History of International Relations Textbook

The Muslim caliphates

The translation movement

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

With the fall of Rome, the cultural heritage of classical Greece was lost to western Europe and next to no European knew how to read Greek.  Instead the texts survived in translations into Arabic.  In the Abbasid Caliphate these translations received official support by the state and the caliphs took a personal interest in the work of the translators. The fact that Byzantium was the caliphate’s enemy was not an obstacle to this translation project but instead its spur. It was important to the caliphs to show that they had mastered the Greek tradition and that they had developed it even further than the Greeks themselves. (And, according to some Persian scholars in the caliph’s court, what the Greeks called “their tradition” was originally a Persian tradition anyway, alledgedly stolen by Alexander the Great).

The translations were often carried out by Syrian Christians, who spoke both Greek and Arabic, and often they used Syriac as an intermediary language. The translators would send for manuscripts from Byzantium, or they would go there themselves to look for books. And they were very handsomely rewarded by the caliphs for their work –a translator might be paid some 500 golden dinars a month for his work, an astronomical sum. An important resource was the reference library at Bayt al-Hikma, the “House of Wisdom,” founded in Baghdad in the early part of the ninth-century.

At the time there were two main circles of translators in Baghdad, centered on the scholars Hunayn ibn Ishaq and al-Kindi, respectively. Hunayn ibn Ishaq, 809-873 CE, was a Nestorian Christian who traveled to Byzantium to look for manuscripts, and returned with texts by Aristotle, among others. Having mastered Arabic, Syriac, Greek and Persian, Hunayn translated no fewer than 116 works, especially medical and scientific texts, but also the Old Testament into Arabic. His son and nephews joined him as translators in his workshop. Hunayn was notable for his method which began with literal translations on which he based subsequent, rather loose, paraphrases of the original text.  Hunayn also wrote his own books, some 36 works altogether, of which 21 were concerned with medical topics. His Ten Treaties on the Eye was the first systematic treatment of the subject matter; Questions on Medicine, which he wrote as an introduction to a work by Galen, the Greek authority on all things medical, was used at universities well into the early modern period. Hunayn may also be the author of De scientia venandi per aves, a book on falconry, much admired in the Middle Ages.

Al-Kindi, 801-873 CE, was Hunayn’s near contemporary but the head of another circle of translators. Although Al-Kindi did not know Greek himself, his collaborators did, and he spent time overseeing, and editing, their work. The members of the al-Kindi circle were the first to translate many titles by Aristotle and other Greek philosophers. The members of his group were perhaps not as knowledgeable about their subject matters as Hunayn and his colleagues, and they were often criticized for providing translations that were too faithful to the originals and therefore difficult to understand. Al-Kindi also wrote his own books. In On First Philosophy, he gave an impassioned defense of why it was important to translate texts from the Greek. The truth is the truth, he argued, regardless of the language in which it is expressed. He is said to have introduced Indian numerals to the Islamic world; he was a pioneer in cryptography; and he devised a scale that allowed doctors to assess the potency of the medication they gave their patients.