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
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’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
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
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:
supralunar: above the sphere of the moon
Alfarabi's legacy: spreading the Greek tradition beyond national borders
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)