al-Fārābī Essay - Critical Essays

al-Fārābī

Introduction

al-Fārābī c. 870-950

(Full name Muḥammad ibn-Muḥammad ibn-Tarhkān abu-Naṣr al-Fārābī) Turkistani philosopher and essayist.

Known to Arabs as the “Second Master” (second only to Aristotle), al-Fārābī is considered one of the greatest Islamic philosophers. The author of more than one hundred works of philosophy, al-Fārābī was one of the first important philosophers to write in Arabic. He considered the field of philosophy encyclopedic—not limited only to logic but also inclusive of metaphysics, political science, ethics, psychology, and sociology. Although al-Fārābī also offers original ideas in his own writings, it is for his comprehensive commentaries on the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, and his attempts to reconcile differences in their writings, that he receives most praise. He is credited with helping to disseminate their ideas in the East through his translations of their works, thereby assuring their survival during the Dark Ages in the Western world. He is considered the Father of Islamic Neoplatonism for his attempts to synthesize Plato, Aristotle, and theology. Al-Fārābī's works influenced various philosophers and authors over a period of centuries, including the “doctor of doctors” Ibn Sīnā, known in the West as Avicenna; Maimonides, the twelfth-century Jewish sage; and Thomas Aquinas, the Christian theologian who wrote the Summa theologica. Al-Fārābī's most important works are Enumeration of the Sciences; Reconciliation of the Views of the Two Sages: Plato the Divine and Aristotle; and The Virtuous City—all of which were written sometime in the tenth century.

Biographical Information

Al-Fārābī was born in the village of Wasij, in the Farab district in Transoxiana (present-day Turkistan). Since he did not write of his personal life and since no biography was compiled until several centuries after his death, the facts of his life have often been mythologized. His early education took place in Farab and Bukhara. Al-Fārābī's higher education commenced in about 901, when he moved to Baghdad, where he mastered Arabic and studied with the renowned teachers Abu Bishr Matta and Yuhanna ibn Haylan. He reportedly refused a government position, lived as an ascetic, and devoted decades to the study of philosophy, mathematics, linguistics, and music. It was likely in Baghdad that most of his work was written. He traveled extensively from 942 to 948 and, on one of his journeys to Halab (in what is now northern Syria) came to the attention of its emir, the Hamdanid commander Saif al-Daula, who became his patron. The details of al-Fārābī's death are uncertain; according to one account he died in Damascus of natural causes, while according to another, he fell victim to an assault on a road outside of Damascus.

Major Works

Although al-Fārābī's first language was Turkish, he wrote in Arabic. No exact dates of composition are known for any of his works. An unknown number of them are no longer extant, but well over one hundred survive, including volumes on music, medicine, and mathematics. Many of al-Fārābī's texts concern logic, the understanding of which he attempted to simplify by dividing it into the two categories of idea and proof. Many other texts are commentaries on works by Aristotle, including Commentary on “Prior Analytics,” Commentary on “The Categories,” and Commentary on “On Interpretation.” The arguments found in Reconciliation of the Views of the Two Sages: Plato the Divine and Aristotle are somewhat flawed because al-Fārābī considered the fraudulent Neoplatonic Theology of Aristotle an authentic work. Scholars debate the extent to which the spurious Theology of Aristotle influenced al-Fārābī. Compendium of the “Laws” summarizes Plato's laws, as does Philosophy of Plato. Enumeration of the Sciences was immensely popular; it was eventually translated into Latin by Dominicus Gundisalvas as De Scientiis and was used in schools until the sixteenth century. Largely influenced by Aristotle's scientific classifications, al-Fārābī's work examines numerous aspects of science, religion, philosophy, and grammar and their interconnections. The Virtuous City is often thought to be modeled upon Plato's Republic, but critics point out that its Neoplatonic theology makes it markedly different. Al-Fārābī's model city is characterized by the happiness of its citizens, who work together in perfect harmony.

Critical Reception

Scholars are interested in the attitudes that Islamic philosophers of the tenth century demonstrate toward the relationship between intellect, logic, language, and grammar. These philosophers were concerned with deciding upon proper areas of study and used complex classification systems in specifying the aims of their logic. Deborah L. Black (see Further Reading) discusses al-Fārābī's analogy of the art of grammar in relation to logic: “By arguing in this way that logic and grammar are two distinct, rule-based sciences, each with its own proper domain and subject matter, al-Farabi strives to establish logic as an autonomous philosophical study of language that complements, rather than conflicts with, traditional grammatical science.” Majid Fakhry discusses the importance of al-Fārābī's contributions, stating he “should be given credit for having laid down the foundation of the Arabic logical tradition, in the same manner he laid down the foundation of Arabic Neo-Platonism in metaphysics.” Fuad Said Haddad further explains al-Fārābī's theories of language communication and instruction, while Kwame Gyekye examines al-Fārābī's use of reason and logic.

Al-Fārābī expended much effort in trying to harmonize opposing views held by Plato and Aristotle, but not all scholars agree on al-Fārābī's exact message or beliefs, since he contradicts himself through the course of his voluminous works. Leo Strauss contends that al-Fārābī viewed Plato's philosophy as the true philosophy. He also explores how al-Fārābī attempts to reconcile Aristotle's ideas with Plato's, but Christopher Colmo takes issue with Strauss's interpretation of al-Fārābī's conception of Plato. Majid Fakhry also examines al-Fārābī's approach to discord between the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle; Fakhry contends that al-Fārābī views the problem as one of lack of understanding of the two philosophers' true views. Joshua Parens takes issue with critics who doubt that al-fārābī was as extreme a Neoplatonist as is commonly accepted.

Miriam Galston analyzes al-Fārābī's writing style, which uses a multilevel method, and addresses inherent difficulties: “Some of the hallmarks of multilevel writing—such as inconsistencies, contradictions, digressions, and silences where the reader expects a lengthy discussion—can be deliberate or inadvertent; and even when deliberate, they may be the result of a variety of circumstances surrounding a work's construction.” One of the specific concerns of al-Fārābī was that of emanation, the first level of which is the Divine Being. Thérèse-Anne Druart examines his views on this topic and contends that although he is silent on the subject in his popular works, in his serious writing he makes a complex presentation of its nine-layer, timeless nature; Ian Richard Netton also discusses al-Fārābī's views on emanation. Al-Fārābī's political science is scrutinized by Fauzi M. Najjar and by Christopher Colmo, who examine his views on leadership, contrasting them with those of Nicolo Machiavelli. Muhsin Madhi examines how al-Fārābī proposes not only to end the disharmony between religion and philosophy but also have them form a mutually beneficial alliance against dialectic and sophistry. Madhi also examines the terminology used in the Attainment of Happiness. Further, he explains that al-Fārābī's focus is on realization—not simply thinking about something but actually bringing it about. “All of a sudden, theoretical knowledge and knowledge in general become a prolegomenon to action, ethics, and politics.” Many of al-Fārābī's texts were not rediscovered until the middle of the twentieth century, and relatively few have been translated into English. As more of his texts are examined and translated, scholars will have better access to al-Fārābī's ideas and his contributions to philosophy will continue to be evaluated.

Principal Works

Falsafat Alfātun [Philosophy of Plato] (essay) 10th century

Falsafat Aristūtālīs [Philosophy of Aristotle] (essay) 10th century

Ihsā‘ al ‘Ulūm [Enumeration of the Sciences] (essay) 10th century

Kitāb al-Huruf [Book of Letters] (essay) 10th century

Kitāb Ihsa al-Ulūm [Classification of the Sciences] (essay) 10th century

Kitāb Iysaghuji ay Al-Madkhal [Commentary on Porphyry’s “Isagoge”] (essay) 10th century

Kitab al-Jam‘ Bayn Ra’yay al-Hakimayn Aflatun al-Ilahiy wa-Aristutalis [Reconciliation of the Views of the Two Sages: Plato the Divine and Aristotle] (essay) 10th century

Kitāb al Milla wa-Nusūs [Book of Religion] (essay) 10th century

Kitāb Qataghuriyas ay Al-Maqulat [Commentary on Aristotle’s “Categories”] (essay) 10th century

Kitāb al-Qiyas al-Sāghir [Commentary on Aristotle’s “Prior Analytics”] (essay) 10th century

Mabadi‘ Ārā' Ahl al-Madīnah al-Fādilah [The Virtuous City] (essay) 10th century

Risālah fi al‘Aql [Epistle on the Intellect] (essay) 10th century

Sharh li Kitāb Aristūtalis fī al-‘Ibārah [Commentary on Aristotle’s “On Interpretation”] (essay) 10th century

Tahsīl al-Sa'āda [The Attainment of Happiness] (essay) 10th century

Talkhis Nawamis Aflatun [Compendium of Plato’s “Laws”] (essay) 10th century

Al-Farabi's Commentary and Short Treatise on Aristotle's “De interpretatione” (translated by F. W. Zimmerman) 1981

Al-Farabi on the Perfect State (translated by Richard Walzer) 1985

*Alfarabi: The Political Writings: “Selected Aphorisms” and Other Texts (translated by Charles E. Butterworth) 2001

Alfarabi: Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle (translated by Muhsin Mahdi) 2001

*This collection contains Selected Aphorisms, Enumeration of the Sciences, Book of Religion, and The Harmonization of the Two Opinions of the Two Sages: Plato the Divine and Aristotle.

†This collection contains Attainment of Happiness, Philosophy of Plato, and Philosophy of Aristotle.

Criticism

Leo Strauss (essay date 1945)

SOURCE: Strauss, Leo. “Farabi's Plato.” In Louis Ginzberg: Jubilee Volume: On the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, pp. 357-93. New York: The American Academy for Jewish Research, 1945.

[In the following essay, Strauss examines al-Fārābī's exposition of Plato's philosophy and al-Fārābī's own views on the relationship between philosophy and happiness.]

Eben derselbe Gedanke kann, an einem andern Orte, einen ganz andern Wert haben.

Lessing, Leibniz, von den ewigen Strafen.

It is generally admitted that one cannot understand the teaching of Maimonides' Guide for the...

(The entire section is 14471 words.)

Fauzi M. Najjar (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: Najjar, Fauzi M. “Al-Farabi on Political Science.” Muslim World 48, no. 2 (1958): 94-103.

[In the following essay, Najjar explains that, in al-Fārābī's view, political science is another term for practical wisdom and cannot be separated from philosophy and metaphysics.]

Al-Fārābī discusses the subject matter as well as the function of political science in Chapter 5 of his Iḥṣā’ al-‘Ulūm, or “Classification of the Sciences”.1 In the same chapter he treats the Islamic religious sciences of fiqh (Jurisprudence) and kalām (Theology). That fiqh and kalām should be treated in a chapter devoted to...

(The entire section is 5220 words.)

Majid Fakhry (essay date October-December 1965)

SOURCE: Fakhry, Majid. “Al-Farabi and the Reconciliation of Plato and Aristotle.” Journal of the History of Ideas 26, no. 4 (October-December 1965): 469-78.

[In the following essay, Fakhry details al-Fārābī's argument that alleged discrepancies between statements made by Plato and Aristotle are merely the result of an inadequate understanding of their teachings.]

The chequered history of Neo-Platonism, following the imperial edict ordering the School of Athens to be closed in 529, is one of the most fascinating chapters in the history of the diffusion of Greek culture in the Middle Ages. As a result of its progressive defeat at Alexandria, Greek philosophy...

(The entire section is 4701 words.)

Muhsin Mahdi (essay date fall 1972)

SOURCE: Mahdi, Muhsin. “Alfarabi on Philosophy and Religion.” Philosophical Forum 4, no. 1 (fall 1972): 5-25.

[In the following essay, Mahdi explains al-Fārābī's position that religion and philosophy are not necessarily opposed to each other and that they can be mutually beneficial.]

I

The Attainment of Happiness does not begin with an explanation of what happiness is or a description of the way to it. Instead, it enumerates four human things (theoretical virtues, deliberative virtues, moral virtues, and practical arts) whose presence in political communities (nations or cities) indicates that happiness is present in these...

(The entire section is 10217 words.)

Thérèse-Anne Druart (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Druart, Thérèse-Anne. “Al-Farabi and Emanationism.” In Studies in Medieval Philosophy, edited by John F. Wippel, pp. 23-43. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Druart examines al-Fārābī's presentation of emanationism and defends the author's writings against charges of inconsistency by explaining that al-Fārābī's loyalty to Aristotle sometimes led him to shy away from stressing any limitations in Aristotle's views.]

In 1981 Barry Sherman Kogan showed that emanationism had been a very controversial doctrine in Arabic philosophy.1 In The Incoherence of the Philosophers al-Ghazali...

(The entire section is 9635 words.)

Kwame Gyekye (essay date January 1989)

SOURCE: Gyekye, Kwame. “Al-Fārābi on the Logic of the Arguments of the Muslim Philosophical Theologians.” In Journal of the History of Philosophy 27, no. 1 (January 1989): 135-43.

[In the following essay, Gyekye focuses on a treatise written by al-Fārābī concerning the logical structures used by Muslim philosophical theologians.]

INTRODUCTION

My intention in this paper is to discuss those portions of al-Fārābī's treatise—mistitled by Nicholas Rescher as Al-Fārābī's Short Commentary on Aristotle's Prior Analytics1—which bear on certain methods of logic generally preferred, appropriated and developed by the...

(The entire section is 5088 words.)

Fuad Said Haddad (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Haddad, Fuad Said. “Conclusion.” In Alfarabi's Theory of Communication, pp. 155-69. Beirut, Lebanon: American University of Beirut, 1989.

[In the following essay, Haddad summarizes and analyzes al-Fārābī's theory of language communication as well as its impact on education.]

SUMMARY

We have examined in the previous chapters Alfarabi's theory of language communication and its educational implications by analyzing and interpreting his works on language and logic. In this chapter we will first summarize the theory. Then we will bring forth its prominent characteristics and draw out its significant implications for the purpose of...

(The entire section is 5339 words.)

Ian Richard Netton (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Netton, Ian Richard. “Al-Fārābī: The Search for Order.” In Allah Transcendent: Studies in the Structure and Semiotics of Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Cosmology, pp. 99-148. London: Routledge, 1989.

[In the following essay, Netton examines al-Fārābī's description of God as the One in whom essence and existence merge absolutely, his understanding of the concept of emanation, and the structure of his theology.]

THE ROAD TO ASCALON: THE MAN AND HIS SEARCH

The reputation of Abū Naṣr Muḥammad b. Muḥammad b. Tarkhān b. Awzalagh1 al-Fārābī (AD 870-950) has come down to us untarnished and undiminished from...

(The entire section is 19643 words.)

Miriam Galston (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Galston, Miriam. “Alfarabi's Method of Writing.” In Politics and Excellence: The Political Philosophy of Alfarabi, pp. 22-54. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Galston analyzes al-Fārābī's writing style—a multilevel method which both conceals and reveals—and his purpose in adopting this method.]

Those who wish to succeed in arriving at answers will find it useful to go over the perplexing points well. For answers successfully arrived at are solutions to the perplexing points that have previously been raised. A person cannot untie a knot if he is not aware of it.

...

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Christopher Colmo (essay date December 1992)

SOURCE: Colmo, Christopher. “Theory and Practice: Alfarabi's Plato Revisited.” American Political Science Review 86, no. 4 (December 1992): 966-76.

[In the following essay, Colmo critiques Leo Strauss's studies of al-Fārābī, particularly concerning the relationship between science and philosophy.]

According to Leo Strauss, knowledge of the best way of life is crucial to political philosophy. In “Farabi's Plato,” Strauss asks, assuming that the theoretical life can be known to be the best way of life, what is the status of this knowledge? Is the knowledge of the best way of life itself theoretical knowledge or practical knowledge? Without a...

(The entire section is 10919 words.)

Majid Fakhry (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Fakhry, Majid. “Al-Fārābi's Contribution to the Development of Aristotelian Logic.” In Philosophy, Dogma and the Impact of Greek Thought in Islam, chapter III, pp. 1-15. Hampshire, U.K.: Variorum, 1994.

[In the following essay, Fakhry discusses the importance of al-Fārābī's continuation of the Aristotelian tradition.]

I

During the period separating Boethius (d. 525) and Abélard (d. 1142), William and Martha Kneale, for instance, give no significant logician's name in their Development of Logic. Historians of medieval and premedieval philosophy have tended to take it for granted that, indeed, philosophical learning,...

(The entire section is 4367 words.)

Joshua Parens (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Parens, Joshua. “Alfarabi's Platonism.” In Metaphysics as Rhetoric: Alfarabi's Summary of Plato's “Laws,” pp. 17-27. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Parens considers to what degree al-Fārābī should be considered a Neoplatonist.]

This chapter treats the secondary literature on Alfarabi's corpus as a whole rather than just on the Summary, because there is only one substantive treatment of the Summary, namely, a brief article by Leo Strauss.1 The purpose of this chapter, however, is to correct certain common and persistent misunderstandings of Alfarabi. In spite of the readily apparent...

(The entire section is 7112 words.)

Christopher Colmo (essay date fall 1998)

SOURCE: Colmo, Christopher. “Alfarabi on the Prudence of Founders.” The Review of Politics 60, no. 4 (fall 1998): 719-41.

[In the following essay, Colmo examines al-Fārābī's advice to rulers in the Book of Religion, comparing and contrasting it with the advice given by Nicolo Machiavelli in The Prince.]

INTRODUCTION

The founder of a religious community can use religion to bind the community together, uniting it towards a single goal.1 To affirm this truth while placing prudent limitations on the universal claims of religion is Alfarabi's intention in the Book of Religion.2 Machiavelli's teaching on...

(The entire section is 9034 words.)

Muhsin S. Mahdi (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Mahdi, Muhsin S. “The Foundation of Islamic Philosophy.” In Alfarabi and the Foundation of Islamic Political Philosophy, pp. 47-62. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Mahdi explains the uniqueness of al-Fārābī's political works and their thematic concern with the salvation of civilization.]

Alfarabi established the main tradition of Islamic philosophy as we know it today. The respect with which he has been regarded by his successors has not always been matched with a clear understanding of his role as a founder or with a comprehensive appreciation of his achievement as a philosopher. Great philosophers like Avicenna,...

(The entire section is 8972 words.)