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September 10, 2014

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.[1]

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[2], 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.[3] 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.



[1] Edward Tylor, Primitive Culture (New York, J. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1871); Volume 1, page 1.

[2] Matis is a small indigenous tribe in Brazil that practises hunting and agriculture, and was first contacted by the outside world in the 1970s.

[3] I think this he explains in his About Life and Culture (1930), which was later revised and renamed in 1956: Culture and Life.

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