How Arabic Translators Helped Preserve Greek Philosophy … and the Classical Tradition

In the ancient world, the lan­guage of philosophy—and there­fore of sci­ence and medicine—was pri­mar­i­ly Greek. “Even after the Roman con­quest of the Mediter­ranean and the demise of pagan­ism, phi­los­o­phy was strong­ly asso­ci­at­ed with Hel­lenic cul­ture,” writes phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor and His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy with­out any Gaps host Peter Adam­son. “The lead­ing thinkers of the Roman world, such as Cicero and Seneca, were steeped in Greek lit­er­a­ture.” And in the east­ern empire, “the Greek-speak­ing Byzan­tines could con­tin­ue to read Pla­to and Aris­to­tle in the orig­i­nal.”

Greek thinkers also had sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence in Egypt. Dur­ing the build­ing of the Library of Alexan­dria, “schol­ars copied and stored books that were bor­rowed, bought, and even stolen from oth­er places in the Mediter­ranean,” writes Aileen Das, Pro­fes­sor of Mediter­ranean Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan. “The librar­i­ans gath­ered texts cir­cu­lat­ing under the names of Pla­to (d. 348/347 BCE), Aris­to­tle and Hip­pocrates (c. 460–c. 370 BCE), and pub­lished them as col­lec­tions.” The scroll above, part of an Aris­totelian tran­scrip­tion of the Athen­ian con­sti­tu­tion, was believed lost for hun­dreds of years until it was dis­cov­ered in the 19th cen­tu­ry in Egypt, in the orig­i­nal Greek. The text, writes the British Library, “has had a major impact in our knowl­edge of the devel­op­ment of Athen­ian democ­ra­cy and the work­ings of the Athen­ian city-state in antiq­ui­ty.”

Alexan­dria “rivalled Athens and Rome as the place to study phi­los­o­phy and med­i­cine in the Mediter­ranean,” and young men of means like the 6th cen­tu­ry priest Sergius of Reshaina, doc­tor-in-chief in North­ern Syr­ia, trav­eled there to learn the tra­di­tion. Sergius “trans­lat­ed around 30 works of Galen [the Greek physi­cian]” and oth­er known and unknown philoso­phers and ancient sci­en­tists into Syr­i­ac. Lat­er, as Syr­i­ac and Ara­bic came to dom­i­nate for­mer Greek-speak­ing regions, the Greek texts became intense objects of focus for Islam­ic thinkers, and the caliphs spared no expense to have them trans­lat­ed and dis­sem­i­nat­ed, often con­tract­ing with Chris­t­ian and Jew­ish schol­ars to accom­plish the task.

The trans­mis­sion of Greek phi­los­o­phy and med­i­cine was an inter­na­tion­al phe­nom­e­non, which involved bilin­gual speak­ers from pagan, Chris­t­ian, Mus­lim, and Jew­ish back­grounds. This move­ment spanned not only reli­gious and lin­guis­tic but also geo­graph­i­cal bound­aries, for it occurred in cities as far apart as Bagh­dad in the East and Tole­do in the West.

In Bagh­dad, espe­cial­ly, by the 10th cen­tu­ry, “read­ers of Ara­bic,” writes Adam­son, “had about the same degree of access to Aris­to­tle that read­ers of Eng­lish do today” thanks to a “well-fund­ed trans­la­tion move­ment that unfold­ed dur­ing the Abbasid caliphate, begin­ning in the sec­ond half of the eighth cen­tu­ry.” The work done dur­ing the Abbasid period—from about 750 to 950—“generated a high­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed sci­en­tif­ic lan­guage and a mas­sive amount of source mate­r­i­al,” we learn in Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press’s The Clas­si­cal Tra­di­tion. Such mate­r­i­al “would feed sci­en­tif­ic research for the fol­low­ing cen­turies, not only in the Islam­ic world but beyond it, in Greek and Latin Chris­ten­dom and, with­in it, among the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tions as well.”

Indeed this “Byzan­tine human­ism,” as it’s called, “helped the clas­si­cal tra­di­tion sur­vive, at least to the large extent that it has.” As ancient texts and tra­di­tions dis­ap­peared in Europe dur­ing the so-called “Dark Ages,” Ara­bic and Syr­i­ac-speak­ing schol­ars and trans­la­tors incor­po­rat­ed them into an Islam­ic philo­soph­i­cal tra­di­tion called fal­safa. The moti­va­tions for fos­ter­ing the study of Greek thought were com­plex. On the one hand, writes Adam­son, the move was polit­i­cal; “the caliphs want­ed to estab­lish their own cul­tur­al hege­mo­ny,” in com­pe­ti­tion with Per­sians and Greek-speak­ing Byzan­tine Chris­tians, “benight­ed as they were by the irra­tional­i­ties of Chris­t­ian the­ol­o­gy.” On the oth­er hand, “Mus­lim intel­lec­tu­als also saw resources in the Greek texts for defend­ing, and bet­ter under­stand­ing their own reli­gion.”

One well-known fig­ure from the peri­od, al-Kin­di, is thought to be the first philoso­pher to write in Ara­bic. He over­saw the trans­la­tions of hun­dreds of texts by Chris­t­ian schol­ars who read both Greek and Ara­bic, and he may also have added his own ideas to the works of Plot­i­nus, for exam­ple, and oth­er Greek thinkers. Like Thomas Aquinas a few hun­dred years lat­er, al-Kin­di attempt­ed to “estab­lish the iden­ti­ty of the first prin­ci­ple in Aris­to­tle and Plot­i­nus” as the the­is­tic God. In this way, Islam­ic trans­la­tions of Greek texts pre­pared the way for inter­pre­ta­tions that “treat that prin­ci­ple as a Cre­ator,” a cen­tral idea in Medieval scholas­tic phi­los­o­phy and Catholic thought gen­er­al­ly.

The trans­la­tions by al-Kin­di and his asso­ciates are grouped into what schol­ars call the “cir­cle of al-Kin­di,” which pre­served and elab­o­rat­ed on Aris­to­tle and the Neo­pla­ton­ists. Thanks to al-Kindi’s “first set of trans­la­tions,” notes the Stan­ford Ency­clo­pe­dia of Phi­los­o­phy, “learned Mus­lims became acquaint­ed with Pla­to’s Demi­urge and immor­tal soul; with Aris­totle’s search for sci­ence and knowl­edge of the caus­es of all the phe­nom­e­na on earth and in the heav­ens,” and many more ancient Greek meta­phys­i­cal doc­trines. Lat­er trans­la­tors work­ing under physi­cian and sci­en­tist Hunayn ibn Ishaq and his son “made avail­able in Syr­i­ac and/or Ara­bic oth­er works by Pla­to, Aris­to­tle, Theophras­tus, some philo­soph­i­cal writ­ings by Galen,” and oth­er Greek thinkers and sci­en­tists.

This tra­di­tion of trans­la­tion, philo­soph­i­cal debate, and sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­ery in Islam­ic soci­eties con­tin­ued into the 10th and 11th cen­turies, when Aver­roes, the “Islam­ic schol­ar who gave us mod­ern phi­los­o­phy,” wrote his com­men­tary on the works of Aris­to­tle. “For sev­er­al cen­turies,” writes the Uni­ver­si­ty of Col­orado’s Robert Pas­nau, “a series of bril­liant philoso­phers and sci­en­tists made Bagh­dad the intel­lec­tu­al cen­ter of the medieval world,” pre­serv­ing ancient Greek knowl­edge and wis­dom that may oth­er­wise have dis­ap­peared. When it seems in our study of his­to­ry that the light of the ancient phi­los­o­phy was extin­guished in West­ern Europe, we need only look to North Africa and the Near East to see that tra­di­tion, with its human­is­tic exchange of ideas, flour­ish­ing for cen­turies in a world close­ly con­nect­ed by trade and empire.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Learn Islam­ic & Indi­an Phi­los­o­phy with 107 Episodes of the His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy With­out Any Gaps Pod­cast

Ancient Maps that Changed the World: See World Maps from Ancient Greece, Baby­lon, Rome, and the Islam­ic World

Intro­duc­tion to Ancient Greek His­to­ry: A Free Online Course from Yale

Free Cours­es in Ancient His­to­ry, Lit­er­a­ture & Phi­los­o­phy 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (12)
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  • Bluethomas says:

    Some­one needs to tell The Islam­ic State they’re doing it all wrong. For every sto­ry like this, there are dozens where they just want and burn every­thing down.

  • George B. says:

    “pre­serv­ing ancient Greek knowl­edge and wis­dom that may oth­er­wise have dis­ap­peared. When it seems in our study of his­to­ry that the light of the ancient phi­los­o­phy was extin­guished in West­ern Europe, we need only look to North Africa and the Near East to see that tra­di­tion”.
    Err, no. Much as the Arabs, Per­sians and oth­er Mus­lims did study Greek phi­los­o­phy, it was the Greek-speak­ing Byzan­tines who pre­served the vast major­i­ty of ancient Greek texts, which may oth­er­wise have dis­ap­peared — metic­u­lus­ly copy­ing the texts in elab­o­rate man­u­scripts and by mak­ing Greek lit­er­a­ture and phi­los­o­phy a pre­req­ui­site in their school cur­ric­u­la. And they are get­ting the short end of the stick here, as they usu­al­ly do. The writer even goes so far as to mix the “Byzan­tine Human­ism” with the trans­mis­sion of the Clas­sics dur­ing the Abbasid Caliphate and their trans­la­tion into Ara­bic and Syr­i­ac.

  • Saint Joxn says:

    Reli­gion keeps tra­di­tion going and edu­ca­tion is keen when trav­el­ing to greater cities. The Mus­lims, bar­bar­ic as they may seem, kept records of the Greek philoso­phers to chal­lenge the Judao-Chris­t­ian schol­ars. Some­thing I would like to see many more in the bar­ren camp of athe­ism attempt, rather than their usu­al smug con­tempt in spir­it­ed debates for sta­tis­tics.
    I say this, in reflec­tion, as I study the aes­thet­ics on wis­dom in his­to­ry lessons. It is writ­ten not only of the schol­ar­ly expo­si­tion avail­able from Alexan­dria in Egypt and far as Bag­dad, Iraq, but also the fact that doc­tors with­out bor­ders was a con­cept ven­er­at­ed even dur­ing Europe’s feu­dal ages. I won­der how the Greeks and Egyp­tians who aren’t so renown in per­son­al lives beyond polit­i­cal strife are han­dling their dai­ly bread now. Mus­ing, I con­tin­ue my learn­ing.
    Al-Kin­di I believe, had been per­sis­tent in his faith enough to rea­son akin to a prophet than a more reg­u­lar saint. I should con­tin­ue before I cast any doubts on his low­ly posi­tion and the paths not tak­en. Per­haps, like myself, he nev­er out­right con­sid­ered him­self Chris­t­ian in his noble efforts to express what stands behind the veil of divin­i­ty… The arti­cle ends there, with pas­sages to oth­er sec­u­lar nar­ra­tives. I myself read an exas­per­at­ing chap­ter in Doc­trine and Covenants pri­or to free­ing my thoughts enough away from late night orga­niz­ing [of books, bed­ding and oth­er wear­able mate­r­i­al, if you must know]. So with this is my stu­pid quo­ta with quips intend­ed.
    Here’s my two cents with a bit of music out­ro.‑9nUowqroA

  • Joe says:

    Peo­ple are so igno­rant when it comes to, well, just about any­thing. It’s not hard to under­stand that the “Islam­ic State” is not Islam­ic, they kill Mus­lims, and most­ly Mus­lims, and are a cre­ation of the alpha­bet boyz in Wash­ing­ton and Lon­don, so telling them about Aris­to­tle, who is far less impor­tant than most peo­ple think, who was only influ­en­tial in Shia Ismaili sects and the ear­li­er (defunt) Mutazi­la and Fal­safa.

    The world would be no bet­ter or worse if nobody had ever heard of Aris­to­tle, most peo­ple will nev­er see a copy and quite frankly I think any­one who tries to glo­ri­fy Greek phi­los­o­phy does­n’t under­stand his­to­ry very well, because it was defeat­ed by Chris­tian­i­ty and again by Sun­nis like al-Ghaz­a­li, because it was just use­less meta­phys­i­cal spec­u­la­tion, and not sci­ence nor rec­og­nized as such by the major­i­ty of the Islam­ic world, then and obvi­ous­ly now.

    It was­n’t pagan nat­ur­al phi­los­o­phy that made the Mus­lim world what it was and is, which, despite the cute burns peo­ple who like to talk trash hurl against a reli­gion they know less about than Aris­to­tle or Pla­to and say­ing stu­pid things like “some­one should tell the Islam­ic State…”

    Right, because Aris­to­tle is going to save the world. Truth be told it was not the preser­va­tion of the phi­los­o­phy of the Greeks we should admire Islam for alone, Euro­peans had long ago dis­owned Greek lit­er­a­ture, mythol­o­gy, etc, and it was not the cause of the Dark Ages, did not get Europe out of it either.

    There was far more advanced, and actu­al­ly sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge that was learned by Latin read­ers via Ara­bic trans­lat­ed, and the Ara­bic MSS. what became of them?

    The old­est non Chris­t­ian Greek lit­er­a­ture should all be in Ara­bic or Syr­i­ac, which is why Pla­to and Homer and all the oth­ers only sur­vive in 15th cen­tu­ry (or so) MSS, but you will nev­er be told this, if you ask it will be down­played, but fac­tu­al­ly speak­ing with­out Islam, Europe would know noth­ing about the wicked cul­ture of the “Hel­lenes” which is noth­ing to be admired.

    I am Sun­ni, and I am glad that we can say our cul­ture pre­served most of Euro­pean his­to­ry for them, but it is idi­ot­ic to think of Greece as this amaz­ing cul­ture with such great philoso­phers, it was a sick (moral­ly) cul­ture whose only legit­i­mate claim to fame is actu­al­ly because of a Mace­don­ian who annexed Greece, and had lit­tle love for them.

    The rest of the “lega­cy” of Greece is only called Greek because it was writ­ten in that lan­guage, and was an object of ridicule which led to the (rather unso­phis­ti­cat­ed) method of inter­pre­ta­tion called “alle­go­ry.”

    The Greek gods weren’t pedophiles and rapists, this is just an alle­go­ry for…

    Seri­ous­ly, Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture, the­o­log­i­cal, philo­soph­i­cal or mys­ti­cal is as supe­ri­or to fal­safa, or Greek phi­los­o­phy (because nobody else ever phi­los­o­phized?), as the Immor­tal Eter­nal One, God, is from the com­mon house fly.

  • Joe says:

    I just want­ed to stress that despite the fact that the major­i­ty of Sun­ni Mus­lims reject­ed the use of pagan (they nev­er seem to think of it as Greek, nei­ther do I) phi­los­o­phy as a sup­ple­ment to Islam, as Aris­to­tle exalt­ed human rea­son as the high­est intel­li­gence, denied Prov­i­dence and Rev­e­la­tion itself,was essen­tial­ly athe­is­tic but not tech­ni­cal­ly, and in gen­er­al led men astray far more often than it offered any­thing good to soci­ety, WE STILL did­n’t destroy the lit­er­a­ture, unlike (appar­ent­ly) Chris­tians in Europe did, while the East­ern Chris­t­ian Roman Empire nev­er suf­fered a “Dark Age” of super­sti­tious stu­pid­i­ty as did the West­ern Euro­peans, and while they were in this Dark Age, al-Andalus, Mus­lim Spain, was like the learn­ing cap­i­tal of the world, and they were not teach­ing Aris­to­tle (again he had a very lim­it­ed audi­ence, ear­ly with the Mutazi­la and fal­safa, lat­er with Ibn Sina and the Ismaili Shia, who are tru­ly not Mus­lims, and are the peo­ple respon­si­ble for such works as the Let­ters of the Pure Broth­ers or Brethren of Puri­ty (sounds a bit dandy), works that aren’t exact­ly revered by many (any in real­i­ty) Mus­lims today.

    Hel­lenis­tic phi­los­o­phy and cul­ture is of the one eyed liar, curse him with the curse of Allah. Tra­di­tion­al­ly speak­ing, in Abra­ham­ic reli­gion, Nim­rod is the founder of Hel­lenism, it just was­n’t called that yet.


  • Joe says:

    Islam­ic State rep­re­sents Islam about as much as FEDEX gov­erns the USA.

    You seri­ous­ly have to force your­self to not think, if you fail to real­ize this, because IS KILLS Mus­lims, and a Mus­lim is just sup­posed to do this, not to any reli­gion or not reli­gious, sense­less vio­lence is severe­ly con­demned in the Quran, only equi­table retal­i­a­tion and self defense are allowed, no women or chil­dren. No col­lat­er­al dam­age.

    But seri­ous­ly I knew since the first time I heard ISIS that this was a Mason­ic front set up by the alpha­bet boys to sup­ply imme­di­ate jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for vio­lence com­mit­ted against the Mus­lim world, to destroy the rep­u­ta­tion of Islam, but I have found since then that any­one who wants to know this, can research it solo, it is fair­ly well known for some­thing that should not be.

    The West uses the same tricks over and over because our cit­i­zens are not very bright, and from expe­ri­ence, they know that you/we (not me) will believe what­ev­er the tele­vi­sion or media tells you to believe, like, for instance, that ISIS is an ene­my, when it is lit­er­al­ly a cre­ation of, the West­ern intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty, a mer­ce­nary unit OF the West­ern world and it’s Sau­di allies, prac­ti­cal­ly pup­pets on British strings, and has noth­ing to do with Islam, Sun­ni or Shia, and is the num­ber 1 ene­my of Islam in the world today, these peo­ple are Mason­ic, Satan­ic, or brain­washed by tor­ture and are mind con­trolled slaves, prob­a­bly “trained” at Guatanamo.

  • Joe says:

    Islam only seems bar­bar­ic if you are igno­rant, if you have a mind that works, it does­n’t seem bar­bar­ic because it is the antithe­sis to any­one who knows what it actu­al­ly teach­es mankind, love, mer­cy, and only if nec­es­sary is vio­lence ever an option, and the Quran lim­its this to self defense and equi­table retal­i­a­tion, and in com­par­i­son to mod­ern notions like “col­lat­er­al dam­age” it becomes quite clear who the Bar­bar­ians are.

    As Greeks with non Greeks, who they termed “Bar­bar­ians” but in real­i­ty were intel­lec­tu­al­ly far behind the peo­ple of Asia, who edu­cat­ed them, (and Egypt) this is a term used by a cul­ture who igno­rant­ly and with­out jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, views it’s cul­ture or race inher­ent­ly supe­ri­or.

    Like athe­ists think they are inher­ent­ly smarter, this is inse­cu­ri­ty. Like the Greeks knew their debt but lat­er gen­er­a­tions denied it, to non Euro­peans, mod­ern aca­d­e­mics know that with­out reli­gion and more specif­i­cal­ly Islam, which con­trolled Spain for a long time as the most cul­tur­al­ly advanced civ­i­liza­tion on earth, Europe, the rest of it, was in the Dark Ages.

    It was not the gib­ber­ish of the Greek philoso­phers that res­cued Europe from Dark Age squalor it was real sci­ence, real­ly learned from Mus­lims, and the idea that Pla­to or Aris­to­tle or Plot­i­nus had any impact on the advance­ment of sci­ence, is laugh­able in the extreme.

    Athe­ism, nat­ur­al phi­los­o­phy, these are reac­tionary fads of peo­ple who reject reli­gion and think that it is more log­i­cal to think exis­tence is point­less and that the Uni­verse was not cre­at­ed but just spon­ta­neous­ly came into exis­tence, for no rea­son, which is hard­ly more log­i­cal than an actu­al cause, which we call God and the athe­ists call pro­fes­sor.

    Sci­en­tists are either prophets of God who can see the past like a psy­chic in reverse, or they just write sto­ries, call them facts and dam­age the intel­lect of every per­son they force to accept it or stay silent, but the most sim­ple fact in the world is that it is impos­si­ble to learn how, when, why we exist, through sci­ence, which is only good if you can observe some­thing, and you need peo­ple for that, and since 14 bil­lion years ago peo­ple did­n’t exist, it is the biggest irony of all to hear a blind faith athe­ist believe his pro­fes­sors can know what only a lit­er­al Prophet even COULD know.

    Also the apex of hypocrisy. I’m not talk­ing about you specif­i­cal­ly or any­one, a lot of peo­ple actu­al­ly. Peo­ple fol­low the con­sen­sus, the major­i­ty opin­ion is the opin­ion of the weak mind­ed, and the preva­lent major­i­ty in Acad­e­mia ridicule reli­gion, but believe in made up lan­guage called PIE, and there is actu­al­ly proof that the the­o­ry itself is unnec­es­sary.

    Not say­ing athe­ists are all stu­pid but their beliefs sure as hell are. I mean I get agno­sis, not being sure, but pre­tend­ing that you are cer­tain that you believe that there is no God/Creator is illog­i­cal and pre­sump­tu­ous at best.

    At least faith acknowl­edges itself as faith, and while I def­i­nite­ly believe that Islam is Divine and a Rev­e­la­tion from God, I can’t claim lit­er­al knowl­edge of the exis­tence of God, nev­er seen Him.

    Just like the fic­tion­al lan­guage of PIE, nobody has seen God. The­o­ries are great, but most peo­ple don’t hear that word and think “Big bang fact” as though they had it on DVD.

  • Fred says:

    It is depress­ing that I just read that Aris­to­tle is not rel­e­vant to his­to­ry and that the Greeks should not be stud­ied.
    Aris­to­tle cre­at­ed for­mal log­ic which is still taught because all a equals all b is true and will always be true along with the com­pli­ca­tions that come with for­mal log­ic. Addi­tion­al­ly, the appli­ca­tion of rea­son rather than the embrace of myth orig­i­nat­ed with the pre-Socrat­ics. Socrates then asked what is the good life and start­ed the dis­cus­sion about what it means to be human and asked what is jus­tice, love, piety, beau­ty and oth­er val­ues that human seek but can’t define. The Greeks loft­ed human­i­ty to high­er lev­el than any soci­ety before and many since.

  • Will Johnson says:

    Thank you for speak­ing some sense. Undoubt­ed­ly the pre­so­crat­ics paved the way for cen­turies of log­ic and phi­los­o­phy to fol­low

  • David says:

    Hii David here. Your blog is fan­tas­tic for every­one and quite edu­ca­tion­al for me. At Acade­tu­dio, I also work as a trans­la­tor. The trans­la­tion ser­vices offered by Acadestu­dio include Czech trans­la­tion, voice-over, inter­pret­ing, dub­bing, and tran­scrip­tion, among oth­ers. Please get in touch with if you need any lan­guage ser­vices.

  • Maria A. says:

    Excel­lent point, George B. Thank you. Also, I would like to point out that the term “Byzan­tine” is also incor­rect. What we call “Byzan­tines” or “Byzan­tine” was a term used by west­ern schol­ars since the Schism and the fourth cru­sade to indi­cate the East­ern Roman Empire, and there­by dis­tin­guish the West­ern Chris­t­ian Catholic tra­di­tions from it, and estab­lish them as the true inher­i­tors of Chris­tian­i­ty, as opposed to the East­ern Roman. Thank­ful­ly, a hand­ful of schol­ars have acknowl­edged this. Yet, for most peo­ple in the west this is total­ly unknown.

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