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THE HISTORICAL PATTERN OF COPTIC RESISTANCE AND A CALL FOR A NEW RESISTANCE CULTURE نقد للمقاومة القبطية في التاريخ

June 18, 2012

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A CRITIQUE OF COPTIC RESISTANCE IN HISTORY

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I beg my reader’s pardon in bringing this topic to the forefront. The reader will notice that I have already discussed the subject of the pattern of Coptic resistance in my article A Story of Brave Coptic Resistance Against the Mamelukes of Egypt in 1798 AD.[i] From the Coptic revolts against the rule of the Arabs during the reigns of Umar I, Uthman and Ali,[ii] through those against the Ummayads[iii] and Abbasids,[iv] particularly the famous Bashmuric revolts, to the later resistance stories, such as those of General Ya’qub’s and the brave Upper Egyptians’ against the Mamelukes , we can discern a certain pattern. This is the pattern I want to put forward for discussion.[v] The nation must study its resistance and learn from its failures.

 Figure 1: Guernica by Pablo Picasso (1937).[vi]

Contrary to what many think, the Copts mounted armed struggle against their occupiers throughout history. There is enough evidence to support this; however, many valiant stories of Coptic resistance have not found chroniclers to record them, and in many cases when the stories had been told their record was later lost either through neglect or as a result of natural disasters or destruction by foes. But what has survived of stories of Coptic resistance can reveal common characteristics – a pattern of Coptic resistance in history.

The Copts might have easily submitted to foreign invaders, even the worst of them; however, they rose up in revolt against them when their oppression exceeded a point beyond which the customary tolerance of the Copts expired. This point was reached whenever they were exposed to extreme taxation or torture, or when their lives and those of their dearest were put under imminent threat. In these desperate situations the Copts took whatever arms they could muster and fought their more powerful enemies – in what can be described as desperate courage.

But their revolts, small or large, have been largely unsuccessful, if by success is meant the breaking of the iron yoke, which their oppressors had put on their neck, and lifting it from their shoulders. Armed Coptic resistance has been sporadic, localised, limited, poorly organised, ill-conducted, and unsupported by a nationalist narrative or a political philosophy that justified rebellion, except perhaps under General Ya’qub’s leadership. It is not surprising then that Coptic revolts achieved little. The Copts lacked not just national leadership but also political philosophy to justify resistance to invaders and oppressors, and an accompanying theology to support it.

This is not a justification for violence. It is, however, pleading with fellow Copts that resistance, nonviolent or violent, is sometimes right and even a duty. This is not just based on secular reasoning but also grounded in Christian theology. Many don’t know that Jus ad bellum (the doctrine of just war) rests in a large part of it on the theology of the Early Church Fathers, including St. Ambrose and St. Augustine. There is a just war and an unjust war – not all wars are just but to say all wars are unjust is wrong and a non-theological argument, of which Christ cannot be held as advocate. Proceeds from this is that nations and peoples sometimes find themselves in situations in which they must wage war – and that will just be just. But a war which is not defensive is never just. Just wars have strict conditions: while a detailed discussion of the theory of just war and its conditions must be deferred to another occasion, it is worth mentioning here its most important conditions. A just war must be waged:

  1. To prevent or correct aggression or a massive violations of human rights (just cause);
  2. When there is a reasonable chance of success (probability of success);
  3. When all other ways for resolving the problem or preventing the injustice or aggression have been exhausted (last resort).[vii]

There is no doubt in my mind that these conditions had been satisfied at so many points in our history. As always, and with all nations, the ‘probability of success’ condition seems to be the most difficult to assess before a war is waged or a revolt is launched, as it rests on a balance of probabilities. At certain points it seemed that the probability of success of a resistance against our enemies was low, and this was almost always due to our failure in mobilising our forces and resources on a national level rather than inherent weakness; for how can we explain the occupation of Egypt in 640 AD by 12,000 Arabs when we (Egyptians who were almost all Coptic Christians then), counted more than seven million;[viii] or when 8,000 Mamelukes subdued and oppressed us when the Copts alone counted over a million?[ix]

It has often been observed that the Egyptians are not a warlike nation – this is not entirely true, particularly with Copts. We are mild, amicable and peaceable; and we don’t get provoked into rebellion or war easily. Nevertheless, as history tells us, we often revolted, and in so doing fought with valour, even when the chances of a success of rebellion were low.  It is not that we cannot fight and resist aggression – it is the fact that our resistance was not successful most of the time. I attribute the failures of our revolts in the last analysis to a fundamental weakness in our resistance culture. A strong and successful resistance is a matter of the intellect, and starts in the mind. You must have within your culture a political philosophy – yes, and theology – that justifies defence of your nation against aggression and injustice. Absence of such a culture – or presence of a pacifist culture that cannot make the distinction between a just and an unjust war – only undermines the resolve of men to resist, and makes them fall easy prey to their oppressors. It is, therefore, in the mind of Copts that Coptic nationalists need to work – not as advocates for violence but as promoters of a new culture of just and judicious resistance when the survival or integrity of the nation is threatened. This right to fight aggression is a right that is due to all human beings – for it is rooted in nature and natural law.


[i] See: Dioscorus Boles (17 June 2012), A STORY OF BRAVE COPTIC RESISTANCE AGAINST THE MAMELUKES OF EGYPT IN 1798 AD, https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2012/06/16/a-story-of-brave-coptic-resistance-against-the-mamelukes-of-egypt-in-1798-ad/

[ii] Egypt was occupied by the Muslim Arabs over two years’ period (640-640 AD), although the first Arab troops appeared at our eastern border in December 639 AD. Egypt was occupied during the days of the second successor of Muhammad, Umar ibn Al-Khattab or Umar I (634-644 AD). He was followed by Uthman ibn Affan (644-656 AD), and then Ali ibn Abi Talib (656-658 AD). Although Ali was killed in 661 AD, Egypt was wrestled by the Ummayad, Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyan’s party in 658 AD.

[iii] The Ummaya’s Dynasty (usually given as 661-750, but for Egypt, their rule started in 658 AD, though it was given to Amr ibn Al-Assi as private fief) was established by Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyan (d. 680 AD).

[iv] The Abbasid Dynasty ruled Egypt from 750 to 868 AD, when it was replaced by the rule of the Tulunids.

[v] This article is not concerned with the history of Coptic revolts. That important subject is discussed elsewhere. This article simply focuses on the pattern of such revolts and what it can tell us.

[vi] In Guernica Picasso depicted the bombing of Guernica, Basque Country, by German and Italian warplanes on 26 April 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. I have selected part of the painting.

[vii] The three other conditions (competent authority; right intention; proportionality) are also important; however, the three I have mentioned in my article are core ones, in my opinion.

[viii] The first reference for this period is The Arab conquest of Egypt and the last thirty years of the Roman dominion by Alfred J. Butler (Oxford; Clarendon Press; 1902).

[ix] Claude-Étienne Savary, a French traveller in Egypt in the late 1770s, estimated the population of Egypt then at 4 million, and said that the Arabs constituted two-third of them. Although he did not mention the proportion of the Copts in the population, he said that apart from the Arabs and Copts, the rest of the inhabitants of Egypt were tiny in number. I therefore, suggest that the Copts, if they constituted the remaining third, were around 1.3 million. See: Letters on Egypt. : With a parallel between the manners of its ancient and modern inhabitants, the present state, the commerce, the agriculture, and government of that country; : and an account of the descent of St. Lewis at Damietta: extracted from Joinville, and Arabian authors. : Illustrated with maps; by Savary, Claude Etienne (London, 1787); Volume II, p. 249.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Coptic Nationalist permalink
    June 19, 2012 11:54 am

    excellent article as usual Dioscorus

  2. Mina permalink
    January 30, 2013 8:51 pm

    The Just War theory is has been solely a Western concept, which obviously makes sense that it is Ambrosian and Augustinian in character (although there is debate as to whether they considered it “just” war). But in the Eastern world, it is viewed in a slightly different sense. While war is necessary at times, it is never be “just” or “righteous.” It may be necessary at times to engage in war, but it is always an evil. Thus, it becomes, not a “just war”, but a “necessary evil.”

    We find that in the ancient canons of the Church, one of the conditions that disqualified a man into the priesthood was a history of shedding human blood, even if it was in war as a soldier. In fact, apparent from this canon, there was another canon that required soldiers who were done with war to come back and perform a certain time of penance, with a few months probation from partaking of the Eucharist. Therefore, we cannot ignore these issues.

    I think we can stress point number 3 as you have it: “When all other ways for resolving the problem or preventing the injustice or aggression have been exhausted (last resort).” I think it is a duty and quite just to partake of a nonviolent resistance, such as the likes of people like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. I think we need to figure out a way in which we can make a difference in non-violent manners, whether it be economic restrictions (like the famous bus boycott by black people in the 1960s that forced a change in the law concerning seating restrictions in the bus) or just a strong growing voice. While we keep and in fact promote Christian principles and theology in this sense (and I think there is value in studying and understanding the theology behind MLKs movement when reading his beautifully well-put sermons), we also need to promote that this is essential human aspects that all religions must share in and promote. MLK, though Christian and promoted his Protestant Christian theological tradition with Black liberation theology in the mix, yet received growing support from white people, Black Muslims, Greek Orthodox, and other non-black or non-Christian movements. It is essential that while we may have a strong Coptic leader who may lead these non-violent resistance movements in such theological profoundness, we also need one who is able to be a uniter of other factions, that our movement may be strong for all Egyptians, not just Copts, and this could include moderate and liberal minded Muslims, Shia, Bahais, atheists, etc. Our voices would be much stronger then for those who believe in real human “justice and freedom”, and not that farce of a political party.

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
      February 28, 2013 4:20 pm

      Dear Mina,

      I thought a highly intellectual comments like yours, which I respect very much, though I disagree with some of them, deserve a separate article to articulate further my position. Unfortunately, I haven’t been to do that yet. Promise to tackle these issues in future articles. But, please, accept my apology for coming back to you late.

      Regards.

      Dioscorus

  3. Luke permalink
    August 6, 2013 1:45 pm

    Hi Dioscorous: I love your blog.

    However, you mention that 12,000 Arabs invaded Egypt could you provide me with a reference, Because as far as I know from reading the early Muslim historians that the number provided is 4,000 and yes I realize that the genre called Tarikh is very late, and as Noth proved that it is very unreliable, and more likely than not that the 4,000 number must be the topos of 40, 400, 4000 which means that Muslim historians had no clue.

    The most intriguing fact that Muslim historians tell us is that many of those that joined the invasion of Egypt were Persians that converted to Islam which is strange because Islam did not exist that early which makes you wonder how can a bunch of Arabs that were no more than caravan raiders and thieves invade a country of 7M it just does not make sense. And if you read Emmet Scott he seems to suggest that those invaders could very well have been Persians (after all Persia invaded and occupied Egypt between 616CE and 627CE until they were defeated by the Greeks) that converted to what was to become Islam! Sounds far fetched? But it makes lots of sense

    PS: I wish you write about the town of Jeme which was located at the site of the Ramses the third remple

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