During the tenth-century, philosopher, scholar, and alchemist Al-Farabi (c. 870-c. 950) popularized the philosophical systems of Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato. He integrated their views into his Islam-based metaphysical, psychological, and political theories. Al-Farabi was among the first philosophical theologians of the Islamic faith.
Historians classify Al-Farabi as a member of the eastern group of Moslem philosophers who were influenced by the Arabic translations of Greek philosophers by Nestorian Christians in Syria and Baghdad. During his life, he placed a heavy emphasis on logic and believed that each human individual possesses the ability to discern between good and evil, which he considered the basis for all morality. He is credited by historians for preserving the works of Aristotle that otherwise might have been forgotten and subsequently destroyed during the Dark Ages. He earned the nickname Mallim-e-Sani, which often is translated as "second master" or "second teacher" after Aristotle, who was considered the first master.
By 832, Baghdad contained a group of translators dedicated to converting Greek texts by Plato, Aristotle, Themistius, Porphyry, and Ammonius into Arabic. These efforts resulted in the progenitors of Islamic philosophy adopting a Neo-platonic approach to religious thought, of whom Al-Farabi is considered the first. Influenced by Islamic Sufism and his reading of Plato, Al-Farabi also explored mysticism and metaphysics and placed contemplation above action. In his interpretations of Islamic religious suppositions based upon his readings of Plato and Aristotle, Al-Farabi attempted to provide rational explications of such metaphysical concepts as prophecy, heaven, predestination, and God. Al-Farabi also believed that prophets developed their gift by adhering to a rigidly moral lifestyle, rather than simply being born with divine inspiration. In addition to his philosophical theology, Al-Farabi is considered a preeminent musical theorist. Among his works on musical theory are Kitab Mausiqi al-Kabir (Grand Book of Music), Styles in Music, and On the Classification of Rhythms in which he identified and provided detailed descriptions of musical instruments and discussed acoustics. Among the many works attributed to him, including such scientific examinations as The Classification of the Sciences and The Origin of Sciences, Al-Farabi also wrote respected works on mathematics, political science, astronomy, and sociology.
Al-Farabi was born in Faral in Asia Minor, in what is known now as Othrar, Turkistan. His father is reported to have been either a Turkistan general or a bodyguard for the Turkish Caliph, and Al-Farabi's parents raised him in the mystical Sufi tradition of Islam. He was schooled in the towns of Farab and Bukhara, before continuing his studies of Greek philosophy in Hanan and Baghdad. He spoke seventy languages and traveled widely throughout the Arabian kingdoms of Persia, Egypt, and Asia Minor. Al-Farabi studied with the Nestorian Christian physician Yuhanna ibn-Haylan, a noted logician, and Abu-Bishr Matta ibn-Yunus, a Christian scholar of Aristotle.
Al-Farabi relied on the writings of Aristotle and Plato in what is considered to be his major work of political science and religion, On the Principles of the Views of the Inhabitants of the Excellent State, also titled The Ideal City. In this work, he borrows freely from Plato's Republic and Laws to construct a treatise on his idea of a utopian society. In such a society, Al-Farabi reasoned that a political system could be made to adhere to Islamic beliefs through the combined study of philosophy, hard sciences, mathematics, and religion. Such a political theology would result in an ordered society that recognizes the need for community and a hierarchal structure that revolves around the received knowledge of divine law by the community's prophets and lawgivers. Divided into three sections, The Ideal City begins with a section on metaphysics, in which he elaborated upon his concepts of philosophy and religion. The second section is a discussion of psychology, and, in the third section, Al-Farabi presented his views on the qualities he believed identify the perfectly governed and populated state.
Al-Farabi divided his studies into two distinct categories, which he labeled physics and metaphysics. Physics applied to the physical sciences and phenomenology, and metaphysics applied to ethics, philosophy, and theology. Al-Farabi also divided the study of logic into two categories, which he labeled imagination and proof. He believed religious faith was an example of the former and that philosophy represented the latter. Al-Farabi ultimately believed that philosophy was purer than religion because philosophy represented the study of verifiable truths by an intellectual elite. The truths that have been identified by the philosophers are subsequently converted into religious symbols that can be easily interpreted by the imaginations of the general populous. Al-Farabi explained that a religion's validity lay in its ability to accurately convey philosophical concepts into readily identifiable religious symbolism. He further noted that each culture employed its own symbols to interpret the same philosophical truths. Although he believed that philosophy was superior over religion, he also contended that religion was necessary in order to make philosophical concepts understandable to the uneducated.
Al-Farabi inverted previous theological methodology by insisting on the study of philosophy before attempting religious understanding, whereas philosophers previously had developed philosophical systems to support preexisting religious dogma. Applying Aristotelian notions of logic to the Muslim faith, Al-Farabi concerned himself with such theological issues as proving the existence of God; God's omnipotence and infinite capacity for justice in meting out punishment or rewards in the afterlife; and the responsibilities of the individual in a moral and social context. Al-Farabi believed that a thorough grounding in logic was a necessary introduction for the continued study of philosophy, and he was instrumental in separating the study of philosophy as an inherently theological enterprise. Employing Aristotle's notion that a passive force moves everything in the world, Al-Farabi concluded that the First Movement emanates from a primary source, God, which aligns Greek philosophy with the Islamic belief that God imbues all things with existence. If all existence emanates from God, Al-Farabi argued, then all human intelligence proceeds directly from God in the form of inspiration, illumination, or prophecy as it did when the angel Gabriel imparted cosmic wisdom to the prophet Mohammed.
Predisposed to mysticism through his Sufi upbringing, Al-Farabi also integrated Platonic thought into his cosmology by asserting that the highest goal of humankind should be the attainment of the knowledge of God. If all worldly material emanates from God, Al-Farabi reasoned, then enlightened humans should aspire to a return to God through the study of religious texts and moral acts. Al-Farabi's writings since have influenced a wide range of subsequent religious, philosophical, and sociological thought. The Moslem philosopher Avicenna (980-1037) credits Al-Farabi's analysis of Aristotle's Metaphysics with his own understanding. Avicenna claimed he had read the Greek philosopher's work forty times but was unable to comprehend the work's meaning until he read Al-Farabi's explication. By asserting the metaphysical concept that a higher being contributes knowledge to the intellectual pursuits of humankind, Al-Farabi anticipated Henri Bergson's theory of philosophical intuition. Al-Farabi's theory that individuals make the conscious decision to group together according to their beliefs and needs anticipated the social contract of Henri Rousseau. In his History of Philosophy, Frederick Copleston noted that Al-Farabi's concept of God as the First Mover of all physical essence has been appropriated also by the Jewish philosopher Maimonides and such Roman Catholics writers as St. Thomas Aquinas and Dante Alighieri. Al-Farabi believed that the distinction between essence and existence proved that existence is an accidental byproduct of essence. His adherence to philosophical rationalism has been detected also in the works of Immanuel Kant.
Al-Farabi is also considered by many historians and critics to be the most important musical theorist of the Muslim world. He claimed to have written Kitab Musiqi al-Kabir (Grand Book of Music) to dispel what he felt was the erroneous assumptions of Pythagoras's music of the spheres. Instead, Al-Farabi asserted that sound emanates from atmospheric vibrations. Other works of music theory include Styles in Music. Several of his scientific works, including The Classification of the Sciences and The Origin of the Sciences, contain essays focused on the physical and physiological principles of sound, including harmonics and acoustical vibrations. He is credited also for inventing the musical instruments rabab and quanun.
Later in life, during a pilgrimage to Mecca, Al-Farabi arrived at Aleppo, in modern-day Syria, where he encountered the country's ruler, Saifuddawlah. When Saifuddawlah offered him a seat, Al-Farabi broke Aleppo custom by taking Saifuddawlah's seat. Speaking in an obscure dialect, Saifuddawlah told his servant that Al-Farabi should be dealt with severely. Speaking in the same dialect, Al-Farabi responded, "Sire, he who acts hastily, in haste repents." Impressed with Al-Farabi, Saifuddawlah allowed him to speak freely on many subjects. When Al-Farabi finished speaking, the ruler offered him food and drink, which Al-Farabi refused. Instead he played a lute masterfully, reputedly moving his audience from tears to laughter depending on the music. Saifuddawlah invited Al-Farabi to stay at his court, where he remained for the rest of his life. Despite the fact that Saifuddawlah belonged to the Suni sect of Islam, Al-Farabi retained his Sufi affiliation.
Reports on Al-Farabi's death are unclear but often note he died around 950. Some historians believe that Al-Farabi died in Damascus, where he was traveling with Saifuddawlah's court. Others write that he was killed by robbers while searching for the philosopher's stone. The philosopher's stone was a legendary substance sought by alchemists, which was believed to possess the properties to transform base metals into gold or silver. Regardless, he is believed to have written more than one-hundred books on a wide-range of scientific, musical, religious, and philosophical topics during his lifetime. Of these works, only one-fifth are believed to have survived.
Ahmad, K. J., Hundred Great Muslims, Library of Islam, 1987.
Copleston, Frederick, S. J., A History of Philosophy, Volume II: Medieval Philosophy from Augustine to Duns Scotus, Doubleday, 1993.
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Melton, J. Gordon, editor, Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, Fifth Edition, Volume 1, A-L, Gale Group, 2001. □
"Al-Farabi." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/al-farabi
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