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Revisiting Zara Yacob, The Rationalist Ethiopian Philosopher of the Seventeenth Century

This Zara Yacob Project, initiated and sponsored by the Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA) and African Ascent, presents two articles authored by Ghelawdewos Araia and Tedros Kiros, and will have a companion video discussion that will be disseminated to the public at large and the academia in particular. Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia is professor of history and political science at Africana Studies, Lehman College of the City University of New York, and he is the founder and president of the Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA); Dr. Tedros Kiros is professor of philosophy and literature at Berklee School of Music and Harvard University (summer school), and he is the producer and host of African Ascent.  

The Autobiography of Zara Yacob and Decoding his Rationalist Discourses

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD

Before I delve into the autobiography of Zara Yacob, a fascinating and highly intelligent Ethiopian philosopher of the seventeenth century, I first like to begin with what I remarked about him a decade and half ago (April 2005) in my article entitled “Modernism, Post-Modernism, and Afrocentrism: Meanings for Ethiopia”:

It is important to acknowledge the Weberian mantra of religion/development nexus in rationalist analysis, but it is more important for our present discussion to rediscover our own rationalist thinkers such as Zara Yacob. Contrary to the basic tenets and doctrine of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Zara Yacob, sometimes in the late 16th century and early 17th century, advanced the idea of ‘God as reason’ and hence ‘faith is rational and not an irrational and dogmatic assertion’; celibacy and monastic life were unreasonable and lent is meant to be not God’s wish. The most fascinating aspect of Zara Yacob’s philosophy that comes very close to our 20th/ 21st centuries is his ‘citizen rights advocacy’ and his challenge to the status quo in this respect. He argued, “citizens who are morally/rationally formed need not be silenced and intimidated by an authoritarian or manipulative sovereign…and men should be accountable for their actions.”

Credit is due to Claude Sumner for authoring The Treatise of Zara Yacob, the Source of African Philosophy: The Ethiopian Philosophy of Man. But because most Ethiopian philosophers were educated in European curriculum, they knew more about Rene Descartes than they did about Zara Yacob. Upon transcending Eurocentrism and rediscovering Zara Yacob, the Ethiopian philosopher would have the opportunity to witness notions such as mediation, discourse of method, rules of direction of the mind, and hyperbolic doubt promoted by Descartes (“father of modern philosophy”), also incorporated in the corpus of Zara Yacob’s philosophy.”

My remarks on Zara Yacob above gives the reader the gist of the rational discourses of the Ethiopian genius of the 17th century that I will systematically dissect in this article. However, when I wrote the commentary in my Modernism and Post-Modernism, I did not have the brilliant piece on Zara Yacob authored by Teodros Kiros, that is now included in this Zara Yacob Revisiting Project with a separate heading.

Who is Zara Yacob? According to the book on Zara Yacob translated from Geez into Amharic by Zemenfes Kudus Abraha, Zara Yacob himself says, “…I was born into the ecclesiastical priesthood in the district of Aksum in the year 1592 Nehase 25 (Ethiopian calendar) in the third-year reign of Emperor Zara Yacbo [it should be Yacob, and not Zara Yacob, who ended his reign in 1594 EC] from peasant parents. My baptismal name was Zara Yacob but people call me Workie. When I approached school age, my father sent me to school and after I read the Psalms, my teacher tells my father, ‘your child has bright heart and is patient and studious, and if you send him to a higher school he could be an intellect and a teacher’; and after my teacher’s recommendation my father sent me to a higher school to study Zema (hymn). However, I had a creaky gutter or hoarse throat and my voice was not good, and my friends mocked me and I was delayed by three months; I was sad and melancholic and instead I decided to study grammar with another teacher. At this juncture, God gave me a special talent to learn quickly with my friends; now, instead of being sad, I was delighted and stayed in the school for four years.

During those days, God delivered me from death; as I was playing with my friends I slid and fell off the cliff; unless God miraculously rescued me, I wouldn’t know how I survived; after I recuperated, I measured the height of the cliff by employing a long rope and it measured 25 feet and some inches; Thankful to God, I went back to school and began learning the interpretation of holy books and in this schooling I stayed ten years, and I studied books pertaining to how foreigners and our country’s teachers interpreted them; most of the time the interpretations were not in congruence with my heart. However, I hid all my thoughts within my heart and kept quiet and I went back and settled in my country Aksum, and for four years I taught books, but the times were very bad; in the 19th year of the reign of Susneyos, the foreigner Abuna Alfonso came and after two years, because the king liked and embraced the religion of the foreigners, in all Ethiopia people were displaced and became refugees, and those who did not accept the new religion were being intimidated.  

When Zara Yacob says the interpretations of the books were not compatible with his own interpretation, he was employing the observer-participant and/or ‘thick description’ of cultures and ideas ala Clifford Greetz, an American anthropologist known for his book Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture. Zara Yacob was indeed greatly involved in the interpretation of ideas, outlooks, culture, and religions that also include foreign religions, as he himself tells us. 

In the above narration, which is by and large summarized from chapter one of Zara Yacob’s book Hatata, I have used the first person singular so that Zara Yacob himself tell readers about his own life, and by doing this 1) his autobiography is authenticated, and 2) the false claim by some Ethiopian “scholars” that Zara Yacob is from Gondar and not from Aksum, a despicable narrowminded assertion, is negated. But from now on, that is, beginning chapter two of his book, I will engage in decoding the discourses of Zara Yacob’s philosophy for the sole purpose of reinforcing his highly sophisticated world outlook. I will also compare and contrast the many themes and theses of Zara Yacob with many other thinkers and present-day scholars, especially those that I found incredibly similar in the analysis and interpretation of philosophical underpinnings.

Throughout the book, and in all his critical examinations and inquires, Zara Yacob superbly underscores his thematic analyses in conjunction with the ‘heart’, the leitmotif of his Hatata. This, however, is not surprising because in the Ethiopian ethos, the heart is not only equated with wisdom and love but it is also associated with the brain, the seat of thinking, if not the thinking machine itself. It is in light of this portrayal of the heart that we must understand what is stated above: ‘Your child has bright heart’; ‘the interpretations are not in congruence with my heart’; ‘I hid all my thoughts in my heart’. The word ‘Lebam’ (Amharic and Tigrigna) for ‘wise’ is derived from ‘Lebe’ (Amharic and Tigrigna for heart). The heart also took centerstage in the philosophical thoughts of the ancient Egyptians, and during mummification process, while all vital organs like the intestine and the liver were extracted out from the body and mummified in separate canopies, the heart remained in the body and was mummified along with the body.

Interestingly, some five years ago, when I was teaching my Ancient Egypt course at Lehman College, CUNY, in due course of my lecture, I told my students that the heart is a miniature brain; some were curios but the majority in the class were not impressed. Now, to my gratification, scientists have proved that the heart has its own ‘little brain’, and one of the pioneers in this nascent vista of research, is J Andrew Armour, who, in 1991, heralded the idea of a ‘little brain in the heart,’ and convincingly defines it as “intrinsic cardiac nervous system”, the ‘heart brain that is composed of approximately 40,000 neurons, which, incidentally, are alike the brain neurons.

Moreover, writing in the Science News blog, Laura Sanders (June 2, 2020), argues that “the heart has its own ‘brain’. Now, scientists have drawn a detailed map of this little brain, called intracardiac nervous system, in rat hearts. The heart’s big boss is the brain, but nerve cells in the heart has a say, too. These neurons are thought to play a crucial role in the heart health, helping to fine-tune heart rhythms and perhaps protecting people against certain kinds of heart diseases.”   

In chapter two, Zara Yacob critically examines his erstwhile enemy Wolde-Yohannes, Emperor Susneyos, and the then head of the Church Alfonso. He also comments on the religion of the foreigners (the Catholics) and the Orthodox religion of the Ethiopians without taking sides; he does not say this religion is right and that religion is not right, but he believed that we learn from all and that is a good thing. However, because Wolde-Yohannes lied to the king by saying “Zara Yacob is teaching the people to rise in defense of their religion, kill the king, and deport the foreigners,” he had no choice but to run for his life; when fleeing, he had only three ounce of gold and the Book of Psalms (popularly known in Ethiopia as Mezmur Dawit or the Songs of David); he did not tell anyone where he was heading for but he headed toward the Tekeze River. While wandering from village to village, he began begging for food and people mistook him as a wandering hermit; he was not sure where he will end up, but temporarily he entered into a cave and protected himself with a fence so that wild animals don’t enter the cave and eat him. In his solitude in the cave, Zara Yacob felt that he was in heaven; he was in peace and prayed to God via his Psalms.

Chapter three essentially is about the existence of God and the separation of religions and chapter four deals with the examination of religion and prayer, and it is in these chapters that the real Hatata of Zara Yacob emerges; as a matter of fact, throughout the book, the embodiments of Zara Yacob’s philosophy on all knowledge and truth such as investigation, examination, inquiry, study, inspection, and exploration are reflected; and this methodology, in turn, is manifested in the questions Zara Yacob directs to himself, and provide answers to himself. Here below are some examples:

‘who gave me the ears?’; ‘how did I come to this earth?’; How did I come into existence?’; ‘where did I come from?’ if I were in existence before the world came into existence, could I have the beginnings and end of my life?’; ‘have I created myself?’; ‘however, when I was created, I may not have existed!’; ‘and if I say my father and mother created me, I would have inquired how my parents and their parents came into existence until the creator is found’.

From the above multiple interrogations, I believe Zara Yacob was trying to find meaning in existence and with an understanding that everything that exists in the world has a purpose. He further continues his modality of investigation and says, “if I was born from my parents, I would say there must be one existing lord that lives all over and this lord has no beginning and end; his time can neither be counted nor changed. I say there is uncreated creator; if there was no creator, there won’t be creatures, and thus we must say there is a creator that created us, and this creator created us with knowledge and articulate speech.”

In regards to the ‘uncreated creator’, it seems to me Zara Yacob, very much like Friedrich Hegel, was trying to grapple with the ‘unmoved mover’ (borrowed from Aristotle). The ‘unmoved mover’ according to Aristotle is the one that moves without being moved or the prime mover , or the uncaused cause, or mover of all the motion in the universe; after all these convoluted characterization of the ‘unmoved mover’, Aristotle finally calls it the ‘active intellect’ or God, but the God of Aristotle is not the Christian God of Zara Yacob; the Christian God that comes very close to that of Zara Yacob’s God is the God of Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Italian philosopher and Catholic priest.

And with respect to his search for truth, Zara Yacob entertains the very essence of Descartes (and Plato before him) rationale, “we can only trust the truths that the mind arrives on its own” although the path to exploring the truth for Zara Yacob is prayer, not dogmatic but rational prayer. In fact, Zara Yacob says, “when I pray to my creator he heard my voice and I am greatly elated; I pray with hope and I loved my creator from the bottom of my heart.”  

However, Zara Yacob’s rational discourse is clearly manifested in his reasoning that goes like this: ‘Because my creator knows about my ideas before I was born, I said Oh! my creator, give me knowledge,’ and as we shall see later, ‘knowledge’ and ‘prayer’ are recurrent concepts and are central in all his investigative discourses. ‘Knowledge-as-motion’ is also a recurrent theme in Hegel’s writings, including in his original approach to epistemology already formulated in his ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’; knowledge for Zara Yacob, however, is a wisdom given to man by God.   

Nevertheless, Zara Yacob is a born-inquisitive mind and he won’t be satisfied with some interrogations, and it looks he was indeed a consummate rational thinker with no limitation to his inquiry. “Once upon a time” says Zara Yacob, in chapter 4 of his book, “I said to myself, do all these written holy books have the truth? And because I did not have prior knowledge, I wanted to ask the learned men, but on second thought I guessed that they might tell me what is in their hearts.” By that Zara Yacob meant, the so-called knowledgeable and learned men, when consulted, could not maintain objectivity and integrity and may provide biased ideas only.

Furthermore, Zara Yacob says, “I asked the foreigner on his religion but he gave me interpretation based on his religion, and I asked the great Ethiopian teacher he too gave me interpretation according to his religion; and I inquired, ‘where shall I get whoever judges for the truth?’

Zara Yacob’s unparalleled and tremendous passion for his search to find the truth, as always and very much like a monologue, gives an answer to his own query: “If I am knowledgeable, what do I know? It is not without reason that God created me as a wise human being.” Now, at this stage, the wise man, the homo sapiens so to speak, was born in the mind of Zara Yacob, but his inquisitive mind will not be quenched given the vast array of complex and yet universal realities that need to be explored and examined. In chapter five of his book, thus, he confronts the so-called commandments of Moses and Mohammed, and substantiates his arguments by employing the doctrines of the so-called prophets and premise, and via logical deduction he arrives at his own inferences.

In the Book of Moses, there is bad wisdom that is in contradiction with the laws of nature and with God’s wisdom. According to the laws of nature and God’s wisdom, so that human existence perpetuates and does not become extinct, and in order to beget children, a man and a woman are ordered to engage in sexual intercourse, and this kind of relationship was ordained by God to man, and because God’s work should not be desecrated, sexual intercourse cannot be desecrated or portrayed as profane. In this regard Moses promotes falsehood.

The marriage system is God’s system; monastic life, however, prevents the perpetuation of the human species and encourages rather the extinction of human life, thereby undermining God’s wisdom. If the Christian doctrine argues that celibacy or monastic life is better than marriage, it advocates falsehood, and it is not with God.

Similarly, we know in our hearts that Mohammed’s teachings cannot be from God. Men and women are born equal in number; it is one man to one woman, not one man to eight or ten women. If one marries ten women, nine men will remain without women, and this violates God’s orders and the law of nature, as well as the benefits of marriage; the law of nature, in fact, orders a man to a woman marriage relationship.

By ‘law of nature’ Zara Yacob means the regularly occurring patterns that we encounter or the inevitable phenomenon observable in human society, and in the latter context he solidifies his argument of the opposite sex marriage relationship and of on-to-one and not one-to-multiple relationships. And he further argues that Mohammed’s teachings, and that of Moses and the Christians view this God’s wisdom as damnable and/or detestable, however, is wrong. This Mosaic outlook makes a woman’s life hard, prevents the upbringing of children, and destroys love; therefore, the Mosaic law cannot be from God that created a woman.

Again, whatever is stated in the Gospel, that s/he who abandon his father, mother, and children cannot be right to God; actually, on the contrary, the act of abandoning is tantamount to terminating all human life; but God is not going to be contented by destroying his own creature. Our heart tells us that abandoning our fathers and mothers during their old age is a major curse; and those who abandon their children are by far worse than wild animals who don’t abandon their offspring.

‘Muslims argue that a human being can be sold and bought like animals,’ and this argument of ‘human chattel’ was detestable and offensive to Zara Yacob, and he tells us that out heart tells us that the Islamic law cannot come from the God that created us. But Mohammed made the weak person the property of the powerful, and he equated the wise creature with the unwise animal; can this violation come from God?

God apparently does not order frivolous things; he won’t say eat this, don’t eat that; eat today and don’t eat tomorrow; what Christians thought when observing lent, [God] does not say eat meat today but don’t eat meat tomorrow; he did not say to Muslims eat during night fall and don’t eat during daytime; our heart tells us that God trained us to eat what is beneficial to our health. On the other hand, such schedules of one day for eating and the other day for fasting compromises our health…God gave us permission to eat…and we must extend gratitude to God for letting us eat, and we should not attempt to correct or contravene his blessings.

“If they tell me that lent is designed to kill the love of meat,” says Zara Yacob, “I will advance contraire idea by saying that love of meat actually is God’s wisdom to enable a man attracting a woman and a woman attracting a man”; and we must follow God’s design instead of eliminating it; our creator did not introduce this love unto humans and animals without purpose; in fact, he planted this love of meat unto the body of man (in the generic sense of the word) so that it serves as a base for the worldly life and creatures.

When the Jews, Christians, and Muslims invented the law of lent, they did not pay attention to God’s work, and they lied by saying that ‘God gave us lent and prohibited us from eating’. But, our creator God gave us food that we eat and not keep distance from it.

The rational thinking of Zara Yacob on meat eating human behavior is quite astonishing, and for the sake of clarity I like to digress briefly from the central thesis of Zara Yacob’s discourse and examine the psychological dimension of flesh eating. Modern day psychologists reaffirm that love of meat eating is a complex phenomenon illustrating the juxtaposition of morality, emotions, cognition, and personality characteristics. In fact, they ensure us that meat eating suggests correlations with masculinity in a given hierarchical society. And if we understand meat eating in the context of psychology, Zara Yacob was indeed ahead of his time; he did not only relate meat eating with masculinity but also with its benefits in romantic life as well.

In chapter six, Zara Yacob begins by saying, ‘and there is one major inquiry (investigation): all people are equal and all creatures are knowledgeable and/or wise; our heart (instinct) tells us that he [God] is not 1) for life; 2) for death; 3) for mercy; 4) for condemnation; such partiality could not be part of a sacred God.

During this epoch, the people of our country changes the love of the Gospel into conflict and subsequently into earthly poison; they shattered their religion from below; while conspiring they preach and they are wrongly perceived as Christians.

In chapter seven Zara Yacob critically examines the laws of God and the laws of man, and as always (and I call this Zara Yacob Inquisitive Methodology – ZAIM-), he begins posing a question: “Why would God tolerate the liar people when they push his own people to engage in abandoning others?” and as always, via ZAIM he answers his own inquiry himself (which I call a soliloquy monologue of investigative discourse): “But, God gave each and every person wisdom in order to know what is false and what is true and also to choose between what is false and what is true. Therefore, via the wisdom that God gave us, lets discover the truth with our hearts.”

It seems to me however that Zara Yacob was not only in search of truth but also in search of ‘true’ people, ‘real’ people in the midst of a world full of liars. This Zara Yacob discourse could reflect of his times full of negative energy to which he himself became a victim and was even compelled to leave his native Aksum and wander in the wilderness until he settled in Enfraz, Gondar.

“All people are liars,” says Zara Yacob, “and we cannot get the truth from them, ad if we choose falsehood instead of the truth, it is we who will be destroyed by our own mistake, but the crafty order of God that is made for all creatures would not vanish.”

On the top of the above true-false nexus, Zara Yacob truly believes that the liars want to destroy the law of nature; they can only expose their weak falsehood and God will laugh unto them, because God knows how to judge and he will make the sinners entrap themselves by their own deeds. Thus, the monk that denigrates the marriage system will be ensnared by a very bad illness and will be entrapped in unnatural sexual conduct.

Beyond the liars’ ultimate destiny, Zara Yacob examines what he calls ‘human want’ and in regards to the latter, he reasons by reaffirming his own outlook that ‘our want on this earth will not be satisfied’; those who don’t have they want to get what they need, and those who have want to add more. All people in this world, as long as they live, they want to have more and they won’t be quenched.

Interestingly, what Harvard psychologist and educator Abraham Maslow introduces ‘hierarchy of needs’ in the 1940s and 1950s as the basic needs or psychological needs of food, water, warmth, rest, or security needs etc. were thoroughly examined by Zara Yacob in the seventeenth century. Maslow argues that in order motivation to arise at the next stage, each must be satisfied with the individuals themselves. In the same vein, Zara Yacob argued that human want will increase once the first needs are accomplished and there is no end to those human needs; hence ‘hierarchy of needs.’ Both Zara Yacob and Abraham Maslow clearly delineated physical needs and psychological needs; their difference is that Zara Yacob was more concerned with what he calls spiritual needs in the context of the human soul as opposed to the physical needs that satisfies the human body, and there is no doubt that his synthesis on ‘human want’ is psychosomatic. 

What I found interesting about the notion of ‘soul’ of Zara Yacob is that he does not simply portray it as a metaphysical entity but he gives it the semblance of a power with the potential of everlastingness, and sometimes he depicts it like a concrete material force that has a thinking power because he says, ‘she [our soul] thinks about God, and in her mind can see God’; ‘she can think that she can live forever’ and ‘it is not without reason that God gave her [our soul] the power of thinking’; ‘but he gave her so that she thinks and find out’. According to Zara Yacob, it is not only the brain, a concrete gray matter, that thinks, but also metaphysical entities like the soul also think. Ultimately, he substantiates his idea of ‘a thinking soul’ in the context of the law of nature, and he reasons, ‘if we investigate the laws of nature, our heart tells us that it is in order and its essence can be proven.’      

In chapter eight, Zara Yacob comes up with what he calls ‘natural knowledge’ and I like to label it ‘instinctive intelligence’. Zara Yacob teaches us that we love people like we love ourselves, and says, ‘what you don’t want people to do to you, don’t do unto them’; ‘our heart tells us that we are not supposed to commit murder, theft, and lie’, because our creator gave us wisdom and skill; concomitantly, he gave us permission to make our livelihood better through knowledge and work, and without these we cannot attain what we want. Moreover, he gave us permission to marry and raise children.

We must understand that God did not create us to be perfect…but with his craftiness he gave us wisdom for our preparedness in this world…he also created us as wise humans so that we appreciate his greatness and pray unto him. In this chapter, apart from the cliché of ‘love others like yourself’, he repeatedly injects the idea of ‘a knowledgeable soul’ that recognizes the greatness of God, and the necessity of constant prayer is guided by our instinctive intelligence. With this rationale, thus, Zara Yacob promotes his discourse on ‘challenges and prayers’ in chapter nine of his book.

In chapter nine, Zara Yacob begins by saying, “I prayed with all my heart and God listened to my prayers and gave me salvation/redemption; and I sang from Psalms 116 which states ‘God listened to my demands and I loved it. I repeated it, and I thought this song was written for me. That kind of Zara Yacob’s feeling in which he associates a song of David to his own person reminds me of a film entitled Amadeus that I watched in 1984; this film obviously is about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Mozart apparently writes a requiem at the request of Antonio Salieri (Murry Abrahams), but when Mozart finished writing the requiem, he exclaimed, “I felt that I wrote this requiem to myself!”; the difference between Zara Yacob and Mozart’s emotional expressions, however, is that of the former is pleasant and positive while that of the latter is melancholic and negative, but the common wavelength in anticipating encounters unto oneself is the same.  

In chapter ten, Zara Yacob discusses prayer in the context of mundane and sacred works, and although he emphasizes the significance of prayer, he argues that prayer alone is not enough unless it is supplemented by work (physical labor). He reasons, ‘I thought, to the extent possible I should work till exhaustion to fulfill what is necessary for my life…I prayed to God and said, ‘God bless all my ideas, my life, and my work…give me happiness and money in accordance with what you know and you permit’, and ‘turn the hearts of my work colleagues to something positive…because your blessings and your will, if fulfilled, make my old-age a fulfilled old-age. As we shall see at the very end of this article, the prayer in regards to old-age was granted to Zara Yacob.

“While I pray,” says Zara Yacob, “I also admired God’s creatures, animals, and wild beasts in their order”. In order to protect themselves and reproduce, these animals attract each other; and the logs and grasses in the wild created with great craft sprout, get green, and grow flowers, and yield fruit without making any mistake, and due to this [behavior] they seem to have life (life in the sense of feelings and/or emotions). On top of this, says Zara Yacob, “Your name (that is God’s name) is praised because of the mountains, hills, rivers, and springs.”

Zara Yacob continues on his nature discourse by admiring the work of God: This work of your hand that made the sun out of which emanates light for the world; the moon and the stars that you made them move on the roads you made for them without making any error, and this [really] is fascinating. Because the stars are far away, they look small and minute, but who is the one who knows their number, their distance, and their size?

The clouds provide rain in order to create lash green; all great, all wondrous, all crafty; that is the way they were created; I spent two years admiring and extending gratitude to my creator.

Zara Yacob continues…Again, I thought God’s work is extremely fine and his ideas are deep and unintelligible, and in a typical ZAIM tradition, Zara Yacob inquires, “but why wood the minor and innocent person lie that he is a messenger of God and [shows off] pontificates he has wisdom? Oh lord! I, in your eyes, am poor and innocent and so that I appreciate your greatness and know what I am supposed to know about you as well as praise you, give me wisdom.   

Chapter ten of Zara Yacob’s book clearly demonstrates that this fascinating man was also a great admirer of nature, and although given the rich history of the Aksumite Ethiopian civilization in general and the development of advanced astronomy of ancient Ethiopians in particular could have contributed to Zara Yacob’s imagination of the heavenly bodies, his thesis on the revolution of the planets on their orbits (he calls them roads) and nature and characteristics  of the stars brings him very close to modern astrophysicists.   

Chapter eleven is about Zara Yacob’s internal migration and sojourn in Enfraz, Gondar after he left his native Aksum for good and this coincides with the reign of King Fasiladas in 1632 (1625 EC). At Enfraz, Zara Yacob earned a living by writing Psalms to one rich man by the name Habtu; he did the same for his son Wolde-Michael and the latter gave him two goats and an ox. At this juncture, Zara Yacob converses with his own inner voice and says, “I would like to live with everybody in love and peace; and instead of enjoying respect in accursed houses, I rather isolate myself from people, consume the fruits of my labor and choose to hide and live with the wisdom that God granted me.”

At Enfraz, Zara Yacob was the one and only one writer, and he wrote books and letters for those who demanded them and they compensated him with cloth, goats, grain, salt, and other essential goods; he ultimately became a teacher of Psalms at the behest of the wealthy man Habtu, who assigned Zara Yacob to teach his children, and subsequently Zara Yacob developed an intimate relationship with Habtu and his extended family members.

Chapter twelve is about what Zara Yacob calls ‘legitimate and voluntary marriage’, and he candidly and bluntly asserts that ‘life for a man without a woman leads to disaster’; ‘in the long haul, a man needs a woman and it is not right that he leads a bachelor life’. And in order to substantiate his reasoning of the legitimate and voluntary marriage, Zara Yacob reiterates his recurrent theme and advises his fellow humans: ‘In order not to be ensnared by their own trap, humans should not lead an unnatural life.”

When Zara Yacob was ready to settle down, he tells us he told his master Habtu, “my appearance is due to the bad times, but I am not a monk” and then he goes on telling the tale of his encounter with a young lady: There was a girl who was the relative of my lord, but although she was well-mannered, wise and patient, her countenance was not attractive. However, I proposed to my lord Habtu to give me this girl as a wife, and my lord said, “okay, from now on she is going to be your slave and not my slave” Zara Yacob was not happy about the slave attribute to his would be wife, but although he is intelligently analytical and could have made an incisive remark, in rather quick and inventive verbal manner, he simply said, “she is going to be my wife and not my slave; a man  and a woman in one flesh and one property are equal and we are not supposed to view them as master and slave.” And my lord Habtu responded, “You are a man of God, and do what you like to do.” And we called the girl, and I said to her “can you be my wife and would you love me?”; “If my lord permits” she said, and my lord Habtu said to her, “I give you permission”; with the permission of the lord, Zara Yacob and Hirut were married and happily ever after; the legitimate and voluntary marriage was accomplished!

What came to me personally as a big surprise is the fact that Zara Yacob arranges his own marriage and asks Hirut directly whether she would marry him or not; this kind of unique behavior of Zara Yacob was dismissed as vulgar in the 17th century and unthinkable even in the 20th/21st century Ethiopian society; what Zara Yacob did is a new relationship pattern even for present-day Ethiopian communities, especially in the rural areas; Zara Yacob, without doubt, was ahead of his time! 

In chapter thirteen, Zara Yacob critically examines the crisis that befell Ethiopia following the religious conversion of King Susneyos to Catholicism and the deterioration of the political system and the culture of the people even during Fasiladas when a lot blood was shed despite the fine advice the king enjoyed from his close associates. Following the political and cultural crisis, famine engulfed the country and many people died. According to Zara Yacob, a prophecy of a man hating his own brother and thus lives in darkness has happened. But of his own family, Zara Yacob says that they exhausted their gold reserves and sold their clothes and cattle and purchased food for themselves and others and they were not hungry like others; “in the two-years long famine,” says Zara Yacob, “we were neither hungry nor sick; in fact, the maxim of ‘you shall not be ashamed during bad times; you shall be satiated during hunger’ reflected our situation.”

Chapter fourteen is about the passing of Habtu and the brief bio-sketch of his son, and chapter fifteen is about the end of Zara Yacob himself; and the rationalist Ethiopian philosopher narrates his contributions and how his legacy should be continued. “When I scribbled this book,” says Zara Yacob, “I kept it secret; after I die, if a knowledgeable and inquisitive person is found, I beg him to add ideas on my ideas. I began investigating what had not been examined or inspected before, and so that the people of our country know the truth and love their brothers, as well as refrain from quarreling on senseless ideas surrounding religion; the person who understands this and has more knowledge should continue what I started, and teach and write about it.

The person who would follow the footsteps of Zara Yacob and continue his mission of religiosity, ethics, and rational thinking was his student Wolde-Hiwot, who actually became the narrator of the life of Zara Yacob and the promoter of his ideas; Wolde-Hiwot tells us that his mentor Zara Yacob died at the age of ninety-three, without any ailment or illness.

Zara Yacob and The Rationality of The Human Heart

Teodros Kiros, PhD

To the ancient Egyptians and following them to Zara Yacob, a seventeenth century Ethiopian Rationalist, the heart is a symbol of Wisdom broadly understood, and a symbol of Reason and Rationality, analytically understood.

That is:

The Heart is a symbol of Reason

Humans can reason

They reason with the Heart


The ancient Egyptians mummified the human heart and sucked out the brain. The heart captured their imagination and stimulated their reasoning power and their wisdom. It is said that hearts were lifted and soaked in wines and herbs, preserved for worship by saints. Aztec priests captured the hearts of their enemies and “offered them to their Gods”. The Egyptians were cardiocentrists. They considered the brain worthless, whereas they worshipped the heart. The human heart also fascinated the Greek philosophers. Plato and Aristotle. Plato, however, was much more concerned with the wisdom of the Soul than he was with the heart; in The Republic he divides the soul into three parts, the Rational, the Spirited and the Desiring, and primacy of governance is given to Rationality, a foundational attribute to the Soul. Plato was cerebrocentrist. Aristotle, his brilliant student, parts company from his teacher. As the son of biologist, and influenced by his father, and accustomed to shrewd observation, he dissected and studied animal hearts, his Historia Animalum and De Patribus Animalum, are wealth of empirical evidence and detailed documentation of the structure and function of the heart. He disagreed with Plato that the heart is cushion, by arguing that, in fact, the heart is the seat of the soul, therefore, the seat of wisdom and rationality.

The human heart, this industrious and muscular pump, the size of a fist, which beats 100,000 times, and pumps 2000 gallons of blood, through 60,000 miles of blood vessels, and which in a life time will beat more than 2.5 billion times, is also the site of a penetrating intelligence and the seat of wisdom and generator of not merely irrational feelings but passionate thought impulses. It is the heart which carves out the right moral path and the originator of thought impulses in the form of emotion. It is the ultimate house of what we moderns have come to call moral intelligence. The heart as part of the body is indeed a diligent blood pumper, and as the seat of the soul, it originates thought impulses. Thus, the heart has both a scientific function and a transcendental function; the heart is both a physical material/material and non-physical transcendental organ. The body and mind dichotomy, which raged in the seventeenth century, was made prominent by Descartes, who was claiming that the body and the mind could not possibly interact, and that the body is merely sensations, and the mind a thinking organ. However, in contrast, Zara Yacob orchestrated a Copernican revolution by arguing that the Leb (heart), (in Geez, a classical Ethiopian language) is in fact both the seat of emotion and the seat of thoughts. That the dichotomy of between the body and mind is overcome inside the heart, the seat of the soul. Zara Yacob’s resolution of the dichotomy is his view that the heart is part of the body, as a blood pumper, and part of the non-bodily, the penetrating intelligence which originates and dissects thoughts, and directs them to the brain, where thought impulses are processed and linguistically articulated, thereby facilitating communication and producing discourses. For Zara Yacob, a spiritual religious thinker, the transcendental function, is given by God to persons, so that they can think wisely and act rationally. From this angle, one can develop a modality of rationality. 

One is wise, therefor potentially rational, when one uses the God given penetrating intelligence and put oneself on a moral path, guided by self-generated limiting conditions of discourse and action. I presuppose this particular view of Zara Yacobian rationality, and I am calling it the Rationality of the Human Heart (RH) which I distinguish from the popularly modern Scientific Rationality (SR). I will briefly contrast these modalities of Rationality. I do not wish to draw the line too deeply. I allow the possibility of SR, when it is not purely instrumental and calculative, to draw from RH, also. After all, scientists have hearts also and not all rationalists consult their hearts, either. When science is instrumental (calculating), then the distinctions, which I have drawn, are plausible. When science is not instrumental, then the dichotomy which I have drawn is unnecessary. RH and SR could work in tandem when ideal speaking and acting subjects choose wisely and efficiently.

In the moral/rational sphere, the speaking and acting subjects consults the heart prayerfully and humbly before intervening in the flow of life to realize possibilities and life chances. They think deeply before they act to correct an injustice or articulate a vision of the good life boldly but humbly. The penetrating human intelligence located in the human heart, as we learn from Zara Yacob propels us when it is functioning transcendentally, to change the consciousness of the world and address human miseries-miseries which SR for the most part ignores as permanent features of the natural world. It is at this level that SR and RH give us irreconcilable articulations of the human condition.

Generally, I contend that SR is not motivated by the goal of becoming wise. The goal is efficiency and practical results and maximizing profit and benefit at work places. RH is centrally guided by the vision of wisdom, or at the least, valuing wisdom, and seeking to become wise and make wise decisions. If one is religiously inclined and is a believer, the quest for wisdom is accompanied by a committed passion to reach God prayerfully, so that one’s speech and action is purely motivated by Zara Yacobian Hasasa (looking for, searching for God) and Hatata (praying and mediating). For Zara Yacob, the possibility of becoming wise, at a certain point of one’s impermanent life, requires a steady company of God. In short, one must have faith in this Transcendental power, located in the heart, in order to realize wisdom and rationality simultaneously. SR on the other hand, is not guided unless one wishes to do so, to engage in Hatata. All that the person has to do is use rationality to produce efficient accounts.

A plan of life is felt in the heart as a thought impulse, and the relevant principles of what to do originate there, as the subject intensely feels the thought impulses. In this sense the heart produces intelligent life plans and seeks to realize them. As it does so, it wears a meditative and prayerful mood to empower the urge of its agency. These plans of life and principles of moral action are knowledge producing moments for speaking and acting subjects. They are productive of Noesis. Following Zara Yacob, I would like to modestly contend that the heart is wise/rational as are the speaking and acting subjects who consult Noesis, which is located in the human heart, originating thought impulses and seeking to express in language, so that it could share its possibilities with others with whom it shares the world.

When SR restricts itself to the relationship between means and ends to produce efficient and cost-effective outcomes, RH seeks to change the consciousness of the world to minimize, and if possible, eliminate unnecessary human suffering, such as poverty, diseases, and exploitation at work places. RH is committed to the idea of making means and ends themselves rational.

When we consult the heart, and say, it is from the heart, what we mean is: the feelings which ground the thought impulses are authentic; that the subject intuitively feels that she must act; that the thought impulses are sincere; that the thought impulses are deeply felt; that the speaking and acting subject has carefully distinguished authentic thoughts from inauthentic ones intuitively; that her intuition is informed by guidance originating from the companionship of the Transcendent thought Hasasa and Hatata; that the speaking subject means what she says and acts in accordance with what she feels, following an intuition penetrated by wisdom, and finally the thought impulses provoke moral action, they compel the speaking subject to act in the world, to change human consciousness.

SR and RH could further be contrasted through the following ways. The most salient features of SR are: a) Humans are desiring beings, that is the natural constitution, therefore, b) humans are economic animals and their psychological and materials needs can be satisfied by the relationship between means and ends, c) the desires of these beings must somehow be satisfied, even at the expense of destroying the environment, as drilling oil, deforestation, coal mining and others attest, and yet we continue ignoring the consequences as long as money and wealth are procured, and the masses are somehow minimally satisfied, and revolts and revolutions are systematically averted.

In direct contrast, SR, a) the human is a potentially peaceful and justice loving, but this potential has to be patiently evoked out of the recesses of the unconscious where it is covered by desire; b) humans are in fact caring and sensitive beings, evident in the language of the heart, if they are inclined to consult the heart before they act, a capacity, that critical education could unravel , patiently and lovingly; c) humans are down to mystery, which includes the possibility of discovering a Transcendental power, such as God to put them on the right moral paths, and change the consciousness of the world; d) humans when correctly challenged and critically enlightened, can and are willing to explore extraordinary possibilities motivated by the power of the intuition to discover the Good on their own. The Good is inside them, and consulting the heart with a reflective, meditative mood could get them there. Following Zara Yacob, I modestly contend that possibility of the best in each and everyone of us begins with engaging in Hasasa and Hatata as self-imposed moral projects propelled by the quest for moral excellence as a lifelong quest for cultivating new habits covered by the weight of SR, which has become our second nature.

RH has the power to redeem us from ourselves, from the slumber of our sleep, our callousness and indifference. These are turbulent times. Indifference is the signifier of our age. Game playing is the name of our alienated human relations. Marketing everything is our new nature. We play people, as opposed to caring for them and helping them, when we can. We even like to say, sadly, “do not be emotional”. By saying so, we think that to be emotional is to be foolish, thoughtless, when the opposite is the case, that emotions themselves are thought impulses, and that it is only when we feel that we think, that we encounter the company of God, if we are religious in that particular sense, or we become one with Brahma, the Imperishable in Hinduism. 

To be rational and wise is in fact the power which makes it possible for us to thank all those who serve us, our house cleaners, our maids, our baby sisters, all those can be changed when we listen and are guided by the heart, the seat of thinking. When we listen to the heart – the site of thought – we will not suffer from the pangs of thoughtlessness and indifference and internal cruelty. RH awakens us from indifference and helplessness, as the first step of organizing the world to participate in peaceful marches, informed participation in social movements, where hearts meet hearts, and wisdom interacts with wisdom.

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