Classic Philosophy Meets Arabic Language: A Dialogue with Professor Peter Adamson

A tenth-century resident of Baghdad could read Arabic versions of just about everything by Aristotle that we can read today.

The great Islamic conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries changed the Near East and beyond politically, culturally, and, in a particularly profound and lasting way, linguistically, resulting in the near hegemony of the Arabic language. This new Islamic world took shape around an original and powerful new religion, but the consolidation of an Islamic civilisation was also a period of immense cultural exchange and mutual influence, not only from fellow Abrahamic traditions such as Judaism and Christianity, but also from the world of classical Mediterranean antiquity. Indeed, while knowledge of classical Greek science and philosophy fell into virtual oblivion in the Christian West, Islamic scholars kept the tradition alive by means of large scale translation projects and sophisticated philosophical works, from the Persian Avicenna to Baghdad’s legendary house of learning and the Andalusian polymath Averroes. In this interview, Professor Peter Adamson of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München talks us through this fascinating and often overlooked period in philosophical history by exploring the works of translation that made it possible.

Jonathan Egid (JE): By the time the grand translation projects of the early Islamic world began, the wonders of classical Greek philosophy had attained the status of ancient wisdom, almost one thousand years old and already much discussed and much translated. How did the works of Greek thinkers come to be translated into Arabic, and what was the interest in these ancient and foreign ideas?

Peter Adamson (PA): This was a process that unfolded over the course of centuries. The translation movement begins already in the eighth century CE and continues well into the tenth century. It was basically an initiative of the elites under the Abbasid caliphate, including even caliphs themselves and the caliphal family, who also had philosophers as court scholars. For instance, al-Kindī, the first philosopher to make explicit use of Hellenic materials in his own writing, was tutor to a caliph’s son and dedicated his most important work to the caliph himself. The translators were well paid experts, so this was a very deliberate and expensive undertaking managed from the top down. It should, however, be said that it was not something that was undertaken in a vacuum. For quite a long time there had already been translations made from Greek into Syriac and other Semitic languages, and these were a model for the Arabic translations (sometimes literally: it was known for works to be translated first into Syriac for the purpose of making an Arabic version on that basis). Also I would say the translation movement had a kind of momentum of its own: whereas at first the texts to be translated were really selected by the elite and for a variety of practical or political motives, eventually they get to the stage where they are translating the entire output of certain thinkers, or at least everything they can get their hands on, in a kind of completist project. So for instance, one of the greatest translators, Hunayn ibn Ishaq, was clearly trying to translate whatever he could by Galen, the most important Greek medical authority, while his son Ishaq ibn Hunayn worked his way through Aristotle.

JE: You mentioned that the translators themselves enjoyed powerful institutional support. Was it ever the case that the translations of these evidently pagan thinkers came into tension with political or religious orthodoxy? And could you tell us a little more about who exactly was doing the translation work?

PA: The translators were mostly Christians. This is for linguistic reasons: Christians from Syria, or in Iraq but of Syrian extraction, were still using Greek as a living language, and as I said they had already been doing Greek-Syriac translations for generations, usually in a monastic context. The men hired by the Abbasids were sometimes also religious, for instance, the Patriarch of the East Syrian church Timothy I, who translated a logical treatise by Aristotle. But they could just be expert scholars like the aforementioned Hunayn. There was indeed high level state support for the translation movement, but it did cause some disquiet among conservative religious scholars of Islam, and more generally proponents of “Indigenous” sciences. There is a famous example in which a Muslim grammarian of Arabic humiliated a Christian logician and translator, arguing that Greek logic is pretentious and useless, since correctness in speech can be attained through the careful study of Arabic.

However, it would be wrong to think that there was a huge backlash or widespread opposition to the translation movement and everything it triggered in Islamic society. In general medieval Islamic society was a pretty open culture in terms of the transmission and sharing of ideas. For some reason people seem to have this fantasy that it must have been a culture of total oppression, and I often see people on social media spouting nonsense to the effect that all philosophers in the Islamic world were subject to persecution, book burning, and violence. Actually, that is entirely untrue and there is almost no evidence for such events. In fact political repression plays almost no role in the history of the reception of Greek thought, though it can be relevant in other contexts, for instance, the history of Shiism which was often seen as a political threat.

JE: What sort of texts were these early translators most interested in? Did they generally look for works that would serve as arguments in favour of Islamic monotheism, like some of the early Christian apologists, or were they more interested in works addressing practical and political issues?

PA: In some disciplines and for some authors, the translations covered basically everything that could be found in Greek manuscript: a tenth-century resident of Baghdad could read Arabic versions of just about everything by Aristotle we can read today. Plato’s dialogues, by contrast, were not translated at all, at least not in their entirety. Their fame is attributed to the attention that Galen attracted because he had written paraphrased versions of Plato and these were rendered into Arabic along with his other works.

Another important choice was to translate the works of the Neoplatonists Plotinus and Proclus. The main reason for this, I think, is that Neoplatonic philosophy, with its emphasis on a first cause of all things that is purely one, was a good fit for Islamic culture with its commitment to the oneness of God. Often the motives were more practical—as would obviously be the case with medicine for instance—or political, for instance translation of astrological works, since astrology could be used in political propaganda. Religious dispute was also an important context, especially for works of logic and metaphysics, since Muslims and Christians wanted to be well armed for their arguments over topics like the cogency of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

JE: Did this translation movement serve as a catalyst for what we might call “the birth of Arabic philosophy”, or were there pre-expansion, even pre-Islamic traditions of philosophy in Arabic? Did the Hellenistic tradition compliment or contradict earlier schools of thought?

PA: It depends a little on what you mean by “philosophy.” At around the same time, though starting a bit earlier, we have the tradition of Islamic rational theology or kalām, which is often very philosophical: for instance they debate topics like the nature of free will, moral responsibility, causation, the soul, and so on. I often say that if there had been no translation movement, historians would just think of kalām as the philosophical tradition that can be found in medieval Islam. But since we did have the translation movement, there was at first a kind of double track, with Greek-inspired philosophy being pursued as a rival and alternative to kalām, as it often addresses the same topics with some filtering ideas across the divide in both directions. After Avicenna (d.1037), who is the most outstanding and influential figure of the whole history of philosophy in the Islamic world, you see an increasing merger of Greek-inspired, Avicennan philosophy with kalām. Not that they become totally independent and you can still find thinkers who want to champion the Greek heritage, like the famous commentator Averroes over in Muslim Spain, but increasingly Aristotle and other Greek thinkers become only a remote influence, until a revival of interest in their works in Safavid Iran during the early modern period.

JE: How did these scholars cope with the special challenges of translating philosophical terminology? For example, did they tend to coin new words in Arabic for philosophical concepts, or to appropriate the original Greek terms? Was there an interest in “making philosophy speak Arabic”, or were they happy to import the Greek words along with the concepts?

PA: Different translators take different approaches. You definitely find transliterations of some terms, sometimes with an Arabic near-equivalent to make the meaning clear. But only a few Greek loan words manage to survive and enter into general use: examples would be one word for “matter,” like the material something is made from (hāyūlā from Greek hyle) and actually one word for “philosophy” itself (falsafa). Generally speaking, though, we see Arabic or Persian loan words pushing out Greek loan words.

JE: It is often said that philosophy as a literary form is particularly challenging and treacherous to translate, and “philosophy” is itself often suggested as an example of an untranslatable word, based on the fact that other languages almost always take over the Greek philosophia, meaning “love of wisdom,” for describing this special kind of intellectual endeavour. Do you think it is true that philosophy is particularly difficult to translate? And is “philosophy” itself untranslatable?

PA: That’s actually an unusually tricky question in the case of Arabic. With other languages of other “non-Western” philosophical traditions like classical Sanskrit or Chinese, we have scholarly debates about which (if any) terms would correspond most closely to the Greek philosophia. In Arabic, it looks like the situation is much simpler because they have the loan word falsafa, so the same word exists just as much as in Latin and its derivations (including English). However my impression is that the Arabic word falsafa never lost its foreign, and indeed specifically Greek, flavor. Also there is another word, ikma, which means “wisdom” and often seems to include a lot of what we’d classify as philosophy. Indeed the related word akīm, which one could translate “sage” or “philosopher,” could even be applied to a figure like Aristotle. The tricky part is that some authors would self-identify as doing ikma but not falsafa, because they are thinking about philosophical and theological issues in a rational way but not engaging directly with Greek sources in Arabic translation. Then things get even more complex, because after Avicenna falsafa increasingly comes to mean “philosophy done in the style of, or reaching the conclusions of, Avicenna.” So if you are looking at a twelfth-century text, you could argue that the Arabic word closest to “philosophy” in our general meaning is not falsafa, but ikma, despite the etymology.

I don’t think the wider point about the difficulty of translating philosophy is true. It’s much harder to translate literature than to translate philosophy, especially the kind of philosophy the Greek-Arabic translators were mostly dealing with, where you have very didactic treatises by Aristotle. Rarely does Aristotle exploit features like wordplay, and the writing style is not elegant, so you don’t have to worry about preserving that: if they had attempted to get Plato into Arabic, that would have been a much more difficult task. Also from my own point of view, I work on translating Arabic into English almost every day and although these are very different languages (Arabic isn’t even Indo-European, after all), I wouldn’t say that rich meaning is being lost as one translates. Admittedly, occasionally one does have words that are very hard to translate, like logos in Greek (it can mean reason, word, account, definition, etcetera) or ma‘nā in Arabic (which can mean “meaning” but has a much wider range).

JE: Were there any concepts in particular that Arabic philosophers had particular difficulties translating? Do the major differences between Greek and Arabic pose any special problems?

PA: Well firstly there are problems of grammar, since Semitic languages are just structured differently; you tend to lose a lot of the flavour of Greek when it is translated into Arabic (or English, for that matter) because the tone of Greek sentences is often marked with the subtle use of a range of particles, and these can just disappear in translation. Also verbs work differently, in particular the verb “to be” (einai) in Greek is very different from anything one has in Arabic, and even in the tradition there is some comment on this: for instance al-Fārābī, despite not knowing Greek, attempted some remarks on the differences between Greek and Arabic for expressing notions having to do with being.

JE: Regarding your own work, what do you find particularly challenging in working from these sources? Does exploring philosophy via a triangulation of Greek, Arabic, and English affect your approach to and understanding of the materials?

PA: Obviously there are linguistic challenges, and these go beyond just the technical issues of trying to understand both the Greek and the Arabic properly (and here I should say that other scholars who were primarily trained as linguists and philologists are far more expert than I am, as a trained philosopher who just tried to learn the languages on the side as it were). For instance, if you are translating from an Arabic text that is itself a translation from Greek, you might wonder how much you should bring your knowledge of the Greek to bear on your translation of the Arabic. That is sort of the difference between trying to render what the translator (who had the Greek in front of him) would have been thinking, and trying to render what a Greekless reader of the Arabic would be likely to get out of it. Also I suppose that all translators struggle with questions about exactness versus readability, and if you’re trying to convey how a translator worked with a source text you may choose to give very exact translations of your own (I did that when I was working on the Arabic Plotinus: gave extremely literal English versions of both Plotinus’ Greek and the Arabic translation, to make as clear as possible what is going on in the shift from one language to the other).

JE: Why should philosophers and literary audiences more generally care about these translations, and about this particular moment in intellectual history? Are there lessons to be learnt about contemporary cultural and intellectual concerns, or is the primary value of their study always the intrinsic interest of the texts themselves?

PA: To a large extent these texts are just interesting in all the usual ways that history of philosophy is always interesting: they reveal a lot about the cultural context of the time, the concerns of the intellectuals involved, the presuppositions they had that we do and do not share, and so on. And to be honest I always struggle a bit to explain why people should find history of philosophy interesting—like, what could be more obviously interesting? However I think there are additional things one can say about this particular topic and why it is worth our attention. Most obviously, it shows us something about the relationship between “western” and Islamic cultures, which to put it mildly is still a matter of current interest. In particular the translations reveal that these were never isolated cultures developing independently; rather you have constant interchange within political spheres (e.g. collaboration between Christians and Muslims to produce translations) and across borders, as when manuscripts travelled back and forth between the Islamic world and Byzantium. You even have Arabic scientific works, which were themselves inspired by ancient Greek, though were being translated into Greek by scholars like Symeon Seth who lived in Byzantium. And similar stories can be told about Spain before and after the Christian “reconquest,” about Sicily, and so on.

Peter Adamson is a professor of philosophy at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München and author of a number of books on late antique philosophy and Islamic philosophy, including The Arabic Plotinus (2002), Studies in Early Arabic Philosophy (2015) and Philosophy in the Islamic World (2016). He is also the host of the weekly History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast.

 Jonathan Egid teaches history, philosophy and literature in north London, and is one of Asymptote’s blog editors. He is working on a project exploring concept creation in early translations of philosophy into English.


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