Abu-Nasr Muhammad al-Fārābī (known in the Latin tradition as Alfarabi) was the pre-eminent Aristotelian philosopher in Baghdad in the tenth century, and for that reason was called the “second teacher” (after Aristotle) by posterity. He was the most prominent member of the Baghdad Aristotelian school which flourished in the tenth and eleventh centuries and revived the Aristotelian tradition.

Alfarabi's legacy was the development of this Greek Aristotelian tradition into a comprehensive philosophical system which aimed rationally to explain the world and guide conduct.

Alfarabi's life and career
Very little is reliably known about Alfarabi's life. Born some time in late ninth century, his origins are said to be either in Fārāb on the Syr Darya (Jaxartes) in modern Kazakhstan, and probably coming from a Turkish background, or in Faryāb in modern Afghanistan, and probably from a Persian background. There is not enough evidence to decide the matter. Indeed, it is unimportant, because pre-modern societies, and especially Islamic societies, set little store by ethnic origins and had nothing resembling contemporary notions of nationalism.

Whatever his background, Alfarabi spent almost his entire life in Baghdad, capital of the Arab dynasty of the Abbasids that ruled the Islamic world.  If he was not born there, he went there very early, and he composed some of his works for Baghdad personalities.  Nothing is known about the means by which he earned his living. He remained in Baghdad until September 942, at which time he left Iraq and traveled to Damascus. In Syria, Alfarabi also lived and worked for some time in Aleppo, at the court of the ruler of the local Hamdanid dynasty, Sayf-ad-Dawla, though there is no information about how long and in what capacity. At some point shortly before his death Alfarabi also visited Egypt, but he returned to Syria, where he died in Damascus in December 950 or January 951.

The rich intellectual life of Baghdad was essential to Alfarabi’s education and his philosophy.  At Baghdad he studied logic with a certain Christian cleric, Yuhanna ibn-Haylan, who died in that city some time between 908 and 932.  Baghdad was then the center of the Graeco-Arabic translation movement (from ca. 770 to 1000). In this period almost the entire Greek philosophical and scientific corpus that had survived in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East was translated upon demand into Arabic. Alfarabi’s works reflect intimate knowledge of this corpus. In the late ninth century Alfarabi could have acquired this knowledge only in Baghdad.

corpus: body of works (in this case)

The structure of philosophy in Alfarabi's time
Alfarabi treated philosophy as it was understood and classified in late antiquity. Logic was considered the instrument with which to study philosophy, which was in turn divided into theoretical and practical parts. The theoretical part consisted of physics, mathematics (the quadrivium), and metaphysics, while the practical part included ethics, household management, and politics.

Alfarabi’s work on the subject of classification, The Enumeration of the Sciences, enjoyed wide circulation both in Arabic and in medieval Latin translation (where it was known as De scientiis). Though Alfarabi wrote on all the parts of philosophy, including a few essays on medicine and geometry, his main contributions lie in logic, music, metaphysics, and the theory of the perfect and imperfect states based on an analysis of the intellectual development and metaphysical knowledge of the ruler.

Neoplatonist and Aristotelian philosophical roots: the tradition of Ammonius
Alfarabi’s philosophy is directly affiliated with the Greek Neoplatonist school of Ammonius in late fifth-century Alexandria, which survived as a philosophical curriculum among Syriac-speaking Christian clerics and intellectuals in the centers of Eastern Christianity in the Near East. The school of Ammonius, though Neoplatonist in its acceptance of Plotinian emanationism, was essentially Aristotelian in its basic orientation, structure, and contents.

Neoplatonist: school of religious and mystical philosophy that formed sometime in the 3rd century AD. It was founded by Plotinus and was based on the teachings of Plato and earlier Platonists.
emanationism: the belief that there is no sentient, self-aware supreme being and that creation proceeds from a First Principle down through various grades of being

By Alfarabi’s own account, the Nestorian Christians Yuhanna ibn-Haylan, his immediate teacher, together with Matta ibn-Yunus (d. 940), his older contemporary and colleague in Baghdad, were direct descendants in this tradition.  Matta apparently deserves the credit for reviving Aristotelian studies in Baghdad and establishing both a curriculum of school texts and a method for their study.  Apparently, this was a response to the eclecticism of al-Kindī (d. ca. 870), who had resuscitated philosophy in Baghdad in the first third of the ninth century.  Kindī established philosophy as a rational and supra-religious discipline and a method for research on theological, social, and scientific problems.

Reforming the tradition: Alfarabi's Aristotelian synthesis
For similar reasons but with a different approach, Alfarabi sought to:

  • present philosophy as a coherent system
  • promulgate emanationist Aristotelianism as the one true philosophical doctrine
  • rationalize its practice and show its validity for contemporary Abbasid society.

With this purpose in mind, Alfarabi taught philosophy and wrote about it in a number of ways. At an elementary level and apparently for a wide audience, he popularized certain existing translations of Greek texts through adaptation and paraphrase. Secondly, he wrote extensive commentaries on the works of Aristotle. Thirdly and most importantly, he created a philosophical system of his own on the basis of principles and orientations which he inherited from the late antique tradition. The material he used in creating this system included the entire array of Greek philosophical thought that was available to him in translation.

Alfarabi offers a summary of that system in two of his major works, The Principles of the Opinions of the People of the Excellent City and Governance of the City (also known as Principles of Beings). Here he describes the entire universe as an interrelated whole deriving ultimately from the supreme principle, and presents in great detail all its component parts in descending order:

  • the One
  • the eternal supralunar world consisting of the celestial spheres with their souls and intellects
  • the earth with its minerals, plants, animals, and humans, including:
    • the physical, mental, and psychological constitution of humans
    • a classification of the various state formations in human societies.
supralunar: above the sphere of the moon

Alfarabi's legacy: spreading the Greek tradition beyond national borders
Alfarabi was the first philosopher to internationalize Greek philosophy by creating in Arabic, a language other than Greek, a complex and sophisticated philosophical system which influenced subsequent philosophy as much in the Islamic as in the Christian worlds. In the Islamic East, he established philosophy as a discipline of utmost intellectual rigor, based on Aristotelian logic.  Alfarabi's philosophy aimed on the one hand to explain and account for all human activity in all its aspects, including the religious, and on the other to provide ultimate happiness to those individuals able to pursue its methods.

His philosophical views and insight were further developed in the works of his illustrious successors.  They were systematized in the works of Avicenna which penetrated into the very heart of Islamic intellectual life and gained a central position for philosophy in that life. In the Islamic West, Alfarabi's philosophy formed the basis of the thought of the philosophers in Muslim Spain, and eventually of Averroes. Through Averroes, in turn, Alfarabi exerted a formative influence on the renewed philosophical activities in the Latin language in the Christian West, after the twelfth century. In a very real sense Alfarabi stands at the beginning of the post-classical philosophical tradition, East and West.


Dimitri Gutas, “Farabi” in Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol. IX, 208-229.

Patricia Crone, “Al-Farabi's Imperfect Constitutions,” Mélanges de l’Université Saint-Joseph 57 (2004): 191-228.

D. Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture (London and New York, 1998).

J. Lameer, Al-Farabi and Aristotelian Syllogistics: Greek Theory and Islamic Practice (Leiden, 1994).

D.C. Reisman, “Al-Farabi and the Philosophical Curriculum,” in The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy, ed. Peter Adamson and Richard C. Taylor (Cambridge, 2005), 52-71.

R. Walzer, Al-Farabi on the Perfect State (Oxford, 1985).

F.W. Zimmermann, Al-Farabi's Commentary and Short Treatise on Aristotle's De Interpretatione (London, 1981)