Long Forgotten Stories of Translation: Part One

Anti-Islamic attitudes are not a modern phenomenon and the campaign to erase the Islamic contribution to modern thought began long ago.

Today, early Arabic thinkers are largely overlooked in discussions of the origins of Western philosophy. In this essay (the second part of which will be published tomorrow), Brother Anthony of Taizé brings the focus back to this period of prolific scholarship and translation, and remembers the most influential philosophers and Greek-Arabic translators of the Medieval Islamic world.

In a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, “La busca de Averroes” (1947), we find Averroes (ibn Rushd, 1126-1198), the great Spanish Arabic commentator of Aristotle, at a loss to understand the words “comedy” and “tragedy” he has found in Aristotle’s Poetics, because his own culture has no tradition of theatrical drama. He is given hints by the sight of children playing at being the muezzin in a mosque, as well as by an account of a theatrical performance in China given by a returning traveler, but he can make nothing of them. Borges then intervenes to make this a parable illustrating the impossibility of ever understanding anyone who lives in a radically different time and culture. In reading this story, we are confronted with our own (and Borges’s) inability to write and read the actual words for “tragedy” and “comedy” which Averroes was struggling with. Today’s widespread Western inability to read Arabic, Greek, or even Latin, should be a source of shame, although it doesn’t seem to be. Many of Borges’s readers might already be at a loss to imagine an Arab struggling to understand Aristotle, so unfamiliar the intellectual history of the Muslim world has become.

Certainly, having spent much time composing three levels of commentary on almost the entire Aristotelian corpus, Averroes would probably have been rather upset to learn that his writing in Arabic was destined to have virtually no impact in the Arabic world, although it briefly became significant in the Christian world, once it had been translated into Latin. Indeed, Averroes can be seen as the founding father of Aristotelian Scholasticism in northern Europe, even though he was denounced there for a variety of ideas (his own and those of Aristotle) which were found to be unacceptable to narrow-minded fundamentalists. But all that is in the distant and largely forgotten past.

Today, Islam is widely vilified as the religion of violence, intolerance and ignorance. Very few people are likely to include an Arabic thinker or book when speaking of the origins of Western philosophy, science or medicine. That is in part, of course, because the topic I want to write about deals with translations and writing made a thousand years ago, and things have moved on since then. But there is a darker side: anti-Islamic attitudes are not a modern phenomenon and the campaign to erase the Islamic contribution to modern thought began long ago. The western “Renaissance” with its slogan—”back to the sources”—launched a program designed to glorify Greece and Rome as the source of all true learning, and to denigrate the “Middle Ages” as a time of darkness and corruption. Since the major elements of Arabic influence—the program of translation from Greek into Arabic, the use of those translations to inspire new works by great Arabic thinkers, and those works, which were later translated into Latin and influenced western Europe—all happened in the medieval period. Therefore this entire reality was condemned to oblivion as though it had never happened. Certainly it was not deemed worthy of memory. Today, I would like to write a brief memorial, a tribute to so much forgotten labor.

The first part of the story begins in the newly Islamic “Middle East” with the overthrow of the Umayyad Caliphate in the Abbasid Revolution of 750 CE and the establishment of the new capital of Baghdad in 762. Baghdad very soon became a great center of science, culture, philosophy and invention, in what is known as the Golden Age of Islam. Already in Damascus, under the Umayyads, a number of Greek philosophical writings had been translated into Arabic. Salim Abu l-’Ala’, secretary to the caliph Hisham ibn ʿAbd al-Malik (r. 724–743), initiated the translation of the pseudo-Aristotelian letters on government to Alexander the Great. A great number of translations made a little later, under the reign of al-Ma’mun (r. 813–833) and his successors, have survived. The new interpretation of Islam and of the role of the caliph promoted by al-Ma’mun, as well as the increasing interest in the secular sciences of the elites of Islamic society, created the context for developing translations from Greek into Arabic. A close relationship clearly existed between the activities of the first group of translators and the court. The leader of this group, the encyclopaedic scientist Abu Yaʿqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi (c. 801–873), was appointed as the preceptor of the son of the successor of al-Ma’mun, al-Muʿtasim (r. 833–842). One of al-Kindi’s works is addressed to al-Ma’mun, whereas his major metaphysical writing, On First Philosophy, is addressed to al-Muʿtasim.

Al-Kindi was the first of the Muslim peripatetic philosophers, and is unanimously hailed as the “father of Arab philosophy” for his synthesis, adaptation, and promotion of Greek and Hellenistic philosophy in the Muslim world. Summaries from many sources have written that he “wrote hundreds of original treatises of his own on a range of subjects ranging from metaphysics, ethics, logic and psychology, to medicine, pharmacology, mathematics, astronomy, astrology and optics, and further afield to more practical topics like perfumes, swords, jewels, glass, dyes, zoology, tides, mirrors, meteorology and earthquakes.” He was able to benefit from the translations made by others, producing his own synthesis of Greek thought and Islam. Thanks to this first set of translations, learned Muslims became acquainted with Plato’s notions of the Demiurge and the immortal soul; with Aristotle’s search for the causes of all earthly and heavenly phenomena, culminating in the doctrine of the Unmoved Mover; and with John Philoponus’s philosophical arguments for Creation. Around AD 840, especially, parts of Plotinus’s Enneads IV–VI (devoted in the Porphyrian edition of Plotinus’s writings to soul, the intelligible world, and the One) were translated into Arabic in the milieu around Al Kindi and given the title Theology of Aristotle. The “Aristotelian” authorship of the Theology granted Plotinus’s doctrine an extraordinary impact on subsequent Arabic philosophy.

At an early stage of Islam, large numbers of Nestorian Christians as well as other non-Muslims inhabited the region. Among them was Hunayn ibn Ishaq, a Nestorian born in 809 in al-Hirah. He and his son Ishaq ibn Hunayn translated one hundred and sixteen works, including Plato’s Timaeus, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, and the Old Testament into Syriac and Arabic. Hunayn Ibn Ishaq also produced thirty-six of his own books, twenty-one of which covered the field of medicine. Ibn Ishaq translated some ninety-five works by Galen, including his “On Sects” and “On the Anatomy of the Veins and Arteries,” fifteen works by Hippocrates, Plato’s Timaeus, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, On the Soul, and On Generation and Corruption. Yet he was only one of many translators and creative scholars at the time.

This enterprise paved the way for the understanding of Aristotelian thought as a systematic whole based on the theory of demonstrative science and crowned by the Metaphysics, as is apparent in the works of al-Farabi and Avicenna. In addition, the translation of Alexander of Aphrodisias’s treatises On the Principles of the All and On Intellect helped to shape the metaphysical cosmology and noetics of Medieval Arabic philosophy as a whole. Algebra, as well, was significantly developed by Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (c. 780-850) during this time in his landmark text, Kitab al-Jabr wa-l-Muqabala, from which the term algebra is derived. The terms algorism and algorithm are derived from the name of al-Khwarizmi, who was also responsible, together with al-Kindi, for introducing the Arabic numerals and Hindu-Arabic numeral system beyond the Indian subcontinent.

Moving forward in time, none played a more significant role in the transmission and re-invention of Greek thought than Al-Farabi, sometimes known in the West as Alpharabius (c. 872–950). He was a renowned philosopher and jurist who wrote in the fields of political philosophy, metaphysics, ethics, and logic, in addition to being a scientist, cosmologist, mathematician, and music scholar. It is generally believed that Aristotle’s writings and thought survived and were disseminated largely as a result of his work. In Islamic philosophical tradition, he is therefore known by the honorific “the Second Teacher,” after Aristotle. A prolific writer, he is credited with over one hundred works. Amongst these are a number of prolegomena to philosophy, commentaries on important Aristotelian works (such as the Nicomachean Ethics), as well as his original writings. Farabi also had a great influence on Maimonides, the most important Jewish thinker of the middle ages, who wrote in Arabic A Treatise on Logic (the celebrated Maqala fi sina at al-mantiq). In a wonderfully concise way, the work treats of the essentials of Aristotelian logic in the light of comments made by the Persian philosophers: Avicenna, and above all al-Farabi. In contrast to al-Kindi, who considered the subject of metaphysics to be God, al-Farabi believed that it was concerned primarily with being, in and of itself, and that this is related to God only to the extent that God is a principle of absolute being. It was for this reason that Avicenna remarked that he did not understand Aristotle’s Metaphysics properly until he had read a prolegomenon written by al-Farabi.

Al-Farabi’s cosmology is essentially based upon three pillars: Aristotelian metaphysics of causation, highly developed Plotinian emanational cosmology, and Ptolemaic astronomy. In his discussion of the First Cause (or God), Al-Farabi relies heavily on negative theology. He says that the First Cause cannot be known by intellectual means, such as dialectical division or definition, because the terms used in these processes for definition constitute its substance. Therefore if one was to define the First Cause, each of the terms used would actually constitute a part of its substance and therefore behave as a cause for its existence, which is impossible as the First Cause is uncaused; it exists without being caused.

One of the greatest thinkers of this or any age was Ibn Sina, or Abu Ali Sina, who is best known in the West as Avicenna (c. 980–1037). Of the four hundred and fifty works he is known to have written, around two hundred and forty have survived, including one hundred and fifty on philosophy and forty on medicine. His most famous works are The Book of Healing, a philosophical and scientific encyclopedia, and The Canon of Medicine, a medical encyclopedia which became a standard medical text at many medieval universities and continued to be used in Spain as late as 1650. Avicenna was born in 980 in Afshana, a village near Bukhara (in present-day Uzbekistan). According to his autobiography, Avicenna had memorised the entire Quran by the age of ten. As a teenager, he was greatly troubled by Aristotle’s Metaphysics, which he could not understand until he read al-Farabi’s commentary on the work, while achieving full status as a qualified physician at age eighteen.

One of the most influential parts of his writing is the “Proof of the Truthful,” a formal argument for proving the existence of God found in several of his works. Avicenna argued that there must be a “necessary existent,” an entity that cannot not exist. The argument says that the entire set of contingent things must have a cause that is not contingent because otherwise it would be included in the set. Furthermore, through a series of arguments, he derived that the necessary existent must have attributes that he identified with the God of Islam, including unity, simplicity, immateriality, intellect, power, generosity, and goodness.

Meanwhile, in Spain . . .

Spain had become Muslim almost by accident in 711. When Tariq ibn Ziyad crossed the Straits of Gibraltar with a small army, he could not have known that the king of the Visigoths, who ruled virtually the whole of Spain, was on a campaign against rebels in the distant North. He landed with only seven thousand soldiers and, upon meeting no resistance, he advanced cautiously until he won a crushing victory over the whole Visigoth army in July. With no further opposition in sight, his force advanced into France and nearly reached Paris before withdrawing south of the Pyrenees. That it did not soon withdraw completely has much to do with the overthrow of the Middle-Eastern Umayyad Caliphate in the Abbasid Revolution of 750. Virtually every member of the Umayyad clan was slaughtered, but one prince, Abd al-Rahman, escaped, made his way across North Africa, and in 756 took power over al-Andalus (Islamic Spain), reigning there until his death in 788.

The Abbasids were preoccupied with founding their new capital in Baghdad and Spain was of little interest to them. It was in 822 that the remarkably influential musician and polymath Abu l-Hasan Ali Ibn Nafi, better known as Ziryab “the Blackbird” (789–857), arrived in Córdoba from Baghdad via Syria and Tunisia. Invited to Spain by the Umayyad prince, Al-Hakam I (ruled c. 796–822), he arrived just after the king’s death and was instead welcomed by the new ruler, Abd ar-Rahman II. Ziryab had grown up in Baghdad during the reign of Harun Al-Rashid (ruled 786-809), during whose rule Baghdad flourished as a center of knowledge, culture, and trade, becoming the most splendid city of its period. Tribute was paid by many rulers to the caliph, and these funds were used on architecture, the arts, and a luxurious lifestyle at court. Ziryab absorbed all of this and became the complete incarnation of refinement, which his personal charm made all the more appealing. He introduced deodorants and toothpaste, fine clothing and elegant meal tables, asparagus and new music, and with his knowledge in astronomy, geography, meteorology, botanics, cosmetics, culinary art, and fashion, Ziryab changed al-Andalusian culture radically. The musical contributions of Ziryab alone are staggering, laying the groundwork for all later Spanish music. For the history of study and translation, however, his main importance lies in his insistence that all wealthy noblemen should be scholars, lovers of books, and patrons of the sciences. Thanks to him, libraries used by learned scholars spread across the land, wherever a prince of nobleman had a mansion or palace, encouraging advanced studies and a huge trade in book-copying and book-selling.

Abd al-Rahman III came to the throne in 912 in a very violent succession to his grandfather and in 929 he assumed the title of “caliph” rather than “emir,” despite the Abbasid and Fatimid caliphs’ claim that there could only be two caliphs in Islam. The main city, Córdoba, had Islamic rebels to the South and Christian armies to the North, but after gradually subduing the first, he was helped by intense dynastic rivalries among the Christians of Leon and Navarre. Abd al-Rahman was a great humanist and patron of arts, especially architecture. Under his reign, Córdoba became the most important intellectual center of Western Europe. He expanded the city’s library, which would be further enriched by his successors. He was tolerant of non-Muslims, Jews and Christians, who held important positions in his administration.

Especially close to him was the learned Jewish scholar Hasdai ibn Shaprut (c. 915–970) who rose to be his minister of foreign affairs. He had mastered Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin, the last a rare achievement in Arabic Spain at that time. In 949, an embassy was sent by by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII to Córdoba, bringing as a gift a magnificent illustrated codex of Pedanius Dioscorides’s De Materia Medica, a pharmacopoeia of medicinal plants and the medicines that can be produced from them. An earlier Arabic translation had failed to identify the plants, rendering it useless. A Greek monk, Nicholas, was sent from Constantinople to assist in translating this five-volume treasure into Arabic, working with Hasdai ibn Shaprut and Arabic-speaking Christians who knew some Latin, to whom he taught Greek. This then gave a great boost to the local botanist-doctors, who were able to plant great herbal gardens and develop new medicines.

Part two will be published on the Asymptote blog on August 8, 2019.

Brother Anthony of Taizé was born in England in 1942. After studying at Oxford he joined the ecumenical Community of Taizé in 1969. He has been living in Korea since 1980, teaching English literature at Sogang University, where he is now an emeritus professor. He is also a chair-professor at Dankook University. He has translated works by many modern Korean writers, mostly poetry, publishing forty-five or more volumes so far, including volumes of poetry by Ko Un, Lee Si-young, Jeong Ho-seung, Kim Seung-Hee, Shim Bo-seon, and Kim Sa-in, as well as novels by Yi Mun-yol and many short stories by a variety of younger writers. He continues to translate and publish work by mostly younger poets. He has been the President of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch since 2011, and has published work on the early western visitors to Korea as well as the early translators of modern Korean literature into English. He was recently awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth for his work in strengthening relations between Britain and Korea and has received a similar award from the Korean President.


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