An Islamic Philosophy of Virtuous Religions by Joshua Parens

Parens, Joshua.  An Islamic Philosophy of Virtuous Religions: Introducing Alfarabi. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006.

Overview: This cogent effort to situate Alfarabi’s thought within the broader context of the political conditions of the Islamic world contains good discussions of war, tyranny, religion, and world government.


“Now more than at any time in centuries, Alfarabi, a tenth-century Muslim political philosopher, is especially timely. This book is intended as an introduction to Alfarabi’s thought not through a survey of his many writings but through an analysis especially of one of them, one with special relevance to our times. In his Attainment of Happiness, Alfarabi envisions the fulfillment of Islam’s ambition to spread Islam, as the virtuous religion, to the inhabited world. Along the way, however, he raises a few questions: Is one religion suited to the great variety of human communities throughout the world? Is it possible for more than one virtuous religion to exist? If more than one virtuous religion can exist, how and why can they exist? One thing is certain: Alfarabi is not a premodern version of John Locke. Alfarabi’s solution to intercommunal conflict, to the extent that he intends to offer one, is not to pronounce all religions as equal as long as they promote a characteristically modern morality and avoid interference in politics. (In this introduction, I will refer to this all-too-brief account of Locke’s teaching, not even entertained by Alfarabi, as “tolerance,” though I use the term loosely here.) On the contrary, Alfarabi describes a world filled with rank and hierarchy. (Furthermore, he does not separate religion from politics.) He has no qualms about pronouncing one religion superior to another – though he does so without pointing fingers. Rather than declaring in advance the superiority of Islam to all other religions, he analyzes what it takes to be virtuous and rightly guided and leaves it to his readers to compare existing religions with his account. Most importantly, he does not exclude the possibility of a multiplicity of virtuous religions. For a variety of reasons, Alfarabi was considered too radical for his times. At least to some extent, his time may just have arrived. I do not intend to offer a panacea. Alfarabi does not offer mechanism or institutions of governance such as the separation of powers, which have the potential, if rightly instituted, to establish a balanced modern government. Rather, he is more interested in educationg his reader than in offering institutional solutions. He seeks to explore and illuminate his readers’ own hopes and aspirations – through a dialogue of sorts with them – one reader at a time. Such an education, though often difficult to come by in our loud and hurried time, is, I believe, especially important today, both for Muslim and non-Muslim alike.”