Philosopher Zera Yacob (1599-1692)



In the reign of Lebna Dengel (1508-1537) Ethiopia suffered a jihad war spearheaded by locals who were aided by the Ottoman Empire . The Portuguese sent a core of soldiers that helped defeat the jihadists. Subsequently, the Portuguese worked to convert Ethiopians to Catholicism.  Lebna Dengel’s grand children professed different religions ranging from Jewry, Orthodox Christianity to Catholicism. Ethiopian intellectuals argued about their faiths as different politicians ascended to power. It was during the first reign of Emperor Yacob (1597-1603), the son of Emperor Sertsa Dengel and his concubine Emebet Herego, the daughter of an Ethiopian Jewish prince, that the Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yacob was born. After the first reign of Yacob, Emperor Za Dengel (1603-1604) reigned only to be killed by Ras Za Selassie because the eemperor professed the Catholic faith and did not pay wages. Consequently , Yacob regained the thrown for the second time (1604-1608). Philosopher Zera Yacob was persecuted for his religious belief by Susneyos (1608-1632), an emperor who converted to Catholicism in 1626, and abdicated the thrown to his son Fasil, an Orthodox Christian emperor who chased the Portuguese away from Ethiopia. The philosopher published in Ge’ez his treatise, “Hatata” in 1667, in the year Emperor Fasil died. No doubt there were several sages who pursued philosophical discourses in the centuries.  Yet, Zera Yacob’s philosophy has endured because it was published, and for those who do not read Ge’ez, Claude Sumner, a philosopher who lived in Ethiopia for over forty years has published in 1985 the work of Zera Yacob in English.  Above all else Zera Yacob is the provider of the philosophical underpinnings of non-violent movements.  Though he was a believer in God and perhaps because of it, the philosopher debunked the great religions that tend to be used for the purposes of waging wars. Zera Yacob is well-known for his philosophy on ethics  that considered a universe created by God who is good, as are all his creations including reason and nature. The criteria that may be used for ethical behavior is then to bring (ameliorate, nudge) policies to be in harmony with nature. 


Zera Yacob dismissed validating truth or religion because one is told by others either by word of mouth or through books. Rather, he elucidated that truth may be arrived at by reason because religion is “revealed” to reason by following “the Light of out heart” that we are created with. Below is how Zera Yacob set the problems posed by organized religions which falsely preach that each of their tenets are the right ones, and the solution to the problem.

Observation or statement of the problem: "As my faith appears true to me, so does another find his own faith true; but truth is one."

The solution: use reason, "light of our heart":  "To the person who seeks it, truth is immediately revealed. Indeed he who investigates with the pure intelligence set by the creator in the heart of each man and scrutinizes the order and laws of creation, will discover the truth." (Sumner, 1985, p.236).


Zera Yacob accepted the existence of God through anthropic arguments of tracing back to the uncaused cause as did Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, and by means of doubting as did Descartes in France 30 years before Zera Yacob. Nonetheless, though pieces and parts of Zera Yacob’s treatise might appear similar to the methods of discourse used by other philosophers of different countries, Zera Yacob’s was uniquely Ethiopian and was a “Hatata”, which means  "to question bit by bit, piece-meal; to search into or through, to investigate accurately; to examine; to inspect". (Sumner, 1986). Below is how Zera Yacob rationalizes the existence of God.


“Where do I come from? Had I lived before the creator of the world, I would have known the beginning of my life and of the consciousness [of myself] that created me? Was I created by my own hands? But I didn’t exist before I was created. If I say that my father and my mother created me, then I must search for the creator of my parents and of the parents of my parents until they arrive at the first who were not created as we [are] but who came into this world in some other way without being generated. For if they themselves have been created, I know nothing of their origin unless I say, ‘he who created them from nothing must be an uncreated essence who is and will be for all centuries [to come] the lord and master of all things, without beginning or end, immutable, whose years cannot be numbered.’ And I said: ‘Therefore, there is a creator; else there would have been no creation. This creator who endowed us with the gifts of intelligence and reason, cannot he himself be without them? For he created us as intelligent beings from the abundance of this intelligence and the same one being comprehends all, creates all, is almighty.’ And I used to say: ‘my creator will hear me if I pray to him,’ and because of this thought I felt very happy.” (Sumner, 1985, P.233).

By perceiving that natural religion is “revealed “to reason, and  that reason that is based on “the light of our heart “ is natural, Zera Yacob has identified that nature and reason are good because they are created by God and thus nature and reason would serve as  the criteria for assessing truth. Zera Yacob’s ethics focused on seeking harmony with nature that is created by God who is good.  His investigation led him to expose that good practices promote health, happiness and stability, while bad practices promote instability. Likewise, he was led to support some religious tenets and refute others. He upheld as positive examples those principles that promote mercy, work, monogamous marriage and education of children, and others that oppose killing, stealing, lying and committing adultery. He exposed the falsity (or violation of natural laws) of religious tenets on fasting, celibacy, polygamy, and criticize slavery as well as any form of violence.  He believed in the equality of man and woman.





Sumner, Claude, 1985, Classical Ethiopian Philosophy, Addis Ababa, Commercial Printing press.

Sumner, Claude, 1982, A Classical Ethiopian Naturalist; Interline, The magazine of Ethiopian Airlines (last Quarter 1982), PP. 21-27.

Sumner, Claude, 1973, “A Thought Pattern of Ethiopian Philosophy,” XIV world Congress of Philosophy, Verna, Bulgaria, Vol-5, PP. 825-7.

Sumner, Claude, 1986, The Source of African Philosophy. The Ethiopi­an Phi­losophy of Man. Stuttgart.

Getatchew Haile, 2000, Bahra Hassab

 Heinz Kimmerle, Rotterdam:


HG:  10/8/06