Al-Farabi, Founder of Islamic Neoplatonism: His Life, Works, and Influence by Majid Fakhry (Great Islamic Thinkers: Oneworld Publications) is the only available comprehensive introduction to the life and achievements of the ninth-century Islamic philosopher, Al-Farabi. Abu-Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi (c. 873 –950), known in Latin as Alfarabius or Avennasar, was one of the greatest Muslim philosophers. He was widely known as "the second master," Aristotle being the first; and ibn-Khaldun rates him above Avicenna and Averroës. He was of Turkish origin, and his name indicates that he came from the district of Farab, on the middle Jaxartes River (now Syr Darya).
One of al-Farabi's teachers was the Nestorian Christian Yuhanna ibn-Haylan, who was noted as a logician; it is uncertain whether al-Farabi studied with him in Mery (Persia) or Harran (Syria) or Baghdad. His principal teacher was Abu-Bishr Matta ibn-Yunus, the most prominent member of the school of Christian Aristotelians in Baghdad. Here al-Farabi studied not merely the various branches of philosophy, but also physics, mathematics, astronomy, and music, even becoming a skilled musical performer. He spent the last few years of his life at the court of the ruler Sayf-ad-Dawla at Aleppo. He did not seem to have had any regular occupation by which to earn a livelihood and lived frugally, even ascetically, often in solitude.
Al-Farabi's philosophy is based on the teachings of Plato and Aristotle as they were interpreted in the school of Baghdad in the tenth century. Like all writers in Arabic he assumed there were no essential differences between the two, but he preferred the metaphysics of Aristotle, as interpreted by Neoplatonists. Plato, however, he regarded as superior in practical matters, and he wrote commentaries on the Republic and the Laws. What is often regarded as his major work is reminiscent of these books; it has the clumsy title "On the Principles of the Views of the Inhabitants of the Excellent State," often shortened in practice to "Der Musterstaat," or "The Ideal City" (al-madina alfadila). The first third of this work sets out al-Farabi's metaphysical system, the second third his psychology (largely Aristotelian), and the concluding third his views on the ideal state and various imperfect states.
To those familiar with the intellectual environment in which al-Farabi lived, it is immediately apparent that he wrote in such a way as to commend his views to as many different groups of people as possible. It has been alleged that he supported the Shiite sect of Islam, and certainly his last patron Sayf-ad-Dawla was a Shiite; features of his "ideal city," such as the dependence of all on the head, resemble Shiite conceptions. Yet it is also clear that he wrote in such a way as not to offend the Sunnite majority; for example, by avoiding such a technical Shiite term as "imam." Indeed, his view of the relation of philosophy and religion led him to attach positive value to the religions, although he regarded them as inferior to philosophy. Philosophy was the supreme exercise of human reason and therefore the primary requirement of an ideal city. By it, man came to know the one ultimate truth about the universe. To this ultimate philosophical truth the symbolic representations of it found in the several religions stand in varying degrees of proximity and remoteness. Al-Farabi paid particular attention, of course, to the forms of the main Islamic states of his time and developed his conception of the ideal city in such a way that the actual states he knew were within measurable distance of the ideal.
His metaphysics, similarly, resembles that implicit in the Qur'an (Koran) and Islamic theology. God is the One or the First from whom all existence proceeds; and in this sense he accepts the Islamic doctrine that God is the creator of the world, although he also holds the heretical view that the world is eternal. In the relation of existent things to God there is a hierarchical order. Similarly in the ideal city there is a head (rd is) who is the source of all authority and who assigns men to their appropriate grades. This head is also described as commanding but not obeying; all the intermediate grades obey those above and command those below, and the lowest grade only obeys.
Interest has been shown, especially in recent times, in al-Farabi's theory of prophecy; that is, in particular, how it was possible for Muhammad to receive the Qur'an from God. Philosophic knowledge, the highest of all, he regarded as coming to the passive intellect of the philosopher from the Active Intellect, an existent below God in rank. Prophetic revelations also come from the Active Intellect but are received by the imagination of the prophet. In this al-Farabi was able to accept the Qur'an as coming from God and yet to place philosophy above it.
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