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The Arab-Islamic Gift: Translating Western Culture OR Thanks for the Roots of Western Culture, Savages, Now Scram.

About twelve different things converged this week to make me excited about thinking about the Arabic and Islamic contribution to Greek translation history.  Obama gave a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast referencing “terrible deeds in the name of Christ” to which critics responded that that wasn’t representative of Christianity and that it ignores how the Crusades were provoked by Muslims, never mind that claims that violence done in the name of Allah is not representative of Islam are roundly dismissed or that it isn’t so obvious that Christianity created liberalism.  Chris Kyle, the hero of American Sniper, regularly refers to the Iraqis he is killing at a sniper’s distance as savages in that film that has spawned a whole new round of people eager to do violence to Muslims.  The standoff between Europe and Greece over debt is currently being negotiated raising questions of what Greece’s relationship to Europe is.  I just wrote the course description for my medieval philosophy course next semester that will take up Christian, Jewish and Islamic commentators of Aristotle. I’ve been re-reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X for a reading group I’m doing on campus for Black History Month with some other faculty and students and I was just yesterday reading the middle chapters about the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X’s efforts to recast the history of race relations and religion. I’ve been teaching about how social context affects perception in my philosophy of race course. Into this constellation of thoughts and events landed an essay by Azzedine Haddour from the 2008 edited collection Translation and the Classic: Identity as Change in the History of Culture.  Haddour’s essay, “Tradition, Translation and Colonization: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement and Deconstructing the Classics,” returned my attention to some themes I was thinking of last summer in terms of the question of ‘ownership’ of the Greeks (which I blogged about here and here).  Haddour argues that the Arabic role in the transmission of Greek texts to us, and through Greek texts, Western culture, is effaced when it is considered merely passive, as a conduit that moves what is “ours” through “them” to get it safely back to” us.”  Not only was it not passive, Haddour argues, but Arabic culture brought us many of the knowledge practices that we today think of as quintessentially “Western” and Christian: the inquisitive spirit and the primacy of the text.  If he’s right, we have Arabic Islam to thank for the tradition of  textual criticism.

This post will highlight the key points of Haddour’s history of translation of Greek texts to suggest that not only the texts but the way that we think about those texts and think about how to read those texts is inherited from the Arabs who passed them down.  In conclusion, Haddour argues that the Western tradition took what Islamic translation projects offered in the form of preservation of the foundational texts of the Western canon and erased that contribution, not only as its contribution as a conduit, but its contribution as what “came to define the very classicism upon which the Europe of the Enlightenment founded modernity” (225).

While we generally recognize that we have Greek texts today because of the Arab ‘hold’ on these texts, we don’t often acknowledge the profound influence Arab culture has had on our practices of mathematics and science.  Writing in 1938, Robert Briffault explains:

What we call science arose in Europe as a result of a new spirit of inquiry, of new methods of investigation, of the method of experiment, observation, measurement, of the development of mathematics in a form unknown to the Greeks.  That spirit and those methods were introduced into the European world by the Arabs. (quoted by Haddour, 205)

So the ancient Greeks borrow science and mathematics from the Babylonians and the Egyptians; it is transmitted to the Arabs by the Greeks, and then finally, it comes to the Europeans, who then claim ownership of these ideas.  This isn’t just true in science,, it’s also true in classics and philosophy.  Haddour quotes Dimitri Gutas:

A century and a half of Graeco-Arabic scholarship has amply documented that from about the middle of the eighth century to the end of the tenth, almost all non-literary and non-historical secular Greek books that were available throughout the Eastern Byzantine Empire and the Near East were translated into Arabic (Gutas 1).

Haddour argues that in rescuing and preserving Greek philosophy, the very project of Graeco-Arabic translation affected those works and continues to affect our reception of them.  He doesn’t mean the way that I often mean that our reception of the text makes it difficult to think the text on its own terms.  What he means is the very fact that I take recourse to that argument can be traced to Arabic translation and textual practices in their treatment of Greek texts.

History of Graeco-Arabic Translation

First, some history.  Haddour sets out to tell this history in order to “deconstruct[…] the foundational idea that the classics are inherited directly from ancient Greek and Latin” (206).  Gutas explains that 7th and 8th century Greek Christians sought to define themselves by moving away from the Hellenism that had characterized the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus and re-aligned themselves with the Abbâsid dynasty, which established Baghdad and fostered Graeco-Arabic translation efforts.  Some things to keep in mind about Baghdad and the Abbâsid dynasty.  First, there were at least four different ethnic and religious language groups: Jewish and Christian Aramaic speakers, urban dwelling Persian speakers, Christian Arabs and Muslim Arabs.  The Abbâsid caliphate used translation as an ideology to congeal its ’emergent empire’ as Haddour calls it (208).  But once the empire was well-established, they used arguments based on translation as a tool for challenging opponents of Islam creating an “imperative to subject the scriptures to the requirement of discursive reason” (208).  Greek texts were then translated to “conform to the standards of Islam as a Book religion” (209).  Haddour thus suggests that Aristotle was “rescued from obscurity” because he was able to be used in the service of defending Islam.  Moreover, Aristotle was employed by the Arab translators in order to attack doctrines of Christianity, namely the doctrine of the trinity.  Haddour writes:

It is within this context that we must interpret Khatibi’s contention that Islam is a theology of translation, that Arabic philosophy is essentially Greek, that the Arabs reinvented Aristotle by effacing his Greek paganism and by introducing monotheism, and that through translation they reinforced a ‘metaphysics of the Text’ which would privilege the written: a metaphysics enshrined in the scriptural (209).

Haddour argues that the drive to translation set up the Muslim empire as a culture of exchange, not only of ideas but of commodities, which furthered the processes of the dissemination of knowledge between cultures.  Situated between Europe, Africa and Asia, the Muslim world was the center of cultural traffic that did not only passively pass through but was formed and reformed in its passage.  As Haddour notes, “the hybrid nature of this culture points to one fact: imperial powers were always already decentered,” but this did not mean that the Abbâsid dynasty contributed to this decentering, a view which assumes that there was a prior ‘centered’ culture that became fragmented.  Instead, Haddour argues, “Islamic culture is imbricated in the very foundation of the episteme which comes to define the Western.”  Whoa.

Tradition, Translation, Colonization

Haddour points to the way that tradition and translation share a common root: tradition means “to hand over or deliver,” while translation means “to bear across,” which makes it synonymous with the Greek “metaphor.”  Addressing the colonialist past of translation, which has long been expropriative, and Orientalism, which was the West’s effort to treat the East as a object of knowledge for the West, Haddour points to the complexities of Graeco-Arabic translation history.  Orientalism, he argues, is a byproduct of two translation histories — the one of the Abbâsid dynasty which translated Greek texts and disseminated them across the empire, and the other, the West’s translation project of translating Arabic texts into Latin (215).  Haddour calls the first a “radical Orientalism” that is supplanted by the “Orientalism” of the latter project, the one we know from the work of Edward Said.  The latter project can be understood as a silencing project that silences the original text, but if so, did the same thing also happen to Aristotle’s text in the treatment of the Arabs, and if so, that would suggest that the Aristotelian texts that we have cannot be separated from their Arabic cultural influences.

Haddour argues that the Islam that wishes to isolate itself from the world is at odds with another Islam, which he says, quoting Goodman, is:

tolerant, pluralistic, cosmopolitan without triumphalism and spiritual without represssion.  It too is an authentic expression of Islamic ideals, and a worthier expression of the compassion and generosity that flow through the Islamic texts and traditions, as they do through the texts and traditions of the sister religions of Judaism and Christianity…over the centuries its spirit has inspired marvels of art and literature, philosophy and law.  It has been a leaven to institutions that have allowed and encouraged human beings and their communities to flourish.  This other Islam is not purist and xenophobic.  Like any civilizational phenomenon, it has been nourished in part by practices and ideas that sprang up elsewhere and that took on new and creative forms in their interactions with the ancient and familiar (Goodman, 7).

Haddour argues that Islam became “mummified” as a result of European colonization, which froze the agency of Islamic culture and thus replaced this Islam described above with another, which unable to “translate other cultures” from its position as the colonized, fell back on a traditional archaic culture where fundamentalism arose out of religious formalism (219). Thus while Islam produces the inquisitive and exploratory culture that becomes foundational for Europe, it suffers as a consequence when Europe suffocates itself in its treatment of Islamic culture by cutting off the oxygen that allowed the culture that animated Europe to breathe.

In the last section of this essay, Haddour turns to the work of Abdelkebir Khatibi who argues that both Islam and Western culture have become what they are by cutting themselves off from their roots.  Islam, Khatibi argues is rooted in Greek culture, and becomes fundamentalist when it loses its ability to carry across, to translate, between Arabic and Greek civilization.  Western civilization is rooted in the Islamic tradition of inquiry and a commitment to texts, but it erases that origin history, and then claims supremacy over what has become of the Islamic tradition on the very grounds it inherited from Islam.

So Haddour argues in conclusion:

The Graeco-Arabic translation movement represented an epochal stage in the history of the Humanities and in the advancement of knowledge.  Indeed, as Gutas argues, it deserves the same recognition as that given to “Pericles’ Athens, the Italian Renaissance, or the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and it deserves so to be recognized and embedded in our historical consciousness” (225).

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