"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, October 17, 2016

From Byzantine to Islamic Egypt

First released in hardcover in 2014, and then this past May in paperback, Maged Mikhail's From Byzantine to Islamic Egypt: Religion, Identity and Politics after the Arab Conquest joins a series of other recent publications (discussed here and here) examining what happened to Christian populations after the conquest of Islam in the early seventh century.

As with Penn and Hoyland, Mikhail's book begins by noting that when Arab Muslims encountered residents of Egypt, what began in that encounter was not the complete replacement of one culture by another, but the great co-mingling of many ideas and practices. Thus he also issues a correction and caution against seeing the year 641 as some kind of radical break.

He begins by noting important issues with texts and their interpretation. In some ways, there are problems of abundance. In others, as is well known, there are problems of scarcity and unreliability among Arabic texts. With these latter, the biggest problem is the length of the period in which they circulated orally, subject to all manner of revision and emendation. You can only imagine what that does to the reliability of the tales retailed thereby.

But Christian texts are not without their own problems. Focusing on the well-known History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria, Mikhail notes the textual variants in the two main recensions of that key document for so much of Alexandrian ecclesiastical history.

All this pales, he suggests, in the light of the massive doctrinal controversies that so marred Egypt, the frontline of the fight between Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians. Anything and everything has been touched and tarred by this, and the fact that the Coptic Church emerged as a non-Chalcedonian church has been used to explain all kinds of things, no matter how far-fetched. Here a good deal of the influence is still felt by W.H.C. Frend's study from 1972, The Rise of the Monophysite Movement.

It is now exceedingly difficult, Mikhail says, to see which, if any, of the Coptic Christians in Egypt believed in the comical and amateurish notion of "monophysitism" that has come down to us as a belief in a "single divine nature." It was, in other words, a heresy held by nobody. Rather, Coptic Christians were concerned that Chalcedon was suspectible of a "Nestorian" interpretation, and to guard against this they preferred the well-known Cyrillian formula "of two natures" rather than Chalcedon's "in two natures."

As a result of getting this clear, Mikhail says we must now reject the idea that the "monophysites" suffered from an "intrinsic inability to resist Islamic theology." To be sure, the intrusion of Islam did eventually force greater co-operation among the various Christian groups in Egypt, but it was a much longer and messier process than many imagined. And here, too, he also debunks the slanderous nonsense that the Copts, hating their "Byzantine" "overlords" turned around to "welcome" the Islamic invaders. This lie has been debunked again and again, and it comes in for fresh demolition here in a book marked by careful sifting of the evidence (the notes and bibliography run to well over 100pp) and very much worth your time if you have any interest in Coptic, Egyptian, Islamic, Arabic, and doctrinal history.

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