The situation of the Copts in Egypt is worse than it has been for many years. On January 7, 2010, seven young Copts were gunned down as they left a Christmas Eve service in the town of Nag Hammadi. Two months later, 24 Copts were injured and 17 houses were looted and set afire in the Mediterranean coastal town of Marsa Matrouh after hundreds of Muslims stormed out of a local mosque inflamed by calls of jihad against the "enemies of Islam". There are more and more stories of churches being attacked simply because Christians want to repair existing structures or build new ones.
How is Al-Azhar, the oldest and most famous Islamic University in the world, responding to these attacks on Egypt's Christians? How is it using its influence and power to bring peace to a troubling situation? The answer might surprise you - although if you are not new to these matters, it probably will not.
Al-Azhar has a monthly magazine that regularly includes a free book in magazine format inserted into each copy. The book in December's edition (the month before the Nag Hammadi massacre) was entitled "A Scientific Report" by well-known vocal critic of Christianity Dr. Muhammad Amara. It is, according to the author, his response to a 52-page treatise called "Prepared to Answer" by a Samir Morqos that Amara considered an attack on Islam. There was no additional information given about the offending book, including its publisher, publication date, or how it can be obtained.
The problem is that no-one knows where this book is (if it even exists), or what it says about Islam other than what is alleged by Dr. Amara. There is an Egyptian Coptic intellectual named Samir Morqos who writes critically about the state of Coptic citizenship in modern Egypt, but he denies writing the book and says he knows nothing about it.
On a recent edition of the Arabic program Daring Question, host Rashid invited two Bible scholars to examine the scholarship of Muhammad Amara. After commenting that there are many well-known books that criticize Islam, in addition to television shows such as his own, Rashid wondered why Amara would not respond to one of those rather than stage an attack on a book that is not even available to the public. Shaykh Samuel replied that the alleged book was only the pretext for Amara's book. His real reason was to launch a full-frontal attack on the Bible and Christian belief that was neither scientific nor a report.
Rashid then quoted the following section from Amara's book: "The Torah is the book that was revealed by Allah to Moses. Moses was born, raised, died, and buried in Egypt, the land in which he received the revelation of the Torah. The Torah was revealed to him in hieroglyphics, which was the language of the Children of Israel in Egypt. Moses was buried in Egypt before Joshua led the Children of Israel into Canaan, and more than 100 years before the birth of the Hebrew language. The Hebrew language was originally one of the languages of Canaan. Where is a single copy of the Torah in hieroglyphics that was revealed to Moses?"
After noting that (as is often the case in Islamic "apologetics"), there was not a single source given for this information, Rashid asked his guests for their comments. Old Testament scholar Dr. Ashraf pointed out that most Muslims have no concept of the Christian and Jewish understanding of "inspiration", but understand "revelation" in the Islamic context. Just as Muhammad in Islam was merely an audible channel for the words of Allah given him by Gabriel, Muslims see Biblical authors such as Moses and David as being recipients of God's message in the same way. The idea of these men sitting down with a pen and scroll and expressing ideas in poetry and prose that became Biblical text is unknown to Muslims.
Dr. Ashraf then discussed Amara's claim that Moses received the revelation of the Torah in hieroglyphics. Egyptian hieroglyphics is a pictoral language that uses hundreds of symbols. When the early descendants of Abraham who became known as the Children of Israel went to Egypt about 1800 BC for a sojourn that lasted 400 years, they spoke a language of Canaan that was an extension of an even earlier language of Phoenicia. About 2000 BC the Mediterranean Phoenicians invented the world's first alphabet that contained letters instead of symbols. This language became the precursor of both ancient and modern Hebrew, and many of the letters still look similar. Just as there were 22 letters in the Phoenician alphabet, there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet of the Old Testament.
The Egyptians were unwilling to share their language and its hieroglyphics, which was associated with their religion and their gods, with the Hebrew immigrants. The result was that the Hebrews preserved their own Canaanic language for their entire time in Egypt. It was the written language used by Moses and other literate Hebrews. There is absolutely no scientific, historical, or archeological evidence that, as claimed by Muhammad Amara, "the Torah was revealed to Moses in hieroglyphics".
Rashid then quoted a further section from Amara's book supporting the Muslim claim that the "Injil of Moses" has been corrupted: "Moses lived in the 13th century BC, whereas the first written recording of the Old Testament was by Ezra in the middle of the 5th century BC. That means that the Jewish Torah was passed by oral tradition for 8 centuries."
Again noting that Amara gave no source for this information, Dr. Ashraf pointed out that the Old Testament in numerous occasions reports that Moses himself wrote the Torah. In Exodus 17:14, Moses wrote down the account of Israel's battle with the Amalekites, Exodus 24:4 records Moses writing down all the instructions he had received from God, and Exodus 34:27 notes Moses writing down the covenant made by God with the people. Deuteronomy 31:24-26 states that the entire Torah was written by Moses on a scroll that was then placed in the ark carried by the Israelites so that it would remain with them.
Dr. Ashraf then referred to archeological findings discovered in 2006, which Rashid displayed on the screen, of tablets containing fragments of the Old Testament written in ancient Hebrew that archeologists date to the 10th century BC.
Rashid next quoted what Amara said about the New Testament: "The Messiah, peace be upon him, came with the Injil (Gospel) that was revealed to him in the Aramaic language. Where is a copy of this Injil? Not a single church of all the Christian denominations in the world possesses a single copy. They only possess a book they call the New Testament that goes not go back at all to Jesus. It contains simply stories written by numerous writers, each of whom gave his own version of what Jesus said and did and taught."
Again, in an attempt to apply the Muslim concept of revelation to Jesus, Amara is claiming that an "Aramaic Injil" descended from Allah to Jesus, this Injil has been lost to history, and all that remains as the New Testament is his "Seerah" or biography.
Shaykh Samuel, who is a New Testament scholar, responded that there never has been in Christian history and doctrine any teaching that an Injil was revealed by God to Jesus. Jesus himself is the source of the New Testament, and the four small books in it known as the Gospels were the accounts of his life written down by his disciples. Jesus, in the Christian tradition, is the Injil; it was not a message revealed to him from God as Muslims believe the Quran was a message revealed to Muhammad from Allah.
Rashid, who is an ex-Muslim, explained in more detail how Muslims understand the "revelation of Jesus". Just as Muhammad went to a cave where an angel held him tightly and commanded him to recite the words given to him, Muslims imagine that Jesus was given a message in the same way. The fact that no church throughout 2000 years of Christian history has viewed the Injil in this way is of no significance to the Muslim scholar.
Muhammad Amara also wrote, "Two of the four major Gospels in the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were written in the 2nd century AD by the followers of the associates of Jesus. Mark was a disciple of Peter, and Luke was a disciple of Paul. Neither of them witnessed the scenes about which they wrote."
Rashid pointed out that even Amara's expression "the followers of the associates" is Islamic terminology taken from Muslim history. Muhammad's "Sahabah", or associates were the people who lived close to him during his lifetime. The "Tabaeen" or followers were those who came afterwards. Again with no understanding of Christian history, Amara simply applied this understanding from Islam to Church History.
Shaykh Samuel explained that many people are only aware of the "Twelve Disciples" of Jesus made famous by art and literature, but the New Testament also speaks of larger groups of 70 and 120 people who believed in him. Mark, a young boy living in Jerusalem, was one of these and there is evidence that the famous Last Supper was held in the house in which he lived. He wrote his Gospel in Jerusalem specifically for a Roman audience. The medical doctor Luke wrote his Gospel in Antioch for a Greek audience. It is true, as Amara writes, that Mark was a close associate of Peter and Luke was a follower of Paul but that is evidence that what they wrote was under the careful scrutiny of both Peter and Paul, not embellished material created a century later. Luke himself in the opening verses of both Luke and Acts wrote of the care he took to ensure that what he wrote was historically accurate.
Rashid noted that the Hadiths in Islam are based upon their "isnad", or chain of reference. "Abu-Hurayrah recounted that Aisha reported that the Prophet said..." If the Hadiths are accepted as true by Muslims, why would Amara cast doubt on material that Mark and Luke learned from Jesus' closest friends?
As Rashid and his guests continued to counter the unsubstantiated and undocumentaed allegations of Muhammad Amara with historical and archeological evidence, I thought of the thousands and perhaps millions of young Egyptians who will never have the opportunity to watch the same program I did. Their only source of information is people such as Amara, whose invented versions of Christian and Jewish history are intended for no other purpose than to confirm the Quran's description of those people as "najiseen and kufaar", the unclean infidels who deliberately corrupted their Scriptures for their own selfish purposes. It's not difficult to see why young Egyptian Muslims quickly conclude the Copts are unworthy of full respect and equality as citizens of modern Egypt.