Medieval Arabic Translation: Rise and Decline
There is no denying the fact that knowledge is a collective pursuit to which all cultures, past and present, have contributed. A great deal of this knowledge is preserved and augmented through a highly creative and rigorous process known as translation. Medieval Arabic translators did really contribute to the development and preservation of human knowledge. In this respect, Menocal (2003) observes:
While the Umayyads of both Damascus and Cordoba were culturally voracious and syncretistic, it was not they but the Abbasids of Baghdad…who sponsored the astonishing multigenerational project to translate major portions of the Greek philosophical and scientific canon without which, arguably, much of that canon might have been permanently lost.
In the Abbasid era, translation into Arabic flourished and was established as a fully-fledged profession. In 832 AD, the Bayt al Hikma (House of Wisdom) was set up under the Caliph al Mamun, son of Harun al-Rashid. Driven by the need for knowledge, encouragement of the rulers and their craving for an ultimately powerful empire, Medieval Arab translators in Baghdad started off their groundbreaking career with unmatched zeal and perseverance. However, like all intellectual movements, this activity waxed and waned due to the demand-and-supply principle and the dearth of material to be translated.
To begin with, it is worth mentioning that man’s hunger for knowledge has always been the driving force for progress and prosperity. For Muslims, however, seeking knowledge is a must for both men and women. In fact, both the Holy Quran and the Prophet’s Hadiths encourage Muslims to pursue and acquire knowledge regardless of the nature of knowledge, be it religious or secular. In the Holy Quran, Allah (the Almighty) says:
Say: Are those equal, those who know and those who do not know? It is those who are endued with understanding that r admonition. (Chapter 39, Verse 9)
It is also narrated that the Prophet Mohammad (May Allah’s prayers and peace upon Him) says in one Hadith related by Al-Bayhaqi and Al-Tabarani: "Seeking knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim.”(Gulf Times Newspaper 2007). Consequently, it is no wonder that Medieval Arabic translators were motivated into acquiring knowledge via translation by the most inspirational sources of Islam, the Holy Quran and the Prophet’s Hadiths. In addition, translation came as a necessity for Medieval Arabs because they needed to have access to other spheres of knowledge such as philosophy, medicine and astrology. What also made Medieval Arabic translation more fashionable and accessible was the introduction of the paper industry from China to Baghdad and then to Spain or Andalus from which it moved to the West.
Another important factor that led to the success of Medieval Arabic translation was the Abbasid rulers’ financial support for the translation budding enterprise. Because translation was the most lucrative and high-paying job, scholars were motivated into carrying it out. Harun al-Rashid, for example, used to send scholars to different parts of the world in quest of knowledge and manuscripts. Later on, his son, al- Mamun, recruited the best scholars and translators to undertake his project of disseminating knowledge by establishing the House of Wisdom. During his reign, translators were given the best and highest positions in the administration due to their industrious efforts to enrich the Muslim and Arab heritage with new branches of knowledge. In this specific respect, Gutas (1998) points out:
With the early ’Abbasids, major carriers of precisely this translation culture came into the highest posts of the administration and received institutional backing and financial support to carry out this activity. (1998, p. 54)
The Abbasid rulers gave the translation movement their full moral and financial support in order to keep their empire as powerful and up-to-date as possible. They realized the importance of knowledge to the greatness and strength of their nation. Therefore, by translating books of famous Greek scholars, philosophers and scientists, the Muslim nation would become more powerful. Ashford (2004) remarks:
The translation movement in 9th century Baghdad was produced by the needs of the rulers of a powerful empire. The trading networks which played such a crucial role in the development of the Muslim empire were able to carry new ideas to far-flung corners of the world.
Furthermore, the Medieval Arabic translation movement reached its zenith by virtue of the exceptional efforts exerted by the most laborious and talented scholars of the time. World-famous intellectuals such as Hunayan, Ibn Ishaq, Al-Kindi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, Farabi, Al-Razi and others had an immense impact not only on Medieval Arabic translation but also on the scientific breakthroughs which were made later on in the West in what was known as the Renaissance. Nothing but an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and unrivalled professionalism kindled these people’s enthusiasm for carrying out such an intriguing endeavour. Indeed, the world at large should publicly admit that without the efforts and works of the Medieval Arabic translators and scholars, much of today’s technological progress could not have been made. In this respect, Wiet (1973) points out:
There was no lack of talented men. The rush toward Baghdad was as impressive as the horsemen’s sweep through entire lands during the Arab conquest. The intellectuals of Baghdad eagerly set to work to discover the thoughts of antiquity.
Unfortunately, as is the case with every intellectual movement, the Medieval Arabic translation movement, which lasted for more than two centuries, had to gradually come to an end. In fact, the translation movement started to decrease not because of the lack of skilled translators or the dearth of financial support, but rather because there were no more suitable works to translate as most of the books on medicine, astronomy, and philosophy were already translated. In this respect, Gutas (1998) observes:
It had nothing to offer not in the sense that there were no more secular Greek books to be translated, but in the sense that it had no more Greek books to offer that were relevant to the concerns and demands of the sponsors, scholars and scientists alike. (1998, p. 152)
In addition to that, the Arabic language became very dominant at that time, and major scientific and philosophical books in Arabic were abundantly available. In other words, it was then the turn of Arabic to be the focus of scholarly interest and pursuit, and thus the language and culture to be transmitted and translated into the other living languages of the time. Gutas (1998) again points out:
The translation movement stopped or came to an end because the Arabic philosophical and scientific enterprise which had created the need for it from the very beginning became autonomous. (1998, p. 152)
In conclusion, it can safely be said that the Medieval Arabic translation movement both contributed to and enriched human knowledge. Islam’s major sources, the Holy Quran and the Prophet’s Hadiths both inspired Medieval Arabic translators to seek and acquire knowledge. Besides, the Abbasid rulers showed unique admiration and love for knowledge, and they reflected that in sponsoring and supervising the translation process themselves. Not only did those rulers reward the translators for their painstaking work, but they also gave them high ranks in the administration of the state. Of course, without the erudite scholars and translators at that time, the translation movement could not have been possible. Once Arabic was established as a prominent and dominant language, and once there were no more books to translate, Medieval Arabic translation came to an end.