122 - Founded in Translation: From Greek to Syriac and Arabic

Greek philosophy and science make their way into the Islamic world via Syriac and Arabic translations and interpretations.

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Further Reading: 

• P. Adamson, The Arabic Plotinus: a Philosophical Study of the “Theology of Aristotle” (London: 2002).

• C. D’Ancona, Recherches sur le Liber de Causis (Paris: 1995).

• G. Endress and R. Kruk (eds), The Ancient Tradition in Christian and Islamic Hellenism (Leiden: 1997).

• D. Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: the Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early Society (2nd-4th / 8th-10th centuries) (London: 1998).

• D. Gutas, Greek Philosophers in the Arabic Tradition (Aldershot: 2000).

• D. King, The Earliest Translation of Aristotle's Categories in Syriac (Leiden: 2010).

• F. Rosenthal, The Classical Heritage in Islam, trans. E. Marmorstein and J. Marmorstein (London: 1975).

• R. Walzer, Greek into Arabic: Essays on Islamic Philosophy (Oxford: 1962).

• J.W. Watt, “From Sergius to Matta: Commentary and Translation in Syriac Aristotelian and Monastic Tradition,” in J.W. Watt and J. Lössl (eds), Interpreting the Bible and Aristotle in Late Antiquity (Aldershot: 2011), 239-58.

Stanford Encyclopedia: Greek Sources in Arabic and Islamic Philosophy

In Our Time: Translation Movement (interview with Peter, Peter Pormann, Amira Bennison)

Philosopher's Zone: Greek Meets Arabic (Peter interviewed by the late Alan Saunders)

Peter Adamson's picture


I just wanted to note that the section on Syriac philosophers is to some extent based on papers I attended in December, 2012, given by John Watt and Daniel King, both of Cardiff University (and of course on their publications, for which see the bibliography above). The discussion of the Greek-Arabic translation movement is, inevitably, much influenced by Dimitri Gutas' Greek Thought, Arabic Culture; again, see above.

Rhys W. Roark's picture

The Translation Movement

RE: The Plotinian One and the Arabic Translations.

Thanks for this explanation: that the Arabic Plotinus refers to the first principle as the Creator and ESP. that the Plotinian absolute is defined more in terms of the subsidiary hypostasis, the Nous / Intellect, esp. in the use of stronger positive (or kataphatic) terminology.

This gives me some initial insight into some Christian theological differences between the Byzantine East and Latin West on appropriate God talk. The Byzantines share greater similarities with the historical Plotinus in their preference for negative / apophatic theology in describing the absolute. But later Scholasticism wants to shift this into stronger positive / kataphatic territory (though without denying that God is beyond full comprehension), as we say with Thomas Aquinas. Much of this can be said to be Aristotelian: God identified with Being, i.e., Pure Act, than Beyond Being.

Yet I have had the sense, without fully piecing it together, that Arabic commentaries may also have played an influence for the later Latin Medieval West in their understanding, as it seems, as you note, God, Al-lah, is understood here more in terms of Pure Act terminology from (aspects & areas) of the Translation Movement. Is this kataphatic strain a dominant one in this period of Islam, or are there apophatic strains too?

Very illuminating (he Neoplatonically said).

I suppose this means I need to read your text, The Arabic Plotinus: a Philosophical Study of the “Theology of Aristotle,” which, I assume, has discussion of this very issue. The Endress and Kruk text sounds very interesting too on this score.

Thanks Peter—helped a bunch!


Peter Adamson's picture

Apophatic theology

Hi Rhys,

There is definitely a strong tendency towards negative theology too. We'll see this already next week with al-Kindi, but other examples include the Ismailis (who use the idea that you should even negate negations) and Maimonides, who is pretty apophatic. I would say that in all these traditions (I think including Byzantine theology though I'm more a novice there than with the Islamic world and Latin medieval philosophy) you get a kind of productive tension between kata- and apo-phatic theology, with various attempts to negotiate between these two poles and occasional figures who go pretty far in one or the other direction. In Islamic kalam, for instance, the Mu'tazilites tend to push the negative side, the Ash'arites the positive side, albeit that they then admit that the relation between God and His attributes is to a large extent inscrutable to us.

One way of thinking about this is that both Scripture (in all three faiths) and philosophical considerations push very hard in both directions simultaneously. So in Scripture you get lots of positive descriptions of God but also things like "He has no like among created things." And in philosophy the Plotinian argument for negative theology is balanced by various arguments for concluding to God's nature and existence on the basis of what He has created. Hence this permanent tension which is part of what makes philosophical theology in the medieval period so interesting.