The Arab Bridge

Thus did a Latin translation
of a Hebrew translation
of an Arabic commentary
based upon an Arabic translation
of a Syriac translation
of a Greek original
spark a momentous intellectual movement in medieval Christendom.

Transmission of thought plays no less significant a role in the development of culture than origination of thought. If the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the first surah of the Koran; if Homer, Dante and Shakespeare were not transmitted, what would they have availed anyone beyond a limited place and time? [Hitti, 1971, 92]

The late Phillip Hitti, the Lebanese-born Professor Emeritus of Semitic Literature at Princeton, rote the above words over thirty years ago as he sought to illuminate the role Arab/Muslim civilization played in the development of the modern world. Hitti’s goal had been to put flesh onto the bones of the life stories of many of the Arab/Muslim scholars who contributed to humankind’s intellectual repository. In the process, however, he also told another story, a story of how the Arab/Muslim culture during the half millennium from about 750 to 1258 C.E. formed a bridge between the knowledge of the Ancient and Modern Worlds, as well as between the worlds of the Orient and Occident. This paper picks up Hitti’s underlying story and focuses on the processes through which knowledge from times past and places distant was translated and copied into a single universal language, how the readers of that new language built upon and expanded the knowledge, and how their life work was again translated into another universal language, from where it spread into all the corners of the modern world.

To tell this story, this paper will focus on the time period mentioned above and on two primary centers of intellectual activity – Baghdad in the East and Andalusia in the West. We will look at the process of transmitting knowledge in written formats by acquainting ourselves with some of the key political leaders who cultivated the cultural milieu in which the work was done, with some of the key individuals responsible for the monumental works of translation, and short review of the role that the book, as tool to codify knowledge, played in the culture under review.

It would seem useful here to set three ground rules for terminology at the start of this discussion.

The Arabic language contains letters not found in the Roman script. Accordingly, there are several different transliteration conventions in use. This paper will attempt to render Arabic words into generally recognized Roman script, declining to use diacritical marks to denote special Arabic characters. Although different references may use different transliteration conventions, this paper will attempt to remain consistent in a simplified transliteration usage.

All years under consideration in this paper are described in terms of the Common Era (or C.E.) and thus there will be no further use of the abbreviation C.E.

In the first paragraph above, the term Arab/Muslim appeared twice, but the term Arab will be the norm for the rest of this paper.

The term Arab/Muslim is correct because it captures the reality of the time and place under consideration. The first Muslims were Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula. After Mohammed received his Revelation in the year 612, both the Arabs and their religion spread rapidly. By 635, they had taken Damascus in Syria; by 641, they had taken Egypt; by 643, they had conquered the Persians, moved into Libya in North Africa and into what is now Pakistan in South Asia. By 673, they were besieging Constantinople; by 707, they had penetrated deep into India; and in 711, they crossed the Straights of Gibraltar and began to move into the Iberian Peninsula. One hundred years after Mohammed had received the Revelation, both the Arabs and their Muslim religion had spread from China to the Pyrenees.

In the course of this century of expansion, the Arabs found themselves a minority in most of the places they had conquered. Their new lands were a polyglot collection of peoples and cultures: Syrians, Persians, Greeks, Mesopotamians, Jews, Sabaeans, Turks, Andalusians, Berbers, peoples from Central Asia, inhabitants of the shores of the Caspian, Afghans, Indians, Chinese, and so on. The relatively simple and austere Arabs encountered cultures, sciences and technologies far superior to their own. They were willing to learn from these new situations, however, and they brought two things to the encounter – their language and their religion. This new Muslim empire was a cosmopolitan collection of many peoples, cultures, and languages. Many, though not all by any means, adopted Islam as their religion. But because Arabic is not just the language of Islam, but is also the language God used in revealing the religion to the Arabs, Arabic was the preferred language for expression. In this entire geographic area and during this entire period, anything of scientific or scholarly consequence had to be expressed in Arabic. Thus the Muslim world became Arabized inguistically, if not necessarily ethnically. Inhabitants of the Muslim world, even if they were not Arabs and even if they did not accept Islam, did accept and use Arabic as the language of culture and science. [Ifrah, 2000; Rosenthal, 1979]

Thus, this paper will refer to the locale, the people, and the culture as Arab.

We will look at the process by mentioning, in turn, early leaders whose curiosity and drive established the Arab world as an intellectual repository, then at the individuals who are known to have played a key role in the translation from other languages into Arabic. In the process, we will mention key players who contributed to adding new insight to the acquired knowledge that was then passed on to European scholars. Finally, mirroring the first side of the process, we will mention key individuals in the process of translation of Arab works into Latin and identify the key leaders who initiated the translation efforts. We will see that they shared many of the same strengths and limitations of the earlier Arab leaders.

The Arab Bridge | ash-Shakoor | al-Mu’eed | al-Muquddim | al-Waajid | al-Fattaah | al-Hafeez | al-Hayy | References | Footnotes | Author