The Political Lives of Saints

Christian-Muslim Mediation in Egypt

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Angie Heo
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , November
     316 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Political Lives of Saints: Christian-Muslim Mediation in Egypt succeeds in offering an ethnographically rich and theoretically sophisticated study of contemporary Coptic life and Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt. Over a period of more than ten years beginning in 2005, Angie Heo conducted fieldwork on multiple sites across Egypt. This enabled her to witness, without realizing it at the time, the final years of the Mubarak regime, the lead-up to the Tahrir protests in 2011, and subsequently the election of an Islamist government and the success of a military coup. National political developments remain in the background of her main analysis and argument, in which the role of politics is never far removed.

This book examines Egypt’s Christian minority through the lens of saints and martyrdom and their wide scope of sensory mediations and political contestations. Images, visuals, and imaginings of saints are of central importance in Coptic Orthodox Christianity and often resonate within the Muslim community, as well. The book wonderfully demonstrates what is at stake when both Christian and Muslim communities are susceptible to new meanings of sainthood that tend to converge to shared understandings.  Drawing on ethnographic observation, Heo cautiously suggests an analysis why the contemporary Coptic Church and Egyptian state security are interested in keeping the understandings of those two groups apart.

This book is a stimulating read not only for those interested in sainthood and material religion—especially within the study of modern Egypt and Christian minorities in the Middle East—but also for students of (religious) minority politics and the fascinating interplay between theology and politics. What scholars of the “Coptic Question” have been repeatedly pointing out is the intricate interconnectedness between “the politics of communal authority” and “the nature and contents of ‘religion’” (11). Over the last seventy years, state authoritarianism has come to define the nature of the relationship between Egypt’s national leadership and the Coptic community. Heo brilliantly shows how this defining entente manifests in the realm of imaginings of sainthood and their regulation by church and state.

Political Lives is divided into three parts, entitled “Relics,” “Apparitions,” and “Icons.” The materialities of sainthood are the book’s main point of departure, accompanied by the meanings and imaginings that these materialities mediate for Christians and Muslims and what their effects are on inter-communal relations. “Relics” analyzes the centrality of martyrdom in Coptic faith. It discusses the historical foundational role of martyrdom in the transmission of authority onto church leaders and in the creation of a church body politic. The author explains how the relics of St. Mark, the founding apostle of the Coptic Church, serve as the authoritative basis on which the sovereign status of all Coptic popes was consequently transmitted.  Remembering the martyr St. Mark by visiting his relics or visualizing his bodily tortures allows Copts to participate in the church body politic.

New, contemporary martyrs consequently reinstitute Coptic community belonging and self-imagining. For instance, a reference to Iraqi Christian martyrs was included in the commemoration hymn of the Coptic Egyptian martyrs after the explosion at the Two Saints Cathedral in Alexandria in 2011. The inclusion of Iraqi Christians into a Coptic hymn can be considered as a (momentary) reorientation of communal belonging that emphasizes Christian unity rather than the nationalist narrative of Muslim-Christian unity of Egypt (65). At the same time, others may not be given the title and recognition of “martyr” by the Coptic Church,  such as the Copts who were brutally murdered by army tanks when they were protesting the state’s dismissal of a church attack in Aswan at the Maspero building in Central Cairo in 2011 (66-67).

The book’s second part, “Apparitions,” engages with the central role of the Virgin Mary for both Christians and Muslims in Egypt. Heo describes and analyzes a surge of Marian apparitions in Egypt after 1968 in the context of “territorial dispossession” and the military losses of Palestine and Holy Jerusalem. Particularly the apparition in 1968 in a Cairene district called Zaytun was widely known and celebrated and interpreted as a sign of national support and a symbol of Christian-Muslim unitary coexistence. The author compares this instance to another apparition in 2009 in a district that was characterized by sectarian tension and a growth of the local Christian population. Muslim support of the latter was much smaller as Christians tended to understand it as a sign of support for the local Christian community. The second apparition had therefore entered the interpretative frame of sectarian strife.

Thus, while both churches have been associated with Marian apparitions, they but  conjure up different meanings and sentiments for Muslims and Christians. In sum, Marian apparitions are analyzed as “visual epistemologies that constitute national and sectarian terrains of belonging and enmity” (115).

The last part of the book continues the theme of the possibilities of transcendence of religious identity through shared imaginings of sainthood. Wonderworkers and those being consulted for healing through “magic” and dealings with jinns (spirits and demons)—including Coptic priests—used to occupy a shared social meeting ground among Christians and Muslims, which Heo demonstrates through rich ethnographic materials. She theorizes these “heterodox spaces of communicative overlap” as “crossovers” and outright conversions (146), engaging and reviewing notions of tradition and authority. In a chapter on the miracle icon of the Virgin Mary in the city of Port Said, contemporary reactions to emerging sainthood are laid out in detail. It shows the dominating concern today by the state and the Coptic Church hierarchy alike to keep Christian and Muslim spheres of religious practice and belief separate, referring to the motive of securing “public order.”

In this manner, the invisibility, “withdrawnness” and separateness of the Coptic community is further enhanced, leading in turn to more Muslim speculation and suspicion of Christians carrying out secret activities (200-201).

The book is a fascinating read for scholars of contemporary religion, modern Egypt, minority studies, material mediation of religion, and the entanglements of religion and politics.

About the Reviewer(s): 

An Van Raemdonck is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at VU University Amsterdam.

Date of Review: 
April 17, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Angie Heo is Assistant Professor of the Anthropology and Sociology of Religion at the University of Chicago.


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