Mattá al-Maskin [Yusuf Iskandar]

Role box
- Egyptian Coptic Orthodox monk (1919-2006)
- Orthodox theologian and reformer
- Author of spiritual and theological books
Education, Career and Personal Background
Father Mattá al-Maskīn, before his consecration he was called Yūsuf Iskandar, was born on September 20, 1919,1 in Banhá, 45 km north of Cairo. He graduated after studying pharmacy from Cairo University in 1944. He played an important role in the Sunday School Movement, a highly influential reform movement in the Coptic Orthodox Church started by non-clergy in the 1930s. Yūsuf Iskandar was linked to the Sunday School center of Giza which had a strong sense of outreach to the poor with an ecumenical dimension.

In 1948 he left his profession and entered the Monastery of St. Samuel in Middle Egypt. He was named Father Mattá. When he moved to the Syrian Monastery and was to be consecrated he had to choose another name, because there was already a monk called Mattá. According to church tradition it is not allowed to call two monks in one monastery the same name. As it was the feast of one of the saints he chose his name, Mattá al-Maskīn.

He was the first Coptic Christian with a university degree who entered monastic life. This example later motivated other educated youth to enter monastic life as well. His name is closely connected with the Monastery of St. Macarius in Wādī al-Natrūn. In 1969 Pope Kyrillos asked Father Mattá to go with his group of 12 monks to the monastery of St. Macarius that at the time only contained six monks. This move led to the revival of this ancient monastery. He had an impressive influence not only on spiritual concerns but also on administrative and agricultural developments.

Alongside with Bishop Samuel (1921-1981) and Pope Shenouda III (born 1923, Pope since 1971) Mattá is known as a reformer and a prominent figure in recent Coptic history. He is the author of numerous books, including Biblical exegesis, Ecclesiastical rites and works concerning spiritual and theological matters. Since 1985, when he came into conflict with Pope Shenouda, his books have been banned from official Church bookstores.2

He passed away in Cairo on the eighth of June 2006.

Political/Religious Involvement
Involvement in the Sunday School Movement
Yūsuf Iskandar, the later Mattá al-Maskīn, was participating in the Sunday School Movement and became a monk in 1948 knowing that the church could only be reformed from within. Father Mattá developed a spirituality based upon the study of the church fathers. Students from the Sunday School Movement admired him and many of them joined monastic life. They were the first generation of highly educated monks.3

Monastical Background
Mattá al-Maskīn left St. Samuel in 1951 to move to the Syrian Monastery. Starting in1953 he worked as deputy for Pope Yousab II (Pope 1946-1956) in Alexandria. According to Pope Shenouda's4 website he was dismissed in 1955 and withdrew to the Syrian Monastery and then back to St. Samuel. Due to the conflict between the two reformers, Pope Shenouda III and Father Mattá al-Maskīn, different versions of what had happened exist and finding a single statement of events depends on different sources. In the opinion of the monastery of St. Macarius he quit the monastery on his own volition to return back to his original monastery. In the late 1950s he decided to leave the monastery and to move into Wādī al-Rayān. He lived there as a recluse in the spirit of the ancient Desert Fathers5 for nine years. In the 1960s the community expanded to twelve monks.

Pope Kyrillos VI [1902-1971; Pope 1959-1971] suspended him from 1960 till 1969, because Father Mattá did not want to settle in one of the established monasteries under the authority of a traditional abbot. It is said that the main reason for any disagreement was Mattá al-Maskīn's published book entitled "Church and State," in which he calls for a strict separation between church and state affairs.6 Father Basilius states, that he was not suspended but that the abbot of the Syrian Monastery published a paid advertisement in the daily al-Ahrām that he was suspended without any trial. Pope Kyrillos VI ignored this suspension.

Two times, in 1956 and in 1971, he was among the candidates for the patriarchal seat but did not reach the final stage of the electoral process. According to Father Basilius he resigned his nomination out of his own free will.

Reconstruction of the Monastery of St. Macarius
In 1969 Pope Kyrillos sent Father Mattá to the monastery of St. Macarius in Wádī al-Natrūn. In the following years the monastery, then inhabited by six mostly elderly monks, underwent an enormous change. After Mattá al-Maskīn became their spiritual father, most of the buildings were repaired, the area enlarged for agricultural purposes, and within less a decade the number of monks increased dramatically to 120 monks and 20 novices in 2007. The reconstruction of the monastery in the 1970s included the building of a library that was filled with works about church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. St. Macarius Monastery is seeking to add studies conducted by other scholars around the world to their library.7 There are hundreds of books and journal articles published by Mattá al-Maskīn.

The monastery of St. Macarius writes about Mattá al-Maskīn: "He carried the torch of spiritual and theological enlightenment in the church by combining fundamental teachings with the needs of modern thinking. By doing this he transformed the monastic life from that of simple, undereducated and less-religious worshippers to a life for the more serious seekers of the truth."8

Central Rules and Spiritual Teaching
Mattá al-Maskīn's writings show a growing knowledge of western theological scholarship. Three major features draw a thread through all his writings: the incarnation, prayer and communion. He was influenced by an intense Bible reading, the study of the early church fathers and a deep ecumenical purpose.9

The "emphasis upon love is the unending theme of Father Mattá al-Maskīn's life. Love of God. Love for the community. Love for all Christians; locally, nationally and ecumenically. Love for Christian Theology. In his superb work 'The Communion of Love' Father Mattá al-Maskīn has affirmed the radical God-centeredness of his monastic community, in contrast to the pervasive human arrogance and self-centeredness of the modern world."10

The monks in St. Macarius have one law. The website of the monastery reads; "We have no other law than submission to the will of God through loving Him."11 The only condition for admission to the monastery is that the aspirants should have some personal religious experience, even if only on a single occasion.12

John Watson wrote in his article published in Watani International about the far-ranging influence of Mattá al-Maskīn. Besides the administrative, agricultural and institutional revolution at the Monastery of St. Macarius, Mattá's spiritual influence was even greater. 'Orthodox Prayer Life; The Interior Way' is widespread and formative to most of the monks in St. Macarius. The practical works of the monastery are transfigured into one spiritual activity and worship. Labor becomes a form of religious witness and a means of fraternal love.13

"Whenever physical hunger turned cruel against me, I found my gratification in prayer. Whenever the biting cold of winter was unkind to me, I found my warmth in prayer. Whenever people were harsh to me (and their harshness was severe indeed) I found my comfort in prayer. In short, prayer became my food and my drink, my outfit and my armor, whether by night or by day," wrote Father Mattá al-Maskīn.14

Metropolitan Bīshūy (1942- present) accused Mattá al-Maskīn of delivering heretic teachings. Mattá al-Maskīn is supposed to have written that on Pentecost the divine nature of God was united with human nature and that any Christian is equal to Jesus Christ the Son of God.15 Father Basilius strongly opposed these allegations stating; "These alleged writings ascribed to Father Mattá are not documented with reference to a certain publication … Father Mattá didn't say in any of his writings that any Christian is equal to Jesus Christ the Son of God."16

Father Basilius was one of the monks who followed Mattá al-Maskīn into the Monastery of St. Macarius in 1969. He further explains: "If there would be theological differences they should be discussed in the Holy Synod, but this never happened. They use the accusation that someone is heretic to denounce his image. These are rumors. Theological disputes should be discussed in clerical circles and not in public. There are more psychological problems." Mattá al-Maskīn said; "I felt I was late to come to the knowledge of Christ; studying the Bible appeared such a daunting task. In desperation, I asked the Lord to give me either a long life to have enough time to study the Bible well, or enough wisdom to grasp its hidden meanings. In His everlasting generosity, God gave me both."17

Relationship with Pope Shenouda
Amongst the educated students involved in the Sunday School Movement was Nazīr Jayyid, the later Pope Shenouda III. Father Mattá was his confessor and in the introduction to "Intilāq al-rūh" Pope Shenouda names Mattá his spiritual father.

Both represent modern Coptic history, Pope Shenouda as a church leader and teacher, Father Mattá as the father of the monastic revival. Since Shenouda's pontificate there has been an evident alienation between the two leaders. Pope Shenouda even stated in an interview that there is no relation at all between him and Mattá al-Maskīn.18

Political Involvement During the Sādāt Era
The relationship between Pope Shenouda and President Anwar al-Sādāt deteriorated as the Pope spoke out against perceived discrimination against Copts and essentially cancelled the Easter celebrations in 1980. Finally Sādāt sent him into exile to the Monastery of B?sh?y in Wādī Natrūn.19

Mattá al-Maskīn initially tried to mediate between the two. Pope Shenouda stated in an interview that it was "Father Mattá who appeared and met with Sādāt. People realized that he was with the president against the church."20 Mattá al-Maskīn later told Time Magazine in 1981; "Shenouda's appointment was the beginning of the trouble. The mind replaced inspiration, and planning replaced prayer. For the first years I prayed for him, but I see the church is going from bad to worse because of his behavior.... I can't say I'm happy, but I am at peace now. Every morning I was expecting news of more bloody collisions. Sādāt's actions protect the church and the Copts. They are from God."21

Pope Shenouda III visited the Monastery of St. Macarius in 1996. Mattá al-Maskīn encouraged reconciliation between him and Pope Shenouda in 2000, when he announced, that he would transfer a farm belonging to the Monastery of St. Macarius to the Pope. The farm then became the site for an exclusive, historical meeting between two leaders of the Coptic Church, Father Mattá al-Maskīn and Pope Shenouda III [July 2000].22

Church and State
Mattá al-Maskīn's book 'Al-Kanīsah wa-al-Dawlah' [Church and State], which was published in 1963 remains one of the major points of difference between the Pope and him. Mattá al-Maskīn opposes church interference into politics and emphasizes the personal and spiritual dimension of religion. He stands apart from all political, national and institutional aggression. Church leaders should be role models through prayer and repentance rather than being political activists.

Father Basilius explains, that interfering in politics and society leads to no good, rather, the role of the church is more to "influence society with sermons and good examples." He draws a comparison between Islamic groups, who want a religious state, and too much church influence in politics.23

On the other hand Pope Shenouda is a more political figure. In an interview with al-Musawwar he stated; "The Patriarch of Copts cannot be separated from the state. He and the Copts are part of the state, and separation from the state is neither in his, nor in their, nor in the state's interest."24

Involvement in Arab-West/Intercultural/Interfaith Relations
Institutional religion and ecclesiastical authority stand in contrast to personal faith and monastic enclosure, which have been the focus of Mattá al-Maskīn. He always sought to affirm the "unity of Truth," which all radical monks have described as the goal of all religions.25 He distanced himself from institutionalism. "If Christian unity is allied to the idea of temporal force, even if it is only to safeguard the interests of the weak, or if it seems useful for bringing human pressure to bear on the wayward sheep, it immediately loses its divine value; it is then nothing but a number of unions, destined to disintegration, and then to disappearance like every temporal undertaking in the works of man."26

Muslim-Christian Relations
Mattá al-Maskīn argued for a national perspective. "We should put our shoulders together in silence and disregard our identity,"27 he wrote in Marcos Magazine. He warned faithful Christians against sowing sedition among Muslims and Christians in Egypt, arguing that this would only be for the discredit of Copts.

One of the basic principals of Father Mattá's work was the provision of financial services and projects for the poor, Muslims and Christians alike. With his stress on religion as a spiritual and personal manner, Mattá al-Maskīn was open to dialogue between different religions. Hence, amongst the hundreds of workers on the farms of the monastery there are numerous Muslims.

Mattá al-Maskīn clearly affirms that, "in defending the gospel one sacrifices oneself, but in attacking others one must truly sacrifice the gospel for oneself alone." Christians must always be prepared to lay down their lives to defend their faith, but not to attack their opponents.

1 Other sources: 1919, November 1st and alternative place of birth: Damanhūr
2 RNSAW 2001, 51 Art. 13
3 RNSAW 2001, 51 Art. 13 and 2005, 24 Art. 59
4 Pope Shenouda is known as an opponent to Mattá al-Maskīn and it's not sure if these allegations are true. See Wikipedia
5 The Desert Fathers were Christian Hermits, Ascetics and Monks who lived mainly in the Scetes desert of Egypt, beginning in about the third century. Very few of the Desert Fathers lived in other deserted regions of Egypt. The original desert hermits were Christians fleeing the chaos and persecution of the Roman Empire's Crisis of the third century. See
6 See Wikipedia
7 Picard, Mary in: AWR 2004, 14 Art. 29
8 9 Rubenson, Samuel, p. 10f
10 Watson, John in: AWR, 2006, 25 Art. 48
11 12 Maskīn al-, Mattá in: Orthodox Prayer Life. An Interior Way. p. 10
13 AWR 2006, 25 Art. 48
14 See Wikipedia
15 RNSAW 2002, 47 Art. 16
16 RNSAW 2002, 47 Art. 17
17 Maskīn al-, Mattá in: 18 AWR 2003, 41 Art. 21
19 RNSAW 2002, 50 Art. 26
20 AWR 2003, 41, Art. 21
21 RNSAW 2001, 51 Art. 13
22 RNSAW 2000, 29 Art. 11
23 RNSAW 2002, 50 Art. 26
24 AWR 2003, 41, Art. 21
25 Watson, John in: Independent Newspapers UK, June 27, 2006 26 Mattá al-Maskīn: Christian Unity. p. 18
27 RNSAW 1998, 50 Art. 10
Biographical references:
- AWR reports mentioning Mattá al-Maskīn
- Hulsman, Cornelis: Reviving an Ancient Faith. Two Strong-Willed Reformers Bring Coptic Orthodoxy Back to Life. In: Christianity Today. December 2001 [AWR 2001, 51 Art. 13]
- Maskīn al-, Mattá: Al-Kanīsa wa-al-dawla. St. Macarius, 1963
- Maskīn al-, Mattá: Christian Unity. St. Macarius, 1997
- Monastery of St. Macarius: (06.03.2007)
- Pope Shenouda III, official website:
- Rubenson, Samuel: Tradition and Renewal in Coptic Theology. The Influence of the Theological Writings of Father Matta al-Miskin. St. Macarius, 2007
- Watson, John: Fr Matta elMeskeen. In: Newspapers UK, June 27, 2006
- Website of Mattá al-Maskīn followers:
- Wikipedia: Matta el-Meskeen in: (28.02.2007)

Further Reading:
- Hasan, S.S.: Christians versus Muslims in Modern Egypt: The Century-Long Struggle for Coptic Equality. Oxford, 2003
- Watson, John: Abouna Matta El Meskeen. Contemporary Desert Mystic. In: Coptic Church Review. Vol.27, No. 3 & 4, Fall & Winter 2006. S. 66-92

Contact Information
Nationality: Egyptian
Katrin Koehler, March 2007