Greek Texts are Translated into Arabic

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Greek Texts are Translated into Arabic


Greek was the language of philosophy, and therefore of science, in the Mediterranean world from the time of the Greek city states through the period of late antiquity. In the seventh century a.d., however, a new world power emerged. The rise of the Islamic Empire brought Muslim culture to North Africa, Spain, Persia, and India. During this period of expansion, Arabs encountered Greek philosophy for the first time, and a systematic effort to translate Greek works received royal support and encouragement. The wide variety and large number of Greek texts that were translated proved to be of lasting significance.


The first dynasty of the Islamic Empire, the Umayyads (661-750), was more concerned with increasing the size of its empire and achieving political and military stability than with translating Greek scientific texts. In the middle of the eighth century the Abbasid dynasty (750-1258), led by the second caliph al-Mansur (709 or 714-775), moved the capital from Damascus to Baghdad, and began to offer royal support for the translation of Greek (as well as Persian and Indian) works of science and philosophy. Al-Mansur's grandson, al-Ma'mun (786-833), however, usually receives the most credit from historians for beginning the systematic translation that lasted until the end of the tenth century.

Al-Ma'mun established the Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom, in which documents from ancient Greece and contemporary Byzantium were translated into Arabic. While the ultimate significance of such an institution is hard to establish historically, it is clear that a precedent was set by the early Abbasids for the patronage of translations. Over the next century and a half, a huge corpus of Arabic translations were created.

A number of factors made the translation movement under the Abbasids successful. Besides a secure empire, which provided the funds necessary to support the project, the move to Baghdad was fortuitous. The area was home to two groups of schismatic Christians, the Monophysites and Nestorians, who had been forced out of the Byzantine Empire. Both of these groups had long been translating Greek works into Syriac. This provided both a body of texts and a group of professional translators ready to perform the service for their new Islamic rulers. Also significant was a basic cultural attitude shared by many of the Islamic faith: that foreign knowledge could be valuable, that truth in some form could be found outside of the revealed religion. The Abbasids saw that Greek works contained important and valuable knowledge, and this gave implicit approval for translation of ancient scientific texts. Finally, because the technology of papermaking had been brought from China into the Islamic Empire, the Muslims could produce books faster and cheaper than their European counterparts.

These circumstances, in combination with the support and encouragement of the ruling family, allowed a large number of Greek works to be translated into Arabic over the course of two centuries. Nearly the whole corpus of Aristotle's (384-322 b.c.) works—as well as a number of works falsely attributed to him—from metaphysics and natural philosophy to logic and ethics were translated, as were Plato's (c. 428-348 b.c.) and later Neoplatonic works, numerous scientific works in astronomy and astrology (Ptolemy, 127-145), mathematics (Euclid, fl. c. 300 b.c.; Apollonius, 262-190 b.c.; and Archimedes, c. 287-212 b.c.), and medicine (Hippocrates, c. 460-377 b.c., and Galen, c. 130-200), as well as some works of Indian and Persian origin. All contributed yet more depth to the Arabic appropriation of Greek science and philosophy.


The influence that Arabic translations of Greek science and philosophy had on the Arabic world can hardly be underestimated, although the "translation" process often worked both ways. Islamic scientists and their patrons chose which texts to translate, emphasizing and utilizing the portions of the texts that served their own purposes, just as they produced original works that best served their needs.

At the same time, however, Greek science and philosophy, as transmitted through the translation movement, had a huge impact on the culture of the Islamic Empire. The Abbasids actively encouraged the work, thereby setting an example for others. For two centuries patrons from a broad portion of society supported translations, paying translators and scientists and building libraries. In addition, large-scale institutions were created, such as hospitals and astronomical observatories. The texts produced were incorporated into the educational system, expanding the number of persons exposed to the material and incorporating such knowledge into an even broader cultural setting. Many Muslims appeared to value scientific knowledge for its own sake, as a way of understanding the world through the use of scientific theory and investigation.

Translations were often made with the expectation of practical benefit. Mathematics, for example, helped administer both the large imperial bureaucracy and private financial enterprises Astronomy improved timekeeping and instrument making. Astrology, too, offered practical benefits; even if few believe in astrological prediction today, its rationality given the ancient understanding of the natural world made it attractive. Greek medicine offered a coherent, if often inaccurate, system through which doctors could preserve health and heal injury and disease. The translation of technological works led to the development of mechanical devices and advances in irrigation systems.

Islamic scientists also wrote commentaries on translated Greek scientific texts, thereby increasing their understanding of the world. Muslim astronomers developed a genre of advanced mathematical astronomical treatise that dealt with all aspects of astronomy, including planetary theory, observational techniques, and instrument-making. In some cases, alternative cosmological theories were created in response to perceived failures of Greek systems (such as the problematic relationship between Aristotelian physics and Ptolemaic astronomy). Optics was greatly advanced by scientists like al-Kindi (800-873) and Ibn al-Haytham (965-1040). In the field of mathematics, Islamic scientists propagated the use of decimal-place arithmetic and made important advances in algebra and trigonometry (which properly belonged to the field of astronomy during that time period). In the field of medicine, compilations of medical theory were produced in large numbers.

Ancient texts also provided a language in which to discuss scientific, philosophical, and religious questions. Greek had been used as a platform for philosophical issues since the time of the Greek city-states in the fourth century b.c., and had remained the language of sophisticated philosophy and science through the Hellenistic period (323-30 b.c.) the Roman Empire (27 b.c.-c. fifth century a.d.) in the West, and the Byzantine Empire (c. fifth century to 1463) in the East. With the spread of Christianity after the fourth century a.d., Greek became the language of theological debates. When Islamic intellectual culture tapped this rich vein of Greek language and tradition, it found a wealth of concepts and vocabulary that turned towards its own questions and debates. Greek philosophy had long dealt with issues that Islam raised, such as the nature of the divine and human, man's place in society, the role of law, and so on. Centuries of prior thought on these issues provided valuable assistance.

The translation movement ended around the end of the tenth century, possibly because the movement died out when Islamic scientists and their patrons decided enough material was available, or perhaps because it simply went out of fashion. Regardless of the reasons, the end of the translation movement ended neither Islamic science nor its influence. (A vital tradition of original scientific work continued at least into the thirteenth century.) Arguably the greatest beneficiary of Islamic science and the Greek scientific tradition it preserved was Western Europe. Beginning in the twelfth century, Western translators and scientists began to translate Greek and Arabic scientific works into Latin, and eventually began to compose their own original treatises, just as the Arabic translators of earlier centuries had done.


Further Reading

Dhanani, Alnoor. The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia. Edited by Gary B. Ferngren, et. al. New York: Garland Publishing.

Endress, Gerhard. "The Circle of al-Kindi: Early Arabic Translations from the Greek and the Rise of Islamic Philosophy." In The Ancient Tradition in Christian and Islamic Hellenism: Studies on the Transmission of Greek Philosophy and Sciences. Edited by Gerhard Endress and Remke Kruk. Leiden: Research School CNWS, 1997.

Fakhry, Majid. Philosophy, Dogma and the Impact of Greek Thought in Islam. Brookfield, VT: Variorum, 1994.

Gutas, Dimitri. Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Greco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early Abbasid Society (2nd–10th centuries). New York: Routledge, 1998.

Hill, Donald R. "Science and Technology in 9th-Century Baghdad." In Science in Western and Eastern Civilization in Carolingian Times. Edited by Paul Leo Butzer and Dietrich Lohrmann. Boston: Birkhäuser Verlag, 1993.

Leary, De Lacy. How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, Limited, 1948.

Micheau, Françoise. "The Scientific Institutions in the Medieval Near East." In Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science, vol. 3. Edited by Roshdi Rashed. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Peters, F. Aristotle and the Arabs: the Aristotelian Tradition in Islam. New York: New York University Press, 1968.

Rosenthal, Franz. The Classical Heritage in Islam. Translated by Emile and Jenny Marmorstein. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Sabra, A. I. "The Appropriation and Subsequent Naturalization of Greek Science in Medieval Islam: A Preliminary Statement." In History of Science, 25 (1987): 223-243. Reprinted in Tradition, Transmission, Transformation, edited by F. Jamil Ragep and Sally P. Ragep, with Steven Livesey. New York: E. J. Brill, 1996.

Shayegan, Yegane. "The Transmission of Greek Philosophy to the Islamic World." In History of Islamic Philosophy, edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Oliver Leaman. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Young, M. J. L., J. D. Latham, and R. B. Serjeant, eds. Religion, Learning and Science in the Abbasid Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.


In the year 832, the caliph al-Ma'mun established the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Its purpose was to combine the accumulated knowledge of Europe and the Arab world, making this knowledge available for study and helping preserve it for future generations of Islamic scholars. One of the most famous Islamic scientists who worked in the House of Wisdom was the astronomer and mathematician al-Khwarizmi, who wrote and translated numerous works there. Drawing on the work of ancient Greek and Hindu mathematicians and scientists, his works included an introduction of Hindu mathematics, the first formal book on algebra, and many astronomical works. The concept of knowledge centers like the House of Wisdom would eventually evolve into libraries, scientific organizations, and think tanks.


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Greek Texts are Translated into Arabic

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