Abū Naṣr Muḥammad al-Fārābī (Arabic: ابو نصر محمد الفارابي, Abū Naṣr Muḥammad al-Fārābī; for other recorded variants of his name see below) known in the West as Alpharabius (c. 872 – between 14 December, 950 and 12 January, 951), was a Muslim scientist and philosopher of the Islamic world. He was also a cosmologist, logician, musician, psychologist and sociologist.
The existing variations in the basic accounts of al-Farabi’s origins and pedigree indicate that they were not recorded during his lifetime or soon thereafter by anyone with concrete information, but were based on hearsay or guesses (as is the case with other contemporaries of al-Farabi). The sources for his life are scant which makes the reconstruction of his biography beyond a mere outline nearly impossible. The earliest and more reliable sources, i. e., those composed before the 6th/12th century, that are extant today are so few as to indicate that no one among Fārābī’s successors and their followers, or even unrelated scholars, undertook to write his full biography, a neglect that has to be taken into consideration in assessing his immediate impact. The sources prior to the 6th/12th century consist of: (1) an autobiographical passage by Farabi, preserved by Ibn Abī Uṣaibiʿa. In this passage, Farabi traces the transmission of the instruction of logic and philosophy from antiquity to his days. (2) Reports by Al-Masudi, Ibn al-Nadim and Ibn Hawqal as well as by Said Al-Andalusi (d. 1070), who devoted a biography to him.
When major Arabic biographers decided to write comprehensive entries on Farabi in the 6th-7th/12th-13th centuries, there was very little specific information on hand; this allowed for their acceptance of invented stories about his life which range from benign extrapolation on the basis of some known details to tendentious reconstructions and legends. Most modern biographies of the philosopher present various combinations of elements drawn at will from this concocted material. The sources from the 6th/12th century and later consist essentially of three biographical entries, all other extant reports on Farabi being either dependent on them or even later fabrications: 1) the Syrian tradition represented by Ibn Abī Uṣaibiʿa. 2) The Wafayāt al-aʿyān wa-anbāʾ abnāʾ az-zamān (“Deaths of Eminent Men and History of the Sons of the Epoch”; trans. by Baron de Slane, Ibn Khallikan’s Biographical Dictionary, 1842–74) compiled by Ibn Khallikān. 3) the scanty and legendary Eastern tradition, represented by Ẓahīr-al-Dīn Bayhaqī.
From incidental accounts it is known that he spent significant time in Baghdad with Christian scholars including the cleric Yuhanna ibn Haylan, Yahya ibn Adi, and Abu Ishaq Ibrahim al-Baghdadi. He later spent time in Damascus, Syria and Egypt before returning to Damascus where he died in 950-1.[page needed]
His name was Abū Naṣr Moḥammad b. Moḥammad Farabi, as all sources, and especially the earliest and most reliable, Al-Masudi, agree. In some manuscripts of Fārābī’s works, which must reflect the reading of their ultimate archetypes from his time, his full name appears as Abū Naṣr Moḥammad b. Moḥammad al-Ṭarḵānī, i.e., the element Ṭarḵān appears in a nisba (family surname or attributive title). Moreover, if the name of Farabi’s grandfather was not known among his contemporaries and immediately succeeding generations, it is all the more surprising to see in the later sources the appearance of yet another name from his pedigree, Awzalaḡ. This appears as the name of the grandfather in Ibn Abī Uṣaibiʿa and of the great-grandfather in Ibn Khallekān. Ibn Abī Uṣaibiʿa is the first source to list this name which, as Ibn Khallekān explicitly specifies later, is so to be pronounced as Awzalaḡ. In modern Turkish scholarship and some other sources, the pronunciation is given as Uzluḡ rather than Awzalaḡ, without any explanation.
His birthplace is given in the classical sources as either Fāryāb in Khorasan (in modern Afghanistan) or Fārāb on the Jaxartes (Syr Darya) in modern Kazakhstan. The older Persian Pārāb (in Ḥudūd al-ʿĀlam) or Fāryāb (also Pāryāb), is a common Persian toponym meaning “lands irrigated by diversion of river water”. By the 13th century, Fārāb on the Jaxartes was known as Otrār.
There exist a difference of opinion on the ethnic background of Farabi. According to D. Gutas, “[…] ultimately pointless as the quest for Farabi’s ethnic origins might be, the fact remains that we do not have sufficient evidence to decide the matter […] The Cambridge companion to Arabic philosophy also states that “[…] these biographical facts are paltry in the extreme but we must resist the urge to embellish them with fanciful stories, as the medieval biographers did, or engage in idle speculation about al-Farabi’s ethnicity or religious affiliation on the basis of contrived interpretations of his works, as many modern scholars have done […]” According to the Oxford Encyclopaedia of African Thought “[…] because the origins of al-Farabi were not recorded during his lifetime or soon after his death in 950 C.E. by anyone with concrete information, accounts of his pedigree and place of birth have been based on hearsay […]”
Medieval Arab historian Ibn Abī Uṣaibiʿa (died in 1269) – al-Farabi’s oldest biographer – mentions in his ʿOyūn that al-Farabi’s father was of Persian descent. Al-Shahrazūrī who lived around 1288 A.D. and has written an early biography also states that Farabi hailed from a Persian family. Additionally, Farabi has in a number of his works references and glosses in Persian and Sogdian (and even Greek but, interestingly, no Turkish; see below). Sogdian or Turkish have been mentioned as his native language and the language of the inhabitants of Fārāb. Mohammad Javad Mashkoor argues for an Iranian-speaking Central Asian origin. A Persian origin has been discussed by other sources as well.
The oldest known reference to a possible Turkic origin is given by the medieval historian Ibn Khallekān (died in 1282), who in his work Wafayāt (completed in 669/1271) states that Farabi was born in the small village of Wasij near Fārāb (in what is today Otrar, Kazakhstan) of Turkic parents. Based on this account, some modern scholars state his origin to be Turkic. Others, such as D. Gutas, criticize this, saying that Ibn Khallekān’s account is aimed at the earlier historical accounts by Ibn Abī Uṣaibiʿa, and serves the sole purpose to prove a Turkic origin for al-Farabi, for instance by inventing the additional nisba (surname) “al-Turk” (arab. “the Turk”) – a nisba Farabi never had. In this regard, Oxford professor C.E. Bosworth notes that “great figures [such] as al-Farabi, al-Biruni, and ibn Sina have been attached by over enthusiastic Turkish scholars to their race”.
Life and Education
Al-Farabi spent almost his entire life in Baghdad, capital of Abbasids that ruled the Islamic world. In the auto-biographical passage about the appearance of philosophy preserved by Ibn Abī Uṣaibiʿa, Farabi has stated that he had studied logic with Yūḥannā b. Ḥaylān up to and including Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, i.e., according to the order of the books studied in the curriculum, Fārābī said that he studied Porphyry’s Eisagoge and Aristotle’s Categories, De Interpretatione, Prior and Posterior Analytics. His teacher, Yūḥannā b. Ḥaylān, was a Christian cleric who abandoned lay interests and engaged in his ecclesiastical duties, as Fārābī reports. His studies of Aristotelian logic with Yūḥannā in all probability took place in Baghdad, where Al-Masudi tells us Yūḥannā died during the caliphate of al-Moqtader (295-320/908-32). He was in Baghdad at least until the end of September 942 as we learn from notes in some manuscripts of his Mabādeʾ ārāʾ ahl al-madīna al-fāżela, he had started to compose the book in Baghdad at that time and then left and went to Syria. He finished the book in Damascus the following year (331), i.e., by September 943). He also lived and taught for some time in Aleppo. Later on Farabi visited Egypt; and complete six sections summarizing the book Mabādeʾ in Egypt in 337/July 948-June 949. He returned from Egypt to Syria. Al-Masudi writing writing barely five years after the fact (955-6, the date of the composition of the Tanbīh), says that he died in Damascus in Rajab 339 (between 14 December 950 and 12 January 951). In Syria, he was supported and glorified by Saif ad-Daula, the Hamdanid ruler of Syria.
Al-Farabi wrote: The Necessity of the Art of the Elixir
Though he was mainly an Aristotelian logician, he included a number of non-Aristotelian elements in his works. He discussed the topics of future contingents, the number and relation of the categories, the relation between logic and grammar, and non-Aristotelian forms of inference. He is also credited for categorizing logic into two separate groups, the first being “idea” and the second being “proof“.
Al-Farabi also considered the theories of conditional syllogisms and analogical inference, which were part of the Stoic tradition of logic rather than the Aristotelian. Another addition Al-Farabi made to the Aristotelian tradition was his introduction of the concept of poetic syllogism in a commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics.
Music and sociology
Farabi wrote books on early Muslim sociology and a notable book on music titled Kitab al-Musiqa (The Book of Music). According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Mehdi Aminrazavi: the book of Kitab al-Musiqa is in reality a study of the theory of Persian music of his day although in the West it has been introduced as a book on Arab music. He presents philosophical principles about music, its cosmic qualities and its influences. Al-Farabi’s treatise Meanings of the Intellect dealt with music therapy, where he discussed the therapeutic effects of music on the soul.
As a philosopher, Al-Farabi was a founder of his own school of early Islamic philosophy known as “Farabism” or “Alfarabism”, though it was later overshadowed by Avicennism. Al-Farabi’s school of philosophy “breaks with the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle [… and …] moves from metaphysics to methodology, a move that anticipates modernity“, and “at the level of philosophy, Alfarabi unites theory and practice [… and] in the sphere of the political he liberates practice from theory”. His Neoplatonic theology is also more than just metaphysics as rhetoric. In his attempt to think through the nature of a First Cause, Alfarabi discovers the limits of human knowledge“.
Al-Farabi had great influence on science and philosophy for several centuries, and was widely regarded to be second only to Aristotle in knowledge (alluded to by his title of “the Second Teacher”) in his time. His work, aimed at synthesis of philosophy and Sufism, paved the way for the work of Ibn Sina (Avicenna).
Al-Farabi also wrote a commentary on Aristotle‘s work, and one of his most notable works is Al-Madina al-Fadila where he theorized an ideal state as in Plato’s The Republic. Al-Farabi represented religion as a symbolic rendering of truth, and, like Plato, saw it as the duty of the philosopher to provide guidance to the state. Al-Farabi departed from the Platonic view in that he regarded the ideal state to be ruled by the prophet–imam, instead of the philosopher-king envisaged by Plato. Al-Farabi argued that the ideal state was the city-state of Medina when it was governed by the prophet Muhammad as its head of state, as he was in direct communion with Allah whose law was revealed to him.
Al-Farabi thought about the nature of the existence of void. He may have carried out the first experiments concerning the existence of vacuum, in which he investigated handheld plungers in water. He concluded that air’s volume can expand to fill available space, and he suggested that the concept of perfect vacuum was incoherent.
In psychology, al-Farabi’s Social Psychology and Model City were the first treatises to deal with social psychology. He stated that “an isolated individual could not achieve all the perfections by himself, without the aid of other individuals.” He wrote that it is the “innate disposition of every man to join another human being or other men in the labor he ought to perform.” He concluded that in order to “achieve what he can of that perfection, every man needs to stay in the neighborhood of others and associate with them.”
His On the Cause of Dreams, which appeared as chapter 24 of his Book of Opinions of the people of the Ideal City, was a treatise on dreams, in which he distinguished between dream interpretation and the nature and causes of dreams.
The main influence on al-Farabi’s philosophy was the neo-Aristotelian tradition of Alexandria. A prolific writer, he is credited with over one hundred works. Amongst these are a number of prolegomena to philosophy, commentaries on important Aristotelian works (such as the Nicomachean Ethics) as well as his own works. His ideas are marked by their coherency, despite drawing together of many different philosophical disciplines and traditions. Some other significant influences on his work were the planetary model of Ptolemy and elements of Neo-Platonism, particularly metaphysics and practical (or political) philosophy (which bears more resemblance to Plato’s Republic than Aristotle’s Politics).
Al-Farabi as well as Ibn Sina and Averroes have been recognized as Peripatetics (al-Mashsha’iyun) or rationalists (Estedlaliun) among Muslims. However he tried to gather the ideas of Plato and Aristotle in his book “The gathering of the ideas of the two philosophers”.
According to Adamson, his work was singularly directed towards the goal of simultaneously reviving and reinventing the Alexandrian philosophical tradition, to which his Christian teacher, Yuhanna bin Haylan belonged. His success should be measured by the honorific title of “the second master” of philosophy (Aristotle being the first), by which he was known. Interestingly, Adamson also says that he does not make any reference to the ideas of either al-Kindi or his contemporary, Abu Bakr al-Razi, which clearly indicates that he did not consider their approach to Philosophy as a correct or viable one.
Metaphysics and cosmology
In contrast to al-Kindi, who considered the subject of metaphysics to be God, al-Farabi believed that it was concerned primarily with being qua being (that is, being in of itself), and this is related to God only to the extent that God is a principal of absolute being. Al-Kindi’s view was, however, a common misconception regarding Greek philosophy amongst Muslim intellectuals at the time, and it was for this reason that Avicenna remarked that he did not understand Aristotle’s Metaphysics properly until he had read a prolegomenon written by al-Farabi.
Al-Farabi’s cosmology is essentially based upon three pillars: Aristotelian metaphysics of causation, highly developed Plotinian emanational cosmology and the Ptolemaic astronomy. In his model, the universe is viewed as a number of concentric circles; the outermost sphere or “first heaven”, the sphere of fixed stars, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury and finally, the Moon. At the centre of these concentric circles is the sub-lunar realm which contains the material world. Each of these circles represent the domain of the secondary intelligences (symbolized by the celestial bodies themselves), which act as causal intermediaries between the First Cause (in this case, God) and the material world. Furthermore these are said to have emanated from God, who is both their formal and efficient cause. This departs radically from the view of Aristotle, who considered God to be solely a formal cause for the movement of the spheres, but by doing so it renders the model more compatible with the ideas of the theologians.
The process of emanation begins (metaphysically, not temporally) with the First Cause, whose principal activity is self-contemplation. And it is this intellectual activity that underlies its role in the creation of the universe. The First Cause, by thinking of itself, “overflows” and the incorporeal entity of the second intellect “emanates” from it. Like its predecessor, the second intellect also thinks about itself, and thereby brings its celestial sphere (in this case, the sphere of fixed stars) into being, but in addition to this it must also contemplate upon the First Cause, and this causes the “emanation” of the next intellect. The cascade of emanation continues until it reaches the tenth intellect, beneath which is the material world. And as each intellect must contemplate both itself and an increasing number of predecessors, each succeeding level of existence becomes more and more complex. It should be noted that this process is based upon necessity as opposed to will. In other words, God does not have a choice whether or not to create the universe, but by virtue of His own existence, He causes it to be. This view also suggests that the universe is eternal, and both of these points were criticized by al-Ghazzali in his attack on the philosophers
In his discussion of the First Cause (or God), al-Farabi relies heavily on negative theology. He says that it cannot be known by intellectual means, such as dialectical division or definition, because the terms used in these processes to define a thing constitute its substance. Therefore if one was to define the First Cause, each of the terms used would actually constitute a part of its substance and therefore behave as a cause for its existence, which is impossible as the First Cause is uncaused; it exists without being caused. Equally, he says it cannot be known according to genus and differentia, as its substance and existence are different from all others, and therefore it has no category to which it belongs. If this were the case, then it would not be the First Cause, because something would be prior in existence to it, which is also impossible. This would suggest that the more philosophically simple a thing is, the more perfect it is. And based on this observation, Adamson says it is possible to see the entire hierarchy of al-Farabi’s cosmology according to classification into genus and species. Each succeeding level in this structure has as its principal qualities multiplicity and deficiency, and it is this ever-increasing complexity that typifies the material world.
Epistemology and eschatology
Human beings are unique in al-Farabi’s vision of the universe because they stand between two worlds: the “higher”, immaterial world of the celestial intellects and universal intelligibles, and the “lower”, material world of generation and decay; they inhabit a physical body, and so belong to the “lower” world, but they also have a rational capacity, which connects them to the “higher” realm. Each level of existence in al-Farabi’s cosmology is characterized by its movement towards perfection, which is to become like the First Cause; a perfect intellect. Human perfection (or “happiness”), then, is equated with constant intellection and contemplation.
Al-Farabi divides intellect into four categories: potential, actual, acquired and the Agent. The first three are the different states of the human intellect and the fourth is the Tenth Intellect (the moon) in his emanational cosmology. The potential intellect represents the capacity to think, which is shared by all human beings, and the actual intellect is an intellect engaged in the act of thinking. By thinking, al-Farabi means abstracting universal intelligibles from the sensory forms of objects which have been apprehended and retained in the individual’s imagination.
This motion from potentiality to actuality requires the Agent Intellect to act upon the retained sensory forms; just as the Sun illuminates the physical world to allow us to see, the Agent Intellect illuminates the world of intelligibles to allow us to think. This illumination removes all accident (such as time, place, quality) and physicality from them, converting them into primary intelligibles, which are logical principles such as “the whole is greater than the part”. The human intellect, by its act of intellection, passes from potentiality to actuality, and as it gradually comprehends these intelligibles, it is identified with them (as according to Aristotle, by knowing something, the intellect becomes like it). Because the Agent Intellect knows all of the intelligibles, this means that when the human intellect knows all of them, it becomes associated with the Agent Intellect’s perfection and is known as the acquired Intellect.
While this process seems mechanical, leaving little room for human choice or volition, Reisman says that al-Farabi is committed to human voluntarism. This takes place when man, based on the knowledge he has acquired, decides whether to direct himself towards virtuous or unvirtuous activities, and thereby decides whether or not to seek true happiness. And it is by choosing what is ethical and contemplating about what constitutes the nature of ethics, that the actual intellect can become “like” the active intellect, thereby attaining perfection. It is only by this process that a human soul may survive death, and live on in the afterlife.
According to al-Farabi, the afterlife is not the personal experience commonly conceived of by religious traditions such as Islam and Christianity. Any individual or distinguishing features of the soul are annihilated after the death of the body; only the rational faculty survives (and then, only if it has attained perfection), which becomes one with all other rational souls within the agent intellect and enters a realm of pure intelligence. Henry Corbin compares this eschatology with that of the Ismaili Neo-Platonists, for whom this process initiated the next grand cycle of the universe. However, Deborah Black mentions we have cause to be skeptical as to whether this was the mature and developed view of al-Farabi, as later thinkers such as Ibn Tufayl, Averroes and Ibn Bajjah would assert that he repudiated this view in his commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, which has been lost to modern experts.
Psychology, the soul and prophetic knowledge
In his treatment of the human soul, al-Farabi draws on a basic Aristotelian outline, which is informed by the commentaries of later Greek thinkers. He says it is composed of four faculties: The appetitive (the desire for, or aversion to an object of sense), the sensitive (the perception by the senses of corporeal substances), the imaginative (the faculty which retains images of sensible objects after they have been perceived, and then separates and combines them for a number of ends), and the rational, which is the faculty of intellection. It is the last of these which is unique to human beings and distinguishes them from plants and animals. It is also the only part of the soul to survive the death of the body. Noticeably absent from these scheme are internal senses, such as common sense, which would be discussed by later philosophers such as Avicenna and Averroes.
Special attention must be given to al-Farabi’s treatment of the soul’s imaginative faculty, which is essential to his interpretation of prophethood and prophetic knowledge. In addition to its ability to retain and manipulate sensible images of objects, he gives the imagination the function of imitation. By this he means the capacity to represent an object with an image other than its own. In other words, to imitate “x” is to imagine “x” by associating it with sensible qualities that do not describe its own appearance. This extends the representative ability of the imagination beyond sensible forms and to include temperaments, emotions, desires and even immaterial intelligibles or abstract universals, as happens when, for example, one associates “evil” with “darkness”. The prophet, in addition to his own intellectual capacity, has a very strong imaginative faculty, which allows him to receive an overflow of intelligibles from the agent intellect (the tenth intellect in the emanational cosmology). These intelligibles are then associated with symbols and images, which allow him to communicate abstract truths in a way that can be understood by ordinary people. Therefore what makes prophetic knowledge unique is not its content, which is also accessible to philosophers through demonstration and intellection, but rather the form that it is given by the prophet’s imagination.
Practical philosophy (ethics and politics)
The practical application of philosophy is a major concern expressed by al-Farabi in many of his works, and while the majority of his philosophical output has been influenced by Aristotelian thought, his practical philosophy is unmistakably based on that of Plato. In a similar manner to Plato’s Republic, al-Farabi emphasizes that philosophy is both a theoretical and practical discipline; labeling those philosophers who do not apply their erudition to practical pursuits as “futile philosophers”. The ideal society, he says, is one directed towards the realization of “true happiness” (which can be taken to mean philosophical enlightenment) and as such, the ideal philosopher must hone all the necessary arts of rhetoric and poetics to communicate abstract truths to the ordinary people, as well as having achieved enlightenment himself. Al-Farabi compares the philosopher’s role in relation to society with a physician in relation to the body; the body’s health is affected by the “balance of its humours” just as the city is determined by the moral habits of its people. The philosopher’s duty, he says, is to establish a “virtuous” society by healing the souls of the people, establishing justice and guiding them towards “true happiness”.
Of course, al-Farabi realizes that such a society is rare and will require a very specific set of historical circumstances in order to be realized, which means very few societies will ever be able to attain this goal. He divides those “vicious” societies, which have fallen short of the ideal “virtuous” society, into three categories: ignorant, wicked and errant. Ignorant societies have, for whatever reason, failed to comprehend the purpose of human existence, and have supplanted the pursuit of happiness for another (inferior) goal, whether this be wealth, sensual gratification or power. It is interesting to note that democratic societies also fall into this category, as they too lack any guiding principle. Both wicked and errant societies have understood the true human end, but they have failed to follow it. The former because they have willfully abandoned it, and the latter because their leaders have deceived and misguided them. Al-Farabi also makes mention of “weeds” in the virtuous society; those people who try to undermine its progress towards the true human end.
Whether or not al-Farabi actually intended to outline a political programme in his writings remains a matter of dispute amongst academics. Henry Corbin, who considers al-Farabi to be a crypto-Shi’ite, says that his ideas should be understood as a “prophetic philosophy” instead of being interpreted politically. On the other hand, Charles Butterworth contends that nowhere in his work does al-Farabi speak of a prophet-legislator or revelation (even the word philosophy is scarcely mentioned), and the main discussion that takes place concerns the positions of “king” and “statesmen”. Occupying a middle position is David Reisman, who like Corbin believes that al-Farabi did not want to expound a political doctrine (although he does not go so far to attribute it to Islamic Gnosticism either). He argues that al-Farabi was using different types of society as examples, in the context of an ethical discussion, to show what effect correct or incorrect thinking could have. Lastly, Joshua Parens argues that al-Farabi was slyly asserting that a pan-Islamic society could not be made, by using reason to show how many conditions (such as moral and deliberative virtue) would have to be met, thus leading the reader to conclude that humans are not fit for such a society. Some other authors like Mykhaylo Yakubovych attest that for al-Farabi religion (milla) and philosophy (falsafa) constituted the same praxeological value (i.e. basis for amal al-fadhil – “virtuos deed”), while its epistemological level (ilm – “knowledge”) was different.
al-Farabi, Abu Nasr (c.870-950)
Al-Farabi was known to the Arabs as the ‘Second Master’ (after Aristotle), and with good reason. It is unfortunate that his name has been overshadowed by those of later philosophers such as Ibn Sina, for al-Farabi was one of the world’s great philosophers and much more original than many of his Islamic successors. A philosopher, logician and musician, he was also a major political scientist.
Al-Farabi has left us no autobiography and consequently, relatively little is known for certain about his life. His philosophical legacy, however, is large. In the arena of metaphysics he has been designated the ‘Father of Islamic Neoplatonism’, and while he was also saturated with Aristotelianism and certainly deploys the vocabulary of Aristotle, it is this Neoplatonic dimension which dominates much of his corpus. This is apparent in his most famous work, al-Madina al-fadila (The Virtuous City) which, far from being a copy or a clone of Plato’s Republic, is imbued with the Neoplatonic concept of God. Of course, al-Madina al-fadila has undeniable Platonic elements but its theology, as opposed to its politics, places it outside the mainstream of pure Platonism.
In his admittedly complex theories of epistemology, al-Farabi has both an Aristotelian and Neoplatonic dimension, neither of which is totally integrated with the other. His influence was wide and extended not only to major Islamic philosophers such as Ibn Sina who came after him, and to lesser mortals such as Yahya ibn ‘Adi, al-Sijistani, al-‘Amiri and al-Tawhidi, but also to major thinkers of Christian medieval Europe including Thomas Aquinas.
1. Life and works
Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Tarkhan ibn Awzalagh al-Farabi was born in approximately ah 257/ad 870. He may rightly be acclaimed as one of the greatest of Islamic philosophers of all time. While his name tends to be overshadowed by that of Ibn Sina, it is worth bearing in mind that the latter was less original than the former. Indeed, a well-known story tells how Ibn Sina sought in vain to understand Aristotle’s Metaphysics, and it was only through a book by al-Farabi on the intentions of the Metaphysics that understanding finally came to him. However, unlike Ibn Sina, al-Farabi has left us no autobiography and we know far less about his life in consequence. Considerable myth has become attached to the man: it is unlikely, for example, that he really spoke more than seventy languages, and we may also query his alleged ascetic lifestyle. We do know that he was born in Turkestan and later studied Arabic in Baghdad; it has been claimed that most of his books were written here. He travelled to Damascus, Egypt, Harran and Aleppo, and in the latter city the Hamdanid ruler Sayf al-Dawla became his patron. Even the circumstances of his death are not clear: some accounts portray him dying naturally in Damascus while at least one holds that he was mugged and killed on the road from Damascus to Ascalon.
Al-Farabi became an expert in philosophy and logic, and also in music: one of his works is entitled Kitab al-musiqa al-kabir (The Great Book of Music). However, perhaps the book for which he is best known is that whose title is abbreviated to al-Madina al-fadila (The Virtuous City), and which is often compared, misleadingly in view of its Neoplatonic orientation, to Plato’s Republic. Other major titles from al-Farabi’s voluminous corpus included the Risala fi’l-‘aql (Epistle on the Intellect), Kitab al-huruf (The Book of Letters) and Kitab ihsa’ al-‘ulum (The Book of the Enumeration of the Sciences).
Majid Fakhry (1983) has described al-Farabi as ‘the founder of Arab Neo-Platonism and the first major figure in the history of that philosophical movement since Proclus’. This should be borne in mind as we survey the metaphysics of the philosopher whom the Latin Middle Ages knew as Abunaser and whom the Arabs designated the ‘Second Master’ (after Aristotle). It should be noted that al-Farabi was an Aristotelian as well as a Neoplatonist: he is said, for example, to have read On the Soul two hundred times and even the Physics forty times. It should then come as no surprise that he deploys Aristotelian terminology, and indeed there are areas of his writings that are quite untouched by Neoplatonism. Furthermore, al-Farabi tried to demonstrate the basic agreement between Aristotle and Plato on such matters as the creation of the world, the survival of the soul and reward and punishment in the afterlife. In al-Farabi’s conception of God, essence and existence fuse absolutely with no possible separation between the two. However, there is no getting away from the fact that it is the Neoplatonic element which dominates so much else of al-Farabi’s work. We see this, for example, in the powerful picture of the transcendent God of Neoplatonism which dominates al-Madina al-fadila. We see this too in al-Farabi’s references to God in a negative mode, describing the deity by what he is not: he has no partner, he is indivisible and indefinable. And perhaps we see the Neoplatonic element most of all in the doctrine of emanation as it is deployed in al-Farabi’s hierarchy of being.
At the top of this hierarchy is the Divine Being whom al-Farabi characterizes as ‘the First’. From this emanates a second being which is the First Intellect. (This is termed, logically, ‘the Second’, that is, the Second Being). Like God, this being is an immaterial substance. A total of ten intellects emanate from the First Being. The First Intellect comprehends God and, in consequence of that comprehension, produces a third being, which is the Second Intellect. The First Intellect also comprehends its own essence, and the result of this comprehension is the production of the body and soul of al-sama’ al-ula, the First Heaven. Each of the following emanated intellects are associated with the generation of similar astral phenomena, including the fixed stars, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury and the Moon. Of particular significance in the emanationist hierarchy is the Tenth Intellect: it is this intellect which constitutes the real bridge between the heavenly and terrestrial worlds. This Tenth Intellect (variously called by the philosophers the active or agent intellect in English, the nous poiétikos in Greek, the dator formarum in Latin and the ‘aql al-fa”al in Arabic) was responsible both for actualizing the potentiality for thought in man’s intellect and emanating form to man and the sublunary world. With regard to the latter activity, it has been pointed out that here the active intellect takes on the role of Plotinus’ Universal Soul (see Plotinus).
In Farabian metaphysics, then, the concept of Neoplatonic emanation replaces that of Qur’anic creation ex nihilo (see Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy §2). Furthermore, the Deity at the top of the Neoplatonic hierarchy is portrayed in a very remote fashion. Al-Farabi’s philosophers’ God does not act directly on the sublunary world: much is delegated to the Active Intellect. However, God for al-Farabi certainly has an indirect ‘responsibility’ for everything, in that all things emanate from him. Yet we must also note, in order to present a fully rounded picture, that while it is the Neoplatonic portrait of God which dominates al-Farabi’s writings, this is not the only picture. In some of his writings the philosopher does address God traditionally, Qur’anically and Islamically: he does invoke God as ‘Lord of the Worlds’ and ‘God of the Easts and the Wests’, and he asks God to robe him in splendid clothes, wisdom and humility and deliver him from misfortune. Yet the overwhelming Neoplatonic substratum of so much else of what he writes fully justifies Fakhry’s characterization of al-Farabi, cited earlier, as ‘the founder of Arab Neo-Platonism’.
Farabian epistemology has both a Neoplatonic and an Aristotelian dimension. Much of the former has already been surveyed in our examination of al-Farabi’s metaphysics, and thus our attention turns now to the Aristotelian dimension. Our three primary Arabic sources for this are al-Farabi’s Kitab ihsa’ al-‘ulum, Risala fi’l-‘aql and Kitab al-huruf.
It is the second of these works, Risala fi’l-‘aql, which provides perhaps the most useful key to al-Farabi’s complex theories of intellection. In this work he divides ‘aql (intellect or reason) into six major categories in an attempt to elaborate the various meanings of the Arabic word ‘aql. First, there is what might be termed discernment or prudence; the individual who acts for the good is characterized by this faculty, and there is clearly some overlap with the fourth kind of intellect, described below. The second of al-Farabi’s intellects is that which has been identified with common sense; this intellect has connotations of ‘obviousness’ and ‘immediate recognition’ associated with it. Al-Farabi’s third intellect is natural perception. He traces its source to Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, and it is this intellect which allows us to be certain about fundamental truths. It is not a skill derived from the study of logic, but it may well be inborn. The fourth of the six intellects may be characterized as ‘conscience’: this is drawn by the philosopher from Book VI of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. It is a quality whereby good might be distinguished from evil and results from considerable experience of life (see Aristotle §§18-21).
Al-Farabi’s fifth intellect is both the most difficult and the most important. He gives most space to its description in his Risala fi’l-‘aql and considers it to be of four different types: potential intellect, actual intellect, acquired intellect and agent or active intellect. ‘Aql bi’l-quwwa (potential intellect) is the intellect which, in Fakhry’s words, has the capacity ‘of abstracting the forms of existing entities with which it is ultimately identified’ (Fakhry 1983: 121). Potential intellect can thus become ‘aql bi’l-fi’l (actual intellect). In its relationship to the actual intellect, the third sub-species of intellect, ‘aql mustafad (acquired intellect) is, to use Fakhry’s words again, the ‘the agent of actualization’ to the actualized object. Finally, there is the ‘aql al-fa”al (agent or active intellect), which was described in §2 above and need not be elaborated upon again.
The sixth and last of the major intellects is Divine Reason or God himself, the source of all intellectual energy and power. Even this brief presentation of Farabian intellection must appear complex; however, given the complexity of the subject itself, there is little option.
The best source for al-Farabi’s classification of knowledge is his Kitab ihsa’ al-‘ulum. This work illustrates neatly al-Farabi’s beliefs both about what can be known and the sheer range of that knowledge. Here he leaves aside the division into theological and philosophical sciences which other Islamic thinkers would use, and divides his material instead into five major chapters. Through all of them runs a primary Aristotelian stress on the importance of knowledge. Chapter 1 deals with the ‘science of language’, Chapter 2 formally covers the ‘science of logic’, Chapter 3 is devoted to the ‘mathematical sciences’, Chapter 4 surveys physics and metaphysics, and the final chapter encompasses ‘civil science’ (some prefer the term ‘political science’), jurisprudence and scholastic theology. A brief examination of these chapter headings shows that a total of eight main subjects are covered; not surprisingly, there are further subdivisions as well. To give just one example, the third chapter on the mathematical sciences embraces the seven subdivisions of arithmetic, geometry, optics, astronomy, music, weights and ‘mechanical artifices’; these subdivisions in turn have their own subdivisions. Thus al-Farabi’s epistemology, from what has been described both in this section and §2 above, may be said to be encyclopedic in range and complex in articulation, with that articulation using both a Neoplatonic and an Aristotelian voice.
4. Political philosophy
The best known Arabic source for al-Farabi’s political philosophy is al-Madina al-fadila. While this work undoubtedly embraces Platonic themes, it is in no way an Arabic clone of Plato’s Republic. This becomes very clear right at the beginning of al-Farabi’s work, with its description of the First Cause (Chapters 1-2) and the emanation of ‘the Second’ from ‘The First’ (Chapter 3). Later in the work, however, al-Farabi lays down in Platonic fashion the qualities necessary for the ruler: he should be predisposed to rule by virtue of an innate disposition and exhibit the right attitude for such rule. He will have perfected himself and be a good orator, and his soul will be, as it were, united to the active intellect (see §3). He will have a strong physique, a good understanding and memory, love learning and truth and be above the materialism of this world. Other qualities are enumerated by al-Farabi as well, and it is clear that here his ideal ruler is akin to Plato’s classical philosopher-king (see Plato §14).
Al-Farabi has a number of political divisions for his world. He identifies, for example, three types of society which are perfect and grades these according to size. His ideal virtuous city, which gives its name to the whole volume, is that which wholeheartedly embraces the pursuit of goodness and happiness and where the virtues will clearly abound. This virtuous city is compared in its function to the limbs of a perfectly healthy body. By stark contrast, al-Farabi identifies four different types of corrupt city: these are the ignorant city (al-madina al-jahiliyya), the dissolute city (al-madina al-fasiqa), the turncoat city (al-madina al-mubaddala) and the straying city (al-madina al-dalla). The souls of many of the inhabitants of such cities face ultimate extinction, while those who have been the cause of their fall face eternal torment. In itemizing four corrupt societies, al-Farabi was surely aware of Plato’s own fourfold division of imperfect societies in the Republic into timarchy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny. The resemblance, however, is more one of structure (four divisions) rather than of content.
At the heart of al-Farabi’s political philosophy is the concept of happiness (sa’ada). The virtuous society (al-ijtima’ al-fadil) is defined as that in which people cooperate to gain happiness. The virtuous city (al-madina al-fadila) is one where there is cooperation in achieving happiness. The virtuous world (al-ma’mura al-fadila) will only occur when all its constituent nations collaborate to achieve happiness. Walzer reminds us that both Plato and Aristotle held that supreme happiness was only to be gained by those who philosophized in the right manner. Al-Farabi followed the Greek paradigm and the highest rank of happiness was allocated to his ideal sovereign whose soul was ‘united as it were with the Active Intellect’. But Walzer goes on to stress that al-Farabi ‘does not confine his interest to the felicity of the first ruler: he is equally concerned with the felicity of all the five classes which make up the perfect state’ (Walzer, in introduction to al-Madina al-fadila (1985: 409-10)). Farabian political philosophy, then, sits astride the saddle of Greek eudaimonia, and a soteriological dimension may easily be deduced from this emphasis on happiness. For if salvation in some form is reserved for the inhabitants of the virtuous city, and if the essence of that city is happiness, then it is no exaggeration to say that salvation is the reward of those who cooperate in the achievement of human happiness. Eudaimonia/sa’ada becomes a soteriological raft or steed.
The impact of al-Farabi’s work on Ibn Sina was not limited merely to illuminating Aristotle’s Metaphysics. It was with good reason that al-Farabi was designated the ‘Second Master’ (after Aristotle). One modern scholar recently acknowledged the dependence of Ibn Sina on al-Farabi in a book dealing with both which he entitled The Two Farabis (Farrukh 1944). And if Aquinas (§9) did not derive his essence-existence doctrine from al-Farabi but from the Latinized Ibn Sina, as is generally assumed, there is no doubt that Farabian concepts of essence and existence provided a base for the elaborated metaphysics of Ibn Sina and thence of Aquinas. Finally, the briefest of comparisons between the tenfold hierarchy of intellection produced by al-Farabi and the similar hierarchy espoused by Ibn Sina, each of which gives a key role to the Tenth Intellect, shows that in matters of emanation, hierarchy and Neoplatonic intellection, Ibn Sina owes a considerable intellectual debt to his predecessor.
Al-Farabi influenced many other thinkers as well. A glance at the period between ah 256/ad 870 and ah 414/ad 1023 and at four of the major thinkers who flourished in this period serves to confirm this: Yahya ibn ‘Adi, Abu Sulayman al-Sijistani, Abu ‘l-Hasan Muhammad ibn Yusuf al-‘Amiri and Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi may all be said to constitute in one form or another a ‘Farabian School’. The Christian Monophysite Yahya ibn ‘Adi studied in Baghdad under al-Farabi and others. Like his master, Yahya was devoted to the study of logic; like his master also, Yahya held that there was a real link between reason, ethics and politics. Al-Sijistani was a pupil of Yahya’s and thus at one remove from al-Farabi; nonetheless, he shared in both his master’s and al-Farabi’s devotion to logic, and indeed was known as al-Sijistani al-Mantiqi (The Logician). In his use of Platonic classification and thought, al-Sijistani reveals himself as a true disciple of al-Farabi. Although al-‘Amiri appears to speak disparagingly of al-Farabi at one point, there can be no doubt about al-Farabi’s impact on him. Indeed, al-‘Amiri’s works combine the Platonic, the Aristotelian and the Neoplatonic. Finally, Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi, a pupil of both Yahya and al-Sijistani, stressed, for example, the primacy of reason and the necessity of using logic. Like others of the Farabian School outlined above, al-Tawhidi contributed towards a body of thought the primary constituents of which were the soteriological, the ethical and the noetic.
See also: Aristotelianism in Islamic philosophy; Greek philosophy: impact on Islamic philosophy; Ibn Sina; Logic in Islamic philosophy; Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy; Political philosophy in classical Islam
IAN RICHARD NETTON
Copyright © 1998, Routledge.
List of works
al-Farabi (c.870-950) al-Madina al-fadila (The Virtuous City), trans. R. Walzer, Al-Farabi on the Perfect State: Abu Nasr al-Farabi’s Mabadi’ Ara Ahl al-Madina al-Fadila, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985. (Revised with introduction and commentary by the translator.)
al-Farabi (c.870-950) Kitab al-huruf (The Book of Letters), ed. M. Mahdi, Beirut: Dar al-Mashriq, 1969. (Modelled on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, but of interest to students of linguistics as well as of philosophy.)
al-Farabi(c. 870-950) Kitab ihsa’ al-‘ulum (The Book of the Enumeration of the Sciences), ed. and trans. A. González Palencia, Catálogo de las Ciencias, Arabic text with Latin and Spanish translation, Madrid: Imprenta y Editorial Maestre, 1953. (A survey of the learned sciences of the day, of encyclopedic range.)
References and further reading
Alon, I. (1990) ‘Farabi’s Funny Flora: Al-Nawabit as Opposition’, Arabica 37: 56-90. (Highly creative discussion of the links between the philosophical terminology of Ibn Bajja and al-Farabi, which brings out the complexity of the theological and political ramifications of such language.)
Netton, I.R. (1989) Allah Transcendent: Studies in the Structure and Semiotics of Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Cosmology, London and New York: Routledge. (Contains a wide-ranging chapter on al-Farabi, see pages 99-148. This volume was later published in paperback by Curzon Press in 1994.)