(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.