How Arabic Became the Language of the Learned
FOR centuries, Arabic was the predominant language of the learned. Beginning in the eighth century C.E., Arabic-speaking scholars in various Middle Eastern cities translated and corrected scientific and philosophical texts stretching back to the times of Ptolemy and Aristotle. Arabic-speaking scholars thus preserved and enriched the work of ancient thinkers.
A Melting Pot of Ideas
The seventh and eighth centuries of our Common Era saw new powers arise in the Middle East in the form of two dynasties—first the Umayyad and then the Abbasid. Since their subjects in Arabia, Asia Minor, Egypt, Palestine, Persia, and Iraq had been influenced by both Greece and India, the new rulers had access to a rich reservoir of learning. The Abbasids built a new capital, Baghdad, and it became a melting pot of ideas. There, Arabs mingled with Armenians, Berbers, Chinese, Copts, Greeks, Indians, Jews, Persians, Turks, and Sogdians, from beyond the Oxus River, now known as the Amu Dar’ya, in Central Asia. Together, they studied and debated the sciences, cross-pollinating their diverse intellectual traditions.
Baghdad’s Abbasid rulers encouraged gifted thinkers, wherever they came from, to contribute to the intellectual development of the empire. Systematic efforts were made to gather and translate into Arabic tens of thousands of books on a wide range of subjects, including alchemy, arithmetic, geometry, medicine, music, philosophy, and physics.
Caliph al-Manṣūr, who ruled from 754 to 775 C.E., dispatched ambassadors to the Byzantine court to acquire Greek mathematical texts. Caliph al-Ma’mūn (813-833 C.E.) followed his lead, giving impetus to a Greco-Arabic translation movement that lasted for more than two centuries. Hence, by the end of the tenth century, nearly all Greek philosophical and scientific texts then available had been translated into Arabic. But Arabic scholars did more than translate. They also made original contributions.
Many Arabic translators worked accurately and with astonishing speed. Hence, some historians have argued that the translators must have been familiar with the subject matter. What is more, a number of scholars used translated texts as a springboard for their own research.
For example, the physician and translator Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq (808-873 C.E.), a Syriac Christian, significantly contributed to the understanding of vision. His work, which incorporated accurate anatomical diagrams of the eye, became a standard reference in ophthalmology in both the Arab world and Europe. The philosopher and physician Ibn Sīnā, known in the West as Avicenna (980-1037 C.E.), wrote many dozens of books on a wide range of topics from ethics and logic to medicine and metaphysics. His great compendium, the Canon of Medicine, drew on the medical knowledge available at that time, including the ideas of the celebrated Greek thinkers Galen and Aristotle. The Canon remained the standard medical textbook for some 400 years.
Arab researchers embraced the experimental method of science, which lies at the very heart of scientific progress. This led them to recalculate the earth’s circumference and to correct geographical information in the work of Ptolemy. “They dared question even Aristotle,” says historian Paul Lunde.
The advance in learning was reflected in many practical fields, such as the construction of reservoirs, aqueducts, and waterwheels, some of which survive to this day. New texts on agriculture, botany, and agronomy enabled farmers to select the best crops for a particular area, thus boosting productivity.
In 805 C.E., Caliph Hārūn ar-Rashīd established a hospital, the first in his vast empire. Before long, every major city within his domain had one.
New Centers of Learning
A number of cities in the Arab world boasted libraries and specialized centers of learning. In Baghdad, Caliph al-Ma’mūn founded the translation and research institute called Bait al-Hikma, meaning the “House of Wisdom.” Its staff included salaried scholars. The main library in Cairo is said to have housed more than a million volumes. Meanwhile, Córdoba, capital of Umayyad Spain, had 70 libraries, which drew scholars and students from all over the Arab world. For well over two centuries, Córdoba remained a leading intellectual center.
In Persia, Greek mathematical traditions intermingled with those of India, where mathematicians had developed a system for the use of the numeral zero and positional notation. In that system of writing numbers, individual digits assume different values according to their position and the placement of the symbol for zero. The digit one, for example, can mean one, ten, a hundred, and so on. This system “not only simplified calculation of all sorts but made possible the development of algebra,” writes Lunde. Arab scholars also made great strides in geometry, trigonometry, and navigation.
The golden age of Arab science and mathematics contrasted with the intellectual torpor elsewhere. Parallel efforts were being made in medieval Europe, mainly in monasteries, to preserve the works of ancient scholars. The output, though, paled when compared with that of the Arab world. As early as the tenth century, however, things began to change when translations of Arab scholarship trickled into the West. In time, this trickle grew in scale and led to the European scientific renaissance.
Yes, history’s big picture tells us that no single nation or people can take the credit for the present state of learning in the sciences and related fields. Today’s more learned cultures owe a lot to earlier cultures that promoted research, questioned the orthodox, and encouraged fertile minds.
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Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq’s eye diagram
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A page from Avicenna’s “Canon of Medicine”
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Arabic scholars in a library in Basra, 1237 C.E.
© Scala/White Images/Art Resource, NY
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Eye diagram: © SSPL/Science Museum/Art Resource, NY; Canon of Medicine: © The Art Gallery Collection/Alamy