ROSENTHAL, FRANZ WILHELM (b. Berlin, Germany, 31 August 1914; d. Branford, Connecticut, 8 April 2003, Plate 1), American scholar (of German origin) of Arabic and Semitic Studies, and particularly of Islamic intellectual history. His elder brother Karl Günther, who helped Franz and their parents (Kurt Willy, a flour merchant, and Elsa, née Kirschstein) when they had to leave Germany in December 1938, perished in Auschwitz, as was the fate of numerous other members of the family.

Franz Rosenthal studied classics in Berlin (1932-35) with Werner Jaeger and Richard Walzer; Semitic languages with Eugen Mittwoch, Bruno Meissner, and Erich Ebeling; and Islamic history with Carl Heinrich Becker. Paul Kraus introduced him to Arabic. Hans Heinrich Schaeder, whom Rosenthal always considered as his principal mentor, taught him Aramaic as well as Middle Persian and New Persian. He received his Ph.D.  in 1935. His dissertation on Palmyrene inscriptions (Die Sprache der palmyrenischen Inschriften ...) was published in 1936. His second monograph on Aramaic studies, Die aramaistische Forschung seit Th. Nöldeke’s Veröffentlichungen, which won him the Lidzbarski Medal, was published in 1939 (and reprinted in 1964). 

Rosenthal spent the year 1936 teaching at a boarding school organized for the children of German emigrants in Florence, Italy, after which he returned to Berlin as an instructor in Semitic languages at the Lehranstalt (formerly Hochschule) für die Wissenschaft des Judentums. He was helped in his emigration to Sweden by Schaeder and his colleague, Henrik Samuel Nyberg, a scholar of Pahlavi literature and Islamic mysticism. From there Rosenthal went on for a brief stay in London and Oxford and eventually came to the United States in 1940 to teach Semitic languages at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. During World War II, he worked for the government at the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, D.C. After the war, he resumed his teaching activities at the Hebrew Union College until 1948, when he was invited to join the Oriental Department of the University of Pennsylvania as a professor of Arabic. In 1956, he was appointed Louis M. Rabinowitz Professor of Semitic Languages, and in 1967 Sterling Professor at Yale University, where he stayed until his retirement in 1985, declining invitations to professorships at UCLA, Harvard, and Princeton.

Although Rosenthal never lost interest in Aramaic studies, he began to do research on, and to publish in, Arabic literature and history already in his Berlin years, principally based on the manuscript collections that came his way, the Prussian State Library in Berlin first, then the British Museum and the Bodleian, and still later, after the war, the collections in Tunis and Kairouan, and in particular in Istanbul and a number of provincial Turkish towns. All of Rosenthal’s works reflect his mastery of the arts of manuscript research and of philology, not to mention his sense of the truly significant: several of his discoveries have opened up wholly new avenues of research which have not yet been paced out to their ends. He always saw “the rules of philology [as] the indispensable prerequisites for a successful understanding of any foreign people and culture,” and at the same time he viewed historical and cultural studies as his essential vocation (Die Krise der Orientalistik, pp. 10 f.) Rosenthal’s vast oeuvre may be structured in three large fields: Islamic history proper, Graeco-Arabic studies, and the intellectual history of medieval Islam.

Two major publications stand out from the first field: A History of Muslim Historiography (1952, revised edition 1968), consisting of editions and translations of three important Arabic texts and a substantial introductory essay, and an English translation of Ebn Ḵaldun’s al-Moqaddema, published in three volumes in the Bollingen Series 1958 (revised edition 1967) and remaining, until Abdesselam Chedaddi’s French translation in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (2002), without rival. Two volumes, contributed to the English annotated translation of al-Ṭabari’s History, belong to Rosenthal’s later years, vol. XXXVIII (1985) and vol. I (1989), the latter introduced by the best account of the life and works of the author that we have.

Graeco-Arabic studies are at the heart of Rosenthal’s scholarship. Already his early account of Zeno of Elea (1937), his groundbreaking essay “On the Knowledge of Plato’s Philosophy in the Islamic World” (1940-41), his study of the Pythagorean tradition in Islamic ethics (1941), and most significantly, his discovery of the “Greek sage” (al-Šayḵ al-Yunāni) as a witness of the Plotinian tradition in Arabic (1952-55, 1974), all show Rosenthal’s mastery of Greek and Arabic philology and his sense for remote, but crucial, influences of Greek on Arabic philosophy. The same is true for his works on the history of Greek medicine in Islam (e.g., Hippocrates, 1956, 1966, 1973; Esḥāq b. Ḥonayn's Taʾriḵ al-aṭebbāʾ, 1954; Abu Bakr Rāzi, 1978; see also the essays on “The Defense of Medicine in the Medieval Muslim World,” 1969, and “The Physician in Medieval Muslim Society,” 1978), as well as his contributions to the history of astronomy, astrology, oneiromancy, and music theory. Moreover, Rosenthal retained a keen interest in that fascinating generation of Muslim scholars and intellectuals who were the first recipients of the Arabic translations of Greek philosophy and sciences: Yaʿqub b. Esḥāq Kendi (1942, 1949, 1956) and his followers Aḥmad b. Ṭayyeb Saraḵsi (d. 286/899), Abu Zayd Balḵi (d. 322/934) and Abu’l-Ḥasan ʿĀmeri (d. 381/992). Especially the student mentioned first, Saraḵsi, served as “a representative of intellectual currents in contemporary Baghdad that were about to change direction” (Rosenthal, “Sarakhsī,” in EI2, IX, p. 35). Rosenthal’s meticulous collection of biographical data and interpretation of Saraḵsi’s preserved fragments (1943, addenda 1951, 1956, 1961, 1995) may be called exemplary. Still another field within Graeco-Arabic studies which kept Rosenthal’s creative interest was the popular genre of wisdom literature, ḥekma (pl. ḥekam), which contains sayings by philosophers, sages, and wits; authors treated by Rosenthal range from Ebn Dorayd (1958) to Mobaššer b. Fātek (1960-61) and Ebn Abi ʿAwn (1991). The field was then further cultivated by Rosenthal’s student Dimitri Gutas.

An anthology of texts dealing with Graeco-Arabica, either Arabic translations from Greek or Arabic works composed on the basis of the translated texts, originally published in German as Das Fortleben der Antike im Islam (1965; repr., 1992), gives a formidable impression of the breadth and depth of the Greek heritage in Islamic culture, and, at the same time, it shows the creativity with which the Muslim and Christian recipients acquired, adapted, and developed that heritage: “an independent and, historically, an extraordinarily fruitful achievement,” as the author says in his foreword (English edition, p. xvi).

Early in his career, Rosenthal embarked on a series of publications, mostly monographs, on the intellectual history of medieval Islam, which he himself placed under the guiding theme “man versus society in medieval Islam.” The first installment of that series was his The Muslim Concept of Freedom Prior to the Nineteenth Century (1960), which, on the basis of terminological and conceptual investigations and an examination of a vast array of primary sources, including poetry, documents one aspect of the ways in which the norms of a multifarious society governed by the religious law of Islam may come into conflict with the individual and his drives and interests. Other such issues followed, including The Herb: Hashish Versus Medieval Muslim Society (1971), Gambling in Islam (1975), and “Sweeter than Hope”: Complaint and Hope in Medieval Islam (1983). The same theme, “man versus society,” is addressed in Rosenthal’s early study on Humor in Early Islam (1956; repr., 1976), his essay “On Suicide in Islam” (1946; cf. his article “Intiḥār” in EI2, III, pp. 1246-48), and the sixth Giorgio Levi Della Vida Conference in 1977, for which he chose the title Society and the Sexes in Medieval Islam.  Thus, in a span of thirty years, an array of significant aspects of the human condition and of medieval Islamic culture, as well as their mutual shapings, was assembled, all of them chosen independently from intellectual fashions or academic programs, many of them not followed up since, and all of their larger monographic treatments organized in an inimitable style: their chapters point at the central focus from different directions, which complement and substantiate each other and give account of the variety of sources and the complexity of the theme.

A final aspect of Rosenthal’s interest in the intellectual history of medieval Islam was its own attitude toward scholarship and knowledge. An early and still unsurpassed investigation into this aspect is The Technique and Approach of Muslim Scholarship (1947), later followed by his monograph Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam (1970), apparently the summa of Rosenthal’s oeuvre, and still later by a sketch “Of Making Books There Is No End”: The Classical Muslim View (1995). In Knowledge Triumphant, Rosenthal investigates the lexicographic and definitional evidence of the term(s) and shows in four consecutive chapters the role of knowledge in Islamic theology, Sufism, philosophy, and education (“Knowledge is Society”), proving “that in Islam, the concept of knowledge enjoyed an importance unparalleled in other civilizations”—and, one might add, embodying the author’s incomparable scholarship.

When Rosenthal came to the Hebrew Union College in 1940, only a few students pursued Arabic and Islamic studies in a very few places in the United States. In the past seventy years, the field has greatly expanded. A number of Rosenthal’s students carry on what he called “text-based scholarship,” and quite a number of places practice some of the disciplines that he commanded; but he may have been the last scholar who encompassed the whole range of Oriental Studies and who upheld the ideals of European Orientalism, whose aim he defined, in his Half an Autobiography, as looking “beyond the culture in which one is rooted to other cultures whatever their geographical location with respect to Europe, in order to learn about and understand them and to try to spread the knowledge thus acquired” (p. 50).

Rosenthal insisted on the autonomy of his discipline, Arabic and Islamic studies, and warned against its seeking precipitous refuge under the institutional wings of history or religious sciences. Yet he was in close contact with neighboring disciplines, which appreciated his scholarship: apart from his membership in the Accademia dei Lincei and the British Academy and his honorary memberships in the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft and the Société Asiatique, he was an active and highly esteemed member of the American Oriental Society (whom he served as president twice), the Medieval Academy, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and of the American Academy of Jewish Research.  



For a full list of Rosenthal’s works, superseding the bibliography compiled in vol. III of his Variorum reprints (see below), pp. ix-xxviii, see Gerhard Endress and Oliver Overwien, eds., “Verzeichnis der Schriften von Franz Rosenthal,” Oriens 36, 2001, pp. xiii-xxxiv. Note that E 300 is identical with B 79, and E 301 with B 92. The following is a selection arranged in chronological order.

(A) Books. 

Die Sprache der palmyrenischen Inschriften und ihre Stellung innerhalb des Aramäischen, Leipzig, 1936. 

Die aramaistische Forschung seit Th. Nöldeke’s Veröffentlichungen, Leiden, 1939; repr., Leiden, 1964. 

Aḥmad b. aṭ-Ṭayyib as-Saraḫsî, New Haven, Conn., 1943. 

The Technique and Approach of Muslim Scholarship, Rome, 1947. 

A History of Muslim Historiography, Leiden, 1952; 2nd rev. ed., Leiden, 1968. 

Humor in Early Islam, Leiden, 1956; repr., Newport, Conn., 1976. 

The Muslim Concept of Freedom Prior to the Nineteenth Century, Leiden, 1960. 

Das Fortleben der Antike im Islam, Zürich and Stuttgart, 1965; repr., 1992; tr. Emile and Jenny Marmorstein, as The Classical Heritage in Islam, London and Berkeley, 1975; repr., London and New York, 1994. 

Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam, Leiden, 1970; for a repr., see below. 

The Herb: Hashish Versus Medieval Muslim Society, Leiden, 1971. 

Gambling in Islam, Leiden, 1975. 

“Sweeter than Hope”: Complaint and Hope in Medieval Islam, Leiden, 1983.

(B) Translations.

Ibn Khaldûn: The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, tr. Franz Rosenthal, 3 vols., New York and London, 1958; 2nd ed., with corrections and augmented bibliography, Princeton and London, 1967; repr., 1980. 

Ṭabari, The History of al-Ṭabari I, tr. Franz Rosenthal, as From The Creation to the Flood, Albany, N.Y, 1989; XXXVIII, tr. Franz Rosenthal, as The Return of the Caliphate to Baghdad, Albany, 1985.

(C) Articles. 

“Arabische Nachrichten über Zenon den Eleaten,” Orientalia, N.S. 6, 1937, pp. 21-67.

“Die arabische Autobiographie,” Studia Arabica 1 (Analecta Orientalia 14), 1937, pp. 1-40.

“On the Knowledge of Plato’s Philosophy in the Islamic World,” Islamic Culture 14, 1940, pp. 387-422; 15, 1941, pp. 396-98. 

“A Judaeo-Arabic Work under Ṣûfic Influence,” Hebrew Union College Annual 15, 1940, pp. 433-84. 

“Some Pythagorean Documents Transmitted in Arabic,” Orientalia N.S.10, 1941, pp. 104-15, 383-95.

“Al-Kindî als Literat,” Orientalia, N.S. 11, 1942, pp. 262-88.

“On Suicide in Islam,” JAOS 66, 1946, pp. 239-59. 

“Abū Ḥaiyān at-Tawḥīdī on Penmanship,” Ars Islamica, 13-14, 1948, pp. 1-30. 

“Aš-Šayḫ al-Yûnânî and the Arabic Plotinus Source,” Orientalia, N.S. 21, 1952, pp. 461-92; 22, 1953, pp. 370-400; 24, 1955, pp. 42-66.

“Child Psychology in Islam,” Islamic Culture 26, 1952, pp. 1-22.

“Isḥâq b. Ḥunayn’s Taʾriḫ al-aṭibbâʾ,” Oriens 7, 1954, pp. 55-80. 

“State and Religion According to Abû al-Ḥasan al-ʿÂmirî,” Islamic Quarterly 3, 1956, pp. 42-52.

“An Ancient Commentary on the Hippocratic Oath,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 30, 1956, pp. 52-87. 

“Al-Kindī and Ptolemy,” in Studi Orientalistici in onore di Giorgio Levi della Vida II, Rome, 1956, pp. 436-56.

“Sayings of the Ancients from Ibn Durayd's Kitāb al-Mujtanā,” Orientalia, N.S. 27, 1958, pp. 29-54; 150-83.

“Al-Mubashshir b. Fâtik: Prolegomena to an Abortive Edition,” Oriens 13-14, 1960-61, pp. 132-58.

“The Influence of the Biblical Tradition on Muslim Historography,” in Bernard Lewis and Peter M. Holt, eds., Historians of the Middle East, London etc., 1962, pp. 35-45.

“Gifts and Bribes: The Muslim View,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 108, 1964, pp. 135-44. 

“Life is Short, the Art is Long: Arabic Commentaries on the First Hippocratic Aphorism,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 40, 1966, pp. 226-45.

“The Defense of Medicine in the Medieval Muslim World,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 43, 1969, pp. 519-32. 

“An Eleventh-Century List of the Works of Hippocrates,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 28, 1973, pp. 156-65. 

“Plotinus in Islam: The Power of Anonymity," in Atti del Convegno Internazionale sul Tema: Plotino e il Neoplatonismo in Oriente e in Occidente, Rome, 1974, pp. 437-46.

“Al-Bîrûnî between Greece and India,” in Ehsan Yarshater, ed., Biruni Symposium, New York, 1976, pp. 1-12.

“‘I am You’: Individual Piety and Society in Islam,” in A. Banani and S. Vryonis Jr., eds., Individualism and Conformity in Classical Islam, Wiesbaden, 1977, pp. 33-60.

“Ar-Rāzī on the Hidden Illness,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 52, 1978, pp. 45-60.

“The Physician in Medieval Muslim Society,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 52, 1978, pp. 475-91. 

“Fiction and Reality: Sources for the Role of Sex in Medieval Muslim Society,” in Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyed Marsot, ed., Society and the Sexes in Medieval Islam, Malibu, 1979, pp. 3-22.

“(Pseudo-) Graeco-Arabica in Tunis and al-Mubashshir's Mukhtâr al-Ḥikam,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 99, 1979, pp. 91-93.

“Die Krise der Orientalistik,” in Fritz Steppat, ed., XXI. Deutscher Orientalistentag vom 24. bis 29. März 1980 in Berlin: Ausgewählte Vorträge (ZDMG, Suppl. 5), Wiesbaden, 1983, pp. 10-21.

“Ibn al-ʿArabī between ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Mysticism’,” Oriens 31, 1988, pp. 1-35. 

“Abû Zayd al-Balkhî on Politics,” in C. Edmund Bosworth et al., eds., The Islamic World from Classical to Modern Times: Essays in Honor of Bernard Lewis, Princeton, 1989, pp. 287-301. 

“The History of an Arabic Proverb,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 109, 1989, pp. 349-78.

“Witty Retorts of Philosophers and Sages from the Kitāb al-Ajwibah al-muskitah of Ibn Abī ʿAwn,” Graeco-Arabica 4, 1991, pp. 179-221.

“‘Of Making Books There Is No End’: The Classical Muslim View,” in George N. Atiyeh, ed., The Book in the Islamic World: The Written Word and Communication in the Middle East, Albany, N.Y., 1995, pp. 33-55. 

“The ‘Time’ of Muslim Historians and Muslim Mystics: Laysa bi-yasīr taysīr al-ʿasīr. A saying of Plato in Ḥunayn, ed. Badawī, 74,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 19, 1995, pp. 5-35.

“The Stranger in Medieval Islam,” Arabica 44, 1997, pp. 35-75.

“On the Semitic Root s/ś-p-r and Arabic safar, Travel,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 24 (In Memory of David Ayalon), 2000, pp. 4-21.

(D) Reprints.

A great number of articles by Franz Rosenthal was reprinted, in three volumes, in the Variorum Series, Aldershot 1990: Vol. 1 collects writings on Greek Philosophy in the Arab World, vol. 2 on Muslim Intellectual and Social History, vol. 3 on Science and Medicine in Islam. Rosenthal’s monographs dedicated to the theme “Man versus society in medieval Islam,” together with a number of related articles, are collected in Dimitri Gutas, ed., Man versus Society in Medieval Islam, Leiden, 2014.

Franz Rosenthal’s library and some papers have been bequeathed to Tel Aviv University in 2005; their cataloguing is still in progress (2018). Rosenthal’s collection of microfilms of Arabic texts was catalogued by the late David C. Reisman and is stored in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Yale University.

Festschrifts and Memorial Study for Rosenthal. 

Jeanette Wakin, ed., “Studies in Islam and the Ancient Near East Dedicated to Franz Rosenthal,” JAOS 104/1, 1984. 

Oriens 36, 2001, pp. 1-313.

Shaul Shaked, ed., Studies in Memory of Franz Rosenthal, Jerusalem, 2006.


Dimitri Gutas, “Biographical Memoir,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 149, 2005, 441-46. 

David C. Reisman, “In Memoriam: Franz Rosenthal: August 31, 1914-April 8, 2003,” Aleph 3, 2003, pp. 329-42. 

Josef van Ess, “Franz Rosenthal (1914-2003): Alte und neue Welt im Leben eines Orientalisten,” ZDMG 155, 2005, pp. 51-67.

Biographical account.

“Franz Rosenthal’s ‘Half an Autobiography’,” ed. by Hinrich Biesterfeldt, Die Welt des Islams 54, 2014, pp. 34-105.

Frank Griffel, “Rosenthal, Franz Wilhelm,” Neue Deutsche Bibliographie 22, 2005, pp. 82-83, available online at:

An account of research in Graeco-Arabic studies, “Secular Graeco-Arabica – Fifty Years after Franz Rosenthal’s Fortleben der Antike im Islam,” was published by Hinrich Biesterfeldt in Dimitri Gutas, Sabine Schmidtke, and Alexander Treiger, eds., New Horizons in Graeco-Arabic Studies: Intellectual History of the Islamicate World, which collects the contributions to a conference commemorating the centennial anniversary of Franz Rosenthal, held in April 2014 at Yale University, in Intellectual History of the Islamicate World 3, 2015, pp. 124-57.

(Hinrich Biesterfeldt)

Originally Published: February 26, 2018

Last Updated: February 26, 2018

Cite this entry:

Hinrich Biesterfeldt, “ROSENTHAL, FRANZ,” Encyclopædia Iranicaonline edition, 2018, available at (accessed on 26 February 2018).