Coptic is studied for different reasons. Westernern scholars study Coptic because they are by large interested in Egyptology and Classic Antiquity; and for this reason they show more interest in learning the Sahidic dialect than Bohairic.
Copts learn Coptic for two reasons:
1. Many learn it for religious reasons – they want to understand the Coptic liturgy and hymns. The content of their curriculum is religious mainly. For this, they learn Bohairic as is known in its new form, Neo-Bohairic which was developed in the 1850s.
2. Some learn it because it’s a core element in Coptic identity – they want to talk and write in it to describe the world and life around us and to express our feelings and thoughts, religious and secular. Their interest is not limited to the sacred and religious. This group is divided into those who use Old-Bohairic and those who take Neo-Bihairic as the form to revive.
Coptic Nationalism subscribes to the second group – Coptic must be revived as a national language capable of describing modern life.
I would like to introduce two coined words into Coptic national debate: Shlilists and Shlolists, and one can drive from them further words to describe the ideology behind each group, Shlilism and Shlolism.
Shlil in Coptic (ϣⲗⲓⲗ) means ‘to pray’, while shlol (ϣⲗⲟⲗ) means ‘nation’ [In contrast, laos (ⲗⲁⲟⲥ) means ‘people’]. There is another word in Coptic reserved for a nation, which is ethnos (ⲉⲑⲛⲟⲥ), but it is Greek in origin while shlol seems to be purely Egyptian.
Who are the Shlilists?
I define them as those Copts who think of themselves as ekklesia (ⲉⲕⲕⲗⲏⲥⲓⲁ – Church) only; as Christians, who are sojourners of the world and true citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven only. They do not see the Copts as a cultural nation; and other aspects of Coptic culture, such as language, literature, arts, and music, do not interest them except in as far as they serve religion. In fact, they do not see any problem in the Copts and Coptic Church being completely Arabised. Their main focus is the Church and their main interest is their religious freedom: if they are allowed to worship in freedom not withstanding how they are treated otherwise they are satisfied; their only weapon in the face of injustice is prayer and the invoking of the saints and martyrs to intervene, sometimes in a violent manner. They do not entertain the prospect of any active resistance against their oppressors – martyrdom is the only thing they could offer.
Who are the Shlolists?
The Shlolists think of themselves as primarily a cultural nation: their Christianity is dear to them and Christ takes the centre point in their history. They believe the Copts are an ekklesia but a nation in a cultural sense too: religion is not the only important matter to them but other aspects of their cultural life are essential, such as the Coptic language, history, literature, arts, music, etc. They cannot think of losing their language, for example, without losing something very intimate and essential in their identity. They do not work only to protect and promote the propagation of Christianity but Coptic culture as a whole. They are not only interested in religious freedom but in all of their civil rights and their cultural collective rights too. They may die as martyrs but they may fight injustice through active non-violent resistance.
The above is only an attempt at descriptive definition.
I would like to stress two points:
- That the attempt to distinguish between two is not meant to pass a judgement on any but to make the debate more intelligible. Both represent honest people; and each must respect the other, even as they try to argue for their position and convert the other to their point of view.
- There is an overlap between Shlilism and Shlolism and they merge with each other at many points.
What is culture in general?
To be able to answer this title’s question, one has to be acquainted first with the definition of culture in general. What is culture? The definition of culture is often confusing when it should be clear in the mind due to its enormous importance in our social and political lives. The most misleading definition of culture is that which equate it to intellectual and artistic works that are produced by humanity in its various groups, and which are considered to be of high quality and special. This definition was first introduced in the 19th century by the English poet Mathew Arnold (1822 – 1888) in his Culture and Anarchy (1867). According to this concept of culture, only people who produce or appreciate works of literature and art (such as novels, plays, paintings, music, and ballet) have culture, and can be described as ‘cultured’. The rest of humanity who are not part of that ‘high culture’ do not possess culture, and can be described as ‘uncultured’, and in many ways ‘philistines’. This seems to be the prevalent understanding of culture in Egypt, and it does influence the minds of many Copts: a ‘cultured’ individual is ‘مُثَقَّف’ and a ‘non-cultured’ person is ‘غَيْر مُثَقَّف’. In Egypt there is even a ministry of culture (وزارة الثقافة), by which is meant ‘high culture’.
The fact is that the concept of culture is much wider than ‘high culture’: culture, as the English anthropologist, Edward Tylor (1832 – 1917), tells us in his Primitive Culture (1870), is:
That complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.
Further, culture is not limited to a certain social group: all folks have culture, and culture of their own, whether they are contributory and interested in ‘high culture’ or not, whether they are educated or illiterate, whether they are rich or poor, whether they are hunter-gatherers or settled and urbanised. You can speak of American culture, Roma culture, Greek culture, Roman culture, Jewish culture, Matis culture, Islamic culture, Arabic culture, Indian culture, Dinka culture, etc. Each culture is unique and special: no two cultures are similar. At this point, it is important to avoid the mistake of denying culture to any group: all groups, all peoples, all religions have culture of their own. You may disdain some parts of a certain culture but your disapproval does not negate that it is nevertheless a culture. A group does not posses a culture only when their culture is considered to be high: high or low is a judgement call but not the foundation of the definition of culture. Some Copts insist that Arabs and Muslims have no culture: this is wrong: Arabs and Muslims have culture of their own, whether we agree with it or not, whether we like it or not.
Now, we come to a part in the definition of culture that is often poorly emphasised though is most important and useful. Culture is not only a product to describe; it is a living and dynamic force that plays in the mind of peoples, consciously or subconsciously, and forms them. It was the Coptic thinker Salama Musa (1887 – 1958) who first drew my attention to this fact: culture is what makes man and his civilisation, he told us. It makes man through influencing his feelings and judgements, as the American anthropologist, Clifford Geertz (1926 – 2006), says:
Culture is the framework of beliefs, expressive symbols, and values in terms of which individuals define their feelings and make their judgements.
The specific feelings and judgements defined by a certain culture lead to particular behaviours and actions by society, and these in turn determine what kind of society is created and what kind of civilisation is established. This creative and dynamic function of culture has been described by the Dutch social psychologist, Geert Hofstede (b. 1928) as the software of the mind that controls one’s patterns of thinking, feelings, and potential behaviour and acting:
[Culture] is the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another.
It is worth here mentioning that all folks have unique civilisations as they have unique cultures – no two cultures will produce the same civilisation, although they may both share similar characteristics. I define civilisation here as simply the condition of a particular human society, as displayed in its social, political and cultural complexity, and includes its arts, literature, sciences, laws, architecture, institutions, etc. Again, I emphasise here the error of denying the term ‘civilisation’ to certain peoples, such as Arabs and Muslims, based on our disdain to certain parts of their civilisation. If a social group has a unique culture, then that culture will certainly produce a definite type of civilisation for that group.
Culture is not inherited but is a learned quality that is transmitted from one generation to the other, and is obtained either consciously (creating values) or unconsciously (creating basic assumptions that are taken for granted).
What is Coptic culture then?
Coptic culture can be defined as: the unique complex whole that makes the Copts the way they are and determines their way of life and civilisation.
That complex whole includes the Copts’ distinctive type of Christianity, national roots, unique history, knowledge, heritage, values, morals, social and political philosophies, worldview, language, literature, art, music, folklore, feasts, heroes (martyrs, saints, clergy, national leaders, etc.) traditions, customs, and habits. And that complex whole makes us by programming our minds individually and collectively, and determining the way we think, feel, believe, judge, behave, act, and live.
The threat to Coptic culture
Cultures naturally evolve; nothing is static. Further, cultures are not necessarily antagonistic – many share common values and can live together in peace if the necessary social, economic and political conditions exist. What creates conflicts between cultures is when one tries to dominate and assimilate the other, first by contaminating [the word here is used only in a mechanical way] the culture that is in a weaker power dynamic relationship and then by total assimilation.
We have seen such an example in our own case: since the Arabs invaded Egypt in the seventh century, and controlled all political and economic power, we have witnessed a continuous onslaught on our culture, manifested in three processes:
- Islamisation (الأسلمة), by which I mean the phenomenon and process whereby an Egyptian/Coptic Christian converts to Islam; and stops looking at himself, or herself, as belonging to the Coptic Christian Faith, Church and nation.
- Arabisation (التعريب), by which I mean the process and phenomenon by which Egyptians/Copts stopped talking in their own Egyptian/Coptic language, and adopted Arabic as their main daily language. It is thus a process of language shift from Coptic to Arabic.
- Islamic assimilation (or Islamic culturalisation) (التذويب الإسلامي), by which I mean the process and phenomenon by which Copts, as individuals or collectively, consciously or subconsciously, abandoned their traditions, customs, behaviours, etc. – or in one word their culture – and acquired parts of Islamic culture to which influence they have been exposed. One has seen this in different expressions at different junctures of our history, such as divorce, polygamy, weakness in our family structure and values, adoption, inheritance laws, etc.
No culture is immune to change; however, no culture would like to be forced to change. This applies to the Copts as it applies to other cultures, including Islamic and Arabic culture. Nations naturally resist cultural contamination and final assimilation since all peoples love their cultural values and would like to protect the way they live.
I have made an effort above to warn the Copts of denying that Arabs and Muslims possess culture and civilisation of their own. They must avoid that by avoiding valorising Arab and Muslim cultures. However much we disdain certain aspects of their culture and civilisation that does not negate their existence. Further, it must be understood that not all their culture or civilisation is bad; in fact, they have brilliant manifestations which we cannot but admire. This puts us on a solid ground of reason and morality. But all that said, we must not forget that our culture and civilisation are different in many ways; that we must resist Islamisation, Arabisation, and cultural Islamisation, and protect our unique culture which we love and would like to determine our way of living.
The threat to Coptic culture is real, old and continuing. All manifestations of such a threat must be resisted, and whatever contamination in our culture has occurred must be reversed.
 Edward Tylor, Primitive Culture (New York, J. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1871); Volume 1, page 1.
 Matis is a small indigenous tribe in Brazil that practises hunting and agriculture, and was first contacted by the outside world in the 1970s.
 I think this he explains in his About Life and Culture (1930), which was later revised and renamed in 1956: Culture and Life.
In a previous article, I criticised the way the name of the Monastery of Saint Anthony at the Red Sea is displayed, in Arabic (in the largest fonts), and then English, and then Coptic; and I said:
There is no excuse whatsoever for monasteries in Egypt to promote Arabic at the expense of Coptic language even if it is the great monastery of Saint Anthony.
I argued that the name of the sacred monastery should be displayed first in Coptic, our national language, then in the dominant language in Egypt (Arabic), then the language known to most tourists (English). But I noted that it was not only the Monastery of Saint Anthony that comes under this criticism, as it is a defect that affects most of our churches, monasteries, schools and social activity venues.
Today, with all due respect to our sacred monasteries, I pick on two more monasteries, this time from the western desert, in Wadi Natrun:
First, the Monastery of Saint Bishoy
At least, the Monastery of Saint Anthony displays its name in Coptic besides Arabic and English, even though it relegates Coptic to the third, and last, position. The Monastery of Saint Bishoy does not use Coptic at all! Its name is displayed in Arabic and one finds lots of notices written in Arabic. The name is displayed, too, in English.
Second, the Monastery of the Holy Virgin Mary (Syrians)
Here again, we find the monastery’s name displayed in Arabic and English only. Coptic is indeed used but not to show the name of the monastery but to tell us that it belongs to the Coptic Orthodox Church.
In a way, we all – yes, clergy and laity – assist in the process of Arabisation of the Copts and the final demise of our beautiful Coptic language. Saint Samuel of Kalamoun (Qalamoun) would be ashamed of us all!
Is it really difficult that we, particularly the clergy, pay a special attention to this matter, and work to revive our Coptic language and resist Arabisation that has invaded our sacred space even in the remote deserts of Egypt?
In a previous article, I have written of a serious encroachment of Arabisation on the Coptic name of God: Ephnuti[i] (or Abnouda[ii]). As Copts got Arabised in the Middle Period of their history[iii], they abandoned Ephnouti for Allah (اللّه), the Arabic name for God. I explained the devastating effect on that on Coptic culture, and I would say, even to Coptic Christianity. The reader can consult the article for detail.
: these beautiful names have been mouthed by Copts throughout their history before Arabisation with reverence: millions upon millions of Copts found them most sweet, most comforting, most uplifting as they chanted them, whether they were gathering at homes, harvesting their fields, sailing the Nile, praying the liturgy in churches, or performing their ascetic practices at monasteries and deserts across Egypt. They were innate and intimate names to Coptic Christianity. But, with the language shift in the Coptic Middle Period, Copts abandoned Isoas and Maria to their Arabic equivalents, ‘يسوع’ (pronounce, Yasoa) and ‘مريم’ (pronounced, Mariam), respectively.
Of course Jesus and Mary are the same whatever language you use; however, it seems to me there is no good reason to change the names of the holiest of your holies as you adopt another language, in the same way you don’t change your proper name from, for example, Angaelos[iv] to Angel or Agia[v] to Saint, if you adopt the English language.
I look at it as completely bizarre as much as damaging to our culture.
[ii] In Old Bohairic.
[iii] This period corresponds roughly to the 12th and 13th centuries.
[iv] Meaning ‘angel’ in Coptic.
[v] Meaning ‘Saint’ in Coptic (f.).