al-Farabi, Abu Nasr

al-Farabi, Abu Nasr
(c. 257–337/870–950)
   Dubbed the ‘Second Teacher’ (after Aristotle), al-Farabi is a crucial early figure who set the stage for much subsequent Islamic philosophy, specifically that of the influential Peripatetic (mashsha’i) school. He was held in particularly high esteem for his logical writings (both commentaries on Aristotle’s Organon, as well as independent treatises) and credited with the codification and establishment of logic in the Arabic-speaking world as a science independent of grammar. In the field of metaphysics, al-Farabi is traditionally credited with drawing two crucial ontological distinctions – that between essence and existence, and that between possible and necessary existence – which would become a basic presupposition of Islamic metaphysicians (most notably Ibn Sina, and through him, Christian thinkers such as Aquinas). He articulated a complex and influential Neoplatonic emanationist cosmology as well, one in which the nature of God (as an absolutely unitary, necessary being) overflows in its superabundance, giving rise to a chain of successively dependent ‘intellects’ which ultimately generate our contingent physical cosmos of change and multiplicity. Particularly innovative was the way he fit Aristotle’s concept of the nous poietikos into this scheme, linking the human intellect to the divine. The ‘active intellect’, which al-Farabi identified as the tenth and final intellect in his hierarchy of being, plays the role of (1) providing form to the sublunary sphere and actualizing human intellect, (2) making possible the soul’s immortality (although al-Farabi’s position on this question is ultimately ambiguous), and (3) explaining the phenomenon of prophecy. Al-Farabi is perhaps best known for his works on political philosophy, such as The Virtuous City (Madinat al-fadila), The Political Regime (al-Siyasa al-madaniyya) and The Attainment of Happiness (Tahsil al-sa‘ada). He follows Plato in positing the necessary coincidence of political power and philosophy as a condition for the happiness of the city, while reshaping this teaching to address the new realities of Islam. For al-Farabi, the true philosopher must not only be knowledgeable and virtuous, but also a prudential political legislator and spiritual leader (imam), which means that he must be capable of taking complex philosophical truths and conveying them to the multitude via colorful images and persuasive speech. This is in fact the role of religion: an ‘image’ of philosophy, it nonetheless provides true belief – and thus happiness – to all, according to their capacity. In this way al-Farabi stressed the compatibility of Islam with the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle (which he also understood as forming a harmonious unity); however, unlike his predecessor al- Kindi, al-Farabi ultimately emphasized the primacy of reason over revelation.
   Further reading: Colmo 2005; Fakhry 2002; al-Farabi 1963, 1969/2002, 1973, 1985, 2001; Galston 1990; Mahdi 2001; Netton 1989/95, 1992/99; Parens 2006; Strauss 1945/77

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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