Publication Date

July 1, 2015


Current Events in Historical Context

In the midst of the political turmoil that has engulfed Egypt over the past four years, one question that has consistently come up concerns the right of Egyptians to practice their religions freely without government interference. While lauding Egypt’s erstwhile transition from authoritarian rule to nascent democracy, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned against the possibility that an elected Islamist government could curtail the rights of religious minorities. Then, following the military coup that overthrew the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom designated Egypt a “country of particular concern” due to the increasingly repressive policies of Egypt’s new military dictator, Abdelfattah al-Sisi. What these discussions all fail to grasp is that the question of religious freedom in Egypt is not a function of competing ideological and political programs, but rather a product of the historical development of the modern nation state and its inherent need to assert maximal control over the lives of citizens.

One of the pitfalls for those of us examining the question of religious freedom in Muslim societies is the tendency to view it through the prism of modernity, thereby conflating the orthodox positions of religious authorities with the policies and practices of political elites. Unlike in the modern period, historically Islamic legal institutions maintained a degree of independence from the ruler. As Wael Hallaq has demonstrated, the Shari'a and its agents in the form of muftis (jurists) and qadis (judges) traditionally served as mediators between political powers and the masses.

This effectively meant that the dominant juridical opinion on religious freedom and the actual practices by individual rulers could be (and quite often were) two separate things. Traditional Islamic legal thought consistently supported the notion that minority communities could practice their religion freely, based in part on the Qur'anic injunction that "there is no compulsion in religion" (Qur'an 2:256). Indeed, on matters of personal beliefs and practices as well as communal rituals, classical and medieval Islamic dynasties intervened only in rare instances, such as the 9th-century Mihna launched by the Abbasids to enforce uniformity of Islamic doctrinal issues, though it was as likely to have been a pretext to enforce the caliph's political supremacy. Forced conversion to Islam was also not a function of early states. As a result, Egypt remained a majority Coptic Christian territory for nearly four centuries after the Islamic conquest.

The gradual spread of Islam ensured that by the 19th century Egypt would be home to a greater integration of Muslim and Christian communities, unlike other corners of the Ottoman Empire where majority Christian populations had come under Muslim rule only in the early modern period. The empire's Millet System ensured that religious minorities maintained quasi-autonomy by granting them separate courts and political representation through their religious authorities. By enabling the establishment of self-governing religious, cultural, and economic institutions, the Millet System eventually came to foster the nationalist aspirations of ethnic minorities within the Ottoman Empire. But while the empire recognized 17 religious groups, from Catholics and Orthodox Christians to Jews and Protestants, Coptic Christians were not among the communities recognized. This was partly due to Egypt's increasingly unique position as a nominal Ottoman province, but the decision to exclude Copts also points in part to the community's greater integration within Egyptian society, as observed in the prominent positions played by Copts within the governing bureaucracy and their key role in the advancement of modernization programs.

However, the freedom that minority communities enjoyed by preserving their religious autonomy also served to carve out distinctions in areas that were not determined by Islamic law. The division of society into communities governed by separate religious legal systems proved to be a convenient demarcation for rulers to enact discriminatory policies regarding access to political and economic power. When the state faced constraints in its ability to decree stringent policies in these spheres, or delegated responsibilities such as tax collection to local leaders, the impact of its communitarian policies on religious minorities was limited.

But with the development of modern bureaucratic institutions and the centralization of state power in the 19th century, political elites exercised far greater control over their populations than at any prior point. This had the dual effect of establishing greater equality across religious communities while at the same time rapidly expanding state control over the affairs of the emerging nation. Muhammad Ali, known as the founder of modern Egypt, was an Ottoman governor who established Egypt's independence from the empire and carved out a family dynasty that lasted into the mid-20th century. As modernizers during his reign sought to create legal uniformity for their subjects, this often came at the expense of the autonomy that minority communities had previously enjoyed. By the mid-19th century, the Egyptian state had abolished the jizya, religiously required tax payments for non-Muslims, but had also enacted forced conscription of Copts into the military as part of Muhammad Ali's modernization program, a measure that was challenged unsuccessfully by Coptic leaders.

The status of Copts diminished further during the colonial era, when Lord Cromer avoided appointing religious minorities to government positions as a matter of policy. The British colonial practice of empowering secular legal institutions while simultaneously employing discriminatory policies against minority religious groups proved unsustainable in the long term. While that practice was intended to strengthen the hand of the occupying power, it set off a scramble for access to limited political and economic resources among Egypt's competing confessional groups in the context of a rising nationalist movement.

Recognizing that the boundaries between the country's religious and political institutions were being eroded, Egyptian reformers sought to strike a balance between preserving elements of the old order and embracing the new one. The Islamic modernist scholar Muhammad Abduh had trained at the country's preeminent religious institution, al-Azhar. But rather than serving in the traditional Shari'a courts, he was appointed as a judge in the National Courts that applied modern legal codes and were gradually overtaking the religious courts. In his capacity as Egypt's grand mufti, Abduh reformed Egypt's system of education and led efforts to systematize and codify the fluid and competing rulings that made up the body of Shari'a law, a sign that the country's religious establishment had resigned itself to the state's growing control over the lives of Muslims as well as Christians.

Nationalist fervor coalesced during the interwar period, as the 1919 Revolution that won Egypt its independence three years later was notable for the displays of unity across communal lines. These continued well into the so-called "liberal era" during which it was not unusual to see a prominent Coptic political figure like Makram Ebaid deliver a heartfelt eulogy for his close friend Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, following the latter's assassination in 1949.

As jurist Tariq al-Bishry has argued, the basis of the modern Egyptian state rests on the dual historical processes of developing a national civic identity that transcends religious differences and the concomitant establishment of a strong centralized state whose power is internally derived from institutions such as the military, the judiciary, and the bureaucracy. By the time the military regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized al-Azhar, seized religious endowments, and abolished communal courts in the 1950s, the process of subsuming Egypt's autonomous religious institutions to the state was complete.

While these policies were framed as necessary measures to bring a halt to communal politics, Egypt's authoritarian regime has been known to stoke the flames of religious discord by exploiting its position as the chief arbiter of religious affairs. A primary charge by protesters during the anti-Mubarak uprising of 2011 concerned the state's penchant for maintaining social divisions through policies meant to empower some social groups at the expense of others, at times leading to outbreaks of violence. In one instance, reports surfaced that Mubarak's last interior minister helped to plot one of the deadliest bombings of a Coptic church in Egypt's modern history in a bid to enact greater repressive measures under the pretense of fighting terrorism. Tensions with the state continued even after Mubarak's overthrow. Following the government's destruction of a Coptic church in Upper Egypt, state security agents killed dozens of peaceful protesters at Maspiro in October 2011. The public discourse during the short-lived post-Mubarak transition revolved in part around the question of restoring independence to the country's religious institutions as a means of ending communal strife. The question of religious freedom in Egypt, it seems, has long been a matter of saving religion from the state, not the state from religion.

is an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Qatar. He is coeditor of the Critical Currents of Islam page at Jadaliyya ( and author of Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat's Egypt (Oxford University Press, 2014). He tweets @anhistorian.

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