1902 Encyclopedia > Mohammedanism (Islam) > Science and Literature in the Muslim World

(Part 11)


Science and Literature in the Muslim World

The development of science and literature runs parallel with the development of law. Before the time of Mohammed the Arabs had been distinguished only by a rare poetical talent. Islam was the signal for the springing up of all the sciences and of literature. While the study of the dogmas and ordinances of the Koran was producing theology and jurisprudence, the necessity of preserving the exact text of the sacred book, and of teaching the new converts the language of the Prophet, was giving birth to grammar and lexicography. The first school of grammar was established at Basra. The first attempts at grammar are generally attributed to a certain Abu’l-Aswad al-Do’ali, who was tutor to the children of Ziyad, the brtoehr of Mo’awiya. According, however, to some authors, the honor of having discovered the first elements of grammar ought to be attributed to a Persian, named ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Hormuz. Be this as it may, a foreign influence must be recognized at the very commencement of this science. The vowel marks, for instance, were imitated from those of the Syriac. The division of the parts of speech into nouns, verbs, and particles was indirectly borrowed from Greek grammar. Yet the Moslems, once in possession of the principles of grammar, knew how to develop and apply them in an admirable manner. A perfect galaxy of grammarians arose in the track of Abu’l-Aswad; a rival school to that of Basra was established at Cufa, and grammar attained it shighest degree of perfection under the first ‘Abbadis; as is shown by the voluminous treatise of Sibawaihi, known under the name of Kitab, or the Book par excllence.

In lexicography, the Arabs were at first content to explain the rarer words of the Koran, of the traditions, and of the ancient poems, and to collect lists of terms applying to the same objects, as the camel, the horse, the sword, etc. Thus small collections were formed, which served afterwards for the composition of dictionaries. The first dictionary properly so called, composed in Arabic, appears to have been the Kitab al’Ain of Khalil b. Ahmed al-Farhidi, a contemporary of harun al-Rashid. After him come Jauhari, whose Sahah may still be consulted with profit. The celebrated Zamakhshari composed a dictionary of metaphors under the title of Asas al-Batagha. Lastly, Tha-alibi, in he 11th century of our era, drew up his Fikh-al-Loghas, a work specially devoted to synonyms. The accessory branches of philology gave occasion to some important works. The ancient poems and proverbs were collected and commented on. Thus Abu Tammam formed his Anthology, called Hamasa (q.v.), and Maidani his collection of roverbs (Kitab amthal al-‘Arab). The study of poetry, with special regard to its rhythm, led Khalil b. Ahmed, already mentioned as a grammarian and lexicographer, to the conception of prosody. He wrote the first treatise on that science, which served as a model to all subsequent writers on meter. Pure literature remained confined to poetry. It was not that the Arabs were without any conception of the romance, the tale, or the novel. The adventuyres of Antar, the romances of Dhu ‘l-Himma and of Saif al-Yazan, the Thousand and one Nights, and various collections of stories and novels, such as the Faraj ba’da’l-Shidda and the compilation of Bika’I, well known by the extracts which Koegarten has given in his Chrestomathy;-all these show clearly that the Arabs were not devoid of imagination, at least if, as we believe, these tales and romances were not pure and simple imitations from the Persian. It must be acknowledged, however, that these few productions do not, any more than the Makamat of hamadhani and of hariri, constitute a very important literature. The drama, the epic, the romance of character, were absolutely unknown to the Arabs. Poetry, on the other hand, an endowment of the ancient Arabs, continued to live and flourish as long as the Eastern Caliphate lasted. We may count poets by the hundred, eminent in every department of that art: in descriptive, erotic, martial, and philosophic poetry; in odes, in satires, etc. The great collection entitled Kitab al-Aghani, compiled by Isfahani, contains a choice of the finest poems, accompanied by very instructive notices of the poets, and of the circumstances under which they composed such and such pieces. Besides this, many Diwans, or complete editions of the works of poets, have come down to us. They bear the celebrated names of Nabigha, of ‘Antara, of Tarafa, of Zohaic, of ‘Alkama, of Amralkais, of Shanfara, OF Labid, in the pre-Islamic period (se Mo’Allakat); of Jarir, Akhtal, and Farazdak, in the Omayyad period; and of Abu Nowas, Abu’l-Atahiya, Moslim, Motanabbi (q.v.), an Abu’l-‘Ala, in the period of the ‘Abbasids. And this list contains only the most illustrious names.

With the accession of the ‘Abbasids to power, Moslems culture entered on a path fruitful in scientific progress. The second Caliph of that family, Mansur, was surrounded by Syrian Christians of great learning, and equally well acquainted with the Greek, Syriac, and Arabic languages, And took advantage of their abilities to have a number of foreign books translated into Arabic. Thanks to him, the writings of Aristole, Ptolemy, and Euclid spread a taste fro science among the Moslems. The Caliph Ma’mum was one of those who most encourage translations from the Greek. In this way the Moslems became acquainted with the most important productions of the ancient world. Plato, the works of the Alexandrian school, those of Hippocrates, Dioscorides, and Galen, wre familiar for them. Through the Persians many Indian writings also became accessible to them, such as the fables of Bidpai, and certain treatises on astronomy and algebra. The study of philosophy in all its branches was at one time in fashion, and, to appreciate the success with which it was cultivated in Islam, we need only recall the great names of Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Baja (Avempace), and Ibn Roshd (Averroes), whose scientific teaching swayed the Middle Ages, and led to the revival of learning in the West.

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