Islam is the dominant religion in Egypt; 90% of the Egyptians are Muslim. Some 7% of the population are members of the (Christian) Coptic Church.
“La ilaha illa Allah. Muhammudu rasulu Allah” (There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is His prophet). This is the testimony of faith, or shahada, whose recitation is the first and foremost of the five pillars of Islam, Egypt’s state religion. The word “islam” literally translates as “submission to the will of God.” Five times a day the faithful must kneel down in prayer and say the shahada. Before praying they wash their faces, feet and arms. The ritual of prayer, or salat, is the second pillar of Islam. The times for salat are announced from the minaret. The other three pillars of Islam are the obligations to give alms to the poor (zakat), to fast during the holy month of Ramadan (saum) and to undertake the haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. The five pillars are mentioned in the Koran, the holy scripture of Islam, written down by the prophet Mohammed in the 6th century.
History of Islam
Islam is the youngest of world religions with its era starting in 622 AD, when Mohammed undertook the hizhra, the flight from Mecca to Medina. While Christianity and Judaism spread from the Middle East in a westerly direction, the nomadic inhabitants of the Saudi peninsula had remained polytheistic. The bitter struggle for survival in the merciless desert climate led to a ruthless culture in which tribal chiefs had absolute power over life and death and women and slaves were personal possessions. At the age of 40 Mohammed had a vision of the radiant archangel Gabriel imparting on him the teaching of God. From that moment he began to preach the new creed. The prophet radically turned away from contemporary culture by making Allah the highest authority, preaching the fundamental equality of men and women and giving the latter the right of inheritance. Converted slaves were redeemed by his followers. By establishing the umma, the unity of all the faithful, the prophet broke through the highly tribal loyalties of his fellow men. After eleven years of preaching the prophet was chased out of his own city of Mecca. Islam spread after his death in 632. His visions and teachings were then put into writing and collected in the Koran, which was completed twenty years after Mohammed’s death. Within two centuries all of the Middle East and North Africa had been introduced to the new religion. The prophet’s visions were equivalent to the word of God and his teachings became an important source of authority (the hadith). A number of commandments and prohibitions were bundled into the sharia, or Islamic law.
These regulations are reflected to some extent in Egypt’s legal system and ethics. An important aspect of the sharia is the categorisation of human actions: compulsory actions (fard), e.g. washing before prayers; recommended actions (sunna), e.g. circumcision, objectionable actions (makruh), e.g. alcohol consumption, and strictly forbidden actions (haram), e.g. incest, stealing, adultery or revolt against one’s parents. The concept of halal indicates that food is in accordance with the Koran. For example, animals should be killed ritually and eating pork is forbidden.
In many ways Islam is related to Christianity and Judaism. It is not just the Koran that Muslims consider a holy book. The Bible is important in this religion too. Abraham (Ibrahim) and Jesus (the prophet Isa) are regarded as important prophets. There is a last judgement, there is heaven and hell, there are devils and angels. They do not, however, have a Messiah and the prophet Mohammed was the most important and ultimate messenger of God.
Essentially, all Muslims may act as imam, the minister who leads the faithful in prayer. The muezzin, who calls the Muslims to prayer five times a day, is not a professional clergyman either. The most important contrast between churches and mosques, apart from architectural differences, is the absence of images of humans, gods and animals in Islamic places of worship. The decorations are composed of Koran texts, geometrical patterns and plant motifs only. The imitation of creation is blasphemous.
The Coptic Church
The word Copt derives from Greek “Aigyptos”, which in turn is derived from “Hikapath”, one of the names of Memphis, the first capital of ancient Egypt. The Coptic faith is based on the teachings of Saint Mark the Evangelist. He brought Christianity to Egypt during the rule of the Roman emperor Nero in the first century AD, a few years after the crucifixion of Christ. The proud Coptic community has its own, well-defined position in contemporary Egyptian society, respected by both the government and Islam. Among the 78 million Egyptians there are some 10 million Copts. Every day they get together in thousands of Coptic churches in order to pray and profess their faith. Their cultural, spiritual and historical treasures can be found across the country. This religion is alive even in the most remote and inaccessible oases such as Kharga in the deep south. Contrary to Christians, the Copts practise fasting as often as 210 days per year. When fasting they are not allowed to consume animal products and they may not eat or drink anything at all from sunrise to sunset.