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The Atlas is proud to be partnering with the Hay Festival's Beirut39 contest, celebrating Beirut's year as UNESCO World Book Capital, to find the hottest authors under 40 of Arabic origin. Nominations are open until August 24th, 2009.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Arabic: Ornament of the World

The Tanjara beats me to it with a great post about Professor Jim Al-Khalili's Science and Islam. I'm just finishing viewing Episode Two as I write this; Episode One can be seen on the BBC iPlayer if you live in the UK.

Last week's ep is entitled The Language of Science, and -- as Susannah points out -- at the heart of Islamic scientific development was the adoption of Arabic as the sole language of governmental business in 679 CE, and subsequently across the Islamic world.
Caliph Abdel Malik Ibn Marwan needed to find a way of administering the vast empire with its mish-mash of languages, and he decided that it should have a uniform language – Arabic. The adoption of Arabic throughout the empire boosted intellectual life, as it meant scholars and scientists from different lands could exchange ideas and debate with one another in a common language.

In addition, a huge “translation movement” was launched, in which scholars made strenuous efforts to find and translate ancient texts. They scoured far-flung libraries for scientific and philosophical manuscripts in languages including Greek, Syriac, Persian and Sanskrit and brought them back for translation into Arabic.
BBC Radio 4's In Our Time broadcast a programme in 2007 (you can listen online here) that offers more detail on this translation movement.

What becomes clear is that while the history of Arabic is absolutely bound up with the trajectories of Islam, but also with cultures of science, philosophy and poetry encountered along the way. Famous centres of translation, in Baghdad, Toledo and Sicily not only brought together scholars for intellectual exchanges in multiple disciplines, but pioneered the study and practice of translation itself as a science. It also gave rise to some wonderful paradoxical encounters, like Christian missionary Raymond Llull creating the circumstances for the translation of the Quran into Latin and Catalan. The influence of the heady encounters in the translation schools of medieval Islam on the beginnings of European science, philosophy and poetry are discussed gorgeously by María Menocal in Ornament of the World.

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