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One of the first and most significant indications of the new orientation of Muslim thought was the extensive production of Arabic translations of works dealing with philosophical and scientific subjects, with the result that eighty years after the f all of the ‘Umayyads the Arabic speaking world possessed Arabic translations of the greater part of the works of Aristotle, of the leading neo-Platonic commentators, of some of the works of Plato, of the greater part of the works of Galen, and portions of other medical writers and their commentators, as well as of other Greek scientific works and of various Indian and Persian writings. This period of activity in translating falls into two stages, the first from the accession of the Abbasids to the accession of al-Ma’mum (A.H. 132-198), when a large amount of work was done by various independent translators, largely Christians, Jews, and recent converts from non-Islamic religions; the second under al-Ma’mun and his immediate successors, when the work of translation mainly centered in the academy newly founded at Baghdad, and a consistent effort was made to render the material necessary for philosophical and scientific research available for the Arabic speaking student.
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The earlier translation work is especially associated with ‘Abdullah b. al-Muqaffa‘, a native of Fars and originally a Zoroastrian, who made his profession of faith before a brother of Muhammad b. ‘Ali, the father of as-Saffah, and became his secretary. Presuming on his employer’s protection he ventured to make derisive and impertinent remarks to Arab dignitaries and especially to Sufyan, the governor of Basra, whom he used to salute with a lewd jest against his mother’s chastity. It seems that men of Arab birth who held political office under the early ‘Abbasids often had to put up with such insults from the ex-serfs. After an unsuccessful attempt at revolt by another of the Khalif’s uncles Ibn al-Muqaffa‘ was directed to prepare a draft letter of pardon to be presented to the Khalif al-Mansur, who succeeded his brother as-Saffah, for his official seal, but he drew up the letter in such terms as to arouse the Khalif’s indignation; amongst other things the letter said, “if at any time the Commander of the Faithful act perfidiously towards his uncle ‘Abdullah b. ‘Ali, his wives shall be divorced from him, his horses shall be confiscated for the service of God (in war), his slaves shall become free, and the Muslims loosed from their allegiance to him.” The Khalif enquired who had prepared this letter and on being informed directed Sufyan to put him to death. Pleased thus to gratify his personal rancour the governor of Basra executed Ibn al-Muqaffa‘ with great cruelty, though the details differ in different accounts, in A.H. 142 or 143.
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Although conforming to Islam, Ibn al-Muqaffa‘ was generally regarded as a Zindiq, a term properly signifying a Manichæan but used loosely by the Arabic writers to denote a member of one of the Persian religions who professed outward conformity to Islam, but secretly adhered to his own creed, or as a term of abuse to denote a heretic of any sort. The word itself is a Persian rendering of siddiq or “initiate,” a title assumed by full members of the Manichæan sect. It implies the possession of esoteric knowledge and from this idea rose the practice common amongst the Shi‘ite sects of concealing their real beliefs from general profession and assuming the external appearance of orthodoxy. Masudi (viii. 293) states that “many heresies arose after the publication of the works of Mani, Ibn Daysan, and Marcion translated from Persian and Pahlawi into Arabic by ‘Abdullah b. al-Muqaffa‘ and others.” Under al-Mansur and by his orders, translations were made from Greek, Syriac, and Persian, the Syriac and Persian books being themselves translations from Greek or Sanskrit. The best known work of Ibn Muqaffa, was the translation of the Kalila wa-Dimna or “Fables of Bidpai” from the Old Persian which was itself a translation from the Sanskrit. Ibn al-Muqaffa‘s translation into Arabic is generally regarded as a standard model of Arabic prose. The Persian original is lost, but a version in Syriac made from it by the Nestorian missionary Budh, about A.D. 570, is extant and has been published (ed. Bickell and Benfey,
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1876); the Sanskrit original also is lost in what was presumably its earlier form, but we find its material in a much expanded form in two Sanskrit books, (i) in the Panchatantra, which contains the stories which appear as 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 17, of de Sacy’s Arabic text, and (ii) the Mahabharata, which contains chapters 11, 12, 13. Evidently the old Syriac of Budh, a translation of the Persian translation of the original, is the best representative of the older form of the text. The Arabic version of Ibn al-Muqaffa‘ shows a number of interpolations and additions which all, of course, appear in the derived versions, in the later Syriac, the several mediæval Persian translations which are made from the Arabic and not from the old Persian, and in the numerous Latin, Hebrew, Spanish, Persian, and Greek versions. It was this Arabic translation which gave to the book a wider circulation than possessed before or than it could ever have had, and introduced it to the western world. The case was exactly parallel with Aristotle and similar material: Arabic became a medium of extremely wide transmission and the additions made as material passed through Arabic received a wide circulation also.
Ibn Muqaffa‘ lived in the reign of al-Mansur and during that same period we are told (Masudi. viii. 291-2) that Arabic versions were made of several treatises of Aristotle, of the almajasta of Ptolemy, of the book of Euclid, and other material from the Greek. About 156 A.H. an Indian traveller brought to Baghdad a treatise on arithmetic and another on
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astronomy: the astronomical treatise was the Siddhanta which came to be known to the Arabic writers as the Sindhind, it was translated by Ibrahim al-Fazari and opened up a new interest in astronomical studies: some little time afterwards Muhammad b. Musa al-Kharizmi combined the Greek and Indian systems of astronomy, and from this time forth the subject takes a prominent place in Arabic studies. The great Arabic astronomers belong to a later generation, such as Abu Ma‘shar of Baghdad, the pupil of al-Kindi, who died in A.H. 272 (= A.D. 885), known to the Latin mediæval writers as “Abumazar,” and Muhammad b. Jabir b. Sinan al-Battani (d. 317 A.H. = A.D. 929) who was known as “Albategnius.” The Indian work on arithmetic was even more important as by its means the Indian numerals were introduced, to be passed on in due course as “Arabic” numerals, and this decimal system of numbering has made possible an extension of arithmetical processes and indeed of mathematics generally which would have been difficult with any of the older and more cumbersome systems.
Al-Mansur, after founding Baghdad in A.H. 148 (= A.D. 765) summoned a Nestorian physician, George Boktishu‘, from the school at Junde-Shapur and established him a court physician, and from this time there was a series of Nestorian physicians connected with the court and forming a medical school at Baghdad. George fell ill in Baghdad and was allowed to retire to Junde-Shapur, his place being
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taken by his pupil Issa b. Thakerbokht, who was the author of a book on therapeutics. Later came Bokhtishu‘ son of George who was physician to Harunu r-Rashid in 171 (= A.D. 787), and then Gabriel, another son of George, who was sent to attend Ja‘far the Barmecide in 175 and stood high in Harun’s favour: he wrote an introduction to logic, a letter to al-Ma‘mun on foods and drinks, a manual of medicine based on Dioscorus, Galen, and Paul of Aegina, medical pandects, a treatise on perfumes, and other works. In medicine, as will be remembered, the Indian system had been introduced at Junde-Shapur and combined with the Greek, but the latter clearly predominated. Another important settler in Baghdad was the Jewish Syrian physician John bar Maserjoye, who translated the Syntagma of Aaron into Syriac and presided over the medical school gathered in the Muslim capital. For a long time the Arabic work in medicine was limited to translation of the great Greek authorities and practice on the lines learned in Alexandria. We have already referred to the unfortunate influence derived from the Egyptian school which diverted both medicine and chemistry into semi-magical lines, an evil tendency from which the Arabic school never quite freed itself. A considerable time elapsed before the Arabic speaking community produced any original writers on medicine. About the end of the third century we find Abu l-Abbas Ahmad b. Thayib as-Sarakhsi, a pupil of al-Kindi, who is stated to have written a treatise on the
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soul, an abridgment of Porphyry’s Isagoge, and an introductory manual of medicine (Masudi. ii. 72). At that time medical studies were still very largely in Christian and Jewish hands, and we find the Syriac physician John ben Serapion (end of 9th cent. A.D.) writing in Syriac medical pandects which were circulated in two editions, the latter of which was translated into Arabic by several writers independently and long afterwards into Latin by Gerard of Cremona.
The father of Arabic medicine proper was Abu Bakr Muhammad b. Zakariyya ar-Razi (d. A.H. 311-320 =A.D. 923-932) who was known to Latin mediaeval writers as “Razes,” a student of music, philosophy, literature, and finally medicine. In his medical pandects he uses both Greek and Indian authorities, and the introduction of these latter in subordination to the classic authorities used at Alexandria was the really important contribution made by the Arabic students to the progress of science. Unfortunately ar-Razi’s work suffered from the defect that it greatly lacks order and arrangement, it is a collection of more or less separate treatises, and so not at all convenient to use. For this reason more perhaps than any other he was replaced by Ibn Sina (Avicenna) whose work, if anything, errs in the opposite direction and suffers from an extremely elaborate arrangement and systematization. It will be noticed that with the Arabic writers, as with their Syriac predecessors, the leading medical
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writers were usually also exponents of logic and commentators on Aristotle as well as Galen.
The Khalif al-Mansur was the patron who did most to attract the Nestorian physicians to the city of Baghdad which he had founded, and he was also a prince who did much to encourage those who set themselves to prepare Arabic translations of Greek, Syriac, and Persian works. Still more important was the patronage given by the Khalif al-Ma’mun who in A.H. 217 (= A.D. 832) founded a school at Baghdad, suggested no doubt by the Nestorians and Zoroastrian schools already existing, and this he called the Bayt al-Hikma or “House of Wisdom,” and this he placed under the guidance of Yahya b. Masawaih (d. A.H. 243 = A.D. 857), who was an author both in Syriac and Arabic, and learned also in the use of Greek. His medical treatise on “Fevers” was long in repute and was afterwards translated into Latin and into Hebrew.
The most important work of the academy however was done by Yahya’s pupils and successors, especially Abu Zayd Hunayn b. Ishaq al-Ibadi (d. 263 A.H. = A.D. 876), the Nestorian physician to whom we have already referred as translating into Syriac the chief medical authorities as well as parts of Aristotle’s Organon. After studying at Baghdad under Yahya he visited Alexandria and returned, not only with the training given at what was then the first medical school, but with a good knowledge of Greek which he employed in making translations in Syriac and Arabic.
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With him were associated his son Ishaq and his nephew Hubaysh. Hunayn prepared Arabic translations of Euclid; of various portions of Galen, Hippocrates, Archimedes, Apollonius, and others, as well as of the Republic Laws, and Timæus of Plato, the Categories, Physics, and Magna Moralia of Aristotle, and the commentary of Themistius on book 30 of the Metaphysics, as well as an Arabic translation of the Bible. He also translated the spurious Mineralogy of Aristotle, which long served as one of the leading authorities on chemistry, and the medical pandects of Paul of Aegina. His son, besides original works on medicine, produced Arabic versions of the Sophist of Plato, the Metaphysics, de anima, de generatione et de corruptione, and the Hermeneutica of Aristotle which Hunayn had translated into Syriac, as well as some of the commentaries of Porphyry, Alexander of Aphrodisias, and Ammonius. A little later we find the Syrian Christian Questa b. Luqa, a native of Ba‘albek, who had studied in Greece, prominent as a translator.
The fourth century A.H. was the golden period of the Arabic translators, and it is worth noting that, although the work was done chiefly by Syriac speaking Christians, and inspired by Syriac tradition a very large number of the translations were made directly from the Greek, by men who had studied the language in Alexandria or Greece; very often the same scholar made Syriac and Arabic translations from the Greek text. There were also translators from the Syriac, but
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these usually come after the translators from the Greek. Amongst the Nestorian translators from Syriac was Abu Bishr Matta b. Yunus (d. 328 A.H. =A.D. 939), who rendered into Arabic the Analytica Posteriora and the poetics of Aristotle, Alexander of Aphrodisias’ commentary on the de generatione et de corruptione, and Themistius’ commentary on book 30 of the Metaphysics, all from the existing Syriac versions. He was also the author of original commentaries on Aristotle’s Categories and the Isagoge of Porphyry.
The Jacobite translators come on the scene after the Nestorians. Amongst the Jacobites translating from Syriac to Arabic we find Yahya b. Adi of Takrit (d. 364), a pupil of Hunayn, who revised many of the existing versions and prepared translations of Aristotle’s Categories, Sophist. Blench., Poetics, and Metaphysics, Plato’s Laws and Timæus, as well as Alexander of Aphrodisias’ commentary on the Categories and Theophrastus on the Moralia. The Jacobite Abu ‘Ali Isa b. Zaraah (d. 398) translated the Categories, the Natural History, and the de partibus animalium, with the commentary of John Philoponus.
This is a convenient place to summarize briefly the range of Aristotelian material available to Arabic students of philosophy. The whole of the logical Organon was accessible in Arabic, and in this were included the Rhetoric and Poetics, as well as Porphyry’s Isagoge. Of the works on natural science they had the Physica, de coelo, de generatione
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et corruptione, de sensu, the Historia animalium, the spurious Meteorologia, and the de anima. On mental and moral science they had the Metaphysics, the Nicomachæan Ethics and the Magna Moralia. Strangely enough the Politics was not included in the Aristotelian canon, its place being taken by Plato’s Laws or Republic. Besides these the Arabic students accepted as Aristotelian a Mineralogy, of which we have no knowledge, and a Mechanics.
Of these the logical Organon always remained the basis of a humane education, side by side with the indigenous study of grammar, and this essentially logical basis of education seems to have been influenced by the example of the existing system developed amongst the Syrians, although it must be remembered a similar system was developed quite independently in Latin scholasticism prior to the earliest contact with the Arabic writers. The Aristotelian logic has always remained an orthodox and generally accepted science. The philosophical and theological controversies and the developments produced by the Arabic philosophers centred mainly in questions of metaphysics and psychology, and so were particularly concerned with the 12th book of Metaphysics and the treatise de anima, more especially the 3rd book. As we have already noted the psychology of Aristotle was interpreted in the light of Alexander of Aphrodisias’ commentary, and thus received a theistic and supernatural colouring which receives its fuller development in neo-Platonic teaching.
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Most important in the fuller development of this neo-Platonic doctrine was the so-called Theology of Aristotle which appeared in Arabic about 226 A.H. It was in fact an abridged paraphrase of the last three books (iv-vi) of the Enneads of Plotinus made by Naymah of Emessa, boldly circulated and generally received as a genuine work of Aristotle. It might be regarded as a literary fraud, but it is quite possible that Plotinus was confused with Plato whose name appears in Arabic as ’Aflatun, it seems indeed that this particular confusion was made by some other writers, and the translators accepted the current belief, maintained by all the neo-Platonic commentators, that the teaching of Aristotle and that of Plato were substantially the same, the superficial appearances of difference being such as could be easily explained away. By means of this Theology the fully developed doctrine of the neo-Platonists was put into general circulation and combined with the teaching of Alexander of Aphrodisias and thus exercised an enormous influence on the philosophy of Islam in several directions. In the hands of the philosophers properly so called it developed an Islamic neo-Platonism which received its final form at the hands of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and in this form exercised a powerful influence over Latin scholasticism. Transmitted in another atmosphere it affected Sufism or Muslim mysticism, and was mainly responsible for the speculative theology which that mysticism developed.
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In a modified form some of the resultant principles gathered from these two sources finally entered into orthodox Muslim scholastic theology.
The main points of this neo-Platonic doctrine as it figures in Muslim theology present the teaching of the active intellect or ‘aql fa‘‘al, the Agent Intellect of Alexander Aph. as an emanation from God, and the ‘aql hayyulani or passive intellect in man only aroused to activity by the operation of this Agent Intellect, which is substantially the doctrine of Alexander Aph.: the aim of man is to attain a union or ittisal in which his intellect becomes one with the Agent Intellect, although the means of attaining this union and the nature of the union differ in the doctrines of the philosophers and the mystics, as we shall see in due course.
Next to philosophy proper medical science is the most important heritage received by the Arabic world from Hellenism. But this science derived through an Alexandrian medium had a serious defect in the accretions which the later Egyptian school had added to the pure teaching of Galen and Hippocrates. As we have already noted this accretion is of a quasi magical character and shows itself in talismans, etc., and theories which are based on ideas which are now classed as “sympathetic magic.”
The real impetus came ultimately from transmitted Hellenism, but this influence was derived immediately from the Nestorians in philosophy proper, and from the Nestorians and the Zoroastrian school at Junde-Shapur
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in medicine. A good deal later comes the influence of the pagan school at Harran, which also had a neo-Platonic tendency. When the second Abbasid Khalif al-Mansur passed by Harran on his way to fight against the Byzantine Emperor he was astonished to observe the strange appearance of some of the citizens who came out to meet him, wearing their hair long and having close fitting tunics. When the Khalif asked whether they were Christians, Jews, or Zoroastrians, they replied that they were neither. He then enquired if they were “people of a book,” for it was only those who possessed written scriptures who could be tolerated in Muslim dominions; but to this they returned such hesitating and ambiguous replies that the Khalif at length felt convinced that he had discovered a colony of pagans, as was the case, and he ordered them to adopt some one or other of the “religions of the book” before his return from the war, or to suffer the penalty of death. At this they were greatly alarmed: some of them became Muslims, others Christians or Zoroastrians, but some declined to desert their traditional beliefs. These latter naturally had the most anxious time, wondering how they could contrive to evade the Khalif’s demands. At length a Muslim lawyer offered to show them a way out of the difficulty if they paid him a substantial fee for doing so. The fee was paid and he advised them to claim to be Sabians, because Sabians are mentioned in the Qur’an as belonging to a religion “of the book,” but no one knew who the Sabians were. There is a
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sect known as Sabiyun or Sabaean, whose religion is a strange mixture of ancient Babylonian state worship Christian Gnosticism, and Zoroastrianism, living in the marsh lands near Basra, but they had always been careful to keep their religious beliefs secret from all outsiders, and although they were no doubt the sect mentioned in the Qur’an under the name of Sabiyun or Sabians, none could prove that the pagans of Harran were not also comprised under this term. The Khalif never did pass back by Harran, the pagans who had assumed the name of Sabian continued to use it, those who had become Christians or Zoroastrians reverted to their old faith and submitted to its new name; those who had become Muslims were obliged to remain so as the penalty of death lay upon any who became renegades from that religion.
The most distinguished of the alumni of Harran was Thabit b. Qurra (d. 289 A.H.), a scholar familiar with Greek, Syriac, and Arabic, who produced many works on logic, mathematics, astrology, and medicine, as well as on the ritual and beliefs of the paganism to which he remained faithful. Following in his footsteps were his son Abu Sa‘id Sinan, his grandsons Ibrahim and Abu l-Hasan Thabit, and his great grandsons Ishaq and Abu l-Faraj. All these specialized in mathematics and astronomy.
It seems that we ought to associate with Harran Jabir b. Hayyan a perfectly historical character but of somewhat uncertain date, but believed to have been a pupil of the ‘Umayyad prince Khalid, who distinguished
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himself by his researches in chemistry. Many chemical treatises bear the name of Jabir and a great proportion of these are probably quite authentic. M. Berthelot in the 3rd volume of his La chimie au moyen age (Paris, 1893) has made a careful analysis of the Arabic chemists and regards the whole material capable of division into two classes, the one a reproduction of the investigations of the Greek chemists of Alexandria, the other as representing original investigations, though based upon the Alexandrian studies in the first place, and all this original material he regards as due to the initiative of Jabir who thus becomes in chemistry very much what Aristotle was in logic. Berthelot publishes in this book six treatises claiming to be by Jabir, and these he regards as representative of all Arabic chemical material, the later investigators continuing in the lines laid down by this first investigator. For a long time the main object in view was the transmutation of metals, but at a later period chemistry enters into closer connection with medical work though never losing the metallurgical character which we imply when we speak of “alchemy.” The object in view of the Arabic students of alchemy does not appeal to the modern scientist, although the possibility of transmuting elements is no longer regarded as the impossible dream which it appeared to the chemists of the nineteenth century: and, at the same time, it is perfectly clear that with admitted limitations, the Arabic chemists were bona fide investigators, though
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not understanding correctly the results of the experiments they made.
All the texts published by M. Berthelot begin with the warning that the contents are to be kept strictly secret, and often contain a statement that some essential process is omitted in order that the unenlightened student may not be able to perform the experiments successfully, lest the wholesale production of gold should be a means of corrupting the whole human race. Undoubtedly the Arabic chemists did claim to have attained a knowledge of the means of transmuting the baser metals into gold but the histories contain various references which show that these claims were adversely criticised by many contemporary thinkers, and that a great many of the Arabic writers regarded chemistry, as it was then understood, as a mere imposture. More than once it was noted that the philosopher al-Farabi, who fully believed that it was possible to change other metals into gold and wrote a treatise on how it might be done, himself lived and died in great poverty, whilst Ibn Sina, who did not believe in alchemy, enjoyed modest comfort and could have commanded wealth had he been willing to accept it.
In the course of the middle ages various treatises by Jabir were translated into Latin, where his name appears as Geber, and exercised a considerable influence in producing a western school of alchemy. Before long many original alchemical works were produced in Western Europe and a considerable
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proportion of these were published under the name of Geber but are pure forgeries. As a result the personality of Geber took a semi mythical character and attempts have been made to account for the diverse and contradictory statements about his life and death, and about the country and century in which he lived by supposing that there were several persons who bore the name; but the fact seems to be that he early attained a position of great prominence as a chemical writer, and that later ages fathered on him a number of apocryphal productions. Berthelot considers that the best evidence associates him with Harran in the early part of the second century of the Hijra.
Arabic chemistry largely reproduces the work of the Greek chemists of Alexandria, but probably had an underlying native Egyptian stratum. J. Ruska (Tabula smaragdina, 1926) regards the material as transmitted through Coptic to Arabic, but this certainly was not the case as the Coptic texts show that they have been translated from Arabic originals.

Next: Chapter V. The Mu‘tazilites

– De Lacy O’lery