To many of us, the ancient Egyptians were a very fascinating race whose culture, traditions and lifestyle cause many of us to fall into wonder. One major branch of their history which I shall attempt to extremely briefly demystify is their ancient religion.
It should be made evident from the outset that the Egyptians were never renowned for their monotheistic beliefs, at least not in their recorded history. It seems that a pharaoh named Akhenaten was the lone wolf in this regard, who commanded his subjects to worship the sun and forsake the remaining deities. But swiftly after his reign, people reverted back to worshipping a whole host of gods.
The Egyptians were essentially polytheists; i.e. those who believe in more than one god. However, we believe that polytheism has always stemmed from a slow degradation of monotheism because Allah always sends messengers to spread the unity of God. Moreover, the Qur’an says:
وَإِنْ مِنْ أُمَّةٍ إِلَّا خَلَا فِيهَا نَذِير
And there is no people to whom a Warner has not been sent.The Holy Quran (35:25)
Therefore, a prophet had unquestionably blessed the land of Egypt with the message of unity. Yet, history bears witness that each belief system and every ideology is subjected to a system of degeneration as it distances away from the source. What is the source? It is only the Holy Scripture and the practical example of that scripture; the prophet. As time passes, innovations slowly creep in and the essence of the actual belief, little by little, diminishes.
The Egyptians had over two thousand gods. Yet it would not be a wild guess to estimate some of these deities to be merely names of the attributes of the one true God. A few famous Egyptologists had carried out studies concluding that monotheism existed before polytheism. It is written in pg.140 of the book ‘Gods of the Egyptians’ by E.A. Wallis Budge:
“The greatest supporter of the doctrine of ancient Egyptian monotheism was the late Dr. Brugsch. Accepting the view, which the Egyptians themselves held, that the gods were only names of the various attributes of the One God, he searched through the religious literature and collected from the hymns, prayers, etc., which were addressed to the various gods and goddesses in various periods, a number of epithets and attributes which were bestowed upon them by their worshippers. These extracts he classified, and when they were grouped and arranged they formed a description of God such as it would be difficult to find a parallel for outside the Holy Scriptures. It has been contended that as these scattered epithets are never found together the ancient Egyptians had no conception of a God who was One, and was self-produced, and had existed, and would exist, always, and was hidden”.
In its three thousand year recorded history, their beliefs faced endless alteration and addition in all shapes and forms as always occurs with religions. On occasions, certain gods gained and other lost popularity. Sometimes a foreign god would even be imported from a neighbouring country to be worshipped. The empire was quite vast so the beliefs of course varied from region to region. Each god or goddess specialised in his or her field. For instance, a few of the well known words were: Isis the God of fertility, and Osiris, the God of the dead and underworld. One of the most important deities of Egyptian mythology was the Sun God Ra, who was widely regarded as the ‘creator and preserver of the world.’
Surprisingly enough, the Egyptians throughout their history had combined Ra with many deities; for instance with the Wind God Amun to form Amun Ra or merged with the God Horus as Ra-Horakhty. The Egyptians had the knack of merging different deities and their powers together, over time, when various tribes infused their beliefs together. They did not completely transform their beliefs, but would merely add on which made it easier for historians, despite the enormous variation of beliefs to draw a general picture.
Egyptian mythology informs us of the period when gods had reigned over the humans as kings and the constant battle between light and darkness had occurred. Ra continuously battled with a demon named Apep and Osiris who reigned as king was killed by his brother Seth, who was driven by jealousy. But his sister Isis restored him to life and he became the ruler of the afterlife. Eventually, the gods withdrew and human pharaohs took their place to rule.
As for the Pharaoh, he was God Incarnate in Egyptian culture. The Pharaoh opposing Mosesas was no different when he said:
“O Chiefs, I know of no God for you other than myself”.
The Holy Quran (28:39)
It is written in the book cited above regarding kings:
“Other ancient nations were content to believe that they had been brought into being by the power of their gods operating upon matter, but the Egyptians believed that they were the issue of the great God who created the universe, and that they were of directly divine origin.”
The reverence that the Egyptians showed to many creatures of the animal kingdom and the fact that deities are symbolised by the heads of animals can be quite baffling. Why did the Egyptians visualise and associate their gods with animals?
Zakaria Goneim, Egyptian archaeologist, in his book, The Lost Pyramids, explaining the queer honour which was shown to animals writes:
“…an animal would be selected to be a place of manifestation of God in the same manner a statue would be fashioned to serve as a material medium for the appearance of the divinity in the temple.”
Moreover, they were honoured because they symbolised the characteristics and roles of deities. For instance, Hathor was a woman with a cow’s head, which represents the mothering, nurturing nature of a cow. Anubis, the Jackal God was in charge of burials and embalmment. At the event of mummification, the priests carrying it out would wear Anubis masks which signified his role and in a hope of invoking his powers. The God Thoth known as the scribe of the gods, God of all arts and sciences and lord of books, was in charge of all intellectual pursuits and his human figure usually carried the head of an ibis.
The ancient Egyptians believed that the ‘recognition of the sacred animals was the recognition of the divine.’ Deliberately killing or profaning them was considered to be a great crime and punished severely. They were so greatly honoured that it is written in pg82 of the book, Egypt’s Ancient Heritage, by Rodman R. Clayson that:
“In the late period, there was national animal worship for an entire species. Archaeologists have found mummified cats, falcons, bulls and crocodiles buried by the hundreds in vast cemeteries. And being mummified was an honour reserved for the selected. Furthermore, it is written that “in each town the tribal God was incarnate in a particular animal, such as a lion, cat or falcon and protected by a falcon’’.
Temples and worship
In regards to their worship, it is written in ‘the gods of the Egyptians’ by E.A. Wallis Budge that in the beginning, in the Neolithic period:
“…they peopled the earth, air, sky, and water with beings of various kinds, and they paid a sort of homage or worship to certain stones, trees, and living creatures, in which they assumed that they lived. Some beings were held to be friendly and others unfriendly; and it was thought that gifts or offerings would secure the continuance of the friendship of the former and avert the hostility of the latter.”
They were without doubt a very religious nation ritualistically. It is said additionally,
“From the earliest to the latest period of their history the observance of religious festivals and the performance of religious duties in connection with the worship of the gods absorbed a very large part of the time and energies of the nation”.
In contrast with Islam’s perfect methods of worship, their rather degraded form consisted of hymns, spells, prayers and offerings to the gods to induce their pleasure. Moreover, Islam teaches the complete and utter reliance upon God for whatever needs and dreams you wish fulfilled. But due to the number of gods, the Egyptians had to ‘pick and choose’ which deity would be suited their specific needs.
The ‘official’ primary deities of the state were worshipped in temples by the king and priests and other less regarded deities were worshipped by ordinary people in their homes. The temples mostly were inaccessible to the ordinary public. Rodman R. Clayson writes in his book, Egypt’s Ancient Heritage:
“In the temples, the maintaining and preserving of a god was in the hands of a few priests. Only priests and men and women of nobility were allowed to learn the ritual pertaining to this. Apparently the common people did not participate, and it is doubtful if they were allowed to take part in the rituals. All ceremonies pertaining to a god were retained in the hands of priests. It is possible that superior concepts may have been too exalted for the common people, and that they preferred to depend on more accessible deities. Ra of course was the supreme entity. The Egyptian concept was carried on a high level of thought in this regard. But for the common people there apparently had to be provision for a lower class of gods.”
Holding a number of gods poses a number of problems. Which god should be prioritised? Surely everybody should be given the choice to worship whichever they pleased however they desired? In contrast, Islam encourages all to worship the One God without any discrimination; whoever excels in this field draws the closest to God. The field remains open, whoever is willing to venture into it.
The Egyptians had a continuously evolving, although, unique concept of the afterlife. Unlike Islam, where perceiving the afterlife employing our senses is deemed impossible, they held the belief that the heaven, which was known as ‘the field of reeds’, would be a replica of Egypt but of a perfected version and where immortality would reign. They believed that humans were made of several elements, a few of them being:
•The Ka, which was the life force.
•The Ba, represented personality.
•The physical body which was the combination of the above and more and was preserved through mummification, so that the soul could pass through to the afterlife. Preventing the body from decomposing was essential; not doing so would condemn the soul to wandering the earth, without memory for eternity.
Prior to mummification, the vital organs of the body would be pulled out by funerary priests and placed in canopic jars. The brain would be yanked out of the nose with a scalpel but the heart would be left to be because it would bear witness for or against the soul. And also because the Egyptians thought that thoughts and emotions occurred in it rather than in the brain. Then the body would be dried and preserved by salt and an assortment of aromatic herbs and spices.
In Egyptians for Dummies, Egyptologist Charlotte Booth, says:
“The canopic jars had lids in the form of four animal heads, which represent the Four Sons of Horus (the hawk-headed God of Order). The Four Sons of Horus each had a specific role to play in the afterlife, because they protected a part of the body and then provided the body with its essential internal organs when the deceased was reborn.”
In a crux, the Egyptians believed that the spirit could live and thrive after the death of the body, when the body was preserved as such and provided with the necessary requirements.
Furthermore, the tombs themselves were laden with gold, jewellery and daily essentials for the soul in the afterlife, encapsulated by magnificent pyramids to protect against vandalism and stealing.
The journey through ‘Tuat’ or the underworld which every soul had to make was deemed to be replete with hazards so various books of spells and instructions were provided and read out so that the soul would know how to overcome each obstacle. The body would be dressed with amulets which would serve as magical protection. ‘Tuat’ was a great valley encircled by mountains. The Egyptians conjured up different ideas of monsters and perils of that valley throughout their history. Some of their books described lake of fire, places where you were compelled to walk upside down, and eat excrement etc. Others described a river with its banks having monstrous demons and serpents waiting to torment you.
Once the deceased eventually gets through, he arrives at the hall of judgment before Osiris, the God of the Underworld. The last test he has to surpass is the ‘weighing of the hearts’. Anubis, the son of Osiris with the head of jackal was responsible. Each person’s heart was placed on a scale with a feather on the other end. If the heart would be lighter than the feather, the person would be admitted to paradise; if not, the heart would be thrown to the demon ‘Ammit’ who would devour it.
Despite such a long history of polytheism, individuals of great stature have deep roots within the land of Egypt. Hazrat Hajra asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" was the daughter of an Egyptian king, gifted to Hazrat Ibrahim asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him". Hazrat Mariah Qubtiah who was from Egypt was gifted to the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him". Two magnificent prophets who had blessed Egypt, who’s accounts are expounded on in the Qur’an with great detail were Hazrat Yusuf asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him", the great grandson of Hazrat Ibrahim asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him", who’s era was approximately 1600 BC and Hazrat Musa asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him", the saviour of the enslaved Israelites of the usurper, Pharoah Rameses II. Both preached the one God in opposed to the many deities prevalent. Hazrat Yusuf asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" did so to his companions when he was imprisoned on false charges when he said:
يَا صَاحِبَيِ السِّجْنِ أَأَرْبَابٌ مُتَفَرِّقُونَ خَيْرٌ أَمِ اللَّهُ الْوَاحِدُ الْقَهَّارُ۔ مَا تَعْبُدُونَ مِنْ دُونِهِ إِلَّا أَسْمَاءً سَمَّيْتُمُوهَا أَنْتُمْ وَآبَاؤُكُمْ مَا أَنْزَلَ اللَّهُ بِهَا مِنْ سُلْطَانٍ
“O my two companions of the prison, are many lords differing among themselves better or Allah, the One, the most Supreme? You worship nothing besides Allah, but mere names that you have named, you and your fathers; Allah has sent down no authority for that.”The Holy Quran (12: 41-42)
When Pharoah asked Moses asabbreviation for "Peace be upon him" about his Lord, he replied:
رَبُّنَا الَّذِي أَعْطَى كُلَّ شَيْءٍ خَلْقَهُ ثُمَّ هَدَى
“Our Lord is he who gave unto everything its proper form and then guided it to its proper function.”The Holy Quran (20:51)
In conclusion, when we draw comparisons with Islam, we find little comparison. This religion underwent immense change which Islam will never go through due the promise of the protection of God. Monstrous and mysterious beliefs were believed upon by the public which will stay far away from Islam due to the unalterable word of God and the outstanding example of His Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him". Although the beginnings of this religion was monotheistic, it was exclusively for the Egyptians. However, the Qur’an is for all people, whoever they may be, wherever they may be from and whichever time period they are in.