Translation Works In Islamic Civilization

By: Mohamad Ika Danial Bin Abdullah

What is the definition translation? When it was started? and how it was developed? To undergo a thorough study and research on the translation works in Andalusia during the age of Muslim Spain, I will be emphasizing on FOUR (4) significantly-related points:

  1. An Early Age of Translation in Islamic Civilization
  2. Abbasid Caliphate: A Golden Age of Knowledge
  • The Development of Translation Works in Andalusia
  1. Contribution of Translation Works to The Garden of Knowledge

An Early Age of Translation in Islamic Civilization

Before discussing any further, we need to understand that there are two different definitions of the word “ translation ”: 1) the process of translating word or text from one language to another and 2) the process of moving something from one place to another. Rationally, the second definition was the first process to be used in the translation works, followed by the first. During the time when the Prophet Muhammad S.A.W. received revelations from Allah, he would be asking Zaid Bin Thabit, a well-known literate person during that period to translate the revelation to a paper, stone or skin of animals to form a complete copy of the Holy Book Al-Quran. In the other hand, during the time of Caliph Ali Bin Abi Talib R.A.  from Khulafa’ Ar-Rasyidin, he started the translation of Quran from Arabic language to several other languages to ease the understanding of the non-Arabic Muslims on the Al-Quran. During the intermediate between the time of Prophet with Caliph Ali, there was a period of Caliph Uthman Ibnu Affan. Under his ruling, he instructed a group of scholars lead by Zaid Bin Thabit to make several copies of Quran and sent each copy to different places. Most probably, to the place where the copies were being delivered, the process of translation also already being started at once they received the copy of the book. Therefore, the translation works started with the process of moving something from one place (Prophet’s words) to another (writing). Later, the process of translating the word from one language to another was used.

Abbasid Caliphate: A Golden Age of Knowledge

The wisdom behind the reason why Abbasid Caliphate was declared to be the Golden Age of Islamic Civilization because the pioneer of knowledge development was initiated here. While the most Europeans were still illiterate under the Dark Ages, Islamic Civilization experienced the peak of knowledge and literacy standard. This period also is known as Light Ages of Islam.

Caliph Al-Makmun (813-833), the descendant from Caliph Harun Ar-Rashid, was famously-known as the lover of knowledge and philosophy. He was the individual that promoted and encouraged the real translation works of books or scriptures from the Greek language into the Arabic language.  He employed several scholars from other religions especially Syriac-speaking Christians to translate the Greek books into Arabic language either directly or intermediary Syriac translations. Through time, the number of translators became numerous and most of them became independent scholars. Then, the regular school for translators was created gradually.

Baghdad was the first notable centre for translation in Islamic history. Caliph Harun Ar Rashid (764-809) was the ruler who instructed a large library to be built with the name of Khazanah al Hikmah. But, Caliph Al Mamun was the one who made the library more lively as the centre of knowledge, keeping books from various languages (Persian, Indian, Greek etc) and acted as translation centre under the name of Baitul Hikmah.

Abbasid Caliphate played an important role to promote the use of paper in learning. The paper made was relatively similar in terms of quality with those in China, India and Persia after the development of papermaking. Besides, the translation works were fully supported by the Abbasid elites who were the Caliphs themselves. This included Caliph Harun Al Mansur, Caliph Harun Ar Rashid and Caliph Al-Makmun. By these, it initiated the thirst of translation works into a wider scientific knowledge, which led to the translation of medical and philosophical texts from Greek, Ancient Egyptian, Chinese, Latin and other languages into Arabic.

The Development of Translation Works in Andalusia

We have arrived at the focal point of the discussion: the translation works in Andalusia during Muslim Spain. I am purposely do not start my argument with Andalusia as for me, we need to know the essence at the first hand before looking into the more critical and wider discussion. We knew the essence of translation works started at the time of the Prophet Muhammad and was expanded during Abbasid Caliphate. Now, we will be stressing on the development of translation works with regards to Andalusia.

Al-Andalus means “ to be green after summer ”as referred to the territory of Northern Spain, where Muslim ruling had been established at 711. Islamic Civilization has reached its peak during 10th century with beautiful cities of Almeria, Malaga, Cadiz, Hielva, Cordoba, Jean and Granada. By 1100, the population of Muslims was 5.6 million. The light age of intellectual development was in the period of Abdul Rahman III (912-961).

Due to the eagerness of Muslim to seek knowledge, institutions such as libraries, madrasah, elementary schools, research institutions grew rapidly in the 10th century and mosque schools had been upgraded into local universities. Very soon, Andalusia became the multilingual centre of learning and translation, gathering all people from different cultures and ethnicities who loved wisdom and knowledge.

The most famous translation centre in Andalusia was the city of Toledo, called “ the cradle of learning ” where Muslims, Jews, and Christians were interacting together in peace and harmony. This schools of translators of Toledo was responsible for the translation of the popular works by Muslim scientists and intellectuals from Arabic into Latin and then Spanish.

The spectacular progression of knowledge in Andalusia had injected a sense of awareness and consciousness into the illiterate European to start seeking knowledge. They cannot remain illiterate for the sake of future and they cannot witness that Muslims achievements were much better than them. Therefore, many European scholars traveled to Muslim Spain and Sicily to learn Arabic in order to translate the knowledge of Muslim scholars into their own languages, mainly into the Latin.

Initially, the translation was an art where it was dealing with languages, texts, and words. But eventually, it became a science. Translation also one of the school of science as it had become more systematic through time and the translated books must have undergone several tests of validity and precision in terms of its languages. There had been a classical outline for the translators that they should follow in their translating process. The first step was the process of checking the original manuscripts and translated versions to confirm accuracy in terms of languages and authorship. The translator was exercising certain intellectual property rights over the original works, and those rights were warranted by the translators taking on a two-sided obligation, one owed to the original author and one owed to the readers of translated version (full responsibility).

Among the respected translators in Andalusia were Abraham Bar Hiyya (Savasorda), Ibnu Bajja (Avemplace), Raymundo, Dominicus Gundissalinus, Rudolf of Bruges, Michael Scot, and much more.

Contributions of Translation Works To The Garden of Knowledge

At once, Arabic was the universal language in Islamic Civilization. Thus, most of the works from numerous Muslim scholars were written in the Arabic language. One of the criteria of knowledge is it must be universal. Here implies that knowledge is for everyone and it should be easily understood. Therefore, translation from Arabic into other languages occurred in Andalusia so that the knowledge could be shared universally. If it was not, the knowledge could be understood only by the people who knew Arabic. Generally, Muslim scholars introduced the principle of one school of knowledge (essence) and the development carried by the Western scholars during European Renaissance (explanation). Translation works in Andalucia became the threshold behind the Light Ages of European. Scholars under Islamic Civilization contributed great works to the world by translating many intellectuals sources in various fields including medicine, mathematics, technology and more.

  1. Medicine

In Islamic Civilization or to be more specific during Abbasid Caliphate, there was a very famous book of medicine written by the great and multi-talented Muslim scholar, Ibn Sina or known as Avicenna (980-1037). His work was The Canon of Medicine or Qanun Fit Tib , first written in Arabic actually was the principle from al-Razi (864-930). This book was very special in terms of its comprehensiveness and practicality until it is still relevant through ages. On top that, it became the pioneer of the modern medical world in present. Human anatomy and physiology, body fluids, the usage of antiseptic, medical instruments like scissor, knife, and needle – all these was first introduced by Ibnu Sina. The European Renaissance benefited from the knowledge and experience of Muslim and Jewish physician in Spain and Sicily in many ways. Then came the European scholars who were the thirst for knowledge and translated the book into the Latin language. Visiting scholars in Islamic Spain were exposed to the practice and medicine there. Gradually, several medical colleges were established in Sicily and Italy. Copies of translated Canon of Medicine were being distributed among the European universities. Until today, it remains as the source of medical knowledge in Western universities.

  1. Mathematics

Al-Khawarizmi was the Father of Mathematics in Islamic Civilization. What we learn in Mathematics subject today such as Algebra and Equation were established by him. In his famous work, The Calculation of Integration and Equation, he emphasized on the equations, algebraic multiplication, measurement of surfaces and “Indian” numerical system. The works of Al-Khawarizmi which now only survives in a 12th century Latin translation made in Spain together with a translation of Euclid’s Elements became the foundation of subsequent mathematical development in Al-Andalus.

In Al-Andalus, there were other respected scholars who contributed in mathematics. Among them were al-Majriti, Ibn Abi Ubaida’ of Valencia and Ibnu Taimiyyah. European scholars used their works as the essence of Physics, engineering, and Chemistry. Even though the knowledge was introduced thousand years ago, but it is included in the syllabus of secondary school until today.

  • Technology

Islamic technological innovations also played their part in the legacy that Al-Andalus left to Medieval Europe. The paper has been mentioned, but there were others of great importance — the windmill, new techniques of working metal, making ceramics, building, weaving, and agriculture. The people of Al-Andalus had a passion for gardens, combining their love of beauty with their interest in medicinal plants. Two important treatises on agriculture — one of which was partially translated into Romance in the Middle Ages, were written in Al-Andalus. Ibn al-‘Awwam, the author of one of these treatises, lists 584 species of plants and gives precise instructions regarding their cultivation and use. He writes, for example, of how to graft trees, make hybrids, stop blights and insect pests, and how to make floral essences and perfumes. European implemented the efforts from Ibn al-‘Awwam and other scholars of technology in the development of engineering and technology, especially during Agricultural and Industrial Revolution.


Islam makes the task of seeking knowledge as compulsory to every Muslim. As a Muslim, we must be proud of the fact that most of the principle of a various school of knowledge were founded by the Muslim scholars