Translating the Greeks into Arabic by Defending the ‘Love of Wisdom’

Late last month, Ali Benmakhlouf came to New York University to discuss “Reading Arabic Medieval Philosophy: a Contemporary Perspective”:

By Danny Dubbaneh


Photo by Danny Dubbaneh.

Ali Benmakhlouf is specialist in medieval Islamic philosophy, political theory, and Frege. He is editor of the Arabic edition of The Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, and, most recently, author of Pourquoi lire les philosophes Arabes (Albin Michel, 2015).

In this lecture, Benmakhlouf hints at the many issues he has discovered in the study of contemporary logic — particularly the way Al Kindi, Al Farabi, and Averroes disclosed many theological problems by linguistic and logical means. They were the philosophers responsible for translating major metaphysical features into Arabic. Using the Aristotelian method as a guide, they also were instrumental in translating from the particular to the general and from the literal to metaphorical meaning.

Benmakhlouf points out that, in Aristotelian philosophy, one can learn much in the study of Arab philosophers. In the same stroke, Benmakhlouf emphasized logical and linguistic issues in medieval Arabic philosophy, which he said shares many patterns with the philosophy of language we use today.

Philosophy as a continuation of prophecy

During the Middle Ages, theology was a paradigmatic discipline that was extremely important for the Arabic philosophers. It was during this time that Arabic language and philosophy underwent an unprecedented development. Benmakhlouf comments that this phenomenon is even more remarkable when we consider that philosophy derived from Greek sources did not seek the protection of theology. Nevertheless, philosophical dilemmas were already present in the theological schemata. Scholars such as Jean Jolivet explained this progression:

“Philosophy was born twice in Islam, first, as an original theology, kalam, then as a philosophical movement that was largely based on Greek sources”.[1]

At this time, philosophy was considered to be a continuation of prophecy using an argumentative and deductive style. Benmakhlouf used the following example to show the continuity of inspired speech and deductive speech. Al Kindi was once asked to answer a question about the Quran from the son of Caliph Mu’tasim, who he taught. The student, Ahmed, asked “how can we understand from the point of reason the verse telling us that plants and trees bow down in adoration?”[2]

The answer given by Al Kindi was based on the linguistic and metaphysical approach that there is a possibility in the Arabic language to have contrary meanings attached to the same word. In this sense, bowing down has an immaterial and material meaning. Benmakhlouf uses the following quote by Magid Fakhry to correspond to the distinction between divine and created things:

“The twofold distinction between material and immaterial entities is broadened to correspond to the distinction between “divine” and “created” things.”[3]

That is to say: two opposite meanings attached to the same word. The material one is to put one’s forehead on the earth and lean one’s palm and knees on the earth. The immaterial meaning is the obedience of one of that has no forehead or knees. The meaning selected in the response to Ahmed is that of obedience, because of that of laws, of human bodies. After selecting the body of obedience, Al Kindi gives to the word another meaning:

“We say obedience in Arabic language when one joins himself to the order given by someone”.[4]

This presupposes that the will is implied and that the will is associated with rational thought. Benmakhlouf concludes that only higher ideas, which possess rationality at a high degree, are able to join themselves with the order given by someone. Al Kindi says the highest of these ideas are called the utmost heavenly thought. This thought is alive, has the capability to discern, and is willing to avail. It is an agent with no matter and no form. No matter because it does not change, and no form because it is separated from all the bodies known to us. It is in this phase that those bow in adoration. The verse in the Quran has been included in the rational context. The bowing down of the plants and the trees is the bowing down of what comes to existence by god and caused by the utmost heavenly thought. The issue has to do with the visible world, the world by which nature produces perceptible and imperceptible matter, fruits, plants, trees, and animals.

The philosopher Leo Strauss drew attachment to the uniqueness of Arab and Jewish philosophy. That they always situate truth in reference to the court of law. The term haq, which means the truth:

“For the Jew and the Muslim, religion, is primarily not, as it is for the Christian, a faith formulated in dogmas, but a law, a code of divine origin. Accordingly, the religious science, the sacra doctrina, is not dogmatic theology, theologia revelata, but the science of the law, halaka, or fiqh”.[5]

This context is important to consider when examining the manner in which Arab philosophers interpreted divine law.

Divine law and wisdom

On the methodology of interpreting divine law, Al Farabi provided many fruitful indications. First, the adopted deductive, hypothetical method about the genesis of the law. It distinguishes between the ruler and his subjects, and this distinction has very important implications for jurisprudence. Poetics has just to be appropriate to the truest decision. Al Farabi frames the relation between political movement and law in a different way. He mentions a first ruler who is not first chronologically speaking — the ruler is first according to the necessity of the thought that imposes a bigger point to understand the process of deriving law. Then Al Farabi imagines the gradual construction of rules even by the succession of lawgiver.

Al Farabi says:

“The art of jurisprudence would then be requisite, and then the jurist has to make a sound determination of each thing the lawgiver did not declare specifically”.[6]

He adds many features that characterize the rule of jurists. First, you see the following quotation: the jurist must be cognizant of the laws established by the first ruler for a certain moment and replaced with others. He reemphasizes that, for his own time, the jurist follows in the form of the latter, not the former. Second, the jurist must further be cognizant of the language spoken by the first ruler, of the customary ways in which the people of his time used their language and of what was used in there to signify something metaphorically when in reality the name of something else.

Averroes quotes the verse from the Quran to further attempt to reconcile this:

“Call them to the path of your Lord with wisdom and words of good advice; and reason with them in the best way possible”.[7]

Wisdom here is good for demonstrative philosophy, according to Averroes. It was a strategic word – hikma – chosen to introduce philosophy into the religious context. Exaltation of good advice in the world is assimilated to rhetoric and reasoning as the best way to dialectics. Having passion for ambiguous verses, yet lacking the ability to interpret them, because as the Quran shows:

“He is He who sent down to you The Book, in it are verses that are clear – They are the foundation of the Book – and other unspecific. As for those in whose hearts are in deviation, they will follow that of it which is unspecific, seeking discord and seeking an interpretation suitable for them. And no one knows its interpretation except God. But those re firm in knowledge say: “we believe in it. All of it is from our world”.”[8]

Benmakhlouf states that the sacred text contains both apparent and inner meaning for a reason, quoting Averroes:

“The reason why we have received the structure with both apparent and an inner meaning lies in the diversity of people’s natural capacities and the difference of their inner dispositions with regards to assent. The reason why we have received in Scripture texts inner disposition s with regard to assent. The reason why we have received in Scripture texts whose apparent meanings contradict each other is in order to draw the attention of those are well grounded in science”.[9]

Texts whose meanings contradict each other is for those well-grounded in science, and those well-grounded in science share the interpretation of unspecific verses with god.

Using philosophy to read the sacred text

But the concern with the place of rhetoric and poetics presents not only an intellectual challenge but a religious one as well. It not only indicates multiple parts to the truth but also provides Arabic philosophers with the ability to read the sacred text in a way that harmonizes it with the methods of philosophy.

There was an enormous insistence of the Arabic thinkers on the continuity of transmission in philosophy. On one hand, the philosophers in the Arabic language are defending and proposing a pagan knowledge, and they argue in many ways, most famously in the treatise by Averroes, for not only the possibility but the necessity of continuing philosophy in Arabic, as falsafa, as hikma. So there is to be a continuity between antiquity and Islam. There is also to be a continuity within the ancient world.

Plato vs. Aristotle

In that way, we keep in mind that the global goal of logical education is teaching translation and gradual order of learning. The debates in Al Farabi of what utility some grammarians consider the foreign language — in this case meaning not-Arabic. Many grammarians and theologists asked if Aristotelian logic could have any good. Why learn something outside of their own cultural tradition that has contrary positions? Especially since the Greek philosophers have opposite theses on the main questions as to whether the world is created or not, if we know things by experience or by intellect. So philosophers such as Al Farabi imagined those kind of demonstrations defending Aristotelian logic. Al Farabi gave this conversation the form of an imagined dialogue between Plato and Aristotle, the aim being to achieve the harmony between their philosophies. Harmony doesn’t mean uniformity — it signifies contrast without incompatibility. There’s still duality in harmony.

Al Farabi says that the supposed disagreement between Plato and Aristotle is due to an inappropriate understanding of their teaching, taking as an example their views on learning. At first glance, it seems clear that Aristotle and Plato differ in their definition of learning. For Plato, learning means for the soul to remember what was known before. For Aristotle learning is to be acquainted with particulars so that all our ideas are derived from some external idea. If we now try to elaborate on the conversation between their philosophies, it appears there is no contradiction but rather two ways of saying the same truth. The practical application of Aristotle’s logic forms one part of the organism:

“Every teaching, given or received, cannot but rest upon a preexistent knowledge. It is possible for a man to learn things he has already known and other things the knowledge of which happens in the same time he learns them; as for example, the things existing under universals”[10]

Aristotle seems here to accept the possibility of knowledge before learning as Plato does. Yet not in the same way as Plato.

Truth as a process

Al Kindi was also convinced that truth was a historical process and that philosophy has to grasp the moments when truth is fixed in one form:

“We owe great thanks to those who have imparted to us even a small measure of truth, let alone those who have taught us more, since they have given us a share in the fruits of their reflection and simplified the complex questions bearing on the nature of reality. If they have not provided us with those premises that pave the way to truth, we would been unable, despite our assiduous lifelong investigations, to find those true primary principles from which the conclusions of our obscure inquiries have resulted, and which have taken generation upon generation to come to light heretofore”.[11]

Other Westerners believed that no single individual could access truth. Only the succession of generations and the continuation of many cultures can provide any nature of truth. Averroes discussed how it is our duty to attempt to harmonize different types of philosophy with one another and one with the sacred text:

“It is our duty that we should find, among our predecessors of an earlier time, a considered theory of the universe, consistent with the conditions that demonstration requires, to examine what they have claimed in their books”.[12]

Averroes’ quote here demonstrates the efforts of Arab philosophers to find harmony not only between different types of philosophy but also between religion and philosophy.

Logic as a connector

The reconciliation between grammar as Arabic science — and philosophy as foreign science — would not have been possible without logic as connector. So logic was really the go-between for those who follow the Arabic tradition and those who wanted to come back to the ancients. Philosophers always referred to it as the ancients, never as pagan. As for philosophy, they always say al-hikma, wisdom, because, al-qudama, the ancient and wisdom, is something that people at that time could hear. If you say pagan, you would have been confronted with controversies.

In the classical Arabic world, they had certain sciences which they considered to be Arab, indigenous to them, and others that they considered to be kafar, or foreign to them. Grammar is one like the interpretation of the Quran, an Arabic science, but philosophy is a foreign science. Logic is in some way a point of encounter between the science of the Arabs which includes grammar and poetry,  and the sciences of the Arabic language, and therefore interpretations of revelation, and on the other hand of the sciences of pagan knowledge.

Makhlouf went on to make a very compelling argument for logic and language and the Arabic philosophers’ intention to use these concepts of language and logic for grasping the contemporaneity of thinkers today. One of the major differences between Arabic philosophy and Latin philosophy, and afterwards modern philosophy, is the reception of Aristotle’s logical organon, or system. So then in the West the logical organon was composed of what we still think are the logical works. Aristotle explains that there are certain kinds of sentences that are meaningful but will be excluded from logic, because they neither serve nor deny properties of subjects. These are sentences but not statement-making sentences. Not apophantic, they belong to poetry and rhetoric. And can therefore be left aside. They fall outside of logic.

Logic, Rhetoric and Poetics

Logic plays a major role in realizing these objects, and Averroes was not the first to emphasize this point. For example, Al Farabi has a text that says the same, and was committed to Aristotelian philosophy with a particular focus on the posterior analysis and the topic of demonstration. Demonstration meant presenting arguments that could send the translation from Greek to Arabic.  Arguments that could situate debates on the category of medieval topics and judgments. Deborah Black discussed how Islamic philosophers began to incorporate rhetoric and poetics into the scope of logic, which was important in holy texts:

“The acknowledgement of the linguistic and communicative goals of logic, as well as its argumentative and rational aims, was closely linked to the efforts of the Islamic philosophers to incorporate rhetoric and poetics into the scope of logic.”[13]

One of the main objectives of this form of logic from categories to poetics was to introduce Aristotle in everyday language and to show how all our elementary reasoning deals with what the Greek philosopher formalized in his rhetoric as an enthymeme. That is to say an informal syllogism, or a syllogism in which one of the predicates is not explicitly settled. In everyday reasoning we don’t say this explicitly, in poetics we have to.

Whereas one of the great originalities in the Arabic tradition was to recover the unity of these various writings and to include the rhetoric and the poetics of them in the logical tradition. Benmakhlouf’s use of logic and linguistic materials follow in some ways this tradition, that logic needs not only to bear on demonstration in a strict sense, but also in some forms of syllogism, as the medieval Arabs did.

So there is room for a poetic syllogism and a rhetorical syllogism, meaning there must be room in a use of classic logic. And that seems to be a very fruitful starting point. Especially today, when much of logic has abandoned natural languages or so-called classical or predicate logic and moved into artificial notations, if one is to receive the inheritance of traditional logic one, has much more to work with and many more horizons to explore if one considers that this logic is adequate to all of language, all of sentences, poetic and rhetoric ones as well as to strictly scientific or demonstrative ones.


It seems that, in Benmakhlouf’s own use of logic, he is exploring some of these possibilities. The Arabic philosophers rooted in their own logic tried to do two things: One to find a new Arabic language familiar language for the unfamiliar language of Greek thought.

But they also at time had to estrange or defamiliarize Arabic in a number of ways. One is the example of the copula, in which the Arabic Philosophers were obligated to comment on this strange word, that many languages have and Greece has — that, as Al Farabi points out, doesn’t have any action just joins a predicate to an action and it has no time. The word is. So confronting the absence of this term, they were led clearly to anticipate this very modern reflections on the structure of sentences and also to find new resources in natural languages through pronouns.

Makhlouf concludes with the three modes of reasoning: demonstrative, rhetorical, and dialectical. All were imported from the Aristotelian schemata into Arabic philosophy. The Arabic philosopher developed different types of reconciliation between different Greek philosophies through Aristotle, and philosophy as a whole and the sacred text.

But reconciliation does not mean uniformity. The duality is still one with any kind of harmony. Al Farabi and the others were aware of what can seem odd in introducing Greek philosophy to Arabic and Islamic thought. They do their best to indicate that philosophy – falsafa – is nothing more than a kind of wisdom – hikma – and wisdom is known as one of the true pursuits of god. So philosophy can be accepted if we laminate wisdom. The justification of philosophy can be defended by the love of wisdom.

In the titles of their books, Al Farabi and Averroes invite an approach to philosophy as wisdom. Al Farabi titled one of his books as The harmonization of the opinions of the true wiseman. Averroes determined the connection between divine law and wisdom – hikma. Philosophers of this time shaped the presentation of their thoughts in such a way that it could be accepted by the public rather than simply eliciting rejection of degradation.

Benmakhlouf closed with a quote finished by the French humanist Montaigne about conversation; words that are relevant to what he said about Arabic translation of philosophy:

“Words belong half to the speaker, half to the hearer. The latter must prepare himself to receive them according to such motion as they acquire, just as among those who play royal-tennis the one who receives the ball steps backward or prepares himself depending on the movements of the server or the form of his stroke”.[14]

Words belong half to the Arabic philosopher, half to those who keep reading them in the light of our questions.

Danny Dubbaneh is an Arab-American with an M.A. in International Development. A New York based research analyst, he enjoys reading and learning about literature and philosophy in his free time.

[1] Jean Jolivet, Émergences de la philosophie au Moeyn-âge, in Philosophie médiévale arabe et latine, Vrin, Paris, 1995, p. 37.

[2] Koran 55:4

[3] Magid Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy, French translation, Cerf, Paris, 2007, p. 96

[4] Al Kindi, First Philosophy, (Euvres scientifiques et philosophiques d’al Kindi, volume 2, “Métaphysique et cosmologie”, ed by R.Rashed and J. Jolivet, Brill, 1998.

[5] Leo Strauss, La renaissance du rationalisme politique classique, french translation, 1993, chapter 9: Pour commencer à étudier médiévale, Gallimard, p. 298

[6] Al Farabi, Book of Religion, trad by Charles Butterworth, Cornell University, 2001, §9, p. 99

[7] Koran, Sura 16:125

[8] Koran 3:7

[9] Averroes, op.cit, p. 51

[10] Aristotle, Posterior Analytics, I, 1, 71 al et 71a16

[11] Al Kindi, First Philosophy, (Euvres scientifiques et philosophiques d’al Kindi, volume 2, “Métaphysique et cosmologie”, ed by R.Rashed and J. Jolivet, Brill, 1998.

[12] Ibn Rushd (Averroës), Medieval Sourcebook: 1126-1198 CE: Religion & Philosophy, c. 1190 CE

[13] Deborah Black, Logic and Aristotle’s Rhetoric and pOetics in Medieval Arabic Philosophy, E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1990, p. 248

[14] Montaigne, Essays, III, 13, translated by Screech., Penguin Classics, 1987, 1991, 2003, p. 1235


Categories: classics, philosophy

3 replies

  1. An excellent article. I might add that Farabi, Ibn Sina, and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) were aware of the multiple meanings words may have when they transliterated literary terms for which translators came with what seemed then inadequate renderings. That’s why “taraguthia,” for example, accompanied the translation of “tragedy” as “eulogy.” Other such terms were “qomuthia” (comedy), “darmi,” “iambu,” and “dithrambu,” for “drama,” “iambic,” and “dithyramb” respectively.

  2. As a follow-up to my previous comment, I just want to mention that several more recent studies than the ones cited by Dubbaneh offer. very interesting interventions with Arab philosophers’ engagement of Aristotle. For example, Kemal (2003), Rigolio (2013), and James T. Robinson (2012).

  3. Great, thank you for reading. Very interesting examples of the transliterated literary terms as well. I will check out those studies – thanks!

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