Notes on the Arabic Life of Ibrahim al-Fani: A Coptic Saint of the Fourteenth Century

The of Coptic saints in the later Islamic era fall into the category of sacred biographies that have not attracted much study until recently.[1] This observation does not imply that these have little or no historical or lit­erary value. On the contrary, they speak of the struggles and the resilience of the Copts in troubled times, carrying a message that is not lost on us today.[2]

The Life of Hegumenos Ibrahim al-Fani is no exception. According to his biography, Ibrahim, or Abra’am, al-Fani was born in Minyat Bani Khasib, modern-day Minya, and died on 9 Hatur am 11 13/ad 1396.[3] He was a dis­ciple of Murqus al-Antuni (d. ad 1386) and a mentor to the eighty-seventh patriarch, Matta’us I (ad 1378—1408). Apart from his Life, he is mentioned in the Majma ‘ al-Qiddisin (Mement a Sanctorum, or ‘Commemorations of the Saints’) along with St. Murqus al-Antuni and St. Ruways (d. ad 1404), who were his contemporaries, and, in relation to Matta’us, in the History of the Patriarchs.[4] The only known manuscript of the Life of Ibrahim al-Fani, copied in Cairo in 1700, is preserved at the Monastery of St. Antony near the Red Sea.[5] It is a very short hagiography, consisting of only a Life (Sira), with no Miracles, in twenty-eight folios.[6] The name of the author is not mentioned.

Ibrahim al-Fani’s name appears in a study from the 1980s (Abullif 1998, vol. 1: 19); however, only in 2007 was the Life itself mentioned, by Mark N. Swanson. Swanson later discussed its main elements and recognized its importance as a source for understanding the Christian—Muslim rela­tionship of fourteenth-century Egypt (Swanson 2007: 221, 226; Swanson 2010b: 112-13; Swanson 2013a: 226-28). This reading presents the parts of the narrative that have not previously been discussed in order to consider the structure of this Life and to inquire into the purpose of its compilation.

Description of the Life


The preface of the Life begins by mentioning Ibrahims death, which is followed by a long lament (ritha’) over his departure from Fustat (Misr) for his birthplace, Minyat Bani Khasib, where he died. It relates that “we,” presumably the author and other followers, begged him not to leave. The author compares his town, the blessed city of Fustat, to a widow and accuses Ibrahim of “abandoning” (taraka) the city (Life: fols. 3b—6a). Here, he calls on his audience to “let us remember the day Ibrahim left Fustat.” These passages relating to the departure of Ibrahim imply that the author was more distressed by Ibrahim’s abandonment of Fustat than by his even­tual death. This reading suggests that he was a resident of this town and a of Ibrahim.

A to Murqus al-Antuni, Ibrahim, and their disciples who died as martyrs “in our era” follows the lament (Life: fols. 3b—6a).[7] The intro­duction ends with the author asking Ibrahim for his blessings (baraka) and wishing that the story of the saint will be beneficial (manfa ‘a) to those who read or hear his words (Life: fols. 6a—9a). It appears that the author sought personal solace in commemorating Ibrahim’s life, or perhaps, as a resident of Fustat, he had wished for a relic of Ibrahim to be placed in the town. The phrase “to be beneficial to listeners (readers)” is a topos that is common in prefaces (e.g., Riad 1988: 223—25). As I discuss below, the phrase is, how­ever, suggestive when considering the motive behind the compilation of this Life with regard to the social conditions of the Copts.

Ibrahim’s Early Life

The account of Ibrahim’s life begins with his birth in Minyat Abu Fis (or Fays), which, according to Abu in the Tarikh al-Kana’is, is the ancient name for Minyat Bani Khasib (Abu 1984, vol. 2: fol. 78a).[8] His father, for whom he was named, died before his birth, and his mother, Sayyida, raised him. Several episodes from his childhood are recounted, emphasizing Ibrahim’s love of study, disregard for earthly pleasure, and yearning for the monastic life from an early age (Life: fols. 9b-10a). The Life then recounts that one day Ibrahim leaves his home for a monastery in the south without telling his mother, who, believing her beloved son dead, laments. Observing her grief, sends a Christian man to inform her that Ibrahim is alive and in a monastery. She hastily journeys to the monastery and bids her son farewell at the gate. Her words are so heart-rending, however, that the monks persuade Ibrahim to leave and to remain with his mother until her death (Life: fols. 10b—lib).

Ibrahim seems to have returned to the Monastery of Abu Fana after his mother’s death.[9] There, he studies books on the saint Abu Fana (Apa Bane, d. ca. ad 385), imitates his life, and copies texts.[10] Here, the story of Abu Fana appears (Life: fols. 12a—12b); it is a testament to his veneration in the medieval period.[11] During his time at the monastery, Ibrahim, despite his young age,[12] is ordained as a priest and later as a hegumenos (qummus) by a bishop who habitually studied in the monastery’s library with him (Life: fols. 12a—13a).[13]

The Suffering of Ibrahim

This idyllic period at the monastery is cut short when disaster (daiqa) strikes the Christians of Egypt. Unlike most of its monks, Ibrahim refuses to leave the monastery and to go into hiding, a course of action that leads to his arrest and torture by a local official (mutawalli). The author closely narrates the attempts of the authorities to force Ibrahim to abandon his religion. For example, he is tied behind a horse by some soldiers and dragged from village to village. The villagers bribe the official to stop the beatings of Ibrahim, who, rather than complaining, expresses his joy at experiencing the same sufferings as Christ (Life: fols. 13b-14a). To paraphrase Swanson, Ibrahim’s steadfastness earned him a widespread reputation as a confessor of the faith (Swanson 2013a: 227), with his fame spreading throughout Upper Egypt upon his release and return to the monastery (Life: fol. 14a).

Discipleship under Murqus al-Antuni

After cursing an unrepentant deacon, who subsequently dies, Ibrahim experiences much anguish. He leaves the monastery and in a cell out­side Akhmim. One day, he hears about Murqus al-Antuni and goes to him. Upon meeting Ibrahim, Murqus weeps and admonishes him about the importance of forgiveness. Ibrahim prays for the soul of the dead deacon, and later, upon learning that Murqus has engaged in prayer with the same intention during the same period, Ibrahim leaves Akhmim to live with Murqus (Life: fols. 14a—17a). This episode, which emphasizes mercy, appears in the Life of Murqus al-Antuni, where the virtue of mercy is a key theme (e.g., Swanson 2010b: 112).

Following this episode, Ibrahim’s time with Murqus at the Monastery of St. Antony, his fight with demons, his naming as Murqus’s successor, and his master’s eventual death are narrated (Life: fols. 17a-22b). Since these stories are essentially in harmony with those of the Life of Murqus al-Antuni,[14] it can be assumed that the author had access to the latter text when compil­ing Ibrahim’s biography.

Ibrahim’s Sojourn in Fustat

Subsequent to Murquss death, Ibrahim seems to have traveled to Fustat to meet his brothers and disciples, one of whom is described as Matta’us. Here, the narrative changes slightly. Many miracles attributed to Ibrahim are intimately recounted, which conveys the impression that either the author witnessed these events himself or the inhabitants of Cairo and Fustat described them to him (Life: fols. 22b-27a).

At this point in the narrative, Ibrahim, with his face shining and with snow-white hair and beard, is pictured as resembling the prophet Aaron. People are struck by his nobleness and humility. This portrayal is followed by various episodes of Ibrahim’s time at Fustat: his prophecy of a young man’s death, his cautioning a tax collector against cheating, the requests of farmers to bless their crops, his praying for the Nile to rise in the Buheira region of Lower Egypt, and so on. There is even an episode about Ibrahim’s prophecy of Cairo’s fate, which is an allusion to the Battle of Ankara between the Ottomans and Tamerlane in 1402. This incident strongly sug­gests that this hagiography was compiled at about that time.

Ibrahim’s Death

The Life narrates that Ibrahim, realizing that he is near death, expresses a wish to return to his native village, much to the Cairenes’ distress. After bidding the people farewell, Ibrahim departs for Minyat Bani Khasib. Upon his arrival, the villagers rejoice, thinking that he has come to sojourn as in the past. However, Ibrahim dies after only a few days. It seems that some of his disciples are at his side. He is buried at the Church of Abu Fis at Minyat Bani Khasib, next to the bishop who ordained him.[15] He is mourned at the Monastery of Shahran by Matta’us and at the Monastery of St. Antony (Life: fols. 27b—30b).


Given the textual evidence, it seems reasonable to assume that the author of the Life was a resident of Fustat or Cairo and a of Ibrahim. I cannot determine whether he was a layman or a member of the clergy. The Life, probably written at the beginning of the fifteenth century (after 1402), does not show signs of later reworking. The author relied heavily on the Life of Murqus al-Antuni, which suggests that this text was in circulation when the Lfe of Ibrahim al-Fani was composed and that Murqus, who died ten years before his disciple, was still held in high esteem in Fustat at that time. As Swanson points out, the author emphasizes the relationship between Murqus and Ibrahim (Swanson 2007:221; Swanson 2010b: 112). In spite of this observation, I am not certain whether it is accurate to say that Ibrahim was under Murqus’s shadow. We learn from the Lfe that he was regarded as possessing unique saintly qualities, so much so as to have merited his own biography and the deep grief of the people of Fustat at his passing.

Purpose of Compilation

The Life of Ibrahim sends a clear message to those who read it or who heard it read aloud in church on his memorial day:[16] one should be a good Christian from an early age, honor and cherish one’s mother, and follow the of the Church fathers and saints, such as Abu Fana, who inspired Ibrahim. Persecutions may occur, but they should be welcomed, for they allow believers to follow in the footsteps of and his martyrs. However, we must, as Murqus admonished, forgive sinners. sends holy men, such as Murqus and Ibrahim, to act as intercessors between God and man, and to support the community of believers in perilous times. For this reason, the Coptic communities of Cairo and Fustat are intact and thriving.

The structure of the Life of Ibrahim follows a traditional model, and most of its elements are found in other hagiographies. However, some elements, such as the arrest of Ibrahim or the various miracles attributed to him during his stay in Fustat, take the audience to a specific time in history, a period perhaps still fresh in memory. It is widely acknowledged that hagiographies and martyrologies were compiled to meet the religious and social needs of the community they sprang from and thus reflect the concerns of the laity and the clergy of the period (e.g., Heffernan 1988: 18—22; Armanios 2011: 42).[17] It thus appears that the Life of Ibrahim served as a witness account of the conditions of the Coptic community in the era in which Ibrahim lived and in which his hagiography was written, the late fourteenth to the early fifteenth centuries. This was a time of persecution and mass conversion for the Christians in Egypt (Little 1976; el-Leithy 2005).[18] During this era, the clergy and the laity demanded the portrayal of a holy man through contemporary and traditional stories.

It is reasonable to affirm, therefore, that this Life was written to encour­age the Copts in a time of hardship and show the path that good Christians should follow, taking their communal experience and their understanding of it through the Life of a saint who was so steadfast in the face of persecu­tion and adversity. In this way, the Life of Ibrahim served to strengthen the faith and the resolve of the Christians who were witnessing the diminish­ing of their community.[19]

Historical Significance of the Life

Beyond this inspirational value, the Life of Ibrahim, together with those of Murqus al-Antuni, Ruways, and Matta’us, offers us a glimpse of the Coptic experiences of the period and the distinct viewpoints of the clergy who sanctioned this Life. Moreover, the text attests to the thriv­ing monastic life during this particular era, when the of St. Antony and Abu Fana, and others, were filled with monks. This vibrant religious life is in stark contrast to the accounts of abandoned monaster­ies and destitute monks of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (e.g., Gabra 2002:174). Finally, the Life points to an active Coptic community in Cairo, despite the persecutions.

This beautifully executed work indicates the vibrant literary activities of the Coptic Church in the late fourteenth and the early fifteenth cen­turies. In the former century, the Coptic Synaxarion, a collection of brief biographies of saints and martyrs, was completed (Gabra 2008: 245—46). The Coptic community was quite active during this period, despite its persecution, as the production of manuscripts also demonstrates (Youssef 2009a: 108). In some ways, this vigor contradicts the general view that the Church was marginalized during this period (e.g., Little 1976). Had the Church been inactive, such cultural projects would not have been under­taken; thus, even if weakened, the Church still played a vital role in the Coptic community.

In a longer perspective, I suggest that while the eighth century wit­nessed the ‘flowering’ of martyrological writing in the Coptic Church (Papaconstantinou 2011: 334), the fourteenth century focused on record­ing the of contemporary holy men, a project that perhaps went hand in hand with the compilation of the Synaxar. Each saint’s life, his miracles, and his function in the Coptic community varied. As mentioned earlier, it is difficult to tell what the author laments more, Ibrahim’s death or his abandonment of Fustat, where his presence was vital to the community.

Whether this Life enjoyed popularity or not is hard to determine, as only one known copy of this manuscript survives. However, this evidence could strengthen the argument that this Life was compiled to meet a specific requirement of believers at a specific time in history.


Although the power of the was weak and many Copts were converting to Islam in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Coptic community, along with its clergy and notables, was still functioning and chose the Eves of their holy men as models for all Christians to follow. In terms of the Christian—Muslim relationship, this time is regarded as an era of mass conversion. However, the Coptic Church has survived to the pres­ent. I believe that the compilation of saints’ played a major role in its survival strategy, uniting the people around the faithfulness of holy indi­viduals. Ibrahim’s life and biography provides one such story of resilience.

Asuka Tsuji


[1] I would like to thank Dr. Gawdat Gabra and Dr. Fawzy Estafanous for giving me the opportunity to present this paper at the symposium and to Fr. Wadi Awad, Dr. Mark N. Swanson, and Dr. Youhanna Nessim Youssef for their encouragement and advice during my work on the of Murqus al-Antuni, Ruways, and Ibrahim al-Fani as a part of my dissertation.

[2] For an overview of Copto-Arabic hagiographies of holy men, see Graf 1944-53, vol. 2: 474—75; see also the individual entries on each saint for an update by Wadi Abullif (misspelled Abuliff) in the Enciclopedia dei Santi (1998) and by Mark N. Swanson in Christian-Muslim Relations: A Biographical History (2013a).

[3] For the medieval town of Minyat Bani Khasib, see Abu 1984, vol. 2: 78a; al-Maqrizi 2003, vol. 4, pt. 2: 1081.

[4] Kitab al-Ibsalmudiya: 78; Sawirus Ibn al-Muqaffa’ 1970, vol. 3, pt. 2: 137(text), 237 (translation).

[5] Dayr Anba Antuni, MS tarikh 69 (formerly 75), fols. 3b-31b. Hereafter referred to as Life. I am deeply grateful to Dr. Gawdat Gabra for making available a copy of this manuscript.

[6] Most Copto-Arabic hagiographies consist of a Life and a Miracle (e.g., Swanson 2007:218).

[7] While the author of the Life clearly admires the martyrs, the author of the Life of Ruways has a more ambiguous attitude toward the martyrs of the same era (Swanson 2007:226-27; Swanson 2010b: 117).

[8] For the reading of Fis (as in the text of the Life, and not as Qis in the editions of Abu al-Makarim), see Samu’il al-Suriany’s note in Abu 1984, vol. 2: fol. 78a.

[9] The name of the monastery is only revealed at this point in the narrative. The fifteenth-century historian al-Maqrizi relates that “[the] Monastery of Abu Fana used to house a thousand monks. Now there are only two.” Although it is not clear from al-Maqrizi’s account at what period the monastery housed so many monks, the passage in the Life suggests that this monastery was still prospering in the fourteenth century (al-Maqrizi 2003, vol. 4, pt. 2: 1040).

[10] Among the many fourteenth-century saints, Ibrahim is the only one whose studies are mentioned. It is well known that the copying of manuscripts was an important occupation of the monks in the Ottoman period. Here, it is interesting to note that Ibrahim seems to have pursued this occupation (e.g., Armanios 2011: 69; Murre- van den Berg 2006: 17).

[11] For the Arabic Life of Abu Pana, see Gabra 1990.

[12] This reference to his young age is puzzling. In the History of the Patriarchs, Ibrahim is reported to have protested against the future Matta’us’s ordination as a priest, arguing that he was too young (Sawirus Ibn al-Muqaffa’ 1979, vol. 3, pt. 2: 137 [text], 236—37 [translation]).

[13] I am not certain whether the term hegumenos refers to ‘the head of the monastery’ here. The name of the bishop is not mentioned.

[14] The Life of Murqus al-Antuni is unpublished. For details about this Life, see Swanson 2013a: 203-206.1 thank Dr. Gawdat Gabra for providing me with a copy of one of the manuscripts.

[15] This church is mentioned by Abu al-Makarim, but not in al-Maqrizi’s Khitat, which suggests that it was destroyed in the fifteenth century, before al-Maqrizi’s time.

[16] The preface of the Life of Barsauma al- ‘Uryan calls out to “Christ-loving people, gathered in ’s church for the commemoration of our saindy father Barsauma” (Crum 1907a: 143).

[17] For Armanios’s discussion on the communal ethos depicted in an Ottoman martyrology, see Armanios 2011: 41—47.

[18] For a detailed analysis of the conversion process of this period, see el-Leithy 2005.

[19] As Armanios notes, this idea of hagiographies used as a tool to strengthen the Christian community has been frequently explored (Armanios 2011: 174 n. 1).