Title from cover of The Great Philanthropic Society, established by the late Boutros Pasha Ghali. Golden Jubilee: The Fifty-year History of the Society, 1881-1930. Report in the year 1931. Cairo: Mat ba'at al-Ma'ārif, 1931. Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress, Ragheb Moftah Collection, Box 8
Among its Founders were Members of the Moftah Family
By Laurence Moftah
Many members of the Moftah family were active in religious, social, and political matters during the 19th century. Yusuf Moftah, and his nephew Morcos Moftah were among the early founders of the Coptic Philanthropic Society, known as al-Jam'iyyat al-Khayriyyah al-Kibtiyyah Kubra, that was founded in 1881. The first meeting of the Board was convened at Yusuf Moftah's home in 1881 and Morcos, [Ragheb Moftah's paternal Uncle], was Head of the Board of Directors. Among the attendees were influential Coptic dignitaries such as Butrus Pasha Ghali, Hanna Nasrallah, Khalil Ibrahim, Yassah Abdel Shahid, and many others. It is worth noting that Copts and Muslims interacted positively and cordially in social and political matters during that period. Coptic dignitaries invited the Muslim grand Imam al-Sheikh Mohammad Abdou, and the Islamic thinkers Sheikh Mohammad al-Naggar, and Abdallah al-Nadim, to attend the founding of the Coptic Philanthropic Society. It was intended to symbolize the solidarity and affinity of the Egyptian people for their national and political cause, and to discuss issues of concern related to the current events and social affairs.
An historical account of the unity of the Coptic people and Muslims during the above-mentioned period and later is rendered by the historian Yunan Labib Rizk, which appeared in his article entitled: "A Diwan of Contemporary Life: The Selfless Patriot," that appeared in al-Ahram Weekly, (September 20-26), 2001. He also mentions in his account the events that stirred the contention between the Coptic Patriarch and Lord Cromer, the British consul in Egypt, during the 1880s and after:
Throughout this period, Kyrollos V [enthroned as head of Church from 1874-1927], had to contend with a diverse range of conflicting political and social forces. Following the British occupation, the Coptic Church was lured into the Great Powers' increasingly heated power plays in the eastern Mediterranean.
Rizk continues, and describes the "pious and selfless patriarch" as follows:
[The Patriarch] a fervent patriot, was inspired by the spirit of the 1882 revolution and the ideals of its ideologues, notably Abdallah El-Nadim, who appealed for national unity. However, he eventually had to pay the price for his stance. After the revolution failed and the British occupied the country and Tawfiq returned to the capital, the patriarch was coolly dealt with by the monarch.
Kyrollos V rejected all offers for protection of the Copts tendered by the powers contending for hegemony in the Middle East. The foreign presence, he knew, was ephemeral while the national body, of which the Copts were an integral part, was lasting.
Moreover, during that period of Egypt's history the Coptic influential dignitaries and the senior Sheikhs of al-Azhar, including the eminent scholar, the grand Imam al-Sheikh Mohammad Abdou, and many other Muslim thinkers were united against the British Occupation. Both Copts and Muslims maintained a strong relation and were united in their national cause and struggle against the British Occupation. The National Party was founded in 1879, with Ahmad Orabi as its leader. It was the first political party in Egypt's modern history. The grand Imam Mohammad Abdou and Lewis Saboungi set its constitution which was eventually regarded as a national charter. The constitution stipulated the following in Article Number 5 of the Charter regarding the equal rights of all Egyptian citizens, regardless of their religion:
The National Party that is newly founded is a political party and not a religious one. Its members include the Egyptian Christians and Jews. The National Party is formed of one Egyptian nation regardless of the religious beliefs of its people. It is important to realize that they all till Egypt's soil and speak the same language. Further, it is essential to note that the National Party makes no discrimination between the Egyptian people on grounds of their faith, and it firmly believes that they are all brothers, and are entitled to equal political and religious rights. Besides, the true essence of the Islamic Law (al-Sharia) denies and forbids any sentiments of hatred, and strongly advocates the equal treatment and rights of all human beings.
Obviously Coptic and Islamic intellects shared the political and intellectual views. The grand Sheikh Mohammad Abdou (1849-1905), Abdallah al-Nadim, and Coptic dignitaries who met at Yusuf Moftah's home in al-Qabila in Cairo to found the Coptic Philanthropic Society on January 8th, 1881, shared a common national cause. Besides, they were not only involved in one common national political cause, but were also advocates of social and religious reform. The Grand Imam Muhammad Abdou was an Islamic intellect, who rejected conventionalism, and strongly supported social, political and religious reform. Mohammad Abdou promoted an enlightened Islamic intellectual culture, and the monk Butrus Moftah al-Antouny (d. 1874), known as the 'reformer', sought religious and social change within the Coptic Orthodox Church. In fact, Iryan Moftah (1820-1886) and Butrus Moftah al-Antouny, his brother, were profound religious thinkers and intellects.
It was also common practice at this period of the 19th century, and during the Orabi movement in 1881, that the grand Sheikh Mohammad Abdou held meetings that were frequented by both Christians and Muslims. Coptic intellects and notables, who were contemporaneous with the grand Sheikh Mohammad Abdou (1849-1905) and Abdallah al-Nadim, shared and exchanged political and intellectual views with their Coptic counterparts. They emphatically rejected conventionalism, and believed in social, political and religious reform.
Similarly, the three brothers, Yusuf, Butrus, and Iryan Moftah (Ragheb Moftah's great Uncles), were among the celebrated proponents of religious and social reform within the Coptic Orthodox Church. The Moftah brothers believed that the Coptic Orthodox Church needed to adopt new reform measures within the Coptic Patriarchal Establishment and its Institutions. They were all active participants in the revival of the religious and intellectual movement within the Church during the period of the patriarchal authority of Butrus el-Gawly, the 109th Pope of Alexandria and the See of St. Mark (1809 to 1852). Pope Butrus el-Gawly was a Coptic Orthodox theologian who wrote prolifically on the Coptic Orthodox doctrine and its practices, and encouraged the pastoral work. He was followed by Pope St. Cyril (Kyrollos) IV (1854-1861), the 110th Pope of Alexandria and the See of St. Mark. Despite the latter's short period on the Papal seat, he was regarded as the 'Father of Reform'. Pope Kyrollos IV promoted the enhancement of the educational movement, social reform, and particularly religious reform within the Church.
In fact, Butrus Moftah (d. 1874), and his younger brother, Iryan Moftah (1826-1886), shared with the grand Imam Mohammad Abdou similar social and cultural values. They all embraced a progressive ideology for social and religious reform, and they interacted with tolerance and open-mindedness for other cultures and civilizations, yet they maintained their own profound religious beliefs, and national and cultural identities.
Copts and Muslim thinkers shared a common cultivated interest in Eastern and Western philosophy, logic, and theology. Obviously the similarity in views and values of Copts and Muslims of the proponents of the social and political reform movement during the Orabi revolt, lends itself to explain the reasons for their close association and collaboration together in their social and political causes since 1798.
Yusuf Moftah (born in the early 1880s or perhaps earlier), was regarded with respect and esteem by the Coptic Orthodox Church, and the Egyptian government, and as he was trusted by both institutions he managed to wield his influence within the Coptic Orthodox Church, as well as nationally. Yusuf Moftah is described by Ali Pasha Mubarak (1823-1893), in his publication entitled al-Khitat al-Tawfiqiyyah al-Jadidah as follows:
al-Wagih Yusuf Moftah is a distinguished Egyptian notable, who was responsible for the administration of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Ezbekiyyah, Cairo, due to his dexterity and profound moral integrity.
Further, according to the Coptic historian Girgis Philothaous Awad's account in his book entitled: Bawarek al-Islah: Kyrollos al-Rabi' Abu-al-Islah al-Qibtiyyah on the history of the patriarch Kyrollos the IV (1816-1861), he mentions that Yusuf Moftah was among the notable Copts who were consulted for the election of the pope, and among proponents of Pope Kyrollos IV. Awad states the following:
When Pope Petros "el-Gawli," died, known as Anba Butros VII, the Coptic nation summoned the bishops to attend a meeting for the election of his successor. The bishops set their conditions for the election of the new pope. Among their expectations the bishops decided that the Pope elect should be equally competent, righteous, knowledgeable, and aware of matters and follow the footsteps of his predecessor. The Copts met at the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate to elect the new Pope. Some proposed Father Daoud for the Patriarchal seat, others opposed his election, and preferred to elect Bishop Youssab. Opponents of Father Daoud chose to elect Bishop Youssab of Akhmim for the papal seat, alleging that the sorcerers predicted that it will be an ominous fate for the Egyptian rulers, if Daoud will be elected for the papal office. Among his proponents were the nation's Coptic leading dignitaries and notables, including Tadros Shalabi, Tadros Iryan, Hanna Ebeid, Youssef Nassrallah, Yusuf Moftah, Hanna Greiss, and many others. (Kyrollos IV, p. 86 - 87).
Yusuf Moftah and Tadros Shalabi set their conditions before providing their support to Bishop Daoud to be elected for the papal seat. They demanded that the Pope would found a school for Coptic children, and Pope Kyrollos IV fulfilled his promise and founded a Coptic school, when he was elected pope. Pope Kyrollos IV was known as the 'Reformer' or Abu al-Islah. Kyrollos IV's inauguration was in 1854, and he lived for forty-five years.
Historically many members of the influential Coptic laity were involved in Church matters and the social affairs of their community. Yunan Labib Rizk also mentioned in his article entitled, "A Diwan of Contemporary Life: The Selfless Patriot," that the influential Coptic laity opened "an unprecedented chapter in Coptic history: the conflict between the clergy, as represented by Kyrollos V, and the secularists who asserted themselves in the form of the Coptic Tawfiq Society, which was one of the most influential philanthropic societies, that proliferated in the late 19th and early 20th century."
Among the theologians of the 19th century were the monk Butrus Moftah al-Antouny (d. 1874), and Iryan Moftah (1826-1886). Al-Qummus Butrus Moftah al-Antouny, the monk at Deir Saint Antonious, introduced and advocated a number of disciplinary reforms within the Coptic Orthodox Church. One of his proposed measures was to curtail the excessive practice of fasting. In this regard, Butrus wrote an argumentative dissertation on the Order of the Church and Monasticism in which he introduces his perspective on monastic life and its practices. According to an historical account that appears in the book entitled, al-Kharidah al-Nafisah fi Tarikh al-Kanisah, authored by Bishop Isithoros al-Baramousi, he states that Butrus Moftah lived for some time in "al-Deir al-Malak al-Bahari', and was buried in Deir Anba Ruweiss in Abbassiyyah, Cairo. Bishop Isithoros continues to recount that Butros was a profound religious scholar and intellect, and had deep compassion for the poor and needy. An excerpt of Bishop Isothoros' comments:
Butrus, the monk at Deir Anba Antonious, was born to the prominent Moftah family, and was known for his deep spirituality and ascetic monastic practices. He spent most of his life at Deir al-Malak al-Bahari. He was also a profound religious scholar and intellect.
Bishop Isithoros also mentions that the monk Burtrus Moftah proposed several reform measures. In his advocacy for reform, Butrus proposed that a Clerical College would be established for the education of the Coptic religious clergymen, and geared to enhancing the Clerical education. Butrus also advocated for the founding of Coptic schools for boys and girls. Further, he mentioned in his reform proposal that the vocation of priesthood should be regarded as a religious service and, as it is consecrated for the service of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the priests are to be recompensed by the Coptic Orthodox Church, and not by the Coptic Congregation.
Butrus Moftah also proposed that a Coptic Community Council (al-Majlis al-Milli) would be established, and recommended that the Coptic Orthodox Church would take interdictory measures to prohibit the marriage of elderly men to young wives. It was common practice in the 19th and early in the 20th century that elderly men would marry much younger women, and quite often the families would contract their young daughters in a marriage without their consent. Young women were compelled to accept their ill-fated destiny, and had no alternative but to succumb to the fathers' choice. The fathers had the ultimate right to determine their daughters' life partners. The girls were expected not to act against their fathers' wish, or else they would be regarded as recalcitrants. In such cases the girls had to bear the consequences of their disobedience, and quite often they were subjected to harsh treatment and were abused by their families.
Eventually after Butrus Moftah passed away in 1874, the Coptic Orthodox Church approved of his recommendations for religious and social reform, and the first Clerical College and Coptic Community Council (al-Majlis al-Milli) were established. According to the historian Yunan Labib Rizk:
The 19th century brought a movement within the Coptic lay community to have a greater say in the affairs of the church. Pressure for reform of the church's administrative structure led to the creation of a laymen's representative body, Al-Maglis Al-Milli, and it was this body, which first met in 1874.
Butrus Moftah died in Deir al-Malak al-Bahari in 1874, and during the service his body was displayed in a coffin that was placed in the Deir Anba Ruweiss Church in Abbassiyyah, Cairo. Among the attendees in the funeral were members of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the official representatives of the Egyptian Government, and dignitaries from the Coptic laity. His body was buried in a crypt in the grave for monks at Deir Anba Ruweiss in Abbassiyyah, Cairo.
Iryan Moftah (1826-1886) was Yusuf and Butrus' younger brother, and was a prominent Coptic language specialist in the 19th century. He introduced the Greco-Bohairic dialect, which is an improvised form of the Bohairic one. This dialect, which has been spreading rapidly throughout the 20th century, is proven to be the easiest to grasp and pronounce. He employed Greek letters in his newly introduced Greco-Bohairic dialect, for he realized that the Greek language has a close association with the early Coptic alphabet. Iryan departed from the old Bohairic dialect, and introduced the rules of Modern Greek pronunciation in the Greco-Bohairic dialect.
Iryan Moftah was appointed teacher in the newly established Clerical College, founded by the Father of Coptic reform, Kyrollos [Cyril] IV (1854-1861), who aimed at modernizing the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Many of Iryan Moftah's handwritten manuscripts were either lost or destroyed. However, some of the remaining parts of his Collection include handwritten manuals that deal with the Coptic language grammar and syntax. They are of significant importance since he introduced his newly improvised syntax of the Greco-Bohairic dialect in the Coptic language. It is in this context that one perceives the value of the Moftah-authored Collection. It is first and foremost the legacy of Iryan Moftah, a leading Coptic linguist and a 19th century Coptic thinker, and a scion of a distinguished Coptic family.
Iryan Moftah realized the danger of the extinction of the Coptic language that would completely disappear, so he subsequently endeavored to study it, and hoped to reveal its origin, and to revive its usage. Some of his handwritten manuscripts (including the Coptic grammar texts), comprises notes and commentaries based on his personal research. These primary sources can provide invaluable clues for linguists, historians, and Coptic scholars as to the evolution of the language and the culture it served. It is worth noting that the Coptic language is one of the oldest languages that had its roots in ancient Egypt. However, centuries of cultural invasion (Greek, Latin, Arabic, Turkish, and other Western languages much later) have reduced spoken Coptic to near extinction.
Despite the fact that the Coptic language was limited mostly to the liturgical functions at the Coptic Orthodox Church, it was a growing area of interest during the nineteenth century. When Iryan Moftah introduced the new Greco-Bohairic dialect, it was opposed by many within the Coptic Orthodox Church, yet his influence prevailed and his new dialect is still in use in the Coptic Orthodox Church Offices. Despite the opposition among the clergy in Upper Egypt, who refused to use the new dialect, his ideas eventually prevailed, as his system spread rapidly in Lower Egypt, Cairo and Alexandria. The following is stated in The Coptic Encyclopedia. Aziz S. Atiya, Editor-in-Chief, (volume IV), 1991, page 1302:
Despite that Iryan's movement found opposition among the clergy in Upper Egypt who refused to use the new dialect, and clung to the old Bohairic dialect, his influence prevailed and his system spread rapidly in Lower Egypt, Cairo and Alexandria.
As a result of his work, the Greco-Bohairic dialect emerged as the official language of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Although the Coptic language still serves in the liturgy of the contemporary Coptic Church, it is today generally spoken by only a handful of families.
Iryan used the Greek letters as he felt that the Greek language preserved the original sound value of many of the characters in Coptic because of its close association with it in its early days. The Greek tongue underwent some modifications, and the new Greco-Bohairic pronunciation adopted by Iryan did not sound typically Egyptian, due to the dominance of the Turkish language during the Ottoman Empire. In spite of the shortcomings of the new pronunciation system, the language spread rapidly among the masses.
Moreover, in addition to Iryan Moftah's aptitude in Coptic, Arabic, Greek and other Western languages, he was considered as one of the most prominent Coptic scholars and theologians during the 19th century Egypt. He was considered one of the greatest preachers ever heard in the Coptic pulpit, and was known for his natural gift in preaching. He was widely recognized for his sermons, and wrote brilliant homilies, interpreting the Bible literally and historically, rather than allegorically. He was well recognized for his scholarly knowledge of Coptic Orthodox theology and dogma.
Iryan had a broad perspective of biblical exegetes, and was well versed in the theological precepts of early Christianity, and the Church Fathers. He belonged firmly in the 19th century, for he was a product of his time, and was well informed of the social history and cultural life of Copts during that period. Books that were either authored by him or other Coptic contemporaneous writers reflect the ideological and intellectual process of thinkers during that period, and dealt with issues related to the social and political circumstances of the Coptic people during the 19th century. Moreover, many researchers were preoccupied with a possible discovery of the links to the customs and language of ancient and early Christian Egypt.
Habashi Moftah (1830-1935), was Mikhail Moftah's son, and nephew of Yusuf, Iryan and Butros Moftah. He was Ragheb Moftah's father, and was among the first members of the newly established Coptic Community Council in 1883.