In Islamic history, the first translation activities began even during the time of the Prophet (S.A.W). In order to spread the message of Islam, Prophet (S.A.W) needed to send the messages to various political rulers and non-Arabic speaking communities. For that purpose, Zayd Ibn Thabit was chosen who played an important role as the translator of the Prophet (S.A.W)’s letters from Arabic into other languages and vice-versa. Under the Umayyad reign, work of the translators were used for administrative and private purposes only.
Baghdad was the first notable centre for translation activities in Islamic history. The Bayt Al-Hikmah reached its peak when it became the translation centre in the Muslim world for two centuries. Under the Abbasid rulers, the real translation activities were conducted, especially in the fields of science, philosophy and literature.
Learning the use of paper by the Abbasids played an important role in translation activities and facilitated the spread of knowledge greatly by the multiplication of manuscripts. Under the encouragement of the Abbasid Caliphs Harun Al-Mansur, Harun al-Rashid and Al-Ma’mum in the 9th century, various paper mills were established in the Muslim world and the use of paper spread throughout the Middle East, North Africa and, eventually, into Europe. Thus, Baghdad in the beginning of the 9th century displayed an overall pattern quite similar to that of the westward movement of technology from China, India and Persia after the development of the paper making.
The translation activities were fully supported by the Abbasid elite, including the caliphs and princes, civil servants and military leaders, merchants and bankers, and scholars and scientists. It was not the pet project of any particular group in the furtherance of their restricted agenda. Such widespread support and sympathy, for sure, elevated the translation activities under the Muslim patronage.
By this, the presence of affordable paper initiated a thirst for a wider scientific knowledge, which led to the translation of medical and philosophical texts from the Greek, Latin, ancient Egyptian, Chinese and other languages into Arabic.
Many of the early translators were Syriac-speaking Christians, who were able to deal with Greek manuscripts either directly or through intermediary Syriac translations. It is important to note here that it was mainly due to this translation movement, the technical vocabulary of medicine has been created and developed in Arabic.
According to the more recent researches, from the time of the Caliph Al-Ma’mum, the translators became numerous, and most of them became independent scholars and started working for maecenates. Then, regular schools of translators has been created gradually, where the position of translators were transferred from father to son.
The second important translation centre in Islamic civilization was in Andalusia, the Muslim Spain. Al-Andalus means, “to become green at the end of the summer” as referred to the territory in Southern Spain, where Muslim rulership had been established since 711.
Islamic Civilization in Andalusia had reached its peak in the 10th century with beautiful cities of Almeria, Malaga, Cadiz, Huelva, Seville, Cordoba, Jaen and Granada. By 1100, the Muslim population of Andalusia rose to 5.6 million.
Due to the eagerness of Muslims in seeking knowledge, educational institutions such as libraries and research institutions grew rapidly in Andalusia, while the rest of Europe remained largely illiterate. Very soon, Andalusia became a multilingual center of learning and translation, gathering all people from different cultures and ethnicities who loved knowledge and wisdom.
The most significant translation centre in Andalusia was the city of Toledo, called the “cradle of learning” and the chief point of interactions between the Muslims, Christians and Jews.
This school of translators of Toledo was responsible for the translations of the most influential works of Muslim scientists and intellectuals from Arabic to Latin and then to Spanish contributing greatly at the arrival of European Renaissance. As being the main translation centre in the world at that time, many European scholars traveled to Muslim Spain and Sicily to learn Arabic in order to translate the vest knowledge of Muslim scholars into their own languages, mainly to the Latin. Hence, Islamic civilization in Spain became main threshold behind the European Renaissance.
So, from the time when Muslims set foot in Spain in 711 until 1084 (a year before Toledo was taken), Muslim Spain served as an important translator centre for the entire world. Decline of Muslim Spain began after the disintegration of Almoravides and Almohades in 1269, thus paving way for the Christian forces to control the peninsula. The most important intellectual centres, Toledo and Cordoba, fell into the hands of the Christian control, and, with the fall of the last Nasrid ruler in Granada in 1492, the invasion of Andalusia by the Christian troops under Ferdinand and Isabella was completed.
Now let me to elaborate about the process of translation in Islamic Civilization more. There had been a classical outline for translators that they should follow in their translating process. The first step was the process of checking the original and translated versions in order to pursuit greater accuracy, including the authorship (which could be overdone, as witnessed by the pseudo Aristotle corpus), and this contributed to the literary refinement of Arabic. The act of translation has a way of directing attention to the intellectual properties of the original and the translation. The translator was exercising certain intellectual property rights over the original work, and those rights were warranted by the translator taking on a two sided obligation, the one owed the original author and the other owed to the readership for whom the work is being translated.
Besides several notable translators’ names should be recognized such as from the Abbasids, Abdullah Ibn Al-Muqaffa who translated the Middle Persian collection of animal fables, mostly the sources came from the Indian origin, known as Panchatantra into Kalilah wa Dimnah into Arabic; Ibrahim al-Fazari who translated book of Indian astronomy and numerals, Aryabhatiya and Khandakhadyaka. Moreover, in Al-Andalus, the most significant translators were Abraham Bar Hiyya (Savasorda), Ibn Bajja (Avemplace), Raymundo, Dominicus Gundisssalinus and many more.
Accordingly, scholars under Islamic civilization contributed a great works to the world by translating many intellectual sources in various fields including mathematics, sciences, literature, philosophy and so on. At the same time, Islamic Civilization and its translation movement gave a great impact on European Civilization as they learnt from the Muslims.
Lastly, it is important to remember that, the translation activities in Islamic Civilization extended for at least three centuries and Arabic language consolidated as a language of the philosophical, medical and, generally, of the scientific thought and reached Europe through Andalusia.