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The Hidden Heroes of Innovation

Part I: The Rise of Arabic

In the name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate, the One who bestows knowledge upon His creatures, I begin this narrative with a heart brimming with gratitude for the Almighty’s bounties. It is with utmost reverence that I express my thanks to Him for granting me the ability to pursue knowledge, the greatest of all treasures that a human being can seek.

My soul rejoices in the remembrance of the blessed prophet of Allah, upon whom be peace and blessings. The prophet, whose life and teachings serve as a beacon of light for all of humanity, showed us the path of righteousness and piety. He demonstrated to us the importance of seeking knowledge and using it to benefit ourselves and others.

Through the grace of Allah, the righteous followers of the prophet have been steadfast in their adherence to his teachings, and have kept his legacy alive through the ages. They have preserved his traditions and upheld his prescribed ways of life, so that his message may continue to guide and enlighten all those who seek the truth.

Indeed, the pursuit of knowledge is a sacred duty incumbent upon every Muslim. It is through knowledge that we come to know Allah, His signs, and His creation. It is through knowledge that we gain insight into the mysteries of the universe, and develop a deeper understanding of our place within it. And it is through knowledge that we are able to contribute to the progress and advancement of humanity and to fulfill our responsibility as stewards of the earth.

May Allah bless us all with the gift of knowledge, and may He guide us on the path of righteousness and piety, so that we may become true servants of His cause. And may His peace and blessings be upon the blessed prophet Muhammad, the seal of the prophets and the beloved of Allah, now and forevermore. Amen.

Article Introduction

Verily, it is a matter of great import to consider the intricate complexities of the Graeco-Arabic translation movement that took place in the halls of learning in Abbasid Baghdad during the 9th to 11th centuries CE. The consequence of these translations was a profound one, for nearly all the philosophical and scientific works that lay within the purview of the translators were transformed into the Arabic tongue, thus ensuring that the Islamic civilization would forever be counted among the inheritors of the Graeco-Roman legacy. The translations did not merely serve as a means of preservation, but were instrumental in transforming the ancient Greek philosophical corpus into versatile tools for the exploration of the natural world, particularly in the field of medicine.

In the year 696 CE, the Umayyad Caliph, ʿAbd al-Mālik, made the momentous decision to standardize his imperial administration with the Arabic language, replacing both Greek in the West and Farsi in the East. This decision had far-reaching political, social, and intellectual implications for the empire, elevating Arabic from an obscure tribal dialect to a universal language of administration, thought, and literature.

With the rise of the Abbasid dynasty in 750 CE and the transfer of the Muslim Empire’s capital to the newly-created city of Baghdad, the Islamic world entered a period of great intellectual and cultural flourishing that would come to be known as the Golden Age. Approximately 80 years after the dynasty’s ascension to power, the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun established the Bayt al-Hikma, or the House of Wisdom, in Baghdad. This institution served as a center of learning where Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike gathered to expand the world’s knowledge through original writing and translation.

One of the most prolific translators of this era was the renowned Hunayn ibn Ishaq, known in the West by the Latinized name Joannitius. Dubbed the “sheikh of the translators,” he was a master of no less than four languages: Greek, Syriac, Farsi, and Arabic. Hunayn’s translations were vast and far-ranging, encompassing works on medicine, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, magic, and even oneiromancy.

Thus, let it be known that the Graeco-Arabic translation movement was a remarkable and epochal event in the history of human knowledge, one that ensured the preservation of the Graeco-Roman legacy and facilitated its transformation into versatile tools for intellectual inquiry.

Bayt al-Hikma

Verily, it is recorded in the annals of history that the translation movement, a marvel of its time, bore witness to the assimilation of knowledge from various civilizations into the Arabic language. This era of enlightenment was characterized by the translation of an extensive corpus of Hellenic literature and secular Greek works into Arabic.

The focal point of this literary feat was the Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom), a beacon of learning and knowledge during the reign of the Abbasids. It was under the reign of the great al-Ma’mun, son of Harun al-Rashid, the founder, that this wondrous institution was expanded both in size and scope, becoming a hub for the study of diverse branches of learning. Within its walls, intellectuals from various backgrounds gathered, including but not limited to scientists, philosophers, scribes, and translators.

It was in this House that the Muslim world gifted humanity with the translated works of great ancient philosophers, scientists, and inventors such as Aristotle and Hippocrates. It is a true testament to the greatness of this era that much of the Greek tradition was saved from being lost to the sands of time. The House was not limited to the Arabic language alone, for Farsi, Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac, Indian, and Latin were also spoken within its walls. From far and wide, Muslims, Christians, and Jews sought knowledge and were welcomed into the House with open arms.

This library, a symbol of the Islamic Golden Age, housed a diverse collection of translated works from Greek, Persian, and Indian civilizations. The House of Wisdom’s focus on knowledge was not limited to philosophy and theology alone, for studies in the most diverse branches of knowledge flourished within its halls. From metaphysics to religious sciences, from algebra to medicine, from physics to biology, from chemistry to trigonometry, and from astronomy to many other disciplines, the House was a hub of intellectual activity with millions of books scattered across its vast libraries.

Moreover, the astronomy observatory, established as part of the House, allowed astronomers to observe the universe and assess the accuracy of the conflicting astronomical texts of the Greeks, Persians, and Indians. Some historians have even claimed that this project represented the first state-sponsored large-scale scientific endeavor, further cementing the legacy of the House of Wisdom and the Islamic Golden Age as a time of great knowledge and progress.

Furthermore, it was through the expeditions of Muslims to China that the art of papermaking was learned and brought to Baghdad, transforming the city into a center for the production and reproduction of books, making them much more accessible to the masses.


It is said that the Caliph al-Ma’mun was a lover of knowledge, so great was his passion that he even preferred scientific texts as the spoils of war. This love was not limited to the Caliph alone, as the entire Abbasid society had come to understand the worth of knowledge and was supported by merchants and military alike. Scholars and translators found it easy to make a living and academic pursuits were considered a marker of high status in society. The Caliph’s love for knowledge was so profound that it is said to have been sparked by a dream in which he was visited by the great philosopher Aristotle and they discussed the meaning of goodness.

The Bayt al-Hikma was much more than just an academic center. Its experts served several functions in Baghdad, serving as engineers and architects on construction projects, as public servants keeping accurate calendars, as medics, and as consultants. Al-Ma’mun himself was deeply involved in the daily life of the House of Wisdom, regularly visiting its scholars, inquiring about their activities, and participating in debates. He organized groups of sages from the Bayt al-Hikma into major research projects to satisfy his own intellectual curiosities, commissioning the mapping of the world, the confirmation of data from the Almagest, and the deduction of the real size of the Earth. The Caliph also promoted Egyptology and participated in excavations at the pyramids of Giza.

Al-Ma’mun was also the first ruler to fund big science, building the first astronomical observatories in Baghdad and monitoring the progress of major research projects involving teams of scholars and scientists. His love for knowledge was evident in his personal involvement in the academic debates of Kalām, an art of philosophical debate that he carried on from his Iranian tutor, Ja’far. During these debates, scholars would discuss their fundamental Islamic beliefs and doctrines in an open, intellectual atmosphere. Al-Ma’mun’s legacy to science is his recognition of the value of knowledge and his commitment to funding research and fostering intellectual pursuits.

Al-Ma’mun, a lover of knowledge, sent expeditions of scholars from the Bayt al-Hikma to collect texts from far-off lands. He also appointed the renowned translator Hunayn ibn Ishaq as the head of the translation work (I will write an entire section on Hunayn shortly). The chief librarian of the Bayt al-Hikma was Sahl ibn Harun, an Iranian poet, and astrologer, while the talented Sabian Thābit ibn Qurra also contributed to the translation of Greek works.

The quality of translations during this era was exceptional, as the new Abbasid scientific tradition placed a high value on incorporating new ideas into the ancient works being translated. As a result, the Bayt al-Hikma became the greatest repository of books in the world and attracted the brightest Arab and Iranian minds known to man. It acquired a reputation as a center of learning, although universities, as they are known today, did not yet exist. Instead, knowledge was transmitted directly from teacher to student in maktabs (aka schools).

In the 11th century, Nizam al-Mulk founded the al-Nizamiyya of Baghdad, one of the first institutions of higher education in Iraq, solidifying the legacy of the Bayt al-Hikma as a hub of intellectual activity.

The Art of Translation

The process of translation was undertaken with the utmost care and precision, with each area of study being overseen by specific individuals or groups of translators, chosen for their expertise in the field. For example, the renowned Abū Jaʿfar ibn Mūsa ibn Shākir and his family were entrusted with the translation of engineering and mathematical works, while ibn Farkhān al-Tabarī and Yaʿqūb al-Kindī were given the task of translating philosophical and celestial movement texts. The esteemed ibn Ishāq al-Harānī, meanwhile, was in charge of translations pertaining to the study of medicine. And as I mentioned in the previous section, Hunayn ibn Ishaq would eventually be given the honors of heading the translations of the majority of Greek medicine works.

The translators, hailing from a rich tapestry of cultural, religious, and ethnic backgrounds, including Iranians, Nestorian Christians, and Muslims, worked together to enrich the inventory of the House of Wisdom and to provide the Abbasid Caliphate with a wealth of educational literature.

Once the process of translation was complete, the process of copying and binding the texts would commence. Skilled scribes were called upon to transcribe the pages with meticulous precision, and once the copies were ready, they would be bound together, adorned with covers, and cataloged for safekeeping in the library. Copies of the translated works were also distributed across the empire, ensuring that the knowledge and wisdom contained therein would reach far and wide. Verily, the story of this magnificent House of wisdom is a story of many successes.

All Good is Fated to End

On the fateful day of February 13th, 1258, the armies of the Mongol conqueror Hulagu descended upon the revered city of the Abbasid caliphs. The invaders wreaked havoc and destruction upon the metropolis, ransacking its libraries and destroying the cultural and intellectual treasures they housed. The House of Wisdom, the most renowned and glorious of these centers, was laid to waste along with all other libraries in Baghdad.

According to the accounts of those who bore witness to the Siege of Baghdad, the multitude of books (said to be in the millions; no less than 2-to-3-million books) from the city’s libraries were so plentiful that they were cast into the Tigris River in such quantities that the river flowed black with the ink from their pages. Some have even claimed that the Mongols used the books themselves to build their barns, in place of clay. An eyewitness to the events stated:

“The river was filled with so many books that one could ride across it on horseback, using the volumes as a bridge.”

However, all was not lost. The renowned scholar Nasir al-Din al-Tusi managed to rescue approximately 400,000 manuscripts, which he took to the city of Maragheh before the siege. Unfortunately, many of the leftover books that remained in Baghdad after the pillaging stopped were torn apart by pillagers, who sought to use their leather covers to make sandals. I’ll write more about al-Tusi’s marvelous contributions to the sciences soon.

Hulagu’s destruction of the libraries of Baghdad dealt a severe blow to the preservation of human intellect and civilization. The books that were housed within the libraries represented the works of distinguished scholars and scientists and were instrumental in spreading knowledge, culture, and wisdom among both Muslims and non-Muslims. With their destruction, the world saw the fall of one of the greatest repositories of human heritage, with a calamitous impact on the Islamic civilization that endured for centuries.

Oh, how glorious were the days of the Islamic Golden Age, where knowledge was highly valued and the pursuit of truth was embraced by all who entered the magnificent halls of the House of Wisdom!

Hunayn ibn Isḥāq

It was in the ninth century that the Arab Nestorian Christian, Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, embarked on a mission that would change the face of scientific discourse in the Islamic world forever. Armed with a deep understanding of the four principal languages of his time: Greek, Syriac, Farsi, and Arabic, and a passion for preserving the legacy of ancient Greek medicine, Ḥunayn set out to translate the works of Galen of Pergamon, the Roman physician whose bibliography of over 500 treatises accounts for nearly a tenth of all surviving ancient Greek literature.

In his quest to bring the treasures of ancient Greek medical knowledge to the Arabic-speaking world, Ḥunayn embarked on an odyssey that would take him to the far corners of the empire, in search of manuscript copies that were not available in the Islamic world. He meticulously compared manuscripts and made every effort to ensure that his translations were accurate and consistent, earning him the title of “Sheikh of the Translators.”

But Ḥunayn’s contribution to the Islamic world went far beyond simply translating the works of Galen. In his quest to bring clarity to the complex terminology of ancient Greek medicine, Ḥunayn made the bold decision to explain, rather than adopt, the Greek terminology in his translations. This approach was pivotal in establishing Arabic as an international language of science, as it allowed for a more consistent and coherent understanding of scientific concepts in the Arabic-speaking world.

While the works of Galen were revered and widely read in the ancient world, the vast majority of these treatises were written in Greek, a language that was not widely understood in the Islamic world. But Ḥunayn was not one to be deterred by such obstacles. He ventured far and wide, traveling to the Byzantine Empire and scouring the libraries of the Islamic world for the most accurate and comprehensive copies of Galen’s works.

And, with a level of care and attention that is seldom seen, Ḥunayn embarked upon the monumental task of translating these works into Arabic and Syriac, for the benefit of the wider medical community. But he did not stop there. Aside from thoroughly explaining each and every terminology, Hunayn made a deliberate decision to translate all the Greek medical terminologies into plain Arabic so that all readers, regardless of their level of education or background, could understand and benefit from the knowledge contained within these treatises.

As a result of Ḥunayn’s tireless efforts, Arabic became an international language of science, one that was capable of conveying complex medical concepts and terminology to the masses. To this day, one can still see the legacy of Ḥunayn’s work, as many of the Greek terms used in modern medical language have been translated into Arabic and continue to be understood by the general public.

Hunayn’s Beginnings

It is recorded in the annals of history that the esteemed Hunayn ibn Ishaq was born in the year 809 CE and passed away in the month of Safar 264 A. H. (877 CE). During his lifetime, he lived in the thriving city of Baghdad and was privileged to reside at the court of ten successive Caliphs: al-Amin, al-Ma’mun, al-Mu’tasim, al-Waathiq, al-Mutawakkel, al-Mustansir, al-Musta’in, al-Mu’tazz, al-Muhtadi, and al-Mu’tamid. Although he faced trials and tribulations during the reign of al-Mutawakkel, including being imprisoned twice, Hunayn persevered and left a lasting legacy in the field of medicine and translation.

Hunayn recounts in his own words that he began his translation career during the reign of al-Ma’mun when he was a mere youth of around seventeen years. He translated Galen’s De Differentiis Febrium for the physician Jabril ibn Bukhtishu, marking the first of many of Galen’s works that he would translate into Syriac. As Hunayn matured in both age and experience, he became increasingly satisfied with the value of his translations, including De Facultatibus Naturalibus and De Constitutione Artis Medicae. He writes that at the time of his translation of De Constitutione Artis Medicae, he was a man of thirty years with a wealth of scientific knowledge, both acquired through his own studies and through the collection of books he had accumulated.

Hunayn’s contributions to the preservation and dissemination of Galen’s works have earned him a place in the pantheon of early Muslim historians and scholars. His dedication to his craft and unwavering resolve in the face of adversity serve as an inspiration to future generations.

Hunayn’s Challenges

It is through the accounts of the esteemed physician, ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, that we are privy to detailed accounts of the life of this revered translator, Hunayn ibn Ishaq.

At the age of forty, Hunayn considered himself to have reached the pinnacle of his translation skills. He had, at this point, provided ample evidence of his mastery through his translation of De Elementis secundum Hippocratem and the revision of several of his earlier works. Nevertheless, his life was not without challenges, for he was imprisoned during the reign of al-Mutawakkel, a calamity that led to the loss of his precious library, which he had collected throughout his travels.

Hunayn’s Risala work recounts the unfortunate events that befell him during his imprisonment. He laments the loss of all the books he had collected over his lifetime, which were confiscated along with his wealth. The cause of his imprisonment remains a mystery, but it is believed that it may have been due to the intrigues of his ignorant Christian friends and relations who, in their greed, kept him captive and deprived him of all he had, including his most beloved necessities: pen and paper.

Despite this setback, Hunayn eventually regained the favor of al-Mutawakkel, through his exceptional medical skills, and was gifted three houses filled with books. Although he does not mention whether these books were the same as he had lost, it is a testament to his unwavering determination and indomitable spirit.

In his travels, Hunayn also encountered several challenges, including his search for a Greek manuscript of Galen’s De Demonstratione. He tells us of his journey through the lands of Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, to Alexandria, in search of the elusive manuscript. It was only in Damascus that he was only able to find half of it.

In his later years, Hunayn’s literary achievements only multiplied, as he worked on several translations, completing the Arabic version of De Foetus Formatione during the caliphate of al-Mu’tazz and translating half of De Constitutione Artis Medicae into Arabic just two months before his death.

It is said that his son, Ishaq, completed the task after Hunayn’s passing in the year 877 CE. Thus, Hunayn ibn Ishaq’s legacy lives on, and he shall forever be remembered as a scholar of unparalleled talent and a translator of exceptional skill. Alongside his son Ishaq and several other translators, Hunayn managed to translate over 129 of Galen’s books alone to Arabic, while Hunayn himself is said to have translated a total of 116 by himself; additionally, aside from Galen’s works, Hunayn had also translated various other ancient authors’ works.

Conclusion of Part I

It is with great reverence that I had the honor to write about the remarkable legacy of the esteemed Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, a true luminary in the realm of knowledge and learning. This prodigious scholar was driven by an unwavering devotion to the pursuit of knowledge and his tireless efforts have left an indelible mark on the annals of history.

In his time, Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq embarked on a mission to bring the works of Galen, one of the greatest minds of antiquity, to the Islamic world. Through his diligent efforts, he not only accomplished this feat but also elevated the status of the Arabic language, establishing it as a formidable tongue of science and a language of great prestige in the world of literature.

In doing so, he played a crucial role in solidifying the Golden Age of Islam as a period of unparalleled intellectual and scientific advancement. By his translations, he demystified the arcane language of medicine, bridging the gap between the specialists and the general public and paving the way for scientific knowledge to reach every corner of society, regardless of status, wealth, or academic attainments.

In conclusion, the legacy of Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq will forever stand as a testament to his unparalleled dedication, scholarship, and passion for the pursuit of knowledge. He will be remembered as a true champion of learning, whose legacy has touched the lives of countless generations.