Abu Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi (also known as Alpharabius in the Western Latin tradition) was a philosopher, music theorist, and polymath who was born in Faryab in Khorasan or Farab in Transoxiana, and died in Damascus between December 14, 950, and January 12, 951.
He is known as the first Islamic philosopher and a flawless music theorist. He is also recognized as the father of Islamic Neo-Platonism and the founder of Islamic political philosophy. His philosophical interests included social and religious philosophy, language and logic, psychology and epistemology, metaphysics, political philosophy, and ethics. He was an expert in both practical and theoretical music, and his works include astronomy, mathematics, cosmology, and physics. He is considered the first Muslim to present philosophy as a coherent system in the Islamic world and created a philosophical system that went far beyond his Greek philosophical interests. He was a Roman Neoplatonist and heavily influenced by Aristotelian Syriac predecessors. He is recognized as more than a precursor in Islamic philosophy by subsequent writers who referred to him as the second teacher, with Aristotle being the first. His impact on philosophy is undeniable, including Yahya ibn Adi, Abu Sahl al-Sijistani, Abu al-Hasan al-Amiri, and Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi; Ibn Sina, Suhrawardi, and Mulla Sadra; Ibn Rushd, Ibn Tufayl, and Averroes; Maimonides, Albertus Magnus, and Leo Strauss. Al-Farabi was known in both the Western Latin and Islamic worlds.
Biography: The changes in the basic narratives of Al-Farabi’s origin and lineage show that these changes were not recorded by someone who had accurate information during his lifetime or soon after, but rather based on rumors or guesses (as is the case with his contemporaries). About Al-Farabi: There is little information about his life. Primary sources include a brief biography in which Al-Farabi traces the history of logic and philosophy up to his time, and brief references by Masudi, Ibn al-Nadim, and Ibn Hawqal. Saeed Andalusi has written a biography of Al-Farabi. Therefore, the biographers of the 12th to 13th centuries in the Arab world had little facts and relied on invented stories about his life.
From accidental narratives, it is known that he spent a considerable period of time (most of his scholarly life) in Baghdad with Christian Syriac scholars, including the priest Yuhanna bin Hilan, Yahya ibn Adi, and Abu Ishaq Ibrahim al-Baghdadi. He later spent some time in Damascus and Egypt and then returned to Damascus, where he died in 950. His name was Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Farabi, sometimes with the surname Tarkhani, which is derived from the word “Tarkhan” in a genealogy. His grandfather was not well-known among his contemporaries, but the name of his grandfather suddenly appears in the writings of Ibn Abi Usaybi’a and his great-grandfather in the writings of Ibn Khallikan.
His birthplace could have been one of the many locations in Central Asia known at the time as Khorasan. “Parab/Farab” is a Persian term for a place that is irrigated by drainage water from irrigation canals or a nearby river. Therefore, there are many places that have the name (or different hydrological/geological evolutions of that name) in that area, such as Farab in Jaxartes (Syr Darya) in modern-day Kazakhstan.
Farab is a village still existing on the outskirts of the city of Turkmenabat (formerly Chardzhou/Amul), on the Amu Darya River in Turkmenistan, on the Silk Road connecting Merv to Bactria or Faryab in Greater Khorasan (present-day Afghanistan).
“Parab/Faryab” (approximately Al-Alam) is a common Persian term meaning “lands irrigated by the deviation of river water”. In the thirteenth century, Farabi was known as Outrar in Jaxartes.
While scholars largely agree that his ethnic background is not identifiable, Al-Farabi has been described as having Iranian or Turkic origins.
Ibn Abi Usaybi’a, a medieval Arab historian (d. 1270) and one of the oldest biographers of Al-Farabi, mentions in his own writings that Al-Farabi’s father was of Iranian descent. Shahrazuri, who lived around 1288 and wrote his initial biography, also states that Al-Farabi was from an Iranian family. According to Majid Fakhry, a retired philosophy professor at Georgetown University, Al-Farabi’s father was “an Iranian army captain.”
Dimitri Gutas notes that Al-Farabi’s works contain references and vocabulary from Persian, Sogdian, and even Greek languages, but not Turkish. The Sogdian language has also been suggested as his native language and the language of the people of Farab.
Mohammad Javad Mashkoor argues for Al-Farabi’s Central Asian Iranian linguistic origin. According to Christoph Baumgartner, he was most likely a Sogdian.
According to Terence Guardino, who wrote in 2020, “Scholars have debated his ethnic origin, with some claiming he was Turkish, but recent research shows he was a genuine Iranian”.
Al-Farabi’s reference to the currency of the Republic of Kazakhstan: The oldest known reference to Turkic roots was presented by the medieval historian Ibn Khallikan (d. 1282) in his work Wafayat al-A’yan (completed in 669/1271) where he states that Al-Farabi was born to Turk parents in the small village of Wasij near Farab. Based on this report, some scholars argue that he was originally Turkic.
However, Dimitri Gutas, a Greek-American Arabist, criticizes this view and argues that Ibn Khallikan’s account is based on earlier historical reports by Ibn Abi Usaybi’a, and for example, Ibn Khallikan “proves” Al-Farabi’s Turkic origin. Al-Farabi never had the additional attribution (surname) of “al-Turki” (Arabic for “Turk”).
But Abu al-Fida, who copied Ibn Khallikan, corrected this and changed Turkic to “wakana rajulan Turkian,” meaning “he was a man of Turkic nationality.”
C.E. Bosworth, an Oxford professor, notes that hypothetical Turks have no traces of Turkic tribal culture. On the other hand, Richard N. Frye and Aydin Sayili argue that Turks lived in villages beyond the river long before the Seljuks, and these Turks did not have a nomadic lifestyle.
Life and education: Al-Farabi spent most of his scholarly life in Baghdad. In a biography preserved by Ibn Abi Usaybi’a, Al-Farabi states that he studied logic, medicine, and sociology under Yahya ibn Adi and, among others, the later works of Aristotle, in the order of the curriculum. Al-Farabi claimed to have studied Porphyry and Aristotle’s Organon.
His teacher, Yahya ibn ‘Adi, was a Nestorian Christian cleric. This period of study was probably in Baghdad, where Masudi wrote that Yahya died during the reign of Al-Muqtadir (295-320/908-32).
He was in Baghdad at least until the end of September 942, as noted in his annotations to Ma’badat Ahl al-Madina al-Fadila. He finished this book in 331, i.e., until September 943, in Damascus. He also lived and taught in Aleppo for a while.
Al-Farabi later visited Egypt and completed a six-part summary of Ma’badat in Egypt in 337 / July 948 – June 949. When he returned to Syria, Saif al-Dawla, the ruler of Hamadan, supported him.
Masudi, who wrote about five years after this fact (6-955, the date of the Tabaqat composition), says that Al-Farabi died in Rajab 339 (between December 14, 950 and January 12, 951) in Damascus.
Religious beliefs: Al-Farabi’s religious affiliation in Islam is controversial.
While some historians identify Al-Farabi as a Sunni, others believe that he was a Shiite or under the influence of Shiite thought. Fauzi Najar believes that Al-Farabi’s political philosophy was influenced by Shiite sects. Nadia Maftouni describes the Shiite aspects of Al-Farabi’s writings in a positive report. For example, in Al-Madina al-Fadila, Al-Farabi believes that the ideal city is governed by the Prophet of Islam and his successors. Works and contributions: Al-Farabi contributed to logic, mathematics, music, philosophy, psychology, and education. He wrote about the necessity of alchemy.
Logic: Although he was primarily an Aristotelian logician, he included some non-Aristotelian elements in his works. He discussed topics such as possible futures, the number and ratio of propositions, the relationship between logic and grammar, and non-Aristotelian syllogisms. He also classified logic into two distinct categories: “idea” and “proof”. Al-Farabi also highlighted the conditional syllogism and analogical inference, which were part of the traditional logic of the time, instead of Aristotelian logic. One of his additions to Aristotelian tradition was the introduction of the concept of “poetic analogy” in his interpretation of Aristotle’s poetry.
Music: Al-Farabi wrote a book called Kitab al-Musiqi al-Kabir (The Great Book of Music) on music. In it, he presents the philosophical principles of music, its cosmic characteristics, and its effects. He also discusses the therapeutic effects of music on the soul and its influence on speech. He explains how music can be harmonized with speech, i.e., poetry, to enhance the meaning of the text.
Philosophy: Al-Farabi, as a philosopher, was the founder of his own Islamic philosophy school called “Al-Farabism” or “Farabism,” although he later came under the influence of Ibn Sina’s philosophy. Al-Farabi’s philosophical school “deviated from the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle and moved from metaphysics to methodology, a movement that predicted modernity,” and “Al-Farabi equates theory and practice at the philosophical level and liberates practice from theory in the political sphere.” His Neoplatonic theology goes beyond metaphysics as rhetoric. In his efforts to think about the nature of a first cause, Al-Farabi discovers the limits of human knowledge.
Al-Farabi had a significant impact on science and philosophy for several centuries and was widely considered second to Aristotle in knowledge (referred to as the “second master”) in his time. Al-Farabi’s work in combining philosophy and Sufism paved the way for Ibn Sina’s work. He also wrote a commentary on Aristotle’s works, and one of his prominent works is “The Views of the People of the Ideal City,” in which he theorized about an ideal government that seemed to be modeled after the Republic of Plato. Al-Farabi argued that true religion is expressed through symbols and persuasion, and like Plato, he considered it the duty of the philosopher to guide the government. He portrayed the Platonic view through an Islamic lens, seeing the prophet or imam as the ideal ruler rather than the philosopher-king Plato envisioned. Al-Farabi argued that the ideal government was the Medina city-state, which was led by the Prophet Muhammad, who was in direct communication with God and received divine law. Al-Farabi believed that during the Prophet’s absence, democracy was the closest form of government to the ideal, and he saw the Rashidun Caliphate of Sunni Islam as an example of such a republican system in the early history of Muslims. However, he also noted that it was democracy that led to imperfect governments, and he pointed out how the orders of the early Islamic caliphs, who he believed were republicans, were later replaced by a form of government similar to the monarchy under the Umayyads and Abbasids.
In physics, Al-Farabi wrote a short treatise on the nature of vacuum, in which he pondered the nature of non-existent existence. His final conclusion was that the volume of air could expand to fill existing space, and he suggested that the concept of a complete vacuum was incoherent. In his psychological views, Al-Farabi stated that in an ideal city, a person cannot achieve all of his or her goals in isolation without the help of other individuals. The inherent goal of every person is to connect others to the work that needs to be done. To understand what one can have from it, one must remain in the proximity of others and establish a relationship with them. He distinguished between dream interpretation and the nature and causes of dreams in Chapter 24 of the above text. Al-Farabi’s main philosophical influence was the Aristotelian tradition of Alexandria. He was a prolific writer, with over a hundred works to his name. Among them are introductory works on philosophy, commentaries on important Aristotelian works such as Nicomachean Ethics, and his own works. Despite the combination of different philosophical traditions and disciplines, his ideas are consistent with each other. Other important influences on his work were the Ptolemaic model of the universe and the Neoplatonic elements, particularly metaphysics and practical (or political) philosophy – which has more similarities with Plato’s Republic than Aristotle’s Politics.
Al-Farabi played a fundamental role in transmitting Aristotle’s ideas to the Christian West in the Middle Ages, as seen in the translation of his commentary on Aristotle and the Short Commentary on Aristotle’s De Interpretatione by F.W. Zimmermann in 1981. He had a significant influence on Maimonides, the most important Jewish thinker of the Middle Ages. Maimonides wrote a concise article on logic in Arabic in his work Al-Muntakhab (The Selected), which focuses on the foundations of Aristotelian logic in the light of the views of Iranian philosophers, particularly Ibn Sina and, above all, Al-Farabi. In his book dedicated to the treatise, Remi Brague emphasizes the fact that Al-Farabi is the only philosopher mentioned in it. Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and Avicenna are known among Muslims as the Mashsha’is or the Rationalists. However, he tried to collect the ideas of Plato and Aristotle in the book “Harmony of the Views of the Two Sages”. According to Reisman, his work was exclusively guided towards the goal of simultaneously reviving and reinventing the philosophical tradition of Alexandria, which his Christian teacher, John Philoponus, was affiliated with. His success must be recognized as the second honor after Aristotle, who was the first person to be recognized by it as a master of philosophy. Reisman also states that he makes no reference to the ideas of his contemporary thinkers, such as al-Kindi and his protege al-Razi, which clearly shows that he did not consider their approach to philosophy as a valid or executable approach.
In metaphysics and cosmology, Al-Farabi believed that the concept of the supernatural is essentially related to the existence itself (i.e. being in itself), which is only related to God, to the extent that God is an absolute principle of existence. However, Al-Kindi’s view on Greek philosophy was a common misconception among Muslim intellectuals at that time, and that was why Ibn Sina stated that he did not understand the metaphysics of Aristotle correctly until he read a book by Al-Farabi. Al-Farabi’s cosmology is essentially based on three pillars: Aristotelian metaphysics of causality, highly developed Platonic cosmology, and Ptolemaic astronomy. In his model, the universe is considered a number of concentric circles. The outermost sphere or “first heaven” is the sphere of fixed stars, followed by Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury, and finally, the Moon. At the center of these concentric circles is the realm of sublunary, which accommodates the material world. Each of these circles represents a secondary intellectual domain (symbolized by celestial bodies themselves) that acts as a causal mediator between the first cause (in this case, God) and the material world. It is also said that they derive their formal and effective causality from God.
The process of creation (metaphysically, not temporally) begins with the first cause, which engages primarily in self-reflection. And this intellectual activity is the foundation of its role in the creation of existence. The first cause, by contemplating itself, “overflows” and a non-corporeal entity, the second intellect, “emerges” from it. The second intellect also contemplates itself, and in this way, it brings its own celestial sphere (in this case, the sphere of fixed stars) into existence. However, in addition to this, it must also contemplate the first cause, which leads to the “emergence” of the next intellect. The cascade of emergence continues until the tenth intellect, which is below the material world. And since each intellect must consider both itself and an increasing number of predecessors, each subsequent level of existence becomes more and more complex. This process is based on necessity, not will. In other words, God has no choice but to create the world through His existence.
This view also implies the eternity of the world, and Ghazali criticized both of these aspects in his attack on the philosophers.
In his discussion of the first cause (or God), Al-Farabi heavily relies on negative theology. He says that it cannot be defined through intellectual tools such as division or dialectical definition, because the terms used in these processes actually constitute its essence. Therefore, if we want to define the first cause, each of the terms used actually constitutes a part of its essence and, as a result, behaves as the cause of its existence. Since the first cause is non-causal, it is impossible to exist without a cause.
In the same vein, it is said that it cannot be classified based on its genus and distinguishing characteristics, as its essence and existence are distinct from others, and therefore, it does not belong to any class. If such was the case, it would not be the first cause, since something would have preceded its existence, which is impossible.
This shows that the simpler something is from a philosophical perspective, the more complete it is. Based on these observations, Raisman says that the entire hierarchy of Farabi’s cosmology can be observed based on classification by genus and species. Each subsequent level in this structure has its own fundamental attributes of abundance and deficiency, and this complexity is increasing, which is exemplified by the material world.
Epistemology and eschatology: In Farabi’s view, humans are unique in their perception because they exist between two worlds: the “supernal” and non-material world of celestial intellects and worldly rationalities, and the “inferior” material world of generation and decay. They live in a physical body and therefore belong to the “inferior” world, but they also possess a rational capacity that connects them to the “higher” realm.
Each level of existence in Farabi’s cosmology is determined by movement towards perfection, which is the transformation into the first cause, i.e., the complete intellect. Therefore, human perfection (or “happiness”) is equivalent to continuous contemplation and reflection.
Farabi divides the intellect into four categories: potential, actual, acquired, and agent. The first three are different states of the human intellect, and the fourth is the tenth intellect (moon) in his cosmology of origin.
Potential intellect signifies the capacity for thinking that is common among all humans, and actual intellect is the intellect that is engaged in the act of thinking. Farabi considers thinking to mean the abstraction of worldly rationalities from the sensory forms of objects that are perceived and retained in an individual’s imagination.
This movement from potential to actual requires the agent intellect to act on the sensory forms that have been retained. Just as the sun illuminates the physical world to allow us to see, the active intellect also illuminates the world of rationalities to allow us to think.
This illumination removes all accidents (such as time, space, and quality) and corporeality from them and transforms them into primary rationalities that follow logical principles such as “the whole is greater than the part.”
Human intellect reaches actuality through its own intellectual act and gradually becomes one with these rationalities by understanding them (just as, according to Aristotle, the intellect becomes like the object known).
Since the agent intellect knows all rationalities, when the human intellect knows them all, it becomes perfect in its agency and is known as acquired intellect.
While this process may seem mechanical and leaves little room for human choice or will, Raisman says that Farabi is committed to human voluntarism.
This happens when a person, based on the knowledge they have acquired, decides to push themselves towards virtuous or non-virtuous activities and thus decides whether to pursue true happiness or not. By choosing what is ethical and reflecting on what constitutes the nature of ethics, actual intellect can “resemble” the active intellect and thus reach perfection. It is only through this process that the human soul can be carried safely through death and continue in the afterlife.
According to Farabi, the afterlife is not a personal experience that is usually imagined in religious traditions such as Islam and Christianity. Every personal trait or characteristic of the individual soul after death disappears. Only the living intellectual faculty remains (and only if it has reached perfection), which becomes one with other rational souls in the agent intellect and enters the realm of pure intellect.
Henry Corbin compares this eschatology to the Ismaili Neoplatonists, who initiated the next great cycle of the world. However, Deborah Black notes that we are skeptical about whether this developed and matured view belongs to Farabi, as subsequent thinkers such as Ibn Tufayl, Averroes, and Avempas claimed that he rejected this view in his interpretation of Nicomachean Ethics. Ethics, which has been lost among modern specialists.
In dealing with the human soul, Farabi uses the fundamental Aristotelian framework, which he is informed of by the interpretations of later Greek thinkers.
Farabi identifies four faculties that make up the human soul: desire (inclination or aversion to a sensory object), sensory (perception with bodily senses), imagination (a faculty that retains images of sensible objects and then separates and combines them for several purposes), and intellect, which is the faculty of reason.
The last of these is unique to humans and distinguishes them from plants and animals. It is also the only part of the soul that survives after the body’s death. Significantly in this scheme, there are no inner senses, such as a healthy intellect, which will be discussed by later philosophers such as Ibn Sina and Averroes.
Particular attention should be paid to Farabi’s treatment of the faculty of imagination, which is essential for his interpretation of prophethood and prophetic knowledge. In addition to its ability to retain and manipulate rational images of objects, he assigns the function of imitation to the imagination.
By imitation, he means the capacity to represent an object with an image other than its own. In other words, imitation relates “X” to the concept of “X” by associating it with rational attributes that do not describe its appearance.
This extends the ability of imagination to represent beyond rational forms and encompasses desires, emotions, whims, and even non-material or abstract universals, such as when we relate “evil” to “darkness,” for example.
Philosophy of practical ethics and politics was Farabi’s main concern, which he expressed in many of his works. While most of his philosophical works were influenced by Aristotelian thought, his practical philosophy was undoubtedly based on Platonic philosophy. Farabi emphasized in a way similar to Plato’s Republic that philosophy is both a theoretical and practical discipline. He labeled philosophers who do not apply their knowledge in practical affairs as “useless philosophers.” He wrote that an ideal society is a society that strives towards achieving “true happiness” (which can be considered as philosophical enlightenment) and thus, an ideal philosopher should add all necessary arts of eloquence and poetry to convey abstract truths to them. The ordinary people and even oneself have reached enlightenment.
Farabi compared the role of the philosopher in society to that of a physician in relation to the body; the health of the body is influenced by the “balance of humors,” just as the city is determined by the ethical habits of its people. He wrote that the duty of the philosopher is to create a “virtuous” society through the healing of people’s souls, establishing justice, and guiding them towards “true happiness.”
However, Farabi realized that such a society is rare and requires a set of very specific historical conditions to achieve, meaning that very few societies can achieve this goal. He divided those societies that fall short of the ideal “virtuous” society into three categories: the ignorant, the wicked, and the misguided. Communities that are ignorant for any reason have failed to understand the purpose of human existence and have replaced the pursuit of happiness with another (inferior) goal, such as wealth, psychological satisfaction, or power. Farabi refers to them as “weeds” in a virtuous society: those who strive to weaken its progress towards the true human goal. His most well-known Arabic source for political philosophy is his work entitled “The Virtuous City.”
While some consider Farabi a political idealist, whether he really intended to present a political program in his writings is a matter of dispute among scholars. Henry Corbin, who sees Farabi as a Shiite mystic, says that his beliefs should be interpreted as a “prophetic philosophy” rather than a political interpretation.
Other writers, such as Mikhail Yaqubovich, argue that for Farabi, religion (millah) and philosophy (hikmah) make up the same ethical value (i.e. “good conduct”), while its epistemological level is knowledge. But “knowledge” was different.