FĀRĀBĪ, AL- . Abū Naṣr Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad ibn Tarkhān ibn Awzalagh al-Fārābī (258–339? ah/870–950? ce) was a Hellenized Muslim-Arabic philosopher (faylasūf), known in the Islamic tradition as the "Second Teacher" (second to Aristotle); in Latin, al-Fārābī was called Avennasar or Alfarabius. His Arabic biographers called him the first great logician; modern scholars have declared him the chief political philosopher of Islam and the founder of Islamic Neoplatonism. More than one hundred works are attributed to him, not all of which have survived.
While the details of his life are unclear, with the historical accuracy of many later biographical accounts suspect, the following reconstruction has a reasonable degree of certainty. Al-Fārābī was of Turkish origin, born in Fārāb in Transoxiana; he studied logic in Abbasid Baghdad under Nestorian Christian scholars Yuḥannā ibn Ḥaylān (d. 910) and the prominent translator of Aristotle into Arabic, Abū Bishr Mattā (d. 940); his most famous student, too, was a Christian, the Jacobite Yaḥyā ibn ʿAdī (d. 974), another important translator and logician. After having crossed the age of seventy, he left for Syria and attached himself to the court of the Shīʿī ruler, the Hamdanid Sayf al-Dawla; his writings do show some Shīʿī leanings. After having traveled to Aleppo and Egypt, he finally returned to Damascus, where he died.
There seem to be good reasons why al-Fārābī enjoyed the prestigious stature of the "Second Teacher" after Aristotle, for in the history of Hellenized philosophy in Islam, he is the first system-builder and one with a heightened sense of curricular organization and rigor. Thus the various elements of his philosophical discourses constitute a coherent body of thought in which every identifiable proper part seems to be related to every other. This monumental synthesis was carried out in an Aristotelian manner but supplemented, modified, and controlled by a peculiar brand of Platonism, Neoplatonism, and Islamism. One of his celebrated works, Iḥsāʾ al-ʿUlūm (Enumeration of the sciences), that was also known to medieval Europe in its Latin translation, contains a comprehensive didactic account of the hierarchical relationship he saw between different kinds of sciences—rational, linguistic, theological, and juridical—and their subdivisions, establishing the precise order in which they should be studied.
It is a testimony to the integrative power of al-Fārābī's system that in his works different branches of philosophy begin to display inherent interconnections that are both unexpected and, to a good degree, original in their construction. For example, his theory of prophecy, revelation, and religion is inextricably linked to and makes sense only in the fuller context of his logic and philosophy of language on the one hand, and epistemology and metaphysics on the other, and all of this is related to his psychology and philosophy of mind. But then, quite unexpectedly, his discourses on metaphysics are largely to be found not in isolated treatises on this subject, but in his political writings, in particular al-Madīna al-Fāḍila (The virtuous city) and al-Siyāsa al-Madaniyya (Civil polity). Likewise, he hardly dedicates separated treatises to psychology and philosophy of mind; his discussions on these disciplines are again to be found in his political works. Does it mean that political writings form the core of al-Fārābī's system? The answer to this question cannot be straightforward.
The complexity arises because al-Fārābī's system has multiple cores at once, each core having been worked with equally uncompromising forensic diligence. Logic forms one of these cores, where he surpassed Syriac logicians by going beyond the traditionally limited number of Aristotle's specific logical works they read and commented upon, and pioneering the study of the entire range of Aristotle's logical treatises, a corpus known as the Organon, as well as Rhetorics and Poetics. This is a major event in the history of philosophy. Apart from his epitomes of and commentaries on Aristotle's individual logical texts, al-Fārābī also wrote his own Kitāb al-Ḥurūf (Book of letters) and Kitāb al-Alfaẓ al-Mustaʿmala fiʾl-Manṭiq (Book of utterances employed in logic), both of which concern logic and its relationship with language. Given this, these two books can also be considered discourses in linguistic philosophy. Here it would seem that al-Fārābī is trying to reduce all else in his philosophical universe to logical-linguistic problems. And it is this reductionism that makes logic one of the core components of his system.
But on both historical and philosophical grounds, al-Fārābī's discourses on prophecy and religion can legitimately be considered yet another core of his system. For if all true philosophers bear the onus of communicating their philosophy to the masses, as al-Fārābī believes, following Plato; and if attainment of happiness through the establishment of a just civil society is the very aim of philosophy, and—speaking metaphysically and psychology as he does in his Taḥsīl al-Saʿāda (Attainment of happiness)—human happiness ultimately consists in the soul's assimilation with the "agent intellect" (al-ʿaql al-faʿʿal), being the supreme and the last in the hierarchy of four intellects that he posits in a Neoplatonic vein; then by virtue of his own doctrine, the ideal philosopher and the true prophet receiving revelation become practically identical. Indeed in the Taḥsīl al-Fārābī does argue for the real and conceptual identity of the philosopher and the lawgiver (that is, the prophet), and so writing about philosophy and reason—which was al-Fārābī's fundamental trade—was effectively writing about prophecy and religion.
While neither consistent nor neat on this issue, al-Fārābī says repeatedly that true prophet is an ideal philosopher—for true prophecy, like the religion that it generates, is the symbolization and imitation of those very truths that are known demonstratively and discursively to the philosopher. This symbolization of philosophical truths is accomplished by the prophet through his supremely keen imaginative faculty that has muḥākāh (mimesis) as one of its functions. By means of muḥākāh, the prophet is able to represent objects with the images of other objects and to depict even immaterial realities. In this way philosophical truths, imaginatively symbolized, are communicated to the members of the general public who thereby receive abstract intelligibles from the prophet in a concrete form that they are able to grasp non-philosophically.
Historically too, al-Fārābī's concern with prophecy and religion can be considered a core of his system, with every other element of his thought appearing to be anchored in this concern and reduced to it. For it would seem that he was engaged fundamentally in addressing what happened to be a historical contingency—namely, Islam's encounter with Hellenism. The phenomenon of Islamic religion had become too massive to be ignored by him; he took it seriously and took it upon himself to give it an all-embracing philosophical respectability, while at the same time creating a niche for Hellenistic rational philosophy in an Arabic-Islamic milieu. Indeed, it is al-Fārābī who established the classical tradition of Arabic philosophers' attitude to revelation. It has been observed that his interest in types of rationality, modes of discourse, hierarchy of intellects, imagination, poetics, and the relations between ordinary and philosophical language all reflect that very core concern with revelation.
And yet it is possible to identify many other cores in al-Fārābī's philosophical world, and this only shows the richness, range, intricacy, and coherence of the system he built and the intellectual control that guided this grand task.
Though highly simplified, Majid Fakhry's monograph, Al-Fārābī, Founder of Islamic Neoplatonism (Oxford, 2002), is a good single-volume introduction to different aspects of the philosopher's system. It also has a useful updated bibliography which lists all modern editions of al-Fārābī's texts as well as translations of his texts into modern European languages; also specified are Arabic sources and a selection of secondary works. Ian Netton's Al-Fārābī and His School (London, 1992) is a crisply written general work which clarifies many hitherto obscure areas of al-Fārābī's thought.
For al-Fārābī's contributions to the formal aspects of logic, F. W. Zimmerman's introduction in his translations of Al-Fārābī's Commentary and Short Treatise on Aristotle's De Interpretatione (London, 1981) is still the most rigorous piece of work in this field, learned and reliable. Readers with specialized interests should also look at the studies of Charles Butterworth, D. M. Dunlop, and Muhsin Mahdi. But for the non-expert, Deborah Black's chapter on al-Fārābī in Routledge History of Islamic Philosophy, edited by Seyyed H. Nasr and Oliver Leaman (London, 1996) is another readable, solid, brief but comprehensive survey.
S. Nomanul Haq (2005)