Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Tarkhan ibn Awzalagh al-Farabi

views updated

Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Tarkhan ibn Awzalagh al-Farabi

c. 870-950

Turkish Philosopher, Mathematician, and Musician

Al-Farabi provided the first comprehensive Arabic classification of the sciences. One of Islam's greatest philosophers, he was widely known as "the Second Master" (Aristotle being the first). His defense of rationality and attempt to reconcile the philosophies of Plato (c. 427-347 b.c.) and Aristotle (384-322 b.c.) were highly influential in the Islamic world. An accomplished musician, he was also one of the foremost music theorists of the Middle Ages.

Known to the West as Alfarabius, al-Farabi's date of birth is unknown, but it is generally believed to have been around 870. It seems he was born in the village of Wasij in the Farab district of Trasoxiana (modern Turkestan). His father was a military officer in the service of the Samanid emirs. Little is known of al-Farabi's childhood. However, it is likely he studied music at Bukhara before going to Marv (or possibly Harran) to study with the Nestorian Christian Yuhanna ibn Haylan. His studies under Ibn Haylan were continued at Baghdad, where he also studied logic with Abu Bishr Matta ibn Yunus (d. 940) and Arabic grammar with Abu Bakr ibn al-Sarraj (875?-928?). Sometime during his thirties, al-Farabi traveled to Constantinople, where he studied Greek philosophic and scientific works. He eventually returned to Baghdad to lecture and write. Political turmoil forced al-Farabi to leave Baghdad in 942. He remained in Egypt for many years before joining the Hamdanid prince Sayf al-Dawlah in Damascus. He died there a year later in 950.

While not denying the revealed truths of religion, al-Farabi was convinced philosophical truths were the supreme form of wisdom available to man. He felt such truths manifested themselves most clearly in the natural and mathematical sciences of the Greeks. Consequently, he championed the use of reason and sought to establish the preeminence of natural philosophy within the framework of Islamic society.

To this end, al-Farabi elaborated on the hierarchy of knowledge, developing a classification of the sciences. In Kitab al-ibsa al 'Ulum (Catalog of Sciences), he described the nature and scope of the various sciences. He placed philosophy at their head, which he claimed guaranteed the truth of knowledge by virtue of apodictic reasoning. Since al-Farabi was the first great Muslim commentator on Aristotle, it comes as no surprise that his main divisions of the sciences were Aristotelian. Al-Farabi's systematic classification of the sciences was adopted with only minor changes by Ibn al-Haytham (c. 965-1039), al-Ghazali (1058-1111), and Ibn Rushd (1126-1198).

Kitab al-ibsa al-'Ulum provided the medieval West with its first sophisticated system for classifying the sciences. It was first translated into Latin by Dominic Gundissalinus between 1130 and 1150. A later translation, De ortu scientiarum, by Gerard of Cremona (c. 1114-1187) was more widely circulated.

In "Attainment of Happiness," al-Farabi discussed the order in which the sciences should be studied. He had himself studied many branches of science, writing an alchemical treatise and commentaries on Euclid's (330?-260? b.c.) Elements and Ptolemy's (second century a.d.) Almagest. However, most of his specialized writings on natural science were polemical.

Al-Farabi devoted special attention to the mathematical science of music. His masterwork, Kitab al-Musiqa al-kabir (Book of music), was certainly the greatest Islamic discourse of its kind written to that time, and possibly the greatest medieval Arabic treatise on music. In it he discussed musical intervals and their combinations, as well as examined matters of rhythm.

Al-Farabi, following in the footsteps of al-Kindi (801?-866?), defended reason in the interpretation of the Koran. Accordingly, he applied Greek philosophy to Islamic moral and political problems. In Al-Madina al-fadila (The ideal city), he showed the relationship between Plato's ideal community and Islam's divine law and argued happiness could be attained through politics.


About this article

Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Tarkhan ibn Awzalagh al-Farabi

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article