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May 10, 2011

A Coptic face from the Fayum Portraits

What was in the Coptic mind changed after its Arabisation and Islamic assimilation

THE STUDENT OF COPTIC HISTORY in the Islamic Period (640 AD – now) will discern three distinct processes, and phenomena, that have always caused much concern to the Copts, and their Church: processes and phenomena that have generally not been welcomed by the. One can find plenty of evidence in Coptic history that they have been often resisted by many Coptic clergy and laity, who tried to reverse them. These three processes and phenomena are: Islamisation, Arabisation and Islamic assimilation or culturalisation.

These terms may receive different definitions elsewhere, but in the Coptic context they should be applied to serve their scientific purposes within the specific Coptic historical background. Adapting their definition to suit our Coptic unique situation will not alter the core meaning of these terms; but, hopefully, will confer more clarity and relevance to them when they are used by Coptic historians and Coptologists in their studies.

So what do these terms mean in the Coptic context?

ISLAMISATION  الأسلمة:[i] it is 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.

This is a process of total assimilation into a foreign religion and foreign culture; and it has meant, in the majority of cases, self-alienation not just from the Christian Faith and Church, but also from the Coptic nation, and the forging of new alliances and allegiances to replace the old.

This process has affected individual Copts; but, also, at times, large groups of them. The reasons for that were various, but social, economic and political pressures have been prominent in the process.

ARABISATION التعريب:[ii] is 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.[iii]

Arabisation is different from Islamizsation not just in its meaning, but also in the causes that led to it, and, also, in the historical period during which it became a major phenomenon. But one must bear in mind here that Arabisation, as a large phenomenon, preceded Islamisation, and has helped in its becoming a large phenomenon.

ISLAMIC ASSIMILATION or CULTURALISATION التذويب الإسلامي:[iv] this is the process 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.

Such assimilation has affected various Coptic traditions and practices over time, and at various periods, such as their divorce regulations, adoption of concubinage, possession of slaves, circumcision, Muslim inheritance law, etc. It is important to understand that although Arabisation stands on its own right as a distinct social phenomenon, it is, nevertheless, strongly connected to Islamic culturalisation and assimilation, as it is to Islamisation, as has already been mentioned. Language is not just a simple technical tool – it is a Trojan Horse that comes in with all its cultural underpinnings. When a new language replaces an old one, the new cultural changes that accompany that are not simply added to old ones, but often replace them. A language shift is therefore a cultural shift in action and in effect. The abandoning of Coptic language to Arabic is therefore a very serious phenomenon, and sincere Copts have always decried and resisted it – it has altered, drastically, and regrettably, Coptic culture, and in this sense one can say Coptic civilisation, identity and character to a large extent. Arabisation has led the Copts to adopt Arab and Islamic culture not just in temporal matters – its effect has been far reaching even in theological and ecclesiastical matters.

COPTIC NATIONALISM will come back to these terms again, and will try to study these phenomena in more detail.

[i] Or Islamization.

[ii] Or Arabization.

[iii] Language shift, sometimes referred to as language transfer or language replacement or assimilation, is the progressive process whereby a speech community of a language shifts to speaking another language. See:

[iv] Also, culturalization.

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