This article will feature in Issue 38: Language and Culture
It goes without saying that the roots of modern European/Western Civilisation can be traced back to Ancient Greece and Rome. Imagine how our culture would appear had the likes of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle not existed? Quite impoverished, it can readily be assumed. But then again, where would European Culture be today had Islam not existed? This is an intellectual/cultural debt that is yet to be sufficiently acknowledged.
Bursting out of the Arabian Peninsula shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (d.632 CE), the first Muslims rapidly conquered pretty much everywhere they went, eventually establishing themselves in Spain in the West, all the way to China in the East. It was during the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1257) that the sciences and the arts flourished abundantly. The imperial redrawing of the world brought Muslims into contact with an extensive mix of peoples, trade, and more significantly ideas. Mass translations into Arabic and Persian of Greek philosophy, Zoroastrian theology, and Indian sciences were carried out consequently.
Backed by patronages of wealthy Caliphs and Sultans, it is no coincidence that this era, dubbed the ‘Golden Age of Islam’ by some, witnessed the lives of extraordinary, enduring thinkers who continue to impact and inspire people today. Al-Kindi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Ibn Tufayl, Al-Tusi, and Ibn Khaldun are just some of the heavyweight polymaths who made immense contributions to human civilisation. But there is one thinker who should not go amiss: Abu Nasr Al-Farabi (872-950).
Also known as Alpharabius in the West, Al-Farabi, speculated to be either a Turk or Persian, like so many of his contemporaries, took full advantage of the new opportunities and educational facilities available in his day.Becoming a fully rounded polymath whose impact, though often overlooked, reverberates in our times in many ways. In Islamicate societies, he is still referred to as the Second Teacher, the First being Aristotle.
Yet, is he a ‘lost’ thinker? Most histories of philosophy will either mention him sparsely alongside the more famous thinkers or, more daringly, ignore him outright. A brief examination of his life, career and legacy will reveal that this grave injustice needs to be redressed.
He spent most of his career in Baghdad, the political centre of the Caliphate, and the scene of much innovation. There, he studied the entire gamut of Greek philosophy alongside the Qur’an and other Islamic disciplines. Al-Farabi wrote on a plethora of subjects: logic, physics, psychology, and even alchemy rank among the many areas that concerned this ferocious intellect. He even wrote a book on Music Theory, noticing how music can powerfully influence the mood of a listener and control their behaviour. His greatest achievements, however, lie in the fields of politics, philosophy, and ethics.
In one of the highly regarded political philosophy works ever written in the Arabic language, The Virtuous City (al-Madina al-Fadila), Al-Farabi ambitiously combined Greek philosophy with Islamic thought to set out a political vision. In his view, the ideal society was one that led to happiness. He argued that the inhabitants should aspire to be and act virtuous purely by possessing the knowledge of the Divine and Nature. Reminiscent of Plato’s The Republic, it is the Enlightened Philosopher who is charged with establishing this happiness and the ceaseless pursuit of justice. Other regimes were ‘vile’ if they sought to pursue other goals detrimental to happiness e.g. pursuit of wealth and prosperity for their own sake. Regimes of tyranny will naturally seek to assert their hegemony over others.
Quite fascinatingly, Al-Farabi elaborates upon the regime of ‘corporate associations’ in which the inhabitants are free to do as they please. This is not far from a democratic order, and as the Virtuous City was nearly impossible to establish, Al-Farabi favoured it ahead of other societies. True, excess luxury and hedonism may corrupt the inhabitants, but such a social order would nonetheless enable the pursuits of the sciences and arts as well as the essential freedoms and values that may one day culminate in the utopian ideal.
It is not possible to celebrate Ibn Sina or Ibn Rushd without celebrating Al-Farabi, who greatly influenced those exalted intellectuals. It is these thinkers whom the West also learned from as much as the ‘rediscovery’ of Classical thought during the Renaissance (c.1400-1600), and that have shaped much of European discourse since. They helped to shape Europe as we know it today. Acknowledging this intellectual/cultural debt will go a long way in helping to restore the rightful place of Al-Farabi as a unique preeminent thinker that has contributed immensely to human thought.
Al-Farabi’s reception today in modern Western cultures might be underwhelming but do not let that deter you from underestimating his impact elsewhere. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900-1989) – the Shi’ite jurist who led the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and set up an Islamic Republic that still endures today – was heavily influenced by Al-Farabi’s Virtuous City. Modern Iran owes much to the philosophies of Al-Farabi and Aristotle as it does to Shi’ite traditions of Islam.
The Second Teacher is certainly a ‘lost’ thinker who needs to be rediscovered again. If anything, we must take the philosophical ideas of Al-Farabi more seriously. They are clearly as relevant today as they were in his era notwithstanding whether we agree with his ideas or not. The passage of time is no limit on the power of ideas in influencing human affairs and societies.
By Zeeshan Mahmood