Copto-Arabic Literature


This entry consists of four parts. The first addresses the origins and development of the Arabic literature of the Copts. This is followed by introductions to three Copto-Arabic literary genres—hagiography, apocalyptic, and popular catechesis—for which texts are usually of anonymous authorship, and therefore unlikely to be otherwise addressed in a dictionary arranged largely by known historical figures. Literary genres such as theology, apologetics, biblical exegesis, history, and canon law are mentioned throughout this volume in articles about named authors.

Origins and Development. After the conquest of Egypt in the early 640s, Greek- and Coptic-speaking Egyptian Christians gradually became familiar with the language of their conquerors. Some Egyptian Christians learned Arabic quickly: Christian civil servants (who by and large kept their positions under the new administration) would have been obliged to learn the language, especially after Arabic became the official language of record-keeping throughout the Umayyad empire in 705; Christian merchants no doubt saw business opportunities opening up to those with the appropriate communication skills.

Still, the process of of the Christian population was far slower in Egypt than in neighboring Palestine and Syria, due perhaps in part to the difficulty of learning Arabic for Coptic speakers (as opposed to its relative ease for speakers of related Semitic languages such as Aramaic or Syriac), and in part because of religious sentiment: the Coptic language was widely regarded as specifically Christian, a mark of Egyptian Christian identity, while Arabic was the language of the conquerors and their scripture, the Qur’an.

Thus it was that while Palestinian Christians were creating an Arabic- by the late eighth century, there is little evidence for the religious use of Arabic by Copts before the 10th century, when the civil-servant-turned-monk Sawirus ibn al-Muqaffa‘ produced a library of Arabic-language theological materials in which he defended the faith of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Sawirus’ theological activity in Arabic now appears to have been ahead of its time, but by the end of the 11th century a clear linguistic shift was in progress: important collections of Coptic-language materials in canon law (see Abu Salih Yu’annis, Gabriel II ibn Turayk), doctrinal theology (Confession of the Fathers), and history ( of the Patriarchs) had been rendered into Arabic.

It appears that many Egyptian Christians were not only becoming fluent in Arabic but also losing competence in Coptic. Simple catechetical texts that taught the faith of the in Arabic began to appear around this time. Pope Gabriel II ibn Turayk (70th, 1131-1145) instructed his bishops to teach the faithful the , the Lord’s Prayer, and the Nicene Creed in Arabic so that they could pray with understanding and not merely mouth uncomprehended Coptic words. Toward the end of the 12th century, Marqus ibn Qunbar infuriated both Coptic and Melchite patriarchs but gathered a huge following as a traveling preacher—in Arabic.

The 13th century witnessed a veritable renaissance of Coptic Orthodox literature: a remarkable confluence of theological talent, generous patronage, and outside stimulus led to extraordinary creativity and production within the Coptic Orthodox community (see, e.g., Awlad al-‘Assal, Ibn al-Rahib). The literature of this renaissance, however, was primarily in Arabic. Although it included grammars and lexicons of the Coptic language, the nature of these materials underlines the fact that Coptic had become, at least for the urban elite, a language to be preserved and learned at school, rather than a language of everyday life.

The later literature of the Copts (from the 14th-century encyclopedias through a long period of decline to its revival in modern times) continued to be, with the exception of a few specialized liturgical genres, in Arabic. This sometimes results in strange ironies. For example, in a collection of Arabic sermons (falsely) attributed to St. Shenute the in a 17th-century manuscript preserved in Paris (B.N. 4761), this greatest of Coptic writers and orators is again and again made to speak in rhymed Arabic prose and to use religious vocabulary that has its roots in the Qur’an!

The Arabic literature of the Copts is only beginning to receive the scholarly attention it deserves. It is important to specifically Coptic studies: complete Arabic translations of important texts have sometimes served as templates, allowing scholars to assemble Coptic fragments (as the picture on a jigsaw puzzle box might allow the near-assembly of a puzzle for which over half the pieces are missing). In many cases, Arabic translations have provided knowledge of the content of works altogether lost in the Coptic original. Beyond its utility to Coptic studies, however, the Arabic literature of the Copts provides a rich array of witnesses to Christian faith, life, identity, and survival in a largely non-Christian environment; as such, it is of historical, sociological, and theological importance.

Apocalyptic. A literary genre common to a number of religious traditions is that of the apocalyptic, in which saintly members of the community have been granted visions or revelations in which they receive exhortation and, very often, an outline of the course of history to its end. Then God’s triumphant control of shall be made manifest, and those who have clung to the true faith despite trials and persecutions shall receive their vindication. For Christians, apocalyptic literature is familiar from the Bible, for example, in passages such as Daniel 7 (the vision of the four beasts), Ezekiel 38-39 (the Gog and Magog oracle), Mark 13/Matthew 24/Luke 21 (the synoptic apocalypse), and the Apocalypse or Revelation to John.

This and other traditional material has been reworked and elaborated upon in a variety of ways throughout Christian history, resulting in the creation of new apocalyptic texts, especially in times of trial. For Christians who found themselves under rule in the seventh century, apocalyptic proved to be one way of making sense of and providing frank commentary on painful current events: these could be interpreted as the birth-pangs of the end of time, and Christian believers thus exhorted to steadfastness and hope.

The Copto-Arabic apocalyptic tradition is particularly rich and includes texts originally composed in Coptic and later translated, as well as texts written in Arabic in the first place. Typically they are attributed to great saints of the Coptic Church, such as Athanasius of Alexandria, Shenute of Atripe, Samuel of Qalamun, or Pisentius of Qift; their actual authors, safe behind their pseudonyms, were then free to express their disapproval of the actions of Muslim rulers and especially of developments within the life of the Coptic community.

Priests come in for scathing criticism in an eighth-century Apocalypse of Athanasius; the adoption of the Arabic language and other forms of assimilation to Arabic-Islamic culture are the special targets of the Apocalypse of Samuel. The pseudonymous character of the apocalypses allowed their authors to portray their visionary saints as “prophesying” the actual events of subsequent history, including the conquest, particularly painful or memorable events under Arab rule, and even sequences of rulers—although often in elliptical and symbolic language that invited readers and hearers into an exercise that, like a crossword puzzle, had significant entertainment value.

The apocalypses bear witness to Coptic reactions to events such as the building of the of the Rock (in an apocalypse included in the Arabic Life of Shenute) or the Muslims’ coinage reform and tax demands (in the eighth-century Apocalypse of Athanasius). Motifs were used and reused, as when a list of 19 Muslim kings, first compiled near the end of Umayyad rule (mid-eighth century), was then reworked and brought “up to date” in the ninth century and again in the 12th.

And while some motifs came into Copto-Arabic texts from the apocalyptic traditions of other Christian communities (e.g., the motif of the last Roman emperor), they were refashioned in order to vindicate specifically Coptic beliefs. A particularly memorable scene found in the Letter of Pisentius and a late medieval Vision of Shenute displays a contest between the Patriarch of Alexandria and the Patriarch of the Byzantines in the presence of the Byzantine and Abyssinian emperors: As they celebrate the liturgy side by side, the Holy Spirit is visibly seen to descend upon and hover over the altar of the Alexandrian patriarch.

Whatever role the (Chalcedonian!) Roman/Byzantine emperor might play at the end of days, according to the wider apocalyptic tradition, the true faith of the Copts would surely be vindicated.

Catechetical Literature in the 11th-12th Centuries. In every time and place throughout the of the Christian Church, teachers have attempted to explain the doctrines and practices peculiar to the community in a way that nonspecialists in theological and ecclesiastical matters could comprehend. For the Coptic Orthodox community, an especially fruitful period for the production of such texts fell between the 10th and 13th centuries—that is, during the period marked by a shift in linguistic competence within the community from Coptic to Arabic—and therefore, presumably, a pressing need to explain the faith in simple terms in Arabic.

An important sequence of catechetical works begins with Kitab al-Idah (the Book of the Elucidation), a hugely popular work (to judge from the number and geographic spread of manuscripts) that has usually been attributed—probably falsely—to Sawirus ibn al-Muqaffa‘. In plain and unsophisticated Arabic prose, the book sets out to explain key (Trinity, Incarnation, and redemption) and practices (prayer and fasting) at a time when, as the author notes in a much-quoted preface, many Christians were more familiar with Islamic doctrinal vocabulary (e.g., God as fard and samad) than with Christian terms (e.g., Christ as “Son of God”).

Of special note is the lively and entertaining manner in which Kitab al-Idah describes Christ’s redemptive work as his cunning deception of Satan, from whom Christ hid his divine power by regularly performing the deeds of weak human beings. In the end, Satan was undone by his own greed: he was stripped of his captives as fitting punishment for his attempt to kill and seize the soul of the crucified Christ—over whom he had no just claim.

Shorter than Kitab al-Idah and dependent upon it, the anonymous but popular Ten Questions That One of the Disciples Asked of His Master—or simply The Book of the Master and the Disciple (10 Questions)—covers the same topics, but with some fascinating new material. For example, for lay men and women who do not know any prayers (presumably in Coptic), it commends a specifically Egyptian threefold form of the “Jesus Prayer”—in Arabic: “My Lord Jesus, have mercy on me. My Lord Jesus, help me. My Lord Jesus, I praise and worship you.”

The next book in the sequence is The Book of the Master and the Disciple (Eight Questions) of Marqus ibn al-Qunbar, which teaches the author’s characteristic ideas about frequent communion after confession and performance of penance (and thus, the necessity of having a spiritual master or confessor). The auricular confession championed here was later justified in another work sometimes called The Book of the Master and the Disciple, this time in 22 chapters (also known as The Book of Confession).

The principle author of this book, the monk Da’ud who later became Patriarch Cyril III ibn Laqlaq, was assisted in its composition by two luminaries of the 13th-century renaissance in Coptic Orthodox literature: Bulus al-Bushi and al-As‘ad ibn al-‘Assal. And thus the “arc” of catechetical texts treated here ends in a period of intense Arabic-language theological creativity.

For all their simplicity, the catechetical texts surveyed here played a role in helping medieval Egyptian Christians to “keep the faith” in an age of many challenges. To a certain degree, they continue to play such a role: Kitab al-Idah is widely available in Egypt in an inexpensive edition, and parts of Marqus’ and Da’ud’s works are available as well.

Hagiography. The Coptic Orthodox has always celebrated its saints. When the Arabs conquered Egypt in the 640s, they found a culture mapped out both spatially and temporally by saints and martyrs: their shrines, sometimes connected by pilgrimage routes, dotted the countryside; their feast days punctuated the calendar. A regular feature of the liturgical celebration of those feasts was the reading of an appropriate homily that described the life and exploits of the saint.

Such homilies were embellished or summarized; copied faithfully or translated from and into other languages; transmitted singly or gathered into collections—resulting in a rich and enormously complex literature.

As Arabic gradually replaced Coptic as the language of the majority of Egyptian Christians, the Coptic literature of the saints (as well as many texts in Greek and Syriac) were translated into Arabic. Much of this work was done anonymously and cannot be dated with any precision. An exception of a sort is provided by the of the Patriarchs, first compiled and edited between 1088 and about 1094, which not only relates the lives of (mostly) saintly patriarchs but also reports on other saints who lived in their days.

For example, the compilation’s first life to be composed in Arabic (rather than translated from Coptic), that of Patriarch Christodoulos (66th, 1046-1077), includes a recitation of about a dozen miracles by the holy monk Bessus of the Monastery of St. Macarius.

The mention of postconquest patriarchs and saints makes it plain that the Copts by no means restricted themselves to writing about saints and martyrs of the early Christian centuries. New “Lives” and collections of “Miracles” were regularly composed to celebrate newly (and rather informally) acclaimed saints of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Some Arabic “Lives” (often with “Miracles”) that have attracted recent attention are those of the patriarchs Afraham ibn Zur‘ah (62nd, 975-978, patriarch at the time of the miracle of the moving of the Muqattam hill) and Matthew I (87th, 1378-1408); the medieval holy men Barsum the Naked (d. 1317) and Marqus of the Monastery of St. Antony (d. 1386), both of whom played a mediatorial role on behalf of the Coptic community in dangerous Mamluk times; or the neomartyrs Jirjis al-Muzahim (executed for apostasy in 978) and Salib (executed for anti-Islamic statements in 1512).

The Coptic Orthodox faithful have, for centuries, celebrated the memory of their saints by visiting their shrines, venerating their relics, and listening to their stories as presented in the liturgical reading of the . They continue to do so in our own day, in which Coptic Orthodox bookstores carry a wide range of books and pamphlets—and even movies!—about individual saints. Copto-Arabic hagiography continues to be a lively enterprise.