Skip to content

THE PRECIOUS JEWEL IN ECCLESIASTICAL SCIENCES “AL-JAWHARAH AL-NAFISAH FI ‘ULUM AL-KANISAH” BY THE 13th CENTURY COPTIC SCHOLAR IBN SIBA‘, YUHANNA IBN ABI ZAKARIYYA

March 27, 2013

The Precious Jewel in Ecclesiastical Sciences (الجوهرة النفيسة فى علوم الكنيسة Al-Jawharah al-Nafisah fi ‘Ulum al-Kanisah), or simply The Precious Jewel,[1] is a great book in Coptic literature; its importance, in my opinion, has not yet been fully appreciated by both Copts and Coptologists. It was written in Arabic by the Coptic theologian Yuhanna ibn abi Zakariyya, known as Ibn Siba’ (يوحنا بن ابى زكريا المعروف بابن سِبَاعْ),[2] who lived in the 13th century,[3] the century that witnessed the blooming of Arabo-Coptic literature[4] and at the same time the development of Coptic grammars and dictionaries in an attempt to resist Arabisation[5].

Ibn Siba‘’s comprehensive work on the organisation, beliefs and traditions of the Coptic Church is described as “theological-liturgical ‘encyclopedia’ because of the range of topics covered in…it” as Christian-Muslim Relations. A Bibliographical History tells us.[6] Aziz S. Atiya describes its content in The Coptic Encyclopedia:

“First are several chapters on the Old Testament, which review the period of the creation to the period of Jesus Christ. The next section deals with the rise and spread of Christianity. But the bulk of the material concentrates on Coptic church organization and traditions, as well as on a meticulous review of its liturgies. The Coptic mass is analyzed and Coptic fasts and feasts enumerated, with special attention devoted to major feasts such as those of Holy Week and Easter.

Accurate details are presented on the church hierarchy from deacon to priest, hegumenos (archpriest) to bishop and the patriarch. One chapter discusses the patriarchal duty to assemble the entire priesthood every week in order to instruct them on their moral duties. The patriarch is requested to care for his flock in general, as well. Another special chapter treats the burial offices and the offerings for the souls of the departed.

The final chapter explains the significance of the ringing of church bells during the celebration of church offices.”[7]

But there is more to it than that. The book describes how the Coptic Church and society should be: it talks, inter alia, about education of Coptic children and how their teachers should be selected, the importance of Coptic language teaching, Coptic endowments, housing for the poor and guest houses for travellers, legal cases and the importance of regular sittings to judge them, selection of credible witnesses (quasi-jurors), financial auditing of churches and monasteries, and the importance of keeping detailed census of the Coptic population. Ibn Siba’ lived in a crucial period in Coptic history, a period riddled with divisions and theological arguments that centred mainly on the practice of confession. He advocated in his book auricular confession, which divided the Coptic Church and society in the 12th and 13th centuries into two camps; and on this matter he was one with Patriarch Cyril III (1235 – 1243)[8] and Awlad al-‘Assal[9] and opposed to Patriarch John VI (1189 – 1216)[10] and Ibn Kabar[11] who supported confession over the censer.

But to study The Precious Jewel one has to be very careful. The modern publications of this book can be categorised into three:

1.  Arabic text alone: these were published in Egypt by Copts. There are three of them, which I call “the Coptic publications”:[12]

a. The first appeared in 1902 and was published by the Coptic Patriarchate under the title كتاب الجوهرة النفيسة فى علوم الكنيسة تأليف القبطي الأرثذوكسي العلّامة يوحنا ابن زكريا المعروف بابن سباع فى الجيل الثالث عشر للميلاد. تقابل وطبع على ادارة مجلة عين شمس القبطية ومطبعتها ببطريكخانة الاقباط الارثوذوكس بمصر في شهر برمهات سنة ١٦١٨ للشهداء الاطهار

b.  The second was a reprint of the 1920s by Murqus Guirguis.

c. The third was published in 2001, and was edited by Mikhail Maksi Iskander. It was based on the 1902 edition.

 PJC

Figure 1: The Precious Jewel; ed., Mikhail Maksi Iskander (Arabic text; Cairo, 2001).

 2.  Arabic text with French translation: this, which I call “the French publication”, was published in Paris in 1922 in the Patrologia Orientalis, t. 16, fasc. 4, under the title La perle précieuse traitant des sciences ecclésustiques (chapitres I-LVI) par Jean, fils d’Abou-Zakariyâ , surnommé ibn Sabâ’. The work was edited and translated by Jean Périer, and, as the title explains, is only partial publication and translation, covering only the first 56 chapters of the book.[13]

 PJF

Figure 2: The Precious Jewel; ed., Jean Périer (Arabic text and French translation; Paris, 1922).

[Click on the text above for an access]

3.  Arabic text with Latin translation: this, which I call “the Franciscan publication”, was published in Cairo in 1966 by the Franciscan Center for Christian Oriental Studies (Edizioni del Centro Francescano di Studi Orientali Cristiani) as part of its Studies of the Egyptian Christians of the East (Studia Orientalia Christiana Aegyptiaca) under the title, “Pretiosa margarita de scientiis ecclesiasticis”, by Yūḥannā ibn Abī Zakarīyā Ibn Sabbāʻ; edited and translated into Latin by Vīktūr Manṣūr Mustarīḥ.

 PJL

Figure 3: The Precious Jewel; ed., Vīktūr Manṣūr Mustarīḥ (Arabic text and Latin translation; Cairo, 1966).

[الجوهرة النفيسة في علوم الكنيسة – يوحنا زكريا ابن سباع Click the link to access the work]

As one surveys these modern publications one finds a great deal of differences in the number of chapters, the content of chapters and the meaning assigned to words in them. Aziz S. Atiya says The Precious Jewel is composed of 113 chapters,[14] and Christian-Muslim Relations. A Bibliographical History adds that it was ‘originally’ 113 chapters, without giving a further explanation.[15] But we have in the Coptic publications 115 chapters; and while the Franciscan publication gives us 113 chapters, the French publication covers only the first 56 chapters without telling us about the total number of the book’s chapters. Further, there are many differences in the content of the publications’ chapters; for example, Chapter 108 (concerning the Cross, its finding, and the consecration of churches after it)[16] in the Franciscan publication contains a lengthy and peculiar story which is not available in the corresponding chapter in the Coptic publication[17]: a story about a hundred virgins who were appointed by Emperor Constantine on the request of his mother, Helena, to serve the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and who, on their way to the Holy Land by sea, landed in Cyprus where they were raped by, as the Arabic text says, “’afarit عفاريت”, Muslim entities that are not considered part of Christian imagination of the spiritual world.[18] It is difficult to readily know whether the odd story existed or not in the original manuscript and which one of the manuscripts on which the two Coptic and Franciscan publications depended was at fault by either interpolation or omission. Furthermore, the Coptic publications have been heavily edited as to ignore certain parts or change them. Mikhail Maksi Iskander admits this in his preface: “As this book contains some strange matters and folkloric rituals that were existent at the times of the author, some of them have been eliminated, since they don’t have connection to true Coptic rituals, and so as to avoid confusion in matters of rite.”[19] Both Jean Périer and Vīktūr Manṣūr Mustarīḥ, who were more faithful to the manuscripts from which they published their books, have recognised the shortcomings of the 1902 Coptic publication (reprinted in 1920s) and spoke about them in their introductions.[20]

But the difficulty one finds with The Precious Jewel arises more from the differences in its various manuscripts than from those created by modern publications. These differences must have arisen from heavy editing by various copyists. We have twenty one manuscripts known and available to researchers in various collections across the world, 14 in Egypt and 7 outside Egypt, and they vary in their dates from the 14th to the 20th centuries.[21] We do not know on which manuscripts the Coptic publications were based. The French publication depended on two manuscripts at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) in Paris, Arabe 207 (which dates from the end of the 14th century) and Arabe 208 (date 1638), and one manuscript in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (BAV) in the Vatican City, Ar. 130 (which dates from 1701). The Franciscan publication depended mainly on a manuscript in Dar al-Kutub[22] in Cairo, Thiol. 221, which is dated 1751.[23] It appears that the oldest manuscript of the lot is MS Paris BnF Arabe 207. The second oldest (dating from the 15th century), however, is the most important: Canon Law 1 (Zanetti 262), which is kept at the Monastery of St. Macarius (Deir Abu Magar) in Wadi al-Natrun in Egypt.[24] This manuscript is probably the most faithful to the original but sadly it has not yet been studied or published.

The writer of this article certainly hopes that researchers will pay this book more attention; and that somebody will soon study the reliable manuscript of The Precious Jewel at the Monastery of St. Macarius and another will complete the editing and translation of the Paris manuscript, Arabe 207. The study of other manuscripts may then show later changes by omission or commission and put them in their historical prospect. It is noticeable that up to this day there has been no English language contribution to the editing of The Precious Jewel manuscripts. Much work awaits the Coptologists.


[1] The work is often referred to in Western literature as The Precious Pearl; La Perle Précieuse. This is in fact wrong: while “جوهرة” means “jewel”; “لؤلؤة” means “pearl”.

[2] Coptic Church publications of the book (in 1902, 1920s and 2001 – see text) call him Yuhanna ibn Zakariyya (يوحنا بن زكريا), which is inaccurate. The Arabic nickname (لَقَبْ) “إبْن سِبَاعْ” means “son of lions”. “سِبَاعْ” is sometimes written as “سِّبَاعْ”, and both are plural of “سَّبُعُ”, which means in Arab dictionaries anything with tusks and claws and attack people and animals, preying on them, such as lions, wolves and tigers (See:   المعجم الوسيط, Cairo, 1998).

[3] Unfortunately it is not possible to locate his life more precisely. Some believe that he lived into the 14th century.

[4] Literature written by Copts in Arabic.

[5] Arabisation within the Coptic context is the process by which Coptic language was gradually replaced by Arabic in the Middle Ages.

[6] Christian-Muslim Relations. A Bibliographical History. Volume 4 (1200-1350); edited by David Thomas and Alexander Mallett (Leiden, Boston, Brill, 2012); p. 919.

[7] Aziz S. Atiya, Ibn Siba‘, Yuhanna ibn abi Zakariyya in The Coptic Encyclopedia, Volume 4 (1991). 

[8] For more on him, read: Subhi Labib, Cyril II Ibn Laqlaq in The Coptic Encyclopedia, Volume 2.

[9] A family of five brothers who lived in the days of Ibn Siba’. They were influential, intellectual giants in Coptic literature and history. For more on them, read: Aziz Suryal Atiya, Awlad Al-‘Assal in The Coptic Encyclopedia, Volume 1 (New York, Macmillan, 1991).

[10] For more on him, read: Subhi Labib, John VI in The Coptic Encyclopedia, Volume 4.

[11] Another Coptic theologian who lived in the 13th/14th centuries, contemporaneous to Ibn Siba’. His full name was al-Shaykh al-Mu’taman Shams al-Riyasah ibn al- Shaykh al-As‘ad Abu al-Barakat ibn Kabar (شمس الرئاسة أبو البركات بن كبر). He is known for his great theological work The Lamp That Lights The Darkness In Clarifying The Service (مصباح الظلمة في ايضاح الخدمة). For more on Ibn Kabar, read: Aziz Suryal Atiya, Ibn Kabar (al-Shaykh al-Mu’taman Shams al-Riyasah ibn al-Shaykh al-As’ad Abu al-Barakat ibn Kabar) in The Coptic Encyclopedia, Volume 4 (New York, Macmillan, 1991).

[12] I could not get hold of copy of each of the first two.

[13] It is possible that Jean Périer intended to publish the rest of the Arabic text, and translate it, but, for some reason, was not able to achieve that.

[14] Aziz S. Atiya, Ibn Siba‘, Yuhanna ibn abi Zakariyya.

[15] Christian-Muslim Relations. A Bibliographical History; p. 919.

[16] Pretiosa margarita de scientiis ecclesiasticis; pp. 360-366.

[17] The 2001 publication, ed. Mikhail Maksi Iskander; pp. 157-158.

[18]afarit is the plural of ‘efreet عفريت. They are a class of jinn جن, creatures which are peculiarly Islamic. Edward William Lane in his Manners and Customs of Modern Egyptians (London, 1895) explain: “The evil ginnees are commonly termed ‘‘Efreets;’ and one of this class is mentioned in the Kur-an in these words, ‘An ‘efreet of the ginn answered’ (ch. xxvii., ver. 39), which words Sale translates, ‘A terrible genius answered.’ They are generally believed to differ from the other ginn in being very powerful and always malicious, but to be, in other respects, of a similar nature. An evil ginnee of the most powerful class is called a ‘Marid.’” (p. 233) Sale’s translation of Koran, The Ant Surra 27:39,  is, of course, misleading – a more accurate translation by A. J. Arberry of the verse “قَالَ عِفْرِيتٌ مِّنَ الْجِنِّ أَنَا آتِيكَ بِهِ قَبْلَ أَن تَقُومَ مِن مَّقَامِكَ ۖ وَإِنِّي عَلَيْهِ لَقَوِيٌّ أَمِينٌ” is, “An efreet of the jinns said, ‘I will bring it to thee, before thou risest from thy place; I have strength for it.”

[19] The 2001 publication, ed. Mikhail Maksi Iskander; p. 6. The English translation is mine.

[20] See: La perle précieuse traitant des sciences ecclésustiques; pp. 593-595 and Pretiosa margarita de scientiis ecclesiasticis تمهيد – ب.

[21] For a list of these manuscripts, see: Christian-Muslim Relations. A Bibliographical History; p. 921.

[22] Egyptian Public Library, Cornish El Nile – Ramlet Boulac, Cairo.

[23] Mustarīḥ, editor of the Franciscan publication, thought that the manuscript he had used (Dar al-Kutub, Cairo, Thiol. 221) was the oldest known version, since on the front of page 115, as he says in his Introduction (تمهيد – ب), is the date “20 Tuba 1164”. He interpreted the year as a Coptic (AM) one and so concluded that the manuscript goes back to AD 1448. Khalil Kussaim Samir, however, as Christian-Muslim Relations. A Bibliographical History says (p. 921), has shown that the given year 1164 is in fact Saracen (AH), making the corresponding Christian year, 1750. There is a little error in Samir’s calculation, since 20 Tuba AH 1164 (AM 1467) corresponds to 26 January AD 1751.

[24] Christian-Muslim Relations. A Bibliographical History; p. 921.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: