Muslim apologists including Shaykh Yusuf Al Qaradawi often allege that the Copts of Egypt welcomed the invasion of Muslim Commander Amr Ibn Al Aas in 639 AD or 17 AH (Islam's calendar begins with Muhammad's Hijrah from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD). The fact that Amr could conquer Egypt with an army of only 4,000 men, said the Shaykh on a recent Shariah and Life interview, indicates that he was welcomed by its Christian population.
As with Muslim apologists across the board, Dr. Qaradawi is misleading and deceptive even when he is partially correct. The reality is that some Egyptian Christians initially welcomed the Muslim invaders. Far from a cakewalk, Amr completed his conquest of Egypt only after many months of bitter warfare with a reinforced army three times its original size.
The Copts at the time of Amr's invasion were not a free people. Their country had been torn apart by an ongoing struggle between two great external powers, the Byzantines and the Sassanids, both eager to exploit Egypt's agricultural wealth as well as protect their kingdoms from enemies who could penetrate Egypt's southern border. The Byzantines were Christian as were the Copts, but theological differences caused bitter rivalry between the two groups and as I discuss here the Christian church has not always dealt with dissension in a Christlike way.
Although Egypt's Christians welcomed the forced expulsion of the Byzantines, they did not equally welcome their new conquerors and as the Muslims forced their way south they met with increased and stronger resistance. The warriors of the southern Christian kingdom of Nubia were skilled archers, with the Muslim commander Uqba bin Nafe initially forced to retreat after Nubian arrows took out the eyes of hundreds of his soldiers.
It did not take the Copts long to realize one oppressive system had replaced another, and they were trapped between a rock and a very hard place. The only remaining history of the entry of Noor Ad-Deen (the light of Islam) to Egypt from their perspective was written by John of Nikiu, a Coptic bishop who in 696 AD was appointed head of the monasteries in the Nile Delta (comment: the Nile river splits near Cairo and forms a triangle as it proceeds north to the Mediterranean Sea. The fertile soil within this triangle is known as the Nile Delta).
I find it interesting that Muslims consider the first two generations of Islam, the Sahaba and Tabieen (the Companions of Muhammad and their Followers) the closest period to heaven on earth ever known to man. But hearing Yusuf Qaradawi explain the life of Egypt's Copts during that time is like hearing a 19th century Georgia plantation owner describe the wonderful life of his slaves. A much more realistic picture will be gained by listening to the slaves themselves, and the only way to understand the fate of the Copts is to listen to their story.
How did Bishop John describe life under Muslim rule? Only fragments of his book remain, available here. His fascinating account of the 639 AD Muslim invasion begins with chapter 111 (CXI), and I will quote a few verses beginning with chapter 120:
120-34. Amr subdued the land of Egypt and sent his men to war against the inhabitants of Pentapolis. After he had subdued them, he did not permit them to dwell there. He took from thence plunder and captives in abundance.
120-36. The patriarch Cyrus was greatly grieved on account of the calamities which had befallen the land of Egypt. Amr had no mercy on the Egyptians, and did not observe the covenant they had made with him, for he was of a barbaric race.
120-69. The general Valentine and his troops were not able to give any assistance to the Egyptians; but the latter, and particularly the Alexandrians, were very hard pressed by the Moslem. And they were not able to bear the tribute which was exacted from them.
121-1. The Coptic Patriarch Benjamin returned to the city of Alexandria in the thirteenth year after his flight from the Romans, and he went to the Churches, and inspected all of them. 2. Every one said : 'This expulsion (of the Romans) and victory of the Moslem is due to the wickedness of the emperor Heraclius and his persecution of the Orthodox through the patriarch Cyrus. This was the cause of the ruin of the Romans and the subjugation of Egypt by the Moslem.
121-3: Amr became stronger every day in every field of his activity. He exacted the taxes which had been determined, but he took none of the property of the Churches, and he committed no act of spoliation or plunder, and he preserved them throughout all his days. When he seized the city of Alexandria, he had the canal drained in accordance with the instructions given by the apostate Theodore. 4. He increased the taxes to the extent of twenty-two batr of gold till all the people hid themselves owing to the greatness of the tribulation, and could not find the wherewithal to pay.
121-10. Many of the Egyptians who had been false Christians denied the holy orthodox faith and lifegiving baptism, and embraced the religion of the Moslem, the enemies of God, and accepted the detestable doctrine of the beast Mohammed. They erred together with those idolaters, and took arms in their hands and fought against the Christians. 11. One of them, named John the Chalcedonian of the Convent of Sinai, embraced the faith of Islam, and quitting his monk's habit took up the sword, and persecuted the Christians who were faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ.
122-1. Let us glorify our Lord Jesus Christ and bless His holy name at all times; for unto this hour He hath preserved us Christians from the errors of the erring heathen, and from the transgressions of the apostate heretics. 2. And may He also strengthen and help us to endure tribulation through hope in His divinity. And He will make us worthy to receive, with a face not put to shame, the inheritance of His eternal (and) incorruptible Kingdom in heaven. And (let us bless) His Father, (pre-eminently) good, and the Holy Lifegiving Spirit for ever and ever, Amen.
As Egyptian Christians rejoiced to see the departure of the Byzantines 1300 years ago, they celebrated the departure of Husni Mubarak on Tahrir Square this month. But will they again find themselves between the hammer and the anvil as they did then, or has anything changed?
A few years ago at the American University in Cairo on Tahrir Square, I heard Saad Eddin Ibrahim give an impassioned appeal for a Egypt and an Islam led by enlightened Muslim liberals. As I looked around the hall and saw the hundred or so elderly, English-speaking, Western-educated, European-dressed Egyptians who had turned out for his speech I thought, "He must be dreaming." I couldn't help but compare that audience with the thousands of young hijab-clad (hip-hugging long black skirts nevertheless) Egyptian girls and young Egyptian men I saw packed into the metro every morning. No, it's not going to be Dr. Ibrahim's version of enlightened Western-educated Muslim liberals who will lead the new Egypt. I'm just not yet sure who it will be. I've always considered myself an optimist, but my fear is that in Egypt things might get much worse before they get better. And I'm particularly concerned for Egypt's Copts.