The Islamic Sciences and the Translation Movement

The Islamic Sciences and the Translation Movement

Unlike scientifi c inquiry in the West, what fell under the rubric of the Islamic sciences (alchemy, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and so on) grew out of a religious outlook and was not “secularized” until the 19th century. From the very fi rst, scientifi c investigation was permeated by the ideas of God, nature, and the universe.

The essential doctrine of unity—that there is no God but God, and Muhammad is his Messenger—allowed Muslims to conceive of all creation as God given so that any endeavor to understand the principles of the natural world was to be, fi rst and foremost, an exercise in understanding the beliefs and directives of Islam. For instance, astronomy became a key subject under the Abbasids because the marvels of the universe occupied much of the Qur’an.

Meanwhile, geography originally grew out of the Qur’anic concentration on nature. Finally, because of the attentiveness given in Islam to studying the unity of humans and their surroundings, the Islamic sciences were, by their very nature, comprehensive and meant to embody universal lessons, useful primarily because they reconciled religion with the world.

As a result of this philosophy of knowledge, the Arab scientist’s greatest aim was to be a generalist in all things; in the larger sense of the term, this meant that while he may have been best known for his pioneering studies in astronomy or medicine, he could also combine the specialties of music, literature, and mathematics. Much like the famous universalists of the 14th-century European Renaissance, who were directly infl uenced by Arab-Muslim translations of Greek philosophy and science, the Muslim scholar in Abbasid times aspired to be well versed in every type of cultural and intellectual discipline.

From the ninth to 13th centuries, the Abbasids and their successors patronized a scientifi c and literary movement that had few parallels in history. The genuine scientifi c interest of some of the reigning caliphs in Baghdad as well as the independent inquiry of a number of brilliant scholars in the city and throughout the empire, coalesced in a vast translation movement that created the momentum for further research and discovery.

In the early ninth century, the caliph al-Mamun established the research university Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) in Baghdad, which spurred on the translation of many Greek, Sanskrit, and Old Persian manuscripts into the Arabic language. Bayt al-Hikma’s library was only one of the 36 libraries built in Baghdad; much later on, the library at the famous al-Mustansiriya University (dating from around 1227) was to grow to include 80,000 books.

Meanwhile, schools of astronomy and medicine were founded; and teaching hospitals such as the Bamiristan al-Adadi in west Baghdad were instituted. There, a cadre of doctors watched over a stream of patients and compiled meticulous records, which, in the case of the celebrated physician Abu Bakr al-Razi (d. 932) served as invaluable research for his world-famous medical encyclopedia, al-Hawi (Inati 2004, 39). Some of these great universities, including the Mustansiriya and al-Nizamiyya (11th century) in Baghdad, were created decades before European institutes of higher learning were even thought of.

Among scholars of Baghdad, the great Arab philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, and musical theorist al-Kindi (d. 873) was employed by al-Mutasim and tutored the caliph’s son. Because astronomy was much in favor at the caliph’s court, Baghdad was the seat of numerous observatories, the most famous of which was built by al-Mamun.

Al-Khwarizmi (d. 847) concerned himself with the study of “celestial objects” (Inati 2004, 40), pioneering the use of the astrolabe, an instrument designed to measure the positions of the stars in the sky. Other great names in Islamic philosophy such as al-Farabi (873–950), who wrote al-Madina al-Fadila (The Ideas of the Citizens of the Virtuous City), and Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in the West; 980–1037), came from afar to make Baghdad their second home. Ibn Sina’s thinking, in particular, exerted great infl uence on Islamic culture.

Abbasid culture and science was the result of a multicultural society. For instance, the Christian contributions to Islamic science have been noted in different ways. On one level, a steady stream of Christian philosophers and scientists made an active contribution to world culture by translating Greek texts into Arabic, and under Abbasid patrons such as Caliph al-Mamun in Baghdad, they wrote a great many medical and technical compilations of their own.

On the other, in monastic communities in eighth-century Abbasid-era Palestine, monks began writing ecclesiastical histories, not in Syriac or Aramaic, languages of the Bible, but in Arabic. It may well be that the use of Arabic was a conscious decision on the part of the monastic translation movement to spread its liturgical and theological principles to regions distant from PalestineSyria (Griffi th 1999, 25–28).

Whatever the reason, Syriac scholar Sidney Griffi th has shown that even the strictest Christian authors were so immersed in Arab culture that they had a tendency to use the Arabic of the Qur’an in their general correspondence.