THE COPTIC CONCEPT OF MARTYRDOM MUST NOT BE CONTAMINATED BY ISLAM
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.