Coptic Conversion and the Islamization of Egypt

Coptic Conversion and the Islamization of Egypt

O’ Sullivan, Shaun (University of Balamand, Lebanon)

Mamluk Studies Review, Vol 10, No. 2, (2006)


Articles by Gaston Wiet in the 1920s, M. Perlmann in 1942, and Donald Little in 1976 have encouraged the perception that the first century of the Mamluk period marked a turning-point in the history of Coptic conversion to Islam. According to Wiet in his article on the Copts in the Encyclopaedia of Islam: “The government of the Mamluks gave the coup de grâce to Christianity in Egypt,” and he goes on, “It can be estimated that by the 8th century [that is, the fourteenth century], the Christians were barely, as in our times, a tenth of the total population of Egypt.” Perlmann echoes, “The Mamluk empire contributed decisively to the crushing of the Copt element in Egypt,” and “The power of the Copts as a community was crushed.” Donald Little believes that his findings “tend to support Wiet’s generalization.”

Chronological and demographic questions interested Wiet and his followers: when did the Copts become a minority in Egypt and the Muslims a majority, and what were the main stages in this process? To begin, they assumed that Coptic conversion to Islam was the main cause of demographic change in Egypt: Egyptian Muslims are thus mostly of Coptic ethnic origin. Next, they supposed that the Copts had converted in two waves—the first in the ninth century and the second in the fourteenth. Therefore, while heavily emphasizing the importance of the Mamluk period, they did not claim that the Islamization of Egypt occurred during this period alone.

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