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THE SOMALI-EGYPTIAN HISTORIAN, ABD AL-RAHMAN AL-JABARTI, ON THE COPTIC LEGION – AN EXAMPLE OF MUSLIM ANTI-COPTISM

July 21, 2012

 

Figure 1: A beautiful print showing a soldier from the Coptic Legion, the Greek Legion, and a Syrian from 1854.

Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti (عبد الرحمن الجبرتي) or, for short, Jabarti (‎1753 – 1825) was a Muslim Egyptian scholar and chronicler, whose roots are from Somalia. He was a shaykh of al-Azhar, and his single claim to fame is his chronicle Aja’ib al-athar fi al-tarajim wal-akhbar (عجائب الاَثار في التراجم والاخبار), or as it is known in English, al-Jabarti’s History of Egypt. In it he recorded an eye-witness account of events prior to and during the French Expedition in Egypt (1798 – 1801), and then until, and after, Muhammad Ali rose to power in Egypt. The chronicle, which Jabarti finished writing in 1822, covers the history of Egypt from 1788 until 1821 AD.

Jabarti, despite his credentials as annalist, was a hater of the Copts and all non-Muslims, as his chronicle testifies. His vision of the position of the Copt in society is based on Islamic Sharia, and as exemplified in the Pact of Umar[1] – the Copts should not be treated as equals or with honour, but should be reduced to a dhimmitude position.[2] The concept of equal citizenship, mankind brotherhood, and human rights, is alien to this Muslim thinking – and when the French arrived in Egypt, with their slogan “liberté, égalité, fraternité”,[3] it shocked him as it shocked other Muslims.

We see Jabarti’s anti-Coptic prejudice in several pages of his chronicle. But our aim in this article is to focus on Jabarti’s account of General Ya’qub’s Coptic Legion (Lègion Copte); and he or she may then see an example of Jabarti’s visceral hate of the Copts that he could not control in his writing.

The Coptic Legion, as the reader will have noted from several articles on the subject in this blog, was formed to defend the Copts at the heels of the Cairo Revolt II (March-April 1800) in which Coptic quarters, particularly Azbakiyya, were attacked by Turks, Mamelukes and fanatic Egyptian mobs. The legion was, therefore, as Anouar Louca points out, was “born of the need for self-defense”.[4] Muslim attacks on Copts were endemic, and continue to this day. The Coptic Legion which General Ya’qub had formed in 1800 was just, but Muslim scholars, including Jabarti, saw in it only infidels’ rebellion against Islamic control – they never saw in the Muslim’s oppression of the Copts any wrongdoing. He, therefore, harboured great hatred towards General Ya’qub and his Coptic Legion, which he talks about under the events of 1215 AH (= 25 May 1800 – 14 May 1801 AD). On the events of Thursday, 5 Muharram 1215 AH (29 May 1800 AD), he writes:[5]

وفيه طلبوا عسكرًا من القبط فجمعوا منهم طائفة وزَيَّوْهم بزيّهم وقيَّدوا بهم من يعلِّمهم كيفية حربهم ويدربهم  على ذلك وأرسلوا إلى الصعيد فجمعوا من شبانهم نحو الألفين وأحضروهم إلى مصر وأضافوهم إلى

[6].العسكر

[T]hey [the French] requested soldiers from within the Copts, and gathered some of them, and dressed them in their uniform. And they appointed [officers] to instruct and train them in warfare. And they sent to Upper Egypt and gathered two thousand young Copts, and they brought them to Cairo, and they added them to the army.

Then, as his annals for the year end, he adds a general appendix, in which he again touches on the Coptic Legion, and talks about their military uniform:

  ومنها أن يعقوب القبطي لما تظاهر مع الفرنساوية وجعلوه ساري عسكر القبطة جمع شبان القبط وحلق لحاهم وزياهم بزي مشابه لعسكر الفرنساوية مميزين عنهم بقبع يلبسونه على رؤوسهم مشابه لشكل البرنيطة وعليه قطعة فروة سوداء من جلد الغنم في غاية البشاعة مع ما يضاف إليها من قبح صورهم وسواد [7] أجسامهم وزفارة أبدانهم وصيرهم عسكره وعزوته وجمعهم من أقصى الصعيد

When Ya’qub the Copt joined the French, and they made him the Copts’ Sari ‘Askar (Commander), he gathered Coptic youth, shaved their beards, and dressed them up in a uniform similar to that of the French troops’, distinguished from them [only] by hats similar to berrettos and covered with black sheep-hind leather that are utterly ghastly, and on top of that the ugliness of their looks, the blackness of their skin, and the stench of their bodies. And [Ya’qub] made them his troops and pride. And he gathered them from the distant Sa’eed (Upper Egypt).

______

Now, there can be no words in any Muslim scholar writings that could convey the meaning of anti-Coptism better. As we have defined it in a previous article, ant-Coptism, which is the anti-Semitism of Egypt, is “the intense dislike and hate by the Egyptian Muslim of the Copts which leads him or her to express it in diver hostile ways, including written and verbal lies and insults, segregation, discrimination and other cruel treatment”.[8] Anti-Coptism is basically built on lies and driven by hate and a strong desire to insult, humiliate and mistreat. As we have read in various reports and assessments of the Coptic soldier and officer by French leaders and savants, the troops of the Lègion Copte conducted themselves admirably and distinguished themselves at war. They did not only fight to defend their brethren in Egypt against constant attacks by fanatic Muslims, but also fought, after they left to France in 1801, in Bonaparte’s European wars, at Austerlitz, Dalmatia, the Ionian Islands, Italy, and Waterloo.[9] The military uniform of the Copts did not differ from the French infantry’s except in colour (which was an organisational matter only). The Copts, as we have explained in our article “The Uniform and Weaponry of the Coptic Legion”,[10] wore a bicornate hat made from sheep’s hide leather, that was dyed black, as all troops in the French armee d’orient were required to wear, French or not,[11] and which had plumes of red horse-hair falling from it. Fortunately, we have several visual representations of the Coptic Legion made by French artists, which we spoke about before, and which I advise the reader to review to judge for himself.[12] To show the handsome uniform of the Coptic Legion, I have reproduced one of the prints above.[13]


[1] The Pact of Umar is traditionally attributed to Umar I (634 – 644 AD), the second caliph, and contains stringent humiliating and discriminatory regulations forced on non-Muslims.

[2] Dhimmitude is derived from dhimmi, which literally means ‘protected’, but the word does not carry any semblance to its original meaning, when applied to non-Muslims who come under the forced rule of the Muslims. The writer takes the definition of Dhimmitude in the same way Bat Ye’or has explained; i.e. the state of ill treatment and subjugation of non-Muslims by Muslims.

[3] Only a few months after his arrival in Egypt, Napoleon Bonaparte wrote on 7 December 1798 to the Copts, through their leaders, declaring their full equality and freedom. See: http://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2011/10/17/napoleon-bonaparte%E2%80%99s-declaration-to-the-coptic-nation-on-7-december-1798-%E2%80%93-a-new-social-contract/

[4] The Coptic Encyclopedia, volume 7, (CE:2349b-2353a) (New York, Macmillan, 1991.

[5] The translation from Arabic into English is mine.

[6] المختار من تاريخ الجبرتى، اختيار محمد قنديل البقلى، القاهرة، مطابع الشعب، ١٩٥٨، ص ٣٧٣.

[7] Ibid., ص ٤٢٤.

[9] See, in The Coptic Encyclopedia (New York, Mcmillian, 1991) the articles written by Anouar Louca on General Ya’qub (CE:2349b-2353a), Yuhanna Chiftichi (CE:519a-520b), Jean Haragli (CE:1206a-1206b), Mikarius Salippe (CE:2089b-2090a), Gabriel Sidarus (CE:2137a-2137b), and Makaryus Hunayn (CE:1511b-1512a). See, also, Aziz S. Atiya’s aricle on ‘Abdallah Mansur (CE:1524a).

[10] On Coptic Nationalism (17 July 2012). The reader can access the article at: http://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/07/17/the-uniform-and-weaponry-of-the-coptic-legion/

[11] See: Michael Barthorp, Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaigns 1798-1801 (China, Osprey Publishing, 2002); p.9.

[12] See:

-          http://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/07/15/legion-cophte-1799-a-cacao-bensdorp-cie-rare-postcard-depicting-the-soldiers-of-the-coptic-legion-during-the-french-expedition-in-egypt/

-          http://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/07/15/a-smart-good-looking-soldier-from-the-coptic-legion-of-general-yaqub-the-copt-as-he-appears-in-a-french-painting/

-          http://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/07/15/a-coptic-soldier-from-the-coptic-legion-a-chromolithographic-cut/

-          http://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/07/16/more-of-the-coptic-legion/

-          http://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/07/16/uniforms-of-the-african-and-asiatic-troops-including-the-coptic-legion-in-the-service-of-france-by-the-french-artist-charles-vernier/

[13] This print is taken from Eugene Fieffé: Histoire des Troupes Étrangères au service de France depuis leur origine jusqu’à nos jours et de tous les régiments levés dans les pays conquis sous la Première République et le’Empire. The illustratoris Jean sorieul (1824-1871) and the engraver L. Deghouy. On this print, see: http://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/07/15/a-smart-good-looking-soldier-from-the-coptic-legion-of-general-yaqub-the-copt-as-he-appears-in-a-french-painting/

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