Al-Farabi, who tried to explain Islam through Greek philosophy
Professor Peter Adamson highlight the work and life of the eminent scientist and philosopher Al-Farabi, who studied and taught with Christians at the famous School of Islamic Art in Baghdad. And later went to Syria and Egypt. His writings reflect the agenda of Maktab Baghdad and he also wrote commentaries on Aristotle. Not only did he want to interpret Aristotle’s ideas, nor did he want to serve religion with philosophical ideas, but he wanted to unite all branches of philosophy into a single ideology.
Baghdad was an important city in the tenth century AD or the fourth century of the Islamic calendar. It was the capital of the great Abbassi Empire and had a larger population than any medieval European city. It attracted scholars from all corners of the Islamic Empire, including not only Muslims but also Christians and Jews.
Like seventeenth-century Paris, salon culture flourished in Baghdad, where intellectuals could meet and discuss, and demonstrate their skills in poetry, Arabic language, and philosophy.
In such meetings or at the house of the superintendent of a seminary, a scholar would express his knowledge by quoting the ideas of Plato or Aristotle in his speech.
Similarly, in a lavish gathering on the outskirts of the city, there may have been talk of the ancient Greek thinker Embodocles (Empedocles).
If the Abbassi society is considered a colorful chador, then philosophy was just a thread in it which made its place in the Islamic world from Greece. It was founded on a century-long “translation movement” that translated everything from mathematician Euclid’s Euclid to Eleanor to Galen’s medical books and even Aristotle’s writings into Arabic.
Even the Arabic word ‘philosophy’ refers to its Greek origin because it is the Arabic form of the Greek word philosophy.
But not everyone was happy. Some quarters thought that importing Greek culture in this way was unnecessary and even harmful. For them, this could not be a substitute for a deep study of the Qur’an and the Arabic language.
To them, philosophy was overemphasized, and it had more to do with the Christians who did most of the work of translating it into Arabic.
This was the view of a grammar expert named Al-Sarafi and he put it in front of a Christian logician during a discussion.
The Christian philosopher and logician Abu Bashar Mata began his discussion with the point that Aristotle’s logic is essential for distinguishing between right and wrong and between good and evil.
Al-Sarafi was outraged to hear this, and a later article about his argument shows that he presented a series of arguments against his Christian opponent and defeated them in the debate.
Logic can teach you to distinguish between right and wrong and good and bad, but it is not necessary that you win public dialogue. Philosophy did not win this debate, but contrary to the expectations of the money changer, it was not going to be banned in Islamic society.
And one of the main reasons for this was Mata himself and the group he founded, which later came to be known as Maktab Baghdad.
When it comes to Greek ideas, these people were experts in their work. These people not only quote Aristotle at parties, but they also completed the work of translating it and later wrote commentaries on these Arabic books of Aristotle.
Most of them were Christians, like Matthew, except for one, whose name was Al-Farabi.
When Ibn Sina, an even greater philosopher, later spoke of the group, he only praised al-Farabi, while dismissing the achievements of his Christian companions as insignificant and futile.
Not because he was a Christian, but because he was not impressed by his mastery of Aristotle’s logic and other areas of philosophy.
As far as Farabi is concerned, he was also highly respected in Spain (Andalusia). The great Jewish philosopher of Andalusia, Moses ibn Maimonides (Maimonides), urged his disciples to read Farabi’s work as a ‘delicate flower’. In addition, Ibn Rushd of Andalusia, one of the greatest scholars of Aristotle’s logic in the Muslim world, was greatly influenced by Farabi. Ibn Rushd’s later commentaries were given great importance by medieval Christian philosophers, including Thomas Aquinas. In these commentaries, Ibn Rushd tried to revive the Baghdad philosophy project.
So who was this person Farabi? Unfortunately, we do not know much about his life. His name suggests that he belonged to one of the two regions of Central Asia, Farab or Faryab.
He studied with the Christians at the Baghdad School and also taught there, after which he traveled to Egypt and Syria, where he died in Damascus in the middle of the tenth century AD.
His writings reflect the purpose of Maktab Baghdad. He wrote Aristotle’s commentaries. Abu Bashir Mata, the founder of the Baghdad school, was convinced of the importance of Aristotle’s logic.
But it seems that Farabi was more determined than his peers. He was not only interested in shedding light on Aristotle’s work or in serving religion with philosophical ideas, but also in uniting all branches of philosophy into a coherent ideology.
This theory sheds light on the place of man in God and in his created universe. This theory explains the reality of knowledge, especially the knowledge contained in the revelation to the Prophet of Islam. He also conceived of the system, and all this work was based on the solid foundations of Aristotle’s logic.
Whether you agree with Farabi’s views or not, you cannot criticize his commitment.
The comparison between the universe and an ideal political society is based on Farabi’s systematic vision of everything. Both have the same ruler. He is the ruling God in the universe.
Following the ancient consensus, Farabi also had the idea that the universe has several transparent spheres intermingling with each other, which are constantly revolving around the earth in circles.
Imagine a sphere of glass balls in which all the balls are inside each other and there is no distance between them. The stars and planets visible to man are connected in these spheres and by their movement we can see these celestial bodies day and night.
Farabi once again follows Aristotle’s idea that non-embodied intelligent beings, if you wish to call them angels, are responsible for these cosmic movements.
And there is a God who runs this whole system, who is also its creator, but to him it has always existed, not that he was born at a particular moment in the past.
Here Farabi disagrees with Al-Kandi, the most important Muslim philosopher who came before him. Al-Kandi argued that the universe was created simultaneously and could not exist forever.
Al-Kandi’s view of the eternal existence of the universe was popular among mainstream philosophers, and only Aristotle’s strict followers, such as Farabi, Ibn Sina, and Ibn Rushd, argued in favor of an ever-existing universe.
According to Farabi, after God, the most important element in this entire cosmic system is the lowest level of heavenly consciousness called angels.
In Farabi’s philosophy, he is responsible for many tasks, including the birth of plants, animals, and humans on earth. In addition, they have a role in human knowledge. Just as we cannot see without light, so we cannot think without this consciousness.
And just as some people can see better than others, so some people are more successful at thinking than others.
Farabi believes that a perfect philosopher can understand everything that is known within the heavenly consciousness. They do not claim to have reached this point themselves, but they do argue that it is possible in principle.
Therefore, it is clear that such people must have been with Farabi because this is the understanding and knowledge that a prophet has.
Apparently, they are the first to believe in the Prophet of Islam, and in addition to the other true prophets mentioned in Islamic books, from Adam to Jesus.
However, Farabi never says all this explicitly, but instead deliberately presents the concept of the Prophet in an abstract way and does not name the Prophet of Islam or any other Prophet.
He presents the idea that a prophet would have the knowledge of a perfect philosopher and be capable of guiding the people, so that for Farabi an ideal ruler would be a philosopher and a prophet at the same time.
If you remember Plato’s ideas, you will remember that the idea of a philosopher king is not Farabi’s own idea and in fact Farabi is relying on Plato’s book ‘Republic’ here, although apparently up to that time The complete Arabic translation was not available.
So what does the prophet have that a perfect philosopher does not have and why is it that he can rule over his subjects so effectively?
The answer is that with the help of friendly heavenly consciousness or angels, prophets can create powerful and influential symbols that can convey their knowledge to the minds of the common man.
Ordinary citizens do not easily understand or follow philosophical arguments, so if they are to be persuaded to believe the right thing and do the right thing, then it is necessary for the Prophet to have a solid and Create attractive equipment for them in a clear way.
Therefore, instead of arguing from Aristotle’s logic that there is a being who created the eternal universe, the prophets may present God as a king who is on a throne.
Instead of discussing the concepts of morality, the Prophet may explain the terrible details of the severe punishments in the next world to encourage people to follow the straight path.
For Farabi, religion is the symbolic representation of reality.
You may find these ideas very realistic or even derogatory about religion and revelation.
So is religion really a popular form of philosophy? No it’s not
According to Farabi, revelation is not just a name for expressing scientific truth in colorful language, but every prophet presents the truth according to his people, so every nation has its own prophet and its own revelation.
Because the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) knew how the reality of the universe relates to a particular situation, he could make the right decisions for his people on a daily basis.
It would be impossible for a philosopher who has complete universal scientific knowledge but does not have the ability to apply that knowledge to individual matters.
The philosophical prophet-ruler is so important for the welfare of his society that he should make great efforts to continue his teachings after his departure.
An entire branch of religious law must be devoted to how the original teachings of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) can guide a new situation that did not arise in his own life.
Without naming religious law, Farabi’s ideas make it clear that even though he does not explicitly name Islam, his ideas are about Islamic society.
His whole philosophy can in fact be seen as an attempt by Greek traditions to develop a system that would help understand Islamic beliefs.
In this sense, Farabi was like Al-Kindi who came before him, Ibn Sina who came after him, and many Muslim thinkers who came after the Golden Age.
Even in the sixteenth century, people like Mullah Sadra in the Safavid Empire of Persia were trying to find harmony between their religion and the Greek books that were translated from Greek into Arabic during the Al-Kindi and Farabi eras.
Farabi and his Baghdad schoolmates helped establish a lasting relationship with Aristotle and other Greek thinkers, but they did not simply embrace Greek ideas.
Contrary to philosophical critics, he demonstrated how these “foreign and pagan” concepts could be transformed into a new philosophy consistent with Abrahamic beliefs.
It was a philosophy that transcended religious boundaries and was therefore appropriate for the city of Baghdad, the city that created it, the most diverse city in the Abbasid empire founded on religious and national grounds.