Islamic philosophy: transmission into Western Europe

The Arabs took on the mantle of late antique philosophy and passed it on to both Latin scholars and Jewish scholars in Western Europe in the Middle Ages. The debates among Islamic scholars between rationalism and fideism also provided texts and models for Christian and Jewish debates. In this assimilation of Islamic thought, several stages can be observed. First, there was an interest in Neoplatonic cosmology and psychology in the latter half of the twelfth century, which fostered the translation of texts by al-Kindi, al-Farabi, the Ikhwan al-Safa' and, especially, Avicenna (Ibn Sina). Second, the desire to understand Aristotle's philosophy resulted in the translation of the commentaries and epitomes of Averroes (Ibn Rushd) in the second quarter of the thirteenth century. Jewish scholars participated in both these movements, and from the second quarter of the thirteenth century they took the initiative in translating and commenting upon Arabic texts. Thus when, in the late fifteenth century, a renewed interest in the ancient texts led scholars to search out the most accurate interpretations of these texts, it was to Jewish scholars that they turned for new translations or retranslations of Avicenna and, in particular, Averroes. From the early sixteenth century, Arabic philosophical texts were again translated directly into Latin, Arabic speakers began to collaborate with Christian scholars and the foundations for the teaching of Arabic were being laid. With the establishment of Arabic chairs in European universities, the rich variety of Islamic thought began to be revealed. This process has lasted until the present day.

  1. Early translations: twelfth century
  2. Thirteenth-century translations
  3. The contribution of Jewish scholars
  4. The beginnings of Arabic scholarship

1. Early translations: twelfth century

Some seventy works were translated from Arabic by Gerard of Cremona, nicknamed 'the Master' (dictus magister), at the cathedral of Toledo. These included Aristotle's Posterior Analytics, Physics, On Generation and Corruption and Meteorology I-III (see Aristotle), as well as four short tracts on natural science by Alexander of Aphrodisias. To these originally Greek works, Gerard added four philosophical letters of al-Kindi, a letter on proof by the Ikhwan al-Safa' and al-Farabi's Kitab ihsa' al-'ulum (On the Classification of the Sciences) (see al-Farabi).

Also at this time, the importance of the al-Shifa' (Healing) of Avicenna (Ibn Sina) was brought to the notice of Archbishop John of Toledo by a Jewish scholar called 'Avendauth' (perhaps the same as Abraham Ibn Daud, the author of al-'Aqida al-rafi'a (The Exalted Faith)). Portions of the text, including those on universals, physics (in part), the soul and metaphysics, were translated by Avendauth, Dominicus Gundissalinus (an archdeacon in the cathedral, fl. 1161-81) and a certain 'magister John of Spain'. Members of this team also translated Algazel's Maqasid al-falasifa (The Aims of the Philosophers) (the first part of a two-part work, the second part being Tahafut al-falasifa (Incoherence of the Philosophers)) (see al-Ghazali); the Mekor Hayyim (Fountain of Life) of the Jewish philosopher Ibn Gabirol, translated into Latin as Fons vitae; and the Liber de causis, a cento of propositions from the Elements of Theology of Proclus, assembled in Arabic (see Liber de causis). Unattributed are translations of On the Rise of the Sciences (said in the Latin version to be by al-Farabi), and a compendium of sixteen questions on Aristotle's On the Heavens made by Hunayn ibn Ishaq and added to the selections from the al-Shifa' in the Latin tradition (Collectiones expositionum ab antiquis grecis in libro Aristotelis De mundo qui dicitur liber caeli et mundi).

Many of these works have a distinctly Neoplatonic tone, which is reflected in the original works of Gundissalinus and the anonymous author of the Liber de causis primis et secundis et... qui consequitur eas (Book of the First and Second Causes and... Which Follows Them), who joins Avicenna to the radically Neoplatonic John Scottus Eriugena. Some of these works were being read in the late twelfth century at Oxford University, amongst whose scholars was, in all probability, the translator Alfred of Shareshill (responsible for the translation from Arabic of Nicholas of Damascus' De plantis and the sections from al-Shifa' on mineralogy, on inundations and, perhaps, on botany) whose commentaries influenced the style of philosophical teaching in the embryonic university (see Translators §3).

2. Thirteenth-century translations

The translation of al-Shifa' continued in the thirteenth century: Aristotle's Zoology was translated by Michael Scot, and the Physics (starting from the point where the earlier translation left off), On the Heavens, On Generation and Corruption, On Actions and Passions, Meteorology and perhaps the Botany were translated by Juan Gonsalvez de Burgos and a Jew called Salomon for Gonsalvez García de Gudiel, Bishop of Burgos (1275-80), apparently from a single manuscript deposited in Toledo cathedral.

However, with the exception of the Zoology, these translations were hardly read. Rather, a new climate in which Aristotle's texts were on the one hand being accepted as the foundation for the arts curricula in the newly-founded universities, but on the other hand appeared to present some views dangerous to Christianity, made the interpretative works of Averroes (see Ibn Rushd) particularly relevant (see Aristotelianism, medieval). Many of the latter's commentaries on Aristotle's texts were translated. Michael Scot (d. before 1236), who moved from Toledo to the court of Frederick II in Sicily, translated Averroes' 'large commentaries' on the On the Heavens and probably those on the On the Soul, Physics and Metaphysics and others as well. Theodore of Antioch, the court philosopher, translated Averroes' Proemium to the Physics, and William of Luna, perhaps another member of Frederick II's circle, translated the 'middle commentaries' on the Isagog of Porphyry, and on Aristotle's Categories and De interpretatione.

Hermann the German (see Translators §3) translated the 'middle commentaries' on the Rhetoric (partial, together with excerpts on rhetoric from al-Shifa' and by al-Farabi), Poetics (in 1256) and Nicomachean Ethics (in 1240) in Toledo, but may also have been patronized by Frederick II's son Manfred, if he is the same as the 'translator Manfredi' mentioned by Roger Bacon (Opus tertium, cap. 25). Hermann's translation of Averroes' 'middle commentary' on the Poetics was the only form in which Aristotle's Poetics was known to Latin readers in the Middle Ages: William of Moerbeke made a Greek-Latin translation in 1278, but this was lost until the 1930s. The letter of Manfred to the philosophers of Paris, accompanying translations of 'Aristotle and other philosophers from Greek and Arabic', indicates one route by which these texts may have been transmitted, although the 'large commentaries' on On the Soul, Physics and Metaphysics were already known in Paris and Oxford in the late 1220s.

The fact that only authors whose writings have been translated from Arabic are included amongst the philosophers whose errors are listed by Giles of Rome - who mentions Aristotle, Averroes, Avicenna, Algazel, al-Kindi and Maimonides - gives some idea of the extent of the penetration of these texts. The margins of manuscripts of Aristotle's works on natural science from Oxford University in the same period, which are crammed with citations from Averroes' commentaries, also testify to this penetration.

The Arabic contribution to the Latin rationalist-fideist controversy began with the translation of Algazel's introduction to his double volume Maqasid al-falasifa and Tahafut al-falasifa by Gundissalinus' circle (see al-Ghazali). This introduction only survives in one manuscript, but was known to Roger Bacon. Maimonides' Dalalat al-ha'irin (Guide to the Perplexed), originally written in Arabic (see Maimonides), which was read by and was most likely translated in the circle of Frederick II, provided material for the debate; both Algazel's work and Averroes' Tahafut al-tahafut (Incoherence of the Incoherence), along with other texts, were used in the Arabic original by the Franciscan Ramón Llull, and in the polemical work Pugio fidei (The Dagger of Faith), written in 1278 by the Dominican Ramón Martí. The doctrines of the Mu'tazila and Ash'ariyya, and especially the dialectical theologians (mutakallimun) were reported in the Dalahat al-ha'irin and the Tahafut al-tahafut, and Averroes' 'large commentary' on the Physics included the ideas of Ibn Bajja as well as of the Greek philosophers Themistius, Alexander of Aphrodisias and John Philoponus.

If the edict promoted by Llull at the Church Council of Vienne in 1312, calling for chairs in Arabic to be set up in four universities and the Papal curia, had been put into effect, Arabic studies in Europe might have had a different history. As it is, the teaching of Arabic in the Dominican mission schools and the use of newly-translated Arabic philosophical works by Dominican preachers against the Cathar heresy may have contributed to the interest in Arabic authorities shown by the Dominican masters, Albert Magnus (see Albert the Great) and Thomas Aquinas.

3. The contribution of Jewish scholars

Jewish scholars had often acted as interpreters of the Arabic texts for Christian translators or patrons. This practice continued in the fourteenth century when Calonymus ben Calonymus ben Meir translated Averroes' Tahafut al-tahafut from Arabic for Robert of Anjou, King of Naples. However, from the late thirteenth century onwards, most of the Latin translations of Arabic authors were made from Hebrew versions. When Jewish scholars in the West started to use Hebrew rather than Arabic as the language of learning, they began to translate a large number of Arabic philosophical texts into Hebrew. At least thirty-eight of Averroes' commentaries were translated into Hebrew; the earliest of these is the 'middle commentary' on De interpretatione, translated at the court of Frederick II by Jacob Anatoli at the same time as William of Luna translated it into Latin. Thereafter in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries several scholars in the south of France, Catalonia and Italy, including Moses ibn Tibbon, Shem Tov Ibn Falaquera, Levi ben Gerson (see Gersonides) and Moses of Narbonne translated Averroes' commentaries and other works, and wrote 'super-commentaries' on them. It was to these Hebrew versions that humanist scholars turned in the late fifteenth century, just at the time when the works of Aristotle, Avicenna and Averroes were being set in print (see Humanism, renaissance).

The new translations, patronized especially by Pico della Mirandola, Cardinal Domenico Grimani and Pope Leo X, were made by Elias del Medigo ('middle commentary' on Meteorology I-II, Quaestiones on Prior Analytics, the preface to Book Lambda of the Metaphysics, the 'middle commentary' on Metaphysics I-VII and the 'middle commentary' on Plato's Republic) (see Delmedigo, E.); by Paulus Israelita ('middle commentary' on On the Heavens); Abram de Balmes (epitomes of the Organon, 'middle commentaries' on Topics, Sophistical Refutations, Rhetoric and Poetics, the 'large commentary' on the Posterior Analytics and the Epistola expeditionis of Avempace (see Ibn Bajja)); Johannes Burana (epitome and 'middle commentary' on Prior Analytics, 'middle' and 'large commentary' on Posterior Analytics); Vitalis Nissus (epitome on On Generation and Corruption) and above all, Jacob Mantinus. This hard-working Jewish doctor from Tortosa had apparently been charged by Girolamo Bagolino, Romolo Fabi and Marco degli Oddi, the ambitious editors of Aristotle's complete works with Averroes' commentaries (finally published by Tommaso Giunta in Venice in 1550-2), with the complete overhaul of the translations of Averroes' commentaries. However, having made ten new translations of Averroes' texts (including another translation of the 'middle commentary' on Plato's Republic) and of Levi ben Gerson's 'super-commentary' on the Organon, he died in 1549 on a journey to Damascus. From the late 1530s onwards, the old translations were replaced or at least printed side by side with the new, as can be seen especially in the Giunta printing of 1550-2 and the subsequent Aristotle - Averroes editions of 1562 and 1573-6.

4. The beginnings of Arabic scholarship

The early sixteenth century also saw the beginning of a revival of the study of Arabic texts directly and, of providing the means to do this. A grammar and dictionary of Granadan Arabic by Pedro Alcalà was published in 1505. The kidnapped Arab scholar who took the name Leo Africanus, from Pope Leo X, provided biographies of Arabic authors after 1518. An Arabic manuscript of the so-called Theology of Aristotle (in reality parts of Plotinus' Enneads 4-6) (see Plotinus) was found in Damascus and, in the translation by Moses Arovas and Pier Nicolas Castellani, was published in Rome in 1519. Also in Damascus, Andrew Alpago revised the medieval translation of Avicenna's medical Canon, introduced two new works on the soul by Avicenna and described Sufi rituals from first-hand experience. In 1584, an Arabic press was set up in Rome by Giovan Battista Raimondi under the aegis of the Medici. Arabic studies became established through the efforts of Guillaume Postel, who took the first European chair in Arabic in Paris in 1535, and wrote a grammar, Franciscus Raphelengius, the author of the first dictionary of classical Arabic, Thomas Erpenius, the first to hold a chair in Arabic in Leiden in 1613 and the author of what became the standard grammar of Arabic, Jacob Golius and Edward Pococke. Pococke's Specimen historiae Arabum (including sketches of the ideas of a wide range of Islamic philosophers) and translation of Ibn Tufayl's philosophical novel, Hayy ibn Yaqzan (to which his son, of the same name, added an edition of the Arabic text), are indicative of the new, academic study of Arabic philosophy which was to flourish in European universities and which has culminated in the multi-volume publications of the Egyptian Academy's edition of the Arabic Avicenna, Simone Van Riet's Avicenna Latinus and the Corpus Averroicum. But at the same time, these works mark the end of a period in which Arabic authors were regarded as important for assimilating the knowledge which made humanity wise.

See also: Aristotelianism, medieval; Aristotelianism, renaissance; Averroism; Averroism, Jewish; al-Farabi; Gerard of Cremona; al-Ghazali; Greek philosophy: impact on Islamic philosophy; Ibn Rushd; Ibn Sina; Liber de causis; Translators

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

References and further reading

Bertola, E. (1962) 'Le traduzioni delle opere filosofiche arabo-giudache nei secoli XII e XIII' (The Translations of Arabic-Jewish Philosophical Works in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries), in Studi di filosofia e di storia della filosofia in onore di Francesco Olgiati, Milan: Società editrice vita e pensiero. (A useful list of works translated and their manuscripts or printed editions.)

Butterworth, C.E. and Kessel, B.A. (1994) The Introduction of Arabic Philosophy into Europe, Leiden: Brill. (Articles deal respectively with Spain (before 1200), Paris in the thirteenth century, British schools in the Middle Ages, Oxford in the seventeenth century, Louvain from the sixteenth century to the present day, Budapest, Cracow and Kiev, and with the reception of Sufism in the West.)

Callus, D.A. (1943) 'Introduction of Aristotelian Learning to Oxford', Proceedings of the British Academy 29: 229-81. (Shows the influence of Avicenna and Averroes on the doctrine and format of Latin philosophical texts.)

Cranz, F.E. (1976) 'Editions of the Latin Aristotle Accompanied by the Commentaries of Averroes', in E.P. Mahoney (ed.) Philosophy and Humanism: Renaissance Essays in Honor of Paul Oskar Kristeller, Leiden: Brill, 116-28. (Explores the motives for making new translations of Averroes in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the publication of the Aristotle - Averroes editions of 1550-2, 1562 and 1573-6.)

D'Alverny, M-T. (1993) Avicenne en Occident (Avicenna in the West), Paris: Vrin. (Articles concerning both the medieval and the Renaissance translations of Avicenna.)

Halkin, A. (1971) 'Translation and Translators (Medieval)', Encyclopedia Judaica 15: 1318-29. (Summarizes in English the monumental research of M. Steinschneider.)

Hamesse, J. and Fattori, M. (eds) (1990) Rencontres de cultures dans la philosophie médiévale: traductions et traducteurs de l'antiquité tardive au XIVe siècle (Meetings of Cultures in Medieval Philosophy: Translations and Translators from Late Antiquity to the Fourteenth Century), Louvain: Brepols. (See especially the articles by A.L. Ivry on 'Philosophical Translations from the Arabic in Hebrew during the Middle Ages', and H. Daiber, 'Lateinische Übersetzungen arabischer Texte zur Philosophie und ihre Bedeutung für die Scholastik des Mittelalters', the latter of which includes a comprehensive bibliography.)

Jolivet, J. (1988) 'The Arabic Inheritance', in P. Dronke (ed.) A History of Twelfth-Century Western Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 113-47. (Expertly covers the period discussed in §1 above.)

L'Averroismo in Italia (Averroism in Italy) (1979), Atti dei convegni Lincei 40, Rome: Accademia nazionale dei Lincei. (Includes discussions on the court of Frederick II by R. Manselli, the introduction of Averroes into the West by F. Van Steenberghen and Averroism in the Renaissance by C.B. Schmitt.)

Leaman, O. (1996) 'Jewish Averroism', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, ch. 46, 769-80. (An account of the influence of Ibn Rushd on Jewish philosophy in the Middle Ages.)

Marenbon, J. (1996) 'Medieval Christian and Jewish Europe', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, ch. 58, 1001-12. (Short survey of the transmission and interpretation of Islamic philosophy in medieval Europe.)

Russell, G.A. (1994) The 'Arabick' Interest of the Natural Philosophers in Seventeenth-Century England, Leiden: Brill. (On the beginnings of academic research into Arabic learning.)

Stroumsa, G.G. (1992) 'Anti-Cathar Polemics and the Liber de duobus principiis', in B. Lewis and F. Niewöhner (eds) Religionsgespräche im Mittelalter, Wolfenbütteler Mittelalter-Studien 4, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 169-83. (Discusses the use of new translations from Arabic and Hebrew in combatting the Cathar heresy.)

Wilson, C. (1996) 'Modern Western Philosophy', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, ch. 59, 1013-29. (Intriguing account of the ways in which modern Western philosophy came into contact with Islamic philosophy, and the impact which this contact may have had.)

Wolfson, H.A. (1961) 'The Twice-Revealed Averroes', Speculum 36: 373-92. (A readable introduction to the thirteenth century Arabic-Latin and fifteenth/sixteenth-century Hebrew-Latin translations of the commentaries of Averroes, and the main doctrinal debates that they fuelled.)

Zonta, M. (1996) La filosofica antica nel medioevo ebraico (Ancient Philosophy in the Hebrew Middle Ages), Brescia: Paideia. (An authoritative survey of all the forms in which ancient philosophy was transmitted in the Hebrew language.)

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