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Zara Yacob (1592-1692)


Seventeenth century Ethiopian philosopher and religious thinker, whose treatise, in the original Ge'ez language known as the Hatata (1667), has often been compared to Descartes' Discours de la methode (1637). In the period, when African philosophical literature was significantly oral in character, Yacob's inquiry, transmitted by writing, was one of the few exceptions.

"Behold, I have begun an inquiry such as has not been attempted before. You can complete what I have begun so that the people of our country will become wise with the help of God and arrive at the science of truth, lest they believe in falsehood, trust in depravity, go from vanity to vanity, that they know the truth and love their brother, lest they quarrel about their empty faith as they have been doing till now." (from The Treatise of Zara Yacob)

Zara Yacob (spelled also Zar'a Ya'aqob or Zar'a Ya'eqob) was born into a farmer's family near Aksum, the capital of the ancient Greek-influenced kingdom in northern Ethiopia. Yacob's name means "The Seed of Jacob"; "Zara" is the Aramaic word for "seed." "By Christian baptism I was named Zara Yacob, but people called me Warqye," he wrote later in the Treatise. Although his father was poor, he supported Yacob's education. "God gave me the talent to learn faster than my companion," he said in his autobiographicsal piece. Yacob attended the traditional schools and became acquainted with the Psalms of David, which deeply influence his thought. After having returned to his native Aksum, Yacob taught there for four years.

Yacob was educated in the Coptic Christian faith, but he was also familiar with other Christian sects, Islam, Judaism, and Indian religion. Many times he did not agree with the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures of the Frang [Europeans] but he kept his opinions to himself.

A truth seeker, who decided to rely on his own inner voice, Yacob was denounced before King Negus Susenoys (r. 1607-1632), who had turned to the Roman Catholic faith and ordered his subjects to follow his own example. Attempts to change the age-old rituals were met with resistance and tens of thousands were martyred.

Yacob fled into exile with some gold and the Book of Psalms. On his way to Shewa he found a cave near the Takkaze River (Tekezé River). Yacob lived there alone for two years, hiding from the watchful eyes of the Frang, praying and developing his philosophy, which he presented in the Hatata. In this book Yacob later said, that "I have learnt more while living alone in a cave than when I was living with scholars. What I wrote in this book is very little; but in my cave I have meditated on many other such things." The exact location of his cave is unknown. Or perhaps there never was a cave; it is a metaphor for a place of meditation, a setting reminiscent of Plato's famous cave.

The river valley, where Yacob most probably lived, provided food and water and was not totally uninhabited. Basically Yacob's way of life, isolating himself from the society and living at the mercy of nature, followed the long tradition of Christian prophets and Indian gurus. By dissociating himself from all material and worldly things Yacob placed his life in the hands of God, praying that God, who is revealed in reason, will show him the way. 

After the death of the king, his son Negus Fasiladas (r. 1632-1667), a firm adherent of the Ethiopian Orthodox church, took power. He expelled the Jesuits, and extirpated the Catholic faith in his kingdom in 1633. In this new situation, Yacob left his cave and settled in Enfraz. He found a patron, a rich merchant named Habtu, and married a maidservant of the family, whose name was Hirut. "... she was not beautiful," confessed Yacob, "but she was good natured, intelligent and patient." The monastic life did not appeal to Yacob, who stated that, "the law of Christians which propounds the superiority of monastic lifeover marriage is false and can’t come from God." He also rejected polygamy because "the law of creation orders one man to marry one woman."

Returning to his former profession, Yacob became the teacher of Habtu's two sons. At the request of his patron's son Walda Heywat, Yacob wrote his famous Treatise, in which he recorded his life and thoughts. The self-portrait was completed in 1667. Yacob's basic method, which he applied to his investigation, was the light of the reason.

Although Yacob is essentially a religious thinker, he defends his belief on rational grounds and rejects subjectivism. "God created us intelligent so that we can meditate on his greatness," Yacob argues. Truth can be discovered by the power of analytical thinking: "... truth is one." Focusing on the question why different religions have different kinds of truth he writes: "These days the Frang tell us: our faith is right, yours is false . . . If we ask the Mohammedans and the Jews, they will claim the same thing . . ." As an anti-authoritarian thinker Yacob explains that human beings are weak and sluggish – they don't investigate the truth but listen to their predecessors.

But Yacob also believes that truth is immediately "revealed" to the person who seeks it. "Indeed he who investigates with the pure intelligence set by the creator in the heart of each man and scrutinizes the order and laws of creation, will discover the truth." Noteworthy, it is the human heart, not the brain, that is the seat of thinking. Yacob's emphasis on reason over tradition and dogmatism did not lead him to challenge prejudices of the age: his views of Jews and Muslims were not positive.

Following in the footsteps of great church fathers, Yacob applied the idea of the first cause to his proof for the existence of God. "If I say that my father and my mother created me, then I must search for the creator of my parents and of the parents of my parents until they arrive at the first who were not created as we [are] but who came into this world in some other way without being generated." However, the knowability of God do not depend on human intellect, but "Our soul has the power of having the concept of God and of seeing him mentally. God did not give this power purposelessly; as he gave the power, so did he give the reality."

Little is know of Yacob's later life but Enfraz, where he lived harmonious and happy family life, remained his home town for the next twenty-five years. He also saw that husband and wife are equal in marriage, "for they are one flesh and one life." Yacob died in 1692. Walda Heywat, his successor, published later an treatise, in which he followed Yacob's lines of thought. Heywat himself was a skillful storyteller. The first scholar, who introduced Yacob's thought to the English-speaking world, was Professor Claude Sumner, who moved from Canada to Ethiopia in the 1950s. Summer proved that the author of the Treatise was not, as it was claimed, an Italian Capuchin named Giusto d'Urbino. He lived in Ethiopia in the 19th century and discovered Yacob's manuscripts. "When I went to Zinga-Fariccë a tanqway or diviner from Wadla showed me this book written on bad parchment and in a very irregular handwriting. It is a small volume. I begged him to sell it to me for a talari. He told me that even for ten he would not have sold it, because there are many recipes for medicine and spells added here and there in the same book." Realizing the importance of his find, Giusto d'Urbino bought and copied the manuscripts and sent them to the French scholar Antoine d'Abbadie, his patron in Paris. After being expelled from Ethiopia by the Coptic Church, Giusto d'Urbino went to Cairo. He died in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1856.

For further reading: The Treatise of Zara Yacob and of Walda Heywat: Text and Authorship by Claude Sumner (1976-1978); 'The Treatise of Zara Yacob', in Ethiopian Philosophy. Vol. 2, by Claude Sumner (1985); Altäthiopische Volksweisheiten im historischen Gewand: Legenden, Geschichten, Philosophien by Jürgen Hopfmann (1992); Classical Ethiopian Philosophy by Claude Sumner (1994); 'Zara Yacob' by Claude Sumner, in A Companion to the Philosophers, ed. by Robert L. Arrington (1999); Explorations in African Political Thought: Identity, Community, Ethics, edited by Teodros Kiros (2001); A Short History of African Philosophy by Barry Hallen (2002); A Companion to African Philosophy, edited by Kwasi Wiredu (2005); Zara Yacob: Rationality of the Human Heart by Teodros Kiros (2005); 'The History of a Genuine Fake Philosophical Treatise (Ḥatatā Zar’a Yā‘eqob and Ḥatatā Walda Ḥeywat). Episode 1: The Time of Discovery. From Being Part of a Collection to Becoming a Scholarly Publication (1852-1904)' by Anaïs Wion, translated by Lea Cantor, Jonathan Egid and Anaïs Wion, Afriques, Debates and readings [online] (2021); 'Zara Yacob and The Rationality of the Human Heart' by Teodros Kiros, Intellectus: The African Journal of Philosophy, Volume 1:1 (MMXXII) 

Selected works:

  • Hatata, 1667 - The Treatise of Zär'a Ya`eqob and of Wäldä Heyw at (2 vols., by C. Sumner, 1976-1978)

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