Monday, 29 March 2010


Abu Nasr Al-Farabi (ca.870-950 CE) was born in Central Asia, apparently at Farab, though two separate locations are mentioned in the contradictory (and frequently legendary) sources. Some scholars have opined that he was probably of Turkish origin, though a critical contention is that his parents were of Persian descent. As a young man, he migrated west to Baghdad, then a primary centre of learning which attracted numerous bibliophiles and scholars. Europe was at that time a primitive backwater by comparison.

In Baghdad, Farabi acquired a wide knowledge of Greek philosophical texts, though he apparently did not know Greek. His teachers included the Christian logicians Yuhanna ibn Haylan (d. 910) and (reputedly) Abu Bishr Matta (d. 940), the latter being one of the celebrated translators of Greek philosophical texts (and more specifically Aristotelian) into Arabic. Farabi became an editor of Arabic translations from Greek; his expertise in logic and the sciences strongly reflects Aristotelian themes, though he also acknowledges Plato as a forerunner. He spent his last years at the Hamdanid court of Aleppo, prior to his death at Damascus. He eventually became known in Islam as the “second teacher” (al-muallim al-thani) after Aristotle.

Farabi is reported (by Ibn al-Qifti) to have adopted the ascetic robe of Sufis. This detail has provoked some disagreements; the reason for wearing such robes discernibly varied. The preference of Farabi might be explained by a celibate lifestyle (he is reported to have died a bachelor), though it is clear enough that Farabi was not a typical renunciate; his conceptual approach differed radically from pietist attitudes generally expressed by Sufis. Farabi basically exhibited an independence, his role denoting that “philosophy represented free thinking, or, better, the freedom to think” (Ian R. Netton, Al-Farabi and his School, London: Routledge, 1992, p. 7).

In this capacity, some say that he attempted a philosophical reconciliation of Aristotle with Islam, something of considerable relevance at that era. However, there are strong indications that Farabi considered philosophy to be superior to religion. The crux of the matter is that he contributed his own "neo-Aristotelian" philosophical system.

His corpus extends to over a hundred attributed works, though only a proportion of these have survived. Many of his extant works are devoted to logic and the philosophy of language. The confrontation between Greek and Arabic raised problems for philosophical solution in language. Many centuries before J. L. Austin (entry no. 5) and Wittgenstein (entry no. 8), Farabi made his own analysis of language, though in very different circumstances.

His logical works include both independent treatises and commentaries on Aristotle. Farabi was also much concerned with political philosophy, for which he is best known. His writings on metaphysics are a complex area, with some earlier interpretations being outdated, and attended by the issue of misattributed works.

Despite his Aristotelian abilities, Farabi adopted the Neoplatonist theme of emanation. Unlike others of that period, however, he is thought to have recognised that the Neoplatonist teaching, found in the influential Theology of Aristotle (a version of the Enneads of Plotinus), was not in fact Aristotelian. His standpoint has been considered ambiguous in this respect.

While his logical works are basically Aristotelian, his political philosophy has been described as Platonist in orientation. Farabi’s major work in this area is Mabade ara ahl al-Madinah al-Fadilah (Principles of the Opinions of the People of The Virtuous City). He was here concerned with the ideal political state and aberrations from the ideal, and to some extent is reminiscent of discussions in Plato’s Republic. Farabi’s version of the afterlife differed from the orthodox religious conception, instead relating to the stage of “acquired intellect” achievable by citizens of the “virtuous city.” See further M. Galston, Politics and Excellence: The Political Philosophy of Alfarabi (Princeton University Press, 1990).

“Alfarabi is notorious for the caution with which he writes” (J. Parens, An Islamic Philosophy of Virtuous Religions: Introducing Alfarabi, State University of New York Press, 2006, p. 5). That caution has been viewed in terms of a defensive measure against dogmatic attitudes which opposed rationalism. See also my web article On Islamic Philosophy (2008), section 1, about the falasifa.

Again, "Farabi's achievement is that he was the first philosopher who succeeded to internationalise Greek philosophy by creating in a language other than Greek a complex and sophisticated system far surpassing the elementary efforts of both the early medieval Latins and his Syriac predecessors." (D. Gutas, "Farabi iv. Farabi and Greek Philosophy," Encyclopaedia Iranica online.)

Farabi also notably composed the influential Ihsa al-Ulum (Enumeration of the Sciences). In this Arabic work, “Farabi outlined the bases for study in scientific disciplines as then known: the science of language, logic, mathematics, optics, astronomy (and astrology), statics (the science of weights), mechanics, physics, metaphysics, jurisprudence, rhetoric, and music" (Shepherd, Meaning in Anthropos, pp. 171-2).

The Ihsa was translated into Latin during the twelfth century, under the new title of De Scientis. This proved a key text in the early transmission of Aristotelian thought to Christendom, even though Farabi (alias Alpharabius) was translated to a lesser extent than his successors Avicenna and Averroes.

The designation “School of Al-Farabi” has been applied to certain other diverse tenth century thinkers. Yahya ibn Adi (d. 974) was a Christian logician and a pupil of Farabi. There was also Abu Sulayman al-Sijistani (d. 987/8), a distinctive pupil of Yahya who became influential in Baghdad. A more diverging figure was Abu Hayyan al-Tauhidi (d.c. 1023), a commentator who has been described as an eclectic “philosophico-mystic” with a disposition to both Neoplatonist and Sufi thinking. An independent entity was Abu’l Hasan al-Amiri (d. 992), a philosopher with some Sufi tendencies. (See further Netton, Al-Farabi and his School, pp. 8ff.).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
March 29th 2010

ENTRY no. 17

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