Shams Al-Ri’asa Abu Al-Barakat Ibn Kabar (?-1324)


A Priest, encyclopedist, scholar of Coptic. The writer known to contemporaries as al-Shams ibn Kabar provides one of the last great examples of the flowering of Arabic-language Coptic Orthodox literature in the 13th and early 14th centuries. Ibn Kabar served for a time as scribe to the Mamluk Emir Baybars al-Mansuri (d. 1325) and is reported to have helped him to write his multivolume narrative of history, Zubdat al-fikra fi tarikh al-hijra (The Quintessence of Thought in History).

Although the precise dates of this service are unknown, in 1300 Ibn Kabar was ordained priest with the name of Barsum (probably after the great saint of the day, Barsum the Naked) and served at the Mo‘allaqa in Old Cairo. Many of his sermons (in rhymed Arabic prose) have been preserved. He escaped pursuers unharmed during the anti-dhimmi disturbances of 1321, but he died a few years later in 1324.

Ibn Kabar is especially remembered for two works. His Bohairic-Arabic vocabulary al-Sullam al-kabir (The Great Ladder or Scala Magna) is a high point of Coptic lexicography, much used and preserved in many manuscripts. It has played a huge role in European Coptic studies, thanks to its publication (in Rome, 1648) with a Latin translation by the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher. Ibn Kabar’s other great work is the ecclesiastical encyclopedia Misbah al-zulma wa-idah al-khidma (The Lamp of the Darkness and the Illumination of Service).

Wadi Abullif points out (Wadi, “Abu al-Barakat,” 242) that this title reflects the work’s content: It moves from dogmatic and canonical considerations (chapters 1-6, a “lamp” in “the darkness”) to practical and liturgical matters of importance to deacons and other servants of the Church (chapters 8-24, an “illumination of service”). The break between these two major sections comes at chapter 7, “Eminent Christians and Their Writings,” which is a of Christian books known to Ibn Kabar from the Fathers to the Arabophone theologians of his own day—and a precious resource for all students of Arabic- down to the present time.