Integration of the Pre-Islamic Sciences
As Islaam spread northward into Syria, Egypt, and the Persian empire, it came face to face with the sciences of antiquity whose heritage had been preserved in centres which now became a part of the Islamic world. Alexandria had been a major centre of sciences and learning for centuries.
The Greek learning cultivated in Alexandria was opposed by the Byzantines who had burned its library long before the advent of Islaam. The tradition of Alexandrian learning did not die, however.
It was transferred to Antioch and from there farther east to such cities as Edessa by eastern Christians who stood in sharp opposition to Byzantium and wished to have their own independent centres of learning. Moreover, the Persian king, Shapur I, had established Jundishapur in Persia as a second great centre of learning matching Antioch. He even invited Indian physicians and mathematicians to teach in this major seat of learning, in addition to the Christian scholars who taught in Syriac as well as the Persians whose medium of instruction was Pahlavi.
Once Muslims established the new Islamic order during the Umayyad period, they turned their attention to these centres of learning which had been preserved and sought to acquaint themselves with the knowledge taught and cultivated in them. They therefore set about with a concerted effort to translate the philosophical and scientific works which were available to them from not only Greek and Syriac (which was the language of eastern Christian scholars) but also from Pahlavi, the scholarly language of pre-Islamic Persia, and even from Sanskrit. Many of the accomplished translators were Christian Arabs such as Hunayn ibn Ishaq, who was also an outstanding physician, and others Persians such as Ibn Muqaffa’, who played a major role in the creation of the new Arabic prose style conducive to the expression of philosophical and scientific writings.
The great movement of translation lasted from the beginning of the 8th to the end of the 9th century, reaching its peak with the establishment of the House of Wisdom (Bayt alhikmah) by the caliph al-Ma’mun at the beginning of the 9th century. The result of this extensive effort of the Islamic community to confront the challenge of the presence of the various philosophies and sciences of antiquity and to understand and digest them in its own terms and according to its own world view was the translation of a vast corpus of writings into Arabic.
Most of the important philosophical and scientific works of Aristotle and his school, much of Plato and the Pythagorean school, and the major works of Greek astronomy, mathematics and medicine such as the Almagest of Ptolemy, the Elements of Euclid, and the works of Hippocrates and Galen, were all rendered into Arabic. Furthermore, important works of astronomy, mathematics and medicine were translated from Pahlavi and Sanskrit.
As a result, Arabic became the most important scientific language of the world for many centuries and the depository of much of the wisdom and the sciences of antiquity. The Muslims did not translate the scientific and philosophical works of other civilizations out of fear of political or economic domination but because the structure of Islaam itself is based upon the primacy of knowledge. Nor did they consider these forms of knowing as “un-Islamic” as long as they confirmed the doctrine of God’s Oneness which Islaam considers to have been at the heart of every authentic revelation from God. Once these sciences and philosophies confirmed the principle of Oneness, the Muslims considered them as their own. They made them part of their world view and began to cultivate the Islamic sciences based on what they had translated, analyzed, criticized, and assimilated, rejecting what was not in conformity with the Islamic perspective.