Al-Kindi’s Role in the Transmission of Greek Knowledge to the Arabs* Matti Moosa

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* This material, which is presented solely for educational/research purposes, appeared in the Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society Volume XV, Part I (January, 1967) pp. 1-18. It is a revised and expanded version of a paper delivered in a session dealing with Islamic Studies during the meetings of the American Oriental Society at Philadelphia in April 1966. The article’s Footnotes page opens in a separate window.

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The information compiled by ancient and modern writers on the life and works of Abu Yusuf Ya’qub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi, the only Muslim philosopher of Arab descent, is abundant, but not always consistent. The reader who is interested in the life and works of this eminent learned man is baffled by the evident discrepancies in the dates of his birth and death, particularly those given by modern writers (1). Despite these contradictory dates, [2] it is certain that al-Kindi flourished in the first half of the ninth century and was a contemporary of three Abbasid Caliphs, namely al-Ma’mun (813-33), al-Mu’tasim (833-42) and al-Mutawakkil (847-61).

The era in which al-Kindi lived was unique in the history of Islamic thought. This era, particulary under al-Ma’mun, was at the beginning marked by a distinct liberality of thinking in matters concerning religion and philosophy. Under the patronage of this Caliph, the rationalists, al-Mu’tazilah, expressed freely their tenets, among which was the opinion that the Qur’an was not eternal before the worlds, but was created in time. By the end of his caliphate, however, al-Ma’mun was suppressing any doctrine except that of al-Mu’tazilah. In this era, also, the practice of translating Greek books of philosophy and sciences into Syriac and Arabic was at its peak.

Al-Kindi, who was educated at al-Basrah and Baghdad, must have known about these translations and made use of the translated works in his writings. He must also have devoted his time to the study of philosophy in an atmosphere fraught with theological, polemic and doctrinal disputes. Among the disputants were al-Mu’tazilah, whose influence on the philosophy of al-Kindi is most conspicuous.

Al-Kindi was the first purely Arab philosopher who devoted himself intensively to Greek philosophy and science. An able and prolific writer, he is said to have written no less than three hundred treatises covering the whole spectrum of knowledge in his time. His writings dealt with Peripatetic, Neo-platonic, snd Neo-pythagorean philosophies. They also covered other disciplines, such as logic, mathematics, medicine, alchemy, optics, political economy, physics, metaphysics, and theories of music. He was so erudite and prolific that ibn al-Nadim considered him “the only excellent man in his time who covered the entire ancient sciences” (1).

[3] It would be interesting to know whether, in exploring different fields of learning, al-Kindi relied on original Greek and Syriac sources, or whether he used Arabic translations from both these languages. If the answer to the first question is affirmative, then it becomes obvious that al-Kindi must have known Greek and Syriac and the problem becomes simple. If, on the other hand, his studies were mainly based on translations from these two languages, the question arises as to how much Greek and Syriac he knew, and to what extent he relied upon the works of professional translators.

Nowhere in his voluminous writings does al-Kindi mention that he knew Greek or Syriac. It might be argued that if he had known these languages, he would at least have referred to the original Greek text or the Syriac translation. However, this argument is not decisive, since in some cases, Arab and Muslim writers copied each other without referring to the source from which they had drawn their information. What makes the question more complicated is that some modern western and oriental writers either mentioned al-Kindi as a translator without specifying anything he allegedly translated, or they credited him with the translation of Greek works into Arabic. Max Mayerhof states that

Arab biographers mention Abu Yusuf Ya’qub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi among the great translators. Of his translations, very little is known except that of Ptolemy’s Geography. No translations which he himself completed have come down to us; even his role as a translator is completely unknown (1).

Thus, while Meyerhof is not certain about al-Kindi’s role as a translator, he does not hesitate to credit him with the translation of Ptolemy’s Geography. T. J. De Boer writes “[He] al-Kindi is mentioned as a translator of Greek works into Arabic ” (2). In his [4] article on al-Kindi in the Encyclopedia of Islam, De Boer makes it clear that al-Kindi “served in various capacities under Ma’mun and Mu’tasim as a translator or editor of Greek philosophical works” (1). Philip Hitti also clearly states that “Ptolemy’s Geography was translated into Arabic either directly or through Syriac several times, notably by Ya’qub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi before 874, and by Thabit ibn Qurrah, who died in 901″ (2). Jurji Zaydan not only considers al-Kindi a skillful translator, but also gives the reason why al-Kindi was not mentioned among the translators in his time. “He [al-Kindi] made many translations for himself. He was regarded as one of the skillful translators, but was not mentioned among these translators because he did not make translation his profession” (3). Unfortunately, these writers refer us to no source in making these statments, and we must turn elsewhere for more information on the subject.

According to ‘Abd al-Rahman Badawi, Dawud ibn Sulayman ibn Hassan, the Muslim Andalusian writer known as ibn Juljul, was the first writer ever to mention al-Kindi as a translator. Badawi refers to ibn Juljul’s book, Tabaqat al-‘Atibba’ wa al-Hukama’ (Categories of Physicians and Sages), and particularly to the part containing the biography of al-Kindi, in which ibn Juljul states that al-Kindi “translated many philosophical books, explained their intricacies and adapted and expounded the incomprehensible and difficult parts of them” (4). Ibn Juljul does not mention by name any book translated by al-Kindi, nor does he mention from what language he made these philosophical translations. Moreover, ibn Juljul has erroneously made al-Kindi [5] the author of Kitab al-Jughrafiyah fi Ma’rifat al-‘Aqalim al-Ma’mura (The Book Concerning the Knowledge of the Inhabited Regions), which is none other than Ptolemy’s Geography (1). To pursue this point more thoroughly, Badawi should have investigated the sources from which ibn Juljul drew his information about al-Kindi’s role as a translator. This, however, is not an easy task because the sources on this particular question are either unavailable or confused.

Ibn Juljul, a native of Cordova, who probably died after the year 394 A. H. /A. D. 992, was the first Spanish Muslim to write the biographies of physicians and sages, including Abu Yusuf Ya’qub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi (2). From the life of ibn Juljul, we know that he was a man of wide knowledge, particularly in the medical sciences. Although he lived under the ‘Umayyad caliphs, ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Nasir and al-Hakam II al-Mustansir in Spain, yet he achieved fame only under the Caliph Hisham II al-Mu’ayyad (976-1009) and became his private physician. In the time of al-Mu’ayyad, ibn Juljul wrote most of his works, including Tabaqat al-‘Atibba’ wa al-Hukama’, which he completed in A.D. 987, the same year in which the celebrated Ishaq ibn al-Nadim (d. 995) wrote his famous al-Fihrist in Baghdad. Like ibn Juljul’s work, al-Fihrist contained, among other things, the biographies of physicians and sages. There is no doubt that these two men compiled their books separately, neither knowing the endeavour of the other. However, since ibn al-Nadim lived and wrote in Baghdad and was in direct contact with the intellectual activities (including translations) in that city, he was in a much better position to obtain information from original sources about learned men, including al-Kindi, than was ibn Juljul, who lived in Spain and had no contact with the translation activities in Baghdad. But a study of al-Fihrist shows that the author, who devoted several pages to the life and works of al-Kindi, mentions nothing about al-Kindi as a translator, nor [6] does he list any book translated by al-Kindi (1). It is curious that ibn Juljul, who was far away from Baghdad, where al-Kindi lived and worked, says that he had translated many philosophical books, while ibn al-Nadim, who lived and worked in Baghdad, is completely silent on this point.

Where did ibn Juljul obtain such information? The study of ibn Juljul’s book shows that he relied on both oral and written traditions. In some of the biographies, he reports stories and information related to him by some of his learned contemporaries, who had travelled to the Eastern Islamic countries (Egypt and other lands of the Abbasid empire) and lived and studied in those countries for many years. Among these men were Ahmad ibn Yunus al-Harrani and his brother ‘Umar, who journeyed to the East in 941 and visited al-Basrah and Baghdad, where they remained ten years, studying medicine under Thabit ibn Sinan ibn Thabit ibn Qurrah. They returned to Spain in 962 (2). Another learned man, Abu Zakariyya Yahya ibn Malik ibn Kaysan, known as al-‘Ayidi (d. 985), also journeyed to the East in 958 and visited Egypt, Baghdad, al-Basrah and al-Ahwaz. He remained in the East about twenty years, during which he compiled a great deal of information about it. Upon his return to Spain in 979, people from all walks of life came to listen to his stories and accounts about the East at a mosque in Cordova. Ibn Juljul apparently met him, because he relates that al-‘Ayidi recited to him some poetry personally (3). Another learned man was [7] Muhammad ibn ‘Abdun al-Jabali al-‘Adadi, who travelled to the East in 958 and visited al-Basrah and al-Fustat, where he was put in charge of the hospital. He returned to Spain in 970 (1). Al-Adadi was ibn Juljul’s associate in the service of the Caliph al-Mustansir and his son Hisham II al-Mu’ayyad. Undoubtedly, ibn Juljul must have listened personally to these men relating their experiences and observations about the East. Ahmad ibn Yunus al-Harrani, who visited al-Basrah, told ibn Juljul about the shops and market place in that city (2). Whether these men related to ibn Juljul any specific information concerning the lives and works of physicians and learned men in the East like al-Kindi, is a matter of speculation.

As for the written tradition, ibn Juljul refers to the sources which were available to him in compiling his book. Before mentioning these sources, however, it would be interesting for our purpose to know whether ibn Juljul had read any of al-Kindi’s writings. In his biography of Euclid, ibn Juljul relates the same account which al-Kindi had given in one of his treatises about how Euclid came to write his book, which ibn Juljul calls simply “The book ascribed to Euclid” (3). Although ibn Juljul gives no title for this book and does not mention a specific treatise in which al-Kindi relates how Euclid wrote it, yet we know from ibn al-Nadim’s biography of Euclid that this book must be the Elements (4). We also know from the same biography that ibn al-Nadim, in relating the same account given by ibn Juljul of how Euclid came to write his Elements, has actually quoted al-Kindi’s treatise On the Purposes of the Book of Euclid, which he lists among the writing of al-Kindi (5). Furthermore, Ibn Juljul states in the introduction to his book [8] on the categories of physicians and sages that he has acquired the information which he incorporated in his work through the study of ancient books such as Kitab al-‘Uluf fi Buyut al-Ibadat (The Book of Thousands or Millennaries dealing with the Places of Worship) by the astrologer Abu Ma’shar (d. 885). Further, he relied on Kitab Horoshioush (Orosius) the relater of stories and Kitab al-Qarwaniqa (Chronica) by Yarunum al-Tarjuman (Jerome, the Translator) who is none other than St. Jerome. He also states that he utilized chronicles of Greek sages, from which he was able to determine the position of each one of them, and under which state and monarch each lived (1). Of these sources, the one written by Abu Ma’shar is important to our thesis.

This Abu Ma’shar quoted by Ibn Juljul must be Ja’far Ibn Muhammad Ibn ‘Umar al-Balkhi (d. 885) known in the West as Albumasar. He was not only an eminent astrologer, but also the most informed person about Persian biographies and the chronicles of other ancient nations (2). He began his career by studying Hadith but turned his attention to astrology when he was past forty-seven. According to many Muslim biographies and historians, Abu Ma’shar wrote numerous astronomical books. He also wrote Kitab al-Uluf which contains “the chronicles of ancient western nations” (3). What is meant here by “western nations” is probably the Greeks and the Romans, who inhabited the lands lying west of the Muslim countries. Most of this book, which contained historical and astronomical and astrological information, has unfortunately been lost. Only thirty pages containing astronomical information, survive in the British Museum MS. Or. 3557; another copy at the Bibliotheque National in Paris, MS. 2581, is probably a copy of the British Museum MS (4).

[9] That ibn Juljul used Kitab al-Uluf is evident from his introduction to Tabaqat al-‘Atibba ‘wa al-Hukama’ But there is no way of knowing whether in his account of al-Kindi he has quoted Abu Ma’shar, since this particular book by Abu Ma’shar is lost. However, Qadi Sa’id in his Tabaqat al-‘Umam mentions that “Abu Ma’shar is reported to have said in Kitab al-Mudhakarat (Discussions) by Shadhan ibn Bahr that the skillful translators in Islam are four: Hunayn ibn Ishaq, Ya’qub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi, Thabit ibn Qurrah al-Harrani and ‘Umar ibn Farrukhan al-Tabari (1). In ‘Uyun al-‘Anba’ ibn ‘Usaybi’ah repeats this same statement by Qadi Sa’id and adds that al-Kindi had translated many books (2). Like ibn Juljul, ibn Abi ‘Usaybi’ah does not mention any specific work translated by al-Kindi. This statement by Abu Ma’shar, in which al-Kindi is presented as a translator, has been mentioned neither by ibn al-Nadim in his al-Fihrist, nor by al-Qifti in Tarikh al-Hukama’. However, al-Qifti mentions ‘Umar ibn al-Farrukhan al-Tabari as one of the chief translators. He also states that Abu Ma’shar mentioned in Kitab al-Mudhakarat that al-Fadl ibn Sahl, the minister of al-Ma’mun called ‘Omar ibn al-Farrukhan from his home town and introduced him to the Caliph, for whom he translated many books. Al-Qifi goes on to say that Umar wrote many books on astronomy and philosophy, including a commentary on The Four Treatises of Ptolemy, and that this treatise was translated by Yahya ibn al-Batriq (3). Going back to ibn al-Nadim, [10] we find he says nothing about ‘Umar ibn al-Farrukhan as a translator. But he does say that ‘Umar is the commentator on The Four Treatises of Ptolemy, and that this treatise was translated for him by Yahya ibn al-Batriq (1). This makes it clear that either ibn al-Nadim knew nothing about the role of ‘Umar ibn al-Farrukhan as a translator, or the copy of Kitab al-Mudhakarat by Shadhan ibn Bahr was not available to him. Further study shows that in his biography of Rabban al-Tabari, al-Qifti once more quotes Abu Ma’shar about translators. He states that

“When Abu Ma’shar was asked about Matarih al-Shu’a’ (The Places Where the Rays Fall) he mentioned them and added that the translators of the copies (of al-Mijisti) from the Greek mentioned neither these Matarih al-Shu’a’ nor where they fall; they were mentioned only in the copy of al-Mijisti translated by the physician Rabban al-Tabari.” Abu Ma’shar continues to write that “Matrah al-Shu’a’ of Ptolemy was not mentioned in the old copies (of al-Mijisti) nor was it known by the translator” (2).

Al-Qifti stops at this point without mentioning who these translators were. However, ibn Abi ‘Usaybi’ah, who also wrote that Matrah al-Shu’a’of Ptolemy was not mentioned by old copies of al-Majisti, adds the following : “and it [Matrah al-Shu’a’] was not known by Thabit (ibn Qurrah), Hunayn al-Qalusi (sic), al-Kindi, nor by any one of these great translators” (3). This indicates that Abu Ma’shar, not ibn Juljul, as Badawi has thought, was first to mention al-Kindi as a translator. But neither Abu Ma’shar, if we may judge from the previous statements, nor ibn Juljul mention any specific work translated by al-Kindi. It is these statements by Abu Ma’shar, quoted by al-Qifti and ibn ‘Abi ‘Usaybi’ah, which have led contemporary writers to believe that al-Kindi must have been a translator.

As to the validity of Abu Ma’shar’s evidence, we learn from ibn al-Nadim that he was a distinguished astrologer and a writer of [11] many books. He was also a contemporary of al-Kindi and at a time even antagonized him, aroused the public against him, and calumniated him for engaging in philosopical pursuits. Later, however, he was reconciled with him and even studied under him (1). Although ibn al-Nadim does not mention Kitab al-‘Uluf by Abu Ma’shar, yet it is clear that ibn Juljul used a copy of this book, in which the author probably related some information about the lives and works of physicians and learned men, including al-Kindi. This question, however, will not be settled until a copy of this book becomes available.

This is not the whole story, for al-Qifti confronts us with a statement which unequivocally makes al-Kindi a translator of Ptolemy’s Geography. In listing the books of Ptolemy which have been translated into Arabic, al-Qifti states that “the book of Geography Concerning the Inhabited Regions of the Earth has been rendered in a good translation into Arabic by al-Kindi; it also exists in Syriac” (2). This statement must have caused Gustav Flugel and others to believe that al-Kindi had translated Ptolemy’s Geography into Arabic (3). But it would be appropriate to ask in this regard, what was al-Qifti’s source? Surely it was not ibn Juljul, who was quoted not only by al-Qifti, but by other biographers of physicians and sages; for ibn Juljul does not mention a specific book translated by al-Kindi. On the other hand, no source, not even ibn al-Nadim, lists a book bearing this title as written by al-Kindi. What makes the clarification of ibn Juljul’s statement even more difficult is that only one version of Tabaqat al-‘Atibba ‘wa al-Hukama’ exists.

In returning to al-Fihrist, we find ibn al-Nadim has this to say regarding the translation of Ptolemy’s Geography: “He [Ptolemy] has a Book of Geography Concerning the Inhabited Regions and the [12] Description of the Earth in eight treatises, which had been badly translated for al-Kindi, but was later excellently translated into Arabic by Thabit” (1). This statement clearly shows that al-Kindi did not translate Ptolemy’s Geography but it was translated for him by someone, and that this translation was bad. Ibn al-Nadim also adds that a copy of this book exists in Syriac. This Syriac copy is perhaps the same one which Thabit translated into Arabic. What is important in this context is that al-Qifti not only copied ibn al-Nadim’s work, but also distorted it by making al-Kindi the translator of Ptolemy’s Geography. That al-Qifti has copied ibn al-Nadim is evident from the fact that no known source but al-Fihrist ever mentioned al-Kindi in this particular regard. It is possible, however, that al-Qifti had originally copied the former statement by ibn al-Nadim verbatim, but later the words “had been badly translated [for al-Kindi]” were dropped either by al-Qifti himself or by copyists. However, a careful comparison of the texts of ibn al-Nadim and al-Qifti reveals that al-Qifti has undoubtedly misquoted ibn al-Nadim (2). Steinschneider has rightfully observed in this regard that if the translation of Ptolemy’s Geography had been a good translation, ibn al-Nadim would not have described it as a bad translation (3). On the other hand, Flugel’s observation that some writers were critical of al-Kindi’s translation of Ptolemy’s Geography while other writers praised it seems to be groundless, since ibn al-Nadim never mentioned al-Kindi as a translator (4).

[13] So far we have seen that some ancient sources presented al-Kindi as a translator, but without specifying his translated works. Al-Qifti, however, who credits him with the translation of Ptolemy’s Geography, has most likely misquoted the original sources from which he drew his information about al-Kindi’s alleged translation of Ptolemy’s Geography.

A study of the basic sources from which al-Kindi worked shows that this distinguished Arab philosopher relied on Arabic translations from the Greek and Syriac languages. From the long list of Aristotle’s works, provided by Ibn al-Nadim, we discover that al-Kindi has either commented on or revised the Arabic translations of some of Aristotle’s writings (1). For example, he made a compendium of Aristotle’s Categories, which had been translated into Arabic by Hunayn Ibn Ishaq. He also made compendiums of Aristotle’s De Interpretatione, which had been translated from Greek into Syriac by Hunayn, and from Syriac into Arabic by Ishaq Ibn Hunayn, as well as of Aristotle’s Apodeictica and Poetica. And he wrote a commentary on the Analytica Priora, which had been translated into Arabic by Theodore and revised by Hunayn, and on the Analytica Posteriora, part of which was translated from Greek into Syriac by Hunayn; later the whole Greek text was translated into Syriac by Ishaq Ibn Hunayn. Ibn al-Nadim, in listing the works of Aristotle, also mentions that Autolycus has a book on De Sphaera quae movet revised by al-Kindi (2). This is confirmed by al-Qifti (3), and by Barhebraeus, who writes that he has read in an old anonymous Syriac book that what survived of Autolycus’ works is Kitab al-Kurah al-Mutaharrikah as revised by al-Kindi (4). We also learn from Ibn al-Nadim that the Pseudo-Aristotelian ‘Uthulujiyya (Theology) was translated from Greek into Arabic by ‘Abd al-Masih Ibn Na’imah al-Himsi, and was [14] revised by Abu Yusuf Ya’qub Ibn Ishaq al-Kindi for Ahmad Ibn al-Mu’tasim bi Allah (1). We also learn from Ibn al-Nadim that parts of Aristotle’s Metaphysicswere translated from Greek into Arabic for al-Kindi by ‘Ustath (2). These quotations give no indication however, that al-Kindi ever undertook the translation of a Greek book of philosophy or science into Arabic; if he could have done this, it is unlikely that he should have had ‘Ustath translate for him parts of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. What al-Kindi did was either to summarize or revise the Arabic of translated works. This is not hard to explain, since most, if not all, of those translators were Christian Syrians whose Arabic was inadequate, especially when it came to finding Arabic words equivalent to the Greek terms.

That al-Kindi must have had some knowledge of the Greek language is evident from the treatise he wrote on the Quantity of the Books of Aristotle and What is Required for the Acquisition of Philosophy (3). In this treatise, al-Kindi not only gives a definition of Greek terms which, to be sure, were new to the Arabic language, but he also finds the Arabic equivalents of Greek terms. Furthermore, he gives an explanation of the origins and derivation of these terms. For example, he explains that analutika(analytica) means al-‘Aks min al-Ra’s because it derives from ana, which means “upwards” or “from bottom to top” (i.e. ra’s), and the verb luo, which means to “break” or ”resolve”; therefore, al-‘Aks in this context means “breaking” or “resolving”. In other words, analutika (al-‘Aks min al-Ra’s) means “to break things down to their component parts”; that is, ”to analyze” (4). He also gives al-Idah as the equivalent of the Greek term apodeiktike, and explains that this term is taken from the verb apodeikumai, which means [15] “to demonstrate” (1). He also goes on to give the Arabic equivalent of other Greek terms such as hayula, falsafah, ‘ustuqus, etc.

But how do we account for the phraseology of al-Kindi, which in some parts of his writings seems to be twisted, contorted, and so strange that one is inclined to doubt its Arabic origin? Abu Ridah, who edited several treatises by al-Kindi, seems sure that al-Kindi’s phraseology is Arabic; in fixing such terms, he argues, al-Kindi sets about to revive ancient Arabic words which have been dropped from use, such as ‘ays. which in general indicates the bringing into existence (2). Then al-Kindi goes on to make from ‘ays a plural form ‘aysat, and even derives a verb ‘ayyasa, and a verbal noun ta’yis; a past participle mu’ayyis; and an active participle mu’ayyas, all of which pertain to the act of creation or being created. Consequently, the definition of the true creative act, to al-Kindi, becomes “ta’yis al-‘Aysat ‘an lays” (3), that is, “the creation of beings from nothing”. Abu Ridah also maintains that al-Kindi has freely used the Arabic language by deriving the verb hawwa, yuhawwi, that is, “to create” and tahawwa, yatahawwa, that is, “to be created” from the independent personal pronoun huwa, that is, “he”. He also derives from the same independent pronoun the term haww and hawiyya, which again indicates the act of creation or existence. Abu Ridah continues to say that “despite what seems to be abnormal language, al-Kindi is well-versed in philology; his derivations may strike the modern reader as strange, but if he repairs to the dictionaries, he will find that they are philologically correct” (4). Abu Ridah concludes that “no translator or philosopher succeeding al-Kindi has been known to have laid down or used these terms in such unique astonishing manner” (5).

[16] It is difficult to accept the notion that these terms are either Arabic or of Arabic origin. Likewise, it is doubtful whether al-Kindi intended to restore archaic terms through their derivative forms. Surely, al-Kindi could have used purely Arabic terms to explain the act of creating or being created, rather than use such abnormal language. It is likely that these terms, as Patriarch Ignatius Jacob III maintains, are of Aramaic-Syriac origin.

In his article “Al-Kindi wa al-Suryaniyyah” Jacob cites several terms such as ‘ays, lays, hawwa, haww, along with other terms, to show that in using them, al-Kindi has, in fact, relied on Syriac translations of Greek works (1). Moreover, al-Kindi knew very little or no Syriac, not enough to be able to read Syriac texts. As the translators of Greek works in the ninth century were Syrians whose Arabic was inadequate, it was natural that many Arabized Syriac terms crept into their translations. In establishing the Syriac origin of these terms, Jacob refers us to Syriac dictionaries, particularly the dictionary of al-Hasan Ibn Bahlul in the tenth century, as well as to the treatise On the Soul by Moses bar Kipha, who was a contemporary of al-Kindi, and to church rituals in which these terms are used (2).

Among these terms cited by Jacob is ‘ays, believed to have come from the Syriac ith or ithio, meaning “being, existing,” but especially “self-existing” (3). It was frequently used by Syrian theological writers. In his treatise On the Creation of Angels, Moses bar Kipha writes: “‘Aloho man ithaw wo ithaw wnehwe ithaw mallun dayn ithaw aminoith dlo shuroyo wlo shulomo“, that is, “From the beginning God existed, is existing and will still exist; He will eternally exist without beginning and without end” (4). This [17] to be sure, is very similar to al-Kindi’s statement “God, may He be praised, exists and is still existing (‘ays), and that He is the creator (mu’ayyis) of all beings (‘aysat) from nothing (lays) (1). The reason why “‘ays” crept into Arabic with an “s” instead of a “th” at the end is that many Syrians from old times tended to pronounce many words ending with “th” by substituting the letter “s”. Such pronunciation exists to this day in the Syrian villages of Tur ‘Abdin and nothern Mesopotamia.

Another term is lays, which al-Kindi uses to indicate “nothingness” or “nonexistence”. It is true that lays is an Arabic incomplete verb, always used in the negative sense, but certainly it does not indicate “non-existence” or “nothingness,” nowhere do Arabic dictionaries cite lays in this sense. Abu Ridah, who credits al-Kindi with seeking to restore archaic terms, attempts to establish the origin of this verb by breaking it down into two components: la, which means “not”, and ‘ays, which means “exist”; therefore, lays means “does not exist” (2). Yet the origin of lays is perhaps more likely to be found in the Syriac layth (the letter t in layth is always hard, which is a composite of la meaning “not” and ithmeaning “exist”, that is, “does not exist”. The derivatives of layth are laytoyutho “non-existence”, or “nothingness”, ithlayti “to be reduced to nothingness”, etc. (3).

Al-Kindi also uses the verb hawwa meaning “to create”, and calls God al-Muhawwi, “the Creator”, and tahawwi, “creation” or “coming into existence” (4). This verb hawwa comes from the Syriac [18] hwo meaning “to be” or “to exist”. Its derivations are hwoyo, “existence”, hwoye, “coming into existence”, methhawyono, “the things which come into existence,” and methhawyonutho, “the act of coming into existence” (1). It is likely that al-Kindi used these terms according to the Eastern Syriac method of pronunciation with the ptah, rather than with the Western Syriac pronunciation with the zqaf; consequently, he wrote hawwa and hwayyainstead of hwo and hwoye (2). Al-Kindi also uses the word kuthmat, which by the way has been recorded by Abu Ridah as akmat, to indicate “spot,” or “speckle” or ”stain” of the body (3). This is again a Syriac word, kuthmotho in the Western Syriac pronunciation or kuthmatha according to Eastern Syriac pronunciation, meaning “spot” or “speckle”, and is particularly used in a metaphoric sense which indicates sin (4).

Al-Kindi apparently found these Arabized Syriac words in his translated sources, and used them for their technical significations in the form in which they occurred.

In summary, the historical and linguistic evidence seems to support the hypothesis that al-Kindi, while capable of explaining certain philosophical terms which had been absorbed into Arabic, must have relied on the translations of others in his study of Greek philosophy.

Footnotes
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