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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. 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. 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 Shoa in the south he found at the foot of the Takkaze River a cave. Yacob lived there alone for two years, 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.

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 cant 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 wrote. Truth can be discovered by the power of analytical thinking: "... truth is one." 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." However, 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 an Italian Capuchin Giusto d'Urbino, who lived in Ethiopia in the 19th century; Giusto d'Urbino himself never said the work was his own but told that he had bought the manuscript.

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); 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) 

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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