Christians Who Changed Their World: Abba Enbaqom

Ancient Christian communities in the Middle East today are under assault as never before by Islamic forces. At the same time, unprecedented numbers of Muslims are coming to faith in Jesus Christ as a result of dreams in which Issa (Jesus) appears to them. Although the pace at which these two trends are happening is accelerating, neither is a new phenomenon. Both are part of the life story of Abba Enbaqom, whose birth name was Abul-Fath.

Early years, conversion, and studies
Abul-Fath was born in Yemen to a Jewish mother and a noble father and was raised as a Muslim. Even as a young man he began to express doubts about his religion and began to investigate Islam and its literature. His doubts eventually alienated him from his parents. In 1489, he went to Ethiopia as a merchant, accompanying a freed Ethiopian captive. He stayed in northern Ethiopia for three years, and then moved south to the capital for two more years.

During this period, Abul-Fath continued his religious investigations. In 1494 he received a revelation in which he was told, “You are not following the right path; go to the Abima Marcos, who is head of the priests of Ethiopia, and he will teach you another path.”[i]

Abima Marcos thus seems to have been involved in Abul-Fath’s conversion, though the most important person was Echage Petros. Echage is the title of the abbot of Debre Libanos, the most important monastery in Ethiopia and is the second highest office in the Ethiopian church. Echage Petros taught Abul-Fath the faith and baptized him under the name “Enbaqom” (Habakkuk).

Enbaqom decided to stay in the monastery and began academic studies. He mastered Coptic, Armenian, Syriac, and Hebrew, and later added Portuguese, the Venetian dialect of Italian, and Latin. He had already learned Arabic and Ge’ez, the language of Ethiopia. Among other things, he translated John Chrysostom’s commentary on Hebrews from Arabic into Ge’ez, as well as the Apocalypse of John, the Indian story Barlaam and Josaphat, and several other works. As a result, he greatly enriched the theology of the Ethiopian church. His learning and character were so highly regarded that upon the death of Petros he was selected as the new Echage, the only non-Ethiopian to ever hold that position (c.1523).

Unfortunately, however, possibly because of his ethnic origin, he had many enemies in the monastery. In 1526 he was accused by a group of his monks of disloyalty to Emperor Lebna Dengel. Enbaqom was sentenced to death, although the emperor’s sisters prevailed upon him to commute the sentence to exile.

Invasion and setbacks
Three years later, the Adal Sultanate in Somalia launched a war against Ethiopia with the intention of conquering the country and forcing its conversion to Islam. The invasion was led by Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi, nicknamed Gragn (the left-handed), a Somali imam and general possibly of Arab extraction. Ahmad Gragn was supplied by the Ottoman Turks with muskets and cannons, weapons which had not been seen in Ethiopia prior to this. Partly due to the psychological impact of gunpowder weapons and partly due to their firepower, Ahmad Gragn consistently defeated the Ethiopian forces sent against him, leaving Lebna Dengel unable to face the invaders in pitched battle.

At about the time of the invasion, Lebna Dengel pardoned Enbaqom and offered him his old position as Echage. Enbaqom refused and continued his exile, moving from place to place to avoid Ahmad Gragn’s troops and providing comfort and leadership to the Christian community.

Ahmad Gragn’s armies were rampaging across the Ethiopian highlands, converting people at the point of the sword and destroying churches and monasteries. Among other things, they captured and sacked Lalibela, including the monolithic churches there, destroyed the Church of Our Lady of Mount Zion in Axum, built by King Ezana and the tradition site of imperial coronations, and burned the great monastery at Debra Libanos. In the twelve years that he occupied the highlands, Ahmad Gragn’s army destroyed the work of centuries in the churches, monasteries, and libraries they burned.

Turning the tide by means of the pen
Enbaqom was so upset by the destruction that he wrote a letter in Arabic to Ahmad Gragn in 1532. Citing the Quran, Enbaqom urged Ahmad Gragn not to destroy churches and monasteries and not to kill priests and monks. Ahmad Gragn evidently replied that he was obligated to respect the Torah and the Gospels, and so he would not destroy churches and would only kill those who resisted him.

On the other hand, he also began hunting for Enbaqom with the intention of capturing and executing him.

Enbaqom, possibly believing that Ethiopia would fall to Ahmad Gragn, expanded his letter into the book Anqaşa Amin (Gateway of Faith). This book, which draws on his extensive knowledge of the Quran and Islamic literature, makes a clear argument for the superiority of Christianity over Islam. In it he rehearses the standard objections of Arab Christians to Islam but adds several of his own; he also gives an account of his conversion. It was an audacious move: he seems to have been trying to convert Ahmad Gragn to Christianity.

Enbaqom’s background in Islam and his familiarity with Judaism through his mother enabled him to teach the Ethiopian Christians how to think about and respond to Islam, with the result that the Ethiopian church increasingly saw his presence as providential in helping keep the kingdom from converting to Islam.

Meanwhile, Lebna Dengel realized that he had no chance to stop Ahmad Gragn without European help. The Portuguese had arrived in the Indian Ocean, and with their superior ships had diverted the spice trade away from its traditional routes through the Middle East to Lisbon. In fact, as early as the 1520s Enbaqom had made the acquaintance of the Portuguese priest Francisco Àlvares. And so Lebna Dengel appealed to the Portuguese for help. Before help could arrive, however, he died in battle against Ahmad Gragn (1540).

Lebna Dengel’s successor Galawdewos (Claudius) recalled Enbaqom and apologized for his father’s mistreatment of the abbot. He made Enbaqom a councilor in war. Enbaqom seems to have influenced Galawdewos’s Confession of Faith, which represented a diplomatic response to the Catholic Church that helped ensure continued Portuguese support but maintained the independence of the Ethiopian Church.

Invasion turned back
Meanwhile, the Portuguese arrived in 1541 with a 400-strong contingent of musketeers. To make a long story short, they made better use of their muskets than the Somalis did, and this contingent began to turn the tide of the war. Both sides had to call for more reinforcements, in the case of the Somalis from the Turks, but in the end Ahmad Gragn was wounded and later killed in battle (1543), bringing an end to the threat to Ethiopia from Somalia.

Galawdewos’s successor Menas (r.1559-1563) had Enbaqom restored to the office of Echage, which he held until his death in c.1561.

In our age where we are again seeing slaughter of Christians, desecration of churches, and the destruction of major cultural artifacts such as the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban or the ancient Assyrian statues in Iraq currently being destroyed by the Islamic State, it is important to remember that these actions are not new or isolated events historically. But we also need to remember that the current movement of conversions in the Islamic world by dreams and visions is also not a new event: God has been working for centuries among Muslims, though in ways that are not generally visible. Enbaqom is an example of this, as well as an example of faithfulness in the midst of a war of extermination against the church and of active engagement with the persecutors using words and the weapons of the Spirit. May he be an encouragement and model for the suffering Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world today.

[i] This information, which is not widely reported, comes from a conversation he had later in life with Portuguese priest Francisco Àlvares. Àlvares gives his name as Jacob, though in light of the biographical details he provided, this was certainly Abul-Fath’s testimony.

Next Steps

Do you have any abilities as a scholar? Writer? With languages? If so, how might you put them to use on behalf of God’s Kingdom?


Further Reading:
Does this article intrigue you about a place you don’t hear much about? Read The Evangelical Movement in Ethiopia: Resistance and Resilience, written by a native son. You can purchase this book through the Colson Center Online Bookstore. For something in the same vein but shorter, go to the Colson Center Library and read “Ethiopia: The Country Blessed of God.”

(1 Pet. 3:15).


Republished from March 5, 2010

Next Steps

Make it your mission to re-enchant the world, at least that part of it that you occupy week-in and week-out. You may be surprised to find that your enchanted lifestyle has begun to enchant some of your disenchanted neighbors and friends.

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