The Fall and Rise of the Iranian Translator Communities at the Birth and Growth of the Arab Empire

By Parvaneh Ma‘azallahi (Vali-e-Asr University of Rafsanjan, Iran)


The Arab invasions of Iran between 633 AD and 654 AD eventually led to the fall of the Sāssānid Empire. While a new empire developed through the subsequent Arab conquests, both the Iranians and their Arab conquerors underwent cultural transformations. Concerning this, the present study focuses on the agency of translators in the translator communities influenced by rise of the Arab Empire and examines the dissolution of Nassibin and Gundishāpūr translator communities as well as constitution of a resistant translator community adhering to Shuʿūbiyya during the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750 CE). Additionally, the restoration and constitution of such translator communities as Nassibin, Gundishāpūr and Bayt al-Hikma during the ‘Abbāsid Caliphate (750-1258 CE) are considered. Against this background, it becomes apparent that these translator communities underwent different transformations and served different purposes depending on their relationship to the caliphate. For example, the Shuʿūbi community of translators primarily constituted for countering the Arab-centric Umayyad Caliphate succeeded in combating the Arabization policies through representing the Iranian pre-Islamic cultural splendor in Arabic. Later, benefiting the political leniency offered by the ‘Abbāsid caliphate, it laid the foundation for the Bayt al-Hikma, which culminated in a translation movement. This community and those already mentioned ultimately contributed to the renewal of Arab culture, the development of Islamic civilization and the preservation of Iranian identity.

Keywords: Arab-Iranian conflict, translator communities, Nassibin, Gundishāpūr, Bayt al-Hikma, Shuʻūbiyya movement

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1. Introduction

During certain historical periods, nations such as Greeks, Arabs and Mongols emerged as conquerors whose conquests had far-reaching effects on the history of mankind. Iran was also afflicted by such conquerors, but Iranian identity has not disappeared but always resurrected, like the Simurgh (literally, phoenix) in Iranian mythology, according to Farokh (2011, p.7). Although this statement seems to underestimate the catastrophic aspects of such wars, it points to one fact, namely the changes in Iran’s socio-cultural milieu brought about by initiatives of both the invaders and Iranian cultural producers. Against this background, translators seem to play a crucial role in (re)forming both Iranian identity and that of the invaders, and such a role deserves special attention after the Arab and Mongol invasions of Iran[1]. In this context, translation was invoked as a means of cultural contestation and struggle, and went far beyond linguistic transposition or literary endeavor. This can be viewed from the perspective of translators’ engagement as outlined by Tymoczko (2000) and Tymoczko and Gentzler (2002). According to this, translators are engaged social agents who are involved in conflicts or struggles and participate in the formation of cultural constructions when they bridge gaps caused by linguistic change or a multilinguistic polity (Tymoczko, 2000, pp. 24-26). Against this background, translation performs multiple functions in the sense that translators do not merely perform as subservient subjects, rather, they can also act as resistant and activist social agents who assume reactive or proactive roles in relation to the power structure. In this respect, the relationship between translators and power structures is rethought, as the exercise of power is not simply realized as a matter of relentless oppression and coercion. Instead, translation, like other cultural activities, is mobilized for counter-discourse and subversion, or any number of mediating positions in between, and translation is a site of enunciation and a context of affiliation for the translator (Tymoczko, 2010). Taking this as a starting point, this paper examines the cultural policies of the power structure on the one hand, and the agency of translators in the historical context of Iran after Muslim Arab conquests in 654 AD, on the other. For this purpose, the dissolution, restoration and constitution of translator communities after the Arab invasion of Iran will be taken into account. Here, the concept of translator community has been conceived to refer to a group of translators who came together because of a common interest in translation as a cultural expression and also a commitment to certain values. Against this background, this paper will deal with subservience, resistance, and activism of translators whose initiatives were institutionalized or stifled through constitution or dissolution of translator communities, or whose partisanship to certain resistant social movements fostered oppositions to the principal power in the situation, or whose proactive initiatives culminated in the creation of counter-discourses and cultural changes within the framework of particular translator communities.

In the case of Iran after failure to the Arabs, cultural institutions such as Gundishāpūr, and Nassibin can be conceptualized as intellectual institutions which hosted translator communities that endorsed the power structure, while groups of dissident translators who joined the Shuʿūbiyya movement as an anti-Arab campaign can be considered as a resistant translator community that participated in the dialectic of power by challenging the discriminatory policies of the Arab governors and helped topple the power structure of Umayyad dynasty. Still engaged in Shuʿūbiyya but involved in the power structure, Shuʿūbi activist translators took a proactive role in the constitution of Bayt al-Hikma (literally, The House of Wisdom) and contributed in development of a translation movement during the ‘Abbāsid Caliphate.

As a context-oriented study, this paper draws on historical secondary sources concerning Iran’s cultural and socio-political environment as well as institutionalized and non-institutionalized translator communities after the Arab invasion. Based on this, a brief overview of the Iranians and Arabs war is first provided. Then, the impact of this war on the institutionalized translator communities active during the Sāssānid dynasty will be elaborated. Moreover, the establishment of a non-institutionalized translator community associated with the Shuʿūbiyya resistance movement as well as the restoration of Nassibin and Gundishāpūr and the constitution of Bayt al-Hikma will be brought to the fore. In this line, light is shed on the agency of Iranian translators during the process of formation of the Arab Empire, as both the policy exercised by the power in the situation and the reaction of the translators to adhere to this policy, to counteract it or to actively take the initiatives for cultural enhancement are taken into account. The concluding section shows how the engagement of translators within communities of translators that were dissolved, restored, or constituted after the Arab invasion contributed to the formation of Islamic civilization and the preservation of Iranian identity in the face of the early caliphs’ Arabization policies in the long run. To this end, the following questions are posed: a) how did the failure of the Sāssānid Empire affect translator communities? b) How did translators respond to the cultural policies of the Arab caliphs? c) What was the legacy of the translator communities concerned after the settlement of Arab rule in Iran?

2. Translation Zone in the Context of Sāssānid Empire

The encounters of the Iranians and Arabs are attributed to the decline of the Sāssānid power after Khosrow II when the political chaos and the inadequacy of the Iranian borderers led to Bedouin Arabs’ frequent incursions into Iranian territories (Zarrīnkūb, 2004, p. 259). However, the Arabs and the Iranians did not meet until the reign of the first Rashidun caliph Abu Bakr (632-4AD), and this confrontation was followed by Arab victories in Qādisiyyah, Iraq, and Nihāvand after frequent losses and victories. After the conquest of Nihāvand in 642 AD, which was called the “Victory of Victories” by the Arabs, the collapse of the Sāssānid power as a four centuries old power that had defied Rome and Byzantium was final and the Iranian Sāssānid Empire succumbed to the Arabs with their religion, Islam (Zarrīnkūb in Fry, 2007, p.16). This failure had far-reaching and disastrous effects on the cultural milieu of Iran, for the Arabs had a negative attitude towards the Persian languages and the works written in these languages, which is why libraries were burned in Madain (Zarrīnkūb, 1957, p. 94) and books were thrown to water after the permission of the second Rashidun caliph, i.e. ‘Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb (r. 634-664 AD), who believed that if what is written in these books is the correct guidance, God has given the Arabs a better guidance, and if it is an error, God has protected them from these books (Ibn Khaldūn in Bsoul, 2019, p. 67). Such initiatives led to “a two hundred year silence of Iranians while they used to compose the finest Pahlavi poetry and also Mānavi liturgies” (Zarrīnkūb, 1957, p. 94), and no traces of Iranian culture and literature remained in the first and half centuries of the Arab conquest (Mohammadi-Mallayeri, 2000, pp. 46-48).

Concerning translation in Iran after the Arab invasion, what Zarrīnkūb (1957, p. 94) calls a “two hundred years of silence” is evident in the one hundred and fifty-years dissolution of translator communities institutionalized in the intellectual centers of Nassibin and Gundishāpūr by the Sāssānid Kings in Iran. More specifically, in Sāssānid Empire (224 -651 AD) as a multilingual and multinational empire, different languages such as Sogdian, Parthian, Bactrian, Syriac, Greek, Latin, and Pahlavi were spoken by people in different areas and for different purposes. For example, Latin was spoken as the language of science and philosophy in a region that stretched from the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent (Āzarang, 2015, p.57), therefore, the territory under Sāssānid rule was a “translation zone” where interaction between languages took place (Simon in Gambier& Van Doorslaer, 2014, p.181). The bilingual and trilingual inscriptions of the early Sāssānids in languages such as Middle Persian, Parthian and Greek are evidence of this. In this context, translation was patronized by Sāssānid kings, for example Khosrow I (531-579 AD) was famous for his love of literature and philosophy and under his reign works from Greek, Syriac and Sanskrit were translated into Pahlavi (Morony, 1977, p. 78). Under the patronage of Khosrow I, two translator communities, namely Nassibin and Gundishāpūr, were institutionalized which fell prey to the Arab invaders and were approximately disbanded for about one hundred and fifty years as follows.

2.1 Flourish and Fall of Nassibin and Gundishāpūr Translator Communities

Nassibin, now in modern Turkey, can be traced as an ancient city to the time of the Assyrians (2500 -609 BC). This city was in Persian hands after 363 AD and became the center of the eponymous theological school founded by the monk Jacob of Nisibis until the Arab conquest under the command of Ilyad ibn Ghanm in 639 AD (Honigmann, 1993, p. 984). Before being surrounded by the Arab invaders, Nassibin functioned as a center for the spread of Hellenistic philosophical culture, especially after 489 AD when many Christians were deported from Byzantium because of their Nestorian beliefs and were welcomed by Khosrow I, who established a special school of Christological teachings for them in Nassibin (Bsoul, 2019, p.57). By way of explanation, Nestorianism and the Dyophysite doctrines were two rival schools of Christianity. The Nestorians emphasized the distinctness of the two natures in the person of Jesus Christ and stressed the completeness of his human nature. This reading was not tolerated by the Roman Church and the Nestorian school in Edessa was closed in 471 AD. However, it was reopened and continued to flourish under Persian authority in Nisibis (Sahbāzi, 2005), where the translation found a resistant edge due to the translators’ adherence to Nestorian doctrine and opposition to the Byzantine Empire within a community of translators engaged in translating Greek philosophy and Aristotelian texts.This resistant community of translators not only succeeded in transmitting Greek philosophy to the Iranian intelligentsia, but also participated in the dialectic of power. In other words, under the patronage of Khosrow I, the Nassibin translator community succeeded in propagating its religious doctrine and contributed to the breakdown of relations between the Iranian Christians and Byzantine Church as the official church of the Byzantine Empire as a long-time political rival of the Sāssānid Empire.

Unlike the Nassibin translator community, which was endowed with a resistant edge, the translator community constituted in the hospital and medical university of Gundishāpūr was concerned with medicine as a secular science and showed no affiliations or oppositions to any religious or political doctrines. Although both suffered the same fate after the Iranian defeat by the Arab invaders. Similar to Nassibin, the translator community of Gundishāpūr was also established under the patronage of Khosrow I, who first founded the city of Gundishāpūr in Khuzestan and then settled the Greek prisoners there. However, this city became a place of refuge where many intellectuals from different backgrounds migrated. As Nagamia (2003) explains, many Syrians sought refuge in Gundishāpūr when Antioch was conquered by Shāpūr I (240-270 AD) and Nestorians also found refuge under the patronage of Shāpūr II when the school of Edessa was purged by the Byzantines in 457 AD and later closed by Emperor Zeno in 489 AD and as reported by historians such as Abu Mansour Tha’alibi (in Āzarang, 2015, p. 57) more than one hundred and twenty Iranian, Indian and Greek physicians worked in Gundishāpūr. Moreover, during the reign of Khosrow I as the golden age of this university, some Iranian scholars were sent abroad to search for scientific sources which were later translated into Persian. In the meantime, many Syriac philosophical sources as well as Indian medical sources were translated in Gundishāpūr, where a community of subservient translators was involved in the dissemination and creation of knowledge, and although “medical teaching in Gundishāpūr was modeled after Alexandria and Antioch, it became more specialized and efficient in its new Persian home” (Sayili in Lewis et al., 1991, p.1121).

Although the cities of Nassibin and Gundishāpūr survived the Iran-Arab war, the translator communities and other communities of cultural production were largely, if not completely, dissolved as Sāssānid patronage was no longer available and a large number of the “Sāssānid elites and the Zoroastrian Mowbeds, who had exclusive access to literacy, were slaughtered”, (Zarrīnkūb, 1975, p. 95), and only a limited number of Nestorian scholars were sporadically engaged in compiling and translating books into Syriac, which was falling into disrepair along with languages such as Sogdian, Pahlavi, and Khwarezmian, which were rapidly being replaced by Arabic. Against this background, and due to the oppressive conditions that dominated the socio-political environment after the rule of the second Arab caliphate, i.e. the Umayyads, a resistant translator community arose as explained below.

2.2 The Shuʿūbi Resistant Community of Translators: A Countermove to the Arabization policy of the Umayyads

Although Persian was widely used as a lingua franca throughout the Islamic era (Mohammadi-Malayeri, 2000, p. 93), it was used as an official and administrative language of the Arab Empire only for eighty years and then replaced by Arabic. More specifically, during the Rashidun Caliphate (632-661 AD), as the founder of the Arab Empire, the Pahlavi language was used to administer Iran, and tolerance was exercised towards non-Arab Muslims. However, after the rise of the Umayyad caliphate (661-750 AD), tolerance towards the Mawalis or non-Arab Muslims declined sharply and attempts were made to keep them out of the ruling circle. In this line, during the reign of ‘Abd al-Mālik (r. 685-705 AD), the Arabization policy was pursued and Arabic was enforced as the state language throughout Arab Empire. In the case of Iran, the first step in this process was taken by Al-Hajjāj ibn Yūsuf (661-714 AD), who changed the administrative language of the Iraqi[2] court from Pahlavi to Arabic. This met with resistance from the Iranian bureaucrats, especially the secretaries and viziers who were granted high-ranking posts to follow the Sāssānid model of administration after the conquest of Iran. These Iranian bureaucrats, who came from the upper class of society and old Iranian families, had an excellent command of Arabic and used it to administer the government, but spoke Persian in their daily communications and in non-official contexts (Iqbāl-Ashtiāni, 2007, p.71) in order to resist the Arabization policy. This resistance reached its peak in the Persianizing movement known as Shuʿūbiyya which from the second half of the eight century into the tenth century was directed against “the racial dominance and hegemony of the Arab despots who misused Islam as an instrument for the disappearance of Iranian identity and the dissolution of the Iranian nation in Arab Empire” (Nath& Goldziher, 1992, pp. 62-7). Gibb (1982, p. 66) views this movement as a cultural resistance that coincided with anti-Arab and also anti-Islamic uprisings in the northern provinces of Iran and was supported by Iranian secretaries, if not viziers, in the courts of the caliphs “not to destroy the Islamic empire, but to remold its political and social institutions and the inner spirit of Islamic culture on the model of the Sāssānid institutions and values, which represented in their eyes the highest political wisdom”. These efforts reached their peak towards the end of the seventh century, when Iranians turned strongly against the Umayyad, “who had become not only oppressive but also blatantly profane” (Canfield, 2002, p. 5). In this line, a community of translators showing engagement in the nationalist movement of the Shuʿūbiyya was constituted “to represent the cultural excellence of the Iranian nation in literature, history, and science or to swagger about the political excellence and splendour of the Iranian kings” (Sediqi, 1993, pp. 92-6). The most prominent members of this community were al-Balādhurī, Ishāb ibn Yazid, Mohammad ibn al-Jahm al-Barmaki, Hosham ibn al-Qāsem al-Isfahāni, Mohammad ibn Bahrām ibn Matyār al-Isfahāni, Bahrām ibn Mardānshāh, Bahrām Haravi Majousi, and Ibn al-Muqaffaʻ. This community can be seen as a resistant community that strove to create an image of pre-Islamic splendour to fight against the Arab-centric policies of the Umayyads. From Tymoczko’s (2000) perspective, the Umayyad dynasty sought to create an image of Arab Muslims as superior people, elevated above non-Arab Muslims, and granted special sociopolitical rights to Arab Muslims. To combat this discriminatory policy, the Shuʿūbi translators sought to create a counter-image of their past in order to resist the cultural hegemony of the Umayyads. In this vein, Ibn al-Muqaffaʻ produced translations from Pahlavi into Arabic with the titles Khwadāy-Nāmag[3] , Āʻīn-nāma[4] , Kitāb al-tāj, and Kitāb Mazdak to paint a picture of Persian pre-Islamic glory by highlighting the culture, nature, and behaviour of Iranian nobles and kings as well as their religion, customs, skills, arts, and sciences. Such translations acted as double-edged swords in the sense that they “not only benefited the Shuʿūbiyya movement, but also spread Iranian thought, Persian figures of speech and style among Muslim Arabs, who later adhered to the literary style of Iranian writers and poets in their literary works” (Sediqi, 1993, pp. 93-95). Despite the large number of translations and also original works written by Shuʻūbi translators and writers, only a few are available. This is because many Muslims considered them anti-Islamic and did not copy them (Amin in Momtahen, 1990). However, their influence was enormous. For example, regarding the influence of Ibn al-Muqaffa’s translations and original works, Gabrieli (in Latham, 2012) believes that “his works soon became classics of the great ʻAbbāsid civilization, and by their form as well as their content exerted an influence on the cultural interests and ideals of succeeding generations that cannot be exaggerated,” and regarding the role of the Shuʿūbi translators in preserving pre-Islamic Iranian culture, Rypka (1968, p. 150) believes that it is to be regretted that traditional Iranian literature in Islam and in Arabic translation has been preserved only in random fragments. And not even that much would have been handed down to us had not the Shuʿūbiyya emerged, a movement in which the hitherto subjugated Persian nation could raise its head, this time entirely under the guise of Islam, and point with pride to the glorious past of Iran.

Against the Persianizing movement of the Shuʿūbiyya, including its community of translators, the Arabs showed their first literary reactions towards the end of the eighth century and “two schools of Arabic letters” came into existence in Iraq, (Gibb, 1982, p. 65). These schools were entirely distinct from each other, came from different sources, were animated by a different spirit, served different purposes, and gradually turned completely antagonistic to each other. By way of explanation, Arabic adab (literally, literature) arose from the close connection between Koranic studies and Arabic philology in the seventh century. While, the old Perso-Aramaic culture of Iraq, the centre of Manichaeism, carried a kind of free thought that formed the basis for the literary school propagated by the Shuʿūbi movement (ibid).Though at first there was no rivalry between them, either literary or national, the antagonism between these two schools reached its highest point in the ninth century, when advocates of Shuʿūbiyya, called Shuʿūbis, proclaimed the superiority of Persians over Arabs and defended their claim by social and cultural, not religious, arguments (ibid.). Against this background, according to Enderwitz (in Bosworth et al., 1993, p.515), Shu‘ubis spread the concept of free thinking and Manichean tendencies that were seeded in pre-Islamic culture, provoking skepticism among the educated. Herein lay the danger of the Shuʿūbiyya. The reaction was both Arabian and Islamic and eventually led to the final victory of the Arabian humanities and the decline of the Shuʿūbiyya in the tenth century when the Bayt al-Hikma was founded in Baghdad (Enderwitz in Bosworth et al., 1993, p.515). As will be shown in the coming sections, this intellectual center included a community of translators engaged in translation of Greek logic and philosophy. In Enderwitz’s view, these translations were so effective in fighting against the dualistic tendencies such as Manichaeism that in the long run they led to the death of the Shuʿūbiyya movement in Iran. Accordingly, the Shuʻūbi community of translators was dissolved, although “it saved the Iranian identity from the dire fate that befell other nations conquered by the Arab invaders, that is to say, it prevented the complete transformation of Iranian culture, identity, language, and rituals” (Nath& Goldziher, 1992, pp. 62-7). Moreover, in spite of Shu‘ubis Anti-Arab motivations especially during the eighth and ninth century AD, Shu‘ubi community of translators left a considerable cultural legacy for the Arabs through translating Indian, Greek, and Pahlavi books, as well as the ancient fairy tales and pre-Islamic stories, into Arabic. Some examples in this point are translations such as The History of al-Tabari, The History of Masoudi, The Lives of Kings, etc. Apart from such translations which were produced for translators’ affiliation with the Shuʿūbiyya movement, according to Mohammadi Malayeri (2000, p.29), Iranian elites who served as viziers or secretaries in the Arab administrative apparatus promoted or produced translations in subjects such as geography, history, literature, and writing techniques an example being the translations of ʻAbd-al-Ḥamīd Kāteb (d. 132), secretary to the last Umayyad caliph, namely Marwān II (744-50 AD), whose elegant style and phraseology in his translations served as a model for Arabic writings and laid the foundation for the tarassol style in Arabic. Though such translations were individualistic and no community of translators was constituted in this regard, these translational endeavors reached their peak in the Islamic Golden era during the ‘Abbāsid caliphate from the 8th to the 13th century AD and paved the way for the constitution of a momentous community of translators in the intellectual center of Bayt al-Hikma. In this condition, the Arabization policy of the Umayyad caliphs bore fruit and Arabic transformed into the language of science and culture from the eighth century onwards. Contributing to this process were Arabic translations produced by the community of translators, as well as those produced through the patronage of Iranian bureaucrats in the Umayyad court in a submissive manner. In Lazard words

That Arabic should have fared thus in Iran was due not simply to its being the language of the Qur’an, […], but also resulted from its having become the repository of most of the treasures of the Iranian tradition. The ancient books of history, wisdom and science, the romances, stories and fables had all been translated into Arabic and they were known to educated Iranians much more from these translations than from the original works in Pahlavi. Even some Arabic poetry was, as it seems, permeated with the influence of Sāssānid poetry. In the 9th century, […], there was probably nothing of importance to be found in Pahlavi texts which was not available, more conveniently, in Arabic. Arabic literature was therefore not foreign to the Iranians: they contributed to it themselves as translators and as original writers and it is known that many of the greatest “Arabic” writers and scholars were Iranians. In the Golden Age of ‘Abbāsid civilization, Arabic literature no longer belonged to the Arabs alone, but was the common property of the peoples of the caliphate, among whom Iranians played a leading part. (Lazard in Frye, 1975, p. 603)

The transformation of Arabic into the language of science in an empire that stretched from Central Asia to the Middle East and Southwest Europe, as well as the further adaptation of the ‘Abbāsid caliphs to the culture of the conquered peoples, such as the Iranians, coupled with further influence of Shuʿūbi members of the court culminated with a golden age of translation as will be shown in the next section.

3. The ʻAbbāsid Caliphate: Heyday of the Translator Communities and Birthday of a Translation Movement

In the eighth century, a general uprising led to the collapse of the Umayyads and brought another Arab family to power, namely the ‘Abbāsids. Under the ʻAbbāsids, the Shuʿūbiyya movement, which had been occult during the Umayyad caliphate, became evident and its representatives penetrated the structure of power, (Bahrami-Ahmadi, 2003, p.147), and the Persian customs became the style of the ruling elite. Affecting the demeanor of the Sāssānid Persian emperors, the ‘Abbāsids wore Persian clothing, instituted Persian offices, and established their new capital Baghdad near the Sāssānid capital, supporting artists and scholars who celebrated their rule (Canfield, 2002, p. 5). In this process, the Shuʿūbiyya movement is considered to have played a crucial role by some scholars such as Ja‘farian (1996), who believes that the Shuʿūbiyya efforts helped the collapse of the Umayyad. In this context, the contribution of Iranian translators to Arab civilization was encouraged by the restoration and establishment of translator communities such as those of Nassibin, Gundishāpūr, and Bayt al-Hikma. This was achieved through the efforts of Iranian bureaucrats and scholars who came from distinguished Iranian families such as the Barmakis, Tahirid, Sahl, and Nowbakht, and eventually culminated in the Arab cultural renaissance and the Islamic Golden Age. The translation related work of these bureaucrats differed from that of their compatriots during the Umayyad dynasty in the sense that some ‘Abbāsid caliphs became personally enthusiastic about translation and this served as an impetus for the work of Iranian bureaucrats, viziers or translators. A case in point is Al-Mansūr (754-755 A.D.), the second ‘Abbāsid Caliph, who is “considered the first ‘Abbāsid caliph to promote translation” (Bsoul, 2019, p.77). Under the reign of Al-Mansūr, the Arab aristocratic monopoly of high offices was destructed. In this line, the Iranian family of Barmakis were firmly established in the power and the Persian influences became stronger and stronger, hence, Sāssānid models were followed in the court and the government, and Persians began to play an increasingly important part in both political and cultural life (Lewis in Gibb 1986, p. 17). Similar to the Sāssānid kings, this caliph tried to promote translation financially and, due to his personal interest in astronomy, summoned a Zoroastrian and Iranian astronomer named Nowbakht and Abū Sahl to Baghdad to translate astronomical sources from Persian into Arabic (Mohammadi Malayeri, 1995, p. 138). Ibn Bakhtishū as the chief physician of Gundishāpūr was another Iranian scholar summoned to the court of Al-Mansur. This marked the first contact between Baghdad as the capital of the ‘Abbāsids and the school of Gundishāpūr, whose community of translators “benefited Islamic civilization by translating medical sources as well as Greek heritage into Arabic” (Bsoul, 2019, p.63). The most important translators of this community who showed engagement to the ‘Abbāsid cultural policies were Georgios ibn Bukhtishū and his son Jibrail ibn Bukhtishū ibn Georgios, and Yūḥannā ibn Māsawayh. In addition to Gundishāpūr, the intellectual center of Nassibin was also revitalized by the patronage of ‘Abbāsid Caliphs, especially Al-Mansūr and Hārūn al-Rashid (786-809 AD), and the Nassibin translator community became “another source of Greek transfer to Islamic civilization” (Bsoul, 2019, p. 57). In other words, prior to the ‘Abbāsid dynasty, translation patronage was not exercised on the basis of a specific translation policy by the Arab caliphs and the Sāssānid cultural and scientific heritage was translated into Arabic either by the adherents of the Shuʿūbiyya movement as a resistance to the racial and cultural hegemony of the Arabs or by the Iranian bureaucrats who personally initiated or commissioned translations. To name a few, Zādāan ibn Farokh, Sālem ibn Farokh, Jabaleh ibn Farokh, and ‘Abdol Hamid, who belonged to the same family, served as secretaries to Ziyād ibn Abihi (665-670 AD), Hishām ibn ʻAbd al-Malik (724-6 AD), and Marvān II (744-750 AD) during the Umayyad caliphate and translated various Sāssānid sources into Arabic. After the fall of Umayyad caliphate, however, translation transformed from an individualized endeavor that would soon wither away with the disappearance of certain individuals to a cornerstone of state policy. A prominent example of such a policy is the establishment of the Bayt al-Hikma, which was supposedly founded by Hārūn al-Rashid “to serve as an academy where scholars and learners would meet” (Bsoul, 2019, p.71). The growing influence of Iranian bureaucrats and the increasing enthusiasm of ʻAbbāsid caliphs in commissioning translations of various sources into Arabic culminated in a translation movement that had an enormous impact on the history of scholarship. This translation movement relied heavily on the patronage of caliphs such as Al-Mansūr, Al-Maʻmūn, and Harūn al-Rashid, whose cultural initiatives such as the establishment of various schools and libraries and the veneration of cultural figures such as writers and translators created a golden age of Arab civilization and even human civilization. As a result of this movement, a large number of books in the fields of astronomy, medicine, philosophy, literature, and mathematics were translated into Arabic (see Zaydan, 1993, pp. 570-575) by communities of translators established mainly in centers such as Nassibin, Gundishāpūr, and Bayt al-Hikma who were showing engagement to the cultural policies of the power structure.

3.1 The Founding of Bayt al-Hikma: From the Resistance to the Supremacy of the Shu’ubis

After the advent of Islam and the Arab conquests, many libraries were burned by the Arab conquerors, but the acculturation of the Arab Muslims in contact with different civilizations led to the establishment of many libraries by them (Zadayn, 1993, p. 630). An example of this is Bayt al-Hikma. Apart from the idiosyncratic functioning of this library including its community of translators in transmitting knowledge and wisdom to the Arab culture, the central role of the Shuʻūbi translators is noteworthy in this context. As Zaydan (1993, p. 632) points out, Bayt al-Hikma was founded and administered by Iranians, and most of those who went to this library and its translation bureau were Iranians who advocated Shuʿūbiyya and were enemies of the Arabs. These included Sahl ibn Hārūn (78-830 CE) as one of the administrators of Bayt al-Hikma and ʻAlan ibn Maghsūd Varāgh (n.d.). Against this background, the followers of the Shuʿūbiyya, who operated in secrecy during Umayyad rule, took advantage of the opportunity of the free sociopolitical environment afforded them after the ʻAbbāsid revolution to such an extent that they were able to freely disseminate their anti-Arab thoughts in their literary productions and functioned more as activist than as resistant translators. Abān ibn ʻAbd al-Hamid ibn Lāheqi, a poet of the late second Islamic century, is among these cultural figures whose anti-Arab tendencies are reflected in his poetry (Bahrami-Ahmadi, 2003, p.149). This poet, who enjoyed the patronage of the Barmakis, also translated and versified some Pahlavi books such as Kalīla wa Demna, Belawhar wa Būdāsf, the Book of Sindbad, the Book of Mazdak (Abbās, 1982).

Freedom and also dominance of the Shuʿūbiyya followers in the cultural milieu, especially in the Bayt al-Hikma, can be seen in the context of the administrative policies of the ʻAbbāsid caliphs, according to which tolerance was shown towards various ideologies in Islamic society under the rule of the ʻAbbāsid rulers, especially the first one. As Gutas (1998, p. 29) puts it, the ʻAbbāsid caliphate was brought to power through a civil war involving various factions. Therefore, al-Mansūr and his successors tried to keep their ideological appeasement in mind and legitimize their rule by satisfying factions such as the Persian-origin Arabs and the Arameans by expanding their imperial ideology to include the concerns of the “Persian” portion. In this sense, they promulgated the view that the ʻAbbāsid caliphate was not only the descendants of the Prophet, but at the same time the successor of the ancient imperial dynasties in Iraq and Iran, from the Babylonians to the Sasanians, and therefore adopted the Sasanian culture (ibid.). In this process, “Iranian bureaucrats and viziers who were mostly, if not completely, advocates of Shuʿūbiyya at heart and financially supported this movement” is attention-worthy (Homaee, 2004, p. 106). Among these viziers was Abu Salameh Khalāl (d. 750 AD), who played a significant role in the collapse of the Ummayad dynasty and served the first ʻAbbāsid caliph named al-Saffāh (721-754 AD), Abū Ayūb Mūriani (d. 771 AD), Yaʻqūb ibn Dāvūd (802 AD), Yahyā ibn Khālid Barmaki (d. 805 A.D.), Fadl ibn Sahl (770-818 AD), and Hassan ibn Sahl (782-851 AD), who served al-Mansūr, al-Mahdi (744-785 AD), Hārūn al-Rashid, and al-Maʻmūn (786-833 AD), respectively (Momtahen, 1990, pp. 181-2). In this context, the caliphate was reshaped along the lines of the Sāssānids, activism of Shuʿūbi translators bore fruit and Bayt al-Hikma was constituted through financial support of Hārūn al-Rashid, who was characterized by a passion for science and literature as well as religious and intellectual tolerance, similar to Khosrow I (Bsoul, 2019, p.46). Against this background, Bayt al-Hikma was used to collect, preserve, and translate the classical philosophical and scientific works, as well as to promote the study of medicine and related fields, which provided a model for many later Muslim universities (Newby, 2002, p. 43). The school of Gundishāpūr served as a model in this process and foreign manuscripts were provided by this school where an enormous wealth of Latin manuscripts in addition to an equal number of other documents of Indian and Chinese origin were available for scholars to translate into Arabic (El-Tom in Martin, 2004, p.295). In addition to the manuscripts from Gundishāpūr, al-Ma’mūn (813-833 AD), the successor of Hārūn al-Rashid, sent emissaries throughout the Mediterranean world to seek and acquire books on “ancient scholarship”, which were then brought back to Baghdad and translated into Arabic by a body of scholars (Hughes in Martin, 2003 , p.612).

Unlike the translations presented by the Shuʻūbi translators during the Umayyad caliphate, translation was no longer practiced in the Bayt al-Hikma or other translator communities as an instrument of resistance, but as a means of activism and cultural promotion at the time when, according to Zaydan (1993, p. 594) kings, viziers, rulers, Arabs, Iranians, Romans, Indians, Turks, Jews, Egyptians, Christians, etc. supported or produced cultural productions in different areas such as Egypt, Iraq, Fars, Khorasan, etc. Against this background, Iranian translators such as ‘Umar ibn Farrukhān Tabari, and Ibn Mūsā al-Nawbakhti joined the community of translators constituted in Bayt al-Hikma, working with a group of translators of other nationalities, for instance, Ibn Mūsā al-Nawbakhti worked with a group of translators that included Abū ʻUthmān al-Dimashqi, Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-Ibadi, and Thābit ibn Qurra to translate books of philosophy and classical Greek and Persian texts into Arabic and Syriac in Bayt al-Hikma (Ibn Nadim in Dodge, 1970, pp. 440, 589). This suggests an intercultural exchange between the Iranians as the conquered and the Arabs as the conqueror after the fall of the Sāssānid Empire from which both sides benefited. Because

“The Islamic conquest of Persia enabled the Persians to become members of an international society and to participate in a world-wide civilization in whose creation they themselves played a basic role. A homogeneous civilization which spread from the heart of Asia to Europe, possessing a common religion and a common religious and also scientific language, facilitated the exchange of ideas and prepared the ground for one of the golden ages in the history of science, in which the Persians had a major share”. (Nasr in Frye, 1975, p. 396)

Within such an international society, Bayt al-Hikma under the patronage of the ʻAbbāsid caliphs, and also under the auspices of Shuʻūbi translators and bureaucrats served as a meeting place of “scholars, physicians, philosophers, astronomers, and scholars of mechanics and crafts who translated various books of science and the arts” (Bsoul, 2019, pp. 64-6) and paved the way “for the foundation of medieval sciences in both the Islamic and Christian worlds” (Hughes in Martin, 2003, p.612).  However, after a century it fell into disrepair as the power of the ʻAbbāsids began to wane and eventually it met the fate of other intellectual centers and it was sacked by the Mongols after the siege of Baghdad in 1258. In this sense, it seems that with the appearance, flourishing and decline of Arab Empire, the translator communities in Iran experienced stagnation, restoration and decline.

4. Conclusion

 From our perspective on the activity of translation after the fall of Sāssānid Empire by the Arab invaders, it follows that translation has been instrumental in the cultural renaissance of the Arab invaders and also in the preservation of the cultural identity of Iranians as the conquered nation. Such functioning was not feasible except through the collective efforts of translators who came together in specific communities and took a stand on the cultural policies exercised by the ruling caliphate structure, and this did not happen abruptly, for after the failure of the Iranians to the Arab conquerors, the translator communities functioning in the Nassibin and Gundishāpūr schools experienced one hundred fifty years of stagnation due to the fall of their Sāssānid patrons on the one hand and the neglect of the Arab Caliphs such as Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphs, who were preoccupied with the military expansion of the Arab Empire and the Arabization policy that granted the Arab Muslims supremacy over the non-Arabs, on the other hand. This testifies to the repressive function of power in relation to translation, while the constitution of the Shuʿūbi resistant community of translators who mobilized against the cultural hegemony of the Arabs at this time points to the reactive role of translators who participated in ideological and political struggles in their own time and place. Interestingly, this resistant community served a different purpose as the power structure of the Arab empire was reshaped along Sāssānid lines and leniency was shown to Shuʿūbi agents on a sociopolitical level. In this context, translators who were committed to the Shuʿūbiyya no longer viewed translation as a means of resistance but as a tool to realize their activism and participate in the renaissance of Arab culture and the cultural identity of the Arab Empire. It can be seen, then, that not only were translator communities subject to different vicissitudes during the emergence and growth of the Arab Empire, but also that translators’ agency varied according to what they felt committed. As the Arab Empire leaned towards leniency and tolerance, translators’ engagement in resistance died away and translators took the initiative to express their activism in the emerging civilization. As the Arab Empire continued to grow, translation changed from an instrument of identity preservation to an instrument of identity formation, not to mention those subservient translations which were produced in accordance with the ideas of the ruling caliphs. Eventually, each resistance, activist, and even submissive translator community functioned in its own way, ensuring the preservation of Iranian pre-Islamic culture, albeit in the Arabic language, and enriching Arab cultural heritage or Islamic civilization.


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[1] On the transformation of the Mongol identity see Sonat-e-Tarjome dar Asr-e Ilkhanan va Teimurian [literally, Translation Tradition during the Ilkhanate and Teimurid Dynasties in Iran]

[2] During the late Sāssānid era, Iraq provided one-third of the land tax for the entire Sāssānid state and Sāssānid property owned by members of the Sāssānid royal family were located in Iraq. After Iran conquest, especially, from the time of Moʻāwia there was an increasing trend to consolidate the responsibility for Persia in the hands of a single governor in Iraq. See [url=][/url]

[3] The Book of Lords

[4] The Book of Manners

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"The Fall and Rise of the Iranian Translator Communities at the Birth and Growth of the Arab Empire", inTRAlinea Vol. 24.

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