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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Those given for Appendix IV: and in addition:
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
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.