The Project

H2020, MSCA-IF-2017 GA 797655
Starting date: September 1, 2018
Ending date: August 31, 2021

EU Contribution: € 247.761,00


Sapienza Università di Roma (Prof. G. Lettieri)
American University of Beirut (Prof. Bilal Orfali)

Faculté des Sciences Humaines et Sociales de Tunis (Prof. H. Amamou)

In recent decades, many studies have been devoted to the fascinating topic of the Fortleben der Antike in the Arab culture: it is enough to mention, among other things, the great book of Franz Rosenthal on the classical heritage in the Islām, the study of Abdurrahman Badawi on the transmission of Greek philosophy to the Arab world and the fundamental works of Gerhard Endress, Dimitri Gutas, Roshdi Rashed, Gotthard Strohmeier and Cristina D’Ancona.[1] Nevertheless, all these important studies concern almost exclusively philosophy. On the contrary, Franz Rosenthal, in his entry on the Greeks in the Encyclopedia of Islam, pointed out quite rightly that Graeco-Arab relationships are truly at the heart of the Islamic studies today; however, he suggests that “il faut étudier de façon approfondie la signification de l’héritage de la Grèce antique pour chacun des agents, comme pour l’ensemble formé par ceux-ci, de la vie intellectuelle musulmane”.[2]

As a matter of fact, the Arab historiography is the crucial issue of the transmission of the Graeco-Roman knowledge to the medieval Islamic world. Indeed, scholars have questioned several times about the reasons for the apparent Islamic lack of interest towards the western historical works, and formulated on this problem several assumptions. For example, according to Franz Rosenthal, Greek and Roman culture and literature, in consequence of polytheism, would have been suspect in the eyes of the Muslim theologians and that would have limited its diffusion and translation. We have evidence in the fact that the Arabic scientific texts did not rise such objections. According to Bernard Lewis, this should be attributed to the absolute lack of intellectual curiosity among the “Muslim men”, because of his strong conviction about “finality, completeness, and essential self-sufficiency of his civilisation”.[3] Recently, Leonardo Capezzone has proposed – in a much more convincing way – to connect the phenomenon of the lack of Arabic translations of Greek-Roman historiographical works with the absence of the history from the Greek-Syrian higher education curriculum. Due to their formation, the intellectuals, mostly Christians, who were engaged in the translation work in Arabic, chose and translated in Arabic only what they considered relevant to their models of high culture. Greek historiography, as well as the tragedy genre, was thus ideally cut out.[4]

Nevertheless, the riddle of the missing translations can also have another solution, which can be integrated with Capezzone’s theory, calling into question the concept of translation in Arabic culture.

In his Greek Thought, Arabic Culture, Dimitri Gutas has clarified that, in the vision of the great Arab translators of the first Abbasid age, the main quality of the text which has to be translated is not the form that it has (i.e. the specific concatenation of words) and that has been given to it by its author, but rather its contents and the use for which it has been consulted. The Arabic scholars were not so interested in texts as such, but in their fundamental core, especially – at least in some cases – in the practical values which could be obtained from them. Under these circumstances, what at first glance may appears as an enigma turns into a quite different light if we compare the Arabic texts with the Greek and Roma sources. If one checks the Greek and Roman sections of any Islamic universal chronicle, one will probably find in them only what the Muslim audience believed to be helpful for the knowledge of the history of non-Arab ancient civilizations. These Arabic sources are heterogeneous historiographical materials – in some cases immediately recognizable and attributed with certainty to specific Latin sources (such as the Alexander romance, Malala’s and Eusebius’ Chronicles, etc.), mostly belonging to the wide field of the Byzantine and Syriac Kleinchroniken and Kaiserchroniken (often simple lists of Kings and emperors from the Biblical times to the Byzantine period). The Arabic translations have replaced the original texts and have been transmitted as the real “interpretative translations” in the sense stated by Gutas, that is, with no interest in philological accuracy and faithfulness to the original, but with a strong predisposition to select and summarize the data considered as useful in the view of the translators. The lack of attention on the original text (and on its original background) and of any explicit information about the source is partially due to the Arabic disinterest on the authorship, but it is also a common mistake that reveals the mechanisms of the ancient and medieval historiography.

While the Arabic translations of the Greek philosophical and scientific texts show a major interest in the applied and theoretical sciences, at the same time, a great number of historical summaries taken from the Greek and Syriac sources shows how this genre has been employed in the service of the Islamic historiography. These sources have been embodied into the Arabic texts becoming part of them. This technique of transmission partially explains the silence about the authorship, as it would have been redundant to note the existence of autonomous translations of the historical texts. As a result, the translation and the synthesis activities have involved only the Greek and Syriac works which were easily accessible and, above all, in line with the Islamic vision of the history. When Bernard Lewis complains that Muslims had no interest in the history of the Greek world narrated by Herodotus or Thucydides, it seems possible to reply that even the Byzantines, the legitimate heirs of the Greeks, had no interest in these stories: it is very difficult to integrate the history of the polis with the Islamo-Christian perspective.

However, two exceptional cases deserve special attention: the chapters devoted to the Greeks and Romans from the great Arab historian Ibn Ḫaldūn (d. 1406 CE), and the Arabic translation of Historiae adversus paganos by Orosius (Kitāb Hurūšiyūš). The Kitāb al-‘Ibar of Ibn Ḫaldūn is the first truly polyphonic Arab history, because all cultural and religious traditions are systematically represented in it. As an example, Ibn Ḫaldūn does not present only the biblical story of the Jewish people, for which he uses Islamic and Christian sources, but he intends also to provide a listing of the post-biblical history from the destruction of the first Temple until the second Temple. To this end, the author uses the Arabic translation of the Sefer Yosippon by Joseph ben Gorion, one of the most famous Jewish medieval historical works, and he is the only Arab author who embodies a large portion of that text within his own historical work.

Something like that happens in regard with the Latin historiography, when Ibn Ḫaldūn inserts some large sections of the Arabic translation of the Historiae adversus paganos by Orosius in his Kitāb al-‘Ibar. In my volume Storie arabe di Greci e di Romani, (http://www.edizioniplus.it/italiano/AspFiles/libro.asp?codlibro=559), published in 2009, I tried to fill a gap in the field of studies on the forms of preservation of the classical tradition in Islam: this book focuses on the Greek and Roman history as it has been understood in the medieval Islamic historiography between the 8th and 15th centuries CE, that is, since the first Arab historical works preserved up to the most famous Muslim universal chronicle, the Kitāb al-‘Ibar by Walī al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Raḥmān Ibn Ḫaldūn.

Furthermore, in 2016, thanks to the generous support of Peretti Foundation, I have provided a full translation and an historical commentary of the Graeco-Roman chapters of Ibn Ḫaldūn’s work.

Therefore, the project I am presenting here is part of a broader work I have been conducting for many years on the ancient and medieval historiography, the historical-religious comparison, the cultural memory and the question of the survival and transmission of the ancient tradition.

The core of this project is the complete English translation with an historical commentary of the already mentioned Kitāb Hurūšiyūš. The sole manuscript, discovered in the 1930s by Giorgio Levi Della Vida, finds itself in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University in New York and was recently edited by Mayte Penelas, with an extensive introduction, index and bibliography, but without any translation and historical commentary. The Kitāb Hurūšiyūš is a work of extraordinary importance, which left a deep mark on Western Islamic historiography, coming to constitute for many Arab intellectuals a unique and fundamental access door to the Graeco-Roman world.

This project fits very well in the field of the studies on cultural memory and cultural transfers: in fact, the Islamic account about Greek, Roman and byzantine history, represent one of the tools of the “construction of memory” and the self-representation of the Muslim community. It draws by contrast to identity lent to the peoples that preceded it in the process of translatio of the universal power. All this highlights the Muslim view of the ancient history as the fundamental step of God’s providential plan, as well as the different roles assigned by the Arab historians to the Greeks, compared to that of the Romans and the Byzantines. Indeed, the Greeks are understood as holders of a wisdom, which Islam claims inheritance, while the Romans and the Byzantines are considered as responsible for the end of science and Greek philosophy, because of their conversion to Christianity. The contradictory nature of this attitude says a lot about the ambiguity and plurality of attitudes that characterize the tormented, and yet fruitful relationship between Islamic culture and the Greco-Roman world. This research will lead to better clarify the relationship between the Graeco-Roman historical thought and the Islamic thought, calling into question the emphatic words of Bernard Lewis, according to whom, the universal historical curiosity is still a distinguishing, almost an exclusive, characteristic of Europe.

[1] F. Rosenthal, The Classical Heritage in Islam (1965), Engl. transl. by E. & J. Marmorstein, London-New York 1975; A. Badawi, La transmission de la philosophie grecque au monde arabe, Paris 1968; G. Endress-R Kruk (ed. by), The Ancient Tradition in Christian and Islamic Hellenism: Studies on the Transmission of Greek Philosophy and Sciences dedicated to H. J. Drossaart Lulofs on his Ninetieth Birthday, Leiden 1997; D. Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture, London-New York 1998; Id., Greek and Arabic Lexicon. Materials for a Dictionary of the Mediaeval Translations from Greek into Arabic, Leiden 1992 (with G. Endress); R. Rashed, «Scienze “esatte” dal greco all’arabo: transmissione e traduzione», in I Greci. Storia Cultura Arte Società, 3. I Greci oltre la Grecia, ed. by S. Settis, Torino 2001, pp. 705-740; G. Strohmaier, Hellas im Islam, Wiesbaden 2003; C. D’Ancona, La casa della sapienza. La trasmissione della metafisica greca e la formazione della filosofia araba, Milano 1996.

[2] “Yûnân”, in EI2, XI (2005), pp. 373-375: p. 374.

[3] “The Use by Muslim Historians of Non-Muslim Sources”, in Historians of the Middle East, ed. by B. Lewis & P.M. Holt, London 1962, pp. 180-191: p. 180 (= Id., Islam in History, Chicago-La Salle, il,19932, pp. 115-127: p. 115 f.)

[4] “La politica ecumenica califfale: pluriconfessionalismo, dispute interreligiose e trasmissione del patrimonio greco nei secoli VIII-IX”, in Percorsi e luoghi di trasmissione di idee, ed. by B. Scarcia Amoretti, Oriente Moderno, n. s., XVII, 1, 1998, pp. 1-62.