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Home to one of the first civilizations in human history, Egypt has experienced a wide variety of religious influences. After Muslim armies conquered Egypt in the 600s, Islam became the force that shaped Egyptian life.


Throughout its history, Egypt has endured frequent invasions accompanied by changes in religious traditions and practices. Although the Muslims entered the region as yet another conquering force, Islam took root slowly in Egypt. The religion has inspired many changes in political and secular traditions and has become the predominant faith among Egyptians. By the 1990s, around 90 percent of Egypt's inhabitants were Sunni Muslims.

The Ancient Period.

In ancient Egypt, rulers called pharaohs controlled religious and political life. Egyptians considered them to be directly related to the gods. In 525 B.C.E. , however, the Persians invaded Egypt and dethroned the pharaohs. The Egyptians strongly disliked their conquerors, and welcomed Alexander the Great when he arrived with Greek and Macedonian armies nearly 200 years later. Alexander took control of Egypt without a fight and showed respect for the people's religious traditions. Ptolemy, one of Alexander's generals, took control of Egypt following Alexander's death in 323 B.C.E. Ptolemy's descendants ruled the region until Rome conquered the country nearly 300 years later. Egypt remained a part of the Roman Empire throughout the period when the Eastern Roman Empire evolved into the Byzantine Empire. During the period of Roman-Byzantine rule, Egypt became a Christian society with its own distinctive Coptic tradition.

Muslim Dynasties Emerge.

Muslim forces captured Egypt in 642 C.E. , possibly aided by those who were opposed to Byzantine rule. Initially, Islamic rulers did little to alter everyday life of the Egyptians. Arabic did not replace Greek as the official language of Egypt until the 700s. Muslims made no attempt to convert the Egyptians. They respected other religions and pledged to protect the Christian churches. Jews and Christians even served in the government under certain rulers. Non-Muslims, however, had to pay higher taxes than Muslims, even after they converted to Islam, which many people did.

Despite Muslim tolerance, turmoil occasionally erupted in Egypt during Islamic rule. Tribesmen and Coptic Christians sparked rebellions against the Muslim government. The largest uprising occurred in 829/830 . The caliph al-Mamun led an army from Iraq into Egypt to crush it. Afterward, Muslims imposed repressive measures on the Coptic Christians. Many Christians converted to Islam during this time.

In the centuries following the Muslim conquest, a series of Islamic dynasties emerged to control Egypt and other countries in the region. These included the caliphates of the Umayyads, the Abbasids, and the military rule of the Tulunids and the Ikhshidids. In 969 , the Fatimid dynasty took over Egypt, establishing itself as a rival to the Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad. The Fatimids ruled until the 1100s, when Abbasid forces regained control. Saladin, the Kurdish general who reconquered Jerusalem from Christian crusaders, was appointed to rule Egypt. Saladin founded the Ayyubid dynasty in Egypt. A century later, Turkish Mamluks, whom the Egyptians had imported as slaves to serve in their armies, rose to high positions in the government and slowly took control. After almost three centuries of Mamluk rule, the Ottomans conquered Egypt and most of the rest of the Arab world.

During the Ottoman Empire, Egypt served as a military, financial, and religious center. Cairo became one of the major cities in the Islamic world, and al-Azhar, the mosque-university founded by the Fatimids in the late 900s, prospered as a center of Islamic learning. Islamic religious scholars known as ulama gained economic and political stature and helped to maintain peace between Egyptians and their Ottoman rulers.

Over time, Islamic rule brought significant changes to Egypt. The succession of dynasties brought various forms of Islam to Egypt as the majority of Egyptians gradually converted from Christianity to Islam. The first Muslim conquerors brought Sunni, or orthodox, Islam to Egypt. The Fatimid rulers outlawed this faith in favor of Shi'i practices, but it returned during the reign of Saladin. Sufism also gained in popularity among Egyptian Muslims. Sufis emphasized the power of love and the heart over intellectual teaching. Sufi leaders gained a large following. Although the ulama tried to persecute the Sufis, they reluctantly accepted Sufism when it became apparent that they could do little to diminish its popularity.

Colonial Era

Foreign powers invaded Egypt in the 1800s. For the first time in over a thousand years, the conquerors had no ties to Islam. The new regimes disrupted Islamic culture and practice, and Egyptian Muslims realized that resistance would require superior strength and significant changes on their part.

European Intrusion.

By the third century of Ottoman rule, Egypt had fallen into disarray. Attempting to maintain such a large empire, the Ottomans had neglected Egypt and other Arab centers. Economic conditions declined while government corruption increased. In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte of France led his armies into the region, where they remained and ruled for three years. Egyptian Muslims realized they could no longer count on the Ottoman military for protection. Religious leaders supported a military officer of Albanian origin named Muhammad Ali , who took the position of Ottoman governor in 1805 . Muhammad Ali sought to transform Egypt into a modern state, embracing Western technology and developing centers of industry. He promoted education and social programs. Muhammad Ali tried to weaken the influence of Islam, however, turning on the ulama, whom he considered a hindrance to progress.

British Rule Begins.

As Muhammad Ali's reforms increased Egypt's military and industrial strength, Britain began to perceive Egypt as a threat. The British government sent a naval force to Egypt. Unable to match Britain's strength, Muhammad Ali signed the Treaty of London in 1840 . He agreed to reduce the size of his army and disband Egypt's war industries. Muhammad Ali's defeat increased the importance of Islamic religious scholars in Egypt, as people looked to them for guidance during trying times.

Having halted Egyptian industrialization, Britain moved to exploit the region economically. To support their textile factories, the British redirected Egypt's economy to cotton farming. Laborers suffered, and the local government became more corrupt. Egypt fell into debt to foreign nations. To protect their investment, the British established direct military rule over Egypt in 1882 .

Resistance and Reform.

Colonial rule led to economic and political chaos in Egypt and disrupted the traditional practices of many Muslims. In the late 1800s, the scholar Jamal al-Din al-Afghani became a leading advocate for Muslim resistance. He sought reform through modern ideas, stating that the principles of science, reason, and liberal government did not violate Islamic teachings. His actions and ideas inspired popular support for the resistance.

In the 1880s, an army officer named Ahmad Urabi led a military campaign for internal reform in Egypt. After the government arrested him, Urabi's followers continued the fight. Calling for an “Egypt for Egyptians,” they demanded a new government with a constitution. Al-Afghani and his disciple Muhammad Abduh, supported the cause, as did many religious scholars. The British military, however, crushed the uprising and sent al-Afghani and Abduh into exile.

When Abduh returned, he focused his energies on social reform and modernization. As an educator, he worked to modernize the courts and the universities. As a senior legal officer, he promoted women's rights and modern banking practices in Egypt. Colonial influence, however, disrupted his campaign. An elite class, loyal to Britain, had emerged and had stripped power from the ulama and from Abduh.

At the end of World War I ( 1914 – 1918 ), food shortages and inflation gripped Egypt. A nationalist movement emerged in the country, and Egyptians rose up in armed rebellions and strikes. The British loosened their control but did not give it up completely. They declared Egypt an independent monarchy in 1922 .

Despite secular reforms, some Muslim leaders in Egypt still believed that a return to traditional Islam would lead to prosperity. In 1928 , schoolteacher Hasan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood. This organization promoted Islamic ideals and rejection of Western influence. The movement quickly spread to other countries and gained popularity due to poor economic conditions throughout the Islamic world.

Al-Banna believed that colonizers had undermined the Islamic community and weakened Muslims spiritually. He wanted to rebuild Muslim life at the political, economic, and cultural levels. The Brotherhood initiated social programs that reached a large segment of the population. Al-Banna's organization also began a political campaign and launched attacks against British forces. By the 1940s, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had more than 500,000 members and many supporters.

Modern Egypt

In 1952 the Muslim Brotherhood supported a revolt against British rule, and, two years later, Britain agreed to withdraw from Egypt. The end of colonial rule, however, did not bring religious harmony. Egyptians still argued about the role of Islam in modern life.

A New Leader.

Aided by the Muslim Brotherhood, Gamal Abdel Nasser emerged as Egypt's new leader. In a move similar to that of Muhammad Ali, Nasser turned on his religious allies. He believed that the Muslim Brotherhood presented a threat to his leadership, and he drove it underground. Although Nasser did not oppose Islam, Egypt became more secular during his regime. The president emphasized a modern, socialist agenda over religious rule.

The Brotherhood continued to criticize Nasser for his lack of direction. One of their leaders, Sayyid Qutb, called for Muslims to take up arms against the government. Nasser ordered his execution and attempted to crush his Islamist movement. In 1956 , after Nasser tried to nationalize the Suez Canal, Israel (with support from Britain and France) invaded Egypt and occupied the Sinai Peninsula. Under pressure from the United States, Israel withdrew and Nasser's popularity soared. In the 1960s, however, Nasser faced a deep financial crisis, and, in 1967 , Israel inflicted a humiliating military defeat on Egypt in the Six-Day War, taking occupation of the Sinai Peninsula. Support for Nasser gradually disappeared.

A Peacemaker Takes Over.

Nasser died in 1970 , and the following year, Anwar el-Sadat became Egypt's president. The emphasis on Islam rebounded and the Muslim Brotherhood returned to prominence. The group lacked a strong leader, however, and separated into moderate and militant fac-tions. The moderates promoted charitable work and social action, such as building mosques and schools. The militants pursued change through po-litical campaigns.

Although Sadat had an alliance with the Brotherhood, it unraveled in the late 1970s, especially after he signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 . Many in the Muslim Brotherhood felt betrayed by his seeming support for Israel. They believed that Sadat had sacrificed larger Muslim goals for political interests. Sadat's popularity in Egypt fell, and in 1981 , Islamic militants assassinated him.

Mubarak Succeeds.

After Sadat's death, Hosni Mubarak succeeded to the presidency. He sought to reconcile the government with the moderate elements of the Muslim Brotherhood. Islam gained a greater official presence in Egypt as prominent Muslims gained seats in parliament and held positions in newspapers and publishing houses. Mosques expanded their functions to offer medical and social services at low prices, attracting a larger number of followers.

Radical militant Muslims, however, still posed a threat to Egyptian stability. Led by members of the elite, these groups drew followers from the lower and middle classes. Although they lacked a unified agenda, radical groups often used violence to achieve their goals. Several factions sought to undermine Mubarak's administration and take over the government.

In the 1990s, a group called the New Islamic Current emerged in Egypt. Referring to themselves as the New Islamists, they advocated a reform agenda promoting democracy and pluralistic ideals, such as respecting the rights of Egypt's several million Christians. The New Islamists attracted leading intellectuals and gained support from the general Muslim population.

Since the 600s, Islam has strongly influenced Egypt's history. Islamic intellectuals, political leaders, and ordinary citizens continue to search for ways to modernize the nation within Muslim traditions. See also Abduh, Muhammad; Afghani, Jamal al-Din al-; Fatimid Dynasty; Muslim Brotherhood.

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