translation of Indian texts into Arabic under the Abbasids

Particular personal relations facilitated the movement of texts from India into the ancient Islamic world.  Abbasid Caliph al-Mahdi, who reigned from 775-785, took as one of his wives a slave-girl from Yemen, al-Khayzuran.  She acquired considerable courtly power and built political alliances with the Barmakids.  The Barmakids were a family that came from high-ranking Buddhist priests in the ancient city of Balkh in present-day northern Afghanistan.  When Hārūn al-Rashīd became caliph in 786, he appointed as his vizier Yahya ibn Khalid of the Barmakids.  Yahya invited Indian scholars to Baghdad and encouraged the translation of Indian texts into Arabic.

Indian texts commonly were first translated into Persian and then into Arabic.  In the sixth century, a Persian scholar translated the Panchatantra, an Indian wisdom book, for the Persian King Anushirvan.  In the eighth century, Caliph al-Mansūr‘s scribe translated it into Arabic.[1]  During al-Rashīd’s caliphate, the Indian physician and philosopher Manka translated into Persian an Indian text, “On Poisons.”  That text apparently was part of the Arthasastra, an ancient text attributed to the Indian scholar Chāṇakya (c. 350–283 BGC).  Yahya ibn Khalid then arranged to have the Persian version translated into Arabic.[2]  The Persian physician al-Rāzī drew extensively on Indian medical works.[3]  Al-Rāzī’s work, in turn, was highly influential in the ancient Islamic world.

When the Barmakids fell from courtly power in 803, the appointment of Indian scholars in Baghdad stopped.[4]  The Bakhtishu, who retained courtly influence, were proponents of Greek scholarship.  The shift in political power from the Barmakids to the Bakhtishu probably produced a shift in scholarly investment from Indian thought to Greek thought.  Nonetheless, in eleventh-century Granada in present-day southern Spain, a prominent Arabic geometrician drew up astronomical tables “according to one of the Indian systems, known as Sindhind.”[5]

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[1] HP p. 531.  The book, titled “Kalila wa-Dimna” in English transliteration of the Arabic, is of the “mirrors for princes” genre.  The Persian physician-scholar Barzawaih (Borzūya) translated it from Sanskrit into Persian.  `Abd Allāh ibn al-Muqaffa`, al-Mansūr‘s scribe, translated it from Persian into Arabic. Zakeri (2004) p. 184 indicates that it was also translated from Persian into Syriac.

[2] HP p. 602.  Khan (1981) p. 51.  Manka was associated with Ishāq ibn Sulayman ibn Alī, the Hashemite.  Hashemites were from Arabia.  Ibn Abi Usaibia’s sources for information about Manka included a book “Of Caliphates and Barmakids.”  That source is  further evidence of the connection between the Barmakids and India.

[3] HP p. 601.  In addition, the Persian-Arabic physician Ali ibn Sahl Rabban al-Tabari published in 850 an encyclopedia of medicine (Kitab Firdous al-Hikmah) that included in an appendix a review on Indian medicine based on translations of Indian texts into Persian and Arabic.

[4] Khan (1981) p. 54.

[5] HP p. 618.  Other Arabic scholars referred to “Indian calculus,” which apparently was a type of arithmetic.


HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294Online transcription.

Khan, M. S. 1981. “An Arabic Source for the History of Ancient Indian Medicine.”  Indian Journal of History of Science, 16(1) (May) pp. 47-56.

Zakeri, Mohsen. 2004. “Ādāb al-falāsifa: The Persian content of an Arabic collection of aphorisms.” Mélanges de l’Université Saint-Joseph, vol. 57, pp. 173-190.

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