Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy

Living Edition
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Aristotle, Arabic: Physics

  • Carmela BaffioniEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-024-1151-5_53-2


The Physics deeply influenced Arabic philosophy and science. It was translated into Arabic several times in the ninth and tenth centuries, but only the version by Isḥāq b. Ḥunayn (d. 910) survived. Many Greek commentaries were known as well. The most important center for the study of the Physics was the Baghdad school of Yaḥyā Ibn ‘Adī (d. 973) and his pupil Ibn al-Samḥ (d. 1027). The Physics was studied and commented by the most important Muslim philosophers.


Baghdad School Greek Commentaries Averroes Themistius Medieval Jewish Philosophy 
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The Arabic Reception of Aristotle’s Physics

The Physics deeply influenced Arabic philosophy and science, but Muslim authors often introduced new perspectives in front of Aristotle’s doctrines.

The version by Isḥāq b. Ḥunayn (d. 910), the only one survived, is transmitted in the Leiden MS (Bibliotheek der Rijksuniversiteit, or. 583), which contains the transcription of lectures given in 1005, and is a witness of the continuity of the tradition of this work during the centuries. Isḥāq quotes passages from the translations by Qusṭā b. Lūqā (d. 912) and by Abū ‘Uthmān al-Dimashqī (d. 900).

The Greek commentaries on the Physics by Alexander of Aphrodisias (c. 200), Themistius (c. 320–390), and Philoponus (sixth century; called Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī, “the Grammarian”) were also known; the exegeses by Eudemus (fl. c. 320 BCE), Theophrastus (372–288 BCE), and Galen (131–201) are occasionally mentioned.

While a treatise by Alexander exists in Arabic, refuting Galen’s position about a passage of the Physics stating that every moving object which is not moved by an external mover must have an internal mover (because when a part of it stops moving the whole stops moving), neither the Arabic paraphrase of Themistius nor the commentary by Philoponus survived (however, Books III–VII of this commentary are reported by Isḥāq). A complete survey of the preserved Arabic commentaries, compared with each other and with the Greek commentaries, is given by Lettinck (1994).

A new approach is developed by Rashed (2009) regarding Thābit b. Qurra (d. 901). Despite the lacunous state of the sources, he demonstrates that Thābit was the first one to discuss Aristotle’s Physics to elaborate an autonomous doctrine of motion. His providence-grounded conception of the world, however, did not make him accepted by theologians, while determined opposition by philosophers.

The most important center for the study of the Physics was the Baghdad school of Yaḥyā b. ‘Adī (d. 973) and his pupil Ibn al-Samḥ (d. 1027). Besides the commentaries by Abū Bishr Mattā Ibn Yūnus (d. 940), Yaḥyā’s teacher, and Abū l-Faraj Ibn al-Ṭayyib (d. 1044), the Physics was studied, mentioned, and/or commented by philosophers such as al-Fārābī (d. 950), Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna, d. 1057), Ibn Bājja (d. 1138), and Ibn Rushd (Averroes, d. 1198).

Faith in a Creator God is claimed for Abū Bishr Mattā by Janos (2015). God’s influence on heavens and his treatment of the “active nature” (as the final cause of motion and efficient cause responsible for creation) brings physical causality closer to metaphysics.

Al-Fārābī wrote an essay on the Physics under the title On Changeable Things, which is not preserved but was known to Ibn Bājja and Averroes. Avicenna dealt with the Physics extensively in his al-Shifā’ and al-Najāt; he knew Philoponus’ commentary but was independent from it.

Ibn Bājja was the first commentator on Aristotle in the Muslim West and the precursor of Averroes in this field. He often quotes Aristotle, sometimes deviating from Isḥāq’s version. As he seems familiar with Philoponus’ ideas, he might have used Qusṭā’s translation, which was accompanied with Philoponus’ commentary. He was influenced by al-Fārābī and influenced Averroes.

Philoponus’ ideas on place, the motion of physical bodies, and the eternity of the world differed from Aristotle’s ones; they influenced the Arab thinkers and scientists. Ibn Bājja, too, differs from Aristotle in his commentary, for example, about the place of the celestial spheres and the universe as a whole. Sometimes his ideas were shared by Averroes, at other times he criticized them.

Ibn Bājja’s commentary was not translated into Latin, but some of his theories were transmitted, thanks to some quotations of Averroes regarding the motion of a body in air or water, and the influence of the resistance of the medium on velocity; through the Hebrew translations of Averroes, Ibn Bājja’s ideas were known to the medieval Jewish philosophers in Spain.

Ibn Bājja contributed to the discussion of three other subjects: (1) the divisibility of a body in motion or changing, (2) the idea that a motion does not have a beginning but does have an end, and (3) the question whether any motion or actuality must be preceded by a potentiality. He represents an important stage in the development of ideas about motion from Aristotle to Galilei.

Also Avicenna’s concept of mayl (inclination) influenced the Latin West. Lettinck (2015) explores the chapters on movement in Aristotle’s Physics as elaborated by Ibn Sīnā and Ibn Bājja.

Averroes wrote three commentaries on the Physics: the Short (1159), the Middle (1170), and the Long Commentary (1186). Only the first exists in Arabic, the Middle and the Long are extant in Latin and Hebrew translations. He relied on Isḥāq’s translation; he too was influenced by Philoponus and knew Avicenna’s ideas well.

In recent years, the debate on Averroes’ elaboration is reopened by Glasners’ reference book (2009). The three commentaries on Physics cancel the old image of a servile interpreter of ancient doctrines in favor of that of the founder of a “new physics” grounded on the notion of “physical contiguity” (that substitutes Stoic continuity and atomistic discontinuity).

In a still wider perspective, Cerami (2015) examines Averroes’ revival of Aristotle’s theory of generation and corruption and considers his physics together with his theory of elements and his biology. These doctrines, strictly related, are shown in connection with his metaphysical theorization of essence.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Ismaili StudiesLondonUK