Al-Safi Ibn Al-‘Assal


A member of the great Coptic family of the AWLAD AL-‘ASSAL, who played an important role in the intellectual renaissance of the Coptic church in the thirteenth century. His complete name was al-Safi Abu al-Fadail Majid. He is known by the name al-Safi. He was the brother of al-AS‘AD ABU AL-FARAJ HIBAT ALLAH, and the half-brother of ABU ISHAQ IBN FADLALLAH. G. Graf considered al-Safi to be the eldest of the family, but no acceptable argument has been provided in support of this hypothesis.

Little is known of his life. He may have been born around 1205 and died around 1265. The dates thus far compiled of his literary activity are more certain.

In 1232, he summarized and revised the eighty-eight homilies of Saint JOHN CHRYSOSTOM on the Gospel of John, using the translation of the Melchite ‘Abdallah ibn al-Fadl al-Antaki (eleventh century). In 1235, he composed a discourse in honor of the election of the seventy-fifth patriarch, CYRIL III ibn Laqlaq. By 6 March 1236, he would have finished at Damascus the redaction of the first part (chaps. 1-32) of the Great Nomocanon, if he is the author. By 1237-1238, he had already written his summary and revision of the ninety homilies of Saint John Chrysostom on the Gospel of Matthew, after the translation of ‘Abdallah ibn al-Fadl al-Antaki, for at this date al-Safi’s half-brother took a copy to Damascus in order to make a liturgical revision. During this same period, and in any case before 8 August 1239, al-Safi composed a number of homilies in rhymed prose, among which is the homily of Good Friday that ends with a prayer for the patriarch Cyril.

In September 1238, al-Safi completed the redaction of his Nomocanon, which justly brought him fame. On 3 September, he participated as a canonical counselor and secretary in the synod of Cairo demanded by the bishops to bring an end to the abuses of Cyril III. There he drafted a canonical compendium of twelve sections that was adopted by the synod, and ten days later, 13 September, he drew up a new compendium consisting of five chapters and nineteen sections, likewise adopted by the synod.

In July 1241 at Cairo, he finished the résumé of forty-one works of the Christian philosopher from Bagdad, Yahya ibn ‘Adi (d. 974). In June 1242, he completed, also at Cairo, the redaction of his opuscule on the Trinity and the Incarnation. During the eight years of the reign of Cyril III, al-Safi drafted eleven apologetical works in response to Muslim attacks against the Christians. His last dated work is the elegy that he pronounced on 11 March 1243 on the death of Cyril III.

There is nothing to indicate that al-Safi was a priest. It is likely that he was a married layman, although the documents tell nothing of a wife or children.

His works fall into two broad categories: nonapologetic and apologetic.

Nonapologetic Works

Al-Safi’s literary output was considerable. Essentially religious, it presupposed a good knowledge of secular subjects such as Arabic language and literature, Greek and Arabic philosophy, and Muslim history and theology. All this erudition was used, however, either to defend the Christians against the repeated attacks of Muslim thinkers or to purify the church from within and place it upon the solid spiritual tradition of the church fathers.

On the basis of the dates mentioned above and from an examination of the contents of his literary production, al-Safi’s intellectual development can be traced through six chronological stages. The first five—during which he produced nonapologetic works—will be discussed briefly; the sixth is analyzed in greater detail in the discussion of his apologetic works below.

Epitomes (Mukhtasarat) of Spiritual Patristic Works.

The six works in this category probably belong to the beginning of his literary career; they may be dated before 1232. It does not appear that al-Safi translated these epitomes directly from Greek, but rather that he based them on Arabic translations already in existence. His contribution consisted in selecting extracts from them to clarify the ideas, and in revising the language to make it more correct. These works may be arranged in the chronological order of the original Greek texts as follows: (1) epitome of the Arabic collection of fifty- two hymns attributed to Saint Ephraem Syrus; (2) epitome of a monastic ascetic compendium; (3) epitome of 100 chapters of Diadocus of Pholticea; (4) epitome of the Ladder of Virtues of John Climacus; (5) epitome of the thirty-five chapters on monastic life by Isaac of Nineveh; and (6) epitome of the Spiritual Paradise, in twelve chapters.

Epitomes of Homilies of Saint John Chrysostom.

Al-Safi began with the eighty-eight homilies on the Gospel of John, using the Arabic translation of the Melchite Anba Antuniyus of the Monastery of Saint Simeon near Antioch (tenth century). He finished the first forty-seven in March 1232; the others bear no date.

He then worked on the ninety homilies on the Gospel of Matthew, using the translation of the Melchite ‘Abdallah ibn al-Fadl al-Antaki dated around 1050. However, al-Safi avoided the theoretical part to concentrate on the moral part. The entire work was completed before 1237.

Liturgical Homilies in Rhymed Prose.

The first two types of al-Safi’s works were a kind of exercise currently popular in the Arabo-Muslim world, which consisted in synthesizing the thoughts of the masters. Thereby, al-Safi acquired a good command of the sacred art of writing and a profound spiritual foundation. Thereafter he turned to composing homilies in the pure Arabic style of rhymed prose, and fortunately succeeded in avoiding the vain pursuit of form at the expense of content. He divided his collection into six parts, of which approximately half have been published to date (parts two, four, and six); (1) the unity and trinity of God; (2) Christology (covering the eight festivals of the Lord); (3) morals (commandments of God and purification of the heart); (4) homilies on fasting (seven have been published); (5) spirituality (prayers to God, intercessions to the Virgin and saints); and (6) homilies for various circumstances (advice to newlyweds, letters of investiture of bishops, spiritual letters).

To this collection three writings of similar style may be added: (1) letter of congratulation upon the election of Cyril III (June 1235); (2) homily on the death of Cyril III (1243); and (3) Letter to his half-brother, consoling him upon the death of his wife.

Works on Canon Law.

Al-Safi’s renown as a canonist has eclipsed other qualities that are no less evident. His great Nomocanon remains today the basis of ecclesiastical law for the Coptic church of Egypt, and even more so, for the church of Ethiopia (where it is entitled Fetha Nagast). This work also served as the basis for the Maronite ecclesiastical law, reformed in the eighteenth century by ‘Abdallah Qara‘ali. Four works on canon law by al-Safi, dating from 1238 to 1243, are known: (1) a small canonical collection of twelve sections, regulating conflicts of a jurisdictional nature between bishops (September 1238); (2) a second canonical collection of five chapters and nineteen sections, treating baptism, marriage, wills, inheritance, and ordination (1238 September 13); (3) a compendium of the abstract of laws or Nomocanon, his renowned work of synthesis (al-Majmu‘ al- Safawi)), also completed in September 1238; and (4) an abridgment of the canonical compendium, divided into forty-three chapters, and consisting of short decisions pertaining to ecclesiastical persons and matters and to certain questions of morals and discipline.

Epitomes of Arabic Apologetical Works.

In this fifth stage of his intellectual development, which spanned the years 1239-1242, al-Safi concerned himself with apologetical works written in Arabic, in direct contrast to his first two periods, in which he dealt with spiritual works written in Greek. However, he was not interested in the popular apologies (such as those of Bahira or of Ibrahim al- Tabarani of the ninth century), nor in historical and moral apologies (such as that of al-Kindi). Rather he worked only with apologies of a philosophical nature. Throughout these epitomes he scattered commentaries, sometimes lengthy, which were often subsequently cited in the Theological Compendium under the title of al-Hawashi al-Safawiyyah (commentaries of al-Safi). It may be noted that all the writers upon whose works al-Safi based these epitomes were Iraqi, of the Jacobite or Nestorian confession, dating from 825 to 1030.

Ten works summarized and discussed by al-Safi have been thus far identified: (1) Book of Questions and Answers by ‘Ammar al- Basri (c. 825); (2) Book of The Proof by ‘Ammar al-Basri; (3) Forty- one opuscules of the great philosopher from Bagdad, YAHYA IBN ‘ADI (893-974); (4) the great refutation of Abu Isa al-Warraq by Yahya ibn ‘Adi; (5) the great Christological controversy between Yahya and al-Misri; (6) the Fundamentals of Law (Al-Usul al- Shar‘iyyah), or Book of Guidance (al-Hidayah) by Ibn al-Athradi; (7) the Christological controversy among Quwayri, Ibn al-Tayyib, and others; (8) conversations (al-Majalis) of Elias of Nisibis with the Vizier al-Maghribi; (9) Book on the Virtue of Chastity by Elias of Nisibis, in answer to al-Jahiz; and (10) opuscules on chastity by various spiritual authors.

Apologetic Works

All the foregoing works served to prepare al-Safi for his great theologico-apologetic undertakings. Within three or four years, beginning in 1242, he drafted a number of works or tracts that were often written at the request of Christians troubled in their faith. These writings are characterized by clarity of content and exposition and a spirit of synthesis.

Brief Chapters on the Trinity and the Union.

This theological tract, which is the jewel of his writings, was finished in Cairo in June 1242. It was inspired by various treatises of Yahya ibn ‘Adi, but the synthesis is entirely al-Safi’s. It consists of one part on the Trinity (chaps. 1-16), another part on the Incarnation (chaps. 7-11), and ends with one chapter on the science of theology (chap. 12). A critical edition has recently been produced, with a French translation and an exhaustive lexical index. Chapter 8 is particularly noteworthy for its ecumenical tone, showing that the differences among the three Christian confessions (Nestorian, Melchite, and Monophysite) are of a philosophic, not dogmatic nature. Chapter 11, which discusses the Incarnation and its necessity, is one of the most powerful, being based on the idea that God is Love who must give Himself to the beloved, that is, to mankind.

Reply to al-Nashi’ al-Akbar.

‘Abdallah ibn Muhammad al- Nashi’ al-Akbar, an Iraqi grammarian and poet who died in Cairo in 906, authored the book of Opinions (al-Maqalat) in which he listed and refuted diverse philosophical and theological opinions, including those of the Christians. Al-Safi, in turn, refuted the section on Christianity, basing his arguments on the Holy Scriptures and reason. He depended upon the Refutation of Abu ‘Isa al-Warraq made by Yahya ibn ‘Adi. Yahya’s work (as yet unpublished) consists of three parts: the Trinity (chaps. 1 and 4), the divine sonship of Christ (chap. 2), and the Incarnation (chap. 3). It is a work often cited by al-Safi himself, as well as by al-Mu’taman ABU ISHAQ IBRAHIM IBN al-‘Assal and Abu al-Barakat IBN KABAR. The section on the divine sonship of Christ, based upon the Gospel, is particularly suggestive, with Yahya attesting a profound apologetic reflection upon the Gospels.

Reply to Razi on God’s Inhabitation in Christ.

Fakhr al-Din al-Razi was one of the most famous Muslim scholars of the twelfth century. He was born at Rayy (Teheran), and died at Herat, Afghanistan, in 1209. In the ninth question of the Kitab al-Arba‘in fi Usul al-Din (Book of the Forty about the Fundamentals of Religion), he affirmed that God cannot inhabit a creature, and that such inhabitation is neither necessary nor even optional.

Al-Safi replied in eight chapters, establishing, first of all, the necessity of the inhabitation of God and its possibility, based on His love for the creature. He next established that this does not mean that God needs a dwelling, but rather that He becomes one with the dwelling by this union. In the second part, al-Safi advanced proofs of the divinity of Christ that distinguish Him from Moses and all other prophets, and he rejected the objection that God may dwell not only in any man but even in a pismire. He then concluded by establishing the necessity of the Incarnation of God in Christ, basing his arguments on reason and tradition.

Reply to the Refutation of the Christians by Razi.

In his work Nihayat al-‘Uqul (The Results of Reason), Razi claimed that there is no difference between Christ and the other prophets insofar as miracles are concerned. Al-Safi began this reply by referring to his Reply to al-Nashi’ al-Akbar (above) and then adroitly moved to the Book of the Forty by Razi, in which Razi made a clear distinction between the prophet and the saint, though miracles are wrought equally through one or the other. Al-Safi argued that the same distinction clearly exists between Christ and the prophets (although the prophets may have accomplished miracles), because Christ is the only one to claim divinity.

Three Christological Apologies No Longer Extant.

In his Reply to Ja‘fari (below) al-Safi referred to three distinct apologies, whose argumentation may be traced by allusions to their context.

The first is the Treatise on the Incarnation of Christ by the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary. The Holy Ghost prepared Mary to conceive Christ without human intervention. The preposition “by” had various meanings: Mary is the material cause of the conception, whereas the Holy Ghost is the formal cause. Al-Safi then wrote a philosophical commentary on the text from Proverbs 9:1, “Wisdom has built her house.”

The second of these apologies is described by al-Safi: “Herein I collected everything in the Gospels and Epistles which describes Christ with divine attributes, either explicitly, or in a manner that is by necessity deducible, or in a manner that is simply deducible.” This corresponds to the second part of his Reply to al-Nashi’ al- Akbar (see above).

The third apology is an answer to the vulgar objection made by the Muslims: “Christ fulfilled his natural urge. Did he truly have to be incarnated for that!” Al-Safi replied by showing that according to the Gospel, the purpose of the Incarnation was to teach man to master the powers of passion and anger in order to let himself be conquered by the rational soul.

Treatise of the Ten Fundamentals.

This treatise was presented as a long introduction to the Reply to Tabari (see below) and was constantly used thereafter by al-Safi, for in his mind, these ten fundamentals formed the indispensable bases for every discussion with the Muslims. Each fundamental is usually accompanied by its own corollary. The fundamentals are: (1) the divine attributes and their varieties (the essential attributes are the hypostases); (2) simple and compound essences (the possibility of the union of divinity and humanity in Christ); (3) compound beings (Christ is composed of divinity and humanity); (4) real and metaphorical terms (these are essential in establishing the hermeneutic principles); (5) the meaning of “God” and of “Son” (understanding the difference between the filiation of Christ and that of other human beings); (6) the importance of typology (in order to explain the hypostatic union by natural and technical examples); (7) the conditions of contradiction (their absence excludes all contradiction); (8) faith goes beyond reason without contradicting it, as the philosophers attest; (9) proof of the divinity of Christ and of the Incarnation by three means: the Holy Scriptures, reason, and existence; and (10) the truth of the Gospel established by reason (in reply to the Muslim theory of the falsification of the Gospel).

Reply to Tabari.

‘Al ibn Rabban al-Tabari, born at Merv (c. 785-790), was a Nestorian Christian who became the secretary and physician of the amir of Tabaristan in 833. After several years in prison, he was freed and settled in Samarra’. Here he compiled his medical encyclopedia, dedicated to his patron, the caliph al- Mutawakkil (847-861), who frequently urged him to become a Muslim. Finally, after more than seventy years of age, Tabari did convert to Islam, and thereupon wrote his Refutation of the Christians, which, as the first refutation written by an ex-Christian, quickly became famous. For this reason, al-Safi was requested to write a reply to it, which he did in eighteen rather lengthy chapters, whose titles are: (1) introduction: Tabari did not attain his goal; Islam is destined for the Arabs alone; an essay in Qur’anic Christology; (2) explanation of some embarrassing passages in the Gospel; (3) reply to the twelve points of agreement between the Muslims and Christians; (4) reply to the refutation of the creed; (5) reply to the four proofs concerning the divinity of Christ; (6) why call Christ God; (7) explanation of the agony of Christ; (8) the humanity and divinity of Christ; (9) the accord of the three Christian confessions as to Christology, and a call for an integral ecumenicism among all believers; (10) Christ destroyed both sin and death; (11) the royalty and divinity of Christ; (12) miracles wrought by Christians; (13) the meaning of the word “faith,” and the belief of Christians; (14) Paul and the Council of Nicaea; (15) the Ascension of Christ and a comparison with certain prophets; (16) reply to the so-called contradictions of the Gospel; (17) the meaning of the veneration and glorification of the cross; and (18) motives for the conversion of Tabari, and conclusion.

Reply to Ja‘fari.

Taqi al-Din Abu al-Baqa’ Salih ibn al-Husayn al-Ja‘fari was a contemporary of al-Safi who died after 1239. He wrote a refutation of the Christians entitled Takhjil Muharrifi al-Injil (The Corrupting Shame of the Gospel), a large volume filled with repetitions and based upon Tabari’s work (see above). A certain anonymous friend of the king made a résumé of it that spread throughout the area of Cairo. Patriarch Cyril III ibn Laqlaq asked al- Safi to write a reply without, however, repeating anything he had already said in his Reply to Tabari. Here again, al-Safi depended upon the works of Yahya ibn ‘Adi and of ‘Abdallah ibn al-Tayyib (d. 1043), Ibrahim ibn ‘Awn, Hunayn ibn Ishaq, and Qusta ibn Luqa; he also referred to the Commentary upon the Creed by SAWIRUS IBN AL-MUQAFFA‘ (the only Coptic writer to be mentioned). In addition, he cited Muslim authors, in particular Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 1209) (see sections on replies to Razi, above).

Al-Safi’s reply, which is quite lengthy, consists of five chapters: (1) defense of the hypostatic union in Christ; (2) defense of the text of the creed; (3) Christ is more than a prophet; (4) upon the real death, and the Resurrection of Christ; and (5) Muhammad was not announced by the Holy Scriptures (Old and New Testament), contrary to what the Muslims proclaim.

In conclusion, al-Safi demonstrated (by the Holy Scriptures and by reason) that there can be no prophet after Christ unless he is willing to call mankind to Christ.

Reply to Dimyati.

This is a reply to the Refutation of the Christians, written by a certain Abu al-Mansur ibn Fath al-Dimyati. Herein al-Safi merely revised a reply already in existence.

The text is rather long, and as usual, follows the work being refuted, which explains a certain deficiency in structure. In his preparation of the critical edition of the text, Khalil Samir has divided the work into thirty-one small chapters that may be regrouped as follows: (1) Introduction (authenticity of the Gospels, the only means of bringing mankind to perfection); (2) divinity of Christ (man is incapable of attaining the essence of God; it is Christ who came to reveal the Father, being one with Him; the difference between Christ, on the one hand, and Adam, Besaleel, the prophets, and Israel, on the other; the trinitarian oneness of God; the names of Christ manifest His humanity, His divinity, and the union of the two, but Christ alone is the creative Spirit); (3) Muhammad is not the Paraclete announced by Christ (the Paraclete is the Holy Spirit; the Gospel did not omit the name of Muhammad; concerning the prophet announced in Dt. 18:15, this is Christ, not Muhammad, as is also the case for other Old Testament prophecies; e.g., Dt. 32:2, Ps. 45:4); and (4) Conclusion (agreement among the three monotheistic religions; Christ brings the law to its completion; as for the Jews, they, like the Christians, refuse to believe in the divine origin of the Qur’an and the mission of Muhammad; Christianity and Judaism were not spread by the sword, in contrast to Islam).

Biblical Revelation and Qur’anic Revelation.

The attribution of this opuscule to al-Safi is not certain. Khalil Samir has published the text in the Lebanese journal al-Manarah beginning in 1983. There are two major parts, the first proving the truth of the known Gospels and of the Holy Scriptures in general (chaps. 1-7), and the second showing the needlessness for any new Holy Scripture or prophet (chaps. 8-10). It contains several points in common with the Reply to Dimyati (see above).


From this rapid survey, the theologico-apologetic thought of al- Safi ibn al-‘Assal may be distinguished. Incontestably, he was the greatest Coptic apologist of the Middle Ages, and one of the greatest Christian apologists in the Arabic language. This explains why he was the object of attacks even by the eighteenth-century Muslim apologist Ziyadah ibn Yahya ibn al-Rasi, author of two anti- Christian polemical works. Al-Rasi directed his attacks primarily against ‘Abd al-Masih ibn Ishaq al-Kindi and al-Safi ibn al-‘Assal.


  • Samir, K. Al-Safi Ibn al-‘Assal, brefs chapitres sur la Trinité et l’Incarnation. PO 42, fasc. 3, no. 192. Turnhout, 1985. With an exhaustive bibliography of al-Safi of ninety-one titles.


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