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THE GENETIC STRUCTURE OF THE COPTS AND MUSLIMS OF EGYPT 1: PRELUDE

September 27, 2016

I start with the presumption that the Copts are the direct descendants of the Ancient Egyptians and their purest representation; and it is not my intention here to either prove or disprove it, though I believe in the accuracy of the statement. This, and the following articles, is about the question: do Muslim Egyptians share the Copts in their genetic structure? In other words, are the Muslims and Copts of Egypt similar in ethnicity? The Copts are obviously different from Muslim Egyptians in religion; but, it has often been said that Muslim Egyptians are the descendants of those Copts who converted to Islam during various periods of intensified persecution the Muslim occupation of Egypt in 642 AD – that the current Muslim Egyptians are the sons of the Copts. To what extent is this accurate? This claim was first put forward by the Copts in the second half of the nineteenth century, with the intention of strengthening the relationship between them and the Muslims of Egypt – if the Muslims of Egypt could see that they and the Copts are the same ethnically, they may abandon their religious prejudice against the Copts, and treat them as equal compatriots. That was the hope.  To my knowledge, the first to propose this was the Coptic historian, Ya’aqub Nakhla Rofaila (1847 – 1908) in his book Tarikh al-Umma al-Quibtiya (History of the Coptic Nation), which he published in 1898. Rofaila opens his first chapter “The Origin of the Copts” by stating that the Copts are the remainders of the ancient Egyptians; then, using the Arab writer, Maqrizi (1364 – 1442), as a source, he, confusedly, tries to explain the roots of the words “Egypt/misr” and “Copt/qibt”; and he then concludes by saying: “Every Copt is Egyptian, and every Egyptian is a Copt.”[1] Marcus Simaika (1864 – 1944), the founder of the Coptic Museum, repeated the claim that all Egyptians are Copts; some are Muslim Copts, and others, Christian Copts, but all are descendants of the ancient Egyptians. And, then, in what reminds us of the fact not all Muslim Egyptians bought the claim, adds: “All enlightened Muslims now agreed.”[2]

The fact is that most Muslim Egyptians prided themselves, rightly or wrongly, of being of Arab descent and did not see themselves as one and the same in roots with the Copts: the Copts were to them an accursed “gins pharaoni” (genus pharaonicus). The Coptic Egyptologist, Gorgy Sobhy (1884 – 1964), writes:

“The common saying among their compatriots that the Copts are of “gins pharaonic,” or genus pharaonicus: this tradition alone would prove that there is some truth in the assertion that the Copts are of ancient Egyptian blood. Even the fellahin are never designated ‘gens pharaonic,’ nor do they accept it, for they are always proud to assert that they are Arab sons of Arabs.”[3]

Sobhi represents the opposite point of view: not influenced by political considerations, he sees clear ethnological distinction between the Copts – who, he asserts, are the direct and actual representatives of the Ancient Egyptians based on ethnological, philological and anthropological criteria – and the Muslim Egyptians.[4] And he writes that he can tell Muslims from Copts by appearance; basing his claim on anthropometric and biological facts.[5]

The Muslims of Egypt, sure and proud of their presumed Arab ancestry, were largely oblivious to the debate.  This seems to have changed recently to some extent: it does not seem that the prompt to such a change by the Egyptian Muslims was directed by a need to draw closer to the Copts or strengthen the ethnic unity between the followers of the two main religions in Egypt, but to distance themselves from the Arabs – now seen as the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula – who became associated in the mind of many in West with terrorism, particularly since 2001.[6] One can now hear some young Muslims stressing: “We are all Copts,” meaning original Egyptians.

Where rests the truth? History tells us that many Copts converted to Islam, particularly during the persecutions of the Fatimid Caliph, al-Hakim bi Amr Allah (996 – 1021), and the Bahri Mamelukes in 1301, 1321and 1354.[7] History, however, also tells us that many Muslims from various Islamic countries and societies in Africa, Asia and even Europe, migrated, or brought, to Egypt during the various times of Islamic rule: during the Rashidun (640 – 658), Umayyad (659 – 750), Abbasid (first period, 750 – 868), Tulunid (868 – 905), Abbasids (second period, 905 – 935), Ikhshidid (935 – 969), Fatimid (969 – 1171), Ayyubid (1171 – 1250), Bahri Mameluke (1250 – 1382), Burji Mameluke (1382 – 1517), Ottoman (1517 – 1 805) and Muhammad Ali Dynasty (1805 – 1952) periods. And the trend continues right to this day. These Muslims came from Yemen, Saudi, Qatar and other Gulf states, Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan area, Iran, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Turkey, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunis, Libya, Mali, Niger, Kenya, and diver other places in Africa. These new immigrants mixed, to a large or small degree, with the Islamised Copts or those foreign Muslims who had come first. This resulted in the contribution of foreign blood (by which I mean the blood of peoples who were not originally Egyptian) far exceeding, in my opinion, the contribution of Coptic blood in the Egyptian Muslim genetic pool. Foreign blood in Muslim Egypt is often presumed to be limited to Arab ancestry – this is incorrect: although Arabs contributed to the current Egyptian genetic pool, Berber, Sudanese (by which I mean sub-Saharan Africa, including eastern and western Africa) and Turkish blood, in my estimation, contributed more.

So far, theories predominate; and politics, history and anthropology have had the most influence in forming opinions; and DNA studies have had limited contribution. A few studies have been published on the genetics of the Egyptians, but none addressed our question directly, and the methods used were unsatisfactory. This is now changing – in the last few years a few studies have been published analysing the human genome of the Egyptians and the Copts, albeit in separate studies. Though not focusing on our subject directly, these studies have come up with very useful and interesting results that open new horizons in deciding the genetic structure of the Muslims and Copts of Egypt, their genetic nexus and ancestry.

We shall review some of these studies in subsequent articles.

 

[1] Ya’aqub Nakhla Rofaila, Tarikh al-Umma al-Quibtiya (Cairo, 1898).

[2] Donald Malcolm Reid, Whose Pharaohs? Archeology, Museum, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War I, p. 282 (University of California Press, Berkeley, 2002).

[3] Donald Malcolm Reid, Contesting Antiquity in Egypt: Archaeologies, Museums, and the Struggle for Identities from World War I to Nasser, p. 216 (The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, 2015).

[4] Gorgy Sobhy, Notes on the ethnology of the Copts considered from the point of view of their descendance from the Ancient Egyptians, Bulletin de l’association des amis des églises et de l’art copte (counted as BASC) 1 (1935): pp.43-59.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Baher Ibrahim, An Egyptian, and an Arab. The Guardian (8 July 2010).

[7] The reader can review the following papers: Little Donald P., Coptic Conversion to Islam under the Bahri Mamluks, 625-755/1293-1354, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 39, 1976, pp. 552-69; O’Sullivan, Shaun, Coptic Conversion and Islamization of Egypt, Mamlūk Studies Review 10 (2006): 65–79; M. Perlmann, Notes on Anti-Christian Propaganda in the Mamluk Empire, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Volume 10, Issue 4, February 1942, pp. 843-861.

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