Al-Safi Ibn Al-‘Assal (?-Ca. 1265)

AL-SAFI IBN AL-‘ASSAL (?-ca. 1265)

A Canonist, theologian, apologist. The reputation of al-Safi Abu al-Fada’il Majid ibn al-‘Assal has long rested on his magisterial canonical collection, the Nomocanon of 1238 commonly known even today as al-Majmu‘ al-Safawi (al- Safi’s Compilation); this has allowed brief characterizations of the Awlad al-‘Assal to refer to the accomplishments of al-Safi in the canonical field alongside those of his brothers al-As‘ad in the biblical field and al-Mu’taman in the theological. Recently, however, the work of Samir Khalil Samir (see the bibliography) in particular has shown us that al-Safi must be remembered for much more than his work in canon law, however important that work was to the future functioning of the Egyptian and (as the Fetha Nagast or Law of the Kings) Ethiopian churches.

Surprisingly little is known about al-Safi’s life; he was a lay theologian who may have worked in one of the government bureaucracies. He had dealings with Patriarch III ibn Laqlaq, writing discourses in honor of the latter’s election in 1235 and upon his death in 1243, and serving as secretary at the Synod of Harat Zuwayla in 1238 that sought to reform the patriarch’s simoniacal practices.

What is best known about al-Safi is the course of his research in the 1230s and 1240s. Al-Safi excelled at making epitomes (mukhtasarat) of texts, editing them to a fraction of their original length while sacrificing little of their meaning (and sometimes, particularly in the case of treatises by Yahya ibn ‘Adi, making the meaning plainer!). His epitomes include works of monastic spirituality, exegetical homilies of St. John Chrysostom, works by Iraqi Arabophone (Arabic-speaking) theologians (including ‘Ammar al-Basri, Iliyya al-Nasibini, and especially Yahya ibn ‘Adi), and works by Muslim controversialists.
The climax of al-Safi’s literary career consists of a set of about a dozen apologetic treatises, including responses to well-known mutakallimin such as al- al-Razi, al-Nashi’ al-Akbar, and ‘Ali al-Tabari. While these have not yet been adequately studied, indications are that al-Safi should be considered “the greatest Coptic apologist of the Middle Ages” (Samir, “Safi,” CE, p. 2079).