America is Not Egypt

It should go without saying that Egypt is not America. After all, they are two different places on two different continents. However, in the world of Wikipedia research, YouTube scholarship, and gullible social media disciples, this is one of the many theories that has been circulating that has no merit. While much of the current media hoopla about Ye and Kyrie Irving is indirectly a critique of the Hebrew Israelite claim that Africans in the Americas are the true Jews (yet another colonialist construct), they and their Moorish counterparts also promote a more extremely bogus theory: that ancient Egypt was in America.

Uriah Brandon*, in his YouTube series, America is Egypt, argues that there is a massive conspiracy to conceal the fact that the civilization, knowledge, and artifacts – attributed to the ancient African civilization Egypt – actually belonged to ancient Native Americans. What is more is that these ancient Native Americans were in actuality the so-called African Americans. The series raises a number of questions, to which Mr. Brandon attempts to answer with his America is Egypt theory. In Episode 4, he queries:

Shouldn’t the Egyptians aka Arabs have known about Egyptian history before the Europeans? So all of these ancient grandiose monuments sit abandoned in the desert in the middle of a trade highway between three continents and they were never studied or surveyed by the Arab population who had been living in the region for at least a thousand years?! How is it possible that supposed native Egyptians knew nothing about Egyptian culture or language until the invasion of the French? The Rosetta Stone and the pyramids had been there for thousands of years, yet the same people accredited with the some of the world’s most advanced knowledge hadn’t even cared to take a peak at a pyramid wall?

America Is Egypt Episode 4. America Is Egypt. UB TV, https://youtu.be/_0fIwWiGoiI. (5:04-6:05)

One of the foundational premises of his theory rests on the claim that Egyptians had no conceptualization, recollection or academic interest in their ancient past. This feeds into his conclusion that the Egyptian monuments and artifacts and even its historicity was concocted by European Jesuits and Freemasons. Mr. Brandon expounds upon this premise in Part 4 of his series, which I will demonstrate in this post is spurious.

Medieval Egyptology

Mr. Brandon did a good job of recounting the problematic origins of the Egyptology field and is right to question colonial scholarship on the ancient world, which is wrapped up in racialized and racist views of people and clear white supremacist motives. His deconstructions of race and language are also meritorious. However, he, like many Hebrew Israelites, Afrocentrists, Moors, and New Agers, suffer from the ailment of not reading widely enough, a lack of scholarly rigor, and debilitating confirmation bias.

Mr. Brandon exposes his ignorance of Egypt in his statement about Egyptians not bothering to look at the pyramids. Anyone who has been to the Pyramids of Giza knows that there are no hieroglyphic inscriptions on them or the Sphinx that sits in their vicinity. One will have to venture (by plane) to the southern part of Egypt to the city of Luxor to find hieroglyphic inscriptions on the walls of their temples and burial sites. On top of that, even the most ignorant Egyptian tour guide will point out that Coptic Christians used these temples and tombs as monasteries and hiding places from the Byzantines (i.e. Romans) who sought to impose their theology on the Egyptian Coptics.

Mr. Brandon might be surprised to learn that not only was there  continuity between ancient Egypt and medieval Egypt, but aspects of ancient Egyptian culture, language, and religious beliefs were retained and studied over the medieval period… in Arabic. Although the study of Egypt since the Islamic expansion to the region is an under-researched topic in English, there was a genre of writings in the Arabic language on ancient Egypt from the likes of Abu Al-ʿAbbās al-Maqrīzī, Jamāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī, Ibn Khaldūn, and more. Many of these sources are cited in the book  Egyptology: The Missing Millennium, Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings by Ukasha El-Daly. I recently met the author at a talk he gave at the American Research Center in Egypt on Oct. 12, 2022. Although his research aims at correcting the Western academic narrative on the topic, he also answers the very questions Mr. Brandon poses concerning the Egyptians’ own knowledge of their ancient heritage.

Mr. Brandon embraces the same conclusions as the European Orientalists who believe that only they took an interest in unlocking the secrets of ancient Egypt. They carry the attitude that a people’s adoption of Christianity or Islam  automatically makes them religious bigots incapable of not only studying but remembering their ancient past. Yet El-Daly shows both empirically and anecdotally that this was not the case. Rather it was European and American Egyptologists who ignored all indigenous writings on ancient Egypt between the 7th and 16th centuries even though they were aware of them. El-Daly asserts that:

“The main reason was the desire of early Western Egyptologists and others to keep Egyptians out of Egyptology by discouraging them from participation and study, thus leading to their marginalisation and to inevitable Western dominance of the subject” (El-Daly, 2005, p. 4).

We know that early European Egyptologists were not oblivious to the works of the Arabs, Muslims, and Copts with regards to ancient Egypt. El-Daly points out that the British Orientalist, Joseph von Hammer, published an English translation of the 10th century scholar Ibn Waḥshīya’s** deciphering of ancient scripts along with its original Arabic. Others like Athanasius Kircher (17th century) and Wallis Budge (19th/20th century) were indebted to medieval Muslim and Coptic scholarship on the Demotic, Hieratic and Hieroglyphic.*** (El-Daly, 2005, pp. 57-58)

Chapter 5 of El-Daly’s book is titled, “Medieval Arab attempts to decipher ancient Egyptian scripts.” In this chapter, he documents Arab and Muslim attempts at deciphering the hieroglyphics. He says the first of them to take an interest in deciphering the scripts of the ancient Egyptians was the mid-7th century scholar Jābir ibn Ḥayān. Other Arab and Muslim scholars who wrote on the topic include Ayūb Ibn Maslama (9th century), Dhū al-Nūn al-Miṣrī (9th century), Ibn Waḥshīya (9th/10th centuries), and Abū al-Qāsim (El-Daly, 2005, p. 67).

El-Daly’s work introduces the English reader to a myriad of medieval writings in Arabic not the least of which is Anwār ʻUlwīyy al-Ajrām fī al-Kashf ʻan Asrār al-Ahrām by the 13th century scholar of Moroccan descent, Muhammad al-Idrīsī. It provides insights into the nature of medieval Arabic Egyptology. For instance, throughout the book it only mentions the presence of two pyramids. This is not because the others were built later, but because they were covered in sand and only the two largest ones were visible.

During al-Idrīsī’s time, there were a number of theories in circulation about who built the pyramids and for what purpose. One theory was that it was built by thirty consecutive kings of Egypt starting with Bayṣar, the son of Ḥām, and was used as a food repository during the time of Prophet Yūsuf. Some believed that Aristotle had the two pyramids built for himself and Alexander of Macedonia. (Idrīsī and Haarmann, 1991, p. 89). Some thought they were built by the people of ʿĀd, a race of giants from  Arabia (Idrīsī and Haarmann, 1991, p. 99). Others believed that the pyramids and the other monuments, statues, and structures (known as barbā) were built by Enoch (Prophet Idrīs) to preserve the world’s knowledge in preparation of the great cataclysm that was foreseen in the stars. They were not sure if the cataclysm would be in the form of a flood, fire, or invasion. Therefore, they build the structures out of stone and clay so that if the cataclysm was a flood, the stone would remain. If it was by fire then the clay would remain. And if it was by the sword, then everything would remain (Idrīsī and Haarmann, 1991, p. 94). Al-Idrīsī concluded that this latter theory was the most plausible and that the people of the Nile Valley collectively agreed to build these structures for the sake of mankind, showing that they did not believe that the pyramids were built with Israelite slave labor far before Western scholars came to this realization.

The linguistic terrain in Egypt was also complicated by the presence of a plethora of groups and languages in the region in late antiquity prior to Islamic hegemony. This linguistic diversity is best represented in the Genizah documents that were found in Old Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue. In this collection of legal, religious, and mundane papyri documents, One can find Hebrew written in Arabic and Coptic scripts, Arabic written in Hebrew and Coptic scripts, Coptic written in Arabic and Hebrew scripts, as well as Persian and Ethiopic languages. This shows that Egypt was a linguistically plural society since the 6th century. So there is no wonder how lesser used, esoteric ancient languages can die out in such an environment.

In terms of continuity, Coptic is not just a sect of Christianity, but the cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and some would argue, the religious continuation of ancient Egypt. First, the word Egypt is derived from the word Copt, which is pronounced gipṭ. This is perhaps an adaptation of Qifṭ, the son of Miṣr, who was a grandson of Prophet Noah according to al-Masʿūdī (El-Daly, 2005, p. 21). Muslim historians from other lands often sat at the feet of Coptic monks to learn about ancient Egypt. Al-Idrīsī relates the anecdote of a non-Arab expert on Egyptology who used to collect ancient Egyptian texts. He found a mummy and a scroll in the monastery of Abū Hermes, but did not recognize the script. Believing it to be an ancient form of Coptic, he sought out a monk at the monastery of al-Qalamūn in Fayyum who could read it (Idrīsī and Haarmann, 1991, p. 100). This shows that the religious scholars among the Copts continued to retain knowledge of their ancient past at the time of Islamic expansion and Muslim scholars came to learn from them. This further demonstrates that neither the advent of Christianity or Islam eroded this knowledge and clearly they had a concept of ancient Egypt.

The Cairo Postcard Trust. Pyramid and Sphinx. Still Image, c. late 19th/early 20th century. Rare Books and Special Collections Library; American University in Cairo.

Egypt is Arabia

Mr. Brandon and those who believe that America is Egypt need not jump to far-fetched conclusions to explain anomalies in history, such as the lack of archaeological evidence for an Israelite presence in Egypt and the Levant. Indeed, there is a burgeoning school of thought that challenges classical Biblical scholarship on this matter. In 1985, Kamal Salibi, a Lebanese scholar of Christian background, published his controversial book, The Bible Came From Arabia. In light of the lack of physical evidence in the Levant and Egypt for an Israelite presence, he hypothesized that the events occurred further south. He laid a map of the Biblical place names over a map of current-day places in Arabia and was able to observe a correspondence.

Later, Salibi’s research was developed by the likes of Bernard Leeman in his Queen of Sheba and Biblical Scholarship, Dana Reynolds-Marniche’s The African and Arabian Origins of the Hebrew Bible: An Ethnohistorical Study, and the works of Fāḍil al-Rabīʿī. While I will admit that their work is inconclusive because the necessary archaeological excavations cannot be done at present due to conflict in the region, their hypothesis has some basis in logic and pre-modern texts such as al-Shahrastānī who believed that Jews, Christians, and Pagans in pre-Islamic Arabia were not ethnically distinct peoples, but rather their differences were theological (Shahrastānī and Muhammad, 1992, p. 227-228). Mandaean scriptures also corroborate a common Semitic genealogy among Jews, Christians, Mandaeans, and Egyptians and highlight the theological dichotomy between Sabians (represented by Mandaeans, Egyptians, Harranians, and the like) and Hanifs (Jews, Christians, and other followers of Abraham) (Samak, 1995, p. 38-39).

One might notice that Leeman is of European descent but was raised in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, Reynolds-Marniche is an African American raised as a Theosophist and contributed a chapter to Ivan van Sertima’s Golden Age of the Moor, and al-Rabīʿī is an Iraqi leftist thinker and historian. Each author is from a different region and a different linguistic and educational background, which allows them to bring different expertise and perspectives to the topic. As such, scholarship is not a conspiracy, they are submitting their works to the scholarly community for review and criticism in order to arrive at a consensus.

Conclusion

It is possible for knowledge to be forgotten if the ones that possess it do not transmit it orally or in the written word. What most modern Sabian groups do not understand is that the nature of teaching in the ancient world was such that one had to have contact with a teacher or at least be taught how to read certain texts in order to acquire knowledge. This student-to-teacher transmission kept the links of knowledge alive. In times of war, disease, famine, and social upheaval the concerns of people turn away from knowledge acquisition to the issues of the time. So the number of people who devote their time to study and teaching diminishes and sometimes they die without transmitting certain knowledge. Thus, not ever omission of knowledge is a conspiracy or cover up. But perhaps the die-hard skeptical conspiracy theorist will dismiss the facts and references I posited here as well, wrapping me and the authors I cited into another layer of their elaborate conspiracy theory. But before they do, I will present this question to them: What is the difference between an age-old global conspiracy and your overall ignorance about a topic?

Notes:

*Mr. Brandon is a filmmaker out of North Carolina and graduate of North Carolina A&T in Greensboro. Like myself, he was influenced by the Afrocentric researcher, Steve Cokeley, who is responsible for giving countless lectures exposing the Black fraternal order of the Boulè Both Mr. Brandon and I grew up in the same state, had similar majors in college, similar interests, and influences. However, he is a much better filmmaker than I ever was but I am surely a better researcher. We further diverge on the level of philosophy. He seems to have embraced a strand of the Hebrew Israelite doctrine, while I am clearly a Muslim.

**Ibn Waḥshīya, though he wrote in Arabic, was not an Arab. He was of Aramaic Nabataean origin of southern Iraq.

***It must be noted that Hieroglyphics were not the everyday script of the ancient Egyptians. Demotic was found in more common use, while Hieratic was used by the scribes. Hieroglyphics was used as an esoteric script, reserved for only the high priests and kings (El-Daly, 2005, p. 60).

References:

El-Daly, Okasha. Egyptology: The Missing Millennium, Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings. UCL Press, 2005.

Idrīsī, Muḥammad ibn ʻAbd al-ʻAzīz, and Ulrich Haarmann. Anwār ʻUlwīyy Al-Ajrām Fī al-Kashf ʻan Asrār al-Ahrām. Frānts Shtāyrir, 1991.

Samak, ʿAbdullah ʿAlī. Al-Ṣābiʼūn. 1st ed., Maktabat al-Ādāb, 1995.

Shahrastānī, Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Karīm al-, and Ahmad Fahmi Muhammad. Al-Milal Wa al-Niḥal. 2nd ed., Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmīyyah, 1992.

The Cairo Postcard Trust. Pyramid and Sphinx. Still Image, c. late 19th/early 20th century, https://digitalcollections.aucegypt.edu/digital/collection/p15795coll21/id/1609/rec/93. Rare Books and Special Collections Library; American University in Cairo.

Is Fusha Elitist?

Student: Wow! You used to teach Arabic?! Fusha or Amiyya?

Me: Fusha.

Student: Don’t you think it’s elitist to speak in Fusha, though?

This is a conversation that transpired recently between me and a young American student studying in Egypt. It was a courteous conversation and the student actually wanted to hear my honest response to her question. My position is based on the following points, which I expressed to her, but I also think that my response warrants mentioning in a more well-thought out manner. The idea that fusha somehow aids in an elitist mindset reflects the miseducation American students of the language receive from their government and universities. Moreover, the push to the teaching of Arabic dialects has made students pawns in a broader political game.

This is not how we teach English

The powers that be in the U.S. will never agree to the use of American dialects such as African American Vernacular English, Hawaiian Pidgin, or Cajun as the language of instruction in schools. First, these dialects are not connected to a rich written heritage that learners can read in. Even if this heritage existed, it would disadvantage learners in an Standard English-dominated society by not training them in the register of language that is valued in the greater society, effectively making them foreigners in their own country.

Yet, Americans propagate the teaching of Arabic dialects both at home and abroad in contradistinction to the way we use and envision our own language. Before students know anything about Arabic, they are supplanted with ideas about its difficulty and are given the option to learn Modern Standard Arabic, Qur’anic Arabic, or Amiyyah. When people wish to learn English they learn a standard version of the language. Slang and dialectical characteristics are expected to be encountered and acquired later as students have more contact with native speakers of English. Why aren’t slang and dialects emphasized more in English learning pedagogy? Why don’t we speak more about the differences between British and American English, Jamaican Patois and Aboriginal English, Gullah and Nigerian English, etc.? Well, in addition to our notion of exceptionalism there are some deep-rooted political reasons for our view of the Arabic language, which I will briefly touch on in the following paragraphs.

The Weaponization of Language

In the summer of 2015, I was teaching a free Arabic-language intensive at a small liberal arts college in North Carolina. I advertised it on the Arabic-L listserv, a listserv for scholars, instructors, and Arabic nerds. I promptly received an email from Dr. Chris Stone of Hunter College (CUNY), asking me bluntly where I was receiving my funding. I told him that my position was funded by a grant from the Department of Education and I knew why he was asking to which he replied that he was glad to see the Department of Education was still doing its job and that he would advertise this intensive in his circle.

In April 2014, Dr. Stone published an article on the online Jadaliyya website entitled Teaching Arabic in the US after 9/11. He began the article discussing the situation in which he was stabbed outside of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. His attacker apparently wanted to take revenge for U.S. policies in the Middle East. He then brings to the reader’s attention the number of post-9/11 defense and intelligence funding opportunities for the teaching and learning of Arabic. He goes on to discuss the controversies within the fields of Middle Eastern and African studies concerning this funding.

These funds and newfound interest in the teaching and learning of Arabic in the United States has reshaped how scholars, teachers, and students approach the language. Under the pretext of teaching a more communicative approach, they have called on instructors to get students speaking as soon as possible. In 2002, the counterterrorism Arabist, Dr. Geoff Porter wrote a critical piece in the New York Times alerting the F.B.I. to the differences between various registers of Arabic, urging them to teach their agents a more natural language that will allow them to better understand wiretapped phones. Thus inserting a dagger into Arab language pedagogy. I once interned at a military archives that needed to sort through hundreds of Arabic fliers that were used for PsyOps during the Iraq War in the 2000’s. The Arabic in these fliers reflected the dry style of American military speech, rife with exclamatory commands and warnings, which I could not imagine being taken seriously by any Arabic speaker.

Anyone privy to the teaching of Arabic in American universities since 9/11 should be aware of this philosophical shift. The second and third editions of the renown Al-Kitaab fii Taʿallum al-ʿArabiyya series, taught at most universities, conspicuously increased its colloquial content. In the meantime, people serving in various branches of the American military were offered generous bonuses for proven proficiency in any of the “defense languages,” mainly the Egyptian, Levantine, and Iraqi Arabic dialects. Likewise, defense language and foreign service-oriented scholarships became plenty for students.

Arabic language fliers that were distributed in Iraqi war zones by the American military.

The Conspiracy

The debate over diglossia in the Arab world is a heated one. It was sparked by European Orientalists and colonialists venturing into regions of the Arab world and finding discrepancies between the written and spoken, formal and informal languages and the widespread use of different registers in different situations. While such differences were present, Europeans saw an opportunity to separate Egyptians and other Arab nationalities from their heritage.

Their aim was to do to the Arabs what they did to Africans in the Americas when they physically, mentally, and spiritually disconnected us from our language, culture and religion. Of course, this required a different strategy, because the Arabs were still in their lands and took a lot of pride in their language, culture and religion. The solution was a calculated plot to marginalize fusha and those that held to it.

Since the late 19th century, there has been an ongoing conspiracy to detach Arabs from their language, culture, and religion. This is meticulously documented by Dr. Nafusa Zakaria Sa’id in her book, Tārīkh al-Daʿwah ʾIlā al-ʿĀmīyyah wa ʾĀthāruhā fī Miṣr (The History of the Appeal to Colloquial Arabic and Its Effects on Egypt). She traces this conspiracy back to two Arab authors who published books on Egyptian Arabic with the sponsorship of Europeans. They even went so far as to publish high literature like the parts of the Bible and Shakespeare in colloquial Arabic on behalf of the Egyptians. Dr. Sa’id points out that all languages (including European languages) have registers, dialects, and colloquialisms, but only Orientalists with an agenda made these a problem.

Despite their many attempts to convince Egyptians to treat their dialect as an independent language, their ideas never quite took root, due to the strong influence of Azhar University and the public’s general reverence for their Arab heritage, regardless of whether they were Jewish, Christian or Muslim. They only began to see success once they started to open up schools that taught in European languages during the age of colonization. By cleverly marketing their schools, selective enrollment, a Western education was reserved for a new elite… Those who revered Europeans and their way of thinking by adopting their ideas, language, and lifestyle. While they naturally spoke their local dialects, their higher learning, which would ordinarily acquaint them with fusha, was replaced with a foreign language. Those that studied in Arabic were deemed backward and uncultured, making proficiency fusha anything but elite. Unfortunately, this mindset still exists to this day in Egypt and other Arab nations to this day.

A Listing of Works Calling for the Use of ‘Amiyyah

  • 1838 – ʾAḥsan al-Nukhab fī Maʿrifat Lisān al-ʿArab by Muhammad ‘Iyad al-Tantawi
  • 1880 – Grammatik des Arabischen Vulgardialectes Von Aegypten by Dr. Wilhelm Spitta
  • 1886 – Al-Risālah al-Tāmmah fī Kalām al-ʿĀmmah wa al-Manāhij fī ʾAḥwāl al-Kalām al-Dārij by Mikha’il Sibagh
  • 1893 – “Why There is No Creativity Among Egyptians Now” speech by William Willcocks
  • 1895 – The Modern Egyptian Dialect Of Arabic by Karl Vollers
  • 1901 – The Spoken Arabic of Egypt by J. Selden Willmore
  • 1926 – Manual of Egyptian Arabic by D.C. Phillot and A.P. Powell
  • 1926 – “Syria, Egypt, North Africa, and Malta Speak Punic, Not Arabic” by William Willcocks

Arabs Are Not the Only Arabic Speakers

My final retort is that Arabic is not only the language of those who identify ethnically as Arabs. It is used by ethnic and religious minorities such as Copts, Berbers, Kurds, etc. It is also used by Muslims outside of the “Arab World.” In fact, some of the most eloquent and learned people in the language have been people I lived and studied with from a diverse array of backgrounds. They were students from West Africa, East Africa, and different parts of Asia who usually memorized the Qur’an and conducted their primary studies at madrasas of humble means in their home countries. They later went on to pursue higher degrees at recognized institutions in the Arab World. Though their introduction to the language was entirely in fusha, they would adapt to hearing a local Arabic dialect within a month or two, because they already had a strong foundation in the basics of the language. This has been the system in which non-native Arabic speakers acquired proficiency in the language for hundreds of years. However, Americans, out of their warmongering and need for Mcdonaldfication in all matters, have tried to jump the gun in language pedagogy by learning Arabic for nefarious purposes and without an understanding of the peoples that speak it.

This is not to say that I oppose the speaking or study of Arabic dialects. Indeed, natural speech is essential to communication and daily survival in Arabic-speaking countries as anyone who has ever studied in the Arab world may know. Unfortunately, there are many misunderstandings about the Arabic language in the United States and it will take a generation of learners with both expertise and a clear perspective of the language to unravel them.