Book review


How Greek Science Passed to the  Arabs


By: Peter  BetBasso

Author : De Lacy O'Leary, D.D.
Publisher : Routledge & Kegan Paul, London
Date : 1949 (according to the inside title page: "owing to
production delays this book was published in  1980")
Pages : 196

Index : Yes


Table of Contents


I Introduction

II Helenism in Asia
1. Hellenization of Syria
2. The  Frontier Provinces
3. Foundation of Jundi-Shapur
4. Diocletian and  Constantine

III The Legacy of Greece
1. Alexandrian Science
2.  Philosophy
3. Greek Mathematicians
4. Greek Medicine

IV  Christianity as a Hellenizing Force
1. Hellenistic Atmosphere of  Christianity
2. Expansion of Christianity
3. Ecclesiastical  Organization

V The Nestorians
1. First School of Nisibis
2. School of  Edessa
3. Nestorian Schism
4. Dark Period of the Nestorian Church
5.  The Nestorian Reformation

VI The Monophysites
1. Beginning of  Monophysitism
2. The Monophysite Schism
3. Persecution of the  Monophysites
4. Organization of the Monophysite Church
5. Persian  Monophysites

VII Indian Influence, I: The Sea Route

1. The Sea Route to India
2. Alexandrian Science in  India

VIII Indian Influence, I: The Sea Route
1. Bactria
2. The  Road Through Marw

IX Buddhism as a Possible Medium
1. Rise of  Buddhism
2. Did Buddhism Spread West?
3. Buddhist Bactria
4. Ibrahim  Ibn Adam

X The Khalifate of Damascus
1. Arab Conquest of Syria
2.  The Family of Sergius
3. The Camp Cities

XI The Khalifate of  Baghdad
1. The 'Abbasid Revolution
2. The Foundation of Baghdad

XII Translation Into Arabic
1. The First Translators
2.  Hunayn Ibn Ishaq
3. Other Translators
4. Thabit Ibn Qurra

XIII The Arab Philosophers

Commentary on the book


O'Leary writes a fascinating history of a critically important  phase in mesopotamian history. After all, it was the Arabs who brough with them  into Spain the Arabic versions of the Greek works, from which translations were  made into Latin and spread throughout Europe, which was then in its dark age. It  is this Greek body of knowledge that brought Europe out of its dark age and into  the renaisance - the rebirth or revival.


The question remains: by whom, where, and when was the Greek  body of knowledge transmitted to the Arabs themselves. O'Leary tells us:


Greek scientific thought had been in the world for a long time  before it reached the Arabs, and during that period it had already spread abroad  in various directions. So it is not surprising that it reached the Arabs by more  than one route. It came first and in the plainest line through Christian Syriac  writers, scholars, and scientists. Then the Arabs applied themselves directly to  the original Greek sources and learned over again all they had already learned,  correcting and verifying earlier knowledge. Then there came a second channel of  transmission indirectly through India, mathematical and astronomical work, all a  good deal developed by Indian scholars, but ertainly developed from material  obtained from Alexandria in the first place. This material had passed to India  by the sea route which connected lexandria with north-west India. Then there was  also another line of passage through India which seems to have had its  beginnings in the Greek kingdom of Bactria, one of the Asiatic states founded by  Alexander the Great, and a land route long kept open between the Greek world and  Central Asia, especially with the city of Marw, and this perhaps connects with a  Buddhist medium which at one time promoted intercourse between east and west,  though Buddhism as a religion was withdrawing to the Far East when the Arabs  reached Central Asia. [pages 2-3].


Chapter II gives a history of how Western Asia came under  Greek influence.


Chapter III discusses the Christian Church. A notable passage  occurs in the very last paragraph of the Chapter:


It has been disputed whether Muhammad owed most to Jewish or  Christian predecessors, apparently he owed a great deal to both. But when we  come to the 'Abbasid period when Greek literature and science began to tell upon  Arabic thought, there can be no further question. The heritage of Greece was  passed on by the Christian Church. [page 46].


This passage leads naturally to Chapter IV, titled the  Nestorians. In this chapter O'Leary discusses the Nestorian contribution in the  transmission of Greek knowledge to the Arabs. I can only cite briefly, as it is  a lengthy chapter. In brief, through the many schools the "Nestorians" (Assyrian  Church of the East) founded, including the Schools at Edessa, Nisibis, and  Jundi-Shapur, the Greek works were translated into Syriac for use in the  curriculums. These works included Theophania, Martyrs of Palestine, and  Ecclesiastical History by Eusebius; the Isagoge of Porphyry (an introduction to  logic); Aristotle's Hermeneutica and Analytica Priora; and many, many others.  O'Leary states:


In the first place Hibha [a Nestorian] had introduced the  Aristotelian logic to illustrate and explain the theological teaching of  Theodore, of Mopseustia, and that logic remained permanently the necessary  introduction to the theological study in all Nestorian education. Ultimately it  was the ristotelian logic which, with the Greek medical, astronomical, and  mathematical writers, was passed on to the Arabs. [page 61]


Later, O'Leary states:


Nestorian missions pushed on towards the south and reached the

Wadi l-Qura', a little to the north-east of Medina, an outpost  of the Romans garrisoned, not by Roman troops, but by auxiliaries of the Qoda'  tribes. In the time of Muhammad most of these tribes were Christian, and over  the whole wadi were scattered monasteries, cells, and hermitages. From this as  their headquarters Nestorian monks wandered trhough Arabia, visiting the great  fairs and preaching to such as were willing to listen to them. Tradition relates  that the Prophet as a young man went to Syria and near Bostra was recognized as  one predestined to be a prophet by a monk named Nestor (Ibn Sa'd, Itqan, ii, p.  367). Perhaps this may refer to some contact with a Nestorian monk. The chief  Christian stronghold in Arabia was the city of Najran, but that was mainly  Monophysite. What was called its Ka'ba seems to have been a Christian cathedral.  [page 68]. But the most definite link between Nestorians and the Arabs was  through Jundi-Shapur. O'Leary states:


From the time of Maraba onwards there is fairly continuous  evidence of translation from the Greek and of work in Aristotelian logic. [page  70]


Some examples are:


Maraba II, skilled in Philosophy,  medicine, and astronomy, and to have been learned in the wisdom of the Persians,  Greeks, and Hebrews, wrote a commentary (in Syriac) on the Dialectics of  Aristotle.

Shem'on of Beth Garmai translated  Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History.


Henan-isho' II, Catholicos (Patriach)  from 686 to 701, composed a commentary (again, in Syriac) on Aristotle's  Analytica.


Founded originally as a prisoner camp, Jundi-Shapur had citizens  who spoke Greek, Syriac, and Persian. But in the course of time all academic  instruction was administered in Syriac [page 71]. It is interesting that even  though the people of Jundi-Shapur used the speech of Khuzistan, which was not  Syriac, Hebrew nor Persian, the language used in the classroom was Syriac, "as  is obvious from the fact that Syriac translations were made for the use of  lecturers". [page 72].


Finally, O'Leary states in closing Chapter III:


When Baghdad was founded in 762 the khalif and his court became  near neighbors of Jundi-Shapur, and before long court appointments with generous  emoluments began to draw Nestorian physicians and teachers from the academy, and  in this Harun ar-Rashid's minister Ja'far Ibn Barmak was a leading agent, doing  all in his power to introduce Greek science amongst the subjects of the Khalif,  Arabs, and Persians. His strongly pro-Greek attitude seems to have been derived  from Marw, where his family had settled after removing from Balkh, and in his  efforts he was ably assisted by Jibra'il of the Bukhtyishu' family [a famous  Assyrian family which produced nine generations of physicians] and his  successors from Jundi-Shapur. Thus the Nestorian heritage of Greek scholarship  passed from Edessa and Nisibis, through

Jundi-Shapur, to Baghdad. [page 72].


Chapter IV discusses the Monophysites (the "Jacobites", or  the Syrian Orthodox Church).

A detailed history of Monophysitism is given. One of the most  well known Monophysite translators was Sergius of Rashayn, "a celebrated  physician and philosopher, skilled in Greek and translator into Syriac of  various works on medicine, philosophy, astronomy, and theology". [page 83].  Other Monopysite translators were Ya'qub of Surug, Aksenaya (Philoxenos), an  alumnus of the school of Edessa, Mara, bishop of Amid.


Chapters VII and VIII discuss the indian influence via sea and  land routes, although this is small in comparison to the Nestorian and  Monophysite contributions. As is the case with the Buddhist connection discussed  in Chapter IX.


Chapters X and XI are historical and contain little in the way  of how Greek knowledge was transmitted to the Arabs.


Chapter XII discusses the various early translators. These  included:


Abu Mahammad Ibn al-Muqaffa', a  Persian who converted to Islam, although many believed his conversion to be  insincere. He translated from Old Persian to Arabic Kalilag wa-Dimnag, which was  itself a translation of a Buddhist work brought back from India (along with the  game of chess) by the Assyrian Budh.


Al-Hajjaj Ibn Yusuf Ibn Matar Al-Hasib, An Arab, judging from his name, who translated the Almagest and  Euclid's Elements.


Yuhanna Ibn Batriq, an Assyrian, who  produced the Sirr al-asrar.

Abd al-Masih Ibn 'Aballah Wa'ima al-Himse, also an Assyrian, who translated the Theology of Aristotle (but this  was an abridged paraphrase of the Enneads by Plotinus).


Abu Yahya al-Batriq, another  Assyrian, who translated Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos.


Jibra'il II, son of Bukhtyishu' II,  of the prominent Assyrian medical family mentioned above,


Abu Zakariah Yahya Ibn Masawaih, an  Assyrian Nestorian. He authored a textbook on Ophthalmology, Daghal al-'ayn (The  Disease of the eye).


Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, an Assyrian, son of  a Nestorian druggist, was the foremost translator of his time; O'Leary states:


Most of the translators of the next generation received their  training from Hunayn or his pupils, so that he stands out as the leading  translator of the better type, though some of his versions were afterwards  revised by later writers.

The complete curriculum of the medical school of Alexandria was  thus made available for Arab students. This included a select series of the  treatises of Galen which was :-


1. De sectis

2. Ars medica

3. De Pulsibus ad tirones

4. Ad Glauconem de medendi methodo

5. De ossibus ad tirones

6. De musculorum dissectione

7. De nervorum dissectione

8. De venraum arteriumque dissectione

9. De elementis secumdum Hippocratem

10. De temperamentis

11. De facultatibus naturalibus

12. De causis et symptomatibus

13. De locis affectis

14. De pulsibus (four treatises)

15. De typis (febrium)

16. De crisibus

17. De diebus decretoriis

18. Methodus medendi

[pages 166-167]


Yet for all his contributions, Hunayn was not always treated  well by the Khalifate. In one incident, the Khalif Mutawakkil ordered Hunayn to  prepare a poison for the Khalif's enemies. When Hunayn refused the Khalif cast  him into prison. [page 168] .


Hunayn son Ishaq also contributed, as did his nephew Hubaysh Ibn

Al-Hasan. Hubaysh translated the texts of Hippocrates and the  botanical work of Dioscorides, "which became the basis of the Arab  pharmacopoeia". [page 169].

Another one of Hunayn's pupils was 'Isa Ibn Yahya Ibn Ibrahim.  Indeed, "almost all leading scientists of the succeeding generation were pupils  of Hunayn". [page 170].


Other translators included


Yusuf al-Khuri al-Qass, who  translated Archemides lost work on triangles from a Syriac version. He also made  an Arabic of Galen's De Simplicibus temperamentis et facultatibus.


Qusta Ibn Luqa al-Ba'lbakki, a Syrian  Christian, who translated Hypsicles, Theodosius' Sphaerica, Heron's Mechanics,  Autolycus Theophrastus' Meteora, Galen's catalog of his books, John Philoponus  on the Phsyics of Aristotle and several other works. He also revised the  existing translation of Euclid.


Abu Bishr Matta Ibn Yunus al-Qanna'i,  who translated Aristotle's Poetica Abu Zakariya Yahya Ibn 'Adi al-

Mntiqi, a monophysite, who translated medical and logical works,  including the Prolegomena of mmonius, an introduction to Porphyry's Isagoge.


To these may be added Al-Hunayn Ibn Ibrahim Ibn al-Hasan Ibn  Khurshid at-Tabari an-Natili, and the monophysite Abu 'Ali 'Isa Ibn Ishaq Ibn  Zer'a.


The salient  conclusion which can be drawn from O'Leary's book is  that Assyrians played a significant role in  the shaping of the Islamic world via the Greek corpus of  knowledge.


If this is so, one must then ask the question, what happenned to  the Christian communities which made them lose this great intellectual  enterprise which they had established. One can ask this same question of the  Arabs. Sadly, O'Leary's book does not answer this question, and we must look  elsewhere for the answer.

 Peter  BetBasso


[] [The Nestorian Church (General)] [Nestorian Documents] [Nestorian History] [The Nestorian Controversy] [Famous Individuals in Nestorian History] [The Nestorians in India] [The Nestorians in Arabia/Middle East] [The Nestorians & Arab Knowledge] [How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs] [Arab Golden age and education] [Hunein Ibn Ishak] [The Nestorians in Central Asia] [The Nestorians in China & The Far East] [The Syriac/Aramaic/Assyrian Language] [Modern Day Assyrians]