SAINT BULUS AL-HABIS
A Coptic monk and “new martyr” of the thirteenth century. Bulus al-Habis (Paul the Solitary) appears in the Islamic-Arabic sources as having descended from a respectable Coptic family of scribes in Cairo. Mikha’il, as he was known prior to taking the monastic vows, was himself a katib (scribe or secretary).
During the reigns of the Ayyubid sultan al-Malik al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub and the sultana Shajar al-Durr, he served in the state chancellery in Syria. In the reign of the Mamluk sultan al-Mu‘izz Aybak at-Turkumani, Mikha’il was transferred to Cairo. Thereafter he left his civil career to become a monk.
As a monk, he received the name Bulus (Paul). He spent his life from that time in a cave in the Red Mountain (al-Jabal al-Ahmar), near Hilwan, south of Cairo. This retreat did not stop him from contacts with the world as a mendicant monk.
Bulus traveled widely in Upper and Lower Egypt. Besides offering people the religious and moralistic lessons of his priestly profession, Bulus provided them with concrete assistance. Regardless of a person’s religious allegiance, he supported those in need and paid their debts. He freed prisoners who were held for debt or unpaid fines. He even settled immense state imposts for whole communities.
When the Dhimmis (non-Muslims: Copts and Jews) in Upper Egypt were unable to pay illegal financial demands of the government, Bulus readily produced the required cash for the tax collectors. In Alexandria, he alleviated oppression of the townspeople in the same way. Ibn Abi al-Fada’il, the Coptic analyst of the period, made the comment that “What Al-Habis achieved astonished the people of Alexandria.”
The climax of Bulus’s career occurred in 1265 when he saved communities of Copts and Jews in Cairo from imminent disaster. The Copts were blamed for reducing sixty-three houses in al- Batiliyyah to rubble and ashes, while Sultan al- Zahir Baybars was laying siege to the Frankish port of Caesarea in Syria. On his return, the sultan drove the chained accused Jews and Copts out of Cairo to have them burned alive. Even the Coptic patriarch JOHN VII was dragged to the scene. When the commander of the Egyptian army submitted a plea for their lives, the sultan was persuaded to spare his victims in return for a heavy fine. Bulus came forth with the whole amount and paid it on the spot.
The sultan al-Zahir Baybars often mingled with his subjects in disguise, and, of course, became apprehensive of the popularity of Bulus. Likewise the fuqaha’, the Islamic spiritual authorities and legal scholars, felt threatened by Bulus. In particular, the fuqaha’ of Alexandria sent formal opinions condemning Bulus to death and submitted a plea for his execution to the sultan in Cairo.
The sultan summoned Bulus to the citadel, offered him food and lodging, and asked him to reveal the source of his money. Bulus refused to disclose his secret, and insisted on continuing to use his acquired wealth for the relief of the poor and needy. Bulus may have discovered the treasure hidden by the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim bi- Amr-Allah (996-1021) in the Red Mountain.
Bulus practiced passive resistance to formal state repression. But the Mamluk rulers did not tolerate anything prejudicial to the power of the Islamic state, either from the rebel Muslim ‘ulema (scholars) or from the Arab tribes, let alone the Coptic community. Bulus was condemned to death and executed.
The memory of his life and work survived for centuries after his death. Five hundred years later, the Muslim writer Ibn al-‘Imad al- Hanbali reiterated his story in his eight-volume biographical dictionary.
- Ibn Shakir al-Kutubi. Fawat al-Wafayat, 5 vols., ed. Ihsan Abbas. Beirut, 1973-1974.
SUBHI Y. LABIB