WAQ‘AT AL-NASARA (Christian encounter)
A name given by Arab writers to a grave crisis or, more precisely, a series of crises caused by a buildup of tension against the Copts in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries during the first Bahri Mamluk dynasty (Bahrides). These events, which coincided with a general consensus against Christians in the Muslim world, of which Egypt was the leading power at that time, are important for Coptic history. They illustrate the change that had already begun with the ARAB CONQUEST OF EGYPT and by which Coptic history ceased to be dependent solely on local events and became exposed to decisive external factors pertaining to the evolution of Muslim society in different countries and to its animated relations with the non-Muslim communities, such as Jews and Christians, living in the same countries.
The tension against the Copts was inflamed not only by the local situation in the agitated Mamluk period—that is, by extremists like Qadi Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn al-Raf‘ah (see WAQ‘AT AL- KANA’IS) or, in the fourteenth-century, Ibn al-Naqqash, with their polemical fatwas (legal opinions) and publications—but also by a group of rigorists from outside Egypt, such as the theologian Ibn Taymiyyah of Damascus, and by other foreign appeals to Mamluks against Copts.
This explains why the duration of these crises was out of proportion to their causes and why their consequences were grave. They were the coup de grace of a particular phase in the history of Christianity in Egypt, with massive conversions to Islam and the destruction of the majority of churches and monasteries (see ISLAMIZATION). They reduced Copts to the poor state in which they remained until the nineteenth century, that of an isolated minority with very limited participation in the active life of the country, with marginal social activity, and consequently with low economic possibilities. Travelers described this state from the sixteenth century on.
Al-Nuwayri and al-MAQRIZI could be considered the principal recorders of these crises, although many other writers from the Mamluk period, both Egyptian and Arab, mentioned them. The importance of the evidence of these two Egyptian historians is due not only to the fact that al-Nuwayri was contemporary with the events and wrote a history of Egypt up to 1331, the year before his death, and that al-Maqrizi lived in the aftermath of these crises and reported on their consequences for the Copts, but also because of the high positions they held.
Al-Nuwayri, who descended from a family of civil servants, became one of the important statesmen of the Mamluk period, a nazir al-jaysh (secretary of war) and nazir al-diwan (secretary of state) before becoming one of the favorites of the sultan Muhammad ibn Qalawun, in whose reign the important events occurred. His attitude is identical with that of the amirs and heads of the administration, who did not really want to stop the eruption of the populace against the Copts. Al-Maqrizi, on the other hand, was born of a family of qadis (magistrates) and jurists.
Before he decided to give up his career to devote himself to writing, he was nominated to the chancellery (Diwan al-Insha’) and then as a muhtasib of Cairo (an official who supervised the application of shari‘ah, or Islamic law), a position that gave him power to control the non-Muslims. Later he was a preacher in the Mosque of ‘Amr and the Madrasah of al-Hassan and finally an imam and professor of hadith (science of the Muslim traditions).
He thus belonged to the religious circles that were no less influential in the sociopolitical structure than was the administration and that also played an active role in the events. Thus, it is evident that these two historians belonged to groups that always have been, and still are, very powerful in Egypt—the administration and the clergy.
The political conditions of the Mamluk period and the circumstances of the Muslim world at that time greatly reinforced the role of these two groups and introduced changes in their structure and in their relationship with the population. The administration, which had always been a monolithic body in Egypt under the control of one powerful hand, began to mirror the features of Mamluk military society and the precarious equilibrium of power between the sultan and other high members of the government, such as amirs. There persisted an air of suspicion, rivalry, and dissension between these Mamluks and their armed bands, which were eventually paid only by pillage. The sultan Ibn Qalawun himself, to give one example, was forced to leave his throne twice under the pressure of rival amirs. These heads of government were as avid as their bands, which joined the populace attacking people and shops in Cairo.
At one time, when the amirs decided to close down some churches under pressure from the rigorists, they agreed to reopen the one or another in return for money paid by Copts or rich gifts sent by Christian sovereigns, as in 1303. They also seized the occasion in the crisis of 1354 to confiscate the properties of the churches. No wonder that corruption and high taxes were among the results of the inability of the Mamluks to direct the country in any orderly way, apart from the military activities. The population suffered from their management, the precarious economy, epidemics, famines, and extra taxes to finance the war.
The population naturally paid the price, and the Copts, being the weaker party, had to pay the bigger part. To please the population, the Mamluk government adopted the practice (used by other governors as well) of punishing or imprisoning one of the high officials in the fiscal administration. He usually happened to be a Copt. Such scapegoating gave the population the impression that Coptic officials were responsible for the corruption and thereby intensified anti-Coptic feelings.
There was also an important change in the structure of religious circles. The clergy with its hard elements of rigorist theologians and jurists was no longer the only religious power in the country. In the thirteenth century, Muslim brotherhoods began to flourish in Egypt. They had in common political aims and the habit of exploiting religious or related problems, such as the antagonism between the Shi‘ites and the Sunnites.
Historians speak about the members of one of these brotherhoods who descended on the streets of Cairo at night profaning the Shi‘ites, attacking shops and even soldiers, and inciting the population to revolt against the government. Naturally these brotherhoods were closer to the population than most of the official clergy, which formed, in fact, a part of the administration and was loyal to the government of the Mamluks, who were blamed for the difficulties.
These developments in Egypt coincided with a still greater tension against the Christians in the Muslim world at large, which was being attacked from outside at that time by the Mongols and the Crusaders. Christian elements in the Mongol army were hard on Muslims in Syria, in retaliation for their attacks on churches. The greater danger came at one time from the Crusaders, who debarked twice in the Delta. No wonder a certain hardening of the attitude of Muslims against Christians began to set in as a normal reaction against the pressure of Christian Europe. In Egypt this attitude became a unifying factor.
The government proclaimed the country an “Islamic kingdom,” in response to the fatwas that had already appeared in Egypt against the Christians and the polemic tone of books of jurisprudence by certain rigorists. There appeared in other countries fatwas against the Christians. The same attitude characterizes the histories, poems, and other works from that period. But naturally, the response was greatest in the lower layers of the population; and in spite of the fact that this movement was a political reaction to consolidate the response of the Muslims to the aggression of Christian Europe and was not publicly or officially declared against the Christians living in Egypt, they were to suffer its consequences. Not everyone would disassociate the Copts, who were always loyal to their masters and who shared a general dislike of the European Christians.
It is interesting to draw the outlines of these crises from the evidence of historians of the Mamluk period. The first important crisis, which al-Maqrizi calls wa‘qat al-nasara, was that of 1283, in the reign of al-Malik al-Ashraf Khalil, followed by others in 1300, 1318, 1320, and 1354. No direct explanation in the strict sense of the term is given except for the crisis of 1318, which began when rigorists destroyed a church that had been restored by Copts. But in all these crises, the real reason seems to have been, at least at the beginning, essentially social and economic.
The rigorists did not like to see Copts occupying important positions or having authority over Muslims, with even historians complaining melodramatically about Coptic scribes being well dressed or boldly asking people to pay their debts. The sultan, to whom the rigorists complained, asked his subordinates to investigate. He ordered the dismissal of all the Copts engaged in the state administration, and in certain cases those who had not converted to Islam were to be killed or exiled.
The populace applied its own law. Without any interference by officials, who usually lingered around to maintain order at that time, the people attacked the Copts, mistreated them, and pillaged their houses, sometimes killing them and enslaving their women and children. When the situation became alarming because it threatened the whole city, orders were given to stop the eruption. It is difficult to know exactly the dimensions of such attacks or the number of victims; al-Maqrizi, who did not hide his anti-Coptic attitude, is not free from exaggeration.
At any rate, many Copts converted to Islam in each crisis. Those who chose to keep their faith were forced to accept the decision of the consensus of qadis, officials, and rigorists to reinforce the harsh prescriptions of the famous COVENANT OF ‘UMAR, which greatly limited their rights, liberties, professional activities, and economic possibilities, and thus pushed them to a marginal state in the society.
But what pleased the rigorists could not be maintained for long. When the excitement subsided, the authorities were usually forced to reintegrate Coptic officials and scribes, because they were badly needed to do the administrative work, which others could not do, especially in fiscal matters. Naturally, they were given the necessary responsibilities to do the job. Once more this angered the rigorists, tensions mounted, and a new crises began to take form. This explains the chain of crises that lasted for a century.
It follows that successive crises gave the rigorists more possibilities to improve their measures. The crisis of 1354, the last one during the reign of the first Mamluk dynasty, was the hardest against Copts. The government decided to confiscate all the properties of the churches in Egypt, over 25,000 feddans (acres), to exact more money from them, to consider the state as the only heir to heirless Copts, and not to hire them, even if they converted.
But the populace carried out what the government did not proclaim. Al- Maqrizi spoke about the fires that were kindled to force conversion; churches were destroyed, and the authorities interfered only when a church for non-Coptic Christians was threatened. There was a series of massive conversions all over the country. Traditional popular feasts with Coptic connotations were prohibited. The results of this crisis finally reduced Copts in Egypt to a “lonely minority.”