Quran English Translation & Commentary

Appendix V

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The later Dynasties, XXI to XXXI, saw the decay of Egypt as a Power. The Assyrian and Persian invasions ultimately extinguished the freedom of Egypt. With the coming of Alexander the Great (332m B.C.) and the foundation of the city of Alexandria, a new era dawned on the culture of Egypt. It mingled with Greek and other thought, and became cosmopolitan in nature. Already in the time of Herodotus, the sensitive Greek mind had been impressed with the mystery and wisdom of Egypt. It now made the soil of Egypt cosmopolitan in religion, culture, and philosophy.

The Ptolemaic dynasty held a broadly tolerant attitude, and even imported the rites of Serapis from the Black Sea and assimilated him to Apis the Bull of Memphis. The new cult of Serapis widely over the East, and later, when Egypt came under the Roman Empire (30 B. C.), into the very heart of the Empire. The Serapion in Alexandria, with its famous library, became for a few centuries the true intellectual centre of the world.

The very unfavorable picture drawn of Egyptian religion in Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii must be referred to the somewhat hybrid cult of Isis as practiced in foreign lands rather than to Egyptian religion generally. What course real Egyptian religion took in this period we have no means of judging accurately. In the light of earlier and later events we may suppose that the steady honest industrious Egyptian peasantry and people went on pursuing the  even tenor of their career with the same mystic longing for a practical religion which was preparing them for purer forms of worship and a juster distribution of the fruits of labour.

Alexandria in the first centuries of the Christian era was resounding with the shouts of every kind of philosophy and the teaching of every kind of religious sect, from East and West, North and South, but mainly from the East, which was ever been a nursery of religious ideas. A special quarter was assigned to the Jews in the city. It became the true centre of Hellenised Judaism, and may claim Josephus among its disciples. Neo-Pythagoreanism, Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, and Manichaeism found a home there Mithraism, which was so widely spread in the Roman Empire, especially in the army, in the first three centuries A.C., was probably represented on its philosophic side in Alexandria. Its intermixture of races, creeds, philosophies, and religions, produced an atmosphere of chaos, which was not cleared until the advent of Islam.

But from a religious point of view our greatest interest in Egypt in the first seven centuries of the Christian era is in the development of Christianity itself. It is difficult to say even when exactly Christianity began to displace the older Egyptian cults. But when Christianity was well-established, we find Egypt one of its most important centres. But the new Christianity which was evolved out of the ruins of the Christ’s simple teaching had four distinct attitudes towards organization, speculative doctrine, asceticism and mysticism.

1.       The native Egyptians or Coptic Church was contemplative, ascetic, and mystical. Monasticism became so rampant that it seriously affected the growth of population and degraded the position of women.

2.       The Alexandrian school developed on Greek lines-political, ambitious, speculative, philosophical, and liable to break up into numerous sects and heresies, each party trying to dominate and put down the others as heretical by the strong arm of the law.

3.       The Bishop of Rome, when the seat of the Empire was transferred to Constantinople in 330, gradually developed political power in Italy. He inherited the Roman genius for organization, and the invasion of the Germanic tribes gave him an opportunity not only of extending the Roman Catholic Church over the whole of Central and Western Europe, but of establishing the Church as superior to the state when the Papacy became an established political power.

4.       The Orthodox Eastern Church , and all the sects which it fought in the East, tended ultimately to vanish before the advance of Islam. Had it not been for the vast Slav territories over which it obtained sway, in and around Russia and afterwards in Siberia, the Orthodox Eastern Church would have been reduced to a negligible position like the Coptic Church in Egypt. With pretensions to rule the State, it had yet become, in Kingley’s words in Hypatia, the “stipendiary slave-official” of the Empire.

But we are anticipating. Before the Roman Catholic Church parted from the Orthodox Eastern Church, the united Church fought with and suppressed many so-called “heresies”, some of which represented the view of primitive Christianity, and the scene of many of these doctrinal fights was in Egypt.

The one that interests us most is Aryanism. Arius was an Alexandrian Presbyter early in the fourth century A.C. and fought hard for the doctrine of Unity, the simple conception of the Eternal God, as against all the hair splitting and irrational distinctions in the nature and persons of the Godhead, which finally crystallized in the doctrine of the Trinity, propounded and maintained with much personal acrimony by Athanasius.

Athanasius himself was born in Alexandria and became Bishop of Alexandria. He may be counted as the father of Orthodoxy (as now understood by Christianity) and the real systematiser of the doctrine of the Trinity-“three in one and one in three.” Up to the third century A.C. the Unitarians had been in the majority in the Christian Church, though subtle metaphysicians had started dispute as to the meanings of “God becoming man.” The Logos or the Word, the Power of Allah, whether the Father and the Son were of the same substance or of similar substance, whether the Son could be said to have been created by the Father, and numerous questions of that kind. They do not interest us now, but they rent the Christians world into many jarring sects until the mission of our Holy Prophet dissipated the mists and reestablished the doctrine of Unity on a firm and rational basis.

As I have said, the Christian Churches in the East, as well as the Germanic nations which came later into the fold, adhered to Unity although not in the pure form which was made clear in the Holy Quran. The issue was joined between Arius and Athanasius, and the first General Council on the Christian Church, that of Nicaea (in Bithynia) in 325, decided against Arius and Unitarianism.

The controversy, however, still continued to rage until 381, when the Council of Constantinople, called by the Emperor Theodosius the Great, confirmed the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity and declared it to be the only Orthodox one. Though controversies, protests, and persecutions continued long afterwards, we may take that date as the date of the fall of Christianity. Even in Western Christianity, as late as 496, Clovis, the Frankish king, was the only Christian sovereign sophisticated enough to follow the subtle doctrine of the Trinity. The others were brought into line by political power later.

The Christian creed became narrower and narrower, less and less rational, more and more inclined in use earthly weapons to suppress the eternal truth of Allah.

In 415 the Jews were expelled from Alexandria. In the same year and in the same city the beautiful, modest, eloquent philosopher and mathematicians, Hypatia, was murdered-an outrage against both rationalism and the intellectual and religious position of woman in human society. The murder was a particularly brutal one. She was dragged from her chariot in the streets, stripped naked, and suffered a lingering death in a Christian Church. Her body was then cut to pieces and burned.

The worst features of the crime was the complicity of the Patriarch of Alexander, who was not only the chief religious dignitary of the Orthodox Church in Egypt but the de facto repository of political power. Meanwhile the native Christian community-the Coptic Church-which had all along clung to the Monophysite doctrine, a corrupt form of Unitarianism, was out of the pale, and its members were held down as a depressed class by their Orthodox brethren. The latter also, basking in official sunshine, collected power and property into their own hands. As Kingsley remarks in Hypatia, the Egyptian Church

“ended as mere or false, were equally heretical in their mouths because they used them as watchwords for division.”

The social conditions produced an amount of discontent, for which the redress came only with the advent of Islam.

It was for this reason that the Copts and the inhabitants of Egypt generally welcomed the forces of Islam under ‘Amr as deliverers in 639 A.C. the power was taken over by the victorious army of Islam from Cyrus (called Muqawqas in Arabic through the Coptic), the Patriarch of Alexandria, but it was used by the army of deliverance to enlarge the liberties of the Egyptians, to admit them into the universal brotherhood of Islam, and to improve the resources of the country for the benefit of the people. Except a negligible remnant of conservatives, the Egyptians as a nation accepted the religion, the language, and the institutions of the Arabs and embarked on a new course of history, which it is necessary to follow further in this note.

It should be remarked, however, that what happened in Egypt happened generally in western Asia. The jarring sectarian irrational religious gave place before the triumphant religion of Unity and Brotherhood, and the Byzantine Empire receded and receded until it was swept out of existence. The feeble efforts made by the Emperor Leo the Isaurian in 726-731 to restrict the use of images were a reflection of the puritanical zeal of Islam. But they did not succeed in the area of his authority, and they completely alienated the Papacy from the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The Bishop of Rome had been consolidating his power, and in the person of Gregory I (590-604) had already assumed the control of Italy and was seeking the aid and support of the Barbarian invaders who eventually became the pillars of the Papacy.

The final and open rupture between the Orthodox Eastern Church and the Roman Catholic Church took place in 1054. but the earlier dates are remarkable. After the birth of the Holy Prophet of Islam the disruption of the Orthodox Christian Church (which had now become an anachronism) began.

When Islam was making its triumphant march in the 8th century after Christ, the original (Greek) Church began to take some steps to puts its own house in order. But it had lost its mission, and the new Islamic people took its place. The Western Church has since worked on definitely new lines, and its offshoots among the Protestant Church have consciously or unconsciously, been influenced by the broad principles of Islam.

What the course of future religion may be and how Allah will unfold His All-Wise Plan is  not given to us mortals to know.

In the Islamic Brotherhood many changes have taken place and are taking place. Egypt, in spite of her many vicissitudes in the Islamic period, is in the intellectual forefront among the Arabic-speaking nations of Islam. We pray that her people may be guided, through their educational, cultural, and religious channels, to work with a new spirit for the progress of Islam and the glory of Allah.

 


References:

Those given for Appendix IV: and in addition:

Sir E.A. Wallis Budge. Gods of the Egyptians: and his latest book From Fetish to God in Ancient Egypt (Oxford 1940:

Budge. Book of Dead; A.W. Shorter, Introduction to Egyptian Religion (1931);

Adolf von Harnack, History of Dogma, 7 vols., is an elaborate detailed German account of how Christian Dogma grew up and may be read in an English translation;

a handier book is R.W. Mackay, Rise and Progress of Christianity (1854);

C. Kingsley’s novel Hypatia gives a good picture of social and religious conditions in Christian Egypt in the fifth century. On the identity of al Muqawqas (Pkauchios) with Cyrus,

see Dr. A.J. Butler’s “Arab Conquest of Egypt.” (Oxford 1902), pp. 508-562.

 

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