This Coptic family came originally from the village of Sadamant in the province of Bani Suef in Middle Egypt at an unknown date and settled in Cairo, where its members rose to wealth and high station at the court of the Ayyubid dynasty (A.H. 565-648/A.D. 1169-1250). They owned a residence in the capital and occupied a position of leadership in the Coptic community. Though their private history is somewhat obscure, what remains of their literary, philosophical, and theological heritage shows them to have been among the most learned Copts in medieval times.
Early modern historiographers of Egypt appear to have recognized the name of Ibn al-‘Assal only as a single personality in medieval Christian Arabic literature until in 1713 E. Renaudot (pp. 585-86) revealed that two different brothers had written independently under that common surname. While classifying some of their manuscripts in the British Museum in 1894, C. Rieu (1894, P. 18) was able to establish the fact that there were three brothers instead of two.
Then, in 1905, from different sources (especially the National Library in Paris), A. Mallon (1905, pp. 509-529) confirmed Rieu’s thesis and proved that the three brothers had attained great literary eminence under the collective name of Awlad al-‘Assal, that is, the sons of the honey producer or merchant, presumably the title and vocation of the founder of that family. Coptic historians, however, including Ya‘qub Nakhlah Rufaylah (1889, p. 185) and the Commission of Coptic History (Lajnat al-Tarikh al-Qibti, 1925, pp. 148-52) increased the number of Awlad al-‘Assals by two more—the father and a fourth brother—who also were high dignitaries in the Ayyubid bureaucracy, though their rich literary heritage could only be ascribed to the other three.
In 1943, A. J. B. Higgins labored to establish a new thesis that two sets of Awlad al- ‘Assals had lived—one at the beginning of the eleventh century and another in the thirteenth century. Since this argument is based on a dubious date (500/1107) by an unknown scribe in the colophon of a single British Museum manuscript (Arabic e 163, fol. 288r), we must for the present maintain that thirteenth-century group is the only one convincingly established.
The full names of the Awlad al-‘Assal are as follows: (1) Abu al-Fadl ibn Abi Ishaq Ibrahim ibn Abi Sahl Jirjis ibn Abi al-Yusr Yuhanna ibn al-‘Assal, the father, known as al-Katib al-Misri, who bore the title fakhr al-dawlah, “the Egyptian scribe” or “secretary”; (2) AL-SAFI ABU AL-FADA’IL IBN AL-‘ASSAL with the title safi al-dawlah; (3) al-As‘ad Abu al-Faraj Hibat-Allah ibn al-‘Assal; (4) al-Mu’taman Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn al-‘Assal, with the title mu’taman al-dawlah; (5) al-Amjad Abu al-Majd ibn al-‘Assal, who was secretary of the important Diwan (office) of the army. The last two were stepbrothers of the preceding two, who were described as full brothers.
The three literary figures in the list were al-Safi, al-As‘ad, and al-Mu’taman. In spite of their apparent importance, knowledge of their lives will remain meager until further data are gleaned from their numerous works, the chief source for any study on Awlad/al‘Assal. All lived approximately in the tumultuous first half of the thirteenth century, when Egypt resisted successive crusading attacks on its shores, culminating in the fall of Dumyat (Damietta) in 1248 and the ultimate discomfiture and imprisonment of King Louis IX of France at the famous battle of Mansurah in 1250. The firm position of the Awlad al-‘Assal in the Ayyubid administration during those years reveals the loyalty of the Copts to the reigning dynasty and their hostility to the Crusades—a movement that aimed at their humiliation as being schismatics, and thus worse than heretics.
From a citation by their third stepbrother, both al-Safi and al- As‘ad are known to have died before 1260. The major works of the three are believed to have been written approximately in the decade 1230-1240. All were men of great learning in both the humanities and the sciences. All were masters of Arabic style and, in addition, were well acquainted with Coptic, Greek, and Syriac.
Until Ayyubid times, Coptic was still in use as a national language throughout Egypt, though Arabic was becoming a serious menace to its survival. This situation resulted in the rise of a new class of scholars who concentrated on writing Coptic grammars in Arabic and compiled Copto-Arabic dictionaries to ensure the preservation of their ancestral tongue. The Awlad al-‘Assal distinguished themselves in this school, as may be witnessed from the enumeration of their works below. In addition to their excellence in Coptic philology, they made outstanding contributions to Coptic canon law, theology, philosophy, Christian polemics, homiletics, biblical studies, exegesis, and all manner of inquiry into their own religion.
The church must have meant a great deal to them, since, as archons or secular leaders of their community, they carried high the torch of reform at a moment when the partriarchate itself fell into the hands of the ungodly. The infamous CYRIL III (ibn Laqlaq) (1235-1243) occupied the throne of Saint Mark by treachery and flourished on simony, while buying royal support by bribery. Finally in 1239 the prelates of the church forced Cyril to convene a synod, probably at the Mu‘allaqah, the Church of Our Lady in Old Cairo, which reviewed all ecclesiastical evils and prescribed a program of total reform.
It is noteworthy that al-Safi was the secretary of that synod and its moving spirit. The bishops commissioned him to compile what became the greatest and most enduring digest of Coptic canon law and tradition from all the ancient sources available. This tome was named after him as al-Majmu’‘al-Safawi, which remains the most authoritative work in the field of canonical jurisprudence to this day.
The Awlad al-‘Assal’s monumental contributions may be appraised from the number and nature of their known manuscripts. The Coptic Museum alone has forty-nine, besides many more that are found in European collections, including the Vatican, Florence, the Bodleian, the British Museum, the National Library in Paris, and numerous others, public and private, the most elaborate survey of which was compiled by G. Graf (1947).
In addition to their numerous religious and philological works they also wrote some good Arabic poetry, and the formulation of legal rules of inheritance. It may be deducted from the above that al- Safi was the canonist and philosopher, al-As‘ad the exegete and grammarian, and al-Mu’taman the theologian and philologist. Their legacy appears to represent the consummation of the Coptic culture in the Islamic Middle Ages, though our comprehension of the depth and breadth of their endeavor is still in its infancy.
- Graf G. “Die koptische Gelehrtenfamilie der Aulad al-‘Assal und ihr Schrifttum.” Orientalia n.w. 1 (1932):34-56, 129-48, 193-204.
- Higgins, A. J. B. Ibn al-‘Assal.” Journal of Theological Studies 44 (1943):73-75.
- Jirjis Philutha’us ‘Awad. Al-Majmu’ al-Safawi. Cairo, 1908.
- Ladjnat al-Tarikh al-Qibti Tarikh al-Ummah al-Qibtiyyah, 2nd ser., pp. 148-52. Cairo, 1925.
- Mallon, A. “Ibn al-‘Assal, Les trois écrivains de ce nom.” Journal Asiatique 10th ser. 6 (1905):509-29.
- ______. “Une Ecole de savants égyptiens au moyen âge.” Beyrouth Mélanges 1 (1906):122ff.
- Mikha‘il al-Shiblanji. Khutab al-Shaykh al-Safi ibn al-‘Assal. Cairo, 1878.
- Renaudot, E. Historia patriarcharum alexandrinorum, pp. 585ff. Paris, 1713.
- Rieu, C. Supplement to the Catalogue of Arabic Manuscripts in the British Museum, p. 18. London, 1894.
- Vansleb, J. M. Histoire de l‘église copte d‘Alexandrie, pp. 335ff. Paris, 1677.
- Ya‘qub Nakhlah Rufaylah. Tarikh al-Ummah al-Qibtiyyah, p. 185. Cairo, 1889.