Greek non-technical works in Arabic

An interesting comment on my last post deserves further examination.  It read, in part:

Okasha El Daly’s Egyptology: the missing millennium: ancient Egypt in medieval Arabic writings mentioned a number of unexpected Arabic translations of Greek writings, including poets like Homer.

The link to the Google Books preview allows us to investigate a bit.  The book, indeed, looks interesting and I wish I could access it in full.

On page 26:

The other major sources used by Arab writers were the extant Greek and Latin sources on Ancient Egypt which were widely available in their original languages and also in translations in either Arabic or Syriac and perhaps also Aramaic and Persian.

A glance at the index of Al-Nadim (Al-Fihrist) shows that many classical sources were already known and quoted in Arabic writings in the 10th century and we have the Arabic versions of many of the classical sources, for example Josephus (Pines 1971), who was quoted extensively by Arab writers such as Al-Shahrastani.

Herodotus, Manetho, Plutarch, Plato and Plotinus among others were known and it was perhaps these sources which were being referred to by Al-Biruni (Al-Athar. 84) when he said that he acquired ‘Books which had die periods of reigns of the kings of Ashur of Mosul, and the periods of the kings of the Copts who were in Egypt and the Ptolemaic kings …’

This seems a little dodgy.  Pines in 1971 does not refer to a translation into Arabic of Josephus as far as I know, but to the possible presence of a version of the Testimonium Flavianum in the Arabic Christian history of Agapius, who is working from Byzantine chronicles of various sorts.

On page 62 we read:

Knowledge of ancient Egyptian also came from Arabic translations of many of the classical writers, whose works included references to ancient Egyptian language and scripts. These included Homer, Herodotus, Plutarch, Chaeremon, Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus (Budge 1929: 179ff; Iversen 1993: 38ff). These classical writers were widely quoted by Al-Nadim (Al-Fihrist: 315), Ibn Fatik (Mukhtar. 54), and Ibn Abi Usaybi`ah (Tabaqat: 50).

Now this is not very satisfactory, because the Arabic works in question cannot easily be consulted by anyone else.  Budge in The Rosetta Stone (1929) merely lists Greek writers on hieroglyphics, and says nothing about Arabic use of them, as far as I can tell.

On p.109-110:

It was common for long passages to be quoted from classical writers such as Homer, Herodotus, Iamblichus, Plato, and Plotinus even in Arab literary works, for example in the writings of Al-Sajistani and of Ibn Fatik.

Surprise at these early Arabic translations on the part of highly respected modern scholars seems to stem from a misleading presumption that Arabs translated only what was of direct practical use to them, such as medical books. For example, the eminent orientalist CH Becker (1931: 14-15) specifically commented on the enthusiasm of the Caliph Al-Ma’moun (early 9th century) whom he refers to as an ‘enlightened despot’, questioning his motives for translating a large number of works by Greek philosophers. Becker found such enthusiasm ‘unknown and abnormal in the Orientals’, suggesting that the Arab translations were not:

“as a result of an abstract desire to acquire science and knowledge, because if this had been the case then Homer or the Tragedies would have been translated as well, but the reality was that people did not take any interest in nor feel any need for them.” (Becker 1931:14-15, translated from German)

Becker’s assertion that the Arabs did not translate Homer is easily disproved by looking at the long quotations from Homer by Al-Sajistani (Siwan: 68ff) who referred to an Arabic translation of Homer produced by Stephanus the Elder (Ostanes). This is likely to be the Greek/Byzantine Alexandrian Ostanes, the philosopher and alchemist who, according to Al-Nadim (Al-Fihrist: 303f), also translated alchemical works for Prince Khalid Ibn Yazid (d. 704) in the first century of Islam.

But once again, we have a bunch of references to sources that we cannot check.  It is unfortunate that we cannot see the bibliography which expands these cryptic references.

The Fihrist of al-Nadīm is the title of a 1970 translation by Bayard Dodge.  A table of contents is here.  It looks as if the page numbers refer to this translation, from a non-accessible page in the preview.  The book is in print at, for a ridiculous sum.

I think, since I can’t get to a library, we’ll have to leave it here.  But it would be most interesting to know what each of these references says!


5 thoughts on “Greek non-technical works in Arabic

  1. There is also some records of Greek philosophers in Arabic. Gutas has assembled them in his ‘Greek Philosophers in the Arabic Tradition’.

  2. Sounds interesting – wish I had access! (A common feeling with Gutas’ publications, all excellent, all impossible to find).

  3. I’m writing a Master thesis on the subject of the Graeco-Arabic translation movement and about the intellectual contacts between Byzantium and the Arabic world. If you want, I can send you few articles in PDF, bibliography and notes I have.

  4. The issues you note with that book are not isolated. The book is unfortunately very biased, and it has numerous factual errors. The problem is that a lot of the references can simply not be checked at all unless you go, e.g. to Istanbul and check the unpublished manuscripts there. What’s frustrating to me about it is that the author mentions some very interesting things (if true!), but since he makes so many mistakes when referring to sources or topics I know, why should I trust him when mentioning sources that I could never check?
    By the way, great website.

  5. That is precisely my concern. It is, indeed, infuriating.

    More positively, it is a job of work for someone to do what we cannot and check it all out! Which would be fun!

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