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A ma Patrie (Majda Khoury) - Studies in Syriac Literature(Matti Moosa's) PDF Print E-mail
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Monday, 07 September 2015 13:02


This material, which is presented solely for non-commercial educational/research purposes, appeared in the journal The Muslim World in three installments: LVIII, No. 2 (1968), 105-119; LVIII, No. 3 (1968), 194-217; and LVIII, No. 4 (1968), 317-333.

Syriac Literature Following the Muslim Conquest


The Arab conquest of Syria and Persia in the first half of the seventh century opened a new chapter in the history of Syriac literature. Apart from their language and new faith, the Arabs had nothing to offer the newly conquered countries. But they had the desire and the ability to learn, and soon proved themselves good students of the Syrians. The Arabic language did not immediately replace Syriac, but the Syrians were obviously inclined to learn the tongue of their conquerors. Still, as might be expected of any people facing a national crisis, the Syrians fought to preserve their unity and identity. So they continued to produce Christian literature, but concerned themselves with theology, grammar and philosophy rather than the divisive arguments on dogma of the preceding era.


Besides the many native theological, ascetical, philological and poetical writings, Greek philosophy and medical studies still formed a moderate part of Syriac literature. An entirely new phenomenon, however, was the movement of translation from Syriac and Greek into Arabic, sponsored and encouraged by the 'Abbasids.


In this period shines the name of Jacob of Edessa (d. 708), the pre-eminent writer and poet who devoted much of his time to the study of peripatetic philosophy. His reputation and teachings, observes Renan, are "second to those of no other figure in Syriac literature" (131). At the monastery of Qinnesrin, Jacob studied Greek thoroughly and distinguished himself as the "interpreter of books" by translating many Greek theological works. He was the first Syrian to use the Greek vowel points in the Syriac language, which he sought to restore to its natural purity. According to Bar Hebraeus, he was also well versed in Hebrew (132). To Jacob belongs the credit for pronouncing the first juristic opinion among the Syrians which made it lawful for Christian ecclesiastics to impart advanced instruction to children of Muslims (133).


Of Jacob's philosophical works, we have the translation of the Categories, which Renan observes is customarily joined with Athanasius of Balad's translation of the Isagoge of Porphyry. Jacob also is said to have translated the De Interpretatione, the Analytica and a short tract on the life of Aristotle (134). The best known of his own philosophical writings is the Enchiridion a treatise on the meaning of theological and philosophical terms such as "essence," "nature," "person," etc. (135).


Philosophy was further advanced by another distinguished student of Qinnesrin, George, Bishop of the Arabs (d. 725). In 686 George was ordained a bishop for the Arab tribes of the Tay, the Tanukh, the 'Uqayl, the Taghlibite, the Tha'labites and the Arabs of Mesopotamia, with his episcopal seat at 'Aqula (al-Kufa). His philosophical translations are preserved in the British Museum MS. 14659, written in the eighth or ninth century, not in the seventh century as claimed by Renan (136). This MS. contains the Categories, the De Interpretatione, and the Analytica Priora with introductions, notes, and commentaries on each of them. Renan seemed to be greatly fascinated by these works of Bishop George, and rightly calls them an "extraordinary monument of his expertness in logic" (137). The commentary, in Renan's opinion, is unequaled among those produced by the Syrians, if one considers the magnitude of the task and the painstaking method of exposition followed by the commentator. He adds that "no other commentary could be preferred to this one, no matter what part of the Syrians' philosophy other scholars may ever have considered worthy of publication" (138). However, one of the most noteworthy works of Bishop George is his disputation with the Arabs about the excellence of their poetry. When an Arab contended with Bishop George that poets of other nations could not be compared with Arab poets, the Bishop presented the Syrian poets as far greater (139).


In the period from the eighth to the thirteenth century, Aristotle was less widely translated and studied by Syrian scholars, because during the greater part of this period, and especially in the time of the Abbasid Caliph al-Mamun, they were engaged in translating books from Syriac and Greek into Arabic. Nevertheless, some Syrian writers continued to translate Greek works into Syriac. Famous among them is Moses bar Kipha (d. 903), Bishop of Baremman and Mosul, whose commentary on the Dialectics of Aristotle is cited by Bar Hebraeus (140). Another illustrious Syrian writer was Dionysius bar Salibi, Bishop of Amid (d. 1171), who has to his credit the writing of extensive commentaries on many works of Aristotle. The philosophical works of Bar Salibi are extant in the Cambridge MS. 2061, which contains his commentaries on logic, covering the Isagoge, the Categories, the De Interpretatione and the Analytica. He also wrote commentaries on other treatises of Aristotle, including the Physiology and the Theology (141).


In the thirteenth century, which saw the end of this period in Syriac literature, Bar Hebraeus was the luminary not only of his own age, but of all ages. His most extensive knowledge and the wide range of topics on which he wrote give him a rightful reputation as an encyclopedic scholar. Furthermore, no one would ever imagine that a high-ranking church dignitary of the thirteenth century would write such entertaining and amusing stories as did Bar Hebraeus.


The theory held mostly by Western writers that Bar Hebraeus was of Jewish descent lacks historical justification. Apparently, these writers are deceived by the form "Bar Hebraeus" (son of the Hebrew) which made them maintain that this Primate of the East was of a Hebrew origin. This, as shall be seen later, is groundless.


The first eastern writer to reject this theory was Rev. Louis Cheikho. In his lengthy biography of Bar Hebraeus which appeared in Al-Mashriq (Beirut, 1898), Cheikho criticizes the orientalists for their views on this subject and argues that the name itself is not convincing evidence that Bar Hebraeus was of Jewish origin. But he erroneously makes Bar Hebraeus the nephew of Michael the Great (d.1199), Patriarch of Antioch. He probably confused Bar Hebraeus—whose ordination name was Gregorius and who by rank was a Maphrian—with the Maphrian Gregorius Jacob Qandasi (1189-1215), nephew of the Patriarch Michael the Great.


The first eastern writer who shed light on the origin of Bar Hebraeus was the Syrian Bishop Severus Aphram Barsoum (d. 1957), later Patriarch of Antioch. In his article "Hal Kana Gregorius ibn al-'Ibri min Jins Yahudi," Al-Hikma (Jerusalem, 1927), XI, 92-6 Barsoum rejects the interpretation of orientalists regarding the origin of Bar Hebraeus. He refers to Bar Hebraeus' lengthy autobiography in his Ecclesiastical History and notes that the author mentioned nothing about his "Jewish origin." Barsoum also refers to a metrical biography of Bar Hebraeus in the dodecasyllabic meter by his disciple Mar Disocorus Gabriel of Bartali (d. 1299), Metropolitan of Jazirat ibn Cumar. Two manuscripts of this biography survive, one in the village of Bartali near Mosul, Iraq, and the other one at the Bodleian Library MS. Marsh 74. In this latter MS.—a microfilm of which the present author acquired from the Bodleian Library—Bar Hebraeus' biographer states that "Bar Hebraeus was raised in a noble family; his father's name was the physician Deacon Aaron." According to Barsoum, if Bar Hebraeus' father was a Jew converted to Christianity, his biographer would at least have alluded to his conversion. But we may conjecture that the theory that Bar Hebraeus was of Jewish descent dates back to Bar Hebraeus' lifetime. We read in Bar Hebraeus' Anthology, published by Michael Shababi in Rome, 1877, and republished by Rev. Yuhanna Dulabani in Jerusalem in 1929 the following two lines of verse (on p. 152)


If our Lord (Christ) called himself a Samaritan, Do not be ashamed if people call you Bar Hebraeus (son of a Jew). For the origin of this appelation is the river Euphrates and not a disgraceful doctrine or the Hebrew language.


We have it on the authority of Barsoum that he read in a commentary on Bar Hebraeus' Anthology in the private library of Abd al-Nur, Metropolitan of Diyarbakr, that Bar Hebraeus was born while his mother was crossing the river Euphrates on one of her journeys. Thus, he came to be called the son of al-'Ibri that is, of the one who crossed the Euphrates (the verb I'bar meaning "to cross").


Another explanation of the name of Bar Hebraeus is given by Mar Gregorius Paulos Behnam, Syrian Archbishop of Baghdad and lower Iraq. In his article titled " Ta 'qib Tarikhi fi Nasab al-'Allama Mar Gregorius ibn al-'Ibri" (Historical Investigation about the Descent of the Most learned Bar Hebraeus), Al-Majalla al-Patriarchiyya (Damascus, November 1963) XIII, 146-148, he refers to the aforementioned article of Barsoum as well as to the Anthology of Bar Hebraeus and to his biography by Gabriel al-Bartali. But he adds that Bar Hebraeus was called by this name after a big village called 'Ibra in the province of Jubas not very far from Malatiya (Melitene). This village has been frequently mentioned by Bar Hebraeus in his Ecclesiastical History. Behnam tends to believe (basing his assumption on the two lines of verse in Bar Hebraeus' Anthology) that Bar Hebraeus' grandfather probably immigrated from his village 'Ibra to Malatiya and that the nickname "Son of the 'Ibri") or Bar Hebraeus was attached to the family.


Be that as it may, decisive proof is certainly lacking that Bar Hebraeus was of Jewish descent. That this nickname was known in Bar Hebraeus' lifetime is certain from the apologetic verse in his anthology. What makes the issue more puzzling is that no writer since Bar Hebraeus' time has produced any evidence that Bar Hebraeus was of Jewish descent. On the other hand deciding the origin of Bar Hebraeus solely on the basis of the name of his father "Aaron" or on his nickname "Bar Hebraeus is untenable. The name Aaron is popular among Christians and Muslims, while the nickname Bar Hebraeus does not necessarily mean "Son of a Jew." For the word 'Ibri derives from the verb I'bar meaning "to cross" and Bar Hebraeus' explanation of the origin of his name is validated.


Bar Hebraeus' philosophical works are numerous. The famous Book of the Pupil of the Eye is a compendium of writings about logic or dialectics, with an introduction on the benefit of logic and seven chapters dealing with the Isagoge of Porphyry, the Categories, De Interpretatione, Analytica Priora, Topica, Analytica Posteriora and De Sophisticis Elenchis. Another monumental work of Bar Hebraeus is the Book of the Speech of Wisdom, a compendium of dialectics, physics, and theology.


In addition, his large encyclopedia entitled The Cream of Wisdom contains the whole Aristotelian discipline. The first volume contains the Isagoge, the Categories, the De Interpretatione, the Analytica Priora and Analytica Posteriora, Dialectics, De Sophistics Elenchis, Rhetoric and Art of Poetry. The second volume contains the eight treatises which comprise the Physics: De Auscultatione Physica, De Caelo et Mundo, De Meteoris, De Generatione et Corruptione, De Fossilibus, De Plantis, De Animalibus, and De Anima. In the two treatises of the third volume appear treatments of metaphysics, the origin of philosophy and philosophers, theology, ethics, economics, and politics (142).


Bar Hebraeus also translated into Syriac Ibn Sina's Kitab al Isharat wa'l-Tanbihat (The Book of Indications and Prognostications). In addition, he translated many medical books and wrote an Arabic commentary on the Aphorisms of Hippocrates. He also translated an abridgment of Dioscorides' treatise De Medicamentis Simplicibus, and commented in Syriac upon the Medical Questions of Hunayn b. Ishaq. Furthermore, he is said to have written commentaries in Arabic on Galen's treatises De Elernentis and De Temperamentis. He also abridged in Arabic al-Ghafiqi's Book of the Simples (al-Adwiya al-Mutrada) and left unfinished the Syriac translation of Ibn Sina's al-Qanun fi 'l-Tibb (143).


Another writer of renown is Severus Jacob bar Shakko, Metropolitan of the monastery of Mar Matta, near Mosul. In his major work, The Dialogue, in two books, he discussed logic, the syllogism, the types and divisions of philosophy, and the philosophical life and conduct. He also devoted attention to metaphysics and theology (144).


A considerable part of the Syrians' philosophical study and writing concerned the soul. Their knowledge of this subject was derived largely from Aristotle, but tempered by their own Christian views. Sergius of Ras 'Ayn is credited with having translated into Syriac The Book of Aristotle On the Soul. This title is misleading, however, and the work is entirely different from Aristotle's treatise De Anima (145). Yet the Syrians had their own writings about the soul, of which the treatise Man as a Microcosm, by Ahudeme (see p. 217), is an example. About the end of the seventh century, John of Dara (d. 738) wrote a treatise on the soul, later incorporated into a similar work by another John of Dara (d. 860). Both these works are extant in MS. 3973 of the Houghton Library at Harvard University.


It is interesting to speculate on the work of another author from the same period, the Maronite Syrian Theophilus Bar Thomas of Edessa, who, according to Bar Hebraeus, translated from Greek into Syriac "the two books of the poet Homer on the Conquest of the City of Ilion" (146). These two books are apparently the Iliad and the Odyssey, though some writers believe the reference is to the first two books of the Iliad. No clear explanation of Theophilus' translation has yet been given, however, and some scholars reject Bar Hebraeus' testimony altogether (147).


The writing of history continued during this period, following the same chronological approach which had originated in the preceding period. Two important histories stand out. The first, that of Dionysius of Tal Mahre (d. 845), covers the whole period from the creation to his own time. The other one is the previously mentioned Chronicle of Michael the Great, Patriarch of Antioch, which likewise describes events from the creation to the lifetime of the author. This history, the product of careful and impartial research, was later completed by Bar Hebraeus.


Bar Hebraeus, the last major Syrian historian of far-reaching fame, wrote a universal history, the Chronicon Syriacum in three parts. The first part contains the history of the world from the creation to Bar Hebraeus' time. The second records the history of the patriarchs of the church of Antioch, to the year 1285. The last part of the work covers the history of the Eastern Church and the acts of its Catholici and Maphrians. This third part originally ended with the year 1286, but was continued by Bar Hebraeus' brother Barsoum al-Safi to the year 1288, and later by another writer to 1496 (148). During the last year of his life, Bar Hebraeus, at the request of some Muslim friends, produced an Arabic abridgment of his political history, titled Tarikh Mukhtasar al-Duwal. This version contains useful information on Christian and Muslim men of letters, philosophers, physicians, etc., which is not included in the original Syriac work.


Finally, Bar Hebraeus was the last great Syrian mystic. His mystical ideas are contained in his Book of the Ethikon and the Book of the Dove. Professor A. J. Wensinck in his Bar Hebraeus' Book of the Dove Together with Some Chapters from His Ethikon (Leyden, 1919) has produced an English translation of the Book of the Dove and some chapters of the Book of the Ethikon and thoroughly studied Bar Hebraeus' mysticism. He also showed the influence of the Muslim philosopher and mystic Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) on Bar Hebraeus. However, Wensinck says nothing about the influence of Ibn Sina's mystical ideas on Bar Hebraeus which are very conspicuous in his mystical ode The Perfection consisting of 305 lines which he composed in Baghdad in the year A.D. 1277 as well as in his ode The Divine Wisdom. Both of these odes are contained in Bar Hebraeus' Anthology published by Yuhanna Dulabani in 1929 at Jerusalem (149).


The discerning student of this period will perceive that the Syrians to some extent preserved their unity in the face of six centuries of Muslim domination, and even became, in philosophy, the masters of their conquerors. The gradual process by which Arabic replaced Syriac as the dominant spoken language, however, severely and irreparably reduced the audience to which Syrian authors might address themselves.


Although the translation of different books from Syriac and Greek into Arabic under the 'Abbasid Caliphs does not belong to Syriac literature, it throws light on the intellectual contribution of the Syrians to Islamic civilization. Without these translations, Muslim scholars from the ninth to the twelfth century would have had no access to Greek philosophy and sciences, and therefore the scholarly achievements of men like al-Kindi (d. 870) and al-Farabi (d. 951) would have been unlikely. Ya'qub b. Ishag al-Kindi was, to he sure, the first Arab philosopher and the most prolific of all philosophers of his time. Yet his knowledge of Syriac and Greek was extremely limited, and his studies were based mainly on Arabic translations from these languages. His role as interpreter is even more uncertain (150). Al-Farabi, too, owed his knowledge and training to two Syrian tutors, Yuhanna b. Haylan and Abu Yahya al-Marwazi (151).


It is not our intention to present every detail about the translation movement and its leaders, for this subject has been thoroughly discussed by other writers. Let it suffice to stress here some aspects of the translations made under the 'Abbasids, noting especially their value and their impact on Islamic civilization.


The Arabs' contact with the Syrians, which dates back to the pre-Islamic era, began in the two Arab kingdoms of Ghassan in Syria and the Lakhmites in al-Hira, in present day Iraq. Moreover, many Syrian physicians practiced medicine in Arabia before Islam, while Syrian missionaries carried the Gospel to different Arab tribes. Ahudeme (d. 575), who was first ordained bishop of Beth 'Arbaya, a district between Nisibin and Sinjar, converted a great number of Bedouin Arabs to Christianity. As a matter of fact, there were Syrian communities in Najran, Yemen and al-Madina (Yathrib). The Syrian church until this day has commemorated the first Church built in Yathrib, named for the Virgin Mary (152).


Although this Arab-Syrian relationship was not primarily an interchange of culture, it shows that the Arabs in their Jahiliyya [Pre-Islamic period] were not completely cut off from their Syrian neighbors. However, these two peoples became more closely linked after the Arab conquest of Syria and Persia in the first half of the seventh century. The new conquerors not only admired the civilization in Syria, but later applied themselves and made great use of it.


The first known translation from Syriac into Arabic was that of the four Gospels, made in 643, when John of the Sedras was Patriarch of Antioch. According to Bar Hebraeus, this translation was made by experts in both Arabic and Syriac from the Arab tribes of the banu Tay, Tanukh, and 'Uqayl, by order of 'Umayr b. Sa'd b. Abi Waqqas al-Ansari, governor of the Jazira under the Umayyads (153). Another translation of the Gospels was made by Hunayn b. Ishaq, working from the Syriac Septuagint version (154). Moreover, the Kitab al-Din wa'l-Dawla, by 'Ali b. Rabban al-Tabari (ca. 850), a Nestorian Christian convert to Islam, which has been published by Alphonse Mingana in Egypt in 1923, contains portions of the Old Testament in Arabic, but does not indicate by whom they were translated (155). In the period immediately following the Arab conquest of Syria and Persia, the conquerors were not concerned about knowledge or the translation of books into their tongue. They were fully engaged in establishing themselves in the vanquished countries. But the contact of the Arabs with the intellectual elements in Syria greatly stimulated the Arabs curiosity and desire for learning. It also opened for them new vistas of knowledge, mainly in the area of Greek philosophy and sciences, which had been studied and absorbed by the Syrians.


Under the Umayyads, the translation movement was insignificant; only a few medical books were translated from Greek and Coptic into Arabic at the order of Khalid b. Yazid b. Mu'awiya, who we are told was interested in medicine and alchemy. It was not until the time of the 'Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur (753-775) that the activity of translation from Syriac and Greek into Arabic received momentum. Al-Mansur, who complained of a chronic stomach disorder, looked for a physician to treat him. Georgius (George) Bakhtyeshu, the chief physician of Gundishapor, was recommended, and the ailing Caliph immediately sent after him. Through Georgius' care, the Caliph regained his health and became greatly interested in having medical books translated into Arabic, to insure more proper treatment of himself and the people. Georgius at once undertook the task of making such translations (156), thus starting the tremendous activity which lasted until the twelfth century.


The succeeding 'Abbasid Caliphs followed the steps of al-Mansur by encouraging the translation of books. This work reached its peak under al-Ma'mun, who in 832 established the Bayt aI-Hikma, a translation bureau, as well as a library where scholars could pursue their translations. This Bayt al-Hikma was headed by Yuhanna b. Masawayh (d. 857), under whom young Hunayn b. Ishag was the most active translator. Twenty-five years later, when the Caliph al-Mutawakkil revived this school, he appointed Hunayn as its principal. During the first half of the ninth century translation was done mainly from Greek into Syriac, but during the second half of this century most translations were made into Arabic, while old translations were revised. Moreover, many wealthy and influential people followed the steps of their Caliphs by encouraging the translators. Prominent among these people were Ahmad and Muhammad, the sons of Mtisa banti Shakir, who spent great sums of money to acquire manuscripts and paid generously for translations (157).


Hunayn b. Ishaq was undoubtedly the most energetic and famous translator of the ninth century. In addition to his mother tongue, Syriac, he was well versed in Greek and Arabic. He may rightfully be considered the most prominent intellectual of his time, a man who contributed immensely to the learning of his age. He translated mostly from Greek into Syriac, and also revised translations made by others. At his death, Hunayn had translated into Syriac one hundred books by Galen, half of which he rendered into Arabic as well. He also translated most of the works of Hippocrates and Aristotle.


Hunayn was followed by two disciples, his son Ishaq and his nephew Hubaysh b. al-A'am. Ishaq (d. 910) did most of his translation into Arabic, and also undertook to revise the work of his father and other translators. Since he had been raised in Baghdad, Ishaq mastered the Arabic language more completely than his father. He is credited with having translated most of Aristotle's works into Arabic.


Another eminent translator was Thabit b. Qurra (d. 901), a Syrian Sabian from Harran. Thabit knew Arabic, Syriac, and Greek, and translated many books on medicine, mathematics, astrology, as well as some of Aristotle's works.


In the tenth century, Yahya b. 'Adi (d. 974) stands as a distinguished Syrian philosopher (158), logician and translator. Born at Takrit, he later moved to Baghdad and studied under the Nestorian Abu Bishr Matta b. Yunis (d. 940) and the eminent philosopher Abu Nasr al-Farabi. Beside numerous Arabic writings, Yahya translated from Syriac into Arabic Aristotle's Categories, Topics, and Sophistici Elenchi, the Law and Timaeus of Plato, the Meteorology of Theophrastus, and many other Greek works (159).


Some prominent translators who succeeded Yahya b. 'Adi were Abu al-Khayr al-Hasan b. al-Khammar, Abu 'Ali Ishaq b. Zur'a (d. 1008) and Abu al-Faraj 'Abd Allah b. al-Tayyib (d. 1043) and Yahya b. Isa b. Jazla (d. 1100) (160). Besides these translations of Greek sciences, the Syrians translated and composed works in Arabic, chiefly apologies and interpretations of Christian dogma (161).


The Arabic translators from Syriac and Greek were, generally speaking, faithful. Despite some vagueness in rendering Greek scientific terms which they could not understand, they were meticulous in transmitting the spirit and the meaning of the author. In order to achieve maximum fidelity and precision, they translated a single book several times and compared previous translations with the original Greek. A contemporary writer who has studied the manuscripts containing the Arabic translations of Aristotle's logic confirms that these translations are quite clear and precise, except in some places where misunderstanding of technical terms has made their quality inconsistent (162). Translations were usually provided with commentaries and marginal notes to clarify the text. As Meyerhof affirms, these Syrians were not merely translators, but learned men with profound philosophical knowledge. Most of the translators who headed the schools (or "hospitals", sing. Bimaristan) carried the title of Hakim (sage), Faylasuf (philosopher) or Mantigi (logician) (163). This latter title was particularly attributed to Abu Bishr Matta, Yahya b. 'Adi, and his disciple Abti Sulayman al-Sijistani. The successors of these men were usually called "the distinguished physicians in the philosophical sciences" (164).


These translations, together with others from Persian and Pahlevi, had a tremendous impact on Islamic civilization. In fact, they caused a radical intellectual and cultural revolution, unprecedented in the history of civilization, comparable to that caused by the Renaissance in Europe, in the fifteenth century. As has been formerly shown, the Arabs, since the emergence of Islam, and throughout the whole Umayyad period, concerned themselves with the study of the Qur'an and with the religious sciences such as fiqh, hadith and kalam. They knew nothing about the different sciences, such as medicine, mathematics, philosophy, chemistry, etc., which they called 'Ulum al-'Awa'il ("The Sciences of the Ancients") in contradistinction to 'Ulum al-Arab ("The Sciences of the Arabs") (165). The following quotation, from a contemporary writer, puts the effect of the Arabic translations into its proper perspective:


Beside their major function of translation, these translators have rendered tremendous service to the Arab mind. They were motivated by their desire for disseminating knowledge to compile many works on various topics, such as medicine, natural sciences, chemistry, astrology, mathematics, and philosophy. Their writings kindled the first spark of intellectual studies in the Islamic World. These compilations were, in a sense, compendiums which would provide the reader with a general idea about the scientific knowledge of that time. These writings, which helped facilitate the dissemination of knowledge, were followed by profoundly specialized studies made later by the Muslims in their different schools (166).


One of the results of the Muslim contact with the translated knowledge of the ancients was the prevalence of gnosticism among the early Muslim sects. The gnostic spirit crept into mysticism and may have affected the Isma'ili theory of the "infallible Imam." In his article, referred to in the note above, Goldziher has clearly demonstrated the impact of ancient knowledge on the Islamic mind.


The sciences of philology, prosody and grammar were affected primarily by philosophy and logic. In fact, the grammarians of Basra were called "the foremost for using logical terms in grammar." Again the study of philosophy of Ikhwan al-Safa' ("The Brethren of Sincerity"), indicates that the philosophy of these Brethren was greatly effected by Greek philosophy; moreover, the doctrine of the Mu'tazila was deeply imbued with Greek philosophy.


Through these translated works, the Arabic language adopted many scientific and philosophical terms previously unknown. One can imagine the great difficulty which the translator faced in finding similar Arabic terms or inventing new ones. However, many Greek terms were translated into Arabic and have been part of its vocabulary until this day, such as, Ustura, Isfani, Usturlab, Inbiq, Balgham, Tiryaq and hundreds of other words.


But the most important effect of the translation of ancient science was the transformation of a once primitive desert people into a civilized people who, like other nations, contributed much to world civilization.


Syriac Literature After Bar Hebraeus


The second period of Syriac literature, which had culminated in the writings of Bar Hebraeus, came to an end with the death of this illustrious man in 1286. From that time onward, Syriac Literature became largely a thing of the past, the dwindling expression of a once predominant national culture. As Arabic came into wider use, many Syrian writers either wrote in it or translated into it Syriac books, mainly religious works, for the use of their congregations. Yet Arabic did not cross the Taurus mountains, and therefore the Syriac-speaking commmunity in what is now Turkey retained its language and traditions. Likewise, the Eastern Syrian communities of northern Persia and Urmia were able to preserve their national identity. Despite the predominance of Arabic, Syrian writers continued their literary work in their native language, but their themes and topics were far too limited, confined to purely religious compositions and recapitulations of past works.


In fact, the whole period from the fall of Baghdad before the Mongols (1258) to the nineteenth century may be considered an era of lamentable cultural stagnation throughout the Middle East. The decline of Syriac literature, therefore, is no mere isolated instance of cultural weakness. The period, generally speaking, has been overlooked by writers on Syriac literature, except for Baumstark, who has mentioned a few fifteenth-century writers and their works. The first systematic study of this period was made by Ignatius Aphram Barsoum, the Syrian patriarch of Antioch and all the East in his book al-Lu'lu' al-Manthur, which lists the names and works of fifty-six writers, translators and poets of the late period.


The predominant literary activity of this period, until the nineteenth century, was the composition of liturgies, practiced by almost every one of these fifty-six writers at one time or another. This liturgical literature began with Barsoum al-Safi (d. 1307), brother of Bar Hebraeus, who shortened the liturgy of St. James. He also completed the biography of his brother and catalogued all his works and continued his Chronicon Syriacum until his own time.


Apart from the liturgical writings, other literary activity also exists. Bar Wuhayb, who was also called Zakhe (d. 1333), may be mentioned as the composer of a Syriac treatise entitled al-Mawad, containing an explanation of the Syriac alphabet, which is subject to the rules of diacritical points. His contemporary, the priest Yeshu' bar Khayrun of Hah (d. 1335), in Tur 'Abdin, wrote a commentary on the Lexicon of Bar Bahlul. He also composed many songs, some of which described the calamities which befell the church in his time.


The writings of Daniel of Mardin (d. 1382), commonly called Ibn al-Hattab, show the influence of Arabic on Syriac writings (167). Ibn al-Hattab stands as one of the most prominent writers of the period. In 1356 he went to Egypt, where for seventeen years he studied Arabic literature, logic, and philosophy. Upon returning to his own country, he composed in Arabic a treatise entitled Usul al-Din (The Principles of Religion), abridged Bar Hebraeus' grammar (Semhe), and wrote commentaries on Bar Hebraeus' The Cream of Wisdom; a treatise on the exposition of the Nicene Creed is also attributed to him (168).


The most valuable historical writings from this period are those of the priest 'Addai of Basibrina (d.1502). To him belongs the credit for having extended both the Chronicon Syriacum and the Chronography of Bar Hebraeus from 1288 to 1496. He also composed three historical tracts—an account of the invasion of Diyarbakr, another work on Tamerlane's destruction of Tur 'Abdin, and a chronology of historical events from 1349 to 1492—all of which have been published in the original language (169).


Another prominent writer of the period is the Patriarch Nu'h the Lebanese (d. 1509). Nuh was born a Maronite but later joined the Syrian Orthodox Church and was elevated to the Patriarchal throne in 1493. He is particularly remembered for the many poems he composed describing the tyranny of the Kurdish governors and other rulers. He also wrote a short historical tract (170).


In theological writing, the most eminent name is that of the Maphrian Shamoun (d. 1740); born and raised in Tur 'Abdin, he was ordained to his position in 1710. His time was characterized by the continuous atrocities of the Kurds, who pillaged the Syrian churches and monasteries. His almost legendary resistance to the Kurds ended only with his sordid assassination by 'Abdul, the Kurdish chief, on April 6, 1740. Despite the turmoil and harassment of his time, Shamoun found time to concentrate on some writing. His works include a 317-page theological treatise on the Trinity, the Procession of the Holy Spirit, the Incarnation, the Nativity of our Lord, a refutation of the Purgatory, the end of time, and the world to come. He also composed a treatise entitled The Chariot of Mysteries, dealing with many theological subjects, and another entitled Silah al-Din wa Turs al-Yaqin, which he later translated into Arabic. He also produced an anthology and a compendium of the Lexicon of Bar Bahlul (171).


Also deserving of mention here is the chorepiscopus Jacob of Qutrubul (d. 1783), who composed a comprehensive work of Syriac morphology entitled Zahrat al-Ma'arif in 1763. The Bishop Gurjis (George) of Azekh (d. 1847) composed a poem with seven-syllabic lines, describing the invasion of Muhammad Pasha of Rawanduz against his town and the neighboring districts.


The chorepiscopus Matta Konat of Malabar (d. 1927) is credited with the translation of many Syriac works into the Malayalam language of Malabar. Among these translations are chapters of the commentary of Bar Salibi on the Gospels, the Nomocanon [Ecclesiastical Laws] of Bar Hebraeus, the book of prayers for regular week days, along with the Orders of baptism, funerals, matrimony and Passion Week (172).


The most important figures of this penood are Na'um Fa'iq of Diyarbakr (d. 1930), who wrote several Syriac works and translated parts of the Ruba'iyyat of 'Umar al-Khayyam into Syriac (173), and the priest Jacob of Bartali (d. 1931), who studied Syriac under the Chaldean priest Butrus of Karmlays and composed many poems, of which the one called The Divine Wisdom is of enduring literary beauty (174).


Looking back on this final period of Syriac literature, we see no Bar Daysan or St. Ephraim, no Jacob of Edessa or Bar Hebraeus. We see instead the lamentable, but nonetheless real, decline of a once lofty national culture. The Syrians' literary efforts were, from the outset, bound up with their unified existence. In the centuries after their acceptance of Christianity, the expression of their unity through pagan writings continued to exist along with a similar, growing self-expression through Christian literature. Even under the Muslims' domination, their unity did not falter, but actually reinforced itself through their literature. At the same time, however, the decline of their language, together with their intensive devotion to the work of translation, permanently altered the course of their culture.


This final period of Syriac literature, then, represents the logical extension of an already established pattern. Although the Syrians were (and are) capable of independent literary creation, their constant subjection to external influence has greatly reduced the scale on which that creation may take place. If it is unrealistic to expect the Syrians again to equal the literature of centuries long past, it is worse to ignore the beauty of that literature, or to disdain the culture it has so long preserved.




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