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The History of a Genuine Fake Philosophical Treatise (atatā Zar’a Yā‘eqob and atatā Walda eywat)

Introduction: Investigating an Investigation
Aïssatou Mbodj et Anaïs Wion
Traduction de Lea Cantor, Jonathan Egid et Anaïs Wion
Cet article est une traduction de :
L’histoire d’un vrai faux traité philosophique (Ḥatatā Zar’a Yā‘eqob et Ḥatatā Walda Ḥeywat). Introduction : Enquête sur une enquête [fr]

Texte intégral

  • 1 Pierre Larousse, Grand dictionnaire universel du xixe siècle : français, historique, géographique, (...)

Certainly fooling a scholar is in itself legitimate and even praiseworthy, since it makes him feel for a time the sweetest, smoothest emotions, at the prospect of a great discovery. The illusion not only compensates for the disappointment, but even surpasses it. So what would it take to fool an entire academy1?

1The following study focuses on one text, the Treatise of Zar'a Yā'eqob or atatā Zar'a Yā'eqob, and its appendix, the atatā Walda Heywat. For the sake of simplicity and as a first step, we will consider them as a single text. This text is unusual in more ways than one. A single article would not suffice to present the multiple faces of this text and account for its polyphony. Hence we propose a series of articles in the form of a serial, following its necessary twists and turns, its trap-door storyline, its colourful characters, its lies and betrayals. The publication will be progressive and, we hope, regular.

  • 2 A. Mbodj, 1998.
  • 3 […] un caso così minimo, e posto ai margini del più marginale lembo dell’orientalismo, L. Ricci, 19 (...)

2This four-handed research project already has a long history. It took root in 1998, when Aïssatou Mbodj was doing her Master's thesis in philosophy on the texts and history of the atatā.2 She was conducting research in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where she met Anaïs Wion and introduced her to the text, along with the questions it raised. Her dissertation was at the heart of our initial reflections on the subject and laid the heuristic foundations for the present study. We reopened these files in 2010, responding to an invitation from Marc Aymes and the organizers of an EHESS seminar entitled "The domestication of forgery", which explored issues related to the notion of "forgery" in the humanities and social sciences. Why did more than ten years go by between these two periods of research on the atatā? The reason is that we had immediately understood that this topic was somehow locked, that a closed door separated two worlds: the one in which the atatā is a philosophical text, the centrepiece of Ethiopian and therefore African philosophy, and the one in which the atatā is a fraud devoid of interest, a "minor case on the margins of the most marginalized of edges of orientalism",3 to quote Lanfranco Ricci, the last Orientalist to take an interest in the subject in 1964. Thus an analytical position exploring both of these universes would only have led to contempt, if not rejection, on the part of each of the relevant academic communities. Presently, with more scholarly maturity and greater institutional leverage, we can reopen this investigation and attempt to understand what the status of this controversial text has been in the past, and what status it holds in the present day.

3This saga takes us back over four hundred years of history. The central character is none other than the text itself. The dramatic thrust is to be found in the changes of status that this text has undergone: what it is, what it was presumed to be, the ways in which it was read, the authorship attributed to it. With a life of its own, it fits into different intellectual landscapes, and has come to life in various historical and cultural contexts. We can thus distinguish between four major moments, which will form the basis of this exposition. There is the time of the "discovery" of the text, that is to say the time in which it was sent by Giusto d'Urbino to Antoine d'Abbadie and included in the corpus of "Ethiopian literature". This moment is linked to the presence of the Capuchin Father Giusto d'Urbino in Ethiopia, to his missionary and scholarly activities there, as well as to the collecting activities of Antoine d'Abbadie and of the editors of scholars in the following generation, who allowed the text to find its place in a scholarly collection, and eventually to free itself from the limits of its status as a manuscript and to acquire that of a critical edition.

4The second stage is that of debunking, followed by a long "spell in the wilderness". From 1920 to the 1960s, the text was excluded from the field of Ethiopian literature by the entire scholarly community. It had no other status than that of a bogus text. It was a scrap unworthy of any history other than that of an unmasking.

5To get to the third moment of our investigation, we have to go back in time and project ourselves into the Ethiopian seventeenth century, the setting in which the story of the atatā takes place. This is the moment of the narration. During this pivotal period in which the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia converted to Catholicism and eventually returned to the tutelage of the Church of Alexandria, an Ethiopian scholar questioned God and examined the foundations of faith and of man's existence on Earth. A freedom-loving man, he questioned any form of intellectual, religious, political or material domination over his free will and autonomy.

  • 4 Valentin Mudimbe thus devotes an appendix to these texts in his influential work, The Invention of (...)
  • 5 See, for example, the Encyclopédie philosophique universelle (Universal Philosophical Encyclopedia)(...)
  • 6 Which is also spelled in the following forms: Zara Yaqob, Zar'ä Ya'aqob, etc.

6The fourth phase is contemporary to us. It concerns the return to glory of the text as a central pillar in the edifice of African philosophy. From this point on, the atatā became a champion of the African cause in the world. It was presented as a "Cartesian", "rationalist" and above all a "philosophical" work, written in Ethiopia by a master and then completed by his disciple, at the time when Descartes, Pascal, and Spinoza were laying the foundations of Western philosophy. Most accounts in the field of philosophy, whether in the subfield of African philosophy4 or in broader overviews of philosophy worldwide, either come down on the side of the authenticity of the treatise or do not even mention that its authorship is debated.5 Beyond academic circles, the number of websites that deal with the Treatise of Zar'a Ya'eqob6 attests to the extent of interest in this text on a global scale. These websites are mainly English-speaking, but also French-speaking or produced by various European countries.

  • 7 Claude Sumner was the first scholar to retranslate the text into French and English, and to widely (...)
  • 8 E. Littmann, 1904.
  • 9 B. Turaev, 1904.

7The text describes itself as an "investigation", from the Ge'ez word atata, a search for knowledge and truth. It is written in the first person singular by a man who, in recounting his life’s journey at an advanced age, endeavours to understand the points that seem essential to him, such as the relationship between a creator God and his creatures, in particular human beings and the place that is assigned to them in Creation. According to this thinker, access to ontological, spiritual and theological, as well as social and cultural knowledge must be achieved through the strength of reason alone, through critical examination, without any pre-established system of thought, but nevertheless in constant dialogue with God. This, in a nutshell, is the content of the Treatise of Zar'a Yā'eqob, which is divided into fifteen short chapters. This first treatise is followed by that of a disciple, in fact a longer treatise whose author, Walda eywat ("Son of Life"), presents himself as the first and only disciple of Zar'a Yā'eqob ("Seed of Jacob"). This second 'investigation' is a fairly pragmatic examination of many of the themes addressed in the atatā Zar'a Yā'eqob, closer to 'common sense' than to philosophy. Some major moral principles, such as the benefits of marriage and criticism of celibacy, the relativity of revealed religions inducing the need to respect one's own customs and traditions, together with advice on hygiene and morals, are scattered – if not rehashed – over the course of some thirty chapters. It is the Treatise of Zar'a Yā'eqob which is best known today. Written in Ge'ez, the classical language of Christian Ethiopia, it is accessible to both French and English readers through numerous French and English translations.7 The critical edition of the Ge'ez text is solely accessible through two publications dating to the beginning of the 20th century, respectively accompanied by Latin8 and Russian9 translations, the latter being almost impossible to find. Last but not least, only two manuscripts bear witness to this text. Both were sent by Father Giusto d’Urbino, a Capuchin missionary living in Ethiopia, to Antoine d'Abbadie, a French scholar eager to complete his already very impressive collection of Ethiopian manuscripts.

  • 10 A. d'Abbadie, 1859, p. 212-213.
  • 11 C. Conti Rossini, 1920.

8How did the atatā Zar'a Yā'eqob acquire the status of a philosophical text that it bears today? Is it self-evident? Has it evolved? Antoine d'Abbadie, its very first Western reader after Giusto d’Urbino, found that the first treatise reflected "great naivety" and believed that the second amounted to "advice dictated by common sense against the most common flaws in Ethiopia". A fine connoisseur of Ethiopian literature and culture, having lived for twelve years on the Christian highlands, he noted, without dwelling on the details, the rarity of the genre of the text, and the incongruity of the "opinions" it expressed in the Ethiopian context.10 The two treatises were edited and translated in 1904, simultaneously and independently by two Orientalist philologists, Enno Littmann and Boris Turaev. E. Littmann entitled his edition Philosophi Abissini, while B. Turaev published an article in 1903 (in Russian) entitled "Ethiopian Freethinkers of the Seventeenth Century", thereby making explicit the status he ascribed to the text. The critical edition and translation of this text thus present it as philosophy, an exercise in free thinking. Indeed, one of the two manuscripts bears the title atatā Zar'a Yā'eqob, which can be translated as 'Inquiry' or 'Treatise' of Zar'a Yā'eqob. The publication of the atatā in the early years of the twentieth century did not create any particular craze for this text. The period was one of triumphant philology and, in the field of Oriental Studies, the publication of unpublished texts was common. Specialists in Oriental, ancient, and Semitic languages were relentless in their translation and editing efforts, acting as trailblazers in Oriental literatures. It was only after the First World War that a great Italian philologist and historian, Carlo Conti Rossini, re-examined the text of the atatā and gave his verdict: it was a forgery.11 In about twenty pages, he demonstrated that its author was Father Giusto d’Urbino, the very same who sent the only two known manuscript copies to Antoine d'Abbadie. This demonstration, issued by an authoritative figure, convinced the small world of Ethiopian studies, and the text was relegated to the shameful rank of forgery. However, at the time of African independences, as African intellectuals sought to emancipate themselves from the colonial legacy, and as universities of African states set up autonomous structures, the text of the atatā underwent a radical change in status. Claude Sumner, professor of philosophy at Addis Ababa University, reread, re-translated, studied, commented upon, and circulated the text in academic circles. As a result, it became the cornerstone of African philosophy. It was the text that proved that Africa has produced philosophical texts similar to those in the Western world. Here we have a rather rare case of a text being rehabilitated after having been subjected to the normally defamatory business of debunking. This reversal has since then operated in a very active way. We find a stark opposition in attitudes between, on the one hand, those for whom this text is the paragon of African reflexive thought and has become an almost sacred text (i.e. subject to many passionate exegeses but whose origin cannot possibly be doubted), and, on the other, those for whom it is nothing but a fraud unworthy of further consideration.

9Between these two attitudes, it seemed to us that there was space to reopen the investigation and make this text an object of history. An analysis of the correspondence between Giusto d’Urbino and Antoine d'Abbadie provides fresh evidence to situate the texts of the atatā in the intellectual process of Giusto d’Urbino and offers a cluster of clues suggesting that the authorship of these works should be attributed to the Capuchin Father. The difficulty of this approach is immediately obvious: it leads us to produce evidence against the authenticity of this text, even though the process of debunking seems perilous to us. Indeed, no proof is definitive, even if the accumulation of evidence produces a presumption, or even a conviction. Moreover, the outcome would be very poor if it were merely a matter of denying this text its place in an established corpus. Instead, we have endeavoured to reinsert this text in the different moments of its existence, in a history that is at once Ethiopian and international, academic and political. As much as a study of the text itself, therefore, it is a matter of analyzing the mechanisms at work in the production of an academic discourse, be it in history, philology, philosophy or in the context of research policy. All of these discourses construct a vision of the world in which this text plays a role, either through its existence or through the denial of its existence.

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1990, Encyclopédie philosophique universelle, Paris, PUF.

1990, Les notions philosophiques, Paris, PUF.

2000, Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Londres, Routledge, entrée « Ethiopia, Philosophy in », p. 259.

Abbadie, d’, A., 1859, Catalogue raisonné de manuscrits éthiopiens appartenant à Antoine d’Abbadie, Paris.

Conti Rossini, C., 1920, « Lo Ḥatatā Zar’a Yā‘qob e il padre Giusto da Urbino », Rendiconti della Reale Accademia dei Lincei, 29, ser. 5, p. 213-223.

Littmann, E. (éd.), 1904, Philosophi Abissini, sine Vita et Philosophia Magistri Zar’a Ya’qob einseque Discipuli Walda-Heywat Philosophia, Paris (Corpus scriptorum christianorum orientalium, vol. 18 et 19, Scriptores aethiopici, t. 1 et 2).

Mbodj, A., 1998, Le cas Zara Yaqob. Étude critique de la « philosophie éthiopienne », mémoire de maîtrise de philosophie sous la dir. d’A. Benmakhlouf, université Paris X-Nanterre, 91 p.

Mudimbe, V., 1988, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, James Currey, 241 p.

Ofosu-Appiah, L. H., 1977, The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography (in 20 Volumes). Volume One, Ethiopia-Ghana, New York, Reference Publications.

Ricci, L., 1964, « Le ultime fortune di Giusto da Urbino », in A Francesco Gabrieli. Studi orientalistici offerti nel sessantesimo compleanno dai suoi colleghi e discepoli, Rome, p. 225-241.

Sumner, C., 1976, The Treatise of Zärʾa Yaʿǝqob and of Wäldä Ḥǝywat: Text and Authorship, Addis Ababa.

Sumner, C., 1983, Sagesse éthiopienne, Paris, Éditions Recherche sur les civilisations, vol. 1, 83 p.

Turaev, B., 1903, « Les libres penseurs éthiopiens du xviie siècle », Journal du ministère de l’Éducation, p. 443-476 [en russe].

Turaev, B., 1904, Pamjatniki ėfiopskoj pis’mennosti. 1, Ḥatat zarha Yāqoba / izd. teksta i perevod B. Turaeva, Saint-Pétersbourg, Tip. Imp. Akad. Nauk.

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1 Pierre Larousse, Grand dictionnaire universel du xixe siècle : français, historique, géographique, mythologique, bibliographique, tome 11, Paris, 1866, p. 756.

2 A. Mbodj, 1998.

3 […] un caso così minimo, e posto ai margini del più marginale lembo dell’orientalismo, L. Ricci, 1964, p. 225.

4 Valentin Mudimbe thus devotes an appendix to these texts in his influential work, The Invention of Africa, 1988.

5 See, for example, the Encyclopédie philosophique universelle (Universal Philosophical Encyclopedia) (1990), the dictionary Les notions philosophiques (Philosophical Notions) (1990), and in English the Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2000). See also Ofosu-Appiah, L. H., 1977.

6 Which is also spelled in the following forms: Zara Yaqob, Zar'ä Ya'aqob, etc.

7 Claude Sumner was the first scholar to retranslate the text into French and English, and to widely disseminate it (C. Sumner, 1976, 1983).

8 E. Littmann, 1904.

9 B. Turaev, 1904.

10 A. d'Abbadie, 1859, p. 212-213.

11 C. Conti Rossini, 1920.

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Aïssatou Mbodj et Anaïs Wion, « The History of a Genuine Fake Philosophical Treatise (atatā Zar’a Yā‘eqob and atatā Walda eywat) »Afriques [En ligne], Débats et lectures, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2021, consulté le 07 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Aïssatou Mbodj

CNRS Research Fellow, Institut des Mondes Africains (IMAF)

Anaïs Wion

CNRS Research Fellow, Institut des Mondes Africains (IMAF)

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