions. Some wanted the representation of the Copts to conform to their numerical percentage, while others thought that Copts and Muslims should stand before the electorate without religious distinction. The latter party won the day. This problem has become acute with the emergence of fundamentalist Muslims.

The Copts, with the exception of the 1919 revolution, tended to look upon themselves as a separate nation with its peculiar trials and tribulations, its own aspirations, its feasts and traditions and customs. They looked upon themselves as the pure Egyptian stock and professed their pharaonic lineage. This becomes evident in works on Coptic history, best represented in the brilliant Arabic History of the Coptic Nation by YA‘QUB NAKHLAH RUFAYLAH. Numerous other works by authors old and new, such as Tawfiq Iskarus and Ramzi Tadrus and many others, concerning famous Copts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, follow the same line of thought. This has also been recognized as an established fact by some Western authors such as S. H. Leeder (1918).

After many years of comparative stagnation, reform was pioneered by Pope IV, the “Father of Coptic Reform.” His life was commemorated in poems by Iskandar Quzman, Ibrahim Hanna ‘Ataya, and others. Obituary literature commemorated Coptic celebrities such as Boutros Ghali (Pasha) and Yusif Sulayman (Pasha) (Kilani, pp. 183-84).

On the whole, Coptic literature bears the impression of religiosity and Christian compassion, and reverence for the church. This appears clearly in a number of poems by Rufa’il Nakhlah, Nasr Luzah al-Asyuti, Iskandar Quzman, and Mikha’il Mansur (Kilani, pp. 192-98). Sometimes, Coptic literary writers are constrained by certain circumstances to use Islamic dicta. One such is Tadrus Wahbi’s poem on the occasion of the return of Khedive Abbas II (1892-1914) from pilgrimage to Mecca; another is his felicitation to the same prince at the Bairam Muslim feast (Kilani, pp. 199-201).

With its numerous bifurcations or aberrations, Coptic belles lettres have genuine qualities of originality, creativity, and superb Arabic style. Coptic poetry has varied in its tendencies from age to age, reflecting the feelings of the people in a given set of circumstances and calling for the of certain specific emotions. The education of each poet left its indelible mark on his poetry. Though it is difficult to place Coptic poets in the same high category as Ahmad Shawqi or Hafiz Ibrahim, they retain for themselves a place of honor, modest but appreciable and respectable.

Finally, the work on Coptic literature by Kilani (pp. 205-231) ends with a poetic selection assembled from the literary products of a number of noted Coptic poets, hitherto dispersed in many journals and Coptic daily newspapers, supplemented with succinct notes on their biographies.

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