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September 24, 2017

Note. This must not be taken in any shape or form as a criticism to Pope Gabriel ibn Turayk’s sainthood. It is, however, a criticism of his judgement on the issue related to Coptic and Arabic language.


Coptic Lectionary for Holy Week, in Coptic and Arabic (Egypt, 1948; NYPL, Spencer Collection)

The Arabisation of the Coptic Church (a term by which I mean the use of Arabic in Coptic liturgy) started by Patriarch Gabriel ibn Turayk (1131 – 1145),[1] the 70th Pope of Alexandria & Patriarch of the See of St. Mark. Prior to his patriarchate, all prayers in the Coptic Church were conducted in Coptic. Ibn Turayk was a deacon from Misr (or Babylon, now Old Cairo), serving at the ancient Church of Saint Mercurius (Abu Sayfain). His father was an Arabic language scribe in the Fatimid, Muslim administration based in Al-Qahira (Proper Cairo);[2] and Ibn Turayk, having learned Arabic from his father, followed in his footsteps, becoming a scribe in Diwan Mukatabat (Divan of Correspondence)[3] and then Bait al-Mal (Treasury).  We are told that he possessed a copy of the Old Testament and New Testament in Arabic language; and also translated liturgical books of the Church.[4]

When Gabriel ibn Turayk was ordained, he resolved to Arabise the Coptic liturgy. Athanasius al-Maqari tells us: “It is worth mentioning that Pope Gabriel II (Ibn Turayk) was the first who issued an order to all churches to read the Gospels and sermons, etc., in Arabic in the church, following reading them in Coptic; after he had found that the Copts started to speak in Arabic, and understand each other in it, and it was unreasonable that the worshipper didn’t understand the language of the prayer he used. He, therefore, took the initiative of this dangerous decision.”[5]

Patriarch Gabriel ibn Turayk even issued an ecclesiastical canon, known as Canon Number Three of his ‘Thirty-two Canon Collection’, making it obligatory on all Coptic bishops to put his Arabisation of the Church process in action. The canon reads:

“Every bishop amongst you, oh bishops, must teach the people under his care, and make it mandatory upon them to memorise the doxology,[6] the prayer that the Lord Christ taught his disciples[7] and the Holy Confession[8] in the tongue that they know and understand, to pray in it, and not babble in what they don’t know.  And whoever could do more than that [that is memorising more than that in Arabic] shall be rewarded.”

And it was a very dangerous decision and canon indeed, for it triggered the process of Arabisation of the Coptic Church which is almost complete now. Gabriel ibn Turayk was not a Coptic nationalist, in the sense that he couldn’t care less about Coptic as a national language and expression of the national identity, that ought to be preserved against the incursion of Arabic, the language of the occupiers of our country, oppressors of our people and persecutors of our Church. He had the least understanding of the threat of Arabisation on our identity, culture, and Christian beliefs on the long run.

I am not sure if Ibn Turayk actually discussed his momentous decision with other bishops in the Coptic Synod. I tend to think that he took that decision in an autocratic way without prior consultation. His autocratic character can be gleaned from the postscript of his canons collection:

“Be sure that I belong to the group of shepherds who do not close their eyes on their cattle or take their eyes off them or sell them in dinars, but scrutiny their conditions. And I am good with the good, nice with the nice, but changeable with the crooked. So, whoever listens and obeys, the blessing of the Lord, which descended on the Cenacle,[9] shall be with him, his children and all that belongs to him and those under his care. And whoever disobeys, and does not respect their duty and obedience, judgement shall touch him according to his disobedience and aggression.”[10]

Ibn Turayk’s argument for the Arabisation of the Coptic Church is that the Copts were already Arabised, and that they could not understand Coptic anymore. To him, the Arabisation of the Copts (that is their language shift to Arabic) was a fait accompli – it had already happened, and there was no other option other than to deal with it. His response to the Arabisation of the Copts (and inability to understand religious texts and sermons in Coptic used and delivered in church prayers) was to Arabise the Church – to translate all Coptic Church’s sacred literature into Arabic, and pray and preach in Arabic. His objective was focused on ensuring that the Copts understood the liturgy; and for that to happen, the liturgy should be conducted in Arabic and not Coptic.

While some may hail his effort from a religious point of view, others do criticise it from the religious point of view as well as from the national point of view. The response of Ibn Turayk to the challenge that faced the nation was wrong:

For a starter, it is not clear that the Copts had already Arabised by his time. Some of the Copts in Al-Qahira and Misr, and probably Alexandria and Qift (Coptos, in Upper Egypt), indeed got Arabised – they took Arabic as their first language. These locations were main centres of the Muslim, Arab administration; and a large proportion of the Copts in them served this administration as scribes and tax collectors. In this situation, they had to learn Arabic, and excel in it, particularly in the second half of the Fatimid Dynasty,[11] in which Ibn Turayk lived. Since the jobs they occupied were mostly inherited, these Coptic civil servants were keen to teach their children the skills they needed, including Arabic language; and teaching them Coptic occupied a second importance. We must remember that Ibn Turayk himself came from this group of Copts – he inherited the job from his father, who was keen to teach his son Arabic. Pope Gabriel ibn Turayk’s Fifteenth Canon reads: “And you must also start teaching your children theology, at the beginning of the day, before the lessons of Arabic language.”[12] It was clear that Arabic was taught in the homes of these civil servants, and if Coptic was taught at all, it wasn’t given the priority.

Although some of the Copts, who served the Islamic and Arabic state, had Arabised and neglected teaching their children Coptic, replacing it with Arabic, we cannot say that the overwhelming majority of the Copts did not speak Coptic as their only or primary language. This was particularly true in the small towns and villages of Upper Egypt, where most Copts were peasants with no links to the Muslim administration except to pay taxes and register commercial transactions. The mother tongue of these Copts was Coptic, and they spoke it as their first language.

So, the ‘challenge’ which Ibn Turayk faced was restricted to certain locations and a particular group of Copts. The wider nation did not count to him. He was Arabised by his father and his career in the Islamic administration; and he was indeed more comfortable when speaking or writing in Arabic. He probably never visited Upper Egypt or Coptic villages throughout Egypt and understood the real percentage who spoke Arabic and those who spoke Coptic.

Second, whatever the size of Ibn Turayk’s challenge, his response cannot be said to be the right one: the right answer would have been to summon the bishops and the archons of the nation in a general council, discuss with them the Arabisation that was in process. A national council like that might have come with solutions that could have saved our language and prevented the complete language shift from Coptic to Arabic. A well representative council may have insisted on conducting the liturgy in Coptic; Copticise all of it (that’s removing all parts that are kept in Greek, such as the doxology which Ibn Turayk talks about in the 3rd canon);[13] and insisted on teaching Coptic to our children at the schools attached to churches and at homes. The council might have declared that Coptic was a national and sacred language of the Church; that it must be saved by all means; that Arabic learning should be suppressed, or at least taught as a second language. This would have meant a policy of bilingualism, where Coptic remained the mother tongue and Arabic a language to use at work. Perhaps all that would be codified in ecclesiastical canons.

But, alas, that did not happen. And the easiest, dangerous response was taken. And we must regret it for the national and religious damage that it has caused us is enormous.


[1] Also, Pope Gabriel II of Alexandria.

[2] At that time, Al-Qahira was physically separated from Misr, and the two towns were considered separate. Al-Qahira was established in 973 AD while Misr was an ancient city standing on where Memphis was (later called by the Romans, Babylon, and by the Arabs, Misr).

[3] In Arabic ديوان المكاتبات. Also called ديوان الإنشاء and ديوان الرسائل.

[4] See: Athanasius al-Maqari, Canons of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church in the Medieval Period (in Arabic) (Cairo, 2010); p. 70.

[5] Ibid. The English translation is mine.

[6] The Doxology (or Gloria Patri الذُّكصا) is a short hymn of praise to the Trinity: “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and always, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.” This hymn is included in the Coptic liturgy and other prayers, and is kept in its original Greek form up to this day.

[7] The Lord’s Prayer.

[8] The Holy Confession (الأمانة المقدسة) which starts: “We believe in one God, true, Almighty, and in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” It was developed at the Council of Nicaea in 225 AD and completed at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 AD.

[9] Or the Upper Room. In Arabic, علية صهيون. The room in which Christ held the Last Supper and the location of Pentecost.

[10] Canons of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church, p. 233.

[11] Marked by the beginning of the vizierate of the Fatimid, Armenian vizier, Badr al-Jamali (1073 – 1094).

[12] Canons of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church, p. 227.

[13] A large proportion of the Coptic liturgy is conducted in Greek, a language that the Copts gradually forgot after the Arab invasion.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Max Peters permalink
    September 24, 2017 2:45 pm

    Your twitter! What happened? Reach out.

    • Egiziane permalink
      September 25, 2017 11:49 am

      Brilliant explanation, I always wanted to know more about this historic event.

  2. Arsanios permalink
    September 26, 2017 7:51 pm

    Are you sure the “doxology” isn’t referring to the Great Doxology? That’s the prayer that is begun during the 1st hour of the Agpeya. It begins with:
    “Let us praise with the angels, saying, Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, and good will toward men. We praise You. We bless You….”

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
      September 26, 2017 8:43 pm

      Since Canon 3 of the 32 Canon Collection of Pope Gabriel ibn Turayk does not specify, it is possible, but I believe he grant the Lesser Doxology rather than the Greater ( or Gloria) that’s sung at the Agpia ( Prayer of the Hours).



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