A letter of St. Pisentios on Islam

While looking rather carelessly through the online volumes of the Revue de l’Orient Chretien, whose Syriac contents are listed here, I found myself looking at something interesting and non-Syriac.

In ROC 19 (1914), on p.79f. and 302 f. (the article was split into two parts, issued in successive quarters), A. Perier publishes the Arabic text of a letter of St. Pisentios, Coptic bishop of Qeft, to his flock.  The letter exists in four manuscripts in the French National library, the Bibliotheque Nationale, and Perier gives a French translation.

The second half of the letter consists of a prophecy of the coming of the Moslems, and their leader Mamadanous (Mohammed) whose name, in Coptic letters, is said to add up to 666.

Unfortunately the letter cannot be genuinely by the pre-Islamic bishop.  The predictions of the actions of the Turks, the very general terms in which Moslem atrocities are described, the whole feel of the letter suggests a later composition, in which past history and current woes are depicted in apocalyptic terms as a prophecy.  Several Coptic apocalypses are of the same kind, which I think means that we are probably dealing with a literary genre here, rather than several attempts at forgery.

It is rather too long and diffuse for me to turn the French into English, sadly, with my current concerns. 

But it is by no means uninteresting.  It makes the point that the ROC contains a great deal more than just the Syriac articles.  It contains, indeed, publications of texts from the Near East.  Wouldn’t it be nice if someone would digest down a table of contents of these articles also?

5 Responses to “A letter of St. Pisentios on Islam”


  1. Dioscorus Boles

    Dear Roger Pearse,

    That is why I think your blog is one of the best of its kind! I had no idea of the existence of these two letters of St. Pisentios of Coptos. They are both extremely important, and I think researchers and historians will use them to study the Coptic history and mood in the Ayyubid Period (1171-1250) and during the Crusades. I do think they were written in the beginning of the 13th Century; the first letter certainly, in my opinion, after Patriarch Gabriel, the 70th Coptic Patriarch (1131-1145 AD).

    St. Pisentios has a biography written by his disciple John, and is available in Coptic, Arabic and Ethiopic. E. A Wallis Budge in his Coptic Apocrypha in the Dialect of Upper Egypt, published the Coptic and Ethiopic lives of Pisentios. The Arabic life of Pisentios was published by O’Leary in P.O. 22.

    Bishop Pisentios as you know lived in the 7th Century and witnessed the invasions of the Persians (618-628) and, most probably, the Arabs (640 AD). In his Biography he says, “Because of our sins God has abandoned us; he has delivered us to the nations without mercy.” And his biographer writes that Pisentios was “praying night and day that God would save the people from bondage to those cruel nations.” Alfred Buttler in his The Arab Conquest talks about Bishop Pisentios and his autobiography in his chapter: The Persian Conquest of Egypt.

    I am not surprised that Copts in later ages found in this bishop’s biography and letters what reflected some of their nationalistic and religious hopes of their liberation from Arab rule.

    Thanks again.

    Dioscorus Boles

  2. Roger Pearse

    Thank you very much indeed for these notes, Dioscorus. Pisentius is only a name to most of us, and these details are very helpful.

    13th century for this letter would ‘feel’ about right to me too.

  3. Dioscorus Boles

    Thanks, Roger.

    If I may add two points, which they may be of help to people reading about these two letters.

    1. The second letter is actually more than an apocalypse than a letter, and in this it shares a lot with other Coptic apocalypses that were, in my opinion, produced in the first two or three decades of the 13th century when the Crusades were directed towards Egypt, and the chances of a change in the “regime” were great.

    2. The first letter is more like a sermon and exhortation of the Copts to stick to their Faith. I say this letter was composed after Patriarch Gabriel because it contains the Coptic Confession of Faith as it came to be known after the consecration of Gabriel.

  4. Roger Pearse

    Thank you!

    Are these two letters, do you think, or one?

  5. Dioscorus Boles

    I think they are two separate ones.