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Philosophy and Theology >
The Arabic Translation of Greek Philosophical Texts

It is significant that the first accredited Arabic translations of Greek philosophical texts correspond to the same Syriac tradition of logical scholarship, as attested by the logical translations from Pahlevi by the eighth-century Arab translator Abdullah ibn al-Muqaffa or his son Muhammad. These translations were confined to the first three parts of Aristotle's Organon: Categories, Hermeneutica, and Prior Analytics. They were made during the reign of the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur (r. 754–75), who is commended in Arabic sources for his frugality and love of learning. Also translated into Arabic during al-Mansur's reign was Ptolemy's Almagest, Euclid's Elements, and several of Aristotle's treatises. This was followed, during the caliph Harun's reign, by the translation of a variety of astronomical and medical works, including Ptolemy's Quadripartius and the Indian treatise Sidhanta, known in Arabic as Sindhind, by Brahmagupta.

The earliest translations from Greek or Syriac of philosophical texts (as a distinct from logical and astronomical texts), however, appear to have started toward the end of the eighth century. A number of Platonic Dialogues in the synopses of the great Alexandrian physician-philosopher Galen (129–ca. 199), including Republic, Timaeus, and Laws, were translated by Yahya ibn al-Bitriq (d. 820) and revised shortly thereafter by Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-Ibadi (808–73) and his associates. This translation process was at first haphazard, but with the accession of the Abbasid caliph al-Mamun in 813, the picture changed dramatically. A poet and scholar in his own right, al-Mamum appears to have had a passion for “foreign learning,” especially Greek philosophy and science. As a concrete expression of this passion, in 830 he founded the House of Wisdom in Baghdad to serve as an institute for translation and research; accordingly, the translation movement accelerated during his reign. Aristotle's Metaphysics and the apocryphal Theology of Aristotle, a paraphrase of Plotinus’ last three Enneads, were translated during this period. Before long, the entire Aristotelian corpus was translated into Arabic, with the exception of Politics, for which a fabrication by ibn al-Bitriq called Secret of Secrets was substituted and falsely attributed to Aristotle.

In addition, a large number of Galen's ethical and logical treatises were translated along with his vast medical corpus in sixteen books, which formed the basis of medical instruction for centuries. A number of Porphyry's logical, ethical, and metaphysical treatises were also translated into Arabic. Porphyry's works included his famous Isagoge, or introduction to Aristotle's logic; a lost twelve-book commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, known only from the Arabic source; as well as the already-mentioned paraphrase of Plotinus’ last three Enneads, attributed to Aristotle and translated by Ibn Naimah al-Himsi (d. 835) during the reign of al-Mamun. The unknown Greek author of the Enneads could very well have been Porphyry himself.

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