Islam in the First Civilisations: 2. The Ancient Egyptian Religion

When one thinks of the Ancient Egyptians, one immediately thinks of many gods. Surely there is no sign of monotheism in this civilisation, you’d instinctively assume. Just as a snapshot, observe this list depicting the main (most powerful) Gods from the Ancient Egyptian pantheon, which differed region to region over time – but note it was the sky or sun god that is almost consistently singled out as the most powerful:

  • Horus Early-dynastic 31c BCE: Sky god

  • Ra Old Kingdom 25-24c BCE: Sun god

  • Atum Old Kingdom: god of creation

  • Amun Old Kingdom 21c BCE: Sun god (replaced Mentho) (Amun-Ra became Zeus Ammon in Greece)

  • Mentho Middle Kingdom 19c BCE: war god – originally sun god (Old Kingdom)

Could there be a parallel with what happened with the Mesopotamian gods in Ancient Egypt – where the existence of a hierarchy and a central powerful god at its apex signals its monotheistic roots? In another post, I’ll unpick the oldest history of the Ancient Egyptians. However, I wanted to present two interesting ‘Islamic’ parallels from the New Kingdoms (about 1,550-1,100 B.C.E.).

الحمد لله والصلاة والسلام على رسول الله

All praise is due to Allah and peace and blessing upon His Messenger

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

In the name of Allah, The Most Gracious, The Most Merciful

***

Ptah the Creator God

The Memphite Theology is a text carved on black granite stone (the Shabaka Stone) which dates to 710 BCE, but this allegedly was based on an older original that dates to 1,250 BCE.1

“Memphite theology did see Ptah as the power in all things.”2 This theology posited a ‘transcendent God’ – one removed from the world, but the source of all power. “Somehow, it removed God from His creatures though He continued to act in them.”3 The notion of a transcendent God is Islamic.

However, this conception of God was not popular to the Ancient Egyptians since they ‘wanted to see God in the creature, not beyond it.’4 These motivations explains the manner in which they therefore deified aspects of creation. When a group of people’s manners vis-a-vis God are scrutinised across different civilisations, the same phenomena is almost always spotted. There is something in the human condition that inevitably begins to alter the deen of Allah from its origins of worshipping God Himself to shifting to worshipping the creation instead. But this post is not interested in why people deviate into pantheism or polytheism, which are different forms of idolatry (shirk) from the truth of One God (Tawheed) that keeps becoming re-established after the coming of another new Prophet from Allah to bring the people back to the straight path.

In ‘Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt’ by Rosalie David, the range of possible explanations for the different gods and their origins is discussed from page 54 to 59 with no conclusive explanation. The problem revolves around differences from site to site – but also when trying to locate origins, we veer into prehistory. The problems of prehistory noted in the previous two posts in this series, here and here, come back into play. “Because of the lack of literary sources from the Pre-dynastic period, information about the gods and any concept of divinity has been mainly derived from later evidence, but this can provide an inaccurate and sometimes over-simplified view of the earliest practices.”5

One point of observation was particularly interesting: “The Egyptians carefully distinguished between the image of the god (whether statue or animal) and the god’s ‘true form’, which was only infrequently revealed to mankind.”6 That the ‘true form’ was not in the idol and that this might be ‘revealed’ to mankind is Islamically, meaningful.

By the middle of the Old Kingdom7, emerging from Heliopolis, Memphis and Thebes, there were three significant versions of the Ancient Egyptian Creation Myth. They seem to present a ‘fairly uniform concept’ of genesis:8 “All existence was derived from a single, original source, and… the occasion of creation transformed the oneness of the creator god [um… Tawheed] into multiple life forms throughout the world.”9

The idea that ‘existence derived from a single source’, that of the ‘oneness of the creator god’ and the notion that the two are connected is what the author deemed important and what is also Islamically significant. The rest – in my opinion – is interesting but speculative and riddled with heathenism (shirk) and so according to the lens of the last revelation, false; this last revelation is all the more convincing because it suggested that in origin searching civilisations will yield signs of One supreme Creator. And lo and Behold!

What is necessary to note is how the Muslims have a criteria/measuring-tool/perspective that explains how the last revelation acts as an overseer to judge or assess the extent to which every other revelation/ religion has meandered away from its original monotheistic source.

Allah, the Most Exaled says:

“And We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], the Book in truth, confirming that which preceded it of the Scripture and as a muhaymin [criterion] over it. So judge between them by what Allah has revealed and do not follow their inclinations away from what has come to you of the truth…” (Qur’an 5:48)

And so, anything that does veer off the centre, will be always contested as a religious innovation (bid’ah) and avoided by Muslims.

Moreover, the notion that creation “began as a divine concept, given reality by being expressed through the spoken word – occurs in the Memphite Theology.”10 This has direct associations to the Qur’anic articulation of God’s role in creating anything:

Allah, the Most Exaled says:

His command is only when He intends a thing that He says to it, “Be,” and it is.” (Qur’an 36:82)

“The creator god at Memphis was Ptah who was regarded as an intellectual principle; he provided the earliest example of how the creator’s mind and will functioned. Memphite theology described him as the supreme creator of the universe who made the world, the gods, their cult-centres, shrines and images, the cities, food, drink and all the physical requirements of life. As Lord of Truth, he also created divine utterance and established ethics. His creative actions were carried out through his thoughts (expressed through his heart) and his will (spoken by means of his tongue.)11

Obviously, from that explanation, one can see the Islamic components and also the non-Islamic falsities that [must] have become embedded into the religion over time:

Islamic (Tawhidic) components:

Creator god,

Supreme creator of the universe who made…

[All] praise is [due] to Allah, Creator of the heavens and the earth…” (Qur’an 35:1)

…the worlds.

[All] praise is [due] to Allah, Lord of the worlds…” (Qur’an 1:2)

Lord of Truth

For that is Allah, your Lord, the Truth. And what can be beyond truth except error? So how are you averted?” (Qur’an 10:32)

…also created divine utterance

His command is only when He intends a thing that He says to it, “Be,” and it is.” (Qur’an 36:82)

…and established ethics…

Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but [true] righteousness is [in] one who believes in Allah, the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveller, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; [and who] establishes prayer and gives zakah; [those who] fulfil their promise when they promise; and [those who] are patient in poverty and hardship and during battle. Those are the ones who have been true, and it is those who are the righteous.” (Qur’an 2:177)

…his creative actions were carried out through …his will.

…But Allah does what He intends.” (Qur’an 2:253)

 

Non-Islamic (bid’ah) falsities:

…who made the gods, their cult-centres, shrines…

[Anthropomorphic]:

…his thoughts expressed through

…his heart and…

…spoken of his tongue.

Aten the One God

There are some surprisingly Islamic notions when one studies the religion of Aten of Ancient Egypt in the 14th century BCE too. Although we cannot conclusively claim (and need not claim) that this religion was Islamic, there are tell tale signs of the Islamic notion of Tawheed in this movement that ought to be noted as well.

References to Aten occur in the Middle Kingdom, who was ‘symbolised by the disc of the sun’12. He was a ‘hitherto unimportant god’13, which I would translate to mean there was no record of his importance – not that he was in fact not important. He had (at least by the reign of Tuthmosis IV) associations as a ‘separate solar god and not just a variant of the sun-god Re.’14 This suggests that 1) he pre-exists the fame he later receives and 2) he happens to represent the sun (like Amen-Re, Osiris), which happens to be the one natural phenomena that the Ancient Egyptians revered the most. The parallel to pre-Islamic notions of Allah is interesting:

1) Allah pre-exists his fame of the Islamic period and

2) although the pagan Arabs corrupted the absolute, unique Oneness of Allah by incorporating him into an Arab pantheon,

3) He was despite that, the ‘King’ of the Gods.

4) Moreover, he had (in origin) no form: ‘the cult of the Aten centred around the worship of the life-force and energy emanated from the sun, rather than its actual material form.’15

Akhenaten… allegedly

‘In Year 4 of his reign, Amenhotep IV (later named Akhenaten – died 1336 BCE16) replaced Amun with the Aten as the supreme god of the pantheon and embarked on a … ‘religious revolution’ or an ‘evolution’.’17 What was the supposed revolution? ‘No other king ever claimed that one god was exclusive or tried to exterminate all other cults.’18 Note, by calling them ‘cults’, this seems to suggest they were Ancient Egyptian ones (hence the term ‘cult’ and not ‘religion’ – i.e. not the extermination of religions outside of the Egyptian culture). This mirrors the Last Prophet’s example of exterminating all the false Arab idols, by having them smashed, since the Kaa’ba was in origin the ‘House’ built by Abraham (peace be upon him) for the Unique (One) God, Allah.

Allah, the Most Exaled says:

Verily, the first House (of worship) appointed for mankind was that at Bakkah (Makkah), full of blessing, and a guidance for Al-Alameen (the mankind and jinns).” (Qur’an 3:96).

And [mention, O Muhammad], when We designated for Abraham the site of the House, [saying], ‘Do not associate anything with Me and purify My House for those who perform Tawaf and those who stand [in prayer] and those who bow and prostrate.’” (Qur’an 22:26)

1 So Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the Negeb.

2 Now Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold.

3 And he journeyed on from the Negeb as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai,

4 To the place where he had made an altar at the first; and there Abram called on the name of the Lord.” (Bible, Genesis 13:1-4)

 

Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee; in whose heart are the ways of them.

Who passing through the valley of Baca make it a well; the rain also filleth the pools…

10 For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand (elsewhere).” (Bible, Psalms 84:5-6,10)

See IslamQA.

This ‘new’ Egyptian religion sought to differentiate three aspects of god: 1) ‘the creative energy of the sun’; 2) ‘the sun disc as the god’s symbol, and 3) the king as the god’s earthly agent.’19

I suspect that it wasn’t the sun that was being worshipped, and references of him as ‘the sun god’ is misleading. Rather, the sun’s power was culturally regarded as the ‘most supreme’ entity (as indicated earlier, above), so to understand god, this imagery was utilised. The use of a symbol to depict God is interesting too, given Allah’s instruction not to depict him in any form, which renders this tradition as a false doctrine (bidah) which, presumably, must have been added to it afterwards.

Moreover, in terms of the king being a representative of god, there is a similarity to the role that, for instance, King David took, from the Islamic (and Jewish) perspective, whereby, the King is a Prophet-King and though he proposes God’s message, his shariah is also the law; this is the Islamic parallel of ‘to worship Allah, you must go via the sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him) too’:

Allah, the Most Exaled says:

Say [O Muhammad]: ‘If you should love Allah, then follow me, [so] Allah will love you and forgive you your sins. And Allah is forgiving and Merciful.’” (Qur’an, 3:31) And,

And whatever the Messenger has given you – take; and what he has forbidden you – refrain from. And fear Allah; indeed Allah is severe in penalty.” (Qur’an, 59:7)

“In this ‘cult’, the worshippers could no longer turn to sacred animals, cult-statues or deified dead men for assistance in approaching the god; the only intermediary was the king [that is to say, the Prophet-king, Akhenaten], who taught the doctrine to his people.’20 In an Ancient Egyptian milieu it is easy to understand how this idea could easily become lost so that the appearances that Akhenaten (himself) wanted his subjects to worship him to get to God becomes what is assumed.

Just like the Prophet (peace be upon him) destroyed the pagan gods accumulated in the Kaa’ba to purge and renovate it to its original (Abrahamic) devotion to One God (Tawheed), Akhenaten ‘disband[s] the priesthoods of all the other gods… He also renounced his formal association with Amen-Re by changing his name… to Akhenaten (probably ‘Servant of the Aten’) [as Muhammad is the Servant of Allah ‘Abd Allah’]… [and to] relocate his residence and religious capital to a new site that was untainted by any association with the [pagan] traditional gods.’21 The choice of the location was made ‘according with god’s instruction, and the city was duly named Akhetaten (‘Horizen of the Aten’) [now referred to as Amarna].’22

This only differs with the Last Prophet insofar as whereas Muhammad (peace be upon him) succeeded in reverting Kaa’ba back to its former purpose: to worship the One God, so there was no need to move the ‘House of God’; Akhenaten was required to move (to make hijrah, so to speak) to disassociate himself from the more pervasive contamination of shirk all around. In spirit or intention, they appear to be the one and the same.

The surviving literary information we possess of this religion is via tomb inscriptions and the ‘Amarna Letters’23 discovered in 1886 CE. The most important of the letters to shed some light on this religion are the ‘Hymns to the Aten’. Three key ideas are communicated via them: ‘First, the god’s supremacy and role as a creator is emphasized: the Aten was regarded as the ‘Sole God’, supreme in heaven and earth, who rose and set each day. His presence in the sky enabled him to nurture his creation, and the deity’s beneficent power is emphasised, as the creator of mankind, animals, birds and plants.’24

Secondly, the god is [articulated] as the creator of all mankind, including Egyptians and foreigners; thirdly, the significance of the god’s transcendent nature is underlined; unlike [those] gods who were worshipped in a material form… Aten was not believed to be immanent in a physical body…’25

The Islamic connection?

First:

“It is Allah who has created seven heavens and of the earth, the like of them. [His] command descends among them so you may know Allah is over all things competent and that Allah has encompassed all things in knowledge.” (Qur’an 65:12)

Second:

“Say: ‘I seek refuge in the Lord of mankind;

The sovereign of mankind;

The God of mankind…” (Qur’an 114:1-3)

Third:

“Say: ‘He is Allah, the Unique (the One);

Allah is Samad (Who is eternally in need of none and of Whom all are eternally in need);

He neither begets nor is born;

and none (nothing) is comparable to Him.” (Qur’an 112:1-4)

Rosalie David finds it ‘interesting’ that there are some ideas in the ‘Great Hymn to the Aten’ that seem to match ideas in the Bible, for instance. She suggests ‘borrowing’ not knowing the Islamic argument on the origin for such monotheistic-common unities across religions, since the truth might be that the monotheistic Ancient Egyptian religion, in this case, shares ideas because there is only, truly, the One religion from the same source (Allah). See: The Genius of Islam.

And just to emphasise the fact, I’ve also added one more verse from the Qur’an that came to mind after reading her Great Hymn-Biblical match, below. Please compare them:

‘”Ships fare north and also fare south. Every route is opened when you appear. The fish in the river leap before your face, your rays are in the midst of the sea.” (Hymn to the Aten)

‘”So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great. There go the ships; there is a leviathan, whom Thou has made to play therein.” (Psalm 104:25, 26)’26

Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and earth, and the alternation of the night and the day, and the [great] ships which sail through the sea with that which benefits people, and what Allah has sent down from the heavens of rain, giving life thereby to the earth after its lifelessness and dispersing therein every [kind of] moving creature, and [His] directing of the winds and the clouds controlled between the heaven and the earth are signs for a people who use reason.” (Quran 2:164)

Another sign, indeed, for a people who ought to use their reason.

NEXT: For evidences of Islam in the First Civilisations 3: The Aryan Religion, see THIS post

PREVIOUS: For evidences of Islam in the First Civilisations 1: The Mesopotamian Religion, see THIS post

***

سبحان ربك رب العزة عما يصفون وسلام على المرسلين والحمد لله رب العالمين والصلاة والسلام على رسول الله محمد وعلى اله وصحبه أجمعين

Exalted be your Lord, the Lord of Glory, above what they attribute to Him, and peace be upon the Messengers, and all praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Universe. And the peace and blessing upon prophet Mohammed and his relatives and all his companions.

1 Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt by Rosalie David, 2002, pg 86

2 Islam and Other Faiths by Ismail Raji al-Faruqi (ed. Ataullah Siddiqui), 1998, pg 21

3 Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt by Rosalie David, 2002, pg 22

4 Ibid, pg 21

5 Ibid, pg 58-9

6 Ibid, pg 56

7The “Old Kingdom” is a period of time during the history of Ancient Egypt. It lasted from 2575 BC to 2150 BC. Over these 400 years, Egypt had a strong central government and a prosperous economy.

8 Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt by Rosalie David, 2002, pg 81

9 Ibid

10 Ibid

11 Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt by Rosalie David, 2002, pg 86

12 Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt by Rosalie David, 2002, pg 215

13 Ibid

14 Ibid

15 Ibid, pg 216

16 Amélie Kuhrt (1995). The Ancient Near East: c. 3000–330 BC, pg 194

17 Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt by Rosalie David, 2002, pg 215

18 Ibid, pg 216

19 Ibid

20 Ibid, pg 229

21 Ibid, pg 218

22 Ibid

23 Ibid, pg 224

24 Ibid, pg 225

25 Ibid, pg 226

26 Ibid, pg 229

***

سبحان ربك رب العزة عما يصفون وسلام على المرسلين والحمد لله رب العالمين والصلاة والسلام على رسول الله محمد وعلى اله وصحبه أجمعين

Exalted be your Lord, the Lord of Glory, above what they attribute to Him, and peace be upon the Messengers, and all praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Universe. And the peace and blessing upon prophet Mohammed and his relatives and all his companions.

 

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