Abu’l Barakat’s catalogue of Arabic Christian literature

Abu’l Barakat was a medieval Arabic Christian.  In one of his works, he devoted a chapter to listing Arabic Christian literature.  Of course this catalogue of what exists or existed is an invaluable guide to someone who is starting to explore patristic material surviving in that language.  Riedel published it long ago, with a German translation * , and a kind friend sent me a copy in PDF form today.  It urgently needs to go online.  If he’s OK with it, I’ll upload the PDF to Archive.org.

But we also need an English translation.  It’s about 154 words per page and 36 pages, in the German translation; if the Arabic is similar, that makes 5,544 words, or about $500 at my usual 10c per word.  I can afford that, I think.  I need to find a translator!

* Wilhelm Riedel, Der Katalog der christlichen Schriften in arabischer Sprache von Abu’l-Barakat, in Nachrichten der K. Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen. Philologisch-Hist. Klasse, 1902 (Heft 5), pp. 636-706.


8 thoughts on “Abu’l Barakat’s catalogue of Arabic Christian literature

  1. Again, very good news.

    PS Please, Roger, accept from me this comment: many Westerners who are interested in the literature of the Christians of the Middle East have a liking to putting all in one basket and labelling the lot “Arab Christian literature”. The bulk of this literature, I believe, has been produced by Copts. To them, or to the overwhelming majority of them, as I understand it, do not think of themselves as Arab, even though they have been speaking, and writing, in Arabic since the Middle Ages. They have always lamented this sad event of language shift, and have never forgotten their language, which they consider sacred. They will be offended to be called Arab or their literature to be described so. I think their pride in their national roots, their religion, their forgotten language, and their long memories of their horrific experience at the hands of the Arabs – and those who followed them – since 640 AD, will always prevent them from embracing Arabdom, or accepting Arabic as their language, as, for example, the Christian Lebanese or Syrians have done (or a large chunk of them, anyway).

    The literature written by Copts in the Middle Ages is not defined by its language (certainly there is no pride shown in the language or its artistic forms as an Arab would do), but rather by its content, which is Christian and typically Coptic. It is more accurate to call their literature Coptic even though it is not written in Coptic anymore, as it refers to the people and their religion, rather than the tool by which their culture has been conveyed.

    Yours sincerely,

    Dioscorus Boles

  2. Agreed. I wouldn’t call the Copts “Arabs”; they aren’t. But the term “Arabic Christian Studies” refers to the *language* that these texts are in, not the race of the people who speak it. It probably ought to be “Christian literature written in Arabic studies”, but that is cumbersome.

    Similarly “Coptic studes” means “Coptic language studies”.

    But you are very right to point out the misleading nature of these labels, to some people. The reason it happens is that Arabic Christian studies is a very minority interest in the west. Almost no-one has heard of it, even bundling together all these disparate studies. So anything we do, that opens up this area of interest to the world, will benefit everyone. Since the Copts are the most numerous group, it ought to benefit them most!

  3. I understand the difficulties. Please, do not think that I underestimate the help that comes to the Copts from the good work you, and others in the field, undertake in studying Christian literature written in Arabic. But in their infancy, in the previous centuries, such studies were excused of being nonspecific, and inaccuracies were expected. Today, and with maturity, a more accurate description and categorisation is required. The Christian communities in the Middle Ages, despite their adoption, willingly or unwillingly, of one foreign language, did not share in one common culture – they were different geographically, ethnologically, theologically (except the Syrians and Copts on this) and in their interaction with the outside world.

    I think Coptic literature whether written in Coptic or Arabic, or other languages, should be categorised under the umbrella term, Coptic literature studies. It can then be subdivided under historical epochs. I admit, Coptic history is not yet properly studied, and its chronology and periods are still unclear; however, there are broad historical periods that can be largely agreed on: classic (pre-Islamic Egypt), early period (640-880 AD), middle period (880-1250), dark period (1250-1854) and modern period. With periodisation, it will be possible to describe Coptic literature in the classic period, Coptic literature in the early period, etc. Coptic literature in the middle period, a period that brought significant changes to our Church and nation, will include writings in both Coptic and Arabic [“Arabic Christian literature” deals mostly with writings from this period]. By adopting such an approach, it will be possible to study the literature of the nation in history, which will be more intelligent and informative.

    Dioscorus Boles

  4. You’re probably right; but I don’t think that Coptic studies is that mature. In fact I think that the number of people who teach it full time, who hold a chair of Coptic studies, is probably close to zero if not zero. Until that changes, it will be part of some larger discipline that can justify the full-time positions.

  5. I speak from (Belgian) experience, coming from a bachelor in Egyptology – with a minor eastern christianity – at the Catholic University of Leuven and moving to a master in Byzantium and eastern christianity at the Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve.

    In Egyptology, Coptic was a compulsory subject, but was only given, because it was an evolution of Ancient Egyptian. There were no courses that provided a historical context, not in the faculty of arts, not in that of theology. Luckily, because of my minor and my Coptic teacher, I had the chance to use a coptic text – the correspondence of king Abgar and Jesus – for my bachelor paper.

    After obtaining my bachelor’s degree, because I wanted to pursue an education in Eastern Christianity, preferably Coptic, I had to move to another university, since no program was offered at Leuven. So, now I am following a master in oriental languages at another university (Louvain), where Syriac, Armenian, Georgian and Coptic etc… courses are being given. But when I first arrived there, I was in for an unpleasant surprise, the only available Coptic professor was a Belgian woman who lived in Berlin and therefore couldn’t help me with my master’s thesis. The head of the Department of Egyptology then sent me to another professor, but he was more a specialist in (Christian) Arabic Literature, than in Coptic, so I had to find another promotor. Then I ended up, with my present promotor (not that I mind, she is very supportive), who unfortunately does not know Coptic.

    So now I find myself writing a master’s thesis on the Syriac and Armenian versions of the Chronicle of Michael the Great. I do not mind, I am interested in many of the languages of the Christian Orient, but I am a bit disappointed as to how great the need for specialists in some languages is, especially Coptic, it seems, as the course is even not given in the next academic year…

  6. Thank you for these details, which show what I rather feared; that all these oriental languages exist on a whim and a prayer, on the fringes of most university.

    If you’re interested in Michael the Syrian, you must be interested in the Gorgias books facsimile? What do you think of the Chabot Syriac? I couldn’t even make out the letters in that!

  7. My promotor is trying to acquire the new facsimile, don’t know how long it is going to take. As for now, Chabot is all we have. Unfortunately, as you said, it is not always clear. Because it was copied by someone who did not know Syriac, there’s a lot of confusion in the writing.
    I can’t speak for the difficulty in the whole work, because I only work on Book XIV (Michael’s description of the Turks, their ways and origins). We have however studied it briefly during the Syriac course. We did not get very far, but it was clear that there are a lot of problems.

    For the moment, I am working on the Armenian translation of that particular ‘chapter’ and it does not seem be that good. (As is the case with a lot of texts, there exists only one 19th-century, French translation).

  8. What Andy has said, from firsthand experience, confirms what Roger had already said, and what I have always known, that Coptology is still immature, fragmentary, confused and often unintelligent. This is an altogether different issue from underfunding or lack of general interest in educational centres. I hope all aspects of Coptic studies are approached in a holistic way, and with only one intention – to study the Copts, as a nation, and the various manifestations of their culture. This cannot be done without an intelligent consideration of the influence of their unique geography and history in every aspect of their lives.

    Dioscorus Boles

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