Religious Pluralism in Al-Andalus: Translating An Old Greek Text

The Middle Ages are commonly associated with ideas such as religious intolerance and intellectual backwardness. Images are conjured up of despotic kings using religion as a pretext for destructive wars that prevented Europe from achieving the prosperity and intellectualism it had during the Roman Empire.

But that image does not necessarily reflect reality. The long history of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula (711-1492) was characterized much more by religious tolerance and intellectual pursuits of both religious and scientific knowledge.

A prime example of this Muslim society that prized religious pluralism is seen in the mid-tenth century, during the reign of the Umayyad caliph ‘Abd al-Rahman III (r.912-961) when an ancient Greek medical text was sent in the year 948 by the Byzantine co-emperors Constantine VII and Romans to the Umayyad caliph. The team that translated the text into Arabic consisted of Muslims and Christians, and was sponsored by a Jewish advisor to the caliph.

The story behind it is relayed by the contemporary Andalusian historian of medicine, Ibn Juljul (c.944-994). His account of the translation effort is copied below:

The book of Dioscorides was translated from Greek into Arabic by Istifan b. Basil the interpreter, in the City of Peace [Baghdad] in the reign of the ‘Abbasid Ja’far al-Mutawakkil [847-61]. Hunayn b. Ishaq the translator went over it, corrected it and approved it for publication. Those Greek names [of plants] for which Istifan knew Arabic equivalents current in his time were explained by him in Arabic, while those for which he knew no equivalents in Arabic he left in their Greek forms in his version, trusting that God would send after his death someone who would understand them and explain them in Arabic…

“This book came to Andalusia in the translation of Istifan, with some things [plants] in it known by Arabic names and some unknown. And so people in both the East and Andalusia made use of what was known in it, until the time of an-Nasir ‘Abd ar-Rahman [III] b. Muhammad, who was then sovereign of Andalusia. King Romanus of Constantinople exchanged letters with him – I reckon in 337 [948/49] – and sent him presents of great value, including the book of Dioscorides, illustrated with wonderful pictures of the herbs in Byzantine style. The book was written in Greek (bi l-Ighriqi), i.e. Hellenic (al-Yunani). With it he sent the book of Orosius the narrator, which is a wonderful Roman (li r-Rum) book of history, containing records of past ages and narratives concerning the early monarchs of great interest. In his letter
to Nasir Romanus wrote:

“‘The benefit of Dioscorides’ book can only be reaped with the aid of someone who is familiar with its Greek expressions and knows the characteristics of those remedies; so if there is anyone in your country with such knowledge you can derive benefit from the book, oh king! As for the book of Orosius, you have Roman Catholics (al-Latiniyyin) in your country who read Latin, and if you show it to them they will translate it for you from Latin into Arabic.’

“Now at that time none of the Christians of Andalusia read Greek, which is the ancient Hellenic, so the book of Dioscorides remained in the library of ‘Abd ar-Rahman an-Nasir in Greek, untranslated into Arabic, but all the while present in Andalusia; and what was in circulation was the translation of Istifan which had come from the City of Peace. So when Nasir replied to King Romanus he requested him to send him someone who spoke Greek and Latin, to teach servants of his to be translators. King Romanus therefore sent Nasir a monk by the name of Nicholas, who arrived in Cordoba in 340 [951/52].

“At that time there was in Cordoba a group of doctors who were keen to find out by research and inquiry the Arabic names of the simple remedies of Dioscorides that were [still] unknown; and from the court of King ‘Abd ar-Rahman an-Nasir they were encouraged in that research by the Jew Hasday b. Shaprut. Above all he favored and honored Nicholas the monk, who explained the names of the unknown remedies in the book of Dioscorides. …Among the doctors who were then making research into the names of the remedies in the book, and determining the characteristics of each, were Muhammad known as ash-Shajjar, a man called al-Bisbasi, Abi ‘Uthman al-Hazzaz nicknamed al-Yabisa, Muhammad b. Sa’id the Doctor, ‘Abd ar-Rahman b. Ishaq b. Haytham, and Abu ‘Abdallah the Sicilian, who spoke [Byzantine] Greek and understood the characteristics of remedies.

“This group was all present at the same time as Nicholas the monk; I was his and their contemporary in the time of Mustansir, and associated with them in the time of Mustansir al-Hakam; Nicholas the monk died early in his reign. Thus the book of Dioscorides was revised through the research of these few men into the names of remedies.

Source: Hourani, George F. “The Early Growth of the Secular Sciences in Andalusia.” Studia Islamica 32 (1970): 143-56.

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