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History of Arab translations of Greek scriptures

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TheodoreFelix View Drop Down

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    Posted: 19-Jul-2005 at 23:27 ml


 The acquisition and adaptation of Greek knowledge by scientists working in the Arab empire became crucial to the rediscovery of Aristotle by Western Europe in the 12th century, and ultimately to the European Renaissance.

 After the 'Umayyad dynasty collapsed in the 740s and the caliphate was assumed by Abu 'l-'Abbas (founder of the 'Abbasid dynasty, in 749). The 'Abbasids received much support from Persian Muslims who had resented the dominance of the Arabs under the 'Umayyads. However, they were themselves an Arabic family, the language of government continued to be Arabic, the language of religion had to be Arabic.

The most influential Persian supporters of the 'Abbasid takeover were the Barmakid family, led by Khalid ibn Barmak, who became governor of Mesopotamia under the second 'Abbasid caliph, al-Mansur. They were the sponsors of the enigmatic Jabir ibn Hayyan, who synthesized the new science of alchemy from a mixture of Pythagorean ideals and Indian and Persian mysticism. When the Barmakids fell from power in 804, Jabir fell from court favour as well.

Al-Mansur founded a new capital for the caliphate at Baghdad in 762, calling on the services of two astrologers, Nawbakht, a Persian, and Masha'allah, a Persian Jew - an illustration of the indirect influence of Greek science on the Arabs through Persian rather than Syriac intermediaries. He had been brought up in Khorasan, one of the most Hellenized parts of Persia, and decided that his new city would be a centre of scholarship for all Islam. When he fell ill in 765, he summoned Jirjis ibn Bukhtyishu', the head of the Jundi-Shapur academy, to cure him. Subsequently the Bukhtyishu' and Masawaih families, all Nestorian Christians, became suppliers of official physicians to the caliphs and their viziers.

The Syriac version of Greek science, particularly medicine, was now established in Baghdad. It fitted into the 'Abbasid programme of increasing the intellectual quality of the city, and the medical practices of Jundi-Shapur had been proved more successful than the traditional methods; although one of the Bukhtyishu' was forced to leave the court after a dispute with an Arab physician in 785, he was recalled a few years later. It is not so surprising that Baghdad attracted scientists and that Damascus had not; although Damascus was physically closer to the Byzantine Empire, Baghdad was a good deal closer to the strongholds of Nestorian learning at Nisibis and Jundi-Shapur, which had already begun to influence the new Mesopotamian cities of Kufa and Basra. However, Syriac was still the language of learning. Although the Arabs were aware of the Greek scientific tradition, it was not they who were using it, nor was it being used as a basis for future research; in Dolby's terms, it had yet to be adopted.

The next phase seems to have been started under Harun ar-Rashid (ruled 786-808), who sent agents to purchase Greek manuscripts from the Byzantine empire. The translation work was supported (before their fall from power) by the Barmakid viziers Ja'far and Jibra'il, who encouraged scholars from their family's home of Marw, the capital of Khorasan. Another influence was Jibra'il ibn Bukhtyishu, who was interested in increasing the available Syriac translations of Galen and Hippocrates; as well as being the caliph's doctor, he was also the head of the Jundi-Shapur academy.

Many in court circles followed the lead of the caliph and vizier and sponsored transla-tions into Arabic of the medical treatises in use at Jundi-Shapur, and of astronomical and math-ematical material. The latter included the Sindhind, an Indian astronomical work which had been translated into Persian but was based on Alexandrian teaching, and one of the most strik-ing examples of an alternative to the Syriac transmission route by which Greek knowledge passed to the Arabs.

The first Arabic translations, called the veteres by O'Leary, used the literal style of the Syriac translators. Syriac had evolved as a written language through translations of the New Testament, where it was thought to be essential to get as close to the original meaning of the Greek as possible. This led to a style that was virtually word-for-word translation, doing great violence to Syriac word-order and indeed to Arabic word-order when the same technique was used. The works translated in this way cannot have been of much use for further research.

After the death of Harun in 808 the empire was effectively split until 819, when his son the caliph al-Ma'mun, returned to Baghdad. Al-Ma'mun was strongly influenced by the liberal, intellectual Mu'tazilite movement, and founded a research centre, the Bayt al- Hikmah or House of Wisdom, in Baghdad in about 828 specifically for the new wave of translators who would work directly from the Greek.

The leading personality of the 'new wave' was Hunayn ibn Ishaq (810-877), a Christian from Hira who had been expelled from Jundi-Shapur after disagreeing with his teacher, Yahya ibn Masawaih, and had then spent time in 'the Greek lands', learning the language. He gained favour at court through the Bukhtyishu family and through the Banu Musa, three wealthy brothers who were patrons of learning and wrote on mathematics and engineering themselves.

Hunayn's innovation was to abandon the literal tradition of translation and concentrate on making the sense of the Greek writers comprehensible to the Arabic or Syriac reader. He also revised earlier translations, including Sergius of Rish 'Aina's translations of Galen. He and his school translated the entire Alexandrian medical curriculum into Arabic. His tradition was continued after his death by his son Ishaq ibn Hunayn and his nephew Hubaysh ibn al-Hasan.

Astronomical works were also translated as part of this movement by such figures as Abu Ma'shar and Habash al-Hasib; again, the Greek astronomical tradition was being exploited for the first time rather than its Persian and Indian offspring. It was at this stage that the Almagest and Ptolemy's other astronomical works were translated.

While Hunayn was bringing new ideas to translation, new movements were stirring in Baghdad. Al-Khwarazmi the mathematician (d. 863) was combining Greek and Indian mathe-matics to produce what is now called algebra (from his book, al-Jabr wa'l- muqabalah), and working in geography and astronomy; al-Kindi, the first real Arab philosopher (d. 873) was still using the translations of the veteres but producing a new philosophy.

Arab science had moved on from the exploitation of Syriac scientists by Arab rulers to a quite different entity, a version of Syriac science revised by the translators in comparison with the Greek writers from which it derived. The next generation produced two more outstanding translators, Qusta ibn Luqa (d. 910), who translated works on medicine and astronomy and produced a spherical astrolabe, and Thabit ibn Qurra(826-901), a mathematician and astronomer from the pagan city of Harran.

Form this point on, chronologically, Nasr's list of universal figures of Arabic science is entirely Muslim: al-Farabi, al-Mas'udi, ibn Sina, ibn al-Haitham. al-Biruni, ibn Rushd. The translation movement was over because the local product, Arab thought, was now superior to what the Greek product could offer. Greek science had passed to the Arabs, and the Arabs were now writing Arab science.

The crucial period of adoption was during the rules of al-Mansur, Harun al-Rashid, and al-Ma'mun. Both 'fashion' and 'controversy', as Dolby puts it, are evidently in operation. The success of Greek science did not come about simply because it was proved to be more accurate; scholars first needed the opportunity to use it. The political change of the 'Abbasid revolution started this process; and it is clear that the lead taken by the caliphs and viziers in the translation movement were of crucial importance for the acceptability of the newly-discovered learning to the elites of Baghdad. However social factors alone do not explain the greater success of the medical techniques of Jundi-Shapur in contrast with the traditional Arabic cures, and Ptolemy's Handy Tables were demonstrably more accurate than the various zijes derived from the Persians.

The process of transmission affects the content of what is transmitted; early Arab scien-tists, with the exception of the occasional individualist like Jaber, were constrained to follow the fields mapped out for them by the Syriacs and Greeks, and by the Indians and Persians, since this was the only scholarly literature available to them. Between the arrival of Jirjis ibn Bukhtyishu' in Baghdad in 765 and the foundation of the Bayt al-hikmah over half a century passed as the scientific community adjusted itself from passive to active acceptance of the Greek learning.

By the tenth century, the intellectual superiority of the Arabs (Muslims) was recognized in Europe. The first Christian to take up the torch of learning was Pope Sylvester II (Gerbert, d. 1003 AD). He introduced the Arab astronomy and mathematics, and Arabic numerals in place of the clumsy Roman ones. He was followed by many, especially Constantinus Africanus in the eleventh century, and Bishop Raymond (Raimundo) in the twelfth century.

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