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Islamic Personalities ( 25 Sept 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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'The Second Master'-Abu-Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi



By Aiman Reyaz, New Age Islam

26 September, 2014

Al-Farabi, more fully Abu-Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi, known in Latin as Alfarabius or Avennasar, was one of the greatest Muslim philosophers. He was widely known as “the second master,” Aristotle being the first, and Ab-Ar-Rahman ibn-Khaldun rates him above Avicenna and Averroes. A philosopher, logician and musician, he was also a major political scientist.

There is a general agreement that he may have come to Baghdad with his father, who belonged to the Turkish bodyguard of the Caliph. He did not belong to the society of the court nor was he a member of the secretariat class. He studied Islamic jurisprudence and music in Bukhara then moved to Marv, where he began to study logic with a Nestorian Christian monk, Yuhanna Ibn Hayln. While in his early 20s, Al-Farabi went to Baghdad and continued to study logic and philosophy with Hayln. Other sources say that, instead of studying with him, Farabi was taught by Yuhanna Ibn Hayln.

Farabi is indeed a difficult author, and it is not safe to be dogmatic when attempting to interpret the details of his system. In the main body of his teachings he belongs to the so-called ‘school of philosophers’ i.e., to the school which represented the Neo-Platonic tradition at the time. Al-Farabi’s philosophy is based on the teachings of Plato and Aristotle as they were interpreted in the school of Baghdad in the tenth century. Like all writers in Arabic he assumed there were no essential differences between the two, but he preferred the metaphysics of Aristotle, as interpreted by Neo-Platonist.

He uses a Neo-platonic emanationist theory crafted within the structure of Ptolemaic cosmology to account for God’s power of creation. However, God, or the First Being (al-Awwal), does not, like “the One” of the ancient philosopher Plotinus (d. 270 C.E.), utterly transcend being and thought. Rather, it is conceived largely along the lines of Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, albeit with emanationist properties. Farabi’s First Being cleverly combines Neo-platonic metaphysics of emanation, Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, and the Quranic conception of God. It is clever insofar as it attempts to fuse the absolute transcendence and unity (Tawhid) of God with a rational account of the world’s creation, albeit one at odds with the doctrine of creation from nothing (ex nihilo).

He was convinced that philosophy had come to an end everywhere else and that it had found a new home and a new life within the world of Islam. He believed that human reason is superior to religious faith, and hence assigned only a secondary place to the different revealed religions which provide, in his view, an approach to truth for non-philosophers through symbols. Philosophical truth is universally valid whereas these symbols vary from nation to nation; they are the work of philosopher-prophets, of whom Muhammad was one.

For Al-Farabi, philosophy provides us with the highest form of knowledge or wisdom (Hikma). But philosophy must endeavour to be practical. Al-Farabi valued philosophy as the highest form of knowledge, owing in part to its reliance on “scientific demonstration,” whereas he confined theology to “imaginative representations,” resorting to the rational methods of rhetoric and dialectic. However rational such methods may be, they are not on par with the demonstrative method of philosophy. Moreover, the “acquired intellect” of the philosopher is a different medium from the “imaginative faculty” of the prophet, for prophetic revelations are the truths of philosophy put in understandable form for commoners.

Philosophy was the supreme exercise of human reason and therefore the primary requirement of an ideal city. By it, humanity came to know the one ultimate truth about the universe. To this ultimate philosophical truth the symbolic representations of it found in the several religions stand in varying degrees of proximity and remoteness.

His influence was wide and extended not only to major Islamic philosophers such as Ibn Sina who came after him, and to lesser mortals such as Yahya ibn ‘Adi, al-Sijistani, al-’Amiri and al-Tawhidi, but also to major thinkers of Christian medieval Europe including Thomas Aquinas.


1)      Encyclopaedia of Islamic Philosophy, Volume 4; Impact Global Publishing- Pgs 975 to 984)

2)      The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Edited by B.Lowis and J.Schacht; volume 2, Pgs 778-781)

3)      Encyclopaedia of Islam ,by Juan E.Campo; pg 224

4)      Medieval Islamic Civilization, Edited by Josef W.Meri; pg 247

5)      Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Edited by Donald M.Borchert; Pg 115

6)      The Shorter Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Edited by Edward Craig; pg 267