The Translation Movement: Medeival Arab, Islamic, and Jewish Rhetorics

Averroes: Short Commentary on Aristotle’s “Topics,” “Rhetoric,” and “Poetics”

Abū l-Walīd Muḥammad Ibn ʾAḥmad Ibn Rušd (أبو الوليد محمد ابن احمد ابن رشد)

Because I’m new to Averroes (1126-1198) and his ideas, I decided to do a lot of contextualizing here. I’m also interested in the historical scene of Averroes, so here I provide a few rambling thoughts, facts, and things that I found while learning about him and Muslim Spain. Overall, I find Averroes’ cultural influence to be astounding, and I’m surprised that I haven’t heard of him until now. Averroes was highly regarded, not just for his descriptions of Aristotle (which of course, were rhetorical in themselves), but also for his work in theology. His transliterations and articulations of Aristotle’s ideas are not static transmissions from Aristotle; instead, to me he provides a much clearer presentation of not just Aristotle’s ideas, but through an order and arrangement that is more logical, easier to follow, and seems well-suited for scholars at the time to study Aristotelian thought through an Islamic lens.

The work of a philosopher, in the medieval age, encompassed astronomy, art, medicine, and mathematics  science (in other words, a polymath). There was an extreme cultural sensitivity to the work of any philosopher in the medieval Islamic world because metaphysical ideas from other cultures (classical Greece, for instance) could encroach on the values of a monotheistic culture. Nonetheless, ideas from Aristotle were important because it was believed that Aristotle’s philosophy and writings were true. I learned that Plato was not particularly known in the Islamic East or West, and while anyone’s guess is as good as mine, it seems that Plato’s dialogues weren’t nearly as important or valuable as Aristotle was to an Islamic culture that was complex, technologically advanced, and theoretically grounded in scientific matters. In the medieval age, translators in the Islamic West translated the works of Aristotle into Arabic for incredible rates. There was a practical import to this work because knowledge about building bridges, etc. was important for engineering, but because metaphysics were translated as well, there needs to be a better explanation for the enthusiasm and cultural values that drove these translations.

The translators and philosophers in the Islamic west, namely Islamic Spain or Al-Andalus, knew more about classical Greek texts than the Greeks did, or anyone in the western world (they were the ones interacting with the texts, translating them, working with them closely, and theorizing about them). Averroes was born in the Islamic west, in present day Spain. Averroes was known as “the Commentator” for his expert knowledge on explaining Aristotle’s philosophies—St. Thomas Aquinas was greatly indebted to Averroes and his work. According to Butterworth, “his (Averroes) reputation among learned men of the Middle Ages was due to his skillful interpretations of pagan philosophy and defense of theoretical speculation…” (Butterworth 1).

Averroes responded to the “Incoherence of the Philosophers” by Al Gazali that attacks the idea of bringing pagans and atheists into a monotheistic culture by writing “Incoherence of the Incoherence.” In an astrological text, Averroes had quoted a pagan text that stated Venus was a divinity—someone found out and reported him to the caliph affairs that he was an atheist and a nonbeliever. As a result, he was reported as a polytheist, lost his job, his books were burned, and was outcast for a time. In other words, Averroes was a controversial and unorthodox figure to the cultural and religious values in Muslim Spain, but to medieval Europeans, he was well regarded for his articulations of Aristotle’s theories. Latin translations of his work helped spread Aristotelian thought in the medieval age as well. I found this video (really just a radio program) to be instructive and interesting about Averroes’ life and ideas.

These are three treatises transliterated by Averroes. Arabic manuscripts were lost at an early date, but replicas of the original Arabic version remain in the form of Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts. Attempts were made to translate these treatises into Latin, and later into Hebrew. The fact that Arabic versions of this text is telling of the suspicion that Averroes faced, especially later in his life when he was legally exiled, and after his death when the Almohad dynasty took over power and sought to eliminate unorthodox thought (Butterworth, 2). Averroes had followers in the Jewish community and once his works were translated into Judaeo-Arabic, they were then translated into Hebrew and circulated in North Africa and France (Butterworth, 2). In these texts, I find that the most interesting aspect of them is their reordering and reclassification of Aristotle’s ideas. This alone presents an enormous rhetoricity to Aristotle’s work, and these texts, I imagine, were much more useful for scholars in the Medieval age. The story of these translations alone is fascinating and rhetorical in itself, especially when one considers how differences in culture, language, and religion, were both barriers to the spread of knowledge as well as catalysts for collaborative relationships and ideas.

Jim Ridolfo: “Judah Messer Leon and the Sefer Nofet Zuphim: Rethinking Rhetorical Delivery in the Early Age of Print”

I also found Ridolfo’s chapter to be especially interesting because it builds on the history of the Translation Movement. As Diab observes, there has been too much of an emphasis on the Translation Movement in Arab-Islamic rhetorics, and it has presented a sort of narrative for knowledge and practices. However, Ridolfo reminds us that the first Italian Jewish scholars to study and engage in the works of Aristotle (by way of Averroes and al-Farabi), like Messer Leon, were doing so in rhetorical ways. Scholastic logic, to Messer Leon, ought to be studied amongst Italian Jews (this is 15th century). In other words, there was an argument to be made—rather, many more other arguments to be made—to legitimize Aristotle as a figure to be studied and as a source for knowledge. According to Ridolfo:

“In the Nofet Zufim, Messer Leon draws on the Hebrew Bible to “show that in the realm of style and oratory the prophets and Biblical historians must be acknowledged as the supreme masters” (Zinberg 40). By essentially reframing the classical rhetorical texts of Greece and Rome within the context of the Hebrew Bible, Messer Leon attempts to show that all Greek and Roman rhetorical wisdom may be found in the Hebrew Bible.” (49)

While no one can be certain whether Messer Leon had actually published his own work using a printing press, the fact that the delivery of the Nofet Zufim, Ridolfo claims that delivery was a phenomena that spread Messer Leon’s ideas in unprecedented and rhetorical ways. With technological transformations that have made digital delivery possible, Ridolfo claims that “scholars of rhetorical studies need to collect and consider case examples that may help build new theories of rhetorical delivery” that consider practitioners (54). These studies should reflect the complex, mediated experience that digital networks provide so that an Aristotelian (oral) view of delivery is transformed for our current context.

Rasha Diab: “Revisiting Arab-Islamic Rhetoric: The Constitution of Medina and Human Rights Discourse in the 7th Century” (unpublished manuscript)

Though I found the translations by Averroes to be fascinating and richly rhetorical, Diab claims that there’s a narrative of rhetorical knowledge practice, where knowledge moves West to East. The Translation Movements (Averroes included) worked to spread Western ideas, and it would be doing Arab-Islamic rhetorics a disservice to relegate knowledge-making and practice to simply translations of western texts. Responding to a crucial gap in scholarship that does not look to the rhetoricity of Arab-Islamic rhetorics, Diab presents the story of the Constitution of Medina (dated 622 CE), “a relatively short, composite text that has forty-seven articles” (3). As Diab notes, the articles are traces of negotiations that led to reconciliation between Muslims, Jews, Christians, and polytheists in Medina. According to Diab:

“Rather, the articles also assume a political and visionary role: the articles assume the equality and immanent value of all members of Medina across their tribal and religious affiliations; affirm their rights; obligate them to respect the rights of others; and create an institutional structure that guarantees the actualization of these rights and obligations. As such, the CM is a constitutive and political-legal document conspicuously cognizant of and respondent to the sociopolitical dynamics of Medina.” (3)

I found this document (CE) to be a fascinating record of not merely traces of collaboration and conciliation. Instead, the different cultures who had converged in Medina in the early 7th century presented a broader philosophical outlook for the betterment of not just all humans, but all creatures. According to Diab, “A paradigm of rights, affirming the individual and collective rights of all creatures, is more consistent with the discourse of rights in Islam” (6). I think this is especially interesting because, whenever we ask the question: If we believe in this text, what world does that create? To me, a view of human rights that encompasses all creatures is one that I want the rest of the world to believe, too. This discourse almost seems like an ecological worldview that doesn’t draw lines between human and nonhuman issues; instead, the discourse of rights of Islam understands all creatures as having the same right, the same legitimacy, and the same value of rights of Islam understands all creatures as having the same right, the same legitimacy, and the same value. To me, the CE is just one record of rhetorical practice, and it also serves as a record of Arab-Islamic knowledge, ecology, philosophy, and rhetoric, too.