Philosophers: al-Fārābi
Abū Nasr Muhammad ibn al-Farakh al-Fārābi
(also known as Alfarabius and Abunaser)
(c. 870-950 CE)

[Life & work] | [On-line introductions]

Born of Persian stock, al-Fārābi's parents had moved to Wasij, near Farab, Turkestan, where he was born. He travelled extensively throughout his life, though he spent much of his time in Baghdad, where his main teacher was Abu Bishr Matta ibn Yunus, a Christian Aristotelian from Syria, and where he studied Arabic. At one stage he said to have been a qadi (judge), and to have been caretaker of a garden; he certainly spent much of his life teaching and writing. He produced introductions to philosophy, original works of scholarship on logic, music, medicine, and the sciences, and commentaries on Aristotle, though he was influenced by the misattributed Theology of Aristotle, and read Aristotle through neo-Platonist eyes. His written style was not terribly clear, however.

While visiting Halab (now Aleppo) in Syria, he gained the patronage of the local ruler, Sayf al-Dawla, and it was during his time there that his fame spread throughout the Muslim world. He was dubbed the second teacher, Aristotle having been the first. Details of his death are even vaguer than those of his life, and he is variously said to have died peacefully in Damascus and to have been killed by bandits.

Al-Fārābi's view of philosophy was very different from that of al-Kindi (and more typical of Muslim philosophers): philosophy was the supreme product of the human mind, and the only way to genuine knowledge. For non-philosophers, some access to the truth was possible, but through the distorting lens of symbols, which are different for different societies. Thus, philosophy is universal, but other accounts of the truth – most significantly, the religious accounts – are culturally relative. He accepted the Koran's status as revealed truth, but its status was limited to its own cultural context; Islam couldn't be exported to other cultures, which had their own symbolic expressions of truth.

Philosophy is not only the highest possible human activity, but is demanded by god of those who are capable of it. Moreover, although al-Fārābi generally takes the Aristotelian position against the immortality of the soul (the Koran's talk of paradise is an example of the symbolic expression of truth, designed to be understood by non-philosophers), he seems to make an exception in the case of the few who manage to raise themselves above the lowest level of human intellect (merely potential intellect).

Metaphysically, al-Fārābi identified god (Allah) with the neo-Platonists' One, which is highest in the hierarchy of intellect, and from which (through a process of self.contemplation) comes a succession of emanations, down to the lowest level of self-existent intellect, the "active" or "agent" intellect, which acts as intermediary between the human mind and the realm of intellect. The human mind is itself analysed into many levels of intellect, and al-Farabi carefully explains the relationship between the different levels, and the means of moving from one to the next. Where he differs from most other Islamic philosophers is in his argument that, though god is the creator, the created world is eternal.

Al-Fārābi took more of an interest in political philosophy than most other Muslim philosophers; he was very much influenced by Plato's Republic, and produced his own version: Fi Ara' Ahl al-Madinah al-Fadilah, variously translated as: "On the Principles of the Views (or On the Opinions) of the People/Citizens of the Virtuous/Excellent/Ideal/Perfect City/State". This presents an Islamicised version of Plato's views, with a philosopher-prophet rather than Plato's philosopher-king (his discussion of prophethood was itself important and influential). Al-Fārābi thought that such a combination was unlikely, though, so that after the initial founding of the state, philosophers and statesmen would have to collaborate in order to ensure its correct running. At the heart of the virtuous state is the physical and spiritual happiness of its citizens. He also offers an analysis of four kinds of non-virtuous state.

+ One Hundred Philosophers (2004)
U.S.A.:     Barron's Educational Books
U.K.:        Apple Press
Australia: A.B.C. Books
The book covers the history of philosophy chronologically from Thales of Miletus (6th century BCE) to Peter Singer (b.1946 CE), with philosophers from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Australasia, and the U.S.A., about 60% getting a page, 40% two pages. Scattered through the book are brief introductions to such topics as African, Chinese, and Indian philosophy, scepticism, women in philosophy, mind and body, the philosophy of science, and moral philosophy. The book's divided into periods, each with its own introduction and timeline of other important events. There's also a glossary, suggested further reading, and an index.
+ Islamic Philosophy Online
al-Farabi''s Website — their usual very useful resource page
Another al-Farabi page.
+ Al-Farabi
Wikipedia article.

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