An Introduction and Biography

Abu Nasr al-Farabi is widely regarded as the founder of philosophy within the Islamic world. Although he had some noteworthy predecessors, such as al-Kindi and al-Razi, he was the first philosopher of his epoch to command the unqualified respect of future generations. Avicenna, Averroes, and Maimonides all considered many of Alfarabi’s themes and left written testimony of their admiration for him. He became known as the “second teacher,” that is, second only to Aristotle.

Little reliable information about Alfarabi’s life has survived. The extant sources all date from at least three centuries after his death. He was probably born in what is now Kazakhstan around 870, and died in 950. He spent most of his active career, which was largely devoted to teaching, writing, and his studies, in Baghdad. There has been speculation that he also studied in Byzantium, because of his interest in Greek language and thought, but this has never been verified. He left Baghdad due to political unrest toward the end of his life and may have died in Damascus.

As far as Alfarabi’s writings are concerned, we have still discovered less than half of the items listed in medieval catalogues. Nevertheless, the surviving work allows us to appreciate his stature as an original philosopher, whose accomplishments extend across all fields of thought. He wrote enduring works on logic, physics, metaphysics, music, and politics, as well as important commentaries on both Aristotle and Plato. Much of the debate concerning Alfarabi today centers around which of these subjects he most esteemed, but they are clearly all important. His writings on politics are the most widely available in English, due to the reliable translations of Muhsin Mahdi and Charles Butterworth, but some logical and scientific writings have been ably translated as well. Furthermore, even the ostensibly political works contain passages that shed light on his metaphysics and (more rarely) on his logic.

It is difficult for the student who approaches Alfarabi for the first time to know where to begin. Reading his major works offers a good introduction to his characteristic themes, which are reiterated often, but never from exactly the same angle. To understand him adequately, however, one must read each work several times. Let us make a brief survey of the bulk of the major works available in English. The Political Regime and Virtuous City both begin with accounts of the cosmos, but conclude with discussions of politics, and sharply distinguish virtuous governments and opinions from their ignorant counterparts. The challenge inherent in the interpretation of these two works consists in their ambiguous relationship to one another. They follow a similar structure and treat similar themes, but never repeat one another verbatim and often diverge in their emphasis. For example, the Virtuous City presents a rigid cosmic hierarchy and focuses largely on schematic descriptions of rulers and opinions, while the Political Regime presents a looser cosmic hierarchy and describes the workings of governments in far greater detail.

The Selected Aphorisms opens with a brief introduction that ascribes its teachings to the ancients, whom Alfarabi later identifies as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. It adopts, and adapts, much material from Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Of all Alfarabi’s works, it follows most closely the framework of the ancient city. Nevertheless, Islamic views about war, succession, the structure of the world, and the afterlife frequently intrude, indicating that this work is far from a mere repetition of Greek philosophical teachings. It concludes by arguing that political practice must be informed by education in theoretical science and operate within the framework of many Ummahs (nations).

The Enumeration of the Sciences, of which only the last chapter is available in English, reads at first as a bland listing of the accepted sciences in medieval Islam. Yet this treatise is not  as straightforward as it initially appears. Logic is emphasized at the expense of the more traditional linguistic sciences, and metaphysics is made to appear more scientific than natural science. Political science appears powerless in the face of the arts of jurisprudence and theology, yet it is unclear whether these two characteristically Muslim activities are even sciences at all. Mathematics is divided into seven distinct branches, whose relation to the rest of the sciences, and even to one another, remains murky. In general, Alfarabi’s understanding of the connection between the various sciences can be discerned only with the aid of a few scattered hints.

The Book of Religion displays considerable overlap with the fifth chapter of the Enumeration of the Sciences. Yet while the latter concludes with a lengthy exposition on the excesses of the theologians, the Book of Religion does not mention theology at all. Instead, it gives a deliberately ambiguous account of the origin of religion, while establishing the subordination of religion to philosophy and of jurisprudence to political science. It articulates a hierarchical view of the cosmos with a strongly political emphasis that sets it apart from parallel passages in the Virtuous City and Political Regime. It concludes by proposing a collaboration between a virtuous Muslim governor and a philosopher in order to replicate such a hierarchy within the human world.

The Book of Letters deals with questions of logic, language, and translation. Only the second section of this three-part work has been translated. It establishes a firm hierarchy of the arts, with philosophy on top, the arts of the multitude on the bottom, and religious arts such as jurisprudence and theology somewhere in between. But it suddenly turns to describing the origin of language among the multitude of each nation, beginning in utter speechlessness, evolving through poetry, rhetoric, and linguistic science, and culminating in the practice and perfection of philosophy. Alfarabi then speaks of the promulgation of a religion obedient to this philosophy; he soon acknowledges, however, that such a view of human development may be unrealistic, adding several other scenarios that point to an often-tense relationship between philosophy and religion in most nations.

The final two parts of the Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle (the first part is the Attainment of Happiness) consist of summaries and interpretations of the various Platonic and Aristotelian works known to Alfarabi. Especially striking are the emphasis on eros and dialectic in the thought of Plato, and the lack of discussion of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, which is merely mentioned. Although the accounts of the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle seem divergent in both tone and content, Alfarabi insists that both thinkers have the same intention and the same philosophy. The Attainment of Happiness leads an initiate through a brief instruction in the sciences, followed by a discussion of virtue, nations, and cities. Alfarabi then turns to a discussion of the philosopher and begins his discussion of Plato and Aristotle. Perhaps Alfarabi hopes to persuade his addressee that studying Plato and Aristotle is a more substantial activity than seeking to fulfill mere political ambition.

Alfarabi’s The Harmonization of the Opinions of the Two Divine Sages also attempts to reconcile the thought of Aristotle and Plato. This work appears so strange that many scholars have been reluctant to ascribe it to him, although it has not been persuasively attributed to another author. Unlike the Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, it tries to reconcile the work of Plato and Aristotle point by point. It attributes the Theology of Aristotle to Aristotle himself, although it is actually an Arabic translation of Plotinus. Alfarabi does make such an attribution in the Philosophy of Aristotle, which includes almost all of Aristotle’s other works.

These brief summaries show how hard it is to ascribe any concrete doctrine to Alfarabi. But one can say something about his general emphasis and themes. He learned from the Greeks, but he wrote for Muslims. He did not attempt to explain Greek practices such as the cult of Zeus or elections by lot to his readers, most of whom would have recognized only the worship of Allah and the rule of the Caliph and his successors. Greek thought as Alfarabi presents it sheds light mainly on issues that concerned his audience. Alfarabi returns repeatedly to such central Islamic themes as law, prophecy, political succession, and jurisprudence. He retains the ancient Greek concern with the virtuous city, but enlarges the size of the virtuous community to a nation or many nations, again reflecting the global ambitions of Islam and the imperial conditions of his time. Alfarabi’s physics and metaphysics also appeal to Muslim tastes. He tends to present an immaculately ordered, ranked, and harmonious cosmos led by a single God who embodies every kind of perfection. Even Alfarabi’s logical writings are far from being mere repetitions of Aristotle’s. In an important passage in the Book of Demonstration, Alfarabi explains how logic needs to be completely reformulated in order to fit the premises familiar to his readers and the Arabic language of his time.

Alfarabi did not deliberately distort Greek thought, but he did present it to better suit his own time. Whether he altered its substance in the process remains an open question, to be resolved only by a careful study of his works. Alfarabi is neither a Muslim nor a Platonist or Aristotelian simply, but an original thinker who first explored the questions raised by the intersection of Islam and classical philosophy. In an age in which Islam must again wrestle with foreign thought, and in which Greek philosophy is often deemed obsolete, Alfarabi provides an instructive example of the kind of philosophic and religious adaptation that could nurture both Islamic religion and Greek philosophy.

For further introductory reading, see:

Alfarabi,” in History of Political Philosophy, ed. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, Chicago: 1987.