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Muslim scholar
Islamic Golden Age

Al-Farabi's imagined face appears on the currency of the Republic of Kazakhstan


Abū Nasr Muhammad ibn al-Farakh al-Fārābi[1]


The Second Teacher[2]


c. 872[2]


c. 950[2]


Shia Muslim[2]


Central Asia, Iran, Iraq, Egypt and Syria

Main interests:

Metaphysics, Political philosophy, Logic, Music, Science(Tabi'iat), Ethics, Mysticism[2], Epistemology and Medicine


Purposes of Metaphysics of Aristotle[3], Fosus Al-Hekam, Kitab Mabda ara ahl Al-Madina Al-Fadhila, Counting the knowledge(Ehsa Al-Ulum), The Great musics(Al-Musiqi Al-Kabir)[2]


Aristotle, Plato, Porphyry, Ptolemy,[citation needed], Al-Kindi


Avicenna, Yahya ibn Adi, Abu Sulayman Sijistani, Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi, Ibn Bajjah, Mulla Sadra[2] Al Amiri and Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi[citation needed]

Abū Nasr Muhammad ibn al-Farakh al-Fārābi[1] (Persian: ی) or Abū Nasr al-Fārābi (in some sources, known as Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Tarkhan ibn Uzlagh al-Farabi[2]), also known in the West as Alpharabius, Al-Farabi, Farabi, and Abunaser (c. 872[2] between 14 December 950 and 12 January 951) is considered a great polymath, scientist and philosopher in the history of Persia and the Islamic world.



The existing variations in the basic facts about al-Farabi's origins and pedigree indicate that they were not recorded during his lifetime or soon thereafter by anyone with concrete information, but were based on hearsay or guesses (as is the case with other contemporaries of al-Farabi). But what is known with certainty is that after finishing his early school years in Farab and Bukhara, Farabi moved to Baghdad in 901 to pursue higher studies. He studied under a Christian cleric Yuhanna ibn Haylan in Harran who abandoned lay interests and engaged in his ecclesiastical duties, and he remained in Baghdad for more than 40 years and acquired mastery over several languages and fields of knowledge.[1] He left Baghdad in 941 and went to Aleppo. There, he was supported and glorified by Saif ad-Daula, the Hamdanid ruler of Syria. He had some other journeies and traveled to Cairo[2] Finally Farabi died in Damascus sometime between 14 December 950 and 12 January 951.[1]

There is no consensus on the ethnic background of Farabi. All sources on his ethnic background have been written at least 300 years after Farabi and these few classical primary sources have described his ethnicity differently. Among notable scholars who have done extensive research on Farabi's life and works is Prof. Dimitri Gutas who has examined primary sources dealing with Farabi's background.[1]

Persian origin

The oldest known document regarding his background, written by the medieval Arab historian Ibn Abi Osaybe'a (died in 1269), mentions that al-Farabi's father was of Persian descent.[4] Mohammad Ibn Mahmud Al-Shahruzi who lived around 1288 A.D. and has written an early biography also has stated that Farabi hailed from a Persian family.[5] Ibn al-Nadim, a younger contemporary of Farabi and a close friend of Yahya ibn Adi (Farabi's closest and most successful student), states Farabi's origins[1][6] to lie in Faryab in Khorasan ("men al-Faryab men ardh Khorasan"). Faryab is also the name of a province in today's Afghanistan. The Dehkhoda Dictionary - based on Ibn Abi Osaybe'a's accounts - also calls him Persian (ی ), mentioning the fact that his father was a member of the Persian-speaking Samanid court of Central Asia. The older Persian form Parab (Persian word meaning cultivated land by streams) is given in the historical account Hodud al-'alam for his birthplace. Farabi has in a number of his works references and glosses in Persian and Sogdian,[7][8] pointing to an Iranian-speaking Central Asian origin. A Persian origin is also discussed by Peter J. King[9] and some other western sources[10] as well a comprehensive source on Islamic Philosophy written in Arabic by the Egyptian scholar Prof. Hanna Fakhuri.[11]

Turkic origin

The oldest known reference to a possible Turkic origin is given by the medieval historian Ibn Khallekān (died in 1282), who claimed that Farabi was born in the small village of Wasij near Farab (in what is today Otrar, Kazakhstan) of Turkic parents, and in the following decades and centuries, many others coppied his work.[12] But scholars criticize Ibn Khallekān's statement, as it is only aimed to ridicule the earlier reports of Ibn Abi Osaybe'a, and seems to have the sole purpose to prove that Farabi was a Turk.[1] In this context, it is criticized that Ibn Khallekān was also the first to use the additional nisba (surname) "al-Turk" - a nisba Farabi never had.[1] Ibn Khallekān's statement also contradicts Ibn al-Nadim and Yahya bin Adi, both contemporaries of Farabi, who had reported that Farabi's birthplace was Faryab in Khorasan. Ibn Khallekān's accounts are also partially contradicted by the above mentioned fact that Farabi has in many of his writings references and glosses in Persian, Sogdian, and Greek, but not in Turkish.[1]

However, aside from early Islamic sources and the mentioned controversies, a significant number of sources[13] as well as the Encyclopaedia Britannica[14] consider al-Farabi to be of Turkic, some even of Turkic Seljuq[15] origin.


Farabi made notable contributions to the fields of mathematics, philosophy, medicine and music.

As a philosopher and Neoplatonist, he wrote rich commentary on Aristotle's work. Al-Farabi was also the first Muslim philosopher to develop a non-Aristotelian logic

. He discussed the topics of future contingents, the number and relation of the categories, the relation between logic and grammar, and non-Aristotelian forms of inference.[16] He is also credited for categorizing logic into two separate groups, the first being "idea" and the second being "proof."

Farabi wrote books on sociology and a notable book on music titled Kitab al-Musiqa (The Book of Music). He played and invented a varied number of musical instruments and his pure Arabian tone system is still used in Arabic music.[17] Perhaps, his most notable work is Al-Madina al-fadila where he theorized an ideal state as in Plato's Republic. Farabi is also known for his early investigations into the nature of the existence of void in physics.[18]

Al-Farabi had great influence on science and philosophy for several centuries, and was widely regarded to be second only to Aristotle in knowledge (alluded to by his title of "the Second Teacher"). His work, aimed at synthesis of philosophy and Sufism, paved the way for Ibn Sina's work.[19]

Al-Farabi saw religion as a symbolic rendering of truth, and, like Plato, saw it as the duty of the philosopher to provide guidance to the state. Influenced by the writings of Aristotle, in The Ideas of the Citizens of the Virtuous City and other books, he advanced the view that philosophy and revelation are two different modes of approaching the same truth. [citation needed]

He also mentioned Alexander the Great in his works.[citation needed]

Philosophical Thought

The main influence on al-Farabi's philosophy was the neo-Aristotelian tradition of Alexandria. A prolific writer, he is credited with over one hundred works.[20] Amongst these are a number of prolegomena to philosophy, commentaries on important Aristotelian works (such as the Nicomachean Ethics) as well as his own works. His ideas are marked by their coherency, despite drawing together of many different philosophical disciplines and traditions. Some other significant influences on his work were the planetary model of Ptolemy and elements of Neo-Platonism, [21]particularly metaphysics and practical (or political) philosophy (which bears more resemblance to Plato's Republic than Aristotle's Politics).[22]

Al-Farabi as well as Ibn Sina and Averroes have been recognized as Peripatetics(al-Mashshaiyun) or rationalists(Estedlaliun) among Muslims.[23] [24][25] However he tried to gather the ideas of Plato and Aristotle in his book "The gathering of the ideas of the two philosophers".[26]

According to Adamson, his work was singularly directed towards the goal of simultaneously reviving and reinventing the Alexandrian philosophical tradition, to which his Christian teacher, Yuhanna b. Haylan belonged. His success should be measured by the honorific title of "the second master" of philosophy (Aristotle being the first), by which he was known. Interestingly, Adamson also says that he does not make any reference to the ideas of either al-Kindi or his contemporary, Abu Bakr al-Razi, which clearly indicates that he did not consider their approach to Philosophy as a correct or viable one.[27]


Metaphysics and Cosmology

In contrast to al-Kindi, who considered the subject of metaphysics to be God, al-Farabi believed that it was concerned primarily with being qua being (that is, being in of itself), and this is related to God only to the extent that God is a principal of absolute being. Al-Kindi's view was, however, a common misconception regarding Greek philosophy amongst Muslim intellectuals at the time, and it was for this reason that Avicenna remarked that he did not understand Aristotle's Metaphysics properly until he had read a prolegomena written by al-Farabi.[28]

Al-Farabi's cosmology is essentially based upon three pillars: Aristotelian metaphysics of causation, highly developed Plotinian emanational cosmology and the Ptolemaic astronomy.[29] In his model, the universe is viewed as a number of concentric circles; the outermost sphere or "first heaven", the sphere of fixed stars, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury and finally, the Moon. At the centre of these concentric circles is the sub-lunar realm which contains the material world.[30] Each of these circles represent the domain of the secondary intelligences (symbolized by the celestial bodies themselves), which act as causal intermediaries between the First Cause (in this case, God) and the material world. Furthermore these are said to have emanated from God, who is both their formal and efficient cause. This departs radically from the view of Aristotle, who considered God to be solely a formal cause for the movement of the spheres, but by doing so it renders the model more compatible with the ideas of the theologians.[31]

The process of emanation begins (metaphysically, not temporally) with the First Cause, whose principal activity is self-contemplation. And it is this intellectual activity that underlies its role in the creation of the universe. The First Cause, by thinking of itself, "overflows" and the incorporeal entity of the second intellect "emanates" from it. Like its predecessor, the second intellect also thinks about itself, and thereby brings its celestial sphere (in this case, the sphere of fixed stars) into being, but in addition to this it must also contemplate upon the First Cause, and this causes the "emanation" of the next intellect. The cascade of emanation continues until it reaches the tenth intellect, beneath which is the material world. And as each intellect must contemplate both itself and an increasing number of predecessors, each succeeding level of existence becomes more and more complex. It should be noted that this process is based upon necessity as opposed to will. In other words, God does not have a choice whether or not to create the universe, but by virtue of His own existence, He causes it to be. This view also suggests that the universe is eternal, and both of these points were criticized by al-Ghazzali in his attack on the philosophers[32][33]

In his discussion of the First Cause (or God), al-Farabi relies heavily on negative theology. He says that it cannot be known by intellectual means, such as dialectical division or definition, because the terms used in these processes to define a thing constitute its substance. Therefore if one was to define the First Cause, each of the terms used would actually constitute a part of its substance and therefore behave as a cause for its existence, which is impossible as the First Cause is uncaused; it exists without being caused. Equally, he says it cannot be known according to genus and differentia, as its substance and existence are different from all others, and therefore it has no category to which it belongs. If this were the case, then it would not be the First Cause, because something would be prior in existence to it, which is also impossible. This would suggest that the more philosophically simple a thing is, the more perfect it is. And based on this observation, Adamson says it is possible to see the entire hierarchy of al-Farabi's cosmology according to classification into genus and species. Each succeeding level in this structure has as its principal qualities multiplicity and deficiency, and it is this ever-increasing complexity that typifies the material world. [34]

Epistemology and Eschatology

Human beings are unique in al-Farabi's vision of the universe because they stand between two worlds: the "higher", immaterial world of the celestial intellects and universal intelligibles, and the "lower", material world of generation and decay; they inhabit a physical body, and so belong to the "lower" world, but they also have a rational capacity, which connects them to the "higher" realm. Each level of existence in al-Farabi's cosmology is characterized by its movement towards perfection, which is to become like the First Cause; a perfect intellect. Human perfection (or "happiness"), then, is equated with constant intellection and contemplation.[35]

Al-Farabi divides intellect into four categories: potential, actual, acquired and the Agent. The first three are the different states of the human intellect and the fourth is the Tenth Intellect (the moon) in his emanational cosmology. The potential intellect represents the capacity to think, which is shared by all human beings, and the actual intellect is an intellect engaged in the act of thinking. By thinking, al-Farabi means abstracting universal intelligibles from the sensory forms of objects which have been apprehended and retained in the individual's imagination.[36]

This motion from potentiality to actuality requires the Agent Intellect to act upon the retained sensory forms; just as the Sun illuminates the physical world to allow us to see, the Agent Intellect illuminates the world of intelligibles to allow us to think.[37] This illumination removes all accident (such as time, place, quality) and physicality from them, converting them into primary intelligibles, which are logical principals such as "the whole is greater than the part". The human intellect, by its act of intellection, passes from potentiality to actuality, and as it gradually comprehends these intelligibles, it is identified with them (as according to Aristotle, by knowing something, the intellect becomes like it).[38] Because the Agent Intellect knows all of the intelligibles, this means that when the human intellect knows all of them, it becomes associated with the Agent Intellect's perfection and is known as the acquired Intellect.[39]

While this process seems mechanical, leaving little room for human choice or volition, Reisman says that al-Farabi is committed to human voluntarism.[40] This takes place when man, based on the knowledge he has acquired, decides whether to direct himself towards virtuous or unvirtuous activities, and thereby decides whether or not to seek true happiness. And it is by choosing what is ethical and contemplating about what constitutes the nature of ethics, that the actual intellect can become "like" the active intellect, thereby attaining perfection. It is only by this process that a human soul may survive death, and live on in the afterlife.[41][42]

According to al-Farabi, the afterlife is not the personal experience commonly conceived of by religious traditions such as Islam and Christianity. Any individual or distinguishing features of the soul are annihilated after the death of the body; only the rational faculty survives (and then, only if it has attained perfection), which becomes one with all other rational souls within the agent intellect and enters a realm of pure intelligence.[43] Henry Corbin compares this eschatology with that of the Ismaili Neo-Platonists, for whom this process initiated the next grand cycle of the universe.[44] However, Deborah Black mentions we have cause to be skeptical as to whether this was the mature and developed view of al-Farabi, as later thinkers such as Ibn Tufayl, Averroes and Ibn Bajjah would assert that he repudiated this view in his commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, which has been lost to modern experts.[45]

Psychology, the Soul and Prophetic Knowledge

In his treatment of the human soul, al-Farabi draws on a basic Aristotelian outline, which is informed by the commentaries of later Greek thinkers. He says it is composed of four faculties: The appetitive (the desire for, or aversion to an object of sense), the sensitive (the perception by the senses of corporeal substances), the imaginative (the faculty which retains images of sensible objects after they have been perceived, and then separates and combines them for a number of ends), and the rational, which is the faculty of intellection.[46] It is the last of these which is unique to human beings and distinguishes them from plants and animals. It is also the only part of the soul to survive the death of the body. Noticeably absent from these scheme are internal senses, such as common sense, which would be discussed by later philosophers such as Avicenna and Averroes. [47][48]

Special attention must be given to al-Farabi's treatment of the soul's imaginative faculty, which is essential to his interpretation of prophethood and prophetic knowledge. In addition to its ability to retain and manipulate sensible images of objects, he gives the imagination the function of imitation. By this he means the capacity to represent an object with an image other than its own. In other words, to imitate "x" is to imagine "x" by associating it with sensible qualities that do not describe its own appearance. This extends the representative ability of the imagination beyond sensible forms and to include temperaments, emotions, desires and even immaterial intelligibles or abstract universals, as happens when, for example, one associates "evil" with "darkness".[49][50] The prophet, in addition to his own intellectual capacity, has a very strong imaginative faculty, which allows him to receive an overflow of intelligibles from the agent intellect (the tenth intellect in the emanational cosmology). These intelligibles are then associated with symbols and images, which allow him to communicate abstract truths in a way that can be understood by ordinary people. Therefore what makes prophetic knowledge unique is not its content, which is also accessible to philosophers through demonstration and intellection, but rather the form that it is given by the prophet's imagination.[51][52]

Practical Philosophy (Ethics and Politics)

The practical application of philosophy is a major concern expressed by al-Farabi in many of his works, and while the majority of his philosophical output has been influenced by Aristotelian thought, his practical philosophy is unmistakably based on that of Plato.[53] In a similar manner to Republic (Plato), al-Farabi emphasizes that philosophy is both a theoretical and practical discipline; labeling those philosophers who do not apply their erudition to practical pursuits as "futile philosophers". The ideal society, he says, is one directed towards the realization of "true happiness" (which can be taken to mean philosophical enlightenment) and as such, the ideal philosopher must hone all the necessary arts of rhetoric and poetics to communicate abstract truths to the ordinary people, as well as having achieved enlightenment himself.[54] Al-Farabi compares the philosopher's role in relation to society with a physician in relation to the body; the body's health is affected by the "balance of its humours" just as the city is determined by the moral habits of its people. The philosopher's duty, he says, is to establish a "virtuous" society by healing the souls of the people, establishing justice and guiding them towards "true happiness".[55]

Of course, al-Farabi realizes that such a society is rare and will require a very specific set of historical circumstances in order to be realized, which means very few societies will ever be able to attain this goal. He divides those "vicious" societies, which have fallen short of the ideal "virtuous" society, into three categories: ignorant, wicked and errant. Ignorant societies have, for whatever reason, failed to comprehend the purpose of human existence, and have supplanted the pursuit of happiness for another (inferior) goal, whether this be wealth, sensual gratification or power. It is interesting to note that democratic societies also fall into this category, as they too lack any guiding principal. Both wicked and errant societies have understood the true human end, but they have failed to follow it. The former because they have willfully abandoned it, and the latter because their leaders have deceived and misguided them. Al-Farabi also makes mention of "weeds" in the virtuous society; those people who try to undermine its progress towards the true human end. [56]

Whether or not al-Farabi actually intended to outline a political programme in his writings remains a matter of dispute amongst academics. Henry Corbin, who considers al-Farabi to be a crypto-Shi'ite

, says that his ideas should be understood as a "prophetic philosophy" instead of being interpreted politically.[57] On the other hand, Charles Butterworth contends that nowhere in his work does al-Farabi speak of a prophet-legislator or revelation (even the word philosophy is scarcely mentioned), and the main discussion that takes place concerns the positions of "king" and "statesmen".[58]. Occupying a middle position is David Reisman, who like Corbin believes that al-Farabi did not want to expound a political doctrine (although he does not go so far to attribute it to Islamic Gnosticism either). He argues that al-Farabi was using different types of society as examples, in the context of an ethical discussion, to show what effect correct or incorrect thinking could have.[59] Lastly, Joshua Parens argues that al-Farabi was slyly asserting that a pan-Islamic society could not be made, by using reason to show how many conditions (such as moral and deliberative virtue) would have to be met, thus leading the reader to conclude that humans are not fit for such a society. [60]