Book review: How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs (online book)
Title How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs
Author De Lacy O'Leary, D.D.
Publisher Routledge & Kegan Paul, London
Date 1949 (according to the inside title page: "owing
to production delays this book was published in 1980")
Table of Contents
II Helenism in Asia
1. Hellenization of Syria
2. The Frontier Provinces
3. Foundation of Jundi-Shapur
4. Diocletian and Constantine
III The Legacy of Greece
1. Alexandrian Science
3. Greek Mathematicians
4. Greek Medicine
IV Christianity as a Hellenizing Force
1. Hellenistic Atmosphere of Christianity
2. Expansion of Christianity
3. Ecclesiastical Organization
V The Nestorians
1. First School of Nisibis
2. School of Edessa
3. Nestorian Schism
4. Dark Period of the Nestorian Church
5. The Nestorian Reformation
VI The Monophysites
1. Beginning of Monophysitism
2. The Monophysite Schism
3. Persecution of the Monophysites
4. Organization of the Monophysite Church
5. Persian Monophysites
VII Indian Influence, I: The Sea Route
1. The Sea Route to India
2. Alexandrian Science in India
VIII Indian Influence, I: The Sea Route
2. The Road Through Marw
IX Buddhism as a Possible Medium
1. Rise of Buddhism
2. Did Buddhism Spread West?
3. Buddhist Bactria
4. Ibrahim Ibn Adam
X The Khalifate of Damascus
1. Arab Conquest of Syria
2. The Family of Sergius
3. The Camp Cities
XI The Khalifate of Baghdad
1. The 'Abbasid Revolution
2. The Foundation of Baghdad
XII Translation Into Arabic
1. The First Translators
2. Hunayn Ibn Ishaq
3. Other Translators
4. Thabit Ibn Qurra
XIII The Arab Philosophers
Commentary on the book
O'Leary writes a fascinating history of a critically important
phase in mesopotamian history. After all, it was the Arabs who brought with
them into Spain the Arabic versions of the Greek works, from which translations
were made into Latin and spread throughout Europe, which was then in its
dark age. It is this Greek body of knowledge that brought Europe out of
its dark age and into the renaisance - the rebirth or revival.
The question remains: by whom, where, and when was the
Greek body of knowledge transmitted to the Arabs themselves. O'Leary tells
Greek scientific thought had been in the world for a
long time before it reached the Arabs, and during that period it had already
spread abroad in various directions. So it is not surprising that it reached
the Arabs by more than one route. It came first and in the plainest line
through Christian Syriac writers, scholars, and scientists. Then the Arabs
applied themselves directly to the original Greek sources and learned over
again all they had already learned, correcting and verifying earlier knowledge.
Then there came a second channel of transmission indirectly through India,
mathematical and astronomical work, all a good deal developed by Indian
scholars, but certainly developed from material obtained from Alexandria
in the first place. This material had passed to India by the sea route
which connected Alexandria with north-west India. Then there was also another
line of passage through India which seems to have had its beginnings in
the Greek kingdom of Bactria, one of the Asiatic states founded by Alexander
the Great, and a land route long kept open between the Greek world and
Central Asia, especially with the city of Marw, and this perhaps connects
with a Buddhist medium which at one time promoted intercourse between east
and west, though Buddhism as a religion was withdrawing to the Far East
when the Arabs reached Central Asia. [pages 2-3].
Chapter II gives a history of how Western Asia came under
Chapter III discusses the Christian Church. A notable
passage occurs in the very last paragraph of the Chapter:
It has been disputed whether Muhammad owed most to Jewish
or Christian predecessors, apparently he owed a great deal to both. But
when we come to the 'Abbasid period when Greek literature and science began
to tell upon Arabic thought, there can be no further question. The heritage
of Greece was passed on by the Christian Church. [page 46].
This passage leads naturally to Chapter IV, titled the Nestorians.
In this chapter O'Leary discusses the Nestorian contribution in the transmission
of Greek knowledge to the Arabs. I can only cite briefly, as it is a lengthy
chapter. In brief, through the many schools the "Nestorians" (Assyrian
Church of the East) founded, including the Schools at Edessa, Nisibis,
and Jundi-Shapur, the Greek works were translated into Syriac for use in
the curriculums. These works included Theophania, Martyrs of Palestine,
and Ecclesiastical History by Eusebius; the Isagoge of Porphyry (an introduction
to logic); Aristotle's Hermeneutica and Analytica Priora; and many, many
others. O'Leary states:
In the first place Hibha [a Nestorian] had introduced
the Aristotelian logic to illustrate and explain the theological teaching
of Theodore, of Mopseustia, and that logic remained permanently the necessary
introduction to the theological study in all Nestorian education. Ultimately
it was the Aristotelian logic which, with the Greek medical, astronomical,
and mathematical writers, was passed on to the Arabs. [page 61]
Later, O'Leary states:
Nestorian missions pushed on towards the south and reached
the Wadi l-Qura', a little to the north-east of Medina, an outpost of the
Romans garrisoned, not by Roman troops, but by auxiliaries of the Qoda'
tribes. In the time of Muhammad most of these tribes were Christian, and
over the whole wadi were scattered monasteries, cells, and hermitages.
From this as their headquarters Nestorian monks wandered through Arabia,
visiting the great fairs and preaching to such as were willing to listen
to them. Tradition relates that the Prophet as a young man went to Syria
and near Bostra was recognized as one predestined to be a prophet by a
monk named Nestor (Ibn Sa'd, Itqan, ii, p. 367). Perhaps this may refer
to some contact with a Nestorian monk. The chief Christian stronghold in
Arabia was the city of Najran, but that was mainly Monophysite. What was
called its Ka'ba seems to have been a Christian cathedral. [page 68].
But the most definite link between Nestorians and the Arabs
was through Jundi-Shapur. O'Leary states:
From the time of Maraba onwards there is fairly continuous
evidence of translation from the Greek and of work in Aristotelian logic.
Some examples are:
Maraba II, skilled in Philosophy, medicine, and astronomy,
and to have been learned in the wisdom of the Persians, Greeks, and Hebrews,
wrote a commentary (in Syriac) on the Dialectics of Aristotle.
Shem'on of Beth Garmai translated Eusebius' Ecclesiastical
Henan-isho' II, Catholicos (Patriach) from 686 to 701,
composed a commentary (again, in Syriac) on Aristotle's Analytica.
Founded originally as a prisoner camp, Jundi-Shapur had citizens
who spoke Greek, Syriac, and Persian. But in the course of time all academic
instruction was administered in Syriac [page 71]. It is interesting that
even though the people of Jundi-Shapur used the speech of Khuzistan, which
was not Syriac, Hebrew nor Persian, the language used in the classroom
was Syriac, "as is obvious from the fact that Syriac translations were
made for the use of lecturers". [page 72].
Finally, O'Leary states in closing Chapter III:
When Baghdad was founded in 762 the khalif and his court
became near neighbors of Jundi-Shapur, and before long court appointments
with generous emoluments began to draw Nestorian physicians and teachers
from the academy, and in this Harun ar-Rashid's minister Ja'far Ibn Barmak
was a leading agent, doing all in his power to introduce Greek science
amongst the subjects of the Khalif, Arabs, and Persians. His strongly pro-Greek
attitude seems to have been derived from Marw, where his family had settled
after removing from Balkh, and in his efforts he was ably assisted by Jibra'il
of the Bukhtyishu' family [a famous Assyrian family which produced nine
generations of physicians] and his successors from Jundi-Shapur. Thus the
Nestorian heritage of Greek scholarship passed from Edessa and Nisibis,
through Jundi-Shapur, to Baghdad. [page 72].
Chapter IV discusses the Monophysites (the "Jacobites",
or the Syrian Orthodox Church). A detailed history of Monophysitism is
given. One of the most well known Monophysite translators was Sergius of
Rashayn, "a celebrated physician and philosopher, skilled in Greek and
translator into Syriac of various works on medicine, philosophy, astronomy,
and theology". [page 83]. Other Monopysite translators were Ya'qub of Surug,
Aksenaya (Philoxenos), an alumnus of the school of Edessa, Mara, bishop
Chapters VII and VIII discuss the indian influence via
sea and land routes, although this is small in comparison to the Nestorian
and Monophysite contributions. As is the case with the Buddhist connection
discussed in Chapter IX.
Chapters X and XI are historical and contain little in
the way of how Greek knowledge was transmitted to the Arabs.
Chapter XII discusses the various early translators. These
Abu Mahammad Ibn al-Muqaffa', a Persian who converted
to Islam, although many believed his conversion to be insincere. He translated
from Old Persian to Arabic Kalilag wa-Dimnag, which was itself a translation
of a Buddhist work brought back from India (along with the game of chess)
by the Assyrian Budh.
Al-Hajjaj Ibn Yusuf Ibn Matar Al-Hasib, An Arab, judging
from his name, who translated the Almagest and Euclid's Elements.
Yuhanna Ibn Batriq, an Assyrian, who produced the Sirr
'Abd al-Masih Ibn 'Aballah Wa'ima al-Himse, also an Assyrian,
who translated the Theology of Aristotle (but this was an abridged paraphrase
of the Enneads by Plotinus).
Abu Yahya al-Batriq, another Assyrian, who translated
Jibra'il II, son of Bukhtyishu' II, of the prominent
Assyrian medical family mentioned above,
Abu Zakariah Yahya Ibn Masawaih, an Assyrian Nestorian.
He authored a textbook on Ophthalmology, Daghal al-'ayn (The Disease of
Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, an Assyrian, son of a Nestorian druggist,
was the foremost translator of his time; O'Leary states:
Most of the translators of the next generation received
their training from Hunayn or his pupils, so that he stands out as the
leading translator of the better type, though some of his versions were
afterwards revised by later writers. The complete curriculum of the medical
school of Alexandria was thus made available for Arab students. This included
a select series of the treatises of Galen which was :
1. De sectis
Yet for all his contributions, Hunayn was not always treated
well by the Khalifate. In one incident, the Khalif Mutawakkil ordered Hunayn
to prepare a poison for the Khalif's enemies. When Hunayn refused the Khalif
cast him into prison. [page 168]
2. Ars medica
3. De Pulsibus ad tirones
4. Ad Glauconem de medendi methodo
5. De ossibus ad tirones
6. De musculorum dissectione
7. De nervorum dissectione
8. De venraum arteriumque dissectione
9. De elementis secumdum Hippocratem
10. De temperamentis
11. De facultatibus naturalibus
12. De causis et symptomatibus
13. De locis affectis
14. De pulsibus (four treatises)
15. De typis (febrium)
16. De crisibus
17. De diebus decretoriis
18. Methodus medendi
Hunayn son Ishaq also contributed, as did his nephew Hubaysh
Ibn Al-Hasan. Hubaysh translated the texts of Hippocrates and the botanical
work of Dioscorides, "which became the basis of the Arab pharmacopoeia".
[page 169]. Another one of Hunayn's pupils was 'Isa Ibn Yahya Ibn Ibrahim.
Indeed, "almost all leading scientists of the succeeding generation were
pupils of Hunayn". [page 170].
Other translators included
Yusuf al-Khuri al-Qass, who translated Archemides lost
work on triangles from a Syriac version. He also made an Arabic of Galen's
De Simplicibus temperamentis et facultatibus.
Qusta Ibn Luqa al-Ba'lbakki, a Syrian Christian, who
translated Hypsicles, Theodosius' Sphaerica, Heron's Mechanics, Autolycus
Theophrastus' Meteora, Galen's catalog of his books, John Philoponus on
the Phsyics of Aristotle and several other works. He also revised the existing
translation of Euclid.
Abu Bishr Matta Ibn Yunus al-Qanna'i, who translated
Abu Zakariya Yahya Ibn 'Adi al-Mantiqi, a monophysite,
who translated medical and logical works, including the Prolegomena of
Ammonius, an introduction to Porphyry's Isagoge.
To these may be added Al-Hunayn Ibn Ibrahim Ibn al-Hasan
Ibn Khurshid at-Tabari an-Natili, and the monophysite Abu 'Ali 'Isa Ibn
Ishaq Ibn Zer'a.
The salient conclusion which can be drawn from O'Leary's
book is that Assyrians played a significant role in the shaping of the
Islamic world via the Greek corpus of knowledge.
If this is so, one must then ask the question, what happenned
to the Christian communities which made them lose this great intellectual
enterprise which they had established. One can ask this same question of
the Arabs. Sadly, O'Leary's book does not answer this question, and we
must look elsewhere for the answer.