World History 1 180 - 11.3.2 The Abbasid Translation Movement

The society the early Abbasids created was one of the great marvels of the Middle Ages, and the growth of Baghdad and its courtly culture played a major part in that achievement. But as central as Baghdad was to the advancement and success of the Abbasids, so too were the people who made up their cosmopolitan empire. The early Abbasids strongly supported learning, especially in their capital, and fostered what is now called the Abbasid Translation Movement, or the Greco-Arabic Translation Movement. Few people were literate at this time, but it was an especially important moment in world history thanks to new technology and opportunities that improved access to education and literacy more generally. Especially important was the introduction of Chinese papermaking techniques into the Middle East. These methods allowed for the creation of significantly less expensive books, and the Abbasids’ patronage of scholarly work proved the catalyst for an explosion of medieval learning.

The Abbasids sought to preserve the knowledge of past societies by translating the works of the ancient world into Arabic, especially from Greek and Persian, as the Islamic world transitioned from an oral to a writerly society during the ninth century. Writing and scholarly research were not always well funded in the premodern world, so wealthy patrons, including the caliph himself, provided financial support to scholars capable of completing this work. As a result, the Abbasid elite were able to attract the best and brightest to participate, and a culture of learning grew among the upper echelons of society and especially in Baghdad. Scholars were often native speakers of Greek and Syriac who were generally non-Muslim. The Abbasids’ support of this multicultural and multiethnic community ultimately increased the number of works produced in Arabic during the first centuries of their rule, while at the same time providing exceptional educational opportunities as Islamic schools called madrasas were founded and grew.

The achievements of the translation movement were considerable, preserving many incredibly important astrological, geographic, mathematical, medical, and other scientific and philosophical texts in Arabic at a time when non-Arabic copies had become increasingly rare. These texts included seminal works by the Greek thinkers Aristotle, Dioscorides, Galen, Hippocrates, and Ptolemy that were given advanced study in the Muslim world when their popularity and even availability were extremely limited in the rest of the Mediterranean (Figure 11.20).

A yellowed and worn page is shown from a book. A green plant is drawn with five stalks and round bulbs amid leaves is shown at the top left with another green plant with white flowers and green leaves drawn below it. The roots are exposed on the plant below. Scripted writing is written along the right side of the page in a column, right justified. Some writing is also along the bottom and two notes are made along the right side of the page.
Figure 11.20 This is a page from an Arabic translation of the first-century Greek physician Dioscorides’s treatise, De materia medica (On Medical Material). It dates from the eleventh century, but many manuscripts like it were first rendered from the original Greek into Arabic during the Abbasid Translation Movement. (credit: “Kitāb al-Ḥašāʾiš fī hāyūlā al-ʿilāg al-ṭibbī Or. 289” by Universitaire Bibliotheken Leiden/Leiden University LibrariesK, CC BY)

From the Persian world, the Abbasids focused on the translation of materials related to statecraft, etiquette, the history of kings, and economics. All these were topics considered essential for a professional education, especially for a class of state bureaucrats known as “secretaries” whose job was to administer the empire and its people on behalf of the ruler. Yet the Abbasids were not simply having the great texts of ancient peoples brought into their language and their madrasas during this period. The manuscripts, especially works of science, were in some cases many centuries old. So, a major goal of the translation movement was not just to preserve but also to correct and expand them. Baghdad, then, became the “house of wisdom” through this emphasis on learning and continued scholarly endeavor. Although the scholars who improved these traditional works often go uncredited in the new volumes they produced, their work allowed the Abbasids to apply contemporary knowledge and understanding to the ruminations of previous generations. Early Abbasid society was a time and place of learning and openness to considering old, new, and foreign ideas; to making them a part of the “Islamic sciences”; and to bringing material from the Mediterranean, Central Asian, and Indian Ocean worlds into the empire.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax