Fārābī, Abū Naṣr Muḥammad, Al-°

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FĀRĀBĪ, ABŪ NAṢR MUḤAMMAD, AL- ° (c. 870–c. 950), one of the greatest philosophers of the medieval Islamic world. Al-Fārābī had considerable influence on Jewish philosophers, particularly *Maimonides. Having spent most of his life in *Baghdad, he became associated in 942 with the illustrious court of Sayf al-Dawla, the Ḥamdānid ruler of Syria, residing mainly in *Aleppo.

Al-Fārābī played a major role in the dissemination of ancient philosophy in the Islamic world. His teacher was the Nestorian Yuḥannā ibn Ḥaylān (see M. Meyerhof, Von Alexandrien nach Bagdad (1930), 405, 414, 416ff.). He was thus familiar with the Christian tradition of Aristotelian studies initially cultivated in *Alexandria and transmitted by Syriac-speaking Christians to the Islamic world. While in Baghdad, al-Fārābī apparently had contacts with the Christian Baghdad school of Aristotelian studies, the leading member of which was Mattā ibn Yūnus. Aristotle was studied together with his commentators, *Alexander of Aphrodisias and *Themistius, as well as with commentators of the neoplatonic school of Alexandria (Ammonius son of Hermias and his pupils). The paramount philosophical task al-Fārābī faced was to naturalize the pagan philosophic tradition of antiquity within the confines of a society structured by a revealed law.

His Philosophy

The bulk of al-Fārābī's teaching and writing was devoted to interpreting Aristotle, particularly the logical works. He wrote commentaries and paraphrases on the entire Organon. In natural philosophy he followed the Physics closely. His metaphysics is a blend of the Metaphysics and neoplatonism. Creation is viewed by him as an atemporal process of emanation which flows from the unique, unqualified First Being. Al-Fārābī combines the neoplatonic theory of emanation with the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic *cosmology which posits a system of celestial spheres and their intelligences encompassing the sublunar world. The intelligence of the last sphere (the moon) presides over the sublunar world and is called the active *intellect. Al-Fārābī thus follows that interpretation of the nous poietikós ("active intellect"; De anima, 3), which regards it as a cosmic entity. The active intellect is "the Giver of Forms" (wāhib alṣuwar; dator formarum): it conveys forms to the world, thus constituting the rational structure of the universe. It also actualizes the potential intellect of the individual. Al-Fārābī's theory of intellection is complicated and his various discussions of the subject, mainly in the treatises "On the Intellect" and Arāʾ Ahl al-Madīna al-Fāḍila ("The Opinion of the Citizens of the Virtuous City," ed. by A. Nader, 1959) are not entirely consistent. The individual potential (or material) intellect, influenced by the active intellect, becomes the intellect in act. When it achieves perfection, it becomes what is termed the acquired intellect, which is said to be close to the active intellect. The one who achieves this perfection thereby becomes intelligizer (ʿāqil), intelligized (maʿqūl), and intellect (ʿaql), free from matter, and "divine" (see al-Siyāsa al-Madaniyya ("The Political Regime," ed. by F. Najjar (1964), 36). In "The Virtuous City" (p. 31), this threefold identity is posited of God.

Al-Fārābī equates intellectual perfection with supreme happiness. The individual who achieves this perfection and happiness is considered to be the philosopher or sage. If such a person has the additional quality of a perfect imagination, so that intelligible forms flow from the intellect to the imagination becoming embodied in sensible forms, he is more thana sage: he is a *prophet. The process by which the forms flow from the First Being through the active intellect to the particular intellect and then the imagination is called "revelation" (wahī). To become a statesman, in addition to being a prophet, he needs also the power of persuasion in order to lead men to the correct actions that bring happiness ("The Virtuous City," 104). The prophet is thus essentially a philosopher, one who is capable of conveying philosophical truth (theoretical and practical) to the unreflective masses on the level of the imagination, in myths and symbols. The philosopher, lawgiver (i.e., prophet), and imām (head of the community) are ideally one and the same person (Taḥṣīl al-Saʿāda, "The Attainment of Happiness," tr. by M. Mahdi, in Alfarabi's Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle (1962), paras. 57, 58). Religion is thus "an imitation of philosophy" (ibid., para. 55). This concept of prophecy is traced by R. Walzer to certain ideas in middle Platonism (Greek into Arabic (1962), 206ff.). The identity of the philosopher and ruler is, of course, rooted ultimately in Plato's concept of the philosopher-king in the Republic.

Political Theory

Al-Fārābī's political theory depends mainly on Plato, principally on the Republic and Laws. The Republic inspired his typology of the corrupt and perfect political regimes in "The Virtuous City" and "The Political Regime." The elaboration of a theory concerning the perfect city, the perfect nation, and the perfect world state in the whole of the inhabited world (maʿmūra; oikoumene) is traced by Walzer to middle Platonic developments (see Oriens, 16 (1963), 46ff.). Plato's Laws was of crucial importance for al-Fārābī (and Islamic philosophy in general), for it envisioned a society based on a single divine law comprehending both religious and civil aspects of life (see L. Strauss, in rej, 100 (1936), 2). Aristotle's dictum, "man is by nature a political animal," played an important role in al-Fārābī's political theory, but he apparently did not utilize the Politics to an appreciable extent. Al-Fārābī's choice of Plato's political philosophy had a determining effect upon the later development of Islamic, as well as Jewish philosophy. In ethical theory Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics was of decisive influence (along with Porphyry's now lost commentary).

Al-Fārābī's political theory thus posits a fundamental distinction in society between the elite (the sages who know by reason) and the masses (the believers who apprehend by imagination). Philosophical truth is universal. It is adapted by the prophets to the requirements of various groups and nations in the guise of religion. There are many religions; each is an approximation (of greater or lesser validity) of the single truth of reason (see, e.g., "The Political Regime," 85ff.). While giving priority to philosophy, al-Fārābī recognized the role of religion in human life as an instrument for the welfare of society and the edification of the unphilosophical masses. He was interested in preserving the masses from the possible pernicious effects of the truths of reason. Consequently, he wrote esoterically so as not to disturb unreflective commitment to religion and morality, as well as to evade persecution by religious and state authorities (L. Strauss, in Louis Ginzberg Jubilee Volume, 1 (1945), 357ff.).

Influence on Jewish Thought

Al-Fārābī's impact on medieval Jewish thought was considerable. In Hebrew texts he is called either by his Arabic name (Abū Naṣr or al-Fārābī) or by the Hebrew equivalent of the former (Abū Yeshaʿ). Abū Bakr is sometimes erroneously substituted for Abū Naṣr.

Strauss (loc. cit.) first demonstrated the dominating influence of al-Fārābī's political philosophy on *Maimonides. Maimonides' esteem for al-Fārābī, which no doubt encouraged the acceptance of the latter within Jewish philosophical circles, is clear from a letter he wrote to Samuel ibn Tibbon (see jqr, 25 (1934/35), 379). Maimonides recommended exclusively al-Fārābī's works on logic and praised all his writings, especially "The Book of Principles" ("The Political Regime"), as impeccably excellent and worthy of study, adding, "for he is a great man." In the introduction to his translation of The Guide of the Perplexed (1963), S. Pines states that in theoretical and political science Maimonides followed al-Fārābī on all points (p. lxxviii). The main lines of influence are traced by Pines: Maimonides' esoteric style and the tendency to embed "outrageously unorthodox statements" in a cryptic, veiled context are fashioned according to the model of al-Fārābī (see also Strauss, in Essays on Maimonides, ed. by S.W. Baron (1941), 37ff.). Maimonides was also influenced by al-Fārābī's negative assessment of the Kalām, as well as his treatment of such crucial issues as creation, intellection, prophecy, and providence.

Extensive quotations in Maimonides' Shemonah Perakim are taken from al-Fārābī's Fusūl al-Madanī (Aphorisms of the Statesman, ed. and tr. by D.M. Dunlop, 1961), as was shown by H. Davidson (in paajr, 31 (1963), 33–50). Al-Fārābī's influence may also be discerned in Maimonides' code of Jewish law. A passage in Mishneh Torah (Deʿot, 6:1), to the effect that one who lives in an evil city should immigrate to a place where the people are righteous or, if this is impossible, live in isolation, seems to reflect a similar statement in al-Fārābī's Aphorisms of the Statesman (para. 88). The comparison of those who are physically infirm, and whose sense of taste is consequently impaired, with those who are psychologically infirm and morally corrupt (Deʿot, 2:1) is virtually a verbatim translation of a similar comparison by al-Fārābī in "The Political Regime" (p. 83). It is possible that al-Fārābī's specification and ordering of the ideas that should be taught in the virtuous religious community (al-milla al-fāḍila) influenced the choice of subjects treated and their sequence in Mishneh Torah (Yesodei ha-Torah; cf. Kitāb al-Milla, "The Book of Religion," ed. by M. Mahdi (1968), 44ff.).

Hebrew Translations

Many of al-Fārābī's works were translated into Hebrew. M. Steinschneider (Uebersetzungen, para. 158) lists eight. The microfilm collection of the Institute of Hebrew Manuscripts at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem contains about 25 works, including some interesting logical works not mentioned by Steinschneider. A partial translation of the tripartite work that comprises "The Attainment of Happiness," "The Philosophy of Plato," and "The Philosophy of Aristotle," together with the music part of Iḥṣāʾ al- ʿUlūm ("The Register of the Sciences"), is contained in Shem Tov ibn *Falaquera's Reshit Ḥokhmah (see M. Steinschneider, Al-Farabi (1896), 176ff., 224ff.; Strauss, in mgwj, 80 (1936), 96ff.). "The Political Regime" was translated in part under the title Sefer ha-Hathalot (ed. by Z. Filipowski in Sefer ha-Asif, 1849). Falaquera often cites al-Fārābī in his commentary on the Guide, Moreh ha-Moreh. According to S.O. Heller-Wilensky, Isaac ibn *Latīf quotes two whole chapters of "The Virtuous City" in his Shaʿar ha-Shamayim (in Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies, ed. by A. Alt-mann (1967), 196).

[Joel Kraemer]

As Musician

Al-Fārābī was one of the outstanding theorists of Arabic music and several Arabic sources extol his musical talent and his excellence as an 'ūd player. He wrote several treatises on music of which the most famous are Kitāb al-Mūsīqī al-Kabīr ("The Grand Book of Music") and Iḥṣā' al- ʿUlūm ("The Classification of the Sciences") in which he enumerates all the known sciences and defines their nature and object; part of the third chapter deals with the science of music. This work became known in Medieval Europe through its several Latin translations (see H.G. Farmer, Arabic-Latin Writings on Music, 1934) and was translated into Hebrew by Kalonymus b. Kalonymus of Arles in 1314 under the title: Ma'amar be-Mispar ha-Ḥokhmot (see A. Shiloah, Yuval, 2 (1971), 115–27). Among Jewish writers who used the section on music in their works are Shem Tov ibn *Falaquera in his Reshit Hokhma and Joseph ibn *Aknin in chapter vii of his Ṭibb al-Nufūs. The section on music as well as several passages compiled in the "Grand Book of Music" is included in the Hebrew version of Ibn Salt's treatise on music and occurs in a Genizah fragment (British Museum, Ms. Or.5565c).

[Amnon Shiloah (2nd ed.)]


Brockelmann, Arab Lit., 1 (1943), 232ff.; supplement, 1 (1937), 375ff., 957ff.; N. Rescher, Al Farabi. An Annotated Bibliography (1962); R. Walzer, in: eis2s.v.al-Farabi; H.G. Farmer, Al-Fārabī's Arabic Latin Writings on Music (19602), 3–16; H. Avenary, in Tatzlil, 3 (1963), 163.