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Abū Nasr Muhammad ibn al-Farakh al-Fārābi (in Persian: محمد فارابی) or Abū Nasr al-Fārābi (in some sources, known as Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Tarkhan ibn Uzalagh al-Farabi), also known in the Western world as Alpharabius, Al-Farabi, Farabi, and Abunaser (870 - 950 C.E.) was an Islamic philosopher and scientist. He was referred to in the Arab world as the “Second Teacher” (after Aristotle as the “First Teacher”) because of his extensive commentaries on Aristotle and his work in logic. He is also recognized as the “father” of Islamic Neoplatonism. He was the first Islamic philosopher to make a distinction between philosophy and religion, and gave precedence to reason over revelation as a source of truth. He worked to reconcile the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato with Qu’ranic doctrine. His concept of essence-existence became the basis of the metaphysics of Avicenna, which later influenced the Christian theology of Thomas Aquinas.

Al-Faribi believed that the philosopher naturally seeks political power. His most famous work, Al-Madina al-fadila (The Virtuous City), describes a hierarchical ideal society based on a Neoplatonic concept of the Divine, in which the responsibility of the absolute ruler is to educate and guide the people, by persuasion or force, to act in the manner that will achieve their ultimate happiness.

Al-Faribi was also a musician who invented and played a variety of musical instruments. He wrote a notable book on music, Kitab al-Musiqa (The Book of Music), and his pure Arabian tone system is still in use in Arab music.



Al–Farabi was born in 870 C.E. There are varying historical accounts of his ethnic origin; the earliest known documents about him were written some 300 years after al-Farabi's death. The oldest known document regarding his heritage, written by the medieval Arabic historian Ibn Abi Osaybe'a, mentions that al-Farabi's father was of Persian descent. Ibn al-Nadim, among other historians, states that Farabi's originated from Faryab in Khorasan ("men al-Faryab men ardhµ Khorasan"). Faryab is also the name of a province in today's Afghanistan. The Dehkhoda Dictionary also refers to him as Persian ("فارسی المنتسب"), mentioning that his father was a member of the Persian-speaking Samanid court of Central Asia. Some historians, such as medieval Turkish historian Ibn Khallekān, claim that Farabi was born in the small village of Wasij near Farab (in what is today Otrar, Kazakhstan) of Turkic parents. The historical account Hodud al-'alam gives the older Persian form Parab for his birthplace.

It is known with certainty is that after finishing his early school years in Farab and Bukhara, Farabi arrived in Baghdad in 901 to pursue higher studies. He studied under the Nestorian Christian Abu Bishr Matta bin Yunus, a translator and logician, and later under Yuhanna bin Haylan in Harran. He mastered several languages and fields of knowledge, and was an accomplished musician. Al-Faribi lived through the reign of six Abbasid Caliphs. He traveled to Egypt, Damascus, Harran, and Aleppo (Halab) but always returned to Baghdad. In Aleppo he visited the court of Saif al-Daula and became a constant companion of the king, and it is said that most of his works were written there. In his earlier years he was a qadi (judge) but later became a teacher. He suffered great hardships during his life, and at one time was the caretaker of a garden. He died around 950 C.E.

Various legends have arisen about Al-Faribi, including that he was an expert in seventy languages, and that he was an alchemist who spent his life in search of everlasting youth and the formula to make gold. By some accounts he died a natural death in Damascus, but according to one story he was killed by bandits on the road from Damascus to Ascalon after making an unannounced visit to Sultan Seifeddoulet, where he charmed the court with his discourse and music, and then refused the Sultan’s invitation to stay.


Al-Farabi was the first Islamic philosopher to make a distinction between philosophy and religion. Claiming that reason, based on intellectual perception, was superior to revelation and imagination, he gave precedence to philosophy as a source of truth and guidance in the practical aspects of life, such as politics and sociology. He saw religion as a symbolic rendering of the truth, and aimed to reconcile the teachings of the Qu’ran with philosophical truth. Al-Farabi is best known for his Neoplatonist ideas, but he was also an Aristotelian; it is said that he read Aristotle’s On the Soul two hundred times and the Physics forty times. (He also relied heavily on the book Theology of Aristotle, which was eventually revealed to be the work of Plotinus, a Neoplatonic philosopher.) In his works, al-Farabi attempted to show the basic agreement between Aristotle and Plato on the creation of the universe, nature of the soul, and reward and punishment in the afterlife.

Al-Farabi was referred to in the Arabic world as the “Second Teacher” (al-Mou'allim al-Thani), with Aristotle being the “First Teacher,” because of his elaborate commentaries on Aristotle and his work in logic. He categorized logic into two separate groups: "idea" (takhayyul) and "proof" (thubut). Al-Farabi was later overshadowed by Ibn Sina (Avicenna), but he is the originator of key ideas which were absorbed into Islamic, Jewish and Christian philosophy. His doctrine of essence-existence became the basis for the metaphysics of Avicenna, which were later adapted to Christianity by Thomas Aquinas. The influence of al-Farabi was also evident in Avicenna’s explanation of emanation and the hierarchy of intellects, and in the role which he assigned to the Tenth Intellect. Four students and followers of al-Farabi’s thought, Yahya ibn 'Adi, al-Sijistani, al-'Amiri and al-Tawhidi, were important Islamic thinkers.


Al-Farabi is considered the “father” of Islamic Neoplatonism. He replaced the Qu’ranic doctrine of creation ex nihilo with a Neoplatonic theory of the emanation of the universe from a Divine Being, characterized by al-Farabi as “the First,” in whom essence and existence are absolutely one. From this first Divine Being emanates the First Intellect, termed by al-Farabi “the Second.” This First Intellect, an immaterial substance, comprehends God and consequently produces a “Second Intellect.” It also comprehends its own essence and produces the body and soul of al-sama' al-ula, the First Heaven. Each of the succeeding emanated intellects is associated with the generation of other astral phenomena such as the stars and planets. The Tenth Intellect is the Agent or Active Intellect (nous poi騁ikos in Greek, dator formarum in Latin and aql al-fa' 'al in Arabic) which both emanates form to mind and the sublunary world, and actualizes thought in the mind of man. Al-Faribi also employed the Neoplatonic method of describing the divine in terms of negative attributes, such as indivisible and indefinable.

Al-Faribi rejected predestination. In his commentary on Aristotle’s De interpretatione, he argued that divine omniscience did not imply determinism; though logic tells us that one fact should follow another, this knowledge does not necessarily transfer to the fact itself. He regarded the Qur'anic prophets as having the role of interpreting higher truths for the common people through law and imagery.


Al-Faribi included both Aristotelian and Nepolatonic elements in his complex theory of epistemology. His Risala fi’l-‘aql classified intellect (‘aql) into six major categories: discernment, or prudence; common sense, which recognizes the obvious; natural perception, which allows certainty about fundamental truths; conscience, which distinguishes good and evil, and is gained through experience of life; intellect; and Divine Reason, the source of all intellectual energy and power. He divided the fifth category, intellect, into four types: potential intellect (aql bi'l-quwwa), actual intellect (aql bi'l-fi'l), acquired intellect (aql mustafad), and agent or active intellect(‘aql al-faal).

Kitab ihsa' al-'ulum was an encyclopedic survey of all that al-Farabi believed could be encompassed by knowledge, both theological and philosophical. The book has chapters on five different “sciences;” the science of language, logic, mathematics (arithmetic, geometry, optics, astronomy, music, weights and mechanics), physics and metaphysics, and political science (jurisprudence and scholastic theology).

Al-Madina al-fadila (The Ideas of the Citizens in the Virtuous City)

Al-Farabi’s famous work on political science begins with three chapters describing the First Cause and the process of the emanation of the universe. Al-Farabi asserts that human beings, like any natural species, have a perfect state toward which their actions tend, and this perfect state can only be realized in association with other human beings; man is a political animal.

[H]e cannot labour toward this perfection except by exploiting a large number of natural beings and until he manipulates them to render them useful… [A]n isolated individual cannot achieve all the perfections by himself and without the aid of many other individuals. It is the innate disposition of every man to join another human being or other men in the labor he ought to perform… Therefore, to achieve what he can of that perfection, every man needs to stay in the neighborhood of others and associate with them… which is why he is called the social and political animal. [1]

The concept of happiness (sa’ada) is essential to al-Faribi’s political philosophy. In a virtuous society (al-ijtima' al-fadil) and a virtuous city (al-madina al-fadila), everyone cooperates to gain happiness through goodness. A virtuous world (al-ma'mura al-fadila) is one in which all nations collaborate to achieve universal happiness. A virtuous society strives to preserve the souls of all its inhabitants. Al-Faribi compares the functioning of an ideal city to the functioning of a healthy human body.

The idealized prince in Al-Madina al-fadila is an absolute ruler, whose soul is united with the “Active Intellect.” Al-Farabi follows Plato in enumerating the qualities of a prince: he should possess the right natural disposition and exhibit the right attitude for a ruler; he will have perfected himself; he should be a good orator; he should have a strong physique, a good understanding and memory, love learning and truth, and be above worldly materialism. The prince assumes "absolute power" over the state and all others are subservient to him. Citizens are also classified in terms of the power and rights they enjoy, and each takes orders from those above them and has power over those below.

not every chance human being will possess art, moral virtue, and deliberative virtue with great power. Therefore the prince occupies his place by nature and not merely by will. Similarly, a subordinate occupies his place primarily by nature… This being the case, the theoretical virtue, the highest deliberative virtue, the highest moral virtue, and the highest practical art [politics] are realized only in those equipped for them by nature: that is, in those who possess superior natures with very great potentialities. [2]

Those people with superior natural capacity and acquired virtue must perfect themselves by means of instruction in the theoretical sciences, and the development of character through the formation of good habits. A prince exercises his responsibility by using the abilities of the leaders beneath him to instruct and form the character of the lower classes, either by persuasion (for which they need a mastery of philosophy) or by compulsion, in order to make them do what is necessary to achieve their happiness, which includes their salvation.

Al-Farabi believed that philosophy naturally seeks political power, and that it is the duty of the philosopher to provide guidance the state. He claimed that it was impossible to achieve an ideal state, but that effort should be made to accomplish it.

[P]olitical association and the totality that results from the association of citizens in cities correspond to the association of the bodies that constitute the totality of the world… Just as in the world there is a first principle, then other principles subordinate to it, beings that proceed from these principles, other beings subordinate to these beings, until they terminate in the beings with the lowest rank in the order of being, the nation or the city includes a supreme commander, followed by other commanders, followed by other citizens, who in turn are followed by other citizens, until they terminate in the citizens with the lowest rank as citizens and as human beings. Thus the city includes the likenesses of the things included in the total world. [3]


Al-Farabi made notable contributions to the fields of mathematics, philosophy, medicine and music. Although many of his books have been lost, 117 are known to exist, including 43 on logic, 11 on metaphysics, seven on ethics, seven about political science, 11 commentaries, and 17 on music, medicine and sociology. His most famous work, al-Madina al-fadila (The Virtuous City), a treatise on sociology and political science, was highly original. Kitab al-Ihsa al ‘Ulum elaborated fundamental principles of science and suggested a system of classification. He also wrote a notable book on music, Kitab al-Musiqa(The Book of Music). He invented and played a variety of musical instruments and his pure Arabian tone system is still used in Arab music. Al-Farabi is also known for his demonstration of the existence of void in physics.


  1. Al-Farabi, Book of Agreement between the ideas of the two philosophers, the divine Plato and Aristotle, quoted in Muhsin Mahdi and Ralph Lerner (eds.), Medieval Political Philosophy (Cornell University Press, 1972, ISBN 978-0801491399).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.


Primary sources

  • al-Farabi (c.870-950) al-Madina al-fadila (The Virtuous City), trans. R. Walzer, Al-Farabi on the Perfect State: Abu Nasr al-Farabi's Mabadi' Ara Ahl al-Madina al-Fadila, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985. (Revised with introduction and commentary by the translator.)
  • al-Farabi. Risala fi'l-'aql (Epistle on the Intellect), ed. M. Bouyges, Beirut: Imprimerie Catholique, 1938. (A seminal text for the understanding of Farabian epistemology.)
  • al-Farabi. Kitab al-huruf (The Book of Letters), ed. M. Mahdi, Beirut: Dar al-Mashriq, 1969. (Modelled on Aristotle's Metaphysics, but of interest to students of linguistics as well as of philosophy.)
  • al-Farabi. Kitab ihsa' al-'ulum (The Book of the Enumeration of the Sciences), ed. and trans. A. Gonz疝ez Palencia, Cat疝ogo de las Ciencias, Arabic text with Latin and Spanish translation, Madrid: Imprenta y Editorial Maestre, 1953. (A survey of the learned sciences of the day, of encyclopedic range.)
  • al-Farabi. Kitab al-musiqa al-kabir (The Great Book of Music), ed. G. A. Khashab and M. A. al-Hafni, Cairo: Dar al-Katib al-'Arabi, 1967. (Al-Farabi's major contribution to musicology.)

Secondary sources

  • Black, D. 'Al-Farabi', in S. H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, Ch. 12, 178-97. London: Routledge, 1996 (Account of the thought and main works of al-Farabi.)
  • Fakhry, M. A History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Longman; New York: Columbia University Press, 2nd ed., 1983
  • Fakhry, Majid. Al-Farabi, Founder of Islamic Neoplatonism: His Life, Works, and Influence, Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2002. ISBN 185168302X
  • Galston, M. Politics and Excellence: The Political Philosophy of Alfarabi, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.
  • Mahdi, Muhsin, and Ralph Lerner (eds.). Medieval Political Philosophy. Cornell University Press, 1972. ISBN 978-0801491399
  • Marcinkowski, Christoph, "A Biographical Note on Ibn Bajjah (Avempace) and an English Translation of his Annotations to Al-Farabi's Isagoge." Iqbal Review Lahore, Pakistan: 43(2) (April 2002): 83–99.
  • Netton, I. R. Allah Transcendent: Studies in the Structure and Semiotics of Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Cosmology. London and New York: Routledge, 1989.
  • Netton, I. R. Al-Farabi and His School, Arabic Thought and Culture Series, London and New York: Routledge, 1992.
  • Touma, Habib Hassan. Laurie Schwartz (trans.) The Music of the Arabs. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1996. ISBN 0931340888

External links

All links retrieved September 12, 2012.

General Philosophy Sources


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