Sources returnpage

Al-Farabi

Category: Mystic

Design for a musical instrument

Al-Farabi (Persian: ابونصر محمد بن محمد فارابی‎ Abū Naṣr Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Fārābī;) (c. 872 in Fārāb – between 14 December, 950 and 12 January, 951 in Damascus), was a renowned philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age, who wrote on philosophy, metaphysics, ethics and logic. He was also a scientist, a music scholar, an alchemist and a Sufi.  His work was aimed at a synthesis of philosophy and Sufism.   Furthermore, according to Henry Corbin and perhaps most important of all, Al-Farabi was also a mystic.

Henry Corbin – History of Islamic Philosophy
This great philosopher was profoundly religious in spirit, and a mystic. He lived extremely simply, and he wore the garb of the Sufis. By nature he was essentially contemplative, and held himself apart from worldly things. On the other hand, he liked taking part in musical gatherings, and was himself a remarkable performer. He wrote a long book 'on music' which demonstrates his knowledge of mathematics, and which is without doubt the most important account of the theory of music in the Middle Ages. ……….
The terminology of Sufism occurs practically  everywhere in al-Farabi's work; … there is a text which echoes the famous recital of Plotinian ecstasy in the Book of the Theology ('Often, awakening to myself...'); Farabi's theory of illumination conceals an element which is undeniably mystical.
We may further attest that it is not hard to grasp the link between al-Farabi's 'mysticism' and the rest of his doctrine: there is no hiatus or dissonance.

 

Works

Al-Farabi is credited with preserving many of the original Greek texts during the Middle Ages via his commentaries and treatises, he also wrote many of his own works.  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' [although we shall see this modern classification is inaccurate], 17 on music, medicine and 'sociology', while 11 are commentaries.   According to Henry Corbin, Al-Farabi “gave a remarkable exposition of Plato's philosophy” in his commentaries.

Henry Corbin - History of Islamic philosophy
It was not superficial optimism that led this philosopher-musician to seek and perceive the harmony between Plato and Aristotle .... as he perceived the harmony between philosophy and prophetic religion. It seems that the Magister secundus's profound sense of things, derived from the idea that wisdom had begun with the Chaldeans in Mesopotamia; that from there it had passed to Egypt, then to Greece, where it had entered history through being written down; and that he thought that to him fell the task of bringing back this wisdom to the country where it had originated.

 

His other works include:

  • kitāb iḥṣāʾ al-ʿulūm  - "On The Introduction Of Knowledge"  the treatise What one must know before learning philosophy
  • kitab Ihsa' al-'ulum  - In English, "An Encyclopedia of the Sciences", the treatise De scientiis, which had an enormous influence on the theory of the classification of the sciences in Western scholasticism
  • kitāb al-mūsīqī al-kabīr - "The Great Book Of Music”. He presents philosophical principles about music, its cosmic qualities and its influences.  Essentially this is about songlines
  • kitāb iḥṣāʾ al-īqā'āt  - "Classification Of Rhythms", a treatise which dealt with 'music therapy' - the healing power of music and discussed the therapeutic effects of music on the soul.

 

  •  
    Fursus al-hikam - The Gems of Wisdom, 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.   “There is no good reason to doubt the authenticity of this Treatise. The blunder committed in an anthology once published in Cairo, when part of this treatise was printed under the name of Avicenna and with another title, is of no critical consequence [Corbin].”
  • Ara Ahl al-Madina al- Fadila  - the Treatise on the Opinions of the Members of the Perfect City (or the Ideal City, ”it is wrong to 'politicize', in the modern sense of the word, his doctrine of the ideal City; it has nothing to do with what we call a 'political programme'. On this point we fully support the excellent overall account of al-Farabi's philosophical doctrine propounded some time ago by Ibrahim Madkour (Corbin)”. This is explored in more detail below.   In Chapter 24 of this work he has a treatise On the Cause of Dreams, in which he distinguished between dream interpretation and the nature and causes of dreams.
  • Others - There are references in some of the sources I used to The Book of the Attainment of Happiness and alchemical references to a mysterious book entitled The Necessity of the Art of the Elixir details of which were impossible to find.

Henry Corbin - History of Islamic philosophy
His theory of the 'perfect City' bears a Greek stamp by virtue of its Platonic inspiration, but it fulfils the philosophical and mystical aspirations of a philosopher of Islam. It is often spoken of as al-Farabi's 'politics'. In fact, al-Farabi was not at all what we call today a 'man of action'; he had no knowledge of public affairs at first hand. His 'politics' depends on his whole cosmology and psychology, and is inseparable from them. Thus his concept of the 'perfect City' encompasses all the earth inhabited by man, the oikoumen. It is not a 'functional' political programme. His so-called political philosophy could be better designated as a prophetic philosophy.
Both its dominating figure — the head of the ideal City: the prophet, — and the denouement of the theory in the world beyond reveal al-Farabi's mystical inspiration.
Al-Farabi's sage-prophet establishes 'laws' (nawamis), but this does not actually imply a shari'ah in  the strict theological sense of the word. In essence, he makes the Platonic sage, the philosopher- ruler of the ideal City.

For al-Farabi the prophet-sage, the head of the perfect City, must have attained the highest degree of human happiness, namely that which consists in union with active Intelligence. This union is in fact the source of all prophetic revelation and all inspiration and wisdom . It is therefore important to remember that in contrast to Plato's Sage, who must descend from the contemplation of the Intelligibles to the domain of public affairs, al-Farabi's Sage must unite himself with the spiritual beings; his main function is in fact to lead the citizens towards this goal, for absolute happiness depends on such a union. The ideal City described by al-Farabi is more the city of the 'latter-day saints'; it corresponds to a state of things which, in Shiite eschatology, will be realized on earth at the coming of the hidden sage in preparation for the Resurrection. Is it then possible to apply to al-Farabi's 'politics' the same meaning that the word has today?

 

Philosophy

It is perhaps a little presumptious of me to summarise over 100 books and treatises in a few paragraphs, so I will let Henry Corbin do it, who was a lot better at these summaries than I am.

Henry Corbin – History of Islamic Philosophy

We can here do no more than draw attention to three aspects of this philosophical doctrine. In the first place, we are indebted to him for the thesis which draws a distinction not only logical but metaphysical between essence [function] and existence [form] in created beings.
Existence is not an inherent quality of essence, but only a predicate or an accident of essence. It has been said that this thesis marked a turning-point in the history of metaphysics. Avicenna, al-Suhrawardi and many others in their turn all professed a metaphysics of essences.

The same can be said of the second distinctive doctrine, that of the theory of the Intelligence and of the procession of Intelligences [Intelligence hierarchy], enjoined in al-Farabi by the principle ex uno non fit nisi unum …. The emanation of the First Intelligence from the first Being, its three acts of contemplation which are repeated in turn by each of the hierarchical Intelligences, and which engender each time a triad composed of a new Intelligence, a new Soul and a new Heaven, down to the Tenth Intelligence….

Did these creative archangelic forms spell the ruin of monotheism? Yes indeed, if what is in question is the exoteric version of monotheism and of the dogma which supports it. On the other hand, esoteric and mystical thinkers have never ceased to demonstrate that in its exoteric form monotheism falls into the very idolatry that it is attempting to escape.

 

 

Al-Farabi was a believer in the need for ‘prophetic sages’ in other words, people who had been through the spiritual path, becoming enlightened, or in the cosmology of the Greek philosophers that he studied, had become ‘gods’ whilst alive and thus able to receive great wisdom. 

Henry Corbin – History of Islamic Philosophy

This correspondence makes us finally able to understand better the role of the active Intelligence [Higher spirit] in the prophetology of al-Farabi, because in his whole theory of the Intelligence, as well as in his theory of the Sage-Prophet, al-Farabi is something more than a 'Hellenizing philosopher'. He made a comparison which became popular, and which everyone repeated after him: 'The active Intelligence is to the possible intellect of man what the sun is to the eye, which is potential vision so long as it is in darkness.'

This Intelligence, which in the hierarchy of being is the spiritual being next above man and the world of men, is always in action. It is called the 'Giver of Forms' {wahib al-suwar, dator formarum), because it radiates forms into matter, and radiates into the human potential intellect the knowledge of these forms.

 

 

This is a fascinating hypothesis – that our Higher spirit is, in a sense, our creator on earth, the part of us that devises our appearance and our Personality.

Al-Farabi divided the remaining part of the mind – the mortal soul as opposed to the immortal soul into the theoretical or contemplative intellect [left brain], and the practical intellect [right brain]. The theoretical intellect goes through three states:

  • it is possible or potential intellect in relation to knowledge [perception];
  • it is intellect in act while it is acquiring knowledge [learning];
  • it is acquired intellect when it has acquired knowledge [memory].

For al-Farabi, it is the human intellect in a ‘higher state’, a state in which it is able to receive, through intuition and illumination, the spiritual input given to it by the active Intelligence [Higher spirit] without passing through the intermediary of the senses.  In effect we receive spiritual experiences via our composer/Higher spirit.

Life

Al-Farabi spent most of his life in Baghdad but also went to Syria, writing a number of books in Damascus and living and teaching for some time in Aleppo. Later on Farabi visited Egypt; returning from Egypt to Syria.

Henry Corbin – History of Islamic Philosophy

Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Tarkhan ibn Uzalagh  al-Farabi was born at Wasij, near Farab in Transoxiana, in  259/872 — about a year, therefore, before al-Kindi's death in Baghdad.
He came from a noble family, and his father had held a military post at the Samanid court. But as was the case with his predecessor, al-Kindi, whose example he followed, few details about his life are known. When he was still young he went to Baghdad, where his first teacher was a Christian by the name of Yuhanna ibn Haylam. Then he went on to study logic, grammar, philosophy, music, mathematics and science.
We know of only a small number of al-Farabi's pupils. Prominent among them was Abu Zakariya' Yahya ibn 'Adi (d. 374/984), a Jacobite Christian philosopher.  Al-Farabi's true spiritual posterity is found in Avicenna, who acknowledged him as his master.  Thanks to Avicenna’s autobiography, which was completed by his faithful follower al-Juzjani, we know that Aristotle's Metaphysics presented Avicenna with ‘an insurmountable obstacle: he read it through forty times without understanding it’. It was only owing to a treatise by al-Farabi which he came across by chance that 'the scales fell from his eyes'.

Al-Farabi was influential in Andalusia (especially for Ibn Bajjah) and for al-Suhrawardi. This influence can also be perceived, in Mulla Sadra al-Shirazi.

It is apparent from his works that Al-Farabi understood Turkish and Persian (and legend has it that apart from Arabic he was able to understand seventy languages!). Progressively he acquired the mastery which earned him the title of Magister secundus (Aristotle was the Magister primus), and which led to him being viewed as the first great Muslim philosopher. All the evidence supports an opinion current in Iran to the effect that this great philosopher was a Shiite.

In 330/941 , he did in fact leave Baghdad for Aleppo, where he enjoyed the protection of the Hamdanid Shiite dynasty — Sayf al-Dawlah al-Hamdani had a profound veneration for him. It was not by chance that he received this special Shiite protection. Its meaning becomes fully evident when we are made aware of the affinities between al-Farabi's 'prophetic philosophy' and the prophetic philosophy based on the teaching of the Shiite Imams.

 

 

Al-Masudi writing barely five years after the fact (955-6, the date of the composition of the Tanbīh), says that he died in Damascus in Rajab 339 (between 14 December 950 and 12 January 951), at the age of eighty.

Henry Corbin – History of Islamic Philosophy
For al-Farabi, the Ideal City is a way of bringing men closer to supra-terrestrial happiness. When they pass the doors of death, the troops of the living rejoin the troops of those who went before them into the beyond, 'and they unite themselves with them intelligibly, each one being united with his likeness'. Through this union of soul with soul, the sweetness and delight of those who went first are ceaselessly and indefinitely increased and multiplied.