al-Mu'eed | The Restorer

Al-Mansur and al-Mamun were interested in the knowledge of the peoples around them and were pragmatic in the selection of translators to carry out the tasks. Most of their translators were either scholars already familiar with the works considered for translation or were people of the cultural milieu from which came the manuscripts to be translated. There was, however, also a political reason for the interest in the scholarship of the area and that political reason was remarkably similar to the reason for the later European Christian interest in Spanish Arab scholarship. The emerging Arab culture found itself in continual contest with the Christian world and early leaders recognized that they needed to understand the philosophically based, and heavily Greek-influenced, theology of Christianity. To understand Christianity, they felt they needed to understand and assimilate the Platonic, Neo-Platonic, and Aristotelian traditions of the Greeks, in addition to learning their discoveries in science and medicine. To do so, they enlisted the aid of Hellenized Christians in Syria who had been marginalized by the Byzantines for their failure to conform with Orthodoxy. Many of these Syrians became key actors in the work of translation. [Plessner, 1979]

Among al-Mansur’s translators, probably the most notable was Muhammad ibn Ibrahim al-Fazari who translated the Indian study of astronomy (Siddhanta). This work became a model for later translations. [Brockelman, 1960]

In al-Mamun’s time, key individuals included Yahya ibn Masawayh (d. 857), a physician who translated medical and philosophical works that had been brought back as war booty from campaigns in Asian Minor. The results of his translations inspired al-Mamun to send Ibn-Masawayh and another translator, Hunayn ibn-Ishaq (809-879), on additional missions in quest of new material.

Hunayn, who had been Ibn Masawayh’s student, became the most important translator in this period. Most likely a Greek Christian from Syria, Hunayn was notable not only for the vast amount of translations he accomplished, but also for the methods he used to verify the reliability of the Greek texts, in his excellent understanding of the originals, and in the scientific Arab language which he created as his translations became Arabic works and not literal translations of Greek works. The process of rendering a Greek work into Arabic was apparently a collaborative effort. Hunayn seems to have been more proficient in Greek and Syrian than in Arabic, so he usually translated manuscripts from Greek to Syrian. His son, Ishaq, and nephew, Hubaysh ibn al-Hasan, then completed the effort by translating from Syrian to Arabic. Al-Mamun named Hunayn as the first head of the Bayt al-Hikmah and rewarded him handsomely for each of his translations. [Hitti, 1971; Plessner, 1979] Over time, almost all the Greek books on math and science were translated at least once into Arabic. Even when the technical specifics of the original works had been superceded by new discoveries, the originals continued to be copied so that Arab libraries might continue to have copies of the “classics” on their shelves. [Vernet, 1979]

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