IBN KABAR (al-Shaykh al-Mu’taman Shams al-Riyasah ibn al-Shaykh al-As‘ad Abu al-Barakat ibn Kabar)
Scholar born to a wealthy Coptic family toward the end of the thirteenth century; he lived to the early decades of the fourteenth. His parents’ palatial residence in Old Cairo was frequented by state dignitaries. Ibn Kabar received his early education in the Coptic schools, where under the best teachers of his day he mastered both the Arabic and Coptic tongues. He emerged as a great scholar at the end of the golden age of Coptic literary accomplishment.
Like many literate Copts of his time, after the completion of his education he joined the government service as a scribe and soon rose to the position of chief scribe of Prince Baybars Rukn al-Din al- Dawadar al-Mansuri (d. 1323). Ibn Kabar aided al-Mansuri in the composition of a historical work entitled Zubdat al-Fikrah fi Tarikh al-Hijrah, as certified by the historians al-Maqrizi (1364-1442) and Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani (1372-1449). In the meantime, he continued his immense studies of all available religious and secular literature both in Coptic and in Arabic, where his competence is revealed in subsequent literary products. The height of his eloquence is clearly demonstrated in his preserved orations, and his great Coptic dictionary is one of the most comprehensive lexical records of that language ever known. In addition, the encyclopedic tendency of his mind led him to learning other classical languages such as Greek, Hebrew, and most probably Syriac.
In spite of the high position Ibn Kabar occupied in the civil service, he decided to retire in 1293 during a wave of Mamluk persecution against the Copts. At that time, Sultan al-Ashraf Khalil (1290-1292) issued a decree ordering the dismissal of all Coptic function-aries from public service unless they apostatized to Islam. Ibn Kabar devoted all his time to his monumental studies and literary productivity in the fields of theology, history, and linguistics. Around the year 1300, his fame as a man of religion spread among the Coptic community, and its archons prevailed upon him to become their presbyter in charge of the historic Church of the Virgin known as al-Mu‘allaqah in Old Cairo, which was the seat of the patriarchate and the most important religious center in Egypt. He must have been older than thirty at the time of his nomination, and he continued to occupy this ecclesiastical position until his death. He was a contemporary of several popes and patriarchs of the church including JOHN VII (1262-1268, 1271-1293), THEODOSIUS II (1294-1300), JOHN VIII (1300-1320) and JOHN IX (1320-1327). All revered him for his profound theological knowledge and piety.
In the year 1321, another wave of Islamic persecutions swept the Copts. The Muslim mob sought Ibn Kabar, who disappeared from sight; it is said that the Mamluk prince Rukn al-Din Baybars al- Mansuri, his old sponsor, extended his protection to the great scholar, keeping him hidden until his death on 10 May 1324. We must assume that in the seclusion of these last three or four years of his life, he was able to edit and finalize his monumental works; these may be classified in several categories.
The first and most important category is theological studies. He produced the most comprehensive—and still unsurpassed— encyclopedia of Coptic religious knowledge in twenty-four sections, with numerous supplements, under the title of Misbah al-Zulmah, fi Idah al-Khidmah. Several manuscripts of this work have been found in varied repositories; the most ancient is the Vatican manuscript dated A.M. 1049/A.D. 1333. Another manuscript dated ten years later (A.M. 1059/A.D. 1343) was published in Cairo in 1930. Other works in this field ascribed to Ibn Kabar include a book entitled Jala’ al-‘Uqul fi ‘Ilm al-Usul, a critical analysis of Christian doctrines; this work could be spurious, since a work of almost the same title in the patriarchal library appears under the authorship of Ibn al-‘Assal. Other polemical works comprise a discussion with the Jews and a philosophical treatise on predestination.
In the field of linguistics, Ibn Kabar left one of the most important Coptic lexical works, Al-Sullam al-Kabir, better known to western scholarship as Scala Magna. Here he assembled all available Coptic terms with their Arabic equivalents in ten sections. It consists of thirty-two chapters published for the first time in Rome in 1648 by the early Western Coptologist Athanasius Kircher, with a Latin translation under the title Lingua aegyptiaca restituta: Scala Magna, hoc est nomenclator aegyptiaco-arabicus.
The last category comprises his miscellaneous orations, epistles, and obituaries, of which fifty-one have been preserved in very elaborate classical Arabic style. Ibn Kabar’s obituaries included one that he composed about himself during his declining years in his retirement from the Mamluk persecutions; this was presumably read at his funeral in 1324. He was probably buried in the al-Mu‘allaqah Church in Old Cairo.
- Kamil Salih Nakhlah. Kitab Tarikh wa-Jadawil Batarikat al- Iskandariyyah al-Qibt. Cairo, 1943.