Christian love has historically been subject of extensive theological study but has rarely been studied within anthropology. Contemporary Coptic society receives growing attention over the last two decades as a minority in Egyptian Muslim majority society. An important bulk of this scholarship involves a discussion of the community’s sometimes self-defined and sometimes ascribed characterization as a persecuted minority. Particular attention has gone to how social and political dimensions of minority life lead to changes in Christian theological understandings. This paper builds on these insights and examines how Christian love is experienced, and shapes feelings of belonging, everyday morality and political sensibilities vis-à-vis Muslim majority society. It draws from ethnographic observations and meetings with Copts living in Egypt between 2014–2017. It focuses on three personal narratives that reveal the complex ways in which a theology of love affects social and political stances. An anthropological focus reveals the fluid boundaries between secular and religious expressions of Christian love. Love for God and for humans are seen as partaking in one divine love. Practicing this love, however, shapes very different responses and can lead to what has been described as Coptic ‘passive victim behaviour’, but also to political activity against the status-quo.
Publisher’s Description: The plight of religious minorities in the Middle East is often attributed to the failure of secularism to take root in the region. Religious Difference in a Secular Age challenges this assessment by examining four cornerstones of secularism—political and civil equality, minority rights, religious freedom, and the legal separation of private and public domains.
Drawing on her extensive fieldwork in Egypt with Coptic Orthodox Christians and Bahais—religious minorities in a predominantly Muslim country—Saba Mahmood shows how modern secular governance has exacerbated religious tensions and inequalities rather than reduced them. Tracing the historical career of secular legal concepts in the colonial and postcolonial Middle East, she explores how contradictions at the very heart of political secularism have aggravated and amplified existing forms of Islamic hierarchy, bringing minority relations in Egypt to a new historical impasse. Through a close examination of Egyptian court cases and constitutional debates about minority rights, conflicts around family law, and controversies over freedom of expression, Mahmood invites us to reflect on the entwined histories of secularism in the Middle East and Europe.
A provocative work of scholarship, Religious Difference in a Secular Age challenges us to rethink the promise and limits of the secular ideal of religious equality.
Abstract: In January 2011, Egyptian protestors arrived to Tahrir Square wearing stickers reading ‘a martyr is available here’ to highlight their willingness to die for the revolution. Many Coptic Christians also arrived to their own demonstrations wearing the same sticker. Drawing on a biblical verse ‘For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain’, they claimed they came ready to die, not only for their nation, but also for their faith. In this article, I examine martyr themes in a popular and Coptic religious song genre known as tarātīl. Specifically, I explore the ambiguity between dying for one’s nation and dying for one’s faith as reflected in these religious nationalist anthems. How do song motifs negotiate ambivalences and seemingly contradicting desires to belong to an Egyptian nation and a heavenly afterlife as pious Christians? This article analyses songs of death as modes of political belonging and civic (dis)engagement.
In January 2011, Egyptian protestors arrived to Tahrir Square wearing stickers reading ‘a martyr is available here’ to highlight their willingness to die for the revolution. Many Coptic Christians also arrived to their own demonstrations wearing the same sticker. Drawing on a biblical verse ‘For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain’, they claimed they came ready to die, not only for their nation, but also for their faith. In this article, I examine martyr themes in a popular and Coptic religious song genre known as tarātīl. Specifically, I explore the ambiguity between dying for one’s nation and dying for one’s faith as reflected in these religious nationalist anthems. How do song motifs negotiate ambivalences and seemingly contradicting desires to belong to an Egyptian nation and a heavenly afterlife as pious Christians? This article analyses songs of death as modes of political belonging and civic (dis)engagement.
Abstract: This article investigates what it means for the Virgin Mary to be a common figure between Christianity and Islam. Departing from approaches which emphasize the textual biography and personality of figural saints, it explores the Virgin as a contested image of divine intercession among Muslims and Christians on the ground. Beginning with lived contexts of everyday mediation, it thus situates the “commonness” of the Virgin within the thick practical realities of modern communication and imagination. More specifically, it probes one ethnographic case of a Marian apparition which occurred in Giza in 2009, producing eyewitness observation and critical reflection. My aim is to show how the historical phenomenon of “collective apparitions” provides a distinctive visual-cultural platform for evaluating the communicatively public aspects of saintly mediation. In doing so, this study concretely traces how growing cults of the Virgin Mary shape newly widespread practices of religious identification and differentiation among contemporary Orthodox, Protestants, and Muslims in Egypt.
Abstract: This article examines the political and public culture of Coptic Christian miracles through the circulation and reproduction of images and the mimetic entanglements of artifacts and objects. To understand the threat posed by one case of a woman’s oil-exuding hand, this study points to how semiotic orders of security and sacramentality intersect in the regulation of bodily miracles. It explores Coptic Orthodox Church and Egyptian state efforts to contain the activity of images and transform the public nature of truthful witness and divine testimony. In doing so, it suggests how the material structure of saintly imagination introduces bodily and visual challenges to an authoritarian politics of public order.
Mahmood, Saba. (2012). Religious Freedom, the Minority Question, and Geopolitics in the Middle East” Comparative Studies in Society and History 54(2):418-446.
The right to religious freedom is widely regarded as a crowning achievement of secular-liberal democracies, one that guarantees the peaceful coexistence of religiously diverse populations. Enshrined in national constitutions and international laws and treaties, the right to religious liberty promises to ensure two stable goods: (1) the ability to choose one’s religion freely without coercion by the state, church, or other institutions; and (2) the creation of a polity in which one’s economic, civil, legal, or political status is unaffected by one’s religious beliefs. While all members of a polity are supposed to be protected by this right, modern wisdom has it that religious minorities are its greatest beneficiaries and their ability to practice their traditions without fear of discrimination is a critical marker of a tolerant and civilized polity. The right to religious freedom marks an important distinction between liberal secularism and the kind practiced in authoritarian states (such as China, Syria, or the former Soviet Union): while the latter abide by the separation of religion and state (a central principle of political secularism), they also regularly abrogate religious freedoms of their minority and majority populations. Despite claims to religious neutrality, liberal secular states frequently regulate religious affairs but they do so in accord with a strong concern for protecting the individual’s right to practice his or her religion freely, without coercion or state intervention.
Heo, Angie. (2012). The Virgin Made Visible: Intercessory Images of Church Territory in Egypt. Comparative Studies in Society and History 54(2):361-391.
In the dark midnight hours of 11 December 2009, the Virgin Mary (al-‘adhra) burst into visibility against the skyline of al-Warraq, a working-class district on the neglected peripheries of Giza, Egypt. Hovering within a glowing triad of crosses, the apparition attracted spectators to the Church of the Virgin and the Archangel Michael along the main thoroughfare, Nile Street, even in the inconvenient hours between dusk and dawn. Within days, the Virgin was being discussed far and wide by Christians and Muslims, Egyptians and foreigners, skeptics and believers. Reactions were diverse: A journalist announced to his friends, “Even if the Virgin appeared before my very eyes, I would deny her.” A cab driver explained, “It is a trick, a big laser show in the sky.” A young mother urged, “Why [forbid oneself] the joy that the Virgin brings?”