Abu Al-Nasr Al-Farabi Turkistani 870-950

Abu Nasr Mohammad Ibn al-Farakh al-Farabi was born in a small village Wasij, near Farab in Turkistanin 259 A.H. (870 A.D.). His parents were originally of Persian descent, but  his ancestors had migrated to Turkistan. Known as al-Phrarabius in Europe,  Farabi was the son of a general. He completed his earlier education at Farab and Bukhara but, later on, he went to Baghdad for higher studies, where he  studied and worked for a long time viz., from 901 A.D. to 942 A.D. During this  period he acquired mastery over several languages as well as various branches of knowledge and technology. He lived through the reign of six Abbasid  Caliphs. As a philosopher and scientist, he acquired great proficiency in  various branches of learning and is reported to have been an expert in  different languages.

Farabi travelled to many  distant lands and studied for some time in Damascus and Egypt, but repeatedly  came back to Baghdad, until he visited Saif al-Daula’s court in Halab  (Allepo). He became one of the constant companions of the King, and it was  here at Halab that his fame spread far and wide. During his early years he was  a Qadi (Judge), but later on the took up teaching as his profession.  During the course of his career, he had suffered great hardships and at one  time was the caretaker of a garden. He died a bachelor in Damascus in 339  A.H./950 A.D. at the age of 80 years.

Farabi contributed  considerably to science, philosophy, logic, sociology, medicine, mathematics  and music. His major contributions seem to be in philosophy, logic and  sociology and, of course, stands out as an Encyclopedist. As a philosopher, he  may be classed as a Neoplatonist who tried to synthesize Platonism and  Aristotelism with theology and he wrote such rich commentaries on Aristotle’s  physics, meteorology, logic, etc., in addition to a large number of books on  several other subjects embodying his original contribution, that he came to be  known as the ‘Second Teacher’ (al-Mou’allim al-Thani) Aristotle being  the First. One of the important contribu- tions of Farabi was to make the  study of logic more easy by dividing it into two categories viz., Takhayyul (idea) and Thubut (proof)

In sociology he wrote  several books out of which Ara Ahl al-Madina al-Fadila became famous.  His books on psychology and metaphysics were largely based on his own work. He  also wrote a book on music, captioned Kitab al-Musiqa. He was a great  expert in the art and science of music and invented several musical instru-  ments, besides contributing to the knowledge of musical notes. It has been  reported that he could play his instrument so well as to make people laugh or  weep at will. In physics he demonstrated the existence of void.

Although many of his books  have been lost, 117 are known, out of which 43 are on logic, 11 on  metaphysics, 7 on ethics, 7 on political science, 17 on music, medicine and  sociology, while 11 are commentaries. Some of his more famous books include  the book Fusus al-Hikam, which remained a text book of philosophy for  several centuries at various centres of learning and is still taught at some  of the institutions in the East. The book Kitab al-lhsa al ‘Ulum discusses classification and fundamental principles of science in a unique and  useful manner. The book Ara Ahl al-Madina al- Fadila‘The Model City’  is a significant early contribution to socio- logy snd political science

Farabi exercised great  influence on science and knowledge for several centuries. Unfortunately, the  book <i>Theology of Aristotle</i>, as was available to him at that time was  regarded by him as genuine, although later on it turned out to be the work of  some Neoplatonic writer. Despite this, he was regarded the Second Teacher in  philosophy for centuries and his work, aimed at synthesis of philosophy and  sufism, paved the way for Ibn  Sina

Al-Farabi al-Farabi, Abu Nasr (870-950)

Al-Farabi  was known to the Arabs as the ‘Second Master’ (after Aristotle), and with good  reason. It is unfortunate that his name has been overshadowed by those of  later philosophers such as Ibn Sina, for al-Farabi was one of the world’s  great philosophers and much more original than many of his Islamic successors.  A philosopher, logician and musician, he was also a major political scientist. Al-Farabi  has left us no autobiography and consequently, relatively little is known for  certain about his life. His philosophical legacy, however, is large. In the  arena of metaphysics he has been designated the ‘Father of Islamic  Neoplatonism’, and while he was also saturated with Aristotelianism and  certainly deploys the vocabulary of Aristotle, it is this Neoplatonic  dimension which dominates much of his corpus. This is apparent in his most  famous work, al-Madina al-fadila (The Virtuous City)which, far from being a copy or a clone of Plato’s Republic, is imbued with the Neoplatonic concept of God. Of course, al-Madina  al-fadil has undeniable Platonic elements but its theology, as opposed to its politics,  places it outside the mainstream of pure Platonism.  In his admittedly complex theories of epistemology, al-Farabi has both an  Aristotelian and Neoplatonic dimension, neither of which is totally integrated  with the other. His influence was wide and extended not only to major Islamic  philosophers such as Ibn Sina who came after him, and to lesser mortals such  as Yahya ibn ‘Adi, al-Sijistani, al-‘Amiri and al-Tawhidi, but also to major  thinkers of Christian medieval Europe including Thomas Aquinas.

Life and works Metaphysics Epistemology Political philosophy Influence

1. Life and works

Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn  Muhammad ibn Tarkhan ibn Awzalagh al-Farabi was born in approximately  257/ad 870. He may rightly be acclaimed as one of the greatest of Islamic  philosophers of all time. While his name tends to be overshadowed by that of   it is worth bearing in mind that the latter was less original than the former.  Indeed, a well-known story tells how Ibn Sina sought in vain to understand  Aristotle’s <i>Metaphysics</i>, and it was only through a book by al-Farabi on  the intentions of the <i>Metaphysics</i> that understanding finally came to  him. However, unlike Ibn Sina, al-Farabi has left us no autobiography and we  know far less about his life in consequence. Considerable myth has become  attached to the man: it is unlikely, for example, that he really spoke more  than seventy languages, and we may also query his alleged ascetic lifestyle.  We do know that he was born in Turkestan and later studied Arabic in Baghdad;  it has been claimed that most of his books were written here. He travelled to  Damascus, Egypt, Harran and Aleppo, and in the latter city the Hamdanid ruler  Sayf al-Dawla became his patron. Even the circumstances of his death are not  clear: some accounts portray him dying naturally in Damascus while at least  one holds that he was mugged and killed on the road from Damascus to Ascalon.

Al-Farabi became an expert  in philosophy and logic, and also in music: one of his works is entitled  Kitab  al-musiqa al-kabir (The Great Book of Music. However, perhaps the book for which he is best known  is that whose title is abbreviated to al-Madina  al-fadila (The Virtuous City), and which is often compared, misleadingly in view of  its Neoplatonic orientation, to Plato’s <i>Republic</i>. Other major titles  from al-Farabi’s voluminous corpus included the   Risala  fi’l-‘aql (Epistle on the Intellect) and Kitab  al-huruf (The Book of Letters) and Kitab  ihsa’ al-‘ulum (The Book of the Enumeration of the Sciences

2. Metaphysics

Majid Fakhry   1983 has described al-Farabi as ‘the founder of Arab Neo-Platonism and the first  major figure in the history of that philosophical movement since Proclus’.  This should be borne in mind as we survey the metaphysics of the philosopher  whom the Latin Middle Ages knew as Abunaser and whom the Arabs designated the  ‘Second Master’ (after Aristotle). It should be noted that al-Farabi was an  Aristotelian as well as a Neoplatonist: he is said, for example, to have read <i>On  the Soul</i> two hundred times and even the <i>Physics</i> forty times. It  should then come as no surprise that he deploys Aristotelian terminology, and  indeed there are areas of his writings that are quite untouched by  Neoplatonism. Furthermore, al-Farabi tried to demonstrate the basic agreement  between Aristotle and Plato on such matters as the creation of the world, the  survival of the soul and reward and punishment in the afterlife. In  al-Farabi’s conception of God, essence and existence fuse absolutely with no  possible separation between the two. However, there is no getting away from  the fact that it is the Neoplatonic element which dominates so much else of  al-Farabi’s work. We see this, for example, in the powerful picture of the  transcendent God of Neoplatonism which dominates al-Madina  al-fadila.  We see this too in al-Farabi’s references to God in a negative mode,  describing the deity by what he is not: he has no partner, he is indivisible  and indefinable. And perhaps we see the Neoplatonic element most of all in the  doctrine of emanation as it is deployed in al-Farabi’s hierarchy of being.  At the top of this

hierarchy is the Divine Being whom al-Farabi characterizes as ‘the First’.  From this emanates a second being which is the First Intellect. (This is  termed, logically, ‘the Second’, that is, the Second Being). Like God, this  being is an immaterial substance. A total of ten intellects emanate from the  First Being. The First Intellect comprehends God and, in consequence of that  comprehension, produces a third being, which is the Second Intellect. The  First Intellect also comprehends its own essence, and the result of this  comprehension is the production of the body and soul of <i>al-sama’ al-ula</i>,  the First Heaven. Each of the following emanated intellects are associated  with the generation of similar astral phenomena, including the fixed stars,  Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury and the Moon. Of particular  significance in the emanationist hierarchy is the Tenth Intellect: it is this  intellect which constitutes the real bridge between the heavenly and  terrestrial worlds. This Tenth Intellect (variously called by the philosophers  the active or agent intellect in English, the <i>nous poiutikos</i>  in Greek, the <i>dator formarum</i> in Latin and the <i>’aql al-fa”al</i> in  Arabic) was responsible both for actualizing the potentiality for thought in  man’s intellect and emanating form to man and the sublunary world. With regard  to the latter activity, it has been pointed out that here the active intellect  takes on the role of Plotinus’ Universal Soul (Plotinus In Farabian metaphysics,  then, the concept of Neoplatonic emanation replaces that of Qur’anic creation <i>ex  nihilo</i> (see Neoplatonism  in Islamic philosophy §2.  Furthermore, the Deity at the top of the Neoplatonic hierarchy is portrayed in  a very remote fashion. Al-Farabi’s philosophers’ God does not act directly on  the sublunary world: much is delegated to the Active Intellect. However, God  for al-Farabi certainly has an indirect ‘responsibility’ for everything, in  that all things emanate from him. Yet we must also note, in order to present a  fully rounded picture, that while it is the Neoplatonic portrait of God which  dominates al-Farabi’s writings, this is not the only picture. In some of his  writings the philosopher <i>does</i> address God traditionally, Qur’anically  and Islamically: he <i>does</i> invoke God as ‘Lord of the Worlds’ and ‘God of  the Easts and the Wests’, and he asks God to robe him in splendid clothes,  wisdom and humility and deliver him from misfortune. Yet the overwhelming  Neoplatonic substratum of so much else of what he writes fully justifies  Fakhry’s characterization of al-Farabi, cited earlier, as ‘the founder of Arab  Neo-Platonism’.

3. Epistemology

Farabian epistemology has  both a Neoplatonic and an Aristotelian dimension. Much of the former has  already been surveyed in our examination of al-Farabi’s metaphysics, and thus  our attention turns now to the Aristotelian dimension. Our three primary  Arabic sources for this are al-Farabi’s  Kitab  ihsa’ al-‘ulumRisala  fi’l-‘aql andKitab  al-huruf It is the second of these  works, Risala  fi’l-‘aql,  which provides perhaps the most useful key to al-Farabi’s complex theories of  intellection. In this work he divides <i>’aql</i> (intellect or reason) into  six major categories in an attempt to elaborate the various meanings of the  Arabic word <i>’aql</i>. First, there is what might be termed discernment or  prudence; the individual who acts for the good is characterized by this  faculty, and there is clearly some overlap with the fourth kind of intellect,  described below. The second of al-Farabi’s intellects is that which has been  identified with common sense; this intellect has connotations of ‘obviousness’  and ‘immediate recognition’ associated with it. Al-Farabi’s third intellect is  natural perception. He traces its source to Aristotle’s <i>Posterior Analytics</i>,  and it is this intellect which allows us to be certain about fundamental  truths. It is not a skill derived from the study of logic, but it may well be  inborn. The fourth of the six intellects may be characterized as ‘conscience’:  this is drawn by the philosopher from Book VI of Aristotle’s <i>Nicomachean  Ethics</i>. It is a quality whereby good might be distinguished from evil and  results from considerable experience of life (see http://www.muslimphilosophy.com/ip/rep/A022#A022SECT18″>Aristotle  §§18-21</a>

Al-Farabi’s fifth intellect  is both the most difficult and the most important. He gives most space to its  description in his Risala  fi’l-‘aql and considers it to be of four different types: potential intellect, actual  intellect, acquired intellect and agent or active intellect. <i>’Aql  bi’l-quwwa</i> (potential intellect) is the intellect which, in Fakhry’s  words, has the capacity ‘of abstracting the forms of existing entities with  which it is ultimately identified’ (Fakhry 983:  121. Potential intellect can thus become <i>’aql bi’l-fi’l</i> (actual intellect).  In its relationship to the actual intellect, the third sub-species of  intellect, <i>’aql mustafad</i> (acquired intellect) is, to use Fakhry’s words  again, the ‘the agent of actualization’ to the actualized object. Finally,  there is the <i>’aql al-fa”al</i> (agent or active intellect), which was  described in §2 above and need not be elaborated upon again.  The sixth and last of the

major intellects is Divine Reason or God himself, the source of all  intellectual energy and power. Even this brief presentation of Farabian  intellection must appear complex; however, given the complexity of the subject  itself, there is little option.  The best source for  al-Farabi’s classification of knowledge is his Kitab  ihsa’ al-‘ulum.  This work illustrates neatly al-Farabi’s beliefs both about what can be known  and the sheer range of that knowledge. Here he leaves aside the division into  theological and philosophical sciences which other Islamic thinkers would use,  and divides his material instead into five major chapters. Through all of them  runs a primary Aristotelian stress on the importance of knowledge. Chapter 1  deals with the ‘science of language’, Chapter 2 formally covers the ‘science  of logic’, Chapter 3 is devoted to the ‘mathematical sciences’, Chapter 4  surveys physics and metaphysics, and the final chapter encompasses ‘civil  science’ (some prefer the term ‘political science’), jurisprudence and  scholastic theology. A brief examination of these chapter headings shows that  a total of eight main subjects are covered; not surprisingly, there are  further subdivisions as well. To give just one example, the third chapter on  the mathematical sciences embraces the seven subdivisions of arithmetic,  geometry, optics, astronomy, music, weights and ‘mechanical artifices’; these  subdivisions in turn have their own subdivisions. Thus al-Farabi’s  epistemology, from what has been described both in this section and §2 above,  may be said to be encyclopedic in range and complex in articulation, with that  articulation using both a Neoplatonic and an Aristotelian voice.

4. Political philosophy

The best known Arabic  source for al-Farabi’s political philosophy is al-Madina  al-fadila.  While this work undoubtedly embraces Platonic themes, it is in no way an  Arabic clone of Plato’s <i>Republic</i>. This becomes very clear right at the  beginning of al-Farabi’s work, with its description of the First Cause  (Chapters 1-2) and the emanation of ‘the Second’ from ‘The First’ (Chapter 3).  Later in the work, however, al-Farabi lays down in Platonic fashion the  qualities necessary for the ruler: he should be predisposed to rule by virtue  of an innate disposition and exhibit the right attitude for such rule. He will  have perfected himself and be a good orator, and his soul will be, as it were,  united to the active intellect (see §3). He will have a strong physique, a  good understanding and memory, love learning and truth and be above the  materialism of this world. Other qualities are enumerated by al-Farabi as

well, and it is clear that here his ideal ruler is akin to Plato’s classical  philosopher-king (see Plato  §14 Al-Farabi has a number of  political divisions for his world. He identifies, for example, three types of  society which are perfect and grades these according to size. His ideal  virtuous city, which gives its name to the whole volume, is that which  wholeheartedly embraces the pursuit of goodness and happiness and where the  virtues will clearly abound. This virtuous city is compared in its function to  the limbs of a perfectly healthy body. By stark contrast, al-Farabi identifies  four different types of corrupt city: these are the ignorant city (<i>al-madina  al-jahiliyya</i>), the dissolute city (<i>al-madina al-fasiqa</i>), the  turncoat city (<i>al-madina al-mubaddala</i>) and the straying city (<i>al-madina  al-dalla</i>). The souls of many of the inhabitants of such cities face  ultimate extinction, while those who have been the cause of their fall face  eternal torment. In itemizing four corrupt societies, al-Farabi was surely  aware of Plato’s own fourfold division of imperfect societies in the Republic  into timarchy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny. The resemblance, however, is  more one of structure (four divisions) rather than of content.  At the heart of al-Farabi’s  political philosophy is the concept of happiness (<i>sa’ada</i>). The virtuous  society (<i>al-ijtima’ al-fadil</i>) is defined as that in which people  cooperate to gain happiness. The virtuous city (<i>al-madina al-fadila</i>) is  one where there is cooperation in achieving happiness. The virtuous world (<i>al-ma’mura  al-fadila</i>) will only occur when all its constituent nations collaborate to  achieve happiness. Walzer reminds us that both Plato and Aristotle held that  supreme happiness was only to be gained by those who philosophized in the  right manner. Al-Farabi followed the Greek paradigm and the highest rank of  happiness was allocated to his ideal sovereign whose soul was ‘united as it  were with the Active Intellect’. But Walzer goes on to stress that al-Farabi  ‘does not confine his interest to the felicity of the first ruler: he is  equally concerned with the felicity of all the five classes which make up the  perfect state’ (Walzer, in introduction to al-Madina  al-fadila,  1985:  409-10).  Farabian political philosophy, then, sits astride the saddle of Greek <i>eudaimonia</i>,  and a soteriological dimension may easily be deduced from this emphasis on  happiness. For if salvation in some form is reserved for the inhabitants of  the virtuous city, and if the essence of that city is happiness, then it is no  exaggeration to say that salvation is the reward of those who cooperate in the  achievement of human happiness. <i>Eudaimonia</i>/<i>sa’ada</i> becomes a  soteriological raft or steed.

5. Influence

The impact of al-Farabi’s  work on Ibn  Sina was not limited merely to illuminating Aristotle’s <i>Metaphysics</i>. It was  with good reason that al-Farabi was designated the ‘Second Master’ (after  Aristotle). One modern scholar recently acknowledged the dependence of Ibn  Sina on al-Farabi in a book dealing with both which he entitled The  Two Farabis(Farrukh 1944.  And if Aquinas  (§9) did not derive his essence-existence doctrine from al-Farabi but from the  Latinized Ibn Sina, as is generally assumed, there is no doubt that Farabian  concepts of essence and existence provided a base for the elaborated  metaphysics of Ibn Sina and thence of Aquinas. Finally, the briefest of  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,  hierarchy and Neoplatonic intellection, Ibn Sina owes a considerable  intellectual debt to his predecessor.  Al-Farabi influenced many  other thinkers as well. A glance at the period between ah 256/ad870 and ah 414/ad1023 and at four of the major thinkers who flourished in this period serves to  confirm this: Yahya ibn  ‘Adi,  Abu Sulayman al-Sijistani,  Abu ‘l-Hasan Muhammad ibn Yusuf “”>al-‘Amiri</a>  and Abu Hayyan  al-Tawhidi may all be said to constitute in one form or another a ‘Farabian School’. The  Christian Monophysite Yahya ibn ‘Adi studied in Baghdad under al-Farabi and  others. Like his master, Yahya was devoted to the study of logic; like his  master also, Yahya held that there was a real link between reason, ethics and  politics. Al-Sijistani was a pupil of Yahya’s and thus at one remove from  al-Farabi; nonetheless, he shared in both his master’s and al-Farabi’s  devotion to logic, and indeed was known as al-Sijistani al-Mantiqi (The  Logician). In his use of Platonic classification and thought, al-Sijistani  reveals himself as a true disciple of al-Farabi. Although al-‘Amiri appears to  speak disparagingly of al-Farabi at one point, there can be no doubt about  al-Farabi’s impact on him. Indeed, al-‘Amiri’s works combine the Platonic, the  Aristotelian and the Neoplatonic. Finally, Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi, a pupil of  both Yahya and al-Sijistani, stressed, for example, the primacy of reason and  the necessity of using logic. Like others of the Farabian School outlined  above, al-Tawhidi contributed towards a body of thought the primary  constituents of which were the soteriological, the ethical and the noetic.

 

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