The Middle Eastern Texts Initiative: To Recover, Preserve, and Remember

06.21.2013 | Morgan Davis

For the past twenty years, a project called the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative (METI) has been underway at Brigham Young University. METI publishes accessible translations of the philosophical, theological, and mystical literature of classical Islamic civilization. In this two-part post, Morgan Davis, director of the project, tells the story of the texts themselves—how and why they came to be, who wrote them, and why the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship employs the highest academic standards to translate and publish them. For more on METI, see meti.byu.edu. A new METI site will be available next month when the brand new Maxwell Institute website launches. —BHodges

The late antique period saw the once mighty Roman Empire lapse into decline, schism, and dissolution, but the cultural treasures it had amassed—gathering and evolving ideas and art forms from Greece, Egypt, and other peripheries—ensured a kind of continuity even as new overlords appeared on the scene from unexpected quarters.

In the western borders of Arabia, a desert prophet was gathering followers around a new revelation. Muhammad’s charismatic vision and energetic leadership transformed the tribes of Arabia, who had been rivals serving a pantheon of proprietary deities, into a people with a new conception of themselves as a united umma—a people or nation guided by the divine decree of God (Allah, in Arabic) as revealed to Muhammad. These newly minted monotheists were called upon to share the message of the oneness of God far and wide, and to seek knowledge in his service “even unto China.” More than any other single phenomenon of the time, it was the emergence of Islam as a religious, political, and cultural force that shaped the character of the Middle Ages that followed.

During the first century following the death of Muhammad, as his followers flowed out of Arabia and conquered the larger Mediterranean world, they found themselves the custodians of or in direct contact with the cultural wealth of preceding civilizations—Greek, Persian, Indian, and even Chinese. The first interest in philosophy among the early Muslims arose as they began to have prolonged contact with Christians in Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Damascus, and other metropoles. Christian writers such as John of Damascus (who wrote in Greek), Theodore bar Koni, and Patriarch Timothy I (who both wrote in Syriac) composed logically sophisticated articulations of Christian dogma that presented direct challenges to the spiritual claims of Muhammad’s followers.1

The Arabs rather quickly realized that such theologians were armed with impressive logical and rhetorical arsenals inherited from Greece and adapted to their Christian purposes. As newcomers on this scene, the bearers of the freshly scribed Qurʾan were determined that their faith would hold its own in this new sectarian milieu. And there were practical matters to consider as well: The governance of an empire would demand familiarity with many subjects and disciplines, all of which had been pioneered by their predecessors and written down in Greek. The Arabs found that the local Syriac Christian communities, as former citizens of the Byzantine Empire, had already translated many of these texts into their native Syriac, a close cousin to Arabic. So, they took the next logical step and commissioned their Christian subjects now to render the Syriac into Arabic. Patriarch Timothy himself was commissioned as a translator for the Muslim caliph at Baghdad. Priority was given to such texts as the Arabs believed would enable them to formulate more sophisticated defenses of Muhammad’s teachings and to step into the roles of wise and learned governors of Dar al-Islam—the abode of Islam.

Within a generation, skilled translators also emerged who could render Greek directly into Arabic, and over the next century these translators and their apprentices, funded by a new class of Arabic-speaking nobility and gentry, revised or supplanted the work of their Syriac predecessors and went on to render nearly the entire known corpus of Greek learning into Arabic.2 In Baghdad, the new imperial and cultural capital, this project became an institution known as “bayt al-ḥikmah” or “House of Wisdom.”

Paper fueled the fires of learning. Invented in China during the second century, paper-making technology was not much valued until the eighth century, when trade along the Silk Road via Samarkand brought it to the attention of the Islamic empire, with its capital now established at Baghdad. The ability to manufacture a medium for the written word that was less fragile (and so more portable) than papyrus and more inexpensively produced than vellum coincided with and catalyzed a remarkable intellectual efflorescence that burned brightest at Baghdad, but soon was kindling new centers of learning right across the empire. Teachers followed traders and merchants who extended an immense network that communicated not only goods but also ideas from around the vast perimeter of the Indian Ocean, up the eastern coasts of Africa, across the northern and southern littorals of the Mediterranean, and deep into the Iberian Peninsula and Central Asia.

Islamic philosophers arose who had sufficient command of classical modes of reasoning that they could bring these to bear upon the religious imagery and dogmas of Muhammad and the Quʾan. Al-Farābī, for example, wrote a treatise on “The Perfect State,” which derives much of its intellectual orientation from Plato’s Republic, but with an Islamic twist: Whereas Plato argued for the rule of philosopher-kings, al-Farābī espoused a notion of a once-for-all prophet-ruler (i.e. Muhammad) as a paragon of leadership for all future rulers to emulate.

This pattern of weaving together the received wisdom and logical tools of the Greeks and the revealed message of the Qurʾan was put to many theological, philosophical, ethical, and political uses—some more successful than others. As decades and then centuries passed, different sects emerged across the broad geography of the Islamic world, each with their various legal, theological, and mystical schools. Proponents of each wrote treatises explicating their ideas and arguing their superiority over others. In addition, Muslims, Jews, and Christians wrote medical and mathematical treatises, geographies, travelogues, world histories, botanical catalogues, zoologies, astrologies, and much more—cheifly in Arabic, but sometimes, too, in Persian, Hebrew, Syriac or various combinations of these. (Judeo-Arabic, for example, is Arabic written with Hebrew characters, a style that was common among the Jewish intellectuals of al-Andalus.) The result was a veritable ocean of literature the depths of which are still being sounded by scholars at the present time.

Today we find ourselves living in a world transformed by developments in democracy, free-market economics, secular rationalism, science, and technology. The intellectual efforts of previous ages are dim memories for most people now, especially in the West where these new influences have had their strongest impact. Though Arabic holds a sacred place in Islam, it is no longer the indispensable language of knowledge and culture that it was during the Middle Ages. And while some crucial texts have never been entirely forgotten by Islamic communities, the vast majority of the surviving manuscripts—texts that once contained some of the world’s most salient ideas—now lie mostly undisturbed in special collections and private holdings around the world. A kind of cultural amnesia once again threatens to take hold. What is worse, the rise of Islamic extremism, and Western reactions to it, threatens to demolish any nuanced understanding of Islamicate civilization or the spirit of tolerance that was the rule rather than the exception during much of its history. Fortunately, a few scholars have taken notice and have found their passion in searching out these forgotten texts, establishing their provenance, revealing their contents, and telling the stories of the communities that produced them.

See part two, which situates the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative within this wider desire to resuscitate the wisdom and knowledge of the past.

Footnotes:

1. See Sidney H. Griffith, The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

2. Dimitry Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture (London: Routlege, 1998).