Sawirus Ibn Al-Muqaffa‘


Earliest great Coptic writer in the Arabic language. Sawirus was born early in the tenth century to a pious family that provided him with a thorough education. His dates of birth and death are not known with precision, but his life must have covered most of the tenth century. His name as a layman was Abu al-Bishr, and his father was called al-Muqaffa‘ (the Bent-Backed), an indication of a physical infirmity.

He was brought up at a time when the Copts diligently learned Arabic as the language of their rulers and seriously began its use in parallel with Coptic, in order to retain their places in the Arab administration of the country. He started his career as a scribe in that administration, where he remained for a few years until he decided to resign all worldly positions and retire to monastic life. It is possible that he then changed his Arabian secular name to Sawirus.

We do not know how long he was a simple monk, nor do we know the monastery where he resided. It is probable, however, that he had enrolled at DAYR NAHYA near Cairo, though a stronger possibility is that it was at DAYR ANBA MAQAR, with its fabulous library, that he spent most of these years, studying and reading the lives of the great fathers. Undoubtedly this period was long enough for him to complete his religious education and biblical scholarship.

He may even have started writing some of his immense contributions in Arabic during that period. So profound had his knowledge of Coptic tradition, exegetic science, and even Greek philosophy become, that he was destined to become the official champion of the Coptic faith and his own church during the remaining years of his life.

Though he was somewhat secluded in his monastic life, Sawirus fame began to spread, and the of the city of al-Ashmunayn selected him to fill their vacant bishopric. We do not know the patriarch who consecrated him or the date of his consecration. We do know that he became bishop of al-Ashmunayn under the name of Sawirus, a name he may have adopted during his time as a monk, though this is uncertain. Al-Ashmunayn is, of course, the ancient Hermopolis Magna in the district of Antinoopolis.

Then situated in a rich area of arable land on the bank of the Nile, al-Ashmunayn is now reduced to a small village in the district of al-Rodah in the province of Asyut, and the Nile has receded from it by a few miles. It has been suggested that the patriarch responsible for Sawirus consecration could have been THEOPHANES (952-956) or MINA II (956-974), the sixtieth and sixty-first occupants of the throne of Saint Mark (Samir, 1978). But he may have been consecrated during the patriarchate of Macarius I (932-952), since we know that he defended his Coptic church against the destructive attacks eloquently launched by Sa‘id IBN AL-BITRIQ, Melchite patriarch Eutychius (935-940), who was supported by the Ikhshid Muhammad ibn Tughj (935-946).

During the early Fatimid period, Sawirus seems to have been popular with Caliph al-Mu‘iz (972-975), during whose reign he participated in a number of religious discussions with Muslim imams and Jewish rabbis. These were conducted in the presence of the caliph, who was greatly affected by Sawirus defense of the Coptic faith and tradition.

An amusing account is often quoted of one of his disputations with the Muslim chief justice (qadi al-qudat), who asked Sawirus whether a passing dog was Muslim or Christian. To avoid an incriminating answer, Sawirus replied, “Ask him.” The judge said, “The dog does not talk.” It was Friday, a fast day for the Copts, so Sawirus said that fasting Copts on that day eat no meat, and break the fast by sipping sacramental wine (). He suggested the dog meat and wine, so that if he ate the meat, he was a Muslim, and if he drank the wine, he must be a Christian. In this manner he gave an answer that the chief justice could not refute.

Few specific dates are established in the life of Sawirus, and we have to deduce most of his chronology from the dates of the reigning patriarchs. However, two dates are known with precision. He mentions 955 as the date of the completion of his second book on the councils. And at the age of eighty he was the first signatory of a synodal letter of the sixty-third Coptic patriarch, PHILOTHEUS (979-1003), addressed to Athanasius V, patriarch of Antioch (987- 1003), defining the answer to certain theological problems. This letter was dated either 987 or 988, and Sawirus was the foremost exponent among the bishops in the patriarchal reply.

At that time he must have composed most of his numerous works said by the fourteenth-century Coptic encyclopedist Abu al- Barakat IBN KABAR (d. 1324) to total twenty-six books, all in the classical Arabic of the period. More recently Kamil Salih Nakhlah compiled a list of thirty-eight works, some of which had been declared lost until they were found in manuscript repositories.

First, in his works on theological science, Sawirus discussed all manner of problems from the Coptic viewpoint. Second, he wrote a number of items on Coptic traditions and liturgical practices. Third, he displayed an extraordinary knowledge of exegetical and biblical studies. Samir (1978, p. 11) states that in one of his works Sawirus quoted 1,161 written sources in support of his arguments: 307 references to the Old Testament and 854 to the New Testament. We may legitimately assume that Sawirus must have memorized the whole Bible and that he was able to quote it freely in his disputation with Rabbi in the presence of the Fatimid caliph al- in 975.

Fourth, he proved himself to be the great champion of Coptic Christianity in works defending its doctrines against the vehement attacks of the Melchite patriarch Eutychius (also known as Sa‘id ibn Bitriq), a favorite of the Fatimid caliphs. In 950 Sawirus composed his book on the councils in reply to an abusive treatise by Eutychius. Fifth, he composed a miscellaneous body of treatises encompassing varied subjects from moralistic works to child guidance and his own disputations comprising answers to problems posed by a certain Ibn Jarud.

Sixth were his historical works, of which the History of the Patriarchs stands as a permanent monument to his erudition and critical mind (for a different opinion, refer to HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS OF ALEXANDRIA). He was probably the most eminent among a growing school of historians in the Coptic monasteries who wrote mainly in Coptic. For the first time in history, he worked on the unique compilation in the Arabic language of the biographies of the patriarchs from Saint Mark to the tenth century.

He based his accounts on all available manuscripts in Greek and in Coptic in the various monasteries, notably DAYR NAHYA near Cairo and al-Natrun. In a difficult pursuit of the original sources, he availed himself of assistance from contemporary figures who showed great competence in their knowledge of Greek and Coptic as they scanned monastic libraries for manuscripts that they translated for him into Arabic. These were the deacon Mikha’il ibn Bidayr al-Damanhuri (later bishop of Tanis); Shaykh Buqayrah al-Rashidi, known as the bearer of the cross; the presbyter Yu’annis ibn Zakir, abbot of the Nahya monastery; and the deacon Tidra or Tadros ibn Mina of Minuf.

Sawirus did not compile his work by accepting a single manuscript for each of his subjects, but compared various manuscripts in search of the historical facts. This, of course, did not prevent him from recording popular legends and superhuman miracles associated with his saintly martyrs and holy figures. In this way he started the record of the patriarchs that was continued by a number of authors until modern times.

Sawirus was highly venerated by contemporary patriarchs, respected by the Fatimid caliphs, and beloved and appreciated by noted figures of his own day, among whom was the noted saint al- IBN RAJA’, a convert from Islam to Coptic Christianity whom Sawirus sponsored and with whom he studied the lives of the saints and martyrs of the church. Throughout his life Sawirus championed the cause of his church. He pioneered the recording of its heritage in the Arabic language, and since the tenth century he has remained one of its greatest historians. He lived to a ripe old age, definitely beyond the eighties, though the exact year of his death is unknown. He probably died during the reign of the sixty- third patriarch, PHILOTHEUS (979-1003).


  • Cheikho, L. Kitab al-Muntakhabat al-‘Arabiyyah li-Katabat al- Nasraniyyah. Beirut, 1924.
  • Samir, K., ed. Kitab Misbah al-‘Aql. Cairo, 1978. Contains a detailed biography of Sawirus in the introduction.