ABU NASR FARABI Biography


Saifuddawlah, the Hamdanite monarch who ruled over Aleppo and the neighboring country, was presiding over a congregation of learned men summoned from different parts of the Islamic world. A manikin with a sparse beard, attired in Turcoman dress and heelless shoes with painted toe called ‘zerbul’, was ushered into the meeting hall. This was Farabi. Saifuddawlah requested him to take his seat.

“Where should I sit”, asked Farabi. “Should I sit according to my status or yours?”

“No, according to yours”, replied the Ruler.

Thereupon Farabi went forward, and pulling the Ruler aside, sat down in his place. Saifuddawlah was a bit annoyed and told his servant in a secret dialect that he would put certain questions to Farabi and if he could not give correct replies he should be severely dealt with. None seemed to be conversant with this dialect except the Ruler and his servant. But, to his utter astonishment, Farabi replied in the same dialect, “Master, have patience. The end will justify the means”, The Ruler asked him, “Do you also know this dialect ?” “Yes, I am conversant with seventy languages”, replied Farabi. Thereafter the meeting was addressed by Farabi in hushed silence. His masterly exposition of diverse subjects and his brilliant eloquence made the audience spell bounded. The meeting was later on dispersed by the R!ıler who asked Farabi if he would eat or drink anything. “No”, replied Farabi. He, however, consented to musical entertainment. The best troupe of his musicians was summoned by the Ruler. The demonstration did not move Farabi at all. Taking out his ‘ud’ (‘lute) he started playing over it. His performance cast a spell over the audience; he directed their sentiments as he liked. They were so much enchanted that all of a sudden they began to laugh. He changed the tune and they burst into tears. He again changed the tune and now they fell asleep.

The above account of the entry of Farabi into the Durbar of Saifuddawlah has been given by the famous historian Allama ibn Khalikan. The virtues and the versatility of Farabi had a deep impression on Saifuddawlah who highly respected him and did not part with him till his death. Farabi, the Muslim Neo-Platonist and encyclopaedist was, according to George Sarton, “conversant with the whole scientific thought of his day”.

Muhammad ibn Tar Khan Abu Nasr Farabi (LatinAlpharabius), one of the greatest intellectual giants of the medieval times, was born towards the end of the IXth century A.C. in Wasij, a small town in Farab (Turkistan). His father was a General in the army. Jurji Zaydan asserts in his History of Islamic Civilisation that his parents were Persians but reliable historical records reveal his Turkish origin. Farabi never gave up his Turkish dress wherever he went. He received his early education in Farab and Bukhara, and later on settled down in Baghdad for 42 years (901 to 942). He acquired command over the Arabic language and a thorough knowledge of various branches of learning. During the period, he saw six Caliphs and passed his time in solitude in pursuits of poetry, music, and philosophy. He wrote ‘Al Taleem al Sani’ at the behest of Ali Salman, the Ruler of Turkistan whom he visited while he studied at Baghdad.

He visited Damascus, Egypt, and finally settled down at Aleppo, which was ruled by Hamdanite monarch Saifuddawlah, a great patron of scholars. His Durbar was adorned by some of the greatest intellectuals of the age, including Farabi and Mutanabbi.

He was a Sufi and in spite of the repeated persuasions of the Ruler who held him in the highest esteem, Farabi consented to accept only four dirhams a day for his expenses. He died in 950 A.C. (339 A.H.) at the ripe age of 80 in Damascus whither he had accompanied the King on a campaign.

By nature, he was very sensitive and simple-minded and passed a secluded life. He was thoroughly versed not only in philosophy, logic, politics, occult sciences, and sociology but also in mathematics and medical sciences. It has been recorded that he could speak 70 languages, but it has been established beyond doubt that he was fully conversant with Turkish, Persian, Arabic, Greek, and Hebrew languages.

Farabi was a versatile genius and encyclopaedist, an outstanding mathematician and physician, an occult scientist and a distinguished musician, According to reliable historical sources, he left behind him more than a hundred works in Arabic on different subjects, but only 15 or 20 more are extant. The list of his works given by Kifti and Ibn Abi Saibah contains 17 commentaries, 15 treatises, and 60 books on diverse branches of knowledge.

He wrote a large number of original works, including psychological, political, and metaphysical treatises of great importance, such as On the Intelligence, Intelligible, On the Soul, Faculties of Soul, One and the Unity, Substance, Time, Empty Space and Space and Measure. He was first to speak of evolution in psychology and thus influenced later writers.

He also wrote several treatises explaining and elaborating the philosophical theories of Plato and Aristotle. The most important is ‘Risala Fusus of Hikam’ (The Bezels of Philosophy or Wisdom).

Of his scientific treatises, the most useful is ‘Kitab Ihsal Ulum’ which deals with the fundamental principles of science. The Arabic originals of his treatises translated into Latin as ‘De Scientus’ and ‘De Ortu Scientiarum’, have been lost. In 1890 Dieterici had edited and published in German 12 small treatises of Farabi, mostly scientific.

Farabi made a lasting contribution to sociology by writing his memorable work ‘Risalah fi Ara Ahl al-Madinah al Fadilah’ (Epistle on the Opinions of People of Superior City) and thus paved the way for the immortal ‘Prolegomena of Ibn Khaldun’. It was translated and published by Dieterici as ‘Philosophia de Araber’ and later on as ‘Der Mustarstaat von Alfarabi’. Farabi has presented his conception of a model city in his well-known work ‘Al Siyashat al Madniyah’ (Political Economy) in which he seems to be inspired by the Republic of Plato and Politica of Aristotle. His ideal city is to be governed by wise men who are perfect morally and intellectually. He lays great importance on the happiness and high morality of the citizens of his model city. The book in 34 chapters, translated and edited by Dieterici, is of great sociological interest.

His book ‘Musiqi al-Kabir’ is the most outstanding book on oriental music and is regarded as an authority on the subject. His works were published in translations into German, Latin, French, and Hebrew which began to appear in the last quarter of the 19th century. Some of his books including ‘Ihsa al Ulum’, an encyclopedic work, have greatly influenced the Western writers. A complete bibliography of his works has been prepared by Hazmi Tura and B. Ahmad Atas which is preserved in the libraries of Istambul.

Farabi is also known for simplifying logic. He made two divisions of logic imagination and proof. According to Kazi Syed, the author of At Tausif al Tabajat ul-Umam, Farabi outmatched all previous philosophers in logic.

Farabi is known as the commentator of Aristotle which won him the title of Moallim-e-Sani (Second Teacher). His commentaries as well as those of Averroes popularised the works of Aristotle in the West, which was awakened to his greatness. Farabi commented on ‘Categories’, ‘Hermenuties’, ‘Analytics’, ‘Sophistics’, ‘Rhetoric’ and ‘Puetics’. He also wrote commentaries on the soul and physics of Aristotle as well as on the ‘Almagest’ of Ptolemy. He is one of the great Muslim thinkers who saved the Greek thought from oblivion and it is due to him that the West came to know of Aristotle.

During a period of intellectual stagnation in Europe which lasted from 5th to 10th centuries A.C., Islamic thinkers kept aloft the candle of knowledge, which ultimately dispelled the gloom that had enveloped Europe. One of these intellectual luminaries was Farabi, whose philosophical system, according to George Sarton, “is a syncretism of Platonism, Aristotelianism and Sufism”. Farabi is the founder of the Turkish School of Philosophy. He is an exponent of Muslim Neo-Platonic Philosophy, a system which was originated by Al-Kindi and acquired its full growth in Avicenna. Apparently there is a marked difference in the philosophical approach of Farabi and Zakariya Razi (Razes) who was his contemporary. “While Farabi’s system is deductive, rational and built entirely on abstract logic”. Writes a Western orientalist, “Razi’s philosophy is experimental, inductive and is more specially concerned with the concrete-but they are two aspects of a more general system and not opposed to one another. Razi, who was a physician and naturalist, emphasizes the concrete side of the system, while Farabi who had more inclination towards logic, mathematics, and mystic speculation, presents the abstract side of it. In Avicenna we find the two forms reunited”. Avicenna is no doubt clearer and more methodical in his approach. The difference between Farabi and Avicenna is more pronounced on the question of the immortality of the soul which is accepted by the former and rejected by the latter.

Like Plato, Farabi is a mystical thinker, whose reasoning leads him finally to mysticism and metaphysics. With him, like all mystics, contemplation dominates the action.

He interpreted a number of religious dogmas and concepts in a philosophical manner. He tried to find the reasoned and logical explanation of such intricate problems as prophecy, inspiration, heavens, destiny, and celestial throne. Prophecy, according to Farabi, is a form of moral perfection rather than an innate gift. In this way, he is considered as the founder of philosophical theology which later on found its great exponent in Fakhruddin Razi. He was also first to preach practical morality by recognizing that the faculty of discerning good from evil is possessed by oneself. Avicenna, thus, borrowed the idea of his mysticism of right or reason from Farabi.

Farabi was the greatest musical theorist that the Muslim world has produced. He composed several outstanding works on music. Among them were the Kitab Mausiqi al-Kabir (Grand Book of Music), Styles in Music, and on the Classification of Rhythms. Besides the above, he has also dealt with musical topics in two of his voluminous works on the science: The Classification of the Sciences, and The Origin of Sciences. His Grand Book of Music is universally recognized as the highest authority on the oriental music and, according to Farmer, a well-known writer on music, this work of Farabi, “deserves to be ranked as one of the greatest works that have been written on music”. Out of the several works of Farabi on music, Kitab Musiqi al Kabir has survived, which in the words of Sarton, “is the most important oriental treatise on the theory of music”. According to Farabi, he wrote this book, because he found that the earlier books written by Greeks, Romans, and Persians were full of obscurities and shortcomings. H. G. Farmer pays glowing tribute to this immortal work of the great musician, saying, “Al Farabi’s treatment of physical and physiological principles of sound and music is certainly an advance on that of Greeks”. Farabi has given a detailed account of musical instruments which is non-existent in the musical works of Greeks. He invented the musical instruments called ‘Rabab’ and “QanunHe also knew mensural music and recognized the major third (4:5) and the minor third (5:6) as consonances”. Farabi made a valuable contribution to physiological acoustics which was not touched by the Greeks. He was an outstanding practical musician of his time and when he played on his flute in the presence of his patron Saifuddawlah he is said: “to have cast his hearers into a fit of laughter, drew tears from their eyes or set them all asleep, including even the door-keepers”. The Mawlawi darveshes still sing ancient chants composed by him. The musical works of Farabi had a universal appeal and influenced the musical theories of the West as well as those of Muslim Spain. “Al-Farabi still continued to attract the attention of the scholars until the 17th century A.C.”; says H. G. Farmer. According to Kazi Sayad, “Farabi had attained a perfection both in theoretical and practical sides of music”.

The musical theories of Farabi had a great influence on the writings of the West. The ‘De Divisione Philosophiae’, written by Gundislaves has a section on music, much of which has been reproduced from Farabi’s ‘De Scienties’ and ‘De Ortusceintiarum’. In the musical treatise entitled ‘De Musica’ and the ‘Speculum Doctrinale of Vicent de Beauvais’ (d. 1264), Farabi has been frequently quoted along with other theorists.

A number of well-known Western writers like Robert Kilwardley (d. 1279), Raimundo Lull (d. 1315). Simon Tunstedo (1300-69), and Adam de Fuldo were influenced by Farabi. Even up to the end of the 17th century, his theories on music continued to influence the Western writers which may be ascertained from the “De Expetendis et Fugiendis Rebus”, written by George Valla (1497– 1501) the Margarita Philosophica (1508) of George Reish and the republication of ‘De Scientus‘ by Camerarius in 1638.

The influence of Farabi on the later writers and thought was tremendous. All philosophers coming after Farabi was influenced by this great thinker. He is the foremost encyclopaedist of Islam who is credited with the evolution of Islamic logic. “His rational philosophy”, says a Western orientalist, “had made him the forerunner of the German Philosopher Kant; his theory of the great man and the little savant of the Englishman Spencer. By saying that knowledge is not acquired only by intellectual effort but it flows from a superior soul to men, he was the precursor of the theory of philosophic intuition of the Frenchman Bergson. He, thus introduced the theory of social contract of Rousseau, by stating that social union comes about through the will of the individual”. Among the orientals, his influence may be traced in the works of such eminent thinkers like Avicenna, Averroes, Ibn Khaldun, Fakharuddin Razi, Ibn Haytham, Ibn Miskawayh, Jalaluddin Rumi and Al-Ghazali.

After paying glowing tribute to his achievements, Allama Ibn Khalikan, the celebrated historian says: “No Muslim ever reached in the philosophical sciences the same rank as al-Farabi, and it was by the study of his writings and by the imitation of his style that Ibn Sina attained the proficiency and rendered his own work so useful”.



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