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The Muslim Conquest and Islamization of Egypt

posted on: Aug 23, 2021

By: Christian Jimenez/Arab America Contributing Writer

Egypt. Photo: Fodor’s Travel Guide

Today Egypt is the largest country in the Arab World, and besides some minority religions such as the Copts, most of the country follows the Sunni branch of the Islamic faith.  However, this fact was not always the case as Egypt was once controlled for centuries by the Romans and their successors known as the Byzantines who combined had ruled the nation for six hundred years, and, of course, the ancient Egyptian religions of the Pharaohs as well.  In this article, I will talk about how the Muslims and Arabs conquered Egypt and when it became a majority Muslim and Arab nation.    

The Islamic Conquest of Egypt

Route taken by Amr Ibn al-As in Egypt by

By the time of Muhammad’s death, the caliphate would pass on to the caliphs who were the successors to Muhammad of the leadership of the Muslim community, the Ummah.  These first caliphs would be a part of the first caliphate of the Rashidun, and they would fight the two major superpowers in the region, the Byzantines and the Persian Sassanids.  Both major powers had been weakened by countless wars with each other and disease, but the Muslims were still outnumbered and needed excellent generals to conquer the modern-day areas of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine.  By around the year of 639 A.D., the province of Byzantine Egypt was set to be conquered by the Rashidun, beginning the Islamization and Arabization of Egypt and the conquest over the rest of North Africa.  This Muslim army in Egypt was around 9,000 men strong and it was to be led by the general Amr Ibn al-As, and they would turn out to be very successful.  Amr eyed this rich province of Byzantium, which he saw as defenseless and ripe for the picking, and with approval from Caliph Umar he was able to enter Egypt and win a battle against the Byzantines near Heliopolis, but he couldn’t take the heavily fortified city of Alexandria immediately after this battle so his army rested.  The area where his army rested was near the former Byzantine fortress of Babylon and Amr’s army soon founded a settlement there called Fustat, which would eventually form the modern-day capital city of Egypt, Cairo.  To many people in Egypt such as the Monophysite Christians, they saw the Arabs as liberators as these marginalized groups were discriminated against by the Orthodox Greek Christians.  By the year of 642 A.D., the important city of Alexandria was finally taken by the Muslims, completing the conquest of Egypt.  They would then confirm their conquest of Egypt as the Muslims and Monophysite Christians defeated a reinforcement of Byzantines who attempted to recapture Egypt from the Rashidun.  The Rashidun treated the native inhabitants of Egypt well by leaving many services such as tax collecting and local administration in the hands of the Egyptians.  This conquest of Egypt and its aftermath would begin the period of Muslim rule in Egypt as many Islamic caliphates and kingdoms all took turns ruling the territory such as the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Fatimids, the Ayyubids, the Mamluks, and the Ottomans, and this Islamic presence continues to this day as the majority of Egyptians practice Sunni Islam.  However, after the conquest, the question soon became how and when did the Egyptians convert from a majority Christian nation to a Muslim majority.

The Islamization of the Region

The Al-Azhar Mosque in Egypt by

Despite some common misconceptions associated with the conquest of Egypt by the Muslims from the Byzantines, the conversion of the country and the wider Middle East from Christianity and other religions such as Zoroastrianism to Islam were not due to forced conversions.  In fact, the population of Egypt would be mostly Christian for a while as the nation converted slowly and in a nonviolent way.  However, at first, it wasn’t seen as an incentive to convert as many Muslim rulers at first discouraged conversion to Islam due to the jizya tax that was paid for by non-Muslims.  Hence, if people converted to Islam then there would be less tax revenue for the Islamic leaders thus making them discourage conversions to Islam.  Another factor is that despite people converting to Islam they were still treated as second-class citizens because of the fact that Arabs were on the top of the social hierarchy, and some of these Islamic Arab rulers would like to keep it that way despite religious affiliation. These problems would halt the Islamization of Syria and Palestine as well as Egypt to around the time of the Abbasid Caliphate during the 8th-12th centuries when these areas had a majority Muslim population, but it could’ve taken place later as some historians consider Egypt to have a majority of Muslims by the 14th century.  Today Egypt is around 94.7% Muslim vastly outnumbering the Copts and other non-Muslims in the region.  Hopefully, in the future, Egypt and other countries of the Middle East can find or continue the harmony between their Muslim majorities and their non-Muslim minorities. 

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