Arabs were only transmitters of ancient Hindu wisdom

Photo: The ancient Arab city of Palmyra 

The Arabians have been credited with propagating science and mathematics to Europe after the decline of Greek civilization. But history shows it that they were only carriers of the knowledge from the East. The spark originated in India. “When in the dark and middle ages, the lamp of knowledge had begun to burn very low in Europe and even when the very vestiges of Greek culture and learning had all but disappeared, save in the obscure and dingy cells of the monk, it was the Arabs who carried there the accumulated intellectual treasures of the East, and thus laid the foundation, so to speak, of modern European greatness,” says Prof PC Ray, eminent scientist, in his book A History of Hindu Chemistry.

Many Indian scholars were inducted into the court of the Caliphs in Baghdad. The author of Kitab-al-Fihrist Haji Khalifa (10th century) and Ibn Abu Usaibiah (13th century) mention that the Caliphs Harun and Mansur had ordered translation of several standard Hindu works on medicine, materia medica and therapeutics into Arabic.

Gustav Leberecht Flugel, German orientalist, states, on the authority of Kitab-al-Fihrist, Susrud (Sanskrit name Sushrut Samhita) was translated by an Indian physician Mankh, who cured Caliph Harun al-Raschid of a serious illness. The Caliph appointed him in-charge of the Royal Hospital. Similarly, Charaka Samhita was also translated into Arabic by the same author.
Haji Khalifa, Arabic writer, reveals that many of his countrymen were learning Hindu astronomy, algebra under Hindu scholars who were appointed by the Caliphs. Also, many Muslim students “used to flock to centres of learning in India”.

Max Muller reveals that besides Charaka and Sushruta, Nidana and Vagbhada’s Ashtanga were rendered into Arabic. Al-Beruni, the Persian scholar and traveller, who had a long sojourn in India in the 10th century studied Sanskrit to learn India’s system of medicine, philosophy, mathematics and astronomy. Edward Sachau, who translated Al-Beruni, says, “Some of the books that had been translated under the first Abbasid Caliphs were extant in the library of Al-Beruni, when he wrote his Khitab-al-Hind, Brahmasiddhanta or Sindhind……..the Charaka in the edition of Ali Ibn Zain and the Panchtantra or Kalila and Dimna.”

According to Prof P C Ray, the fact that the Charaka occupied a place in the library of a cultured Arab affords an additional proof of the esteem in which the Hindu system of medicine was held by the Muslim world. Even before the advent of Islam, India was the favourite destination for students of medicine and other sciences. “Barzouhyeh, a contemporary of the celebrated Sassanian king Nashirvan, (AD 531-572), visited India to acquire proficiency in the Indian sciences.”

Later, when Sindh came under the rule of the Khalif Mansur (AD 753-774), many Indian pundits were invited to Baghdad. They introduced Brahmasiddhanta of Brahmagupta (Sindhind) and his Khandakadyaka (Arkand in Arabic). Prof Edward Sachau, who translated Al-Baruni’s works into English, states: “With the help of these pundits Alfazari, perhaps also Yakub Ibn Tarik, translated them. Both works have been largely used, and have exercised a great influence. It was on this occasion that the Arabs first came acquainted with a scientific system of astronomy. They learned from Brahmagupta earlier than from Ptolemy.”

Another wave of Hindu learning happened during Caliph Harun’s regime from AD 786 to 808. “The ministerial family Barmak, then at the zenith of their power, had come with the ruling dynasty from Balkh, where an ancestor of theirs had been an official in Buddhist temple Naubehar i.e. navavihara. The name Barmak is said to be of Indian descent, meaning paramaka i.e. superior… During the 8th and 9th centuries, the Indians became the teachers in arithmetic and algebra of the Arabs, and through them of the nations of the West. Thus, though we call the latter science by an Arabic name, it is a gift we owe to India.”

Although the Barmak family had converted to Islam, they never held Islam in high esteem or regarded it genuine. Dr P C Ray writes, “Induced probably family traditions, they sent scholars to India to study medicine and pharmacology. Besides, they engaged Hindu scholars to come to Bagdad, made them the chief physicians of their hospitals, and ordered them to translate from Sanskrit into Arabic, books on medicine, pharmacology, toxicology, philosophy, astrology and other subjects.”

Flugel states on the authority of Kitab-al-Fihrist, Susrud (Sanskrit name Sushrut Samhita) was translated by an Indian physician Mankh, who cured Caliph Harun al-Raschid of a serious illness. The Caliph appointed him in-charge of the Royal Hospital.