Abu’l-Fath, according to Ethiopian tradition, was a Yemeni immigrant, mentioned in the Ethiopic Synaxarium, or Book of Saints, and was probably born around 1470. Several foreign scholars, however, believe that he came on the contrary from Iraq. His father is said to have been of a princely family, while his mother was reportedly Jewish.
At an early age Abu’l-Fath is believed to have expressed doubts about the then prevailing Muslim faith, and as a result was alienated from his parents.
At around this time he became friendly with an Ethiopian ex-slave, who had been captured from his native land some time earlier. Together they decided to leave Yemen, and make their way across the Red Sea to Ethiopia, as the early followers of the Prophet Muhammad had done so many centuries earlier.
In 1489 Abdul Fath and his Ethiopian companion duly reached the country of the Bahr Negash, i.e. the northern Ethiopian highlands, currently Eritrea. There they remained for three years, after which they proceeded southwards to the court of the Ethiopian Emperor Eskender.
They remained at the court for two years, until 1494, when the Emperor died. A power struggle thereupon ensued, after which the two companions decided to leave, and make their way to the former slave’s homeland, in the Mara Bete, area of northern Shawa.
Ab’ul-Fath, born as it seems as a Muslim, is said to have been tormented by religious doubts, but eventually decided to embrace the Ethiopian Christian faith. He accordingly made his way to the great Shawan monastery of Debra Libanos. There he was received by its abbot, Petros, who formally baptised him, with the name of ‘Enbaqom, or Habakuk. A man of scholarly disposition he set about learning Coptic, Hebrew, Armenian, and Syriac – and subsequently also acquired a knowledge of Portuguese and “Venetian”, i.e. a local dialect of Italian. (On this see an article “On Two Portuguese Folios in a Medieval Ethiopic Manuscript”, which I published almost two decades ago, in 1986, in the British journal, “The Book Collector”, Volume 35, number 4).
‘Enbaqom was so highly regarded for his character and learning that on the death of Petros he was chosen, around 1523, as the latter’s successor. He was the only foreigner in Ethiopian history ever to have been accorded that high honour.
‘Enbaqom, as we must now call him, devoted much of his time to scholarly pursuits. He began by translating the Commentary on John Chrysostom’s “Epistle to the Hebrews”, from his native Arabic into the classical Ethiopian church language Ge’ez. Then, or some time later, he also translated the Apocalypse of St. John and several other works.
He had, however, many enemies, and after three or four years a group of the Debra Libanos monks accused him of disloyalty towards the then Emperor, Lebna Dengel, and he was sentenced to death by a court appointed by the monarch . The Emperor’s sisters, however, were clement, and succeeded in having the scholar’s sentence reduced to one of exile. He was accordingly banished to Guncha, in central Gojjam.
It was around this time that the Adal conqueror Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim, better known as Ahmad Gragn, or the Left-handed, was advancing into the Shawan highlands. Emperor Lebna Dengel chose this moment to forgive ‘Enbaqom, and to recall him from his exile. Though offered his old post as Abbot of Debra Libanos, he refused to take it up, and withdrew to self-imposed exile in Warab, just north of the Awash river.
The Imam meanwhile continued his advance into the Ethiopian highlands. Enbaqom as a result felt it politic to withdraw westwards to Gafat, and later to Bizamo, both area south of the Blue Nile. He was perturbed by the Imam’s destruction of Christian churches, and accordingly decided to appeal to him to stop doing so. He accordingly wrote, in his native language, to the Muslim conqueror to remonstrate with him.
At about this time Lebna Dengel died, and was succeeded by his son Emperor Galawdewos. The latter recalled ‘Enbaqom to court, apologised for the manner in which he had been treated in his father’s day, and asked to him to stay with him as his adviser on the war with Imam Ahmad. ‘Enbaqom, ever a scholar, spent much of his time translating the story of Barlaam and Josaphat, Abu Shakir’s Chronology, and several other Arabic works. After Galawdewos’s death in 1559 the latter’s successor, Emperor Minas, had Enbaqom reinstated as Abbot of Debra Libanos, and it was probably there that he died, around 1565, at the ripe old age of over ninety. His history was later recorded by his disciples in a Ge’ez “Gadle'” or “Acts”, published long afterwards, with an Italian translation, by the Italian scholar Professor Lanfranco Ricci in several issues of the Italian journal “Rassegna di Studi Etiopici” between 1954 and 1969.
The Anqasa Amin, or “Gate of the Faith”
‘Enbaqom’s letter to Imam Ahmad, which is believed to have been in Arabic, apparently no longer exists. He nevertheless subsequently produced a probably expanded Ge’ez version, entitled Anqasa Amin, or “Gate of the Faith”. This work, one of the classics of later Ge’ez literature, was written in that language, and refers to his correspondence with the Adal leader, as well as his reasons for abandoning of Islam. A French translation, with the original Ge’ez text, was published by the Dutch scholar Professor E. J. Van Donzel in Leiden in 1969.
‘Enbaqom recalls in this book, which was written around 1532-3, that during his exile in the west of the country the Muslim leader, i.e. Imam Ahmad, or Gragn, “surrounded the county with a large army”, whereupon he (‘Enbaqom), “having confidence in the name of Christ, my God”, sent him a message in which he outlined his religious beliefs, and related them to the Muslim Quran. That Holy Book, like the Christian Bible, held, he argued, that the Virgin Mary was born of God, in the flesh, without any seed of man.
The Imam reportedly replied, in a friendly manner, that he accepted Enbaqom’s holy books, because he believed in the Jewish Torah, in the Christian Gospels, and in the Prophets that God had sent down to man. Drawing a practical conclusion from this he promised that he “swore by the sublime God” that he “would not burn churches nor kill monks and the poor” – unless they offered him resistance. He went on to say he agreed to listen to Enbaqom’s explanation of the Christian faith in relation to the Quran, as the latter had proposed. The Christian scholar accordingly wrote the Anqasa Amin, which was in effect a polemical work.
The story of Imam Ahmad’s campaigns was subsequently told by his Yemeni scribe, the historian Shihab ad-Din Ahmad bin ‘Abd al-Qader bin Salem bin ‘Utman , also known as ‘Arab Faqih. His chronicle, entitled “Futuh al-Habasa”, literally “Conquests of Abyssinia”, was written around 1559, but tells the story of the war only to about 1537, i.e. perhaps five years before Enbaqom’s reported correspondance with the Imam and the composition of the “Anqasa Amin”.
‘Arab Faqih’s “Futuh”, we should note, does not mention ‘Enbaqom, his letters or his book. The latter’s account of his correspondence with the Imam therefore remains entirely uncorroborated, and we cannot tell in any way how Imam Ahmad reacted to Abba ‘Enbaqom’s arguments and polemics.
It may, however, be noted, for what it is worth, dear reader, that whereas the “Futuh” describes much looting of churches in the early part of the campaign, there are no such reports for the later phase. The text tells for example of destruction at Badeqe, Kesayah, Makana Sellase, Debra Nagwadgwad, Walah, Dabra Azhir, and at a single church at Lalibela – all in the early fighting, but includes no such account for the later fighting in Tegray, Dambeya or the islands of Lake Tana.
Did this represent a change of policy on behalf of Imam Ahmad? Was it a consequence of ‘Enbaqom’s letter? Or is it just a coincidence?
These are questions on which we may ponder.