Explaining Away the Greek Gods in Islam

J. Walbridge, Explaining Away the Greek Gods in Islam, Journal of the History of Ideas 9.3 (1998), 389-403.

the Greek gods appeared to even the best informed medieval Muslims as little more than names. The most remarkable fact of the treatment of Greek religion in Islamic sources is how seldom the names of the gods even appear. Rosenthal’s anthology of borrowings from Greek in Islamic sources contains a few references to Zeus but virtually no mention of the other Olympians. Only Hermes has any prominence, but he is the sage of Egypt, not the messenger of Olympus. The Muslims did not receive a representative sample of Greek literature; for the most part only scientific, philosophical, and occult works were translated. Without the Greek language and Greek poetry there was no need for manuals of Greek mythology. In the works that were translated, Neoplatonic quasi-monotheism dominated. Specific references to the gods tended to be bowdlerized by the translators, most of whom were Christians. Gods became «God» or «angels,» as in the famous example of the Arabic translation of the Hippocratic oath. Deified heroes like Asclepius were restored to manhood. […]  Identifying the religions of these two civilizations [Ἑλλάδας, Αἰγύπτου] as «Sabian» brought them into the realm of the prophetic. To be sure, no one knew exactly how the Sabians originated, but the label at least protected the integrity of Islamic sacred history and allowed Muslim scholars to justify philosophy as a fundamentally religious enterprise. […] Thus the identification of the Greeks (and the Egyptians) as Sabians served several intellectual and practical interests. It allowed the Harranians to practice their pagan cult in peace. It allowed Muslim philhellenes to defend Greek thought as the product of the monotheistic religious tradition. Finally, it safeguarded the integrity of Qur’anic sacred history by placing Greek philosophy and science, both of them unquestionably great achievements of humanity, within the realm of the prophetic religions. […]for the Arabic translations of works like pseudo-Plutarch’s doxography used terms like Allah, al-ilah, and ilahf, all respectable Islamic terms for the Divinity. […] Socrates …. publicly declared his disagreement with the Greeks on religion. […]  An alchemical text attributed to Jabir ibn Hayyan, for example, alludes to Socrates rejecting Zeus. […] The same account describes a plague in the time of Plato. The Greeks pray to God (Allah) and consult a prophet of Israel as to the cause of the plague and how it might be averted. […] most other Islamic philosophers and scientists simply ignored the details of Greek popular religion on the grounds that only the elite religion of philosophi- cal theology was worth their trouble. More often the Greek gods posed a challenge to Islamic sacred history, which explained religious development in terms of successive prophetic religions. Greek religion had to be made to fit one of the existing categories in Islamic sacred history. The two that were used were Sabianism, usually identified as star worship, and the biblical prophets, whose monotheism was trans- mitted to early Greek philosophers who visited Syria and Egypt. […] Our texts thus give us one more answer to the old question of when paganism finally died: it died when Muslim scholars looked upon the names of the old gods and did not fear their power.

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