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March 6, 2019

By ‘our fathers’, I don’t mean the Fathers of the Church or any of our saints and martyrs. By it, I mean those Coptic elites – clerks and traders – of Al-Qahira and Misr in the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries whose response to the decline in the Coptic language and the spread of Arabic within their environ was to Arabise the Church, teach their children Arabic before Coptic, write in Arabic and composing religious and social literature in it; and basically using Arabic as their primary language. Such was their foolish response. I have written in a previous article how that was the wrong response to the national lingual challenge that faced us. Arabic to them represented the language that guaranteed for them and for children a job in the Muslim administration of the Fatimids and Ayyubids. They most probably they also thought that abandoning Coptic and speaking Arabic instead in public will avoid them being easily identified by Muslim mobs and be targets to humiliation and other disabilities required by Sharia law. Adopting Muslim and Arab names and garb went hand in hand with embracing of Arabic.

These fathers, God bless their little socks, most probably did not see a major problem in accepting the language, attire and names of their oppressors.  In language, they thought that, while being fluent in Arabic, speaking it at the office and market place, they could carry on using their Coptic language at their home and church domains. Bilingualism, not the complete replacement of their language by Arabic was perhaps their goal, and therefore they tried hard to preserve their language by documenting it in grammar books and dictionaries. No community will happily abandon their language willingly, except in exceptional cases – the intention is almost always to speak the dominant language as an additional language for social mobility. Such approach was not unique to the Copts – many communities use the dominant language of the people in power to improve their social and economic conditions without abandoning their mother tongue altogether. But in almost all cases where the oppressor is aggressive and cruel, such a strategy leads only to the eventual decline and death of the national language and its total replacement in time by the alien and dominant language. Bilingualism in this context always ends up in linguicide of the national language and monolingualism – with the only spoken language being the alien one, now, as if with some cynical and rude turn of fate, it assumes the title of ‘mother tongue’. Bilingualism was possible under the Greek and Roman rules; but under the domination and oppression of the Arabs and Muslims, bilingualism was out of question.

These fathers, too, true to their folly, most probably thought that beyond the changes in language, names and attire – all seen as mere external matters that didn’t really matter beyond that – they could retain everything else in their culture intact, or at least their religion in its previous purity.  Hardly did they know that a language is not a simple tool of expression but a potent vehicle of culture that will invariably succeed in contaminating their culture – nay, their very soul and mind – by that of those who forced their language – directly or indirectly – on them. And, so, Arabic become the Trojan horse for our Arabic and Islamic acculturation and even Islamisation (that’s conversion to Islam and the loss of those converts’ identity and allegiance). We have seen all sorts these effects in our history, such as male and female circumcision, gender inequality (including segregation and reduced inheritance), polygamy, the acquirement of slaves and sleeping with concubines, etc. And since Arabisation, inter alia, meant the undermining of the cultural structures that supported our faith, we ended up by our faith itself being affected and weakened. Our old books, written in Coptic, were neglected and many of them vanished, either due to abandonment by us or destruction by our enemies. Those that were still available at the time of our language shift were not translated to Arabic, and so much of the wisdom of our Fathers and great ones was lost. To fill in the religious literary vacuum that had ensued, our elites in the Middle-Ages elected to author books written by them in Arabic in theological and canonical matters.  But their writings represented them and reflected their mind as influenced by the prevailing socio-political reality of the times. Islamic influence is detectable in the polemics they use and the topics they select; not only that, but also their response to questions raised and the answers they gave. In this way we can see the introduction into canon law of such matters such as justification for male circumcision and the relaxation of causes of divorce.

No, ‘our fathers’ were foolish. Their response to the lingual challenge that faced us in the Middle-Ages and posed by Arabic was wrong. And in this, we must add Patriarch Gabriel ibn Turaik (1131 – 1145), who was himself a clerk in the Islamic administration before he was selected to the patriarchate, and came from a family of clerks who served the Muslim state, to the lay clerks and traders. An appropriate response would have been emphasising the importance of Coptic as a national language, and a carrier of our culture and guarantor of the purity of our faith, and then a programme to ensure that it was taught to children before Arabic and a commitment to defend its domains at home, schools and church. Rather than writing in Arabic we should have authored books in Coptic, in all topics, and embarked on a campaign to educate our people in the language. A canonical declaration to consider it as our sacred language and banning use of Arabic in Church would have gone a long way to preserve our Coptic.

The response to the great challenge was both inappropriate and foolish. And we lost our beautiful language to Arabic, the alien language of our oppressors.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Daniel Myerson permalink
    March 7, 2019 2:42 am

    Such an intelligent and RELEVANT article– not only for
    Copts (I am not a Copt but a Jew who really admires
    Coptic culture and civilization–and faith and struggle). When I
    was in Egypt, I made many Coptic friends, visited Coptic churches
    and monasteries (in Wadi Natrun and elsewhere) and generally
    was in AWE of this ancient people preserving their high culture
    and spiritual truths under VERY VERY difficult circumstances.
    Thank you for this articles I am an avid reader of the articles on
    this website. Daniel Meyerson.


  1. ON COPTIC NATIONALISM في القومية القبطية

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