The Genesis of the Islamic Scientific Tradition

The Genesis of the Islamic Scientific Tradition

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On the eve of Muhammad’s Prophetic mission, the uninviting and harsh city of Makkahhad little to boast by way of science.  Arabs excelled in poetry and genealogies–both oral traditions going back for centuries–but they had no science except for certain bedouin techniques of folk medicine and astronomy.  The great scientific and cultural centers of the time were totally outside the Arab sphere of interest.  The Byzantine, Sassanian and Indian cultures, with their rich and intricate heritage of artistic and scientific achievements, were of little interest to the Arabs who lived in a world shaped out of primordial instincts characterized by the brute force of survival.

But within a century and a half after the death the Prophet in A.D. 632, the center of scientific thought had definitely shifted from the old Byzantinian, Sassanian and Indian centers to the Islamic heartland.  This was not merely a matter of chance; Islam had at its disposal a spiritual and intellectual force of the first order: the Qur’an.  The Qur’an was in pure, clear and perfect Arabic–a fact to which it refers to as a proof of its Divine origin.  And Arabic was ideally suited for the task of appropriating abstract, conceptual ideas from Hellenic scientific tradition because of its lexicographical richness.  But before Muslims could rise to become heirs of a complex scientific tradition, they had to pass through a formative period which built the formidable tradition of “transmitted sciences” (al-culum al-Naqliyyah) such as the Qur’anic commentary (Tafsir), Law (Fiqh), Theology, the sciences related to the collection, authentication and transmission of the sayings of the Prophet (Hadith) as well as those sciences which were related to these obligatory branches of knowledge such as linguistics, the science of genealogy and history.

The geographical expansion of Islam is legendary: within a century of that cold winter day when the Prophet of Islam received his first call in the caveof Hira, the new religion was dominant over the Pyrenees in the west and the steppes of Central Asiain the east.  But perhaps more astonishing is the speed at which it formed, developed and consolidated its characteristic civilization.  By the end of the second/eighth century, Islam had its own distinct tradition of learning in arts and sciences and by the end of the third/ninth century, the intellectual frontier of Islamic sciences was already experiencing its first vigorous expansion.  This was partly due to the assimilation of the heritage of many advanced civilizations with which Muslims came into contact during the process of their rapid expansion.

The lands which were rapidly incorporated into the Muslim world during the first century of Islam had ancient centers of learning which were, in turn, heir to the enduring synthesis of Mediterranean world.  By the time Muslims arrived on the stage of history, the center of intellectual activity had already moved from Athens to Alexandria and, through channels of eastern branches of Christianity (such as the Monophysites and Nestorians), to Antioch, Edessa and Nisibis–lands which were to become an important part of the Islamic world.  It is also important to note in passing that the more esoteric aspect of this Graeco-Alexandrian heritage had also found fertile soil in the same region in the cult of the Sabaens of Harran who had developed a marvelous metaphysics on the foundation of the Hermetic-Pythagorean ideas of Alexandria by drawing from late Babylonian and Chaldean sources.

In addition to this Alexandrian Hellenism, the intellectual heritage of Persians and Indians became simultaneously available to Muslims.  This was indeed the beginning of a unique phenomenon in human history: not one or two but three intellectual traditions found a common home and a common language for a rare synthesis.  The story of this interaction is in itself a fascinating tale.

Arabs did not receive the original Aristotelian corpus but the one which had been thoroughly revised, systematized and colored by five hundred years of shaping in the later Greek schools and another two hundred years at the hands of the Syrian Christians.  In addition to a whole series of commentators, Aristotelian tradition had to pass through the translation mesh to arrive at the door steps of its new cultural home.

But before we speak of the translation movement which brought Aristotle to his new Arab home, mention must be made of the transforming currents which reshaped the corpus through a process of syncretism and scholastic organization.  We know from the traditional accounts that the second “birth” of Aristotle was affected by Andronicus of Rhodes (fl. 30 B.C.) who annotated, edited and published the Aristotelian texts with the aid of manuscripts discovered at the library of Skepsis.  But more than anyone else, it was Porphyry of Tyre (ca. A.D. 300), the brilliant student of Plotinus, who successfully transformed the original Aristotelian tradition not only for the Arabs but for all of us.  Further, Aristotle did not arrive at his new home from Athens; rather, he came via the Syrian route.

By the time Arab conquerors arrived in Syria, the Syriac-speaking Christian community had developed characteristic features of its own.  In contrast to the Hellenized Christianity of the coastal areas, which used Greek Scripture and a Greek liturgy, the indigenous Semitic population used Syriac, a dialect of the region of Edessa, for divine worship.  Moreover, Syriac Christianity was more ascetic and more monastic in its general practices than the Hellenized branch.  In 363 A.D. the trans-Tigrine provinces of the Roman Empire fell to Sassanians and the Syriac Christian community was cut off from the Empire and hence from the influences from Antioch or Constantinople.

It was precisely this isolation which was needed for the beginning of a Syriac translation movement of the Aristotelian corpus around 450 A.D.  The theology of these Syrian thinkers was scholastic and akin to the Arab taste.  Moreover, the Syriac-speaking Christian scholars were interested in lexicography and one of the early Syriac lexicographer, Enanishu the monk (fl. ca. A.D. 650), wrote a grammatical lexicon of the aequaelitterae (consonantly identical words) and a book of definitions of philosophical terms.  Trained translators, lexicographs, dictionaries of terms and equivalent–these were just the resources needed for an Arabic translation movement.

But before we go into the details of the Arab appropriation of a rich past, mention must be made of the Iranian milieu.  During the Sassanid period, the Persian king Shapur I had established a school at Jundishapur to rival that of Antioch where Persian and Indian scholars matched the vigor of their Graeco-Alexandrian contemporaries.  By the seventh century, this school had integrated the Greek, Persian and Indian sciences and was perhaps the best in the world in medicine and astronomy.

Now the stage was set for the Arabs to arrive.  We should keep in mind that the early military conquests of Arabs were accomplished by men who were deeply religious and who were commanded to respect the “people of the Book”.  It was, therefore, in the very nature of the new conquest that Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians were allowed to survive in the new order as minorities with recognized rights and privileges–people who could live by their own code of Law and religious edicts.  It is no wonder, then, that one of the most prominent members of the commission which determined for the Caliph al-Mansur (A.D. 754-775) that the propitious moment for the founding of Baghdad fell on 30 July 762 was Masha’allah ibn Athari, a Jew (and perhaps a Persian Jew).  He continued to have an influential position at the `Abbasid court throughout his life and died after al-Mamun became the Caliph in 813.

The exact beginnings of the Aristotelian translation movement in Islam are somewhat difficult to determine.  Whether or not there were schools of translation in Damascus during the Umayyads’ rule, is open to question but it was the fate of the new city of Baghdad, now sadly ruined, to host one of the most influential movements in the intellectual history of Islam: the translation movement which would rapidly provide Muslim scholars and scientists a comprehensive atlas of the learning of three highly advanced civilizations.

In 765 A.D., Caliph al-Mansur called the head of the hospital at Jundishapur to Baghdad.  His name was Jurjis ibn Bakhtisu, a Syriac Christian.  His arrival in Baghdad and appointment as the court physician established a Baghdad-Jundishapur axis which lasted for generations.  Soon other axis were formed and many Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians and newly converted Muslims from various lands arrived in the Capital to join various schools of learning.

While translations were being done in Baghdad, thousands of young Muslims, whose imagination had been fired by the achievements of the vanquished and whose hearts and minds were pondering over the wonders of Divine Power, Beauty and Creativity in the world around them, joined an ever-growing chain of schools run by scholar-scientists-philosophers to give birth to Islam’s own scientific tradition.