French German Portuguese Spanish Italian
Arabic Dutch Japanese Russian Indonesian

Login Form

World Time

Click to Change LocationLocation


Beirut, Lebanon
Local Time: 14:06
Report: 10:00 UTC
mostly cloudy
Feels like: 18°C
Dew Point: 12°C
Humidity: 64%
Wind: NNW at 15 km/h
Visibility: 7 km
Barometer: 1003 hPa
(29.62 in Hg)
Content View Hits : 2324842
We have 283 guests online


Designed by:
Kaftoun templates
The Arab Bridge
Written by Ron Bergquist   
Wednesday, 30 June 2004 02:00

T 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, p. 92]

The late Phillip Hitti, the Lebanese-born Professor Emeritus of Semitic Literature at Princeton, wrote 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 a short review of the role that the book, as a 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 story.

  • 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 linguistically, 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.

Ash-Shakoor - The Appreciative

T The Prophet Mohammed died in 632. Even as the movement he founded continued to expand at a rapid rate, the all-too-human drive for political power continued among his successors. While Arab armies extended their control from France to China, Arab leaders struggled with each other for power. The period of infighting and dynastic strife came to a major turning point by 750 when Abu al-Abbas, a descendent of an uncle of the Prophet, led a mostly Persian army to victory over the other contenders. With Abu al-Abbas' victory, the center of the Arab empire, which had moved in the past century from its founding locations of Mecca and Medina in the Arabian Peninsula to Damascus in Syria, moved eastward, establishing its new capital in Baghdad in 772. This new dynasty, called the Abbasid for its founder, ruled as the temporal and spiritual leaders of the Muslim world. Though their level of control over the entire empire varied from time to time, the Abbasids were the center of the Muslim world for 500 years, until Hulugu Khan's Mongols destroyed Baghdad in 1258. The Abbasids won their place in command of an empire by virtue of their military prowess. However, they were also lucky to have been led early on by individuals who also had an interest in the world of the mind. Two are most important to the history of the transmission of knowledge. [Guillaume, 1956; Hitti, 1970]

The second Abbasid Caliph1, al-Mansur2 (who ruled the period 754-775) began early on to incorporate scholars from outside the immediate Arab world into his court. Interested in the stars as a tool to permit navigation in trackless deserts, al-Mansur ordered the translation of Indian manuscripts on astronomy and mathematics. [Hitti, 1971] Suffering from a stomach ailment, al-Mansur sought assistance from Persian doctors. These doctors had been heavily influenced by Greek medicine and, accordingly, al-Mansur directed that the works of Galen and Hippocrates be translated from Greek to Arabic. [Hitti, 1970] Al-Mansur's successors kept up the process of incorporating scholarship into the life of the Baghdad court. The successor most known in the West is probably Harun ar-Rashid, due to his role as a leading character in Arabian Nights (or The One Thousand and One Nights), which was translated into French in the 1700s by Antoine Galland.3 But the individual who was the true leader of the flowering of Arab scholarship was the seventh Abbasid Caliph, al-Mamun who ruled from 813 to 833.

Al-Mamun ("the trusted one") extended al-Mansur's policy of bringing scholars to Baghdad. He sent out emissaries to lands both within and without his domains to collect manuscripts to bring back to Baghdad, where he had established a corps of translators to render them into Arabic. Where the land was under Arab control, as was the case in Persia, Sicily, Alexandria in Egypt, or Antioch in Syria, the emissaries collected manuscripts. Where the land was not under Arab control, the emissaries negotiated the acquisitions. In Constantinople, the Byzantine emperor at first hesitated to cooperate because he thought the learning in the manuscripts they were seeking would be wasted on the barbaric Arabs, but the emissaries succeeded in purchasing the manuscripts they needed. [Hitti, 1970, 1971; Durant, 1950; Brockelmann, 1960]

To store the product of these works, al-Mamun established in 830 a combination of academy, library and translation bureau modeled on similar institutions already in existence in Persia and Syria. Called the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikmah), it was a multidisciplinary collection of Islamic as well as of foreign literatures, with primary focus on philosophy and the sciences from Greek and Persian/Indian sources. Well before the Arabs appeared, Greek philosophy and sciences were the staples of education in Syrian and Mesopotamia, notably at schools in Harran and Edessa in northeast Syria, and Nisibe in northern Iraq. Similarly, Persian kings had been open to scholars from Greek, Syrian, Indian, Zoroastrian, Manichean, and Christian cultures, to include Nestorian Christians who had been expelled from Edessa and Neo-Platonist philosophers whose school had been closed in Athens. Persia also had a renowned medical school where the teachers were largely Syrians using their language as a medium of instruction. With the Arab ascendancy in Persia, al-Mansur and al-Mamun directed intense efforts to translate the works of these schools into Arabic. [Ifrah, 2000]

Other Caliphs continued the interest in scholarship (most notably the Andalusian al-Hakam, an ardent bibliophile who annotated manuscripts with marginal notes and who established the university in Cordova, Spain), but it was al-Mamun who laid the foundation for the half-millennium of collection and translation of scholarly work from the known world. [Hitti, 1971]

al-Mu'eed - The Restorer

A 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]

al-Muquddim - The Expeditor

From the beginning of the 10th century, small groups of men had attempted to increase the store of theoretical knowledge about the world and man that was contained in the few Latin books that had been salvaged from the wreck of ancient civilization. Men in those few groups had learnt that the Muslims possessed Arabic translations of the basic works of the Ancient World, and had access to complete manuals of the sciences that were considered essential. [Rodinson, 1979, pp. 14-15]

T The repositories of knowledge in Baghdad might have remained out of reach of the West, but for the fact that the Arab empire stretched across the Mediterranean to the Iberian Peninsula. From the 8th to the 10th centuries, Arab Spain remained tied to Baghdad for intellectual stimulation. New schools set up in Cordova, Seville, Granada, and Toledo sent their graduates to advanced study in Cairo and Baghdad. Pilgrimages to Mecca also brought Spanish Arabs into contact with the ideas flowing in the Arab heartland. Rulers in Andalusia imported scholars and musicians from Iraq and Persia to their courts. The structure of the Arab way of life, with its lack of political assemblies and theaters, made books the primary means through which knowledge was acquired and transmitted. Accordingly, returning pilgrims and merchants brought newly published books westward to Spain from Baghdad, and book collecting was mark of prestige among the upper classes in Spain. [Hitti, 1971] As the West began to show interest in what was contained in Arabic texts, the Arab world was beginning to enter its own dark age. The glory that was Baghdad in the 9th century went up in smoke when Hulugu destroyed the city in 1258.

The dawn of a new era in Europe characterized by rational speculation and scientific achievement - to which Arabs had so richly contributed - coincided with the beginning of the decay of Arab thought. From the early 9th to the late 12th century, the Arabs were probably the most learned people in the world. Their language could boast a greater output in literature, science and philosophy than any other, not excluding Latin. The Arab creative spark after that was everywhere extinguished. [Hitti, 1971, p. 236]

al-Waajid - The Finder

A As had been the case in Baghdad earlier where a few names stand out from the numerous anonymous translators and scribes who had transformed the works of the ancients into Arabic, in the west a few individuals are mentioned in histories as key translators of Arabic works. Also, as had been the case in Baghdad where non-Arabs and non-Muslims were often the translators, the same proved to be true in Andalusia. In much the same manner as the Hellenized Syrian Hunayn had translated Greek into Syrian and his sons had then translated the Syrian into Arabic, in Spain it was often a Jew or a Muslim convert who translated Arabic texts into Hebrew or an Iberian vernacular tongue from which learned Christians made the first literal Latin translations. Just as the Arabs had sought out Greek and Persian manuscripts from schools in Syria, Asia Minor, and Persia, Christian scholars from all parts of Western Europe sought out Arabic manuscripts from schools and libraries in Toledo, Seville, and, especially, Cordova. [Gabrieli, 1979]

However, Toledo was the first center of translation after Christian forces took control of the city from the Arabs in 1085. Having learned that the Muslims possessed Arabic translations of the basic works of the Ancient World, and had access to complete manuals of the sciences that were considered essential, the presiding Archbishop began to sponsor efforts to discover the knowledge available in Arabic texts. [Rodinson, 1979] One of the earliest was an English mathematician and astronomer, Robert of Chester, who worked in Toledo from 1141-1147 and who, in addition to translating works on astronomy, did the first Latin version of the Koran. Others known to have worked in and around Toledo in this period included the Spaniard John of Seville, the Frenchman Robert of Retines, the Englishman Abelard of Bath, the Scotsman Michael Scotus, the Dalmatian Hermannus Allamanus (also known as Hermann the German), and the Italian Gerard of Cremona. [Hitti, 1971; Gabrieli, 1979]

Gerard (1114-1187) is regarded as one of the most important translators due to the importance of the works accredited to him. He had gone to Toledo to find Arabic versions of philosophical Greek texts. However, once there he encountered the great philosophic and scientific works of Arab scholars. Gerard began the translation of Abu-Ali al-Husayn Ibn Sina's (980-1037) Kitab al-Shifa (The Book of Healing), a philosophical encyclopedia consisting of four major books in logic, physics, mathematics, and metaphysics, each divided into sections subdivided into essays and chapters. This work, estimated to be perhaps the longest book of its kind ever written by one man, postdated the slightly shorter work that Ibn Sina is most noted for, his al-Qanun fi al-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine). A systemization of the medical knowledge of his age, when it was printed in Rome in 1593 it was 833 pages long and contained about a million words. It remained a staple text in Western medical schools for 400 years, in Eastern medical schools for 600. These translations made Ibn Sina (known better in the West as Avicenna, from the Hebrew version of his name, probably from an anonymous Jewish translator) the philosophical touchstone from which western philosophers transferred Avicenna's observations about Muslim life to a Christian context. [Rodinson, 1979] Gerard additionally translated works by Archimedes, as well as 9th century Iraqi enhancements to the Greek, that together eventually helped to form western concepts of spatial relationships (directly influencing the ideas of Fibonacci and his work on the Golden Mean, for example). [Vernet, 1979] From the philosopher-scientist al-Kindi, Gerard translated his works on the intellect and on sleep and dreams. [Hitti, 1971]

A century later, another center of translation sprang up around Seville. The work of the Toledo and Seville translators resulted in the translation from Arabic into Latin of the scientific works of Hippocrates, Euclid, Ptolemy, Galen, and other Greek scientists as well as the translation of the additions to the Greek made by Arab scientists such as al-Khwarizmi and Ibn Sina. They additionally translated the theological works of the Cordovan Arab theologian, Ibn Rushd (1126-1198). Ibn Rushd, known to the West as Averroës, is most notable for his commentaries on Aristotle and it was through him, in the Latin adaptation begun by Michael Scotus as early as 1230, that Aristotelianism was introduced into Western thought. Translations of Ibn Rushd's commentaries eventually became a key component of the studies of the young Thomas Aquinas. In his effort to systematize Catholic theology, Aquinas repeatedly mentions Avicenna and often quotes to criticize him. Through Aquinas, Arab philosophy established a firm foothold in the western Christian tradition. [Gabrieli, 1979; Brockelmann, 1960]

al-Fattaah - The Opener

A As had been the case in the East in the 8th and 9th centuries, translation in the West in the 12th and 13th centuries was provided impetus by several strong leaders, leaders interested in the learning of the Arabs both for polemical reasons and for reasons of personal curiosity. Many Western scholars were attracted to the cultural value of the information in Arabic texts, most notably in the intellectual center that was Cordova. However, as Christian Spaniards gradually took control of Arab Spain, bishops wanted to see translations made in order to see what the Arabs knew so that such knowledge might be used in the struggle against Islam. As Rodinson noted, an oversimplified, Manichean view of Islam formed as a result of the need to demonize the enemy during the Crusades.

The first such efforts began in Toledo after it had been taken from the Muslims by Christian forces in 1085. Again, in ironic similarity to the behavior of the Byzantines to Arabs seeking Greek manuscripts, some Arab leaders tried to forbid the sale of Arabic books to Christians because of a fear they would translate them and attribute their authorship to the bishops instead of to the original authors. This was not an unfounded fear. Bishops from at least five other Iberian cities, in picking up the translation task into the 12th century, had their own names appended as being responsible for math and astronomical translations. By this time, many Spanish locales were full of translators, but Toledo had remained a center of Arab learning even after the Christian conquest and thus remained an accessible source for finding Arab scholarly works. Under Archbishop Raymond of the city (1126-1152), a school of translators flourished and attracted interested scholars from the continent as well as the British Isles. Toledo continued its work in this field for more than a century. In 1250 it was chosen as the site for a school of Oriental studies - the first of its kind in Europe - founded by an order that trained missionaries to Islam and Judaism. [Hitti, 1971; Anawati, 1979; Vernet, 1979]

In the next century, King Alfonso X of Castille and Leon, sponsored another center for translation in Seville. Alfonso (surnamed "the Astronomer" and "the Wise") was an ardent advocate of Muslim learning in Christian Spain. Through his leadership, the Arabic translation of the scientific works of Hippocrates, Euclid, Ptolemy, Galen, among others, as well as the revisions and additions made by al-Khwarizmi, al-Battani, al-Farghani, Ibn Sina, among others, were made accessible to the West. Alfonso began a secular approach to scholarship and had works translated both into Latin and into Spanish. His interest in the Iberian culture, no matter from which linguistic culture it had sprung, caused him to have Arab fables and literature translated as well. [Hitti, 1970; Gabrieli, 1979]

However, Spain was not the only center for translation, and Alfonso X and the Spanish bishops were not the only sponsors for translation. In Sicily, a polyglot mixture of many cultures, Norman kings were so taken by Arab culture that they affected Arab dress and customs. Critics referred to the Arabophiles Roger I, Roger II, and Frederick II as "half-heathens" and as "baptized Sultans of Sicily." But starting with Roger in the early 12th century, the throne was interested in learning all it could from the culture they had inherited. Roger I was particularly interested in agronomy and public administration, Roger II in geography. [Hitti, 1970; Plessner, 1979]

Frederick II, who ruled from 1215 to 1250, was the highpoint. Ruler of both Germany and Sicily, he preferred to live in Sicily and to dress as an Arab. In 1220, he acquired the title of emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and in 1225, via marriage, became also the king of Jerusalem. Even as he led Crusades against the Muslim world, he brought back ideas from them. Able to read the Arabic classics in their original, Frederick sought to expand himself in the realm of philosophy and lured Michael Scotus in 1220 from the translation center at Toledo to Sicily, where he translated Ibn Rushd's commentaries on Aristotle. In 1224, Frederick founded the University of Naples, the first university founded by royal charter, and the translations made in Sicily eventually became the texts for students here. It was at Naples that Thomas Aquinas began his studies. Frederick also imported Hermannus Allamanus from Spain in 1240 and continued to sponsor additional translations of most of the other great Arab theologians and philosophers. These efforts eventually introduced Dante to the works of Arab mystics and helped frame some of his own great works. [Anawati, 1979] Quoting Phillip Hitti [1970, p. 164], "aware of his indebtedness to Moslem philosophers, the famed Italian poet did not consign them to the inferno, as he was bound to do by the teaching of his church, but to the border region termed limbo."

al-Hafeez - The Preserver

J Just as Christian monks labored to copy key religious works in monasteries all over Western Europe, so too did numerous Arab scribes work to create books for the voracious Arab demand for them. As noted earlier, books were the primary means through which knowledge was acquired and transmitted in the Arab world and book publishing and collecting was a mark of the culture. Scribes must have made millions of copies of books.

Early in their expansion, the Arabs learned papermaking from the Chinese. When they took Samarkand (in present day Uzbekistan) in 712, they learned from the Chinese the technique of beating flax and other fibrous plants into a pulp, and drying the pulp in thin sheets. The first Arab papermaking plant opened at Baghdad in 794 during the rule of Harun ar-Rashid. Later, the Arabs took the craft to Sicily and Spain. Paper was in use in Egypt by 800, in Spain by 950, and in Sicily by 1102. [Durant, 1950]

While the leaders in Baghdad sponsored translation and publication of scholarly works, the scribes continued to make copies at what must have been a high rate because libraries early became a part of Arab civic life. According to Durant, "most mosques had libraries, and some cities had public libraries of considerable content and generous accessibility." In Iraq, Mosul in the north and Basra in the south both had libraries in the 10th century and Basra's library provided stipends to scholars who used it. The Arab geographer Yaqut collected the data for his geographical dictionary (which included the travels of Ahmad ibn Fadlan) during a three-year period of research through libraries in what is now Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In Cairo, the caliphal library that grew from 100,000 to 200,000 volumes in the years 990 to 1094 lent out manuscripts without charge to students. There were about 70 libraries in Arab Spain, and al-Hakam's library at Cordova alone was said to have housed 400,000 titles, filling a 44-volume catalog. Additionally, the fashion of the rich to have an ample collection of books led to an uncountable number of private libraries. [Durant, 1950; Hitti, 1971]

With the invention of movable type in Western Europe, the work of the Arab scribes moved into Western libraries. Latin translations of the works of the philosopher al-Kindi were early put in print. His works were published, among other places, in Venice in 1507, in Strasburg in 1531, and in Nuremberg in 1548. The first book printed in England, The Dictes and Sayengis of thePhilosophres by William Claxton in 1477 was based on a collection of aphorisms and sayings from several Arab philosophers. [Hitti, 1971]

But much of this came to an end in the 13th century. Mongol invaders laid waste to everything in their path as they moved eastwards. At the time of its destruction in 1258, Baghdad had 36 public libraries. The Mongol destroyers were too thorough in the East, but the Arabs had by then placed enough copies of their works in libraries in Egypt, Sicily, and Spain, that the work of the early translators and scribes were still available for the later translators, scribes, and, even later, printers.

al-Hayy - The Alive

When one discusses the canon of Western civilization, much of that accepted body of knowledge came to us across a bridge in time and space, a metaphorical bridge built through the works of Arab scribes, working in libraries and schools from deep in Central Asia, through northern India and Iran, from Iraq across North Africa to Sicily and Spain. In fact, when we use the work "canon," we are using an Arabic word (al-qanun, the rules) in much the same way we unconsciously use Arabic words when we say Algebra (al-jabr, connoting integration) or Algorithm (from the central Asian astronomer al-Khwarizmi, who wrote the first algebra text). As Rodinson pointed out, the image of the Arab world in the West was in large part a result of the Crusader era need to paint a simple picture of evil in order to oppose it. The reality of that world was much more complex and much more multifaceted than normally recognized. In both the world of the shining light of Arab scholarship and the world in which that scholarship was transferred to the west, the people who did the work were a varied group of ethnicities and religions, each of whom used bridging translations to transfer the work of the ancient worlds into first Arabic and then into Latin. In his discussion of the theologian ibn Rushd, Phillip Hitti [1971, pp. 233-234] elegantly summed up this process of cultural transmission of knowledge (my line breaks):

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.



  • Anawati, G. (1979) "Philosophy, Theology, and Mysticism." In J. Schacht & C.E. Bosworth, (Eds.), The Legacy of Islam (Second Edition) (pp. 350 - 391). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Brockelmann, C. (1960) History of the Islamic Peoples (J. Carmichael & M. Perlmann, Trans.). New York: Capricorn Books.
  • Durant, W. (1950) The Age of Faith: A History of Medieval Civilization - Christian, Islamic, and Judaic - from Constantine to Dante: A.D. 325-1300. New York: Simon & Schuster
  • Gabrieli, Francesco. (1979) "Islam in the Mediterranean World." In J. Schacht & C.E. Bosworth, (Eds.), The Legacy of Islam (Second Edition) (pp. 63 - 104). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Guillaume, A. (1956) Islam. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books
  • Hitti, P. (1970). History of the Arabs (Tenth Edition). New York: St. Martin's Press.
  • Hitti, P. (1971). Makers of Arab History. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Ifrah, G. (2000). The Universal History of Numbers: From Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer. (D. Bellos, E.F. Harding, S. Wood, & I. Monk, Trans.). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Plessner, M. (1979) "Science: (A) The Natural Sciences and Medicine." In J. Schacht & C.E. Bosworth, (Eds.), The Legacy of Islam (Second Edition) (pp. 425 - 460). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Rodinson, Maxime. (1979) "The Western Image and Western Studies of Islam." In J. Schacht & C.E. Bosworth, (Eds.), The Legacy of Islam (Second Edition) (pp. 9 - 62). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Rosenthal, F. (1979) "Literature." In J. Schacht & C.E. Bosworth, (Eds.), The Legacy of Islam (Second Edition) (pp. 321 - 349). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Random House
  • Vernet, J. (1979) "Science: (B) Mathematics, Astronomy, Optics." In J. Schacht & C.E. Bosworth, (Eds.), The Legacy of Islam (Second Edition) (pp. 461 - 489). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • von Grunebaum, G. (1953). Medieval Islam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press


  • 1. Technically, Caliph is the office of the head of the Muslim community, succeeding the Prophet Muhammad as administrator of the law. However, since the law was Muslim law, the position took on a quasi-religious aspect as well as a purely political one. In practice, especially in the Abbasid time, the Caliph was the absolute autocratic ruler. Over time, the title became little more than an honorific as it lasted until the final dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. Medieval Christians tended to ascribe to the Caliph much of what they thought the combination of Pope and Holy Roman Emperor represented. See, for example, the discussion in von Grunebaum, 1953, pp. 7 - 30.
  • 2. This individual's real name was actually abu-Jafar, but upon succeeding his brother as Caliph, he took on the honorific al-Mansur (meaning "rendered victorious by God") and it is by his honorific that he is usually known in histories. Similarly, his successors all took on honorifics (indicated by the prefatory article "al-") and are known by them. [Hitti, 1970, p. 290]
  • 3. Edward Said, a Palestinian Christian and Professor of English Literature at Columbia has provided a good consideration, though perhaps a bit overdone, of how much we think we know of the Arab world is colored by distorted lenses of scholars who have historically defined this area as alien, corrupt, dangerous, and mysterious. [Said, 1978, pp. 63-65]



The Author

Ron Bergquist is a PhD candidate in the School of Information and Library Science (SILS) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This paper was originally produced for Dr. Jerry Saye's class on The History of the Book in the spring of 2001. Mr. Bergquist studied Middle East geography and history at the University of Texas at Austin during the mid-1960s with Dr. Paul English (1936-2000) and Dr. George Arnakis (1912-1976). In the mid-1970s, while studying to become a Middle East Area Specialist in the U.S. Air Force, he studied Middle East culture and politics at the Naval Postgraduate School (Monterey, CA) with Kamal Said and Dr. Ralph Magnus, and the Arabic language at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (Presidio of Monterey, CA) with Jad Katrib. Mr. Bergquist served as an Intelligence Officer in the U.S. Air Force for over 26 years and retired at the rank of Colonel on 1 January 1995. He is currently a teaching fellow at SILS.

copyright R.E. Bergquist, April 2003

This article is reprinted here courtesy of Ron Bergquist, School of Information and Library Sciences, The University of North Carolina. You can contact the author here:

Islamic Civilization Videos - انجازات المسلمين

Islamic Scholars and Scientists - البرنامج التليفزيوني:علماء المسلمين

Last Updated on Friday, 13 August 2010 09:21

Add comment

© 2004, Powered by Joomla! 1.5.26 Content Management System.