The Syriac-speaking Christians of Syria and Mesopotamia made one of the most important .contributions to the intellectual efflorescence centred in 'Abbasid Baghdad which became the chief glory of medieval Islam. The first century and a half of the' Abbasid dynasty saw the momentous movement of translation of Greek, Syriac and Persian works into Arabic and the transference of Hellenistic lore to the followers of the Arabian Prophet. In the years following the founding of Baghdad the major philosophical works of Aristotle and the Neoplatonic commentators, the chief medical writings of Hippocrates and Galen, the mathematical works of Euclid and the geographical work of Ptolemy became available to readers of Arabic. In this movement it was the Syrians who were the chief mediators.
To understand how Syriac came to exercise its important influence on Arabic literature it is necessary to have a clear picture of the development of Syriac literature itself. This development may be divided into three stages: The first period extended from the pre-Christian era to the eighth century A.D., and is represented by the few surviving pagan works (e.g. the Story of Ahiqar and the writings of Mara bar Seraphion and Baba of Harran), and a far more extensive Christian literature. It commences with the Bible in successive versions (Monophysite versions, Malkite versions and Nestorian versions), commonly called Peshitta ("simple"), for the Syrian church seems never to have been satisfied with its translations. The latter half of the period was the golden age of Syriac literature, with the commencement in the fifth century of the native historical literature of Syria, and the initiation of the great task of translating into Syriac the theological and doctrinal writings of the Greek Fathers, as well as the works of Peripatetic philosophy, by the Syriac-speaking Fathers.
With regard to original works of Syriac literature in the first phase of its history the weight of interest must lie with the ascetic and mystical books. The earliest work in this field was the Book of Hierotheos, attributed to Stephen bar Sudayli (d. A..D. 510), a work which exercised a strong influence on Syrian mystics throughout the Middle Ages, especially on Bar Hebraeus, who wrote a commentary on it and made copious extracts from it. Outstanding in this field are the works of Isaac of Nineveh, who flourished in the late sixth century, and Simon of Taybutheh (d. c. 680). Isaac, who is credited with the writing of seven volumes on the guidance of the Spirit, and the Divine mysteries and judgements and dispensation, lays stress in his teaching on the contemplative life, and emphasizes that it cannot be born in the womb of reason. Simon asserts that at least a part of knowledge is perceived through the inward silence of the mind, and that that sort of knowledge is the highest of all, for it reaches the hidden Godhead. It is in the field of the ascetic-mystical that the Syriac parallelism to Sufi literature is striking.
The fifth century saw the Syrian church split into two hostile sects, the Jacobite and the Nestorian. Despite the weakening of the church which this involved, the rift served as an impetus to the translation of the logic of Aristotle, in which both factions found arguments for their doctrinal positions. It also, however, made easier the conquest of Persia and Syria by the Muslim Arabs. .
The second period, lasting from the eighth to the close of the thirteenth century, coincides broadly with the period of the definitive Arab domination of Syria and Iraq. Although the most important feature of this period was the Syriac-speakers' transmission of Greek philosophy and medicine into Arabic, the Syrians also produced many original works in a wide range of fields, particularly in the field of general and ecclesiastical history. One of the earliest of the Syriac historical writings was the Acts of the Martyrs. In this period shine the names of Michael the Great (d. I 199) whose most important work was a Chronicle from the creation to A.D. I 196, and Bar Hebraeus (d. 1286), one of the most learned and versatile men that Syria ever produced, who wrote a universal history, the Chronicon syriacum, in three parts.
The third period, from the thirteenth century to the present day, is generally considered an age of decline, in which the Syriac language has been virtually extinguished in everyday, and even literary, use by Arabic. Nevertheless, some Syrians Lebanese have continued to produce literary works in Syriac, and today there are some signs of a modern revival. Liturgical writings form a considerable part of the literary activity of this period. Barsum records in his book al-Lu' lu' al-manthur the names and literary products of some fifty-six writers, translators and poets since the death of Bar Hebraeus and up to the nineteenth century.
Arab contact with the Syrians goes back to the days of the Arab kingdom of the Lakhmids of al-Hirah in Iraq and the Ghassanids in southern Syria. Syrian physicians practised medicine in Arabia before Islam and Syria: missionaries converted many Arabs to Christianity. The first bishop of Beth 'Arbaya (between Nisibis and Sinjar), Ahudeme (d. 575), was a successful preacher of the Gospel among the bedouin and ended by earning the crown of martyrdom at Chosroes' hands for converting a youthful member of the Persian royal family, whom he baptized by the name of George. A later churchman, George, bishop of the Arab tribes (consecrated 724), whose diocese included the Tanukh, Tha'lab and Taghlib, was well known for his translation into Syriac of Aristotle's Organon. In the course of time Christian communities grew up in the Yemen, particularly Najran and in Yathrib in the Hijaz, where the first church in the city was dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Words of Syriac or Aramaic origin in the Qur'an (e.g. furqan, sifr, zakah Salah, kahin, qissis) demonstrate the cultural influence which the Syrians were already exerting on the very beginnings of Islamic civilization. Many other ecclesiastical terms were borrowed from Syriac, and several Greek words were arabized through Syriac (e.g. khuri, iskim, batriyark). Syriac also made a significant contribution to the writing of Arabic. The Arabic alphabet descends from the Nabataean script (a sister of Syriac) and the diacritical points and vowel pointing in Arabic follow the East Syriac system.
When we turn to examine the interaction between Syriac literature and the literature of the Arabs, we find that it is the ascetic-mystical books of the golden age of Syriac literature which represent the first important influence of Syriac on Arabic. As noted above, the parallels between the writings of Isaac of Nineveh and Simon of Taybutheh and the later writings of the Sufis are striking. This parallelism may also be seen in the recently discovered manuscript sources for Athanasius Abu Ghalib (d. 1177). As Voobus rightly points out, the dynamic stream of Syrian mysticism, which was initiated by pseudo-Macarius and others, had a very important role in bringing to fruition the mystical movement in Islam, in Mesopotamia and Persia, namely Sufism.
The evidence for this influence is based on parallel ideas only, but with the Syrian translators of the eighth and ninth centuries we come to abundant documentary evidence of the Syriac influence on Arabic. The Syrians' transmission of the knowledge of the Greeks into Arabic was undoubtedly vital to the preservation of ancient Greek learning.
For two centuries before Islam the Syrians had been translating Greek works into Syriac. This activity was based on the great schools of Nisibis, Edessa, Harran and Jundishapur. The Persian school at Edessa was the chief centre for the study of Syriac and Greek during the early phase of Syriac literature. In addition to translations of a large number of the Early Church Fathers' theological and doctrinal works, there were translations made in the fields of philosophy, medicine, ethics and physics. Outstanding in this field, especially in translating the writings of Aristotle, was the Jacobite figure of Sergius of Ras 'Ayn (d. c. 536), who was well known among the eastern and western Syrians as a physician and for his knowledge of Greek, and particularly for his knowledge of Aristotelian philosophy. Among the Jacobite scholars, Sergius was unanimously called the one who first brought Aristotle into the Syriac language.
The first recorded translation from Syriac into Arabic was a version of the Four Gospels which was made by a number of translators in A.D. 643 during the patriarchate of John of the Sedras, Patriarch of Antioch. According to Bar Hebraeus this was made by translators from the Arab tribes of the Tayyi', Tanukh and 'Uqayl, at the command of 'Amr b. Sa'd b. Abi Waqqas al-Ansari, the Muslim governor of al-Jazirah. This translation, however, has not survived, and it was over a century later, in the caliphate of al-Mansur (136-59/753-75), that the activity of translation from Syriac to Arabic began in full force.
With the Islamic intellectual awakening of the eighth and ninth centuries the translation work of the Syrians from Greek into Syriac entered a new phase: the retranslation of Syriac versions of the Greek works into the new imperial language, Arabic. The importance of this work of translation overshadows that of original works of Syriac literature in the second phase of its history as briefly described above.
The Syrians, although they added virtually nothing to Greek science, medicine and philosophy, were zealous preservers and propagators of this lore as they found it in the original texts, and when the intellectual curiosity of the Arabs was aroused, the local conservators of Hellenic knowledge in Iraq and Syria, the Syriac-speaking Christians, were the natural candidates for the role of transmission of Greek thought to the Muslims. Without the translations made by the Syrians, Muslim scholars from the ninth to the twelfth centuries would not have had access to Greek philosophy and sciences. This dependence may be illustrated by examples as illustrious as those of al-Kindi, who relied exclusively on translations in his studies, and al-Farabi, who owed his education in Greek philosophy to two Syrian teachers, Abu Yahya al-Marwazi and Yuhanna b. Haylan.
The first of the "foreign sciences" ('ulum al-'Ajam) which claimed the attentions of the Muslims, and particularly Muslim rulers, was the practical art of medicine. The caliphs early availed themselves of the services of Christian, Syriac-speaking physicians; the family of Bakhtishu', which produced eminent medical men through seven generations, is particularly celebrated for its services to al-Mansur and later caliphs.
Yuhanna b. Masawayh (d. 243/857), an early Christian medical writer, was associated with the Bakhtishu family, and was charged by Harun al-Rashid with the translation of Greek books, mainly medical, found at Ankara and Amorium. The name of Yuhanna b. Masawayh stands out among the eminent Syrian Christian physicians. He was the head of the Bayt al-Hikmah, which was established by al-Ma'mun in 217/832 as a centre where scholars could pursue their translations. Yuhanna is credited with the authorship of some fifty works, including the Medical Axioms (Al-Nawadir al-tibbiyyah) which was twice translated into Latin in the Middle Ages.
The Syriac Impact on Arabic Literature
R. Y. Ebied