Martyrdom of Saint Maurice by Gustave Courtois (1852-1923)
Martyrdom in Christianity has specific meaning that is based on Christ. He told his followers:
And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved…He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.[i] For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.[ii]
This Christians understood from early age, and Copts, specifically, took it very seriously: When Christians are threatened with death over Christ, they must not be cowed or try to save their lives: they must be courageous and chose death over life – those who deny Christ will lose Eternal Life; those who stick to Christ and defy their persecutors will find Life. Courage has always been at the forefront of all Christian virtues for no virtue stands without it.
This understanding of Christ’s uncompromising words led to the phenomenon of martyrdom of Christianity. Thousands upon thousands of Christians gave their lives for Christ throughout the ages – they could have renounced Christ and gained their temporal lives but they preferred rather to die for Christ. You can think of the famous Christian martyrs you may remember: St. George, St. Theodore, St. Menas, St. Catherine, etc., all to emphasise to you the above: martyrdom is an act of courageous choice of death over life – a choice taken consciously when one knows that by simply recanting Christ one would save his or her life.
The Christian would be martyr knows that his encounter with his or her persecutor is a contest that requires courage and defiance: it’s a contest between Christ’s faithful and the powers of evil; and in dying for Christ one is not a looser but a winner. [iii]This celebratory concept is best demonstrated by the story of Menas, brother of the Coptic Patriarch, Benjamin I (662-662), who was murdered by the forces of Heraclius (610-641),[iv] the Byzantine Emperor:
And Heraclius seized the blessed Mennas, brother of the Father Benjamin, the patriarch, and brought great trials upon him, and caused lighted torches to be held to his sides until the fat of his body oozed forth and flowed upon the ground, and knocked out his teeth because he confessed the faith; and finally commanded that a sack should be filled with sand, and the holy Mennas placed within it, and drowned in the sea. For Heraclius the misbeliever had charged them, saying: “If any one of them says that the council of Chalcedon is true, let him go; but drown in the sea those that say it is erroneous and false.” Therefore they did as the prince bade them, and cast Mennas into the sea. For they took the sack, and conveyed him to a distance of seven bowshots from the land, and said to him: “Say that the council of Chalcedon is good and not otherwise, and we will release thee.” But Mennas would not do so. And they did this with him three times; and when he refused they drowned him. Thus they were unable to vanquish this champion, Mennas, but he conquered them by his Christian patience.[v]
The whole concept of martyrdom in Christianity is diametrically different from that in Islam. In Islam, a martyr (shahid)[vi] is one who have died fulfilling a religious commandment, especially those dying fighting in jihad war (the military expansion of Islam).[vii] The concept of martyrdom in Islam is elastic enough to include those who die protecting their property or in any accident, such as when a property collapses on top of its Muslim inhabitants.[viii] It is this elastic concept of martyrdom that is adopted by the Muslims of Egypt: anyone who dies in a car accident, or violent incident, or in war, is considered a martyr, and hailed as “shahid”.
It’s clear that the concepts of martyrdom in Christianity and Islam cannot meet. In the former, only those who die at the hands of violent oppressors rather than deny Christ are considered martyrs; in Islam, martyrdom is an act of violence and the chance death as one kills and maims others. Even in the other forms of martyrdom in Islam, such as dying in modern wars for country (actually, this is not strictly Islamic but Muslims of Egypt took it so[ix]), Christianity differs: one may consider those who die, e.g., for Egypt, in its various wars, as victims or heroes, but not martyrs. This applies to both Coptic and Muslim soldiers, who die in Egypt’s wars, whether against foreign countries, such as Israel in 1973 and the Islamic terrorists in Sinai.
The Christian concept of martyrdom is unique and must not be confused with Islamic concepts. Sadly, we have seen this being eroded recently: We have seen even prominent Coptic bishops hail Egyptian soldiers killed in Sinai by Islamic terrorists as martyrs.[x] We all regard those who die against Islamic terrorists as heroes – this is dignifying enough and sufficient. All civilised nations call their fallen in wars, victims or heroes. For Coptic bishops to describe them as martyrs is, to say the least, irresponsible, as it blurs the difference between dying for Christ and dying for any other reason. They themselves may not experience the damaging effect of confusing the two concepts of martyrdom, but the simple men and women in our nation, who are not as educated as they are, will certainly lose the distinction between the two.
The encroachment of Islam on our Christian Coptic culture is subtle, and is often allowed in by us. We have seen in the past examples of Islamic acculturalisation of the Copts, such as male and female circumcision.[xi] We must not assume that the trend has ended – Islamic acculturalisation of the Copts is steady and is often aided by the least likely, by the clergy. You can consider the contamination[xii] of our Christian concept of martyrdom as the latest. It must be resisted.
[i] Matthew 10:21, 22, 39 (KJV).
[ii] Luke 9:24 (KJV).
[iii] For the defiance of Coptic martyrs who saw themselves in a contest, see: Four Martyrdoms From The Pierpont Morgan Coptic Codices, by E. A. E. Reymond and J. W. B. Barnes (Oxford, 1998).
[iv] The persecutor was then Cyrus, Heraclius’ governor and patriarch of Alexandria, who was in a mission to destroy the followers of Dioscorus I (444-458), Coptic Patriarch at Chalcedon (451 AD).
[v] Severus of Al’Ashmunein (Hermopolis), History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic church of Alexandria (1904) Part 2: Peter I – Benjamin I (661 AD). Patrologia Orientalis; pp. 491-492.
[vi] Literally, witness.
[vii] See: Qur’an, Sura 3: 169 – 170; Sura 9: 111; Surah 22: 58.
[viii] See, e.g., Sahih al-Bukhari, 3:43:660.
[ix] Islam admits no patriotism – it knows only Islam and dying for it, not for a patrie.
[x] I am not going to name these bishops but I can reassure you that what I say is right.
[xii] I use the word ‘contamination’ here in a mechanical sense.
In a previous article, I argued that the Coptic language is not dead. It’s hurting that several lazy scholars have written about the language shift from Coptic to Arabic in medieval Egypt and described Coptic as a dead language. But I am glad that at least one of the eminent scholars in Coptology agrees with my position: Jason Zaborowski, Associate Professor at Bradley University, Peoria, Illinois, US. I gather his opinion from his excellent article From Coptic to Arabic in Medieval Egypt which was published in Medieval Encounters, in 2008.
Zaborowski’s opinion is that Coptic is neither dead nor lost: he uses the term “Coptic disuse” or “Coptic desuetude” instead to describe what happened in Egypt in the Middle Ages which ended by the Copts using Arabic instead of Coptic.
Zaborowski starts by saying:
I use the phrase “disuse of Coptic” as a shorthand for discussing the phenomenon whereby Coptic speakers replaced Coptic with Arabic in their literary productions and especially in their everyday speech, it is not accurate to label Coptic language ‘dead’ while it is currently at least mouthed daily in the Coptic Church’s liturgy.
He supports his argument by the reluctance of the famous English linguist, Andrew Dalby, in his Language in Danger: the Loss of Linguistic Diversity and the Threat to Our Future “to speak of languages as ‘dying,’ since the loss of language is ‘defined in such different ways’ and it is only ‘[o]ccasionally [that] it may be linked with … the violent death of all current speakers.’”
Andrew Dalby, Zaborowski says, “refers to [the change] as ‘language loss’ in the process of being replaced by another language: ‘More often the last speakers of any language have switched to another which meets their current needs, and occasionally… a little of their former language may be incorporated in their new one.’ According to Dalby, ‘we are all losers’ in that process of language replacement.”
Zaborowski uses Dalby’s to support his opinion on the inaccuracy of saying Coptic is dead, and goes even further to dismiss that it’s lost:
I would argue further that, as long as there are extant textual representations of a language and enthusiasts of those writings, a language is not altogether dead, nor is it lost. Thus, I employ ‘disuse’ to express the neglect of Coptic-language skills, which went hand in hand with an increasing ‘use’ of Arabic by Egyptian Christians in the course of maintaining and producing their culture.
I return to repeat my previous assertion:
It is unfair to place a language with a known alphabet, vocabulary, phonology and syntax that has disappeared from daily-life use on the same footing with a language that has also disappeared but has had none of these… To describe Coptic as dead, and placing it on the same footing with really dead languages that have not been recorded and have no extant literature, grammars and dictionaries, and workable phonology, is not just inaccurate but very dangerous, for it implies that Coptic cannot be revived.
 Zaborowski’s scholarship work includes:
- The Coptic Martyrdom of John of Phanijoit: Assimilation and Conversion to Islam in Thirteenth-Century Egypt (Brill, 2005)
- “Coptic Christianity,” in Wiley-Blackwell Companion to African Religions, ed. Elias K. Bongmba (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)
- “Arab Christian Physicians as Interreligious Mediators: Abū Shākir as a Model Christian Expert,” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 22, 2 (April 2011)
- “From Coptic to Arabic in Medieval Egypt,” Medieval Encounters 14 (2008)
- “Shenoute’s Sermon The Lord Thundered: An Introduction and Translation,” Oriens Christianus 90 (2006) with Janet A. Timbie.
- “The Coptic Martyrdom of John of Phanijoit: Assimilation and Restoration from Salah al-Din to the Writing of the Martyrdom: 1169-1211 (565-607 A.H.),” in Actes du huitième Congrès international d’études coptes: Paris, 28 juin – 3 juillet 2004 2 (Peeters, 2007).
- “Egyptian Christians Implicating Chalcedonians in the Arab Takeover of Egypt: The Arabic Apocalypse of Samuel of Qalamun,” Oriens Christianus (2003).
 Jason R. Zaborowski, From Coptic to Arabic in Medieval Egypt, Medieval Encounters 14 (2008): 17 n. 5.
 Andrew Dalby, Language in Danger: the Loss of Linguistic Diversity and the Threat to Our Future (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), x. xi.
Wael Saad, a Copt as you may have noticed, has developed an advanced Coptic writing system, called Coptic Notes, for the iPhone and iPad. It is currently supported by iOS7 only; not iOS8, but he is working on seeding an update to support iOS8 and support for iPhone 6/6+ and iPad Air. He has contacted me to make his good work known to a wider readership, and I do that with pleasure – Coptic nationalists and Coptologists should use the new media to advance the learning of Coptic; and Wael has done an excellent job on that front. He wrote: “I thought you might be interested to know that one way to help revive the Coptic language is to increase its presence in the digital world. This is why I developed ‘Coptic Notes’ a powerful iOS mobile app for the iPhone and iPad to help communicate with Coptic online; it’s not perfect yet but close.”
An interesting article written by a certain Caroline on the Cambridge Library Collection Blog under the title, Coptic – Living or Dead? (posted January 24, 2011), examines the revival of the Coptic language. I advise my readers to check it out here!
The Hyperglot Blog has a very interesting and encouraging article on Coptic, Coptic: Wanted Dead or Alive! I urge my readers to read it, here!
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.