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Syriac and Arabic Traditions

 Definition and Challenges

Gnomology (gr. γνωμολογία, lat. gnomologium) was a popular literary genre, especially in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, with an established tradition and broad dissemination not only in Greek literature but also in the literature of the cultural peripheries of the Mediterranean region. The term “gnomology” denotes either a certain style of writing (the sententious style) or a collection of gnomic sayings. Gnomology comes to be used only later on as a generic term to describe a literary genre (Horna 1935; Searby 1998, 20ff.; Overwien 2001, 99f.). In the literal sense of the word, a gnomology may only refer to a collection of gnomes (gnomai). However, most collections characterized today as gnomologia contain both gnomai (gnomes: concise sayings, often of moral content that bear universal truth) and chiriai or apophthegmata (anecdotal sayings with a fairly structured contextual narrative that end in a thought-provoking punchline). These epigrammatic literary forms will hereinafter generally be referred to as sayings or sentences (for a description of these forms and distinction between gnomologium and florilegium, see Stanzel 1987; Searby 1998, 13-20; Overwien 2001, 101-106). From the modern perspective, gnomology thus refers to a collection of incisive aphorisms, maxims, and anecdotes of philosophers, famous personalities and “wise men”, and later on, with the advent of Christianity, also those of the Church Fathers and theologians.

Gnomic anthologies have a long tradition (for a general overview on anthologies, see Kindstrand 1986). Xenophone (Memorabilia I.6.14) writes that Socrates discussed selected sayings of the ancients with his pupils. Plato reports (Leges VII 811A) that wise saws were collected for instructional purposes, and teachers compiled anthologies of aphorisms for memorization (Barns 1950). Of these earliest collections, papyrus fragments dating back to the 3rd century BC have survived. In Diogenes Laertius’ Vitae Philosophorum, composed probably during the 3rd cent. AD (Mejer 1978, 3356-60), apophthegms play an important role throughout the biographies of the philosophers (Delatte 1922, 54-63). The oldest anthology to have been preserved to the greatest extent is of Joannes Stobaeos from the 5th century AD. From the 7th century onwards, Christian gnomologia are composed along the lines of these models. The collection Sacra Parallela, considered the oldest Christian collection, was succeeded by a large number of sacro-profane anthologies, whose exact date of compilation cannot be determined on the basis of current research. The popularity of the gnomic anthologies, particularly in Byzantine times, must be seen in connection with the intensified production of compendia and manuals on different topics that served as convenient reference works for particular fields of knowledge (Roueché 1974). The practice of collecting and reorganizing knowledge is typical for Late Antiquity and the Byzantine period: Texts extracted from the plethora of writings bequeathed by Classical literature were collected and rearranged so that a new text corpus emerged (on restructuring of gnomic material see especially Gerlach 2003). Not always do these gnomic anthologies contain only gnomes and apophthegms; often writings pertaining to wisdom literature and doxography can also be found, which constitute an important source of knowledge transfer, so that these collections constitute often a mixed form, not only in regard to their content but also in terms of how the anthologies are structured. Three main types of gnomologia can be distinguished according to their organizing principle: 1) Sayings classified under the names of persons to whom they were ascribed, whereby a) an alphabetical order (e. g. Gnomologium Vaticanum, ed. Sternbach) or b) a chronological order (e. g. Philosophical Quartet, see below) is possible, 2) collections following a thematic order (e. g. Loci Communes, ed. Ihm 2001; Gnomologium Baroccianum, ed. Bywater 1878) and 3) collections without a distinct order (e. g. Corpus Parisinum, ed. Searby 2007). Often the sayings are combined with biographical and doxographical information, perhaps modeled after Porphyry’s lost work on the history of philosophy.

This genre flourished in the Byzantine literature from the 9th to the 11th century AD in parallel with a revival of the literary interests of the learned and ruling classes during the iconoclastic crisis (Speck 1984, 190ff.; Odorico 1983). Around the beginning/middle of the 9th century, sacro-profane anthologies circulated and enjoyed great popularity. One salient feature of these anthologies is the variability of the transmitted material in gnomic literature. The anthologies could offer many variants not only in terms of the order of the sayings, but also in terms of their wording or their attribution to particular authors, which could vary from recension to recension. As a result, researchers of gnomologies are confronted with plethora of recensions and traditions of the gnomic anthologies transmitted through a vast number of manuscripts. A synoptic and comparative work on the origin and transmission of the Greek gnomologia has yet to be written as the extensive and widely scattered sources of Greek gnomologies are difficult to handle (cf. Strohmaier 1998, 462; Kindstrand 1981, 99-106; for a review of the relevant editions see Ihm 2001, III-XVII).

 Syriac Gnomologia

In the period between the 5th and the 7th century AD, a quite large number of Greek works was translated into Syriac. Notwithstanding the predominance of biblical and patristic literature, also secular writings, particularly philosophical and medical texts, were translated (Brock 2003; Hugonnard-Roche 2007). They also include gnomic anthologies that are subsumed under the term “popular philosophy” and have their origin in Greek literature. Remains of these texts that survived the decline of the Syriac culture do not provide an adequate reflection of the original reception. Among the collections that were disseminated under the name of a particular author were Menander’s aphorisms which have nothing to do with the Monostichoi of Menander (Monaco 2013; also Arzhanov 2011, a new edition is in preparation), and the Sextus aphorisms (Lagarde 1858, 1-31; German transl. Ryssel 1895-97), which gained great popularity in Late Antiquity. Another text that was very popular not only in Syriac but also in the entire Christian Orient was The Life of the Wise Secundus (Perry 1964; Brock 1978; a new edition is in preparation, see Heide 2012). In it, Emperor Hadrian tests the resolve of the silent philosopher who has taken an oath of silence. The written responses offered by Secundus to the Emperor’s questions were seen as gnomic literature, so that some of these sayings were integrated into different gnomic collections (Kraemer 1986, 118). These examples show that whatever their origin, gnomes with an ethical and moral character could be absorbed into a Christian context without any problems, a process that will be eventually repeated when pagan or Christian sayings and proverbs are assimilated into Islamic collections. Similar developments can be noted with respect to sayings ascribed to Plato. Plato’s writings, in contrast to those of Aristotle, are hardly available in Syriac translation (Hugonnard-Roche 2009); Plato is in Syriac better represented in pseudepigrapha. Not infrequently, he can be found in popular philosophy and in gnomologia, where he appears as a wise person who offers ethical and moral instruction (Brock 2012). The figure of Plato depicted here is more reminiscent of a Christian ascetic than a pagan philosopher. Such “Christianization” of the Greek philosophers has been vividly portrayed in the Book of Governors of Thomas of Marga from the 9th century AD where Plato is placed alongside Moses, Homer and Pythagoras, who had attained the highest wisdom through asceticism (Budge 1893, I, 297-99). The popularity of such wisdom literature, particularly in monastic circles, is evident from the manuscript tradition of these gnomic anthologies (Bettiolo 2002). Fortunately, several Syriac manuscripts surviving from the 7th and 8th centuries AD (Brit. Libr. Add. 14658, Add. 14614, 17193; Sinai Syr. 16) contain a number of popular philosophical texts, among them also collections of sayings of an ethical character. In these manuscripts, shorter anthologies are arranged, containing sayings attributed to Menander, Pythagoras (Lagarde 1858; Levi della Vida 1910; Wünsch 1968), Plato, and a woman Pythagorean philosopher Theano (Possekel 1998). The so-called question-and-answer literature is related to gnomologies, an example of which can also be found in these early manuscripts. Brit. Libr. Add.14658 preserves a collection of Horoi (Definitions) under the name of Plato; these definitions are also prevalent in Greek, even if not exactly in the same format (Brock 2003, 14).

Apart from these collections that are attributed to particular philosophers, remains of thematically ordered gnomologia are also preserved in Syriac. Several manuscripts contain sayings entitled “On the soul” that are attributed to several authorities (for an overview see Zeegers-Vander Vorst 1988; Arzhanov 2013). It remains unknown to date as to whether these collections are derived from Greek sources; it is possible that they represent original Syriac compilations of moral sayings following Greek examples that emerged at the latest in the 7th century AD (the oldest witness is Ms. Sinai Syr.16) and whose authors must be sought within monastic circles. Even if many collections barely show parallels with the Greek tradition, it would be a mistake to conclude that Syriac gnomologia had played a negligible role in the transmission of Greek gnomologies to the Arab world. The failure of the search for a Greek Vorlage led in the past to the loss of scholarly interest in the Syriac collections, and that is why Syriac gnomologies have remained unedited in part and little studied. Research on the Syriac collections of philosophical sayings is still in the beginnings; often certain clusters of gnomologia can be found in miscellanies that are not always identified properly in the manuscript catalogues. A vivid example of how philosophical sayings were incorporated into Syriac miscellanies is provided by the said manuscript, Brit. Libr. Add. 14658. Beside Aristotle’s Categories, Porphyry’s Isagoge and other philosophical treatises (the contents are exactly listed by Hugonnard-Roche 2007, 280f.), the ms. incorporates – almost as an appendix – smaller collections of sayings and other opuscules: aphorisms of Menander; several smaller works discussing the term “substance”; sayings of Pythagoras; an apology of a philosopher (Ps. Meliton); the letter of Mara bar Serapion to his son; sayings of Plato; Plato’s advice to his pupil and the sentences of Theano. Ms. Sinai Syr. 16, a monastic collection, also from the 7th century AD, contains philosophical sayings, the advice of Theano, the sentences of a philosopher on the soul and sayings of Pythagoras combined with ascetic literature. The lives of the Egyptian Desert Fathers constitute the core of the manuscript. These two examples clearly demonstrate that just varying the configuration and combination of sayings can influence the meaning and interpretation of the whole collection: while the former manuscript highlights the philosophical aspect of the gnomic anthology, the latter manuscript depicts the philosopher as an ascetic whose maxims could be merged with the apophthegms of the Desert Fathers without any difficulty.

The manuscript tradition shows that Syriac popular philosophical texts were often combined with monastic texts as a form of “entertainment literature,” which comes very close to the understanding of the gnomic anthologies in the Arab world as adab literature – without intending to detract from the pedagogical or scientific value of these works.

This widely scattered material must undergo comprehensive examination to demonstrate more clearly the links between the Greek and Syriac collections. It is safe to conclude that these miscellanies circulated in the 7th/8th centuries AD and possibly go back to older archetypes (cf. aforementioned Zeegers-Vander Vorst).

Between the end of the 8th and the advent of the 9th century AD, more collections of sayings are translated into Syriac. These translations are part of the Graeco-Arabic translation movement that lasted for more than two centuries up to the 10th century AD (on Syriac translations see Gutas 1998, 20ff.). Syriac-speaking Christians played a prominent role in this translation movement that was spurred by an increased interest in Greek scholarship and philosophy among the Muslim elite. Christian scholars and clerics had the knowledge of various languages and had access to the books in demand; for that reason they represented the ideal proponents of Greek thought to the Muslim Arabs at large. Syriac remained until the end of the translation movement an important intermediary stage for translations from Greek into Arabic (cf. for the methods see Bergsträsser 1925, Brock 1991, Overwien 2012), of which some may have circulated later on. Important for our purposes is the fact that Syriac translators, who in the first generation often originated from monastic circles (Troupeau 1991), were obviously well versed in Greek and Syriac gnomologia and were crucial for the level of popularity this genre attained among the Arabs. Thus in the 9th century AD, gnomologia come to be translated that evidently had not found their way into Syriac at an earlier point in time; the Golden Verses of Pythagoras are an example of that (Levi della Vida 1910). Moreover, it is possible to assume that some sayings were transmitted from Greek into Syriac several times; otherwise the divergences in the wording of a saying cannot be explained, whereby a more precise examination of the translation technique would be necessary.

However not all Syriac collections are derived from Greek. A collection of wise sayings at the tomb of Alexander the Great represents a text without a Greek counterpart (Brock 1970), even though it could theoretically go back to a Greek Vorlage just in terms of its linguistic formulation (Pietruschka et al. 2014 b). When exactly this collection was compiled is not yet certain, the surviving text is merely a later copy from the beginning of the 20th century. These Laments of the Philosophers were also translated into Arabic and circulated in various versions that are clearly distinct from one another: in a Christian Arabic version transmitted by Eutychius of Alexandria (d. 940 AD) (Cheikho 1906, on which the Ethiopic versions rely) and in Muslim variants that have little in common with the Syriac and Christian Arabic version. It is obvious that the Eutychius version is a somewhat inelegant, more or less literal, Arabic translation from Syriac, which probably circulated only in Christian monastic circles. The Muslim Arabic versions of the Laments presumably go back to other translations that offer a stylistically better Arabic (Pietruschka et al. 2014).

The self-understanding of the Christians as the true successors to the Greek philosophers ran parallel to the growing Muslim enthusiasm for the Greek heritage. This philhellenic, but markedly anti-Byzantine, attitude is already prevalent among the non-Chalcedonian Christians in the Orient, and, with the Abbasid revolution in the 8th century AD, also among the Muslims (Pellat § 741). Thus the monk David bar Paulus (8th cent. AD) praises Greek philosophy and knowledge in his poems (Baumstark 1922, 272f.). And just as the Christians considered themselves the true heirs to Greek philosophers, the Muslim intellectuals also devised a similar link to the Greeks. The genealogy presented by the famous philosopher al-Kindī (d. 870 AD) links the forefather of the ancient Greeks, Yūnān, to the Arab ancestor, Qaḥṭān, in a sibling relationship (for a discussion on this, see Gutas 1998, 88). In this context, comparable constructions of history are to be noted, such as a text of al-Fārābī that can be found in Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿa (Meyerhof 1930, Strohmaier 1987): In describing the transmission of the school of Alexandria to Antioch, and eventually to Bagdad, the Arabs are brought in a direct line of tradition with the Alexandrian philosophers. In this way, Greek philosophy and sciences could be presented as Arab in origin.

The sources of later Syriac gnomologies such as the Laughable Stories by Bar Hebraeus (d. 1286 AD; ed./tr. Budge1893) need to be clarified. Bar Hebraeus used for his collection not only an Arabic adab encyclopedia (Kitāb Nathr al-durr, see Marzolph 1985), but had obviously access to other gnomic anthologies not yet identified.

 Arabic Gnomologia

The Arabic gnomologia represent the second largest group of collections of sayings after the Greek ones and function as intermediaries for other Oriental languages, such as Hebrew, Ethiopic or Persian. The popularity of these gnomic anthologies enjoyed in medieval Europe is evident from the numerous translations of Arabic collections into Latin as well as Spanish, Provençal and French. The complexity of the transmission history can be discerned from a collection of sayings titled “The dicts and sayings of the philosophers,” which is among the first books to be published in England in 1477 AD. The anthology of sayings and anecdotes of Greek and Oriental philosophers and wise men had been translated from French into English and goes back to a Latin translation, which is based on a Spanish version (Bocados de Oro) of an Arabic text from the 11th century AD, namely the Kitāb Mukhtār al-ḥikam of Mubashshir ibn Fātik (d. 1087 AD), who compiled his collection using Greek and Syriac sources in Arabic translation. Just this history of transmission makes two things clear: On the one hand, the complex transmission lines of gnomic anthologies and on the other the significance of collections of ethical and moral nature during the European Middle Ages. Since antiquity, they have been deemed important sources for philosophical views and biographies of ancient philosophers, scientists and other learned men.

As has been pointed out above, Muslims are, from the 8th century AD onwards, increasingly interested in Greek philosophy, medicine, and sciences. Collections of moral aphorisms and popular ethics were highly esteemed among the Arabs; aphoristic wisdom (ḥikma, pl. ḥikam) circulated already in pre-Islamic times. Due to their universal value a reception and transmission in various cultural and religious environments was more than easy. The fact that during the same period compilations of gnomic collections were in vogue in the Byzantine literature facilitated the transmission of this genre in Arabic. Popular ethics were a trend, however, not only among the Greeks; in Pahlavi literature andarz compositions (short, didactic sayings of gnomic character) were also very popular. The term andarz denotes a type of literature which contains advice and injunctions for proper behavior. Little is known about the transmission of this genre during the Sasanian period. But the popularity of this type of writings is clearly visible through the many texts and fragments which have survived in Arabic translation (Geiger / Kuhn 1974, 75-129). A substantial amount of andarz material was translated into Arabic during the first three centuries of Islam. Instruction manuals and manuals for the education of princes (“mirrors for princes”) as well as “Testaments” and throne speeches of Sasanian kings found their way into the Arabic gnomic anthologies. How the andarz material has influenced the composition of early Arabic gnomologia is still a topic of discussion (Gutas 2006, 99; for an important and early representative of this translation movement, see Zakeri 2007). All these lines of transmission of gnomic literature – Greek, Syriac and Persian – had an effect on the compilation of Arabic gnomologia. What is true for Greek gnomologia – namely that studies surveying the transmission lines and the internal relationships between the respective collections are lacking on account of this complicated situation – also applies to Arabic gnomologia. Already 40 years ago, Gutas (1975, 450) developed a still valid stemma portraying the interdependencies between the most important Arabic gnomic anthologies which will certainly undergo modification and refinement in light of the fact that the research on Arabic and Greek gnomologia has intensified during the last years.

The Nawādir al-falāsifa (“Anecdotes of the Philosophers”), commonly ascribed to the renowned translator and physician Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq (d. 873 or 877 AD), is one of the earliest gnomologies preserved in Arabic. Only recently, significant doubt was raised on the authorship (see in particular Zakeri 2007, 59ff.). It is especially problematic that this work is at our disposal only in a later recension, the Ādāb al-falāsifa, of an otherwise unknown author, Muḥammad al-Anṣārī (ed. Badawi 1985, Bandak 2007, see also Merkle 1921). The Nawādir are extant in a medieval Hebrew translation (ed. Loewenthal 1896, German transl. by the same author 1896) and were well-known in an Old Spanish version under the title Libro de los buenos proverbios (ed. Knust 1879, Sturm 1971, Crombach 1971), which finally paved the way for translations into other European languages. There is great uncertainty about the sources for this anthology (for more information on research and for a discussion on the sources see Overwien 2003, 2005, 94ff.; Zakeri 2004, 2007, 59ff.). The Nawādir (Ādāb) al-falāsifa, undoubtedly, are a composite work, whose chapter arrangement raises some questions. The first unit is mainly a collection of stories, letters, sayings ascribed to the ancient Greek philosophers and mingled with Ḥunayn’s own reflections on Greek philosophy, the philosophical schools and the importance of philosophy and of wise sayings for the education. The second unit comprises “carvings of the signet rings” (“Siegelsprüche”) of philosophers. These sayings are followed by various gatherings of philosophers discussing different topics. The last unit consists of gnomic sentences of Greek philosophers and Persian and pre-Islamic wise men (e.g. Mahādarjīs and Luqmān). Apart from the Greek philosophers and Christian material transmitted in the collection that could indicate a sacro-profane gnomology as source, non-Greek influences must also be taken into consideration: sayings of Sasanian kings, such as Anūshirwān, or wise men like Buzurjmihr appear as well as saws of the wise Achikar. Alexander the Great is depicted in the same manner as we know him from the Christian Orient, and especially from Syriac traditions. Sayings from the Signet rings of philosphers as well as the Gatherings of philosophers are modeled after Persian pattern. On the whole, the diversity of the texts in the Nawādir al-falāsifa is reminiscent of the aforementioned smaller gnomic anthologies as they are found in Syriac miscellanies (see also the unedited manuscript of Köprülü 1608).

On the other hand, the Nawādir display concerning structure, content, and literary forms remarkable similarities to the adab literature, a genre that is intended to instruct and advise the general public or bureaucratic elites. Ḥikma features prominently in adab collections, and there is often a special chapter containing wisdom from various sources. With the influx of Greek, Persian and other material, the compilers of adab works drew increasingly upon non-Arab sources, so e.g. gnomic anthologies already translated into Arabic (Fähndrich 1990, Kilpatrick 1998). It is one of the characteristics of these collections that a compiler reshaped the texts he found in sundry sources; although the same sayings are often encountered in different works, their significance changes according to their context. Sometimes the sayings contain the annotations of the adīb or are transformed into poetry; the original saying can thereby no longer be recognized, a circumstance that makes the search for parallels and the original sources even more difficult. Another genre that flourished at the same time were the so-called Nawādir (sg. nādira; extraordinary, rare saying) books which comprised collectanea from different sources, especially from poetry (for an overview of works from the 9th cent. AD see GAS II, 85ff.), without any strict systematization. The use of gnomic verses in poetry was a popular feature, meant to instruct or admonish.

Among the oldest collections is the Kitāb al-Mujtanā (“Harvest”; ed. Rosenthal 1958) by the philologist Ibn Durayd (d. 933 AD), who must have had access to a Greek gnomology that had already been translated into Arabic. A contemporary of Ibn Durayd, Ibn Abī ʿAwn (d. 933 AD), compiled an anthology entitled “Dumbfounding Repartees” (al-Ajwiba al-muskita, ed. Yousef 1988; Rosenthal 1991), which comprises a section on Greek philosophers and Persian wise men that is clearly derived from a common Arabic source translated from Greek or Syriac. One cluster of sayings probably also stems from a sacro-profane collection that contains excerpts from the Apophthegmata Patrum (Pietruschka 2012). These sayings are ascribed either to Greek philosophers or Muslim ascetics, so we can observe a similar feature already noticed in the Syriac gnomologia: Sayings of Greek (pagan) philosophers or Christian monks are henceforth attributed to Muslim ascetics. Because of the ethical universality of these sayings, they could be easily integrated into these collections and underwent a certain degree of “Islamization” in this process.

Thus it is no surprise that works on asceticism (zuhd) often quote wise sayings that go back to Greek or Syriac Vorlagen (Pietruschka 2014a). The content of such gnomic wisdom is perfectly aligned with the ideals of the Muslim ascetics: the sayings mostly deal with a humble life agreeable to God, with abstinence and silence, but at the same time they also stress the significance of education and wisdom for pious people. Abū l-ʿAtāhiya (748-826 AD) transformed in his ascetic poetry (zuhdiyyāt) gnomic sentences into verses, and sometimes he devoted a special unit to wisdom obviously drawn from gnomologia (EAL, I, 27-28, Creswell 2009).

During the 11th and 12th centuries, three large anthologies were compiled that constitute the source for later collections.

The “Depository of Wisdom Literature”, the Ṣiwān al-ḥikma, was compiled between the end of the 10th cent. and 1029 AD (al-Qāḍī 1981) by a philosopher who presumably belonged to the circle of Abū Sulaymān al-Sijistānī. The original collection is not extant, and only two later recensions (Mukhtaṣar Ṣiwān al-ḥikma, ed. Kartanegara 1996; Muntakhab Ṣiwān al-ḥikma, ed. Dunlop 1979, Badawī 1974) came down to us. Apart from these abridged versions, a supplement, the Tatimmat Ṣiwān al-ḥikma by Ẓahīr ad-Dīn al-Bayhaqī (d. 1169 AD) was well known (ed. Shafi 1935, Kurd ʿAlī 1946, al-ʿAjam 1994). The Muntakhab (end of the 12th/ beginning of the 13th cent. AD) obviously preserves the original structure of the collection. The anthology provides significant insights into the knowledge of the Muslims on the Greek history of philosophy. After an introduction to the history of philosophy, the Muntakhab gives beside sayings of Greek and Muslim philosophers and learned men valuable biographical data on them that relates to Porphyry’s lost Philosophus Historia to which the Arabs still had access at that time. It contains Arabic translations of Greek texts such as the Sentences of Menander, the Aphorisms of Hippocrates, the Pythagorean Golden Verses, and Joannes Philoponos’ Contra Aristotelem (for a general conspectus see Daiber 1984, 39ff.). The Mukhtaṣar compiled by ʿUmar b. Sahlān al-Sāwī after 1165 AD, omits the biographical passages, but delivers additional gnomic material. The Ṣiwān is of eminent significance for the transmission of Greek gnomologia because it preserves material otherwise lost in Greek (al-Qāḍī 1981, Gutas 1982, Daiber 1984). To the tradition of the Ṣiwān belong Miskawayh’s al-Ḥikma al-khālida (“Eternal Wisdom”, ed. Badawī 1952) - there is some disagreement about the exact relationship of Miskawayh with the Ṣiwān - and a collection focusing on sayings of Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, edited by Gutas (1975) unter the title “Philosophical Quartet”. Miskawayh (d. 1040 AD) presents in his compilation beside pre-Islamic Persian, Indian, Arab, and Greek wisdom longer texts such as Plato’s and Aristotle’s testaments and the Pythagorean Golden Verses.

In contrast to the aforementioned collections, the gnomology al-Kalim al-rūḥāniyya fī l-ḥikam al-yūnāniyya (“The Spiritual Sayings among Greek Maxims”, ed. Farḥān 2001) of Ibn Hindū (d. 1019 or 1029 AD) gives only sayings of Greek personalities which are in many cases not yet identifiable (Khalifat 1996). There is no systematization of the sayings, neither according to names nor topics, detectable. Ibn Hindū used obviously sources not available for the compilers of the other gnomologia.

The Mukhtār al-ḥikam wa-maḥāsin al-kalim (“Choicest Maxims and Best Sayings”, ed. Badawī 1958), which was compiled about 1048-49 in Egypt by al-Mubashshir ibn Fātik (Cottrell 2011) is a collection systematically organized by author names and contains – like the Ṣiwān – biographical material for each lemma. The collection was very popular, especially in the West of the Islamic world. In comparison with the Ṣiwān, Mubashshir gives few philosophers in his collection; he includes, however, Christian gnomic material that is extremely valuable for the examination of the links to Syriac collections. That he was able to draw from Syriac sources (in Arabic translation) is demonstrated in the final chapter where the sayings have been transmitted anonymously. There is a cluster of sayings which goes back to a small Syriac collection “On the soul”, preserved in the Ms. Sinai Syriac 16 from the 7th century AD (Arzhnanov 2012). The inclusion of Arabic versions of Syriac collections into the Mukhtār al-ḥikam shows that Christian Arabic translations of gnomic material played a vital role in the transmission of Muslim collections. The relationship between the Christian Arabic gnomic anthologies and the gnomologia of Muslim origin have not yet been adequately analyzed (Pietruschka 2012); an exact analysis of these collections and their connections to Syriac gnomologia is still in its beginnings. Traces of these Syriac collections can be found in Christian Arabic collections translated and compiled in Egypt. This material is qualitatively distinct from Muslim collections of sayings translated from the 9th century onwards; it is characterized mostly by a rather clumsy style. A good example for two different translations of the same sayings are the Laments of the philosophers at the tomb of Alexander. These sayings circulated in Syriac, Arabic, Ethiopic and Hebrew versions and were eventually transmitted to Europe. Interestingly, the sayings of the Christian tradition, found in the Annales of Eutychius of Alexandria (Saʿīd ibn al-Baṭrīq, 877-940 AD), Abū Shakir (ca. 1200-1295 AD) and al-Makīn (1206-1273 AD), are closely related and obviously circulated for centuries only in Christian, most probably in monastic, circles in Egypt (Pietruschka et al. 2014b).

The Mukhtār al-ḥikam was a popular reading in Christian circles. The manuscript tradition attests that the Mukhtār al-ḥikam – at least parts of it - was relatively often transmitted in Christian Arabic miscellanies together with gnomic material of genuine Christian origin, such as the Kitāb al-Bustān wa-qāʿidat al-ḥukamā’ wa-shams al-ādāb, compiled between the 10th century and 1523 (Pietruschka 2002). The Kitāb al-Bustān, on its part, is always combined with other texts of wisdom literature or popular philosophy, legends, pious narrations as a kind of "entertainment literature": the life and the sayings of the wise Secundus, sayings of Luqmān, Salomo or Hermes, testaments of philosophers, reflections about virtues of a monk and pious legends. The embedding in the mentioned subjects and genres shows that the Kitāb al-Bustān was not intended for philosophical instruction or schooling, rather for edifying, but also educative reading. This kind of collection has its parallels in the Muslim adab compendia. The Kitāb al-Bustān is not ordered according to authors or topics. It comprises sayings of Greek philosophers, early Church fathers, biblical figures, but also extracts from the Apophthegmata Patrum, ascetic writings and doxographical passages (Pietruschka 1992, 2012). Contrary to previous research, the role of the Nawādir al-falāsifa as a source for the Kitāb al-Bustān is less significant (Pietruschka 2005).

The Kitāb al-Milal wa-l-niḥal (“Religion and Sects”, ed. Cureton 1846, Badrān 1947-1955) is a doxography witten by al-Shahrastānī in 1127/28 AD (Gimaret/ Monnot 1986). The second part of this work deals with Muslim and Greek philosophers that are listed chronologically. The sources for the Greek chapter are the Ṣiwān al-ḥikma, and doxographical works, such as Ps.-Ammonios and the Arabic translation of the Placita Philosophorum.

The Nuzhat al-arwāḥ wa-rawḍat al-afrāḥ (“Amusement of the Souls and Garden of Delights”, ed. Khurshīd Aḥmed 1976, Abū Shuwayrib 1988, Md. ʿAlī Abū Rayyān 1993) by al-Shahrazūrī (13th cent. AD) drew mainly upon the biographical and gnomic material from the Mukhtār al-ḥikam and the Ṣiwān. It is, however, a valuable witness for the reconstruction of the “original” Ṣiwān, because al-Shahrazūrī had it obviously at his disposal (for the sources see Cottrell 2004-2005).
Later gnomic anthologies draw on the said works, rearrange the material, but do not offer anything different or new in terms of information and are for that reason of limited value.

It is almost impossible for an individual scholar to provide a comprehensive overview of the entire gnomic material available in a bewildering variety of recensions and traditions in different languages and in a seemingly unmanageable plethora of manuscripts; databases, however, shall in the future offer easier access to the entire textual corpus.



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How to cite:
Ute Pietruschka, «Gnomologia: Syriac and Arabic Traditions », in Houari Touati (ed.), Encyclopedia of Mediterranean Humanism, Spring 2014, URL =