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

by | Permalink | Comments (12) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (12)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • 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.

  • 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.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.