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Al-Muqawqis (Arabic: المقوقس) is mentioned in Islamic history as a ruler of Egypt, who corresponded with the Islamic prophet Muhammad. He is often identified with Cyrus, Patriarch of Alexandria, who administered Egypt on behalf of the Byzantine Empire. However, this identification is challenged as being based on untenable assumptions. An alternative view identifies al-Muqawqis with the Sassanid governor of Egypt.
Account by Muslim historians
The apostle (Muhammad) had sent out some of his companions in different directions to the kings of the Arabs and the non-Arabs inviting them to Islam in the period between al-Hudaybiya and his death... [He] sent... Hatib ibn Abi Balta'ah to al-Muqawqis ruler of Alexandria. He handed over to him the apostle's letter and the Muqawqis gave to the apostle four slave girls, one of whom was Mary (Mariah) mother of Ibrahim the apostle's son...
Tabari states that the delegation was sent in Dhul-Hijja 6 A.H. (April or May 628). Ibn Saad states that the Muqawqis sent his gifts to Muhammad in 7 A.H. (after May 628). This is consonant with his assertion that Mariya bore Muhammad's son Ibrahim in late March or April 630, so Mariya had arrived in Medina before July 629.
Letter of invitation to Islam
The letter that Muhammad sent to al-Muqawqis, through his emissary Hatib ibn Abi Balta'ah, and his reply are both available. The letter read:
To Muqawqis, Vicegerent of Egypt
Peace be on him who has taken the right course. Thereafter, I invite you to accept Islam. Therefore, if you want security, accept Islam. If you accept Islam, God, the Sublime, shall reward you doubly. But if you refuse to do so, responsibility about the Blood of the Arians shall be yours.
O people of the Book! Leaving aside all matters of difference and dispute, agree on a matter which is equally consistent between you and us and it is that we should not worship anyone except God and that we should neither associate anyone with Him, nor make anyone else as our god.
If you refuse it, you must know that we, in all circumstances, believe in Oneness of God.
Seal: God's Prophet Muhammad
Al-Muqawqis ordered that the letter should be placed in an ivory casket, to be kept safely in the government treasury, and he sent the following reply:
I read your letter and understood what you have written. I know that the coming of a Prophet is still due. But I thought, he would be born in Syria – I have treated your messenger with respect and honor. I am sending two maids for you as presents. These maids belong to a very respectable family amongst us. In addition I send for you clothes and a Duldul (steed) for riding. May God bestow security on you.
The two maids mentioned are Maria al-Qibtiyya and her sister Sirin.
Muhammad's letter to Muqawqis, was eventually preserved in the Christian monastery of Akhmim in Egypt. There a recluse pasted it on his Bible. The letter was written on a parchment. From there a French orientalist obtained it and sold it to Sultan Abdülmecid of Turkey, for a consideration of £ 300. The Sultan had the letter fixed in a golden frame and had it preserved in the treasury of the royal palace, along with other sacred relics. Some Muslim scholars have affirmed that the letter was written by Abu Bakr.
Contemporary analytical historiography doubts the precise content of the letter (together with the similar letters sent to several power figures of the ancient Near East). Authenticity of the preserved samples and of the elaborate accounts by the medieval Islamic historians regarding the events surrounding the letter has also been questioned by modern historians.
Dialog with Mughira ibn Shu'ba
According to another account, Al-Muqawqis also had a dialogue with Mughira ibn Shu'ba, before Mughira became a Muslim. Mughira said:
Once I went to the court of Muqawqis, who inquired of me, about the family of the Holy Prophet. I informed him that he belonged to a high and noble family. Muqawqis remarked that Prophets always belong to noble families. Then he asked if I had an experience of the truthfulness of the Prophet. I told that he always spoke the truth. Therefore, in spite of our opposition to him, we call him Ameen (truth worthy). Muqawqis observed that a man who did not speak lies to men, how could he speak a lie about God? Then he inquired what sort of people were his followers and what did the Jews think of him. I replied that his followers were mostly poor, but the Jews were his bitter enemies. Muqawqis stated that the followers of the Prophets in the beginning are usually poor, and that he must be a, Prophet of God. He further stated that the Jews opposed him out of envy and jealousy, otherwise they must have been certain of his truthfulness, and that they too awaited a Prophet. The Messiah also preached that following and submitting to the Holy Prophet was essential and that whatever qualities of his had been mentioned, the same were the qualities of the earlier Prophets.
Explanation of the name
The name al-Muqawqis is explained as an Arabization of Coptic Pikaukasos, meaning "Caucasian", a person from the region of Caucasus Mountains. The word was subsequently used by Arab writers for some other Coptic Patriarchs. It is not clear, however, whether the epithet applied to all vicegerents of Egypt, including the one during the brief period of Sassanid rule, or only to Patriarchs. Since the Sassanid Empire extended all the way to the Caucasus, it is possible that the Sassanid governor of Egypt was called Pikaukasos by the Copts, and later on Arabs used the same epithet for succeeding governors of Egypt.
Al-Muqawqis is often identified with Cyrus, Patriarch of Alexandria, who administered Egypt on behalf of the Byzantine Empire. This widely held view is challenged as being based on untenable assumptions. Considering the historical facts, the opponents of the identification, point out that:
- Cyrus did not succeed to the See of Alexandria until 630 AD, after Heraclius had recaptured Egypt. After the Persian invasion, "The Coptic patriarch Andronicus remained in the country, experiencing and witnessing suffering as a result of the occupation (Evetts, 1904, p. 486 ll. 8-11). His successor in 626, Benjamin I, remained in office well beyond the end of the occupation; during his time the Sassanians moderated their policy to a certain extent."
- Why would a Christian bishop send two Christian ladies, belonging to noble Coptic families, as slaves to a non-Christian ruler? It were the Persians who had been killing men and enslaving women, and it is highly unlikely that immediately after regaining freedom, Christians started shipping out their women to foreign rulers as slaves. Benjamin I was also not in a position to send the gift of two lovely slaves to a foreign leader under the watchful eyes of Persian occupiers.
- Why would a Christian bishop believe in the prophecy of a new prophet and say that he was expecting the prophet to arrive in Sham (Syria/Palestine)? Christians believe in the Second Coming, not in the arrival of a new prophet. If al-Muqawqis was indeed a Coptic Patriarch, Cyrus of Alexandria or Benjamin I, one would expect him to reaffirm his faith in Jesus.
- Why would the Muqawqis use the phrase "who (are held) in high regard by the Copts" and not "who are held in high regard among us?" Now, there is some controversy over the exact wording of Muqawqis's letter, and some translate the message as "These maids belong to a very respectable family amongst us." However, the Arabic text says, "who among the Copts..."
Adherents to this criticism state that al-Muqawqis was not a Patriarch but the Persian governor during the last days of the Persian occupation of Egypt. There must have been an abundance of Alexandrine women left after the massacre. "Severus b. al-Moqaffa...also reported that in Alexandria every man between the ages of eighteen and fifty years had been brutally massacred (Evetts, 1904, pp. 485 l. 10-486 l. 3)." So from among the captive women, it seems that the Muqawqis took two Coptic sisters and sent them to Muhammad as gifts, realizing that the Byzantines were gaining ground and would soon re-take Alexandria.
One possible reason that the Sasanian governor was kind towards Muhammad is that it is alleged that Christian Arabs assisted in Persian victory over the Byzantines, and al-Muqawqis simply wanted to reward Muhammad whom he saw as one of the Arab kings. "According to a Nestorian Syriac chronicle attributed to Elias, bishop of Merv (?), Alexandria was taken by treachery. The traitor was a Christian Arab who came from the Sassanian-controlled northeastern coast of Arabia."
- Tabari, Tarikh al-Rusul wa'l-Muluk, vol. 8. Translated by Fishbein, M. (1997). The Victory of Islam, p. 98. New York: State University of New York Press.
- Ibn Saad, Tabaqat vol. 8. Translated by Bewley, A. (1995). The Women of Medina. London: Ta-Ha Publishers.
- Bewley/Saad p. 149.
- Translation of the letters and commentary
- O. G. Bolshakov. The History of The Khalifate (История Халифата)
- EGYPT iv. Relations in the Sasanian period