Understanding 7th century Christian views about the arrival of Islam in Egypt

Sent On: 
Wed, 2021-11-17
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How did Christians view the arrival of Islam in the first decades after Amr Ibn al-Ass [ʿAmrū Ibn al-ʿĀṣ] conquered Egypt? ʿAmrū had embraced Islam around 629 AD, led the conquest or opening of Egypt that at the time was a Byzantine province and served as governor between 640–646 and 658–664.


Was this a liberation from the Byzantine yoke as some have claimed? Many Muslims therefore prefer to speak about the ‘opening’ of Egypt instead of the ‘conquest’ of Egypt. Or should the army of ʿAmrū Ibn al-ʿĀṣ be viewed as an occupation army as others have claimed? It is obvious that the discussion about Christian views about the arrival of Islam in Egypt is also highly relevant in discussions today. These questions were discussed with Prof. Dr. Harald Suermann of the University of Bonn at a workshop in 2009 and at a webinar funded by the SGP party in 2020. This has now resulted in a highly interesting paper published by Arab-West Report.


Prof. Dr. Harald Suermann 


Arab-West Report organized in 2009 a highly interesting discussion about the arrival of Islam with Prof. Dr. Harald Suermann and imam Fadel Soliman [Fāḍil Sulaymān], Director of the Bridges Foundation. One has to realize that the arrival of Islam in Egypt came after centuries of debate about the nature of Jesus Christ in the Byzantine Empire. At the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD Arianism was denounced and the creed most churches today adhere to was formulated. Arian theology says that Jesus was begotten in time by God the Father and is subordinate to Him. The denunciation of Arianism showed the view of the overwhelming majority of church leaders at the time, but Arianism continued for centuries to come and even survives in the views of many today. The Council of Nicaea did not end the debates. More councils followed until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD split the Christian church in what Prof. Suermann calls Chalcedonians (todays Byzantine, Catholic and Protestant churches decent from the Chalcedonian branch of Christianity) and the Miaphysites (adherents of one nature) which is the belief found in the Oriental Orthodox Churches. The Chalcedonians decided that Christ was to be acknowledged as having two inherent natures, without any confusion: unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably. The Miaphysites accused the Chalcedonians of dividing Christ into two natures. In order not to divide Christ, they confess the one incarnated nature of God the Word. For centuries after the schism this has resulted in heated debates between different Christian denominations. It is, therefore, highly commendable that Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III [Shinūda], Patriarch between 1971 until his death in 2012, was deeply involved in theological discussions with Byzantine, Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed Churches to heal this schism.


One cannot understand the arrival of Islam without the context of these Christological discussions. A key element of Islam is confessing the one-ness of God and thus seeing Jesus as a prophet and not God, nor the son of God. In the view of Islam, the views of both the Chalcedonians and Miaphysites are erroneous. Arianism, however, is much closer to the Muslim faith.


It is in this light interesting that Fāḍil Sulaymān argued in 2009 that a substantial portion of the Christian population of Egypt in the 7th century was Arian who, with the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox (the forefathers of the Coptic Orthodox of today), were persecuted by the Byzantines. Coptic Orthodox bishop John of Nikiou and general administrator of the monasteries of Upper Egypt in 696 AD writes that Arians had joined the Muslim army when they besieged the fortress of Babylon, now a part of Cairo. Most of these Arians, Fāḍil Sulaymān argued, converted to Islam. It is understandable that they did so because the Arians were persecuted both by the Byzantines and the Coptic Orthodox, who both believed Arians to have wrong theological perceptions. Bishop John is the author of a Chronicle extending from Adam to his days. Since the conquest took place only decades before he wrote his Chronicle the memories were still fresh. The problem, however, with Fāḍil Sulaymān’s argument is that we do not know the number or percentage of Arians during the days of the conquest and thus what impact they made on the conquest of Egypt.


In June 2020 we organized with financial support of the SGP, a conservative Christian political party, an online summer school for which we invited Prof. Dr. Harald Suermann to talk about his ongoing research on the earliest Christian responses to the Islamic conquest of Egypt. The SGP, in turn, had applied for funding to the Shiraka fund of the Dutch Foreign Ministry to make this possible. One should first of all realize that Christians in these days did not know what Islam was. These were newcomers with a faith that appeared to many as similar to Arianism. It is thus highly interesting to read about the earliest Christian responses to these newcomers.


The Chronicle of bishop John, professor Suermann writes, is only preserved in an Ethiopian translation and is incomplete for the early Islamic period. Our knowledge of the time is limited but “Today we know that at the beginning of Islamic rule, many Miaphysites did not receive the Arabs as liberators, but that they clung to the traditional vision that the Roman or Byzantine Empire was the realization of the Christian Empire and would last until the end of the world. But the empire had to be Orthodox and not heretical. The dispute was about defining Orthodoxy. In the early days of Islam, as the Byzantine Empire was regarded as the last one, the Arab conquest with the destruction of this last empire was seen as a harbinger of the end of the world.”


“The History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria as well as other texts show that the relations between the Copts and the Muslim rulers were initially good and that the patriarchs were respected by the conquerors as holy men. The History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria reports restrictions of Patriarch Isaac (686-689 CE). The first attacks on Christian religious expressions recorded by the History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria took place during Patriarch Simon I (692-700 CE).”


The Panegyric of the Three Children of Babylon, which may have been written several decades after the Arab conquest of Egypt, places the first attacks on Christian religious expressions much earlier. This shows how important it is to date the texts at our disposal since it makes a significant difference if a text can be seen as a contemporary text to the events described or turns out to be a much later reflection on an earlier historical event. Prof. Suermann thus makes great effort to date the various texts found that shed light on the earliest Egyptian Christian views about the arrival of Islam in Egypt.


The contribution of Prof. Suermann to our understanding of the arrival of Islam and the first decades of Muslim rule in Egypt is highly valuable but of course much more research can and should be conducted in this important part of Muslim-Christian history of Egypt.



November 17, 2021


Cornelis Hulsman,

Editor-in-Chief Arab-West Report