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The Tigris Still Runs Black with Ink: Untangling the Myths Surrounding the Development of Islamic Thought

by Tariq Mir

In 1886, the French Orientalist and scholar of ‘Semitology’ Ernest Renan (1823-1892) would be applauded for his inaugural lecture delivered at the Sorbonne University in Paris entitled L’Islamisme et la science, during which he would offer a dramatic depiction of Islam: that in its very essence the religion had ‘the greatest contempt for education, for science, and for everything that constituted the European spirit.1 This attitude, according to Renan, would fundamentally hamper the Islamic civilisation from progress and leave it in a state of intellectual stagnation, technological and industrial decline, and cultural languor. Despite the persistence of Renan’s words long into the twentieth century, it is clear that there has been a contemporary discomfort with Renan’s characterisation. This has prompted a concerted effort to reassess Islam on its own terms and untangle the Orientalist categories and labels employed in the academy and contemporary public discourse.2

To do so, however, the question must be asked: what actually happened in the ‘mediaeval and premodern’ Islamic intellectual landscape to lead Renan to characterise Islamic thought in such a way? To answer this, one must be aware of the mechanics of a key Orientalist historiographical project that presented civilisations in terms of ‘progress narratives.’3 The “Islamic World,”4 by which I refer to the complex of societies and cultures historically associated with Islam and Muslims,5 was not exempt from this. According to this narrative, the Islamic World experienced three specific and interconnected stages of development. Firstly, it would experience a “Golden Age” following the Islamic World’s interactions with Greek philosophy which would prompt a highly dynamic intellectual and cultural flourishing. This era would fall into a “decline” following the polemical enterprises against Greek philosophy by Muslim theologians. This intellectual clash would lead to the elevation of a theological orthodoxy whose limited and restrictive worldviews would ultimately stunt ongoing knowledge-production in the Islamic World. Finally, the Islamic World would experience an abrupt “termination” of all substantive knowledge-production following the Fall of Baghdad in 656/1258 due to the loss of Muslim political power and material devastation at the hands of the Mongols.6

In this brief account then, I hope to offer contemporary revisions to the Orientalist account, in the context of my broader research of 13th-14th century Islamic history of ideas.7 I hope to demonstrate that contemporary scholarship of Islamic intellectual history also endeavours to decolonise. The researcher of Islamic thought inherently challenges the preconceived notions and labels first posited by the Orientalist academy, whilst acknowledging its own limitations in being rooted to a shared set of categories and interpretative frameworks.

Image: Early 15th century illumination for Rāshid al-Dīn al-Hamadānī’s (d. 718/1318) Jāmiʿ al-tawārikh (Collection of Histories) depicting the Siege of Baghdad of 656/1258. Foreground depicts the Mongol horsemen with trebuchets preparing to besiege the city as city folk watch on. Middle distance shows the Mongols infiltrating the city. In the distance, swathes of black most likely depict the Tigris black with the ink of manuscripts thrown into its waters. Sayf al-Dīn al-Wāḥidī, and et al. Mongols Besieging Baghdad in 656/1258. c. -1434 1430. Manuscript. Département des Manuscrits, Division orientale, Supplément persan 1113, fol. 180v-181. Bibliothèque nationale de France.

1. Renan, L’Islamisme et la science, 3.
2. Cf. for example Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science; Bsoul, Translation Movement. As for more public discourse, Hillel Ofek and Firas Alkhateeb, cf. Ofek, ‘Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science’; Alkhateeb, Lost Islamic History, 75–141. Beatrice Bottomley’s recent review of Bsoul’s study tackles many of the themes present in this brief account particularly with regard to the translation movements, cf. Bottomley, ‘Book Review’.
3. In order to focus on the specific effects of these narratives on Islamic intellectual history, I neglect the specifics and problems of the later historiographical projects such as of Auguste Comte (1798-1857) who attempted to formalise the idea that all-encompassing metanarratives could be imposed on ‘human history’.
4. Editors’ Note: The author uses single quotation marks are used for quotes, and double quotation marks are used for contested phrases or terms which need further explanation.
5. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, Volume 1, 59. Hodgson employs the term ‘Islamicate world’ to refer to this complex. However, given the substantive debate around the usage of this term, I employ the term ‘Islamic World’ which directly translates the socio-legal phrase dār al-islām that designates the socio-cultural complex which Hodgson had in mind.
6. Editors’ Note: The author uses dual date formatting in this piece. When dates appear as ‘656/1258’ (etc.) it is the Hijri (AH) followed by the Common Era (CE) dates.
7. In particular, Dimitri Gutas’ essay has become a highly important point of reference for ongoing discussions, cf. Gutas, ‘The Study of Arabic Philosophy’.

1. Reassessing the “Golden Age”

First, we should briefly set up the background underlying these narratives. Upon the Islamic World’s expansion beyond the Arabian Peninsula, its interactions with its neighbouring cultures and societies would become highly formative to the subsequent development of Islamic intellectualism. In particular, the ingestion of intellectual centres in various cultural settings prompted the active translation of Greek, Syriac, Persian, and Sanskrit knowledge into Arabic, the intellectual lingua franca of the newly-established Islamic World. These translation movements, sanctioned by the caliph as the political representative of the Muslim community, would centre around ʿAbbāsid Baghdad in a project known as the ‘House of Wisdom’ (Bayt al-ḥikma). The project would employ the translation skills of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and Muslims and oversee the development of a highly dynamic intellectual culture that would prompt ongoing advances in mathematics, science, and medicine and set in motion a “Golden Age” in the Islamic World, particularly during the five centuries of religiously-legitimated ʿAbbāsid rule from 132/750.

Whilst many laud the “Golden Age” as a seminal moment in Islamic intellectual history, it is important to acknowledge this narrative does not place the Islamic World at its centre. Rather, its protagonist is Europe. In this narrative, as Europe experienced its “Dark Ages” apparently prompted by the Christian anathematisation of Greek philosophy,7 the Islamic World would ‘receive’ and ‘preserve’ Greek philosophical and scientific knowledge before ‘transmitting’ it back to Europe. This threefold historical process would then prompt the “Renaissance” and eventually the “Enlightenment.” Despite the brevity of the account above, we can immediately see its problems and limitations. The Orientalist project has relegated Islamic intellectualism to a subordinate position in broader and contemporaneous intellectual developments.

Whilst challenges to this narrative have been offered, Abdelhamid Sabra’s seminal 1987 article has played a pivotal role in reconceptualising the narrative.8 Rather than entertaining the reductive ‘reception-preservation-transmission’ model (which he calls the “Marginality Thesis”), Sabra proposes an alternative categorisation in line with discovery of manuscripts and material culture and advances in Islamic intellectual history and science in the later twentieth century. He posited that the Islamic World actively ‘appropriated,’ ‘assimilated,’ and ‘naturalised’ Greek philosophical learning into the Islamic context. This interpretation challenges two general assumptions of the marginality thesis. The first, as the late Ahmed Shahab has eloquently noted, is that the marginality thesis fails to recognise the broader intellectual, societal, and cultural effects in societies where such theoretical discourses are engaged. In short: ‘Whilst philosophers do philosophy, many other people are affected.’9 The second is that ongoing developments that arose from the interaction with Greek philosophy were not original, unique, or impactful. This is certainly far from the case. Indeed, at this point, we can turn to the enterprise of Ibn Sīnā (d. 428/1037) as a prime example of Sabra’s reassessment of the historical narrative.10

Of particular interest to the earlier translators was the canon of philosophical and scientific works of Aristotle particularly as mediated and critically assessed by the Alexandria-based Neoplatonists, whose new interpretations and reworkings of Platonic philosophy gave Aristotle’s philosophy a clearer goal in terms of understanding the nature of reality (i.e. metaphysics). The translation of this Neoplatonised Aristotelian philosophy would prompt the active development of alternative conceptions of epistemology and metaphysics in the context of the Islamic intellectual landscape. Arguably, the most important figure in the attempts to harmonise Greek philosophical and Islamic metaphysics is Ibn Sīnā (Lat. Avicenna and hence Avicennan). Central to Ibn Sīnā’s enterprise was the bringing together of epistemology, physics, natural science, and theology into a unified and systematic philosophy that did not just simply regurgitate Aristotle’s views. Instead, Ibn Sīnā would critically amend, correct, and offer new and alternative answers to his metaphysics. This particular critical enterprise—which would come to be Arabised as ‘falsafa’—would forever transform Aristotelianism and become the ongoing point of reference in both the Islamic World and the Christian Scholastic tradition of well-known figures such as Aquinas (d. 1274) and Duns Scotus (d. 1308). With regard to the ongoing development of Islamic philosophy and theology, it was Ibn Sīnā’s authorship of his summa The Book of the Healing (al-Shifāʾ) and his terser Pointers and Reminders (Al-Ishārāt wa-l-tanbīhāt) that would set the stage for later developments in Islamic thought.11

Image: 17th century Ottoman manuscript of a commentary on 13th century logic treatise of Najm al-Dīn al-Kātibī (d. 674/1276), one of the founders of the Maragha Observatory. Ink on paper folio in Arabic with commentarial marginalia by different authors. New Arabic manuscript page. 

However, despite the immense influence of Ibn Sīnā, it is clear that the trajectories of his metaphysics, particularly with regard to theology, would prompt a number of polemical responses. Grossly summarising the theoretical divergences between dialectical theology (kalām) and falsafa,12 we might note the key point of difference. On the one hand, early kalām attempted to offer a Qurʾānically-consistent conception of “God” as an active agent who created the world and everything therein through supreme attributes of power, knowledge, and volition. On the other hand, Ibn Sīnā’s conception was radically different and instead presented “god” as a cosmic first principle that by being the unlimited source of existence unintentionally gives rise to the world and all subsequent events in the world in a knowable, rational, and ordered manner. This alternative conception of divine reality would become a key point of contention between followers of Ibn Sīnā’s enterprise, namely the falāsifa (i.e. ‘the Avicennan philosophers’) and mutakallimūn (i.e. ‘those who do kalām’) that would usher the next stage of development: “decline.”

7. Specific events such as the closure of the School of Athens in 529 by the Emperor Justinian are used as evidence of this Christian rejection of Greek philosophy.
8. Sabra, ‘The Appropriation and Subsequent Naturalization of Greek Science in Medieval Islam’.
9. Ahmed, What Is Islam?, 14.
10. Sabra offers concrete examples in the much later period, focusing on the relationship between astronomy and theology, cf. Sabra, ‘Science and Philosophy in Medieval Islamic Theology’.
11. For a general engagement with Ibn Sīnā’s enterprise, cf. the series of essays offered in Adamson, Interpreting Avicenna. For the specific philosophical context underlying Ibn Sīnā’s enterprise, cf. Gutas, Avicenna and the Aristotelian Tradition, 359–86; Bertolacci, The Reception of Aristotle’s Metaphysics in Avicenna’s Kitāb al-Šifāʾ, 3–106.
12. For a narrative about the early developments of kalām and Islamic theological discourse, cf. Blankinship, ‘The Early Creed’.

2. Reassessing the “Decline”

The beginnings of the “decline” have been attributed to the critical enterprise of the highly influential Islamic scholar, Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 504/1111), who lived and worked in the midst of the political struggles between the ʿAbbāsids and the Saljuqs who had become the de facto political power over the ʿAbbāsid lands after their rise in the fourth/tenth century. By request of his patron, the Saljuq vizier Niẓam al-Mulk (d. 485/1092), Ghazālī was asked to author a text that later historiography presents as the locus classicus that inspired the formal disengagement of ‘theology’ from ‘philosophy’: The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahāfut al-falāsifa). Whilst the text in itself critiques twenty key points of Ibn Sīnā’s philosophy in a highly systematic and fair manner, the clinch of the Incoherence would be Ghazālī’s categorisation of the twenty points. Whilst Ghazālī considered seventeen to be merely Ibn Sīnā’s ‘errors,’ he labelled three as sufficiently undermining ‘true Islamic teaching’ and thus constituted ‘disbelief’ (kufr). It is the authorship of the Incoherence that is considered to usher in the “decline.” According to the metanarrative, the “Golden Age” enjoyed freedom and vitality through its engagement with the ‘highly rational’ Greek philosophical tradition; on the other hand, Ghazālī’s enterprise which was rooted in a highly restrictive ‘theological orthodoxy’ relied on specific understandings of an omnipotent creator prompted a “decline” in intellectual and cultural thought. The underlying sentiments of the ‘decline’ narrative continue to persist even in public discourse: science is rational, and religion is irrational and restricts progress.

Again, however, the story is far from straightforward. We might note two key points which undermine the “decline” narrative. The first is the reassessment of the nature of the Islamic educational landscape. Previous scholarship has presented the Islamic educational landscape as being limited to institutions (in particular the higher institutions known as the niẓāmiyyāt established by Niẓām al-Mulk from Anatolia to Central Asia) which taught a restrictive curriculum that excluded the Greek philosophical tradition and privileged ‘traditional Islamic sciences.’13 This characterisation has previously served as a logical explanation as to why the two discourses (religious and philosophical) were at odds: whilst institutionalised learning condoned the religious sciences and traditionalist methods of learning, philosophy was non-institutionalised, thus prompting individuals to study philosophy privately or seek tutelage from private teachers who would teach select philosophical texts. The recent reassessment of Sonja Brentjes has been crucial in challenging this view. Brentjes instead proposes that ‘the character of Muslim education has to be understood in terms of networks of individuals, rather than complexes of teaching institutions.’14 We will return to this point later on.

The second concerns the very character of philosophy and theology in the Islamic intellectual landscape. Rather than marginalising and deconstructing philosophy, the critical enterprises of figures like Ghazālī would forever cement a symbiotic relationship between the two disciplines. Indeed, more recent scholarship that has focused on the tradition from Ghazālī onwards substantiates Brentjes’ thesis. The result of this dynamic relationship was irreversible. As Gerhard Endress succinctly notes: ‘the very refutation of falsafa [naturalised Greek philosophy into] the language of kalām: making philosophical concepts and arguments available to theological discourse [and] raising kalām to equal rank in the esteem of the [philosophers].’15 As such, theological figures, including Ghazālī himself, would employ Ibn Sīnā’s fundamentally Aristotelian logic as well as his newly-coined terminology, categories, literary structures, and style of argumentation in their theological works whilst also offering succinct summaries and analyses of Ibn Sīnā’s philosophy on their own terms.16 Indeed, Ghazālī would add as a preface to his Incoherence, a short treatise entitled The Doctrines of the Philosophers (Maqāṣid al-falāsifa), which would come to be translated into Latin as a major reference point in understanding Ibn Sīnā’s enterprise in Europe whilst Eastern Investigations (Mabāḥith al-mashriqiyya) of the famed theologian Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 606/1210), which became a standard textbooks in teaching Ibn Sīnā’s philosophy.17 Particularly through the works of Rāzī (as recent studies are uncovering), this symbiotic relationship between falsafa and kalām resulted in the formalisation of an ‘Islamic philosophical theology’ which, as Ayman Shihadeh notes in his influential article, advanced the possibility of disseminating theological orthodoxy without being anti-philosophical.18

So what role do these observations serve with regard to untangling the “decline” narrative specifically? Firstly, that the Islamic educational landscape was highly dynamic and fluid refutes the implication of the characterisation of a fixed Islamic curriculum that excluded and relegated falsafa to a marginalised activity. Instead, it proposes that there was a much more fluid and accepting educational landscape, which allowed for ‘novelty and innovation […] gained through interpersonal relationships.’19 Secondly, rather than antagonism between philosophy and theology, the ‘inclusion [of the secular sciences] in the religious sciences [and educational spaces] granted them stable spaces for their existence and niches for their efflorescence.’20 This instead implies a less antagonistic and indeed far more integrative relationship between falsafa and kalām. Instead, rather than a “decline”—which is supported through the superficial observation that ‘there was less philosophy explicitly being done in official settings’—these intellectual developments in astronomy, optics, natural science, and so on would be done within a stable educational space. The final point above immediately prompts the next chapter and brief background in the next stage of Islamic history: the Mongol Conquests.

13. Makdisi, ‘Ashʿarī and the Ashʿarites in Islamic Religious History I’; Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges.
14. Brentjes, ‘On the Location of the Ancient or “Rational” Sciences’, 49.
15. Endress, ‘Reading Avicenna in the Madrasa’, 399.
16. Gerhard Endress offers a highly informative survey and analysis of the readership of Avicennan philosophy in the exclusively theological circles, which serves as a concrete example of the observations of Brentjes and Shihadeh, cf. Endress, ‘Reading Avicenna in the Madrasa’.
17. Shihadeh, ‘New Light on the Reception of Al-Ghazālī’s Doctrines of the Philosophers’.
18. Shihadeh, ‘From Al-Ghazālī to al-Rāzī’, 178.
19. Brentjes, ‘On the Location of the Ancient or “Rational” Sciences’, 65.
20. Brentjes, 65.

3. Reassessment of “Termination”

Whilst the problems with the characterisations of “Golden Age” and “decline” are widely recognised, this final piece of the narrative, which I term “termination,” is yet to be fully elaborated. In the context of this blogpost I refer to “termination” as the ongoing mythologisation that the seventh/thirteenth century Mongol Conquests in the Islamic World—that would culminate in the highly dramatic, destructive, violent, and abrupt end of the ʿAbbāsid caliphate with the Fall of Baghdad in 656/1258—would formally end all substantive knowledge-production in an Islamic intellectual landscape already in “decline.” Scholarship so far has emphasised the immense human, cultural, and intellectual destruction exacted by the Mongols in their expansion. For the Islamic World, the image invoked is the destruction of material culture and records of knowledge depicted by the Tigris running black with the ink of tens-of-thousands of volumes thrown therein or, far more horrifically, the blood of the scholars of Baghdad. This image of the violent and ruthless Mongol Conquests persists in public discourse and serves as the marker of “termination” of the development of the Islamic World. However, as with the “Golden Age” and “decline” narratives, the story is far from simple. This particular characterisation of the Mongols does little to explain the ongoing intellectual developments in the Islamic World and instead feeds into the previous characterisations of the Golden Age/decline narrative: the Mongols are implicated as the cause of the end of Islamic intellectualism whilst Europe would survive and flourish in its Renaissance garb.

So where does this leave the “termination” narrative? Whilst we should not underestimate the destruction and devastation exacted by the Mongols, recent accounts have noted how the mischaracterisation and indeed prejudice against non-sedentary peoples in both historical and contemporary historiography has misrepresented the history of the Mongols.21 As far as the Islamic intellectual landscape is concerned, the “termination” narrative has resulted in two major ramifications. The first is that the ongoing mythologisation of the amount of devastation resultant from the Mongol Conquests had previously led to the neglect of post-Mongol archaeological and historiographical sources. The second is that following the Fall of Baghdad, all subsequent Islamic knowledge-production has been unsubstantive, unoriginal, and lacks the rigour and vibrance of the “Golden Age” discussions. Recent scholarship, however, has presented a more nuanced understanding of the post-Mongol Islamic intellectual landscape in light of more recent archaeological and historiographical investigations.

One example has become central and unravels the “termination” narrative: the establishment of the Maragha Observatory by Hülegü (d. 663/1256), the first ruler of the first Mongol polity in the Islamic World, the Īlkhānate. The Maragha Observatory would draw intellectuals of different religious, philosophical and cultural backgrounds from across the Mongol world (including China) and served as a crucial centre of astronomy as well as philosophy, theology, logic, and natural science.22 Indeed, Maragha serves as a concrete example of the trajectories in the symbiotic relationship between philosophy and theology: intellectuals were not confined to a single science but rather commentated on, analysed, and developed the works of previous intellectuals. Most famously, Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 672/1274), the famed philosopher-theologian of Hülegü’s immediate circle of advisors, authored a highly influential commentary on the equally influential commentary on Ibn Sīnā’s Pointers and Reminders of the theologian Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī as well as producing numerous works on astronomy and theology. He also  worked with figures such as engineer-geographer Muʾayyid al-Dīn al-ʿUrḍī (d. 664/1266) and philosopher-theologian-natural scientist Najm al-Dīn al-Kātibī (d. 674/1276) whose treatise on formal logic continues to be taught in contemporary Islamic seminaries.

Image: 16th century illumination depicting the interior of the Maragha Observatory. Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī works with four colleagues whilst using an astrolabe illuminated in gold. They are seated and standing within the observatory which has blue walls and a dome, also illuminated. Persia Collection. British Library.

Maragha serves as a real example that disproves the two aforementioned myths of the “termination” narrative. Firstly, it is becoming increasingly apparent that much did survive, being cached or recorded in other mediums or indeed came to be institutionalised by the Mongols. Indeed, one contemporaneous account notes that Ṭūsī would oversee the mass relocation of books and material culture from Baghdad to the newly established educational institute to Maragha after the Siege.23  Understanding of the preservation of material culture of this period continues to develop. Secondly, whilst Orientalist scholarship would dismiss subsequent intellectuals as unoriginal and lacking in substance, it is clear that immense intellectual developments occurred after the Mongols. Indeed, a key point challenges this particular myth: the Islamic commentarial tradition. This intellectual enterprise—which saw and continues to see the authorship of diverse range of interpretative mediums such as ‘commentary’ (sharḥ), ‘marginal glosses’ (ḥāshiya), ‘addended notes’ (taʿliqāt), ‘abridgements’ (talkhīṣ), ‘refinement’ (tahdhīb) and so on—demonstrates that the later intellectual tradition had a deep and rich engagement with the long history of Islamic intellectualism whilst also adding, critically analysing, and critiquing to produce new and original developments in Islamic intellectualism.24 Even a brief look into the subsequent intellectual history after the Mongols highlights the highly dynamic enterprises like ʿAḍud al-Dīn al-Ījī (d. 756/1356) and Saʿd al-Dīn al-Taftāzānī (d. 792/1390), whose theological summae would engage previous works and would address not just issues concerning God and religious creed but also issues concerning astronomy, optics, and physics amongst many other ‘scientific issues.’ Their success rests in the reality that these works would persist as central points of reference in the ongoing Islamic intellectual tradition and would continue to be commented on even into the modern period.

 21. Cf. for example Jackson, The Mongols and the Islamic World, 1–6.
22. There is increasing awareness of the impact of Maragha. However, I briefly highlight Jamil Ragep’s translation of Ṭūsī’s work on astronomy, and Heidrun Eichner’s seminal work on the development of theological summae and the impact of the Mongol project on theology, cf. Al-Ṭūsī, Naṣīr Al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī’s Memoir; Eichner, ‘The Post-Avicennian Philosophical Tradition’, 351–53.
23.  Jackson, The Mongols and the Islamic World, 176; Biran, ‘Libraries, Books, and Transmission of Knowledge in Ilkhanid Baghdad’.
24.For further reading, cf. Wisnovsky, ‘The Nature And Scope Of Arabic Philosophical Commentary’; Ahmed, ‘Post-Classical Philosophical Commentaries/Glosses’. More studies are addressing the importance of the commentarial tradition.

4. Concluding Remarks

So I return to Renan’s characterisation, which is rooted in the threefold characterisation of Islamic intellectualism as undergoing a “Golden Age”, “decline”, and finally “termination,” and ask again: what was the motivation for Renan’s narrative? It is perhaps more appropriate to ask researchers engaging in the social and intellectual specificities of the Orientalist and Colonial projects to answer this question. What has been done in the scope of this paper (albeit briefly and cursorily) is to highlight the problems of this threefold characterisation through reference to specific figures (such as Ibn Sīnā), phenomena (such as the commentarial tradition), and material evidence (such as the Maragha project) that continues to be uncovered and examined.

The ongoing study of Islamic intellectual history is, at its very core, a decolonial endeavour. Indeed, through reassessments of the social context, examination of the ideas of intellectuals after the Mongol period, and the study of manuscripts which are the material source for the commentarial tradition, are all attempts to untangle the deeply pervasive Orientalist conceptions of Islamic thought. This is not to say that this process is also not without its complications. Whilst the Orientalist project has been challenged, it is clear that scholars of Islamic Studies must continually examine and assess the language and categories which they employ. Indeed, as Lena Salaymeh has noted: ‘Until and unless scholars of Islamic studies recognize how they are converting Islamic concepts through secular translations, their work will primarily reveal how secularism distorts the Islamic tradition.’25 Whilst we may be beginning to escape the Orientalist progress narratives, we must continue to tread with caution in an effort to understand Islamic thought on its own terms.

25. Salaymeh, ‘Decolonial Translation’, 22.

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