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Architects of Civilisation Abu Nasr al-Farabi

Tengku Ahmad Hazri


Abu Nasr al-Farabi, was an early philosopher of the Islamic world. Among others he was known as
the founder of Islamic political philosophy, if not of Islamic philosophy itself, and was a principal
agent in the transmission of Greek thought into Islamic civilization, chiefly the neo-Platonic tradition
so much so that Majid Fakhry even styled him as the founder of Islamic Neoplatonism. Yet far from
a passive receptor of the Hellenistic heritage, Farabis theories evinced remarkable originality, even
departure from previous philosophical tradition. His main contributions include the defense of logic
as a distinct and autonomous science at a time when there was debate as to the respective domains
of logic and grammar. He was also the first Muslim thinker to systematically classify the various
branches of knowledge. What is perhaps most intriguing was his delineation of the relationship
between philosophy and religion. In plain terms, his examinationeven synthesisof their
relationship was really a commentary on a single belief that religion is philosophy by other means.
According to Osman Bakar, Farabis approach to the sciences was in fact a commentary on his own
intellectual and educational background, so to this we now turn.
Farabi, known in the Latin West as Avennasar or Alfarabius, was born Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn
Muhammad ibn Tarkhan ibn Awzalagh al-Farabi (258-339/870-950). Not much is known about his
background, for the simple reason that he was not narcissistic enough to actually pen down his own
autobiography. Indeed, by some accounts, he was ascetically inclined, living a frugal life most of the
time, and indulging much in Sufi mystic practices. What little that came down to us by reliable
sources is that he was born in 257/870 in Farab, Transoxiana in modern day Turkestan to a
respectable family. His father was a military officer (qaid jaysh) who served in the army of Samanid
rulers who were then governing much of Transoxiana with a family tradition of distinguished
military career. But Farabi himself chose a different path and opted for a scholarly life instead.
In his childhood, he was exposed to elementary education which was traditional and typical of
children back then, namely instruction in the religious sciences such as exegesis of the Quran
(tafsir), hadith and elementary arithmetic. He was also knowledgeable in many languages including
Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Syriac and Greek.
Later in life he went to Baghdad, where he became a student of leading scholars of the day, such as
the Christian logician Yuhannan ibn Haylan, and the Nestorian philosopher Abu Bishr Matta ibn
Yunus, one of the translators of Aristotle into Arabic. By Farabis own account he studied with
Yuhannan Aristotles logic up the Posterior Analytics. He also studied grammar with Ibn al-Sarraj
(who was also Farabis student in logic). His students among others were the brothers, Yahya ibn Adi
and Ibrahim ibn Adi.
After he reached 70, he left Baghdad for Syria, and stayed in Aleppo and Damascus. In Aleppo, he
came under the patronage of the Hamdanid Shii ruler, Sayf al-Dawla. Then he traveled to Egypt,
after which he returned to Damascus, where he died in c. 950but his intellectual legacy lived on.
Farabi left a considerable body of learning. The following are but a taste of this:

Ihsa al-Ulum (Enumeration of Sciences) on the classification of sciences, in which he classifies


the various branches of knowledge, arranged them in hierarchical order, and explain which is
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needed to study which. He categorized them broadly into the rational, linguistic, theological and
juridical sciences
Kitab Mabadi Ara Ahl al-Madinah al-Fadilah (Book on the Principles of the Opinions of People
of the Virtuous City) on what may be roughly called political philosophy, but Farabi himself
divided into metaphysics (ilahiyyat), physics (tabiiyat) and ethics (iradiyat = literally
voluntaries)
Al-Siyasah al-Madaniyah (Civil Polity) (also known as Mabadi al-Mawjudat = Principles of
Beings) on political philosophy
Kitab al-Musiqa (Book of Music) on music
Kitab al-Huruf (Book of Letters) on the philosophy of language
Kitab al-Alfaz al-Mustamal fil-Mantiq (Book of Utterances Employed in Logic)
Tahsil al-Saadah (The Attainment of Happiness)
Kitab al-Jadal (The Book of Dialectics)
Risalah fil-Aql (Treatise on the Intellect)
Aghrad ma Bad al-Tabiah (On the Aims of the Metaphysics of Aristotle)
Falsafah Aristutalis (Philosophy of Aristotle)
Kitab al-Jam bayn Rayay al-Hakimayn Aflatun al-Ilahi wa Aristutalis (Book on the
Harmonization of the Views of the Two Sages, Plato the Metaphysician and Aristotle) on the
reconciliation of Plato and Aristotle, thought to be antipodes

The above list suggests the breadth of topic that Farabi ventured into. Nevertheless, some common
and recurrent themes pervade through most if not all of his writings.
Religion and Philosophy
One finds in Farabis writings the distinction between philosophy and religion as a recurrent
leitmotif. But even these words need to be clarified. By religion here Farabi means millah, not din,
so that what he means when he distinguishes between the two is the exoteric dimension of
revelation, comprising among others rituals, rites and articles of faith. Millah here refers to the
institutionalized aspect of religion, i.e. as organized religion. By philosophy, though he uses the
term falsafah, he has in mind the idea of hikmah (wisdom), for in many instances; he refers to
philosophers as hukama (sages). Thus philosophy in this respect goes beyond mere discursive
argumentation, but embraces knowledge of esoteric realities, which the Sufis identify with marifah
(gnosis). Both religion and philosophy are concerned with the same reality, although their manner of
exposition differs. Both are also meant to impart knowledge to man necessary towards his attaining
happiness and perfection. Both are also capable of yielding knowledge of the transcendent but
whereas in religion such knowledge is taken at the level of faith, in philosophy the same truth can be
shown by demonstration. In simple terms, whereas religion conveys such truth by means of
imitation, symbols and allusion (mithalat), philosophy conveys them as they really are. It is difficult
for any one man to have such knowledge so comprehensively. There are nevertheless, unique
individuals from time to time in history, in whom such knowledge is vested in both ways. Such
distinctive individuals are the philosophers (hukama), but in religious terms are called prophets
(though admittedly, not all philosophers are prophets).
But how exactly do they receive such knowledge? From a religious point of view, the process is
explicable through mythopoiesis, i.e. the angel of revelation, Jibril (peace be on him) came to the
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Prophet and brought the message. However, to answer this question in philosophical terms, Farabi
explained the process of them acquiring such knowledge by appeal to a comprehensive theory of
intellect. There are several types of intellect, of which three are relevant here, namely, active
intellect (al-aql al-fail), passive intellect (al-aql al-munfail) and acquired intellect (al-aql almustafad). Revelation (wahy) is thus the emanation that proceeds from the active intellect to the
passive through the mediation of the acquired intellect. Revelation is superior to intellection in that
revelation can even be represented in images. The active intellect is the intermediary between the
First Cause (i.e. God) in which all knowledge resides, and the world of man. But to gain access to the
active intellect necessitates several preconditions, for it is not available to all human beings. Among
others, his faculties must be so well developed as to receive the intelligible in one form and then to
transmute it into another. Now in the case of the prophets, when they receive the intelligible
through the active intellect, it passes through their rational-deliberative faculty and their
representative faculty. Out of the former emerges the wisdom which explicates truth in philosophic
terms, while out of the latter emerges imitations of the said truth, namely as representations
conveyed as religion. Prophets were able to do this as their imaginative faculty has mimesis
(muhakah) as one its functions.
Prophets thus have a dual role, as sage-philosopher informing mankind about such truth, and as
visionary prophet of religion calling mankind to the same message by means of symbols and
persuasion. In the latter category, prophets also function as lawgiver, ruler and statesman, laying
down laws for his people. Prophets convey to the people the kind of knowledge necessary for their
well-being, both in this life and the next. Indeed, for Farabi, the two are closely intertwined, so much
so that, in his typology of the types of cities mankind can have, he even explained the possible fate
in the afterlife of the inhabitants of that city.
That religion conveys such truth metaphorically explains why different nations have different
symbols, insofar as the symbols used are those familiar to the community. Farabi thus makes clear
that the person whos linked to the active intellect would also propound laws and consequently
found a state.
The same typology of cities is used by Farabi to explain the kinds of human associations
According to Farabi, the nature of human beings dictates that his perfection is only attainable in a
city, not in a social context less than it. The cities are defined and identified by the kind of people
that resides in it. Human beings are by nature a political animal, which means that it is intrinsic to his
nature to form societies. This is because man has many needs which he is incapable of fulfilling all by
himself, in addition to the fact that different individuals are endowed with different abilities and
talents. Consequently, these create an inevitable network of inter-dependency between human
beings.
Ethics, Politics & Society
His political thought brings together insights from metaphysics, psychology, epistemology, religionphilosophy synthesis and ethics. This shows how central politics is to his philosophical system,
perhaps even constituting one of its cores, around which other concerns revolve. If this is correct,
then it can be justified on account that man is his chief focus, and the study of the metaphysical
dimensions of reality is relevant insofar as they offer insight into the human condition. Mans
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perfection can only be attained in a city, and not in a social order less than it. Political regimes can
therefore be seen as the external unfolding of mans psycho-spiritual states. The formation of the
different types of cities are reflective of purpose on which the people came together, whether it is
towards the pursuit of wealth (oligarchy), honor (timocracy) or freedom (democracy)
In the broadest sense, political regimes are divided into the Virtuous Cities and Un-virtuous Cities.
The Virtuous City is the cityin which people aim through association at co-operating for the things
by which felicity in its real and true sense can be attained. The Virtuous City is the city in which
mans true nature can find its fullest expression, fulfillment and perfection. Whether or not such a
city is real or merely hypothetical, as an ideal standard is debatable: Ibn Khaldun centuries later
observed that it was merely a theoretical postulate, not to be confused with what is realistically
attainable by fallible human mortals. Still, there is evidence that this model, however theoretical,
offers rational and philosophical justification of the prophetic regime.
Falling short of the virtuous city are the un-virtuous cities, themselves in turn divisible into four
types: the ignorant city, the wicked city, the errant city, and the city which has deliberately changed
its character. These cities each represent a departure from the ideal Virtuous City as their purpose
fall short of the true aim and happiness in conformity with true human nature. Instead they settle
for less noble aspirations as the purpose of association.
Further reading
Al-Farabi, Abu Nasr, On the Perfect State (Mabadi Ara Ahl al-Madinah al-Fadilah) (Revised Text with
Introduction, Translation and Commentary by Richard Walzer) (Chicago: Great Books of the Islamic
World, 1985)
Al-Farabi, Abu Nasr, Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle (Translated with an Introduction by Muhsin
Mahdi, Revised Edition) (New York: Cornell University Press, 1962)
Al-Farabi, Abu Nasr, The Political Writings: Selected Aphorisms and Other Texts (Translated and
Annotated by Charles Butterworth) (New York: Cornell University Press, 2001)
Black, Deborah, Al-Farabi, in Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Oliver Leaman, History of Islamic Philosophy
(London and New York: Routledge), 178195
Fakhry, Majid, A History of Islamic Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004)
Nomanul Haq, S., Farabi, Al- in The Encyclopedia of Religion (Second Edition) (Editor in Chief:
Lindsay Jones) (USA: Macmillan, 2004), 29912992
Osman Bakar, Classification of Knowledge in Islam: A Study in Islamic Philosophies of Science (Kuala
Lumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC), International Islamic
University Malaysia (IIUM), 2006)
Reisman, David C., Al-Farabi and the Philosophical Curriculum, in Peter Adamson and Richard
Taylor (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2005), 5271