Muslim Scientists and Thinkers–Abu Nasar Mohammad ibn al- Farabi

By Syed Aslam

al-farabi2 Abu Nasar Mohammad ibn Al-Farabi, also known in Europe  as  Alpharabis was born in Wasij,  the province of Farab in Turkestan, in 872 CE. His father belonged to a noble family of Persian origin. He received his early education at Farab, Bukhara and higher education at Baghdad, where he studied  logic, philosophy, music, mathematics,  sciences and many other languages.. He was a pupil of the great translator and interpreter of Greek philosophy, Abu Bishr Matta of Baghdad. He traveled Ciro, Damascus, Harran and  finally to Aleppo. Here he became part of the literary circle in the court of Saif al-Daula Hamdani  the ruler of Syria. The king offered him  the position of a Judgeship which he accepted, but later on he took teaching and writing  as his main profession.  Close to end of his life  al-Farabi left the city he was teaching and wandered on his own in the countryside to reflect and to write, it was probably his desire  to reform his society that inclined him towards Sufism. His travels brought him to Egypt and finally to Damascus where he died  in year 890 CE.

Al-Farabi was a great Muslim philosopher, who also made considerable contributions in logic, music, psychology, sociology, mathematics and medicine. He was a prolific writer and as such he authored more than one hundred books and commentaries.  He was the first Muslim thinker to develop a non-Aristotelian logic which he divided in two categories first the “Idea” and second the “proof.” In his treatise, The Virtuous City  he has discussed in great detail the social psychology of the masses. It is the best source for al-Farabi’s political philosophy,  while this work embraces Platonic themes, it is in no way an Arabic clone of Plato’s Republic. Here he lays down in Platonic fashion the qualities necessary for the rulers.  He identifies four different types of corrupt city: these are the ignorant city, the dissolute city , the turncoat city  and the straying city  His ideal virtuous city  is that which wholeheartedly embraces the pursuit of goodness and happiness and where the virtues will clearly abound. The heart of al-Farabi’s political philosophy is the concept of happiness. The virtuous society, according him is a society  in which people cooperate to gain happiness.

Al-Farabi authored two voluminous books concerning the knowledge and intellect, Categories of Science and  Epistle on Intellect. The first work illustrates neatly al-Farabi’s beliefs both about what can be learned and the range of that knowledge. He divides his work into five major chapters: namely, science of language, science of logic, mathematical science, metaphysics and political science and concludes with  a sermon on the importance  of acquiring knowledge. It is the second book  which provides perhaps the most useful key to al-Farabi’s complex theories about the intellect. In this work he divides ‘intellect  into six major categories in an attempt to elaborate the various meanings of the Arabic word ‘aql. The first intellect  is discernment ; the individual who acts for the good of the people, is characterized by this faculty. The second  intellects is that which has been identified with common sense and the third  is natural perception.  The fourth  may be characterized as ‘conscience’:  which is a quality whereby good might be distinguished from evil. The fifth intellect is both the most difficult and the most important, it could be of four types, potential intellect, actual intellect, acquired intellect and  active intellect.  The sixth and last of the major intellects is Divine Reason or God himself, the source of all intellectual energy and power.

Al-Farabi undertook the meticulous study of ancient philosophy, particularly of Plato and Aristotle, absorbing the components of Platonic and neo-Platonic philosophy, which he integrated into his own Islamic philosophy, whose chief source was the Qur`an and the various sciences of Qur`an.  He tried to understand the ideas of Plato and Aristotle and expressed in his book The gathering of the ideas of the two philosophers. The main aim of this work was to revive and reinvent the neo-Aristotelian tradition of Alexandria. It seems he succeeded and was honored by title of “the second master” of philosophy (Aristotle being the first). He wrote rich commentaries on Aristotle’s logic and physics  His synthesis of philosophy and Sufism paved the way for Ibn Sina to develop his philosophical thoughts. Al-Farabi loved music and wrote a book on it, titled; The Book of Music. He invented a number of musical instruments and his pure Arabian tone system is still used in the Arabian music. He has discussed the therapeutic effect of music on the soul in his treatise. In physics he carried out the first experiment concerning the existence of vacuum. He concluded that air’s volume can expand to fill the available space.     

Al-Farabi represents a turning-point in the history of Islamic philosophical thought, since he was the first Muslim thinker to use universal reason in his his philosophy. He lived in a historical period during which the central Khelafat was falling apart into small independent states.

He was very concerned to restore the unity of Islamic thought through logic within the Islamic culture.  He made the political science the core of his philosophy basing on the system of rule which governs the nature and on Qur`an. He believed that the aim of knowledge was the knowledge of God, his attributes and his laws permitting human beings to achieve highest level of wisdom and intellect. Education is one of the most important social phenomena in al-Farabi’s philosophical system.

It is concerned with the human soul and makes sure that the individual is prepared from an early age to become a member of society, to achieve his own level of perfection. Indeed, the whole activity of education, in his  view, is the acquisition of values, knowledge and practical skills by the individual.

The goal of education is to lead the individual to perfection since the human being was created for this purpose, and the goal of humanity’s existence in this world is to attain happiness, which is the highest perfection—the absolute good.

Al-Farabi’s concepts of essence and existence provided a base for the elaborated metaphysics of Ibn Sina and thence of Thomas Aquinas. 

The  comparisons between the tenfold hierarchy of intellection produced by al-Farabi and the similar hierarchy espoused by Ibn Sina, each of which gives a key role to the Tenth Intellect, shows that in matters of emanation and hierarchy Ibn Sina owes a considerable intellectual debt to his predecessor.

Al-Farabi influenced many other thinkers as well. A glance at the period between 870 CE and  1023 CE where four major Muslim thinkers were born and flourished during this period, were heavily influenced by al-Farabi. 


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