From Baghdad to Barcelona: The Anxiety of Influence in the Transmission of the Greek and Arabic Sciences

Drawing on Harold Bloom’s model of poetic influence and supersession in his famous book, “The Anxiety of Influence,” and considering several historical cases of cross-cultural reception of the natural sciences from the Middle Ages that involved translation, this paper sketches a dynamic for understanding how one culture receives the intellectual riches of another. It argues further that the relative or perceived power relationship of the translator to the source culture can significantly affect the quality and usefulness of the translations. For example, a translator within a victorious culture, with an imperial language, tends to handle the source materials that he acquired from a vanquished culture with greater confidence than a translator in a self-perceived position of inferiority, who may be trying to imitate, catch up, or is defensively preserving a heritage that he fears will be lost. The former is exemplified by the 9th-century translations from Greek into Arabic that took place in Baghdad, and the latter by the earliest phase of the translations from Arabic into Latin that took place in Europe, 12th/13th centuries. Lastly, “anxieties of influence” are adduced as a partial explanation for the systematic attempts to purge Greek thought from Islamic civilization associated with al-Ghazali et al., and to erase Arabic thinkers from the intellectual genealogy of the West, beginning in the Renaissance.

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Note of Editor: “From Baghdad to Barcelona: The Anxiety of Influence in the Transmission of the Greek and Arabic Sciences”[1] article was presented in the 93rd Annual Medieval Academy of America Meeting, held on 3rd March 2018 in Atlanta (GA), USA. We are grateful to the author for permitting publishing this article on the Muslim Heritage website.



500 years ago, in an academic setting such as this, we would be discussing the works of Avicenna, Averroes, Algorismi, Alhazen, alongside those of Plato, Aristotle, Galen and Euclid. Every educated person in the West knew who these Muslim thinkers were and that they had contributed much to the West. Nowadays, few Westerners have heard of them. What happened? In brief, their ideas became part of the genealogy of Western knowledge, and then they passed into oblivion, disavowed by some Western thinkers, and forgotten by others. Why do we in the West not celebrate the Arabic/Islamic part of our heritage? I argue here that the historical process of translation and appropriation of the intellectual legacy of another culture involves power relationships that affect how the recipient culture receives and remembers the legacy of the received culture.

Figure 2. Painting depicting Muslim scholars, Syed Sadequain Ahmed Naqvi (1930-1987) (Source)

In the case just mentioned, western Europeans at first encountered Arabic thinkers with awe, from the position of a less advanced culture, eager to learn what they could from them. Gradually, however, Western thinkers saw themselves as heirs equally of Greek and Islamic thinkers, and eventually as the rivals of the Arabs as heirs of the classical past. By the time of the Renaissance, there were two strands of thinkers in the West. One group continued to seek valuable insights from the Arabic intellectual tradition, viewing the classical tradition as a continuity from Greco-Roman, to Arabic, to Byzantine, and lastly, to Latin Europe, with themselves as the beneficiaries of this rich tradition. This group included Guillaume Postel and others. The other group, whom we know as the Humanists, sought a more direct route to the Greco-Roman heritage, and bypassed the Arabs and Byzantines, whom they labeled as corruptors of the pure classical heritage. This group included: Niccolò Leoniceno, Giovanni Manardo, and Leonhart Fuchs. The latter strand won out in the West, which is why I, for example, had to take a special course on medieval philosophy before I even heard about the rich intellectual debt of the West to Islamic civilization. Here I consider three representative cases—more are discussed in the article version of this talk. They are: 1) The Graeco-Arabic translations of the High Abbasid period, 2) The Arabo-Latin translations of the post-Carolingian period, and 3) the Byzantine reception of Arabic authors after the devastating Islamic conquests, during the Macedonian Renaissance of the 9th-10th Centuries.

The Emergence of Arabic as an Imperial Language

Arabic began as a tribal dialect of Western Arabia, but with the rise of Islam and the conquests in the 7th Century, it became the language of the Islamic empire, from western India to Spain. The Persian Empire was completely conquered, and the Byzantine Empire was severely reduced in size and power. Under the early Umayyads, Greek and Pahlavi continued to be used in administrating those areas that formerly belonged to those two empires. However, Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (r. 685-705), in order to centralize his power, Arabized everything, and standardized coinage, weights and measures. Arabic gradually became what Latin would become in the West: the language of intellectual, religious, and legal discourse for peoples whose mother languages were something else throughout Islamdom. Thus, Arabic was promoted at the expense of Greek, Persian, and Syriac, the languages of the conquered peoples, who had much older intellectual traditions.

Figure 3. Arabic letters transformed into a high art culture, traditional calligraphy (Source)

As a consequence of the Abbasid transfer of power from Damascus to Baghdad (750 CE) and the establishment of the new regime, the Arab conquerors realized that their subject peoples had intellectual legacies with much to offer to the new Empire. Arithmetic for accounts, geometry for land surveys, astronomy for timekeeping and astrology; philosophy was useful for the development of theology and religious law, and it along with rhetoric were useful for debating with Christians and Jews. All this needed to be translated into Arabic. As George Saliba has argued, beginning in late Umayyad times, some of the early translators came from families who had previously served in the Byzantine or Sassanian administrations, but who had been displaced by court-appointed men who knew only Arabic. These men found careers in translating, and laid the foundation of the epoch-defining Greco-Arabic Translation Movement of 9th and 10th C. Baghdad.

Figure 4. The alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan, from a 15th century European portrait of Geber, Codici Ashburnhamiani 1166 (Source)

Arabic was now the language of the Islamic Empire under Abbasid rule, its capital, Baghdad, the greatest city in the world. Ancient thought was imperialized, i.e. to appropriated, naturalized within the Islamic imperial and religious cosmology, and brought into subjection. The Abbasids considered themselves victors in a multifaceted rivalry with Byzantium, which included a contest over the legacy of the Hellenistic world.[2] The Abbasids claimed a translatio studii et imperii from Constantinople to Baghdad. The swiftness with which Muslim armies had conquered most of the Byzantine Empire, and had laid siege to Constantinople twice within the first century of Islam (although unsuccessfully) was evidence of God’s favor toward Islam. The Byzantines were culturally degenerate, for which Christianity was to blame. The Iconoclastic conflicts, which gripped Byzantium on and off for over a century, and resulted in the ultimate victory of the pro-icon faction (Iconodoules), were, in Muslim eyes, divine punishment on the infidel Christians for their idolatry, one of the worst sins, according to Islam. So, although the Byzantines spoke a form of Greek, they had lost both the capacity for and the rightful heirship to the ancient Greek intellectual legacy.

However, the Arabic translations were not a simple transfer of Greek thought into an Arabic context. In the case of philosophy, all of the ancient schools were dead—Stoicism, Epicureanism, Peripateticism, Platonism—their chains of transmission from master to student were broken in Late Antiquity, as Dimitri Gutas and Pierre Hadot have discussed. There was a disorganized mass of writings, but no living guide to sort it all out and show both what was most important as well as the proper order to follow in mastering philosophy.[3] The translations were done a work at a time—a gradual appropriation and assimilation—without a broad overview of the doctrines of any school, at least at first, nor of the Greek intellectual legacy in general.

Figure 5. Socrates and his Students, illustration from 'Kitab Mukhtar al-Hikam wa-Mahasin al-Kilam' by Al-Mubashir, Turkish School, (13th c) Photo by Bridgeman (Source)

How would one go about acquiring this Greek knowledge? One could approach it with reverence and awe, and try to reconstruct it as accurately as possible, producing word for word translations, attempting to master the doctrines of the individual schools, for example. Or—and this is what actually happened—one could view it as a resource from which to draw whatever tools one might need for one’s own intellectual projects. This is what the 9th Century Arab Muslim philosopher al-Kindi did in his diverse studies, his initial forays into Greek philosophy. Employing ideas and methods from the Greek philosophical corpus without regard to their original sectarian contexts, he effectively re-invented philosophy,[4] but in a fresh, new, and dynamic form. Elements of Greek philosophy were like spolia from old buildings used in new ones, such the columns of the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus. His writing addressed specific problems, and he gathered whatever he needed to solve them, commissioning translations in the process. Al-Kindi’s confident attitude was a byproduct of his imperial culture: everything was available for his use. His philosophical projects spurred the Translation Movement by showing the benefits to be derived from Greek texts. Al-Kindi set philosophy on a whole new course that led directly through the intellectual advances of Islamic civilization, as well as the later developments in Latin Europe. In effect, al-Kindi’s fresh and creative approach to philosophy revolutionized that discipline, making all subsequent advances possible.

The following passage from al-Kindi’s Metaphysics reflects his eclectic attitude:

Figure 6. Al-Kindi is often called the “father or Arab and Islamic philosophy.” (Source)

We must not be ashamed to admire the truth or to acquire it, from wherever it comes. Even if it should come from far-flung nations and foreign peoples, there is for the student of truth nothing more important than the truth…

So, he will take useful knowledge from wherever he can find it. In the next passage, al-Kindi reveals an extreme confidence with regard to his Greek source material: he claims to be able to identify the gaps in ancient thought, and not only to fill them, but also to bring them to a fulfillment that they may never have had before—and were never intended to have.

Thus, since we strive towards the fulfillment of our species, for in this the truth lies, it is fitting for us to adhere in this book of ours to the customary procedures that we use for all topics: to supply completely what the ancients said about this, according to the most direct methods and the procedures easiest for those engaged in this pursuit, and to complete what they did not discuss comprehensively, in idiomatic language and contemporary fashion, to the best of our ability…[5][Changed word order; emphasis added]

Al-Kindi’s project was to master the elements of Greek thought and to acquire its best fruits, in three stages: 1) To outline what the Greeks said; 2) To identify its weaknesses and fix them, and 3) To complete what they left unfinished. Thus, something new was created. In retrospect, perhaps science and philosophy could truly advance beyond the confines of the antique schools only in an imperial environment with a sense of cultural superiority, where intellectual inquiry could proceed confidently and free of self-consciousness.[6] And where all available knowledge was open to inspection, where knowledge was meant to serve greater ends. This confidence with regard to Greek sources also appears in Arabic thinkers’ approach to Ptolemy’s astronomy. The Almagest was criticized and corrected over several generations by Arabic astronomers, using criteria they derived from Greek thought itself—especially from Aristotle. That lead to many creative developments, including, remarkable, elements of Copernican astronomy.

Compare the Greco-Arabic case with the Arabo-Latin case

Figure 7. Impression of Pope Sylvester II, born Gerbert d'Aurillac (Source)

By the time of Gerbert d’Aurillac’s epic 10th C. journey to Spain in search of Arabic math and astronomy texts for the church (he was sent by his bishop—science in the service of religion), the disparity in knowledge between Islam and the West was so great that, after he returned to Christendom, having learned much from Arabic authors, and later became Pope Sylvester II, he acquired a reputation for sorcery—false, of course. No one could know that much without having made some Faustian pact with the devil!

The Arabo-Latin Translation Movement, which began in the 11th Century, differs from the Baghdad case on several points. The greatest difference was the relative stances of the source and target civilizations. Latin Europe was significantly less advanced than the civilization of Islam and had been mainly on the defensive against Islam for several centuries. Whereas the Greek to Arabic movement was centralized in Baghdad, the Arabic to Latin movement had several centers of translation activity, including Toledo in Spain and Monte Cassino in Italy. Furthermore, the Latins, at least in the early phases of their translation movement, approached the intellectual treasures of Islamic civilization with awe and an awareness of their relative backwardness. It was several generations before Latin translators and their patrons thought of themselves as equals and then, eventually, superiors of Islamic thinkers. By the time of the Renaissance, a vocal faction among the humanists called for the purging of Arabic from the classical intellectual tradition, and for a return to unadulterated Greek sources. As I myself have argued in the case of Galen translations, and a similar thesis is argued more broadly in a recent book by a Dag Hasse, although the sciences and texts from Arabic authors formed a major part of the foundation of the Renaissance, these very authors and the whole Arabic heritage were erased and forgotten from the intellectual history of the West.[7]

Figure 8. A depiction of the House of Wisdom library in Baghdad © 1001 inventions

The Latins were also tentative at first about what to translate

In the early period of the Latin translations, which began in the mid to late 11th Century, the Latins sought to emulate the Islamic intellectual model that they saw in Spain, relying on Andalusian Muslim intellectuals to show them what were the most important authors and works, as they sought to appropriate the intellectual riches found in Islam—at first math and astronomy to serve the Church, but later a flood of other classical authors found there—philosophy, medicine, and the rest, especially works by Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Galen—which revolutionized the European intellectual and educational landscapes. They did not, however, seek out the latest and best Arabic scholarship, much of which was in the Islamic East—at least in the earliest phases, nor did their fellow Christian crusaders in the Holy Land show much interest in the intellectual riches of Islam.[8] That would happen later among the “pro-Arabic” strand of Latin thinkers.

Figure 9. European translation of Ibn Butlan's Tacuinum sanitatis, Rhineland, 2nd half of the 15th century (Source)

The quality of the early Latin translations was also poor, preferring a “text-oriented” rather than a “reader-oriented” approach. This two-fold scheme reflects the attitude of the translator to the source text, which I have employed in my analysis of Greco-Arabic translations.[9] The text-oriented approach is not necessarily inferior, but it often correlates with a tentative approach to the source texts. The former attempts to convey every textual detail of the source text into the target language, as if the revered source text were not to be changed. For this reason, the pioneering medical translations of Constantine the African, for example, had to be redone a generation later. On the other hand, a “reader-oriented” translation results if the translator has the reader in the target language as his primary concern, and uses intratextual commentary, definition, or exposition of the cultural context in the target language, to convey the meaning of the source text and to render it as useful as possible. The latter description applies to the 9th C. translation activities at Baghdad, when translators and scholars, such as Ḥunayn ibn Ishaq and al-Kindi, approached the Greek corpus with a robust confidence.

Figure 10. Albohali's De Iudiciis Natiuitatum was translated into Latin by Plato of Tivoli in 1136, and again by John of Seville in 1153 (Source)

As the Latin Translators reflected upon the art of translation, they classified translation styles in two groups, roughly corresponding to the two I just described. The first, Ciceronian, presents a freer rendering, just as Cicero translated and transformed Greek philosophy into elegant Latin. The second, the fidus interpres style of Boethius, as understood by the Medievals, strives for a word for word precision to capture the original, but often results in inelegant Latin. While there were attempts to render Arabic texts in the manner advocated by Cicero, the tendency of early Latin translators was to follow the Boethian text-oriented approach. This may at first have been the result of lack of confidence, but even as the translators and scholars developed confidence, this style was still the ideal.

Cicero’s freer translation style reflected both his stance with regard to vanquished Greece, and his own anxiety about his social class as a parvenu to the senatorial ranks. Moreover, Greek philosophy was among the spoils of Roman conquest to be shaped and Latinized as he liked. Cicero insisted that only one with oratorical command of Latin should do translations, in order to protect the influx of Greek literature from the corruptions of those without the proper education and social standing.[10] Only a man who had achieved the highest education available in Rome and had been mentored by a member of the aristocracy possessed such credentials. Boethius, on the other hand, though Roman by culture, was a conquered subject of barbarians. His project to render Greek philosophy into Latin as accurately as possible was urgent, and so he wanted to capture all of the subtleties of the original texts as possible. His efforts were not the results of lack of confidence, but striving for accuracy and preservation. In effect, those following the Boethian style consciously sought to replace the originals wit