Skip to main content

al-Fārābī (c. 873–950)

(c. 873950)

Al-Fārābī, more fully Abū-Nasr Muhammad al-Fārābī, known in Latin as Alfarabius or Avennasar, was one of the greatest Muslim philosophers. He was widely known as "the second master," Aristotle being the first, and Ab-Ar-Rahman ibn-Khaldūn rates him above Avicenna and Averroes. He was of Turkish origin, and his name indicates that he came from the district of Fārāb, on the middle Jaxartes River (now Syr Darya).

One of al-Fārābī's teachers was the Nestorian Christian Yuhannā ibn-Haylān, who was noted as a logician; it is uncertain whether al-Fārābī studied with him in Merv (Persia) or Harran (Syria) or Baghdad. His principal teacher was Abū-Bishr Mattā ibn-Yūnus, the most prominent member of the school of Christian Aristotelians in Baghdad. Here al-Fārābī studied not merely the various branches of philosophy, but also physics, mathematics, astronomy, and music, even becoming a skilled musical performer. He spent the last few years of his life at the court of the ruler Sayf-ad-Dawla at Aleppo. He did not seem to have had any regular occupation by which to earn a livelihood and lived frugally, even ascetically, often in solitude.

Al-Fārābī's philosophy is based on the teachings of Plato and Aristotle as they were interpreted in the school of Baghdad in the tenth century. Like all writers in Arabic he assumed there were no essential differences between the two, but he preferred the metaphysics of Aristotle, as interpreted by Neoplatonists. Plato, however, he regarded as superior in practical matters, and he wrote commentaries on the Republic and the Laws. What is often regarded as his major work is reminiscent of these books; it has the clumsy title "On the Principles of the Views of the Inhabitants of the Excellent State," often shortened in practice to "Der Musterstaat," or "The Ideal City" (al-madīna al-fadila ). The first third of this work sets out al-Fārābī's metaphysical system, the second third his psychology (largely Aristotelian), and the concluding third his views on the ideal state and various imperfect states.

To those familiar with the intellectual environment in which al-Fārābī lived, it is immediately apparent that he wrote in such a way as to commend his views to as many different groups of people as possible. It has been alleged that he supported the Shiʿite sect of Islam, and certainly his last patron Sayf-ad-Dawla was a Shiʿite; features of his "ideal city," such as the dependence of all on the head, resemble Shiʿite conceptions. Yet it is also clear that he wrote in such a way as not to offend the Sunnite majority; for example, by avoiding such a technical Shiʿite term as imam. Indeed, his view of the relation of philosophy and religion led him to attach positive value to the religions, although he regarded them as inferior to philosophy. Philosophy was the supreme exercise of human reason and therefore the primary requirement of an ideal city. By it, humanity came to know the one ultimate truth about the universe. To this ultimate philosophical truth the symbolic representations of it found in the several religions stand in varying degrees of proximity and remoteness. Al-Fārābī paid particular attention, of course, to the forms of the main Islamic states of his time and developed his conception of the ideal city in such a way that the actual states he knew were within measurable distance of the ideal.

His metaphysics, similarly, resembles that implicit in the Qurʾan (Koran) and Islamic theology. God is the One or the First from whom all existence proceeds; and in this sense he accepts the Islamic doctrine that God is the creator of the world, although he also holds the heretical view that the world is eternal. In the relation of existent things to God there is a hierarchical order. Similarly in the ideal city there is a head (raʾīs ) who is the source of all authority and who assigns men to their appropriate grades. This head is also described as commanding but not obeying; all the intermediate grades obey those above and command those below, and the lowest grade only obeys.

Interest has been shown, especially in recent times, in al-Fārābī's theory of prophecy; that is, in particular, how it was possible for Muhammad to receive the Qurʾan from God. Philosophic knowledge, the highest of all, he regarded as coming to the passive intellect of the philosopher from the Active Intellect, an existent below God in rank. Prophetic revelations also come from the Active Intellect but are received by the imagination of the prophet. In this al-Fārābī was able to accept the Qurʾan as coming from God and yet to place philosophy above it.

See also Aristotle; Averroes; Avicenna; Islamic Philosophy; Kant, Immanuel; Plato.


works by al-fĀrĀbĪ

The "Ideal City" has been translated as Der Musterstaat von al-Fārābī by Friedrich Dieterici (Leiden: Brill, 1900) and as Idées des habitants de la cité vertueuse by R. P. Jaussen, Youssef Karam, and J. Chlala (Cairo, 1949). A critical edition of the Arabic text and an English translation by Richard Walzer is in preparation.

See also Al-Fārābī's Short Commentary on Aristotle's Prior Analytics, translated by Nicholas Rescher (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1963); Al-Fārābī's philosophische Abhandlungen, short essays translated by Friedrich Dieterici (Leiden, 1892); and The Fusul al-Madani: Aphorisms of the Statesman of al-Fārābī, with an English translation, introduction, and notes by D. M. Dunlop, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961).

works on al-fĀrĀbĪ

De Boer, Tjitze J. The History of Philosophy in Islam. London: Luzac & Co., 1903. See especially pp. 106128.

Rescher, Nicholas. Al-Fārābī: An Annotated Bibliography. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962.

Rescher, Nicholas. Studies in the History of Arabic Logic. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964.

Quadri, G. La philosophie arabe dans l'Europe médiévale. Paris: Payot, 1947. See especially pp. 7194.

Walzer, Richard. Greek into Arabic. Oxford: B. Cassirer, 1962. See especially pp. 1823, 206219.

W. Montgomery Watt (1967)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"al-Fārābī (c. 873–950)." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . 22 May. 2019 <>.

"al-Fārābī (c. 873–950)." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . (May 22, 2019).

"al-Fārābī (c. 873–950)." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Retrieved May 22, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.