From Baghdad to Barcelona: The Anxiety of Influence in the Transmission of the Greek and Arabic Sciences


Drawing on Harold Bloom’s model of poetic influence and supersession in his famous book, “The Anxiety of Influence,” and considering several historical cases of cross-cultural reception of the natural sciences from the Middle Ages that involved translation, this paper sketches a dynamic for understanding how one culture receives the intellectual riches of another. It argues further that the relative or perceived power relationship of the translator to the source culture can significantly affect the quality and usefulness of the translations. For example, a translator within a victorious culture, with an imperial language, tends to handle the source materials that he acquired from a vanquished culture with greater confidence than a translator in a self-perceived position of inferiority, who may be trying to imitate, catch up, or is defensively preserving a heritage that he fears will be lost. The former is exemplified by the 9th-century translations from Greek into Arabic that took place in Baghdad, and the latter by the earliest phase of the translations from Arabic into Latin that took place in Europe, 12th/13th centuries. Lastly, “anxieties of influence” are adduced as a partial explanation for the systematic attempts to purge Greek thought from Islamic civilization associated with al-Ghazali et al., and to erase Arabic thinkers from the intellectual genealogy of the West, beginning in the Renaissance.

Figure 1. Article Image Banner


Note of Editor: “From Baghdad to Barcelona: The Anxiety of Influence in the Transmission of the Greek and Arabic Sciences”[1] article was presented in the 93rd Annual Medieval Academy of America Meeting, held on 3rd March 2018 in Atlanta (GA), USA. We are grateful to the author for permitting publishing this article on the Muslim Heritage website.



500 years ago, in an academic setting such as this, we would be discussing the works of Avicenna, Averroes, Algorismi, Alhazen, alongside those of Plato, Aristotle, Galen and Euclid. Every educated person in the West knew who these Muslim thinkers were and that they had contributed much to the West. Nowadays, few Westerners have heard of them. What happened? In brief, their ideas became part of the genealogy of Western knowledge, and then they passed into oblivion, disavowed by some Western thinkers, and forgotten by others. Why do we in the West not celebrate the Arabic/Islamic part of our heritage? I argue here that the historical process of translation and appropriation of the intellectual legacy of another culture involves power relationships that affect how the recipient culture receives and remembers the legacy of the received culture.

Figure 2. Painting depicting Muslim scholars, Syed Sadequain Ahmed Naqvi (1930-1987) (Source)

In the case just mentioned, western Europeans at first encountered Arabic thinkers with awe, from the position of a less advanced culture, eager to learn what they could from them. Gradually, however, Western thinkers saw themselves as heirs equally of Greek and Islamic thinkers, and eventually as the rivals of the Arabs as heirs of the classical past. By the time of the Renaissance, there were two strands of thinkers in the West. One group continued to seek valuable insights from the Arabic intellectual tradition, viewing the classical tradition as a continuity from Greco-Roman, to Arabic, to Byzantine, and lastly, to Latin Europe, with themselves as the beneficiaries of this rich tradition. This group included Guillaume Postel and others. The other group, whom we know as the Humanists, sought a more direct route to the Greco-Roman heritage, and bypassed the Arabs and Byzantines, whom they labeled as corruptors of the pure classical heritage. This group included: Niccolò Leoniceno, Giovanni Manardo, and Leonhart Fuchs. The latter strand won out in the West, which is why I, for example, had to take a special course on medieval philosophy before I even heard about the rich intellectual debt of the West to Islamic civilization. Here I consider three representative cases—more are discussed in the article version of this talk. They are: 1) The Graeco-Arabic translations of the High Abbasid period, 2) The Arabo-Latin translations of the post-Carolingian period, and 3) the Byzantine reception of Arabic authors after the devastating Islamic conquests, during the Macedonian Renaissance of the 9th-10th Centuries.

The Emergence of Arabic as an Imperial Language

Arabic began as a tribal dialect of Western Arabia, but with the rise of Islam and the conquests in the 7th Century, it became the language of the Islamic empire, from western India to Spain. The Persian Empire was completely conquered, and the Byzantine Empire was severely reduced in size and power. Under the early Umayyads, Greek and Pahlavi continued to be used in administrating those areas that formerly belonged to those two empires. However, Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (r. 685-705), in order to centralize his power, Arabized everything, and standardized coinage, weights and measures. Arabic gradually became what Latin would become in the West: the language of intellectual, religious, and legal discourse for peoples whose mother languages were something else throughout Islamdom. Thus, Arabic was promoted at the expense of Greek, Persian, and Syriac, the languages of the conquered peoples, who had much older intellectual traditions.

Figure 3. Arabic letters transformed into a high art culture, traditional calligraphy (Source)

As a consequence of the Abbasid transfer of power from Damascus to Baghdad (750 CE) and the establishment of the new regime, the Arab conquerors realized that their subject peoples had intellectual legacies with much to offer to the new Empire. Arithmetic for accounts, geometry for land surveys, astronomy for timekeeping and astrology; philosophy was useful for the development of theology and religious law, and it along with rhetoric were useful for debating with Christians and Jews. All this needed to be translated into Arabic. As George Saliba has argued, beginning in late Umayyad times, some of the early translators came from families who had previously served in the Byzantine or Sassanian administrations, but who had been displaced by court-appointed men who knew only Arabic. These men found careers in translating, and laid the foundation of the epoch-defining Greco-Arabic Translation Movement of 9th and 10th C. Baghdad.

Figure 4. The alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan, from a 15th century European portrait of Geber, Codici Ashburnhamiani 1166 (Source)

Arabic was now the language of the Islamic Empire under Abbasid rule, its capital, Baghdad, the greatest city in the world. Ancient thought was imperialized, i.e. to appropriated, naturalized within the Islamic imperial and religious cosmology, and brought into subjection. The Abbasids considered themselves victors in a multifaceted rivalry with Byzantium, which included a contest over the legacy of the Hellenistic world.[2] The Abbasids claimed a translatio studii et imperii from Constantinople to Baghdad. The swiftness with which Muslim armies had conquered most of the Byzantine Empire, and had laid siege to Constantinople twice within the first century of Islam (although unsuccessfully) was evidence of God’s favor toward Islam. The Byzantines were culturally degenerate, for which Christianity was to blame. The Iconoclastic conflicts, which gripped Byzantium on and off for over a century, and resulted in the ultimate victory of the pro-icon faction (Iconodoules), were, in Muslim eyes, divine punishment on the infidel Christians for their idolatry, one of the worst sins, according to Islam. So, although the Byzantines spoke a form of Greek, they had lost both the capacity for and the rightful heirship to the ancient Greek intellectual legacy.

However, the Arabic translations were not a simple transfer of Greek thought into an Arabic context. In the case of philosophy, all of the ancient schools were dead—Stoicism, Epicureanism, Peripateticism, Platonism—their chains of transmission from master to student were broken in Late Antiquity, as Dimitri Gutas and Pierre Hadot have discussed. There was a disorganized mass of writings, but no living guide to sort it all out and show both what was most important as well as the proper order to follow in mastering philosophy.[3] The translations were done a work at a time—a gradual appropriation and assimilation—without a broad overview of the doctrines of any school, at least at first, nor of the Greek intellectual legacy in general.

Figure 5. Socrates and his Students, illustration from ‘Kitab Mukhtar al-Hikam wa-Mahasin al-Kilam’ by Al-Mubashir, Turkish School, (13th c) Photo by Bridgeman (Source)


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