ABRAHAM, SAINT, the patriarch
The sixty-second patriarch of the See of Saint Mark (975-978), who was a great reformer (feast day: 6 kiyahk). Abraham was also known as Ephraem the Syrian, indicating his native origin, with the ascription Ibn Zar‘ah always accompanying his name. He was a distinguished layman who made a large fortune in commerce that he used in charitable practices for the poor and the needy. He was a man of respectable stature with a flowing beard, which, according to the HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS, resembled the beard of the prophet Abraham in the Old Testament. He was highly regarded by the Islamic administration of Caliph al- Mu‘izz, to whom he rendered many services through his import-export trade.
The story of Abraham’s elevation to the dignity of the Coptic patriarchate in spite of the fact that he was not a clergyman is interesting. After the death of MINA II, his predecessor, the bishops, together with the clergy and the Coptic archons of Cairo, met in the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus in QASR AL-SHAM‘ in Old Cairo to deliberate on finding the person best fitted for patriarchal succession. While they were preparing for the performance of the liturgy, Abraham happened to enter the church for prayer, and one of the archons, noticing him, turned to one of the bishops and indicated that if he were looking for a candidate for the papacy, here was the man whom the Lord had sent for the solution to his problem. The whole group was impressed by the suggestion and immediately laid their hands on Abraham, who, in spite of his protests, was taken by force in iron fetters to Alexandria for consecration. He became one of the most significant patriarchs of the tenth century.
Immediately after his consecration, Abraham suppressed the practice of simony (CHEIROTONIA), which had been rampant during former patriarchates. Then he concentrated on reforming the morals of the Coptic archons, who kept many concubines in addition to their legal wives. He spared no effort to enforce the sanctity of marriage, even threatening to excommunicate all culprits.
Abraham was the contemporary of SAWIRUS IBN AL- MUQAFFA‘, the famous author of the History of the Patriarchs, who accompanied the patriarch in most of his religious disputations with Jews and Muslims. Apparently al-Mu‘izz sponsored such discussions, according to the chronicles of his reign as well as the History of the Patriarchs. Al-Mu‘izz had a vizier or secretary by the name of Ya‘qub ibn Killis, an Islamized Jew, who looked with disfavor on his master’s deference toward the patriarch and his leniency toward the Copts. In an attempt to turn al-Mu‘izz from any favor toward the Christians, he proposed holding a discussion in the presence of the caliph between the patriarch and a learned Jewish friend by the name of Moses. Abraham came with Bishop Sawirus. In an argument in which Sawirus quoted the Old Testament and the Book of Isaiah, Abraham was able to silence his Jewish opponent.
The History of the Patriarchs (Vol. 2, pt. 2, pp. 94-97) details the famous parable of faith and the mustard seed. The Islamized Jewish vizier sought to embarrass the patriarch by informing the caliph that the Christian gospel claimed that faith the size of a mustard seed could move a mountain. The caliph wished the patriarch to prove the veracity of the parable; failure to do so would cause him to kill the Christians for this falsehood. The legend follows with an account of perpetual prayers and a dream in which the patriarch was directed toward a poor tanner, who happened to be the vehicle for moving the mountain. When the mountain was moved, the caliph was ready to grant any request by the patriarch. The conclusion of the legend is that the caliph sanctioned Abraham’s church-building program. This included the restoration of the Church of Abu Sayfayn (Saint Mercurius), which had been destroyed by the mob in Old Cairo and used since as a storehouse for sugarcane. Further, the historic Church of al-Mu‘allaqah in Old Cairo had suffered some wall damage and this was repaired without interference. Other churches were also restored or rebuilt with state subventions, if we believe the History of the Patriarchs, though it is more likely that Abraham used his own funds in the execution of these projects. And in Alexandria, the patriarch contributed 500 dinars in two successive years for the restoration of its churches.
When Abu al-Yumn ibn Quzman ibn Mina, a Copt of great standing in al-Mu‘izz’s administration, was dispatched to Syria through the complicity of Ya‘qub ibn Killis, he left his accumulated fortune of 90,000 dinars in the custody of the patriarch, to use at his discretion. Though part of this was used to help the needy, we may assume that most of it must have been expended in church building and restoration.
Abraham spent his three and a half years in the papal office in constructive work for the community. He was aided by his wholesome relations with the Fatimid caliphate. His reign proved to be one of the finest periods in Coptic church history in the Middle Ages.
- Lane-Poole, S. The Mohammadan Dynasties. London, 1894.
- . History of Egypt in the Middle Ages. London, 1901.