al-Farabi, Abu Nasr (c.870-950)

Al-Farabi was known to the Arabs as the 'Second Master' (after Aristotle), and with good reason. It is unfortunate that his name has been overshadowed by those of later philosophers such as Ibn Sina, for al-Farabi was one of the world's great philosophers and much more original than many of his Islamic successors. A philosopher, logician and musician, he was also a major political scientist.

Al-Farabi has left us no autobiography and consequently, relatively little is known for certain about his life. His philosophical legacy, however, is large. In the arena of metaphysics he has been designated the 'Father of Islamic Neoplatonism', and while he was also saturated with Aristotelianism and certainly deploys the vocabulary of Aristotle, it is this Neoplatonic dimension which dominates much of his corpus. This is apparent in his most famous work, al-Madina al-fadila (The Virtuous City) which, far from being a copy or a clone of Plato's Republic, is imbued with the Neoplatonic concept of God. Of course, al-Madina al-fadila has undeniable Platonic elements but its theology, as opposed to its politics, places it outside the mainstream of pure Platonism.

In his admittedly complex theories of epistemology, al-Farabi has both an Aristotelian and Neoplatonic dimension, neither of which is totally integrated with the other. His influence was wide and extended not only to major Islamic philosophers such as Ibn Sina who came after him, and to lesser mortals such as Yahya ibn 'Adi, al-Sijistani, al-'Amiri and al-Tawhidi, but also to major thinkers of Christian medieval Europe including Thomas Aquinas.

  1. Life and works
  2. Metaphysics
  3. Epistemology
  4. Political philosophy
  5. Influence

1. Life and works

Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Tarkhan ibn Awzalagh al-Farabi was born in approximately ah 257/ad 870. He may rightly be acclaimed as one of the greatest of Islamic philosophers of all time. While his name tends to be overshadowed by that of Ibn Sina, it is worth bearing in mind that the latter was less original than the former. Indeed, a well-known story tells how Ibn Sina sought in vain to understand Aristotle's Metaphysics, and it was only through a book by al-Farabi on the intentions of the Metaphysics that understanding finally came to him. However, unlike Ibn Sina, al-Farabi has left us no autobiography and we know far less about his life in consequence. Considerable myth has become attached to the man: it is unlikely, for example, that he really spoke more than seventy languages, and we may also query his alleged ascetic lifestyle. We do know that he was born in Turkestan and later studied Arabic in Baghdad; it has been claimed that most of his books were written here. He travelled to Damascus, Egypt, Harran and Aleppo, and in the latter city the Hamdanid ruler Sayf al-Dawla became his patron. Even the circumstances of his death are not clear: some accounts portray him dying naturally in Damascus while at least one holds that he was mugged and killed on the road from Damascus to Ascalon.

Al-Farabi became an expert in philosophy and logic, and also in music: one of his works is entitled Kitab al-musiqa al-kabir (The Great Book of Music). However, perhaps the book for which he is best known is that whose title is abbreviated to al-Madina al-fadila (The Virtuous City), and which is often compared, misleadingly in view of its Neoplatonic orientation, to Plato's Republic. Other major titles from al-Farabi's voluminous corpus included the Risala fi'l-'aql (Epistle on the Intellect), Kitab al-huruf (The Book of Letters) and Kitab ihsa' al-'ulum (The Book of the Enumeration of the Sciences).

2. Metaphysics

Majid Fakhry (1983) has described al-Farabi as 'the founder of Arab Neo-Platonism and the first major figure in the history of that philosophical movement since Proclus'. This should be borne in mind as we survey the metaphysics of the philosopher whom the Latin Middle Ages knew as Abunaser and whom the Arabs designated the 'Second Master' (after Aristotle). It should be noted that al-Farabi was an Aristotelian as well as a Neoplatonist: he is said, for example, to have read On the Soul two hundred times and even the Physics forty times. It should then come as no surprise that he deploys Aristotelian terminology, and indeed there are areas of his writings that are quite untouched by Neoplatonism. Furthermore, al-Farabi tried to demonstrate the basic agreement between Aristotle and Plato on such matters as the creation of the world, the survival of the soul and reward and punishment in the afterlife. In al-Farabi's conception of God, essence and existence fuse absolutely with no possible separation between the two. However, there is no getting away from the fact that it is the Neoplatonic element which dominates so much else of al-Farabi's work. We see this, for example, in the powerful picture of the transcendent God of Neoplatonism which dominates al-Madina al-fadila. We see this too in al-Farabi's references to God in a negative mode, describing the deity by what he is not: he has no partner, he is indivisible and indefinable. And perhaps we see the Neoplatonic element most of all in the doctrine of emanation as it is deployed in al-Farabi's hierarchy of being.

At the top of this hierarchy is the Divine Being whom al-Farabi characterizes as 'the First'. From this emanates a second being which is the First Intellect. (This is termed, logically, 'the Second', that is, the Second Being). Like God, this being is an immaterial substance. A total of ten intellects emanate from the First Being. The First Intellect comprehends God and, in consequence of that comprehension, produces a third being, which is the Second Intellect. The First Intellect also comprehends its own essence, and the result of this comprehension is the production of the body and soul of al-sama' al-ula, the First Heaven. Each of the following emanated intellects are associated with the generation of similar astral phenomena, including the fixed stars, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury and the Moon. Of particular significance in the emanationist hierarchy is the Tenth Intellect: it is this intellect which constitutes the real bridge between the heavenly and terrestrial worlds. This Tenth Intellect (variously called by the philosophers the active or agent intellect in English, the nous poiétikos in Greek, the dator formarum in Latin and the 'aql al-fa''al in Arabic) was responsible both for actualizing the potentiality for thought in man's intellect and emanating form to man and the sublunary world. With regard to the latter activity, it has been pointed out that here the active intellect takes on the role of Plotinus' Universal Soul (see Plotinus).

In Farabian metaphysics, then, the concept of Neoplatonic emanation replaces that of Qur'anic creation ex nihilo (see Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy §2). Furthermore, the Deity at the top of the Neoplatonic hierarchy is portrayed in a very remote fashion. Al-Farabi's philosophers' God does not act directly on the sublunary world: much is delegated to the Active Intellect. However, God for al-Farabi certainly has an indirect 'responsibility' for everything, in that all things emanate from him. Yet we must also note, in order to present a fully rounded picture, that while it is the Neoplatonic portrait of God which dominates al-Farabi's writings, this is not the only picture. In some of his writings the philosopher does address God traditionally, Qur'anically and Islamically: he does invoke God as 'Lord of the Worlds' and 'God of the Easts and the Wests', and he asks God to robe him in splendid clothes, wisdom and humility and deliver him from misfortune. Yet the overwhelming Neoplatonic substratum of so much else of what he writes fully justifies Fakhry's characterization of al-Farabi, cited earlier, as 'the founder of Arab Neo-Platonism'.

3. Epistemology

Farabian epistemology has both a Neoplatonic and an Aristotelian dimension. Much of the former has already been surveyed in our examination of al-Farabi's metaphysics, and thus our attention turns now to the Aristotelian dimension. Our three primary Arabic sources for this are al-Farabi's Kitab ihsa' al-'ulum, Risala fi'l-'aql and Kitab al-huruf.

It is the second of these works, Risala fi'l-'aql, which provides perhaps the most useful key to al-Farabi's complex theories of intellection. In this work he divides 'aql (intellect or reason) into six major categories in an attempt to elaborate the various meanings of the Arabic word 'aql. First, there is what might be termed discernment or prudence; the individual who acts for the good is characterized by this faculty, and there is clearly some overlap with the fourth kind of intellect, described below. The second of al-Farabi's intellects is that which has been identified with common sense; this intellect has connotations of 'obviousness' and 'immediate recognition' associated with it. Al-Farabi's third intellect is natural perception. He traces its source to Aristotle's Posterior Analytics, and it is this intellect which allows us to be certain about fundamental truths. It is not a skill derived from the study of logic, but it may well be inborn. The fourth of the six intellects may be characterized as 'conscience': this is drawn by the philosopher from Book VI of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. It is a quality whereby good might be distinguished from evil and results from considerable experience of life (see Aristotle §§18-21).

Al-Farabi's fifth intellect is both the most difficult and the most important. He gives most space to its description in his Risala fi'l-'aql and considers it to be of four different types: potential intellect, actual intellect, acquired intellect and agent or active intellect. 'Aql bi'l-quwwa (potential intellect) is the intellect which, in Fakhry's words, has the capacity 'of abstracting the forms of existing entities with which it is ultimately identified' (Fakhry 1983: 121). Potential intellect can thus become 'aql bi'l-fi'l (actual intellect). In its relationship to the actual intellect, the third sub-species of intellect, 'aql mustafad (acquired intellect) is, to use Fakhry's words again, the 'the agent of actualization' to the actualized object. Finally, there is the 'aql al-fa''al (agent or active intellect), which was described in §2 above and need not be elaborated upon again.

The sixth and last of the major intellects is Divine Reason or God himself, the source of all intellectual energy and power. Even this brief presentation of Farabian intellection must appear complex; however, given the complexity of the subject itself, there is little option.

The best source for al-Farabi's classification of knowledge is his Kitab ihsa' al-'ulum. This work illustrates neatly al-Farabi's beliefs both about what can be known and the sheer range of that knowledge. Here he leaves aside the division into theological and philosophical sciences which other Islamic thinkers would use, and divides his material instead into five major chapters. Through all of them runs a primary Aristotelian stress on the importance of knowledge. Chapter 1 deals with the 'science of language', Chapter 2 formally covers the 'science of logic', Chapter 3 is devoted to the 'mathematical sciences', Chapter 4 surveys physics and metaphysics, and the final chapter encompasses 'civil science' (some prefer the term 'political science'), jurisprudence and scholastic theology. A brief examination of these chapter headings shows that a total of eight main subjects are covered; not surprisingly, there are further subdivisions as well. To give just one example, the third chapter on the mathematical sciences embraces the seven subdivisions of arithmetic, geometry, optics, astronomy, music, weights and 'mechanical artifices'; these subdivisions in turn have their own subdivisions. Thus al-Farabi's epistemology, from what has been described both in this section and §2 above, may be said to be encyclopedic in range and complex in articulation, with that articulation using both a Neoplatonic and an Aristotelian voice.

4. Political philosophy

The best known Arabic source for al-Farabi's political philosophy is al-Madina al-fadila. While this work undoubtedly embraces Platonic themes, it is in no way an Arabic clone of Plato's Republic. This becomes very clear right at the beginning of al-Farabi's work, with its description of the First Cause (Chapters 1-2) and the emanation of 'the Second' from 'The First' (Chapter 3). Later in the work, however, al-Farabi lays down in Platonic fashion the qualities necessary for the ruler: he should be predisposed to rule by virtue of an innate disposition and exhibit the right attitude for such rule. He will have perfected himself and be a good orator, and his soul will be, as it were, united to the active intellect (see §3). He will have a strong physique, a good understanding and memory, love learning and truth and be above the materialism of this world. Other qualities are enumerated by al-Farabi as well, and it is clear that here his ideal ruler is akin to Plato's classical philosopher-king (see Plato §14).

Al-Farabi has a number of political divisions for his world. He identifies, for example, three types of society which are perfect and grades these according to size. His ideal virtuous city, which gives its name to the whole volume, is that which wholeheartedly embraces the pursuit of goodness and happiness and where the virtues will clearly abound. This virtuous city is compared in its function to the limbs of a perfectly healthy body. By stark contrast, al-Farabi identifies four different types of corrupt city: these are the ignorant city (al-madina al-jahiliyya), the dissolute city (al-madina al-fasiqa), the turncoat city (al-madina al-mubaddala) and the straying city (al-madina al-dalla). The souls of many of the inhabitants of such cities face ultimate extinction, while those who have been the cause of their fall face eternal torment. In itemizing four corrupt societies, al-Farabi was surely aware of Plato's own fourfold division of imperfect societies in the Republic into timarchy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny. The resemblance, however, is more one of structure (four divisions) rather than of content.

At the heart of al-Farabi's political philosophy is the concept of happiness (sa'ada). The virtuous society (al-ijtima' al-fadil) is defined as that in which people cooperate to gain happiness. The virtuous city (al-madina al-fadila) is one where there is cooperation in achieving happiness. The virtuous world (al-ma'mura al-fadila) will only occur when all its constituent nations collaborate to achieve happiness. Walzer reminds us that both Plato and Aristotle held that supreme happiness was only to be gained by those who philosophized in the right manner. Al-Farabi followed the Greek paradigm and the highest rank of happiness was allocated to his ideal sovereign whose soul was 'united as it were with the Active Intellect'. But Walzer goes on to stress that al-Farabi 'does not confine his interest to the felicity of the first ruler: he is equally concerned with the felicity of all the five classes which make up the perfect state' (Walzer, in introduction to al-Madina al-fadila (1985: 409-10)). Farabian political philosophy, then, sits astride the saddle of Greek eudaimonia, and a soteriological dimension may easily be deduced from this emphasis on happiness. For if salvation in some form is reserved for the inhabitants of the virtuous city, and if the essence of that city is happiness, then it is no exaggeration to say that salvation is the reward of those who cooperate in the achievement of human happiness. Eudaimonia/sa'ada becomes a soteriological raft or steed.

5. Influence

The impact of al-Farabi's work on Ibn Sina was not limited merely to illuminating Aristotle's Metaphysics. It was with good reason that al-Farabi was designated the 'Second Master' (after Aristotle). One modern scholar recently acknowledged the dependence of Ibn Sina on al-Farabi in a book dealing with both which he entitled The Two Farabis (Farrukh 1944). And if Aquinas (§9) did not derive his essence-existence doctrine from al-Farabi but from the Latinized Ibn Sina, as is generally assumed, there is no doubt that Farabian concepts of essence and existence provided a base for the elaborated metaphysics of Ibn Sina and thence of Aquinas. Finally, the briefest of comparisons between the tenfold hierarchy of intellection produced by al-Farabi and the similar hierarchy espoused by Ibn Sina, each of which gives a key role to the Tenth Intellect, shows that in matters of emanation, hierarchy and Neoplatonic intellection, Ibn Sina owes a considerable intellectual debt to his predecessor.

Al-Farabi influenced many other thinkers as well. A glance at the period between ah 256/ad 870 and ah 414/ad 1023 and at four of the major thinkers who flourished in this period serves to confirm this: Yahya ibn 'Adi, Abu Sulayman al-Sijistani, Abu 'l-Hasan Muhammad ibn Yusuf al-'Amiri and Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi may all be said to constitute in one form or another a 'Farabian School'. The Christian Monophysite Yahya ibn 'Adi studied in Baghdad under al-Farabi and others. Like his master, Yahya was devoted to the study of logic; like his master also, Yahya held that there was a real link between reason, ethics and politics. Al-Sijistani was a pupil of Yahya's and thus at one remove from al-Farabi; nonetheless, he shared in both his master's and al-Farabi's devotion to logic, and indeed was known as al-Sijistani al-Mantiqi (The Logician). In his use of Platonic classification and thought, al-Sijistani reveals himself as a true disciple of al-Farabi. Although al-'Amiri appears to speak disparagingly of al-Farabi at one point, there can be no doubt about al-Farabi's impact on him. Indeed, al-'Amiri's works combine the Platonic, the Aristotelian and the Neoplatonic. Finally, Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi, a pupil of both Yahya and al-Sijistani, stressed, for example, the primacy of reason and the necessity of using logic. Like others of the Farabian School outlined above, al-Tawhidi contributed towards a body of thought the primary constituents of which were the soteriological, the ethical and the noetic.

See also: Aristotelianism in Islamic philosophy; Greek philosophy: impact on Islamic philosophy; Ibn Sina; Logic in Islamic philosophy; Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy; Political philosophy in classical Islam

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

List of works

al-Farabi (c.870-950) al-Madina al-fadila (The Virtuous City), trans. R. Walzer, Al-Farabi on the Perfect State: Abu Nasr al-Farabi's Mabadi' Ara Ahl al-Madina al-Fadila, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985. (Revised with introduction and commentary by the translator.)

al-Farabi (c.870-950) Risala fi'l-'aql (Epistle on the Intellect), ed. M. Bouyges, Beirut: Imprimerie Catholique, 1938. (A seminal text for the understanding of Farabian epistemology.)

al-Farabi (c.870-950) Kitab al-huruf (The Book of Letters), ed. M. Mahdi, Beirut: Dar al-Mashriq, 1969. (Modelled on Aristotle's Metaphysics, but of interest to students of linguistics as well as of philosophy.)

al-Farabi(c. 870-950) Kitab ihsa' al-'ulum (The Book of the Enumeration of the Sciences), ed. and trans. A. González Palencia, Catálogo de las Ciencias, Arabic text with Latin and Spanish translation, Madrid: Imprenta y Editorial Maestre, 1953. (A survey of the learned sciences of the day, of encyclopedic range.)

al-Farabi (c.870-950) Kitab al-musiqa al-kabir (The Great Book of Music), ed. G.A. Khashab and M.A. al-Hafni, Cairo: Dar al-Katib al-'Arabi, 1967. (Al-Farabi's major contribution to musicology.)

References and further reading

Alon, I. (1990) 'Farabi's Funny Flora: Al-Nawabit as Opposition', Arabica 37: 56-90. (Highly creative discussion of the links between the philosophical terminology of Ibn Bajja and al-Farabi, which brings out the complexity of the theological and political ramifications of such language.)

Black, D. (1996) 'Al-Farabi', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, ch. 12, 178-97. (Account of the thought and main works of al-Farabi.)

Fakhry, M. (1983) A History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Longman; New York: Columbia University Press, 2nd edn. (An excellent standard introduction to the field. See especially pages 107-128.)

Farrukh, U. (1944) Al-Farabiyyan (The Two Farabis), Beirut. (Ibn Sina's dependence on al-Farabi, as mentioned in §5.)

Galston, M. (1990) Politics and Excellence: The Political Philosophy of Alfarabi, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (A major analysis of an important aspect of Farabian philosophy.)

Netton, I.R. (1989) Allah Transcendent: Studies in the Structure and Semiotics of Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Cosmology, London and New York: Routledge. (Contains a wide-ranging chapter on al-Farabi, see pages 99-148. This volume was later published in paperback by Curzon Press in 1994.)

Netton, I.R. (1992) Al-Farabi and His School, Arabic Thought and Culture Series, London and New York: Routledge. (Assesses the philosopher through an epistemological lens.)

Main Page