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January 27, 2016

The following is intended to be an introductory section to my upcoming book “Coptic Baby Names”, which I share with my readers.

The Importance of Coptic Names

Fayum portrait child

 A Coptic child from the Fayum Portraits

“Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave nights and heroic courage.”                                                                                                                     C.S. Lewis

A name (in Coptic ‘ran’ [ran]) is defined as a word or group of words by which a person or thing is known, addressed, or referred to.[1] The selection of a personal name for a child, whether a boy or a girl, is the privilege of the parents or carers – they are the ones who decide, usually after some deliberation, to confer a certain name of their choice on their child; and the child, then, carries that name for the rest of its life, and may be affected, in a positive or negative way, by it. Names are important – but, what is their significance? And how do they affect individuals? I will try to consider these in this article.

There can be no doubt that a personal name has a powerful influence on the child. Names do code a lot of information in them: race, religion, history, culture, and values – they often act as a declaration of ethnicity, culture, and identity. Names affect the individual in diver ways: indirectly, sometimes by triggering a response from other people, who are often a dominant group in society with different race, religion, and culture: such people often make judgements based on the information encoded in the person’s name, and may even follow that by undertake certain actions in respect of the name-bearer. We see that reported even in comparatively civilised countries where equality laws are actively applied. However, it is in societies that are less civilised, where the state is controlled by a majority that favourites its own and discriminates and oppresses minorities, that we frequently meet serious stories of discrimination in which the individual’s name is a factor. Names, too, can affect the individual in a direct way: names often confer on the individual a certain identity and help shape his or her culture and values. Names can make what we are, and determine what we experience, believe and feel in life.

The question is often asked: should parents give their child a “usual” name or an “unusual” name? A usual name in this context is defined as a name that is common in the wider society – a name that, in more detail, belongs to the dominant group in the country or to its majority; an unusual name, on the other hand, is one that is strange to the dominant group, a name that is often specific to a certain group or minority. The purpose of those who select a usual name for their child is to make it easy for the child to fit in with the wider society; to make him or her ordinary and as “normal” as possible, in order to avoid them possible bullying and other forms of mistreatment. The purpose of those who use an unusual name, in contrast, for their child is often either to make the child stand out from the crowd in the hope that he or she will raise above others and excel in life, or to stress their different identity so that they may know it and resist assimilation into the culture of the dominant, and often oppressive, group. From the Coptic prospect, particularly for Copts in Egypt, the question is more specific: should the Copts abandon their traditional names – names derived from their pharaonic inheritance and Christian heritage – and adopt Muslim and Arab names to blend in with the Muslim majority, in an attempt to be inconspicuous and avoid discrimination that is often triggered by the Muslim realising a Coptic name; or should the Copts stick up to their national names in order to emphasise their unique identity and resist assimilation, even if that could expose them to mistreatment from the Muslim majority? There are pros and cons to each position – it is my intention here to weigh them against each other.

Some Western-based studies suggested that usual names, through an indirect effect, reduce teasing at schools, and ensure better chances for high education and job opportunities. The argument is that, giving a “normal” name to your child may mask your child’s race, religion, and culture, and avoid him or her being badly treated in childhood and discriminated against in later life. However, some studies have suggested that having a ‘unique’ name may help your child to stand out and excel. Other studies have qualified the effect of names that are based on race, religion, or culture on the individual – names are rather social signifiers of the individual’s social class; and it is the social class of the individual that determines one’s success or failure in education and employment rather than anything else encoded in the child’s name. Further, as it is often suggested, a certain “normal” name given to disguise racial or religious identity may get you past the short-listing process for a job, but will often fail you at the interview stage when there is usually no way of concealing your identity if the panel is intent on discrimination. It is, therefore, advised that people with unusual and unique names that invite potential discrimination should work to change the laws of the state to ensure equality, rather than giving up their names either to please the dominant groups or try to fool it. Furthermore, bullying at school or discrimination in education and work based on bearing “strange” names can often result in the individual acquiring a stronger, resilient and determined personality; and in many cases can result in the minority establishing its own educational institutions and dominating certain professions and trades in the private sector in which they excel. For that to happen, the importance of implanting in the individual a healthy pride in one’s origin, religion, and culture by the parents and community cannot be overemphasised – it plays a crucial role in the development of one’s self-confidence and his or her ability to respond to challenges in a positive way. It creates in them a special toughness and defiance, and inculcates in them the will to succeed in life by utilising all the resourcefulness within themselves and the opportunities available to them.[2] Many minorities have done that and succeeded – the Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and, in my opinion, the Copts, once they enjoyed a certain degree of freedom of action, despite the social stigma and inequality before the law, whether in theory and practice or in practice alone, they suffered under Muslim domination.

But, as already said, the consequences of a name on the individual – its direct effect – are even more important. There cannot be any doubt that the name you give to your child can either fix your child in his or her culture or detach them from it. In countries such as Turkey and Libya, the Kurdish and Amazigh minorities are banned from using their unique, national names, and obliged to give their children Turkish and Arab names, respectively, in order to weaken the connection of Kurdish and Berber children to their parents’ identity and culture. Turks and Arabs do that to assimilate these minorities by force to the majority’s culture, and get rid of their minority “problem”. Minorities who are exposed to such kind of oppression tend to resist that as much as they can, for they know what is at stake here: the death of their nation and culture. In other circumstances, when such practice of enforcing names of the majority on the minority, another situation sometimes arises: some minority members, in an effort to assimilate with the majority and avoid abuse, voluntarily choose to give names to their children that belong to the majority’s, thereby making them indistinguishable from members of the majority as much as possible. This situation leads to the same outcome: undermining of the minority’s identity and its disappearance in time. This danger has been realised by many minorities and nations, such as the Jews and Serbs, who faced the danger of assimilation into their rulers’ culture and identity; and, so, their activists worked hard to resist and reverse this trend by promoting and encouraging, through newspapers, pamphlets and special publications, such as baby name books, their minority members to use their minority’s national names.

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The history of the Copts with Islam in respect of Arab and Muslim names is interesting. For centuries after the Arab conquests of the Middle East, and as the Arabs were at the peak of their power, they pursued a policy of strict segregation designed to keep the native inhabitants of the occupied lands who were numerically and culturally superior, in Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Egypt, subjugated and at bay, with the sole purpose of easily identifying them with the purpose of exploiting them financially. Thus, early Islam banned non-Muslims, including the Copts, from bestowing on their children names, alqab (nicknames)[3] and kunyas[4] that Arabs and Muslims regarded as their own. It was the second Caliph, Umar I (634 – 644), in whose reign these lands were occupied, who established the strict code that came to be known as al ‘ahda al-umariyya [The Pact of Umar], and which formed the foundation of the relationship between the ruling Sunni Muslims and the ahl al-kitab (People of the Book), or kuffar (infidels), subjects.

The notorious Sunni jurist, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (1292 – 1350), divides names into three categories: first, Muslim names, such as Muhammad, Ahmad, Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman, Ali, Talha, and Zubair, and kuffar must not be allowed to select any of these names to name their children, “for the protection of these names from the most wicked of all creatures of Allah is a great matter”[5]; second, Kuffar names, such as Jirjis, Boutros, Yohanna, Matta, etc., which they are not banned from using (while Muslims are prohibited from using so as not to be like kuffar); and third, shared names, such as Yahiya, Eisa, Ayub, Dauod, Soliman, Zaid, ‘Amr, Abdullah, Atiya, Mawhub, Salam, etc., which can be used by both Muslims and non-Muslims.[6] However, when the name is neutral but the name donates honour or virtue, kuffar are banned from using these names: “[Ahl al-kitab] ought not to call themselves Sadeed سديد (Correct), or Rasheed رشيد (Rightly Guided), or Mu’ayyad مؤيد (Supported), or Saliḥ صالح (Good), etc.; and if, perchance, anyone of them takes one of these names, Muslims must not call them by such names, but address them by, ‘O Maseehi, O Saleebi (O Christian, O Crucifix bearer)’ if they were Nasrani,[7] and by, ‘O Israeli, O Yahudi (O Israelite, O Jew)’ if they were Jews”.[8] Further, a Muslim must not address a kitabi[9] by ‘sayyidi (my lord) or ‘mou’lai (my master), for this is absolutely haram[10].[11]

Sunni Islam is not concerned only with names, but also with nicknames and kunyas; and thus Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya tells us that Islam prohibits Christians and Jews from using nicknames such as Mu’izz al-Dawla معز الدولة (Glorifier of the State) and ‘Adhadh al-Dawla عضد الدولة (Strength of the State), which indicate dignified positions in the state and impart respect on their bearers.[12] Islam, further, prohibits kuffar from using kuniyas: Arab kunya is a teknonym that was designed to confer respectability on the addressed by referring to him or her by the name of their eldest son rather by using their first names: Muhammad ibn Abdulla, the founder of Islam, for example, is called Abu al-Qasim (Father of al-Qasim), and Fakhta bint Abi Talib, a cousin of Muhammad, is Umm Hani (Mother of Hani). Non-Muslims are not allowed to use kuniya at all: Markos, for example, cannot be called Abu Mina (Father of Mina), neither can Maria be called Umm Marina (Mother of Marina), for the ‘dignifying’ kunya is the exclusive property of Arabs and Muslims; or as Ibn Qayyim explains it: “[The system of] kunya was developed for the purpose of glorifying and honouring the person for whom the kunya is used. Further, if they [ahl al-kitab] use kunyas which are used by Muslims, they will be confused with Muslims; and the objective [of Sharia[13]] is to discriminate against them [by setting them apart] even in their attire, mount, and dress.”[14]

Here, the Muslim scholar informs us that non-Muslims are not to be distinguished just in respect of names, nicknames and kunyas, but also in attire (dress, hairstyle, headgear, etc.)[15] and mount (kuffar are not allowed horses but only donkeys, and these then with special conditions)[16]. More significantly, Christians and Jews are banned from speaking Arabic. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya explains the purpose of this:

“Umar banned ahl al-kitab from speaking the speech of the Arabs lest they became as like Arabs in their speech, as he had banned them from likening themselves to Arabs in attire, dress, mounts, and hair styles. So, he imposed on them to speak in their own tongue so that they may be easily recognised [by Muslims] that they were kuffar. This is to perfect [the system of] segregation. Further, [his banned them to speak the language of the Arabs] in order to honour it, for he did not give permission to the impure and the wicked [ahl al-kitab] to use it and speak in it; how wouldn’t he, since Allah has descended his most honourable of books in Arabic, and since he praised it [Koran] in Arabic tongue!”[17]

Such was the strict code of Islam’s apartheid – all designed to perfect the Islamic system of segregation and discrimination against non-Muslims with the purpose of exploitation and humiliation. However, Caliph Umar I could have saved his efforts, at least with the Copts, for the Copts then were a proud and strongly Christian nation that would not replace the names of angels, martyrs, patriarchs, and holy saints with those of their Arab and Muslim occupiers. However, we start to notice changes on that front with time, and particularly in the Fatimid Dynasty (969 – 1171). The Fatimids, unlike the Ummayads and Abbasids who ruled Egypt before them, were Shiites of the Ismaili sect; and they were at odds with Sunni Islam, Umar I and his pact. Further, the Fatimids knew that their Muslim subjects were mainly Muslim; and, so, they felt that they were in need of the support of the significant and learned Coptic population to be able to rule Egypt. Consequently, the Fatimids relaxed many of the previously imposed Sunni restrictions on the Copts, and Copts enjoyed relative period of tolerance, particularly during the vizierate of the Armenians, in the second half of the dynasty, after 1074. Coptic archons[18], clerks, traders, and clergy, from the environs of Misr[19], Cairo[20], and Alexandria,[21] started a process of assimilation to the Muslims in order to escape their social segregation and promote their social mobility. This coincided with a definite weakness in the Coptic Church. Assimilation to Arabs and Muslims manifested itself in diver ways that resulted in significant changes in the Coptic society and its culture. For example, the Copts started giving Arab and Muslim names to their children, and using glorifying nicknames and kunyas that were only allowed to Arabs and Muslims in the past. We have, for instance, the family of the wealthy Coptic historian from Alexandria, Mawhub ibn Mansur ibn Mufarrij (موهوب بن منصور بن مُفَرِّج) (c. 1025 – 1100), carrying Arab names that go back to his grandfather, Mufarrij. Mawhub’s brother, Fahd (فهد), also carried an Arab name and a kunya, Abu al-‘Ala’ (فهد ابو العلاء), indicating that he, in turn, gave an Arab name to his son, ‘Ala’ (العلاء). Mawhub, however, gave his son a Christian name Yuhanna.[22] We also have, as an example, another historian, this time a priest from the twelfth/thirteenth centuries, and author of History of Churches and Monasteries, al-Sheikh al-Mu’taman Abu al-Makarim Sa’d Allah Jirjis ibn Mas’ud (الشيخ المؤتمن أبو المكارم سعد الله جرجس بن مسعود) – he was happy with Arab names, nicknames and kunya; and even his wife joined in: she used the nickname Sit al-Dar (ست الدار).[23] The three famous Awlad al-Assal brothers from the thirteenth-century, who authored several books, were not different.[24]

The adoption of Arab and Muslim names by Copts was so widely spread during that period within the Coptic employees of the state that it triggered the bitter indignation of the Sunni Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, particularly as the trend continued into the Ayyubid Dynasty (1171 – 1250):

“Today, we have been taken to an age when [Christians and Jews] are given priority seats; and Muslims stand up for them, and kiss their hands; and they are in control of soldiers’ income and the Sultanate’s monies; and they use kunyas of Abu al-‘Ala, Abu al-Fadl, and Abu al-Tayyib, and call themselves Hassan, Hussain, Othman, and Ali; whereas the names [of Christians] previously were Yohanna, Matta, Haneen, Jirjis, Botros, Marijirjis, Marmorqos, etc.; and the names of Jews were ‘Izra, Ash’iya, Yosha’, Hizqiel, Israel, Sa’eej, Hoyaiy, Moshkam, Samawa’l, etc. And to each age a state and men!”[25]

The significant shift in Coptic names was accompanied by a significant language shift from Coptic to Arabic, as these same people who were keen to use Arab and Muslim names, nicknames, and kunyas, got involved in the process that eventually resulted in the abandoning of Coptic language and the adoption of Arabic. Mawhub ibn Mansur ibn Mufarrij, for instance, ended the long tradition of writing the biographies of the patriarchs of the Coptic Church in Coptic by writing the lives of the two patriarchs he was contemporaneous with, Christodoulus (1047 – 1077) and Cyril II (1078- 1092), in Arabic; a new trend that was followed by all later writers of the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria.

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The whole thing represented a process of Arabisation – that is, assimilation to the dominant Arabic culture in an attempt to advance one’s social mobility, which resulted in a devastating effect on Coptic language, way of thinking and culture, and weakened our nation’s identity. At its best it led the Copts to gradually becoming like Arab Christians rather than Coptic Christians, thereby diluting their ethnicity and national awareness. The thinking was certainly based on retaining one’s faith while discarding any other identity that may hinder one’s progress in life; and in this way only faith became important while language and other national distinctive attributes could be disposable. But, if those archons had thought Arabisation of their tongue and names would not have an impact on their Christian faith, they were wrong.[26] The inevitable consequence of their actions, now followed by the poorly guided, deprived, and illiterate Coptic masses, was weakening of their faith, which paved the way to later Islamisation, that is, conversion to Islam en-masse, since by forgetting their language, and not being able to read or understand their heritage kept in Coptic, and by the undermining of their identity, only a few Copts remained securely rooted in their religion, culture and nationality; and many lost their ability to resist Islam and to fulfil their contest with the devil of earthly temptation with the characteristic toughness and courage of their forefathers: social advancement and mobility guaranteed by assimilation became more important than national language, culture, and, even, faith. And so, with the repeated waves of the persecutions of the late thirteenth-century and the fourteenth-century, we witness the mass conversion of the Copts to Islam, and the reduction of the Copts to a status of minority across Egypt.[27]

This nexus between the abandoning by the Copts of their language, names and other cultural distinctive features and eventual Islamic acculturation[28] and Islamisation was not lost to Coptic writers of the time. With prophetic outrage, denunciation and foresight, Copts reacted to what they saw as a grave catastrophe. As this processes of Arabisation was actively taking shape in the thirteenth-century, a brilliant Coptic writer, whose name we don’t know but is often referred to as Pseudo-Samuel, wrote his great “Apocalypse of Samuel, Superior of Deir el-Qalamoun”,[29] in which he registers a strong protestation against this process and explains its devastating effect on Coptic thought, personality, behaviour, and faith. Although the Apocalypse has been mainly used by researchers interested in the language shift that took place in the Coptic Middle Ages, it is no less important in respect of the shifts in names and religion that took place concomitantly. These changes, in the mind of Pseudo-Samuel, are all interconnected – one leads to the other. So connected the language and name shifts are in his mind that he often talks about the two tragedies of the Coptic adoption of Arabic, “the language of the hijra”,[30] as spoken and liturgical language, and the adoption of Arabic and Muslim names, “those foreign names”, in the same paragraph, and with the same distress:

Woe! twice woe!  What shall I say, my children, about those times and the idleness which will overcome the Christians?  In that time they will deviate much from uprightness and will imitate those of the hijra in their deeds; they will give the names of the latter to their children, leaving aside the names of the Angels, Prophets, of the Apostles and the Martyrs.  They will commit yet another act, at which your hearts would be racked with pain, if I told it to you, knowingly they will give up the beautiful Coptic language in which the Holy Spirit has often spoken by the mouths of our spiritual fathers; they will teach their children, from their youth, to speak the language of the hijra and they will take pride in it.  Even the priests and the monks themselves will also dare to speak Arabic and to take pride in it and that inside the sanctuary.

Woe! twice woe! my dear children.  What can I say?  In those times the readers in the church will understand neither what they read nor what they say because they will have forgotten their language, and they will truly be unfortunate, deserving of tears, because they will have forgotten their language and will have spoken the language of the hijra.

But woe to any Christian who teaches his son, from his youth, the language of the hijra, so making him forget the language of his ancestors, because he will be responsible for his transgression, as it is written: ‘parents will be judged for their sons.’ …

Woe, twice woe!  How great the misery! How very grave the acts which will be carried out in those times by the Christians!  In recounting these things to you, my heart has truly suffered, my eyes have poured tears and my body has trembled much.  Do you think that there is for the soul a pain greater than to see the Christians giving up their sweet language to take pride in that of the Arabs, as well as in their names? In truth I say to you, my children, that those who will give up the names of the Saints in order to give foreign names to their children, those who will act thus will be excluded from the blessing of the Saints; and whoever will dare to speak inside the sanctuary in the language of the hijra, that one will depart from the ordinances of our holy fathers.[31]

As the language shift had sped up the name shift, so the name shift helped in completing the language shift: personal names encode a lot of lingual information and they do help in the learning and retention of languages. Once a nation forgets its language, inherited names become like foreign names, and not only their meanings get lost but also their proper pronunciation and transcript. This disconnects the individual from his past and his heritage, and this is how, inter alia, a nation’s collective memory is lost.

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Changes that occurred in Coptic names under Islamic rule took various forms:

First, the Copts abandoned the names of prophets and individuals that one finds in the Bible, and adopted their Arabic equivalent mentioned in the Quran: for instance, Maria became Mariam, Eva became Hawaa, Abraam became Ibrahim, Isaak became Is’ḥaq, Yakoaboc became Ya’qoub, Nawi became Noaḥ, Mousees became Mousa, Da’vid became Da’oud.

Second, names of saints and martyrs that have no mention in Arabic and Islamic scripture became corrupted in the process of transcription into Arabic. With the relative lack of an adequate Arabic vowel system, and ignorance of both Coptic and Arabic languages that bespoke the Copts of that period,[32] many serious mistakes occurred: for example, the Coptic letter t was transcribed to sound like ط or د, k to ق, p to ب, ; to ت. Further, several names were mutilated, and, sometimes, the sound of a Coptic name was completely changed as to make the job of tracing its original very difficult[33]. In this way, Matthaeos became Matta, Lukas became Loqa, Markos became Morqos, Yoannis became Yohanna, Sime’own became Sam’aan, Petros became Botros, Paulos became Baulis or Boulos, Paule became Bola, Dani’eel became Danial, Shenouti became Shenouda, Iona became Yonan, Karos became Karras, Kir became Qir, Makarios became Maqara, Kosmas became Qisma or Qozman, Antonius became Anṭonyoase; Yostos became Yosṭos, Stephanos became Esṭafanoase,Matrona became Madrona, Jawirjios became Jirjis, Theodore became Tadros and Taowṭroase, Victor became Boqtor, Mercurius became Marqorioase, Theodosios became Taowdosios, Basilissa became Bashlilia, Theodora became Tawoṭora, Dometios became Domadioase.[34]

Third, some names suffered from the Arabic lazy stretching of words’ ends, even when the basic transcription was accurate: thus, Maximus became Maximoase; Bacilius became Bacilioase. Names which changed during transcription suffered sometimes from the same, such as in: Anṭonioase, Taowṭroase, Domadioase, Esṭefanoase, and Marqorioase.

Fourth, Coptic names with special meaning that have some religious significance, and were born by saints and martyrs, were transformed into their equivalent Arabic by direct translation of the name. So, Sophia (Wisdom) became Ḥikma, Pistis (faith) became Iman, Helpis (hope) became Rajaa, Metouvo (chastity) became Afaf.

Fifth, Arabic names with neutral meaning were freely adopted, such as: Ahlam (dreams), Laila (night), Seif (sword), Riaḍ (gardens), Farid (unique), Nabih (clever), Said (happy), etc.

Sixth, sometimes, even names which carry an Islamic flavour to their meaning or bear historical association with Islam were selected, such as: Kaw’thar, Fat’ḥi, Fat’ḥia, Farouq, Hisham, Hassan, Jihad.

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The writer is of the opinion that this trend of Arabisation and Islamisation of our names ought to be resisted and stopped, and that we must resume using names that are rooted in our identity and heritage. The Copts are nothing but the Ancient Egyptians turned Christian; and on Ancient Egypt[35] and Christianity they should base their names. Copts in the past bore Ancient Egyptian names, such as Amon, Hor, Apip, Emsah, Isis, etc. They also used names derived from the Old and New Testaments; in addition to names of Christian saints and martyrs. As Greek, and to a lesser degree Latin, names were widely spread in Egypt at its Christianisation, many Egyptian saints and martyrs carried Greek, and Latin, names. But the Copts revere saints and martyrs from outside Egypt too, and therefore you may find the odd Syriac or Persian name added to the expanding pool of Coptic names one finds in the Synaxarium, and other sources of Coptic literature. In this book, I have relied on this great pool to draw my list of names. However, I have expanded in adopting Pharaonic names, such as Nefrubity, Nephtys, Osiris, Merenra and Maat; and I also invented some new names based on our rich Coptic language vocabulary – words that carry beautiful meanings and sounds, such as Methnai (charity), Mae (truth, love), Cherè (hail), Ougai (health) and Metgawri (power). In addition, I have used Coptic place names, such as Ximi, Rakoti, Memphis, Waset, Shiheet, as personal names. This is not odd: place names are frequently used in other cultures as personal names, and they are meant to connect the people to their land and geography.

Some say that original Coptic names help to alienate the Copts from their wider Egyptian society. Others say that traditional Coptic names can lead to the Copt being easily identified as such, and, so, puts him or her at risk of discrimination and abuse by the Muslims. This may well be true: indeed, Copts are mistreated in Egypt. Their plight, as far as names are concerned, is well represented by the anecdote of Bataris: Bataris was a young Coptic applicant to higher education. In the interview, he was told point plank by the panel that “One Boutros is sufficient to fail you; what, then, about Bataris.”[36] The poor chap did not stand a chance. We must remember, however, that Copts are discriminated against in Egypt whether they are called Boutros or Bahig, Monica or Muna, Mina or Murad. Also, we must remember what has already been stated: a “usual” name may pass you past the short-listing stage but it often fails you beyond that, particularly at the interview phase for a job, educational opportunity, or else.

The right way to face such injustices in society is to be active politically and fight for equality – it must never be through abandoning one’s own culture and assimilating to that of the majority’s. We must retain our national names and defy any pressure, whether it comes from without or within, to adopt Arabic or Islamic names. Our ancestors used to cry out to their would-be martyrs: “Be brave; play the man!” We must be as courageous in sticking to or names, culture and faith. Discrimination in Egypt may well continue; but, as C. S. Lewis says: “Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave nights and heroic courage.” Children bearing names of such heroes, and knowing the stories of their bravery, will most probably prove strong.

But, let us not be too gloomy: not all Egyptian Muslims are bad; and there are certainly stories of success by a Boutros[37] and a Mina and a Monica despite the prevailing discrimination. The Copts are a resourceful, tenacious, and hardworking people. Their success in life depends in many ways on themselves, whether they seek this success in civil service or in the private sector. Being proud of their names and culture will most probably assist the Copts to be successful.

Fortunately, in the Diaspora, mainly in the West, Copts don’t face the same challenges. Further, many original Coptic names that are based on our Christian inheritance are shared with Western names; while those with connection to Ancient Egypt are adored. If a certain name seems to be long or a bit complicated, the author recommends the use of shorter forms or diminutives (given in the book) when interacting with the outside world, while using the original name in official papers.


[1] See definition in Oxford Dictionary.

[2] For a review of some of these studies, see: William Kremer, Does a Baby’s Name Affect Its Chances in Life? (BBC World Service Magazine, 11 April 2014).

[3] Laqab is for singular.

[4] Konya is a teknonym designed to confer respectability on the addressed by referring to him or her by the name of their eldest son rather by using their first names. See text.

[5] أحكام أهل الزمة لابن قيم الجوزية، حققه وعلق حواشيه الدكتور صبحي الصالح (دار العلم للملايين، بيروت، ط٢، ١٩٨١), ص ٧٦٨-٧٦٩.)

[6] Ibid, p. ٧٦٩.

[7] Nasrani refers to Nazareth, meaning Christian.

[8] أحكام أهل الزمة،٧٧١.

[9] Kitabi is the follower of one of the Books – one of Ahl al-Kitab.

[10] Haram means religiously forbidden.

[11] أحكام أهل الزمة،٧٧١.

[12] Ibid, ٧٧١.

[13] Islamic Law.

[14] أحكام أهل الزمة،٧٦٨.

[15] Non-Muslims were banned from wearing colourful, richly adorned garments; and they were required to wear zinar (girdle). They were banned from wearing any brightly-coloured headgear: only black or dark brown were accepted.

[16]Non-Muslims were banned from using a saddle, and they had to ride donkeys in reverse, that is, face facing tail or at least the two legs dangling down from one side of the donkey.

[17] أحكام أهل الزمة،٧٦٦.

[18] Archon is originally Greek word that was adopted by the Copts: it means “ruler” or “lord”. In the Coptic context, it means the lay leaders of the Coptic people, often the rich and influential.

[19] Misr is what corresponds now to Old Cairo.

[20] Cairo was built in the tenth-century by the Fatimid Dynasty, while Misr was much older. It was built north of Misr, and the two were separated geographically and administratively. However, both represented the seat of the Islamic government.

[21] Outside the main cities, particularly in Upper Egypt, Copts continued to speak Coptic into the seventeenth-century and beyond.

[22] See: Johannes den Heijer, Mawhub Ibn Mansur Ibn Mufarrij Al-Iskandarani in The Coptic Encyclopedia; ed. Atiya, Aziz Suryal (New York City: Macmillan Publishers, 1991) (CE:1573a-1574b).

[23] See: تاريخ أبو المكارم ـ تاريخ الكنائس والأديرة فى القرن ١٢ بالوجه البحرى؛ إعداد الأنبا صموئيل

[24] See: Aziz S. Atiya, Awlad al-‘Assal in The Coptic Encyclopedi (CE:309b-311b).

[25] أحكام أهل الزمة،٧٧١.

[26] Those who spread the Arabic language within the Copts thought their move would assist the Church since, the argument went, the Copts forgot their language and were not able to understand teachings delivered to them in Coptic.

[27] Several scholars in the past thought that Egypt lost its Coptic majority in the tenth-century, having been misled by Maqrizi, in his book Khotat. This is, however, a controversial matter, and there is strong evidence that Egypt remained mainly Coptic until the mass conversion of the Copts in the thirteenth- and fourteenth-centuries.

[28] Islamic acculturation is the phenomenon by which Copts, as individually or collectively, consciously or unconsciously, abandoned their traditions, customs, behaviour, etc. – or in one word, their culture – and acquired parts of Islamic culture to which influence they had been exposed.

[29] See Anthony Alcock, Samu’il of Qalamun, Saint in The Coptic Encyclopedia (CE:2092a-2093b).

[30] Hijra refers to the migration of Muhammad and his followers in 622 AD from Mecca to Medina.

[31] See J. Ziadeh, Apocalypse of Samuel of Kalamoun, Revue de l’Orient Chréstien 20 (1915-17), pp. 374–404. I have used Roger Pearse’s English translation from Ziadeh’s French, which the reader can find at his website

[32] What is called the Arabic renaissance by the Copts in the Middle Age was limited to a few scholars – the majority of the Copts remained illiterate and ignorant of Arabic apart from having some rudimentary knowledge.

[33] Bashlilia which is mentioned in the Synaxarium (6 Tut) is actually Basilissa, a completely different transformation.

[34] All these corruptions cannot be accounted for by the difference in phonology between what are called Old Bohairic and New Bohairic.

[35] The writer takes Ancient Egypt as Egypt up to the collapse of the New Kingdom in 1096, bar the Hyksos period. He does not take dynasties 22-31 as Egyptian. The reader will find that the names-list does not include any of the foreign rulers of Egypt during that period, unless the name was also born by a saint or a martyr, such as Cleopatra.

[36] Bataris is the plural of Boutros, according to Arabic grammar.

[37] The well known Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Secretary General of the United Nations (1992 – 1996), is perhaps the best known example. Before that, he was Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in Egypt (1978 – 1979). Boutros-Ghali, however, is not the typical Copt: his success can be attributed to several factors, including, his political inheritance (Boutros Ghali [1846 – 1910], was grandfather of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and Egypt’s Prime Minister from 1908 to 1910, during the British Rule), his wealth, and his proximity to the political establishment in Egypt. He was selected by President Sadat to the foreign affairs job because of his Christian background and also as he was married a Jewish woman. Sadat needed him to negotiate with the West and Israel to sort out the Egyptian-Israeli conflict. He played an important role in in the peace agreement between the two countries. It must be noted, however, that Boutros-Ghali was never appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs, which is a higher office than that of the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. It was deemed that a Christian should not be allowed to hold that level of responsibility.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 25, 2016 2:30 am

    I would love to name my daughter Mae someday. I made friends with an Indian lady who is studying her PhD on languages. So I introduced her to Coptic and got her some books as a parting gift before she went back to India. I told her she should name her son or daughter “Menreet”.

    One of the other things I wanted to do is search for Coptic root words where the Greek replaced them. One wonders words like “agape”, “irini”, “pnevma”, “kononia”, “doria”, etc. would be in pure ancient Egyptian without the Greek influence.

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
      February 25, 2016 9:48 am

      Mae and Menreet are beautiful names with beautiful meanings. We have a wealth of good names, and yet we use now foreign names like Mona and Mervat!

  2. UnGétule permalink
    February 1, 2017 11:48 pm

    Interresting article, despite not agreeing on everything, but that’s fine by me.

    As a Muslim (interrested in History and the Cultural and Identity preservation, since I came from the Maghreb and leaned about the History of Berbers, who when I met them schooled me about the History of our ancestors) I have few questions if you would be kind to answer them.

    Do you think it would be possible, one day, for Egyptians Muslim to adopt naturaly Egyptians names (weither Coptic or Ancient Egyptians names) and does it exist, in Egypt, Muslims who happen to have an Egyptian name, or who haven’t one but plan to give such names to their children?
    And during the time of the rise of Pharaonism, was there a tendency of Egyptians (Both Muslims and Christians) giving their Children Egyptians names?
    And also, what do you think of Pharaonism in general? Do you believe Egyptians Muslims joining this movement a to be good thing? And what success does it have today?

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