Al-Farabi was known among Muslims, Christians, and Jews of his era as the Second Master (Aristotle being the First in their eyes), and was also called the First Teacher, for he was the first Muslim philosopher, and first to head a school in the Islamic empire. He was mentored by a Christian Syriac philosopher called Yuhanna Ibn Haylan. He lived and studied in Baghdad, Damascus, Antioch, and Cairo. He wrote on politics, physics, metaphysics, philosophy, music, psychology, and religion, among others.
The most prominent Jewish philosopher, Moshe bin Maymun (Maimonides), wrote a famous letter to his translator, Ibn Tibbon, and in it he had this to say about al-Farabi: "Do not busy yourself with books on the art of logic except for what was composed by the wise man Abu Nasr al-Farabi. For in general, everything that he composed - and particularly his book on the Principles of Beings [The Political Regime] - is all finer than fine flour. His arguments enable one to understand and comprehend, for he was very great in wisdom."
The following are excerpts from his most famous books.
The Enumeration of Sciences
Translated by Fauzi M. Najjar
Jurisprudence (fiqh) is the art that enables man to infer the determination of whatever was not explicitly specified by the Lawgiver, on the basis of such things as were explicitly specified and determined by him; and to strive to infer correctly by taking into account the Lawgiver's purpose with the religion he had legislated for the nation to which he gave that religion. Now every religion comprises certain opinions and certain actions. Examples of the opinions are those legislated about God (praise be to Him) and His attributes, about the world, and so forth. Examples of the actions are those by which God (the Mighty and Majestic) is magnified, and the actions by means of which transactions are conducted in the cities. For this reason, the science of jurisprudence has two parts, one part dealing with opinions and another dealing with actions.
The Enumeration of Sciences
Translated by Muhsin Mahdi
The art of dialectical theology (kalam) is a positive disposition that enables man to argue in the defense of the specific opinions and actions stated explicitly by the founder of the religion, and against everything that opposes these opinions and actions. This art is also divided into two parts; one part deals with opinions, and another deals with actions. It is different from jurisprudence. For the jurist takes the opinions and actions stated explicitly by the founder of the religion and, using them as axioms, he infers the things that follow from them as consequences. The dialectical theologian, on the other hand, defends the things that the jurist uses as axioms, without inferring other things from them. If it should happen that a certain man possesses the ability to do both, then he is both a jurist and a dialectical theologian. He defends the axioms in his capacity as a dialectical theologian, and he infers from them in his capacity as a jurist.
As far as the ways and opinions that must be employed in defending religions are concerned [dialectical theologians hold a variety of views that can be summed up as follows]:
(A) There is a group of dialectical theologians who are of the opinion that they should defend religions by arguing that religious opinions and all their postulates are not susceptible of examination by human opinions, deliberation, or intellects, because they are superior to these in rank since they are received through divine revelation, and because they comprise divine mysteries that human intellects are too weak to comprehend or approach. Again, man is such that, through revelation, religions offer him what he cannot apprehend by his intellect, and before which his intellect is impotent. Otherwise, revelation would be meaningless and useless, for it would only offer man that which he knows already or what he could, upon reflection, come to apprehend by his intellect.... Consequently, the knowledge supplied by religions must be what our intellects are unable to apprehend and, what is more, also what our intellects reject; for the more intensely we reject it, the greater the possibility that it is vastly advantageous. That is because the things that are brought forth by religions and that the [human] intellects reject and [human] fancies regard as abominable, are in reality neither objectionable nor absurd, but are valid for the divine intellects. For even though man were to reach the limit of human perfection, his position in relation to the possessors of divine intellects is like that of the child, the adolescent, and the callow youth in relation to the perfect man. Most children and callow youths consider as objectionable by their intellects many things that are not in reality objectionable or impossible - although to them they are impossible. The one who has reached the limit of human perfection occupies a similar position in relation to the divine intellects. Also, prior to his being trained and experienced, man considers many things objectionable, regards them as abominable, and imagines that they are absurd. But once he is trained in the sciences and acquires practical wisdom through experience, he is freed from such beliefs: the things he had considered absurd prove to be necessary, and he would wonder about the opposite of what formerly used to cause him wonder. Similarly, it is possible that the man who is perfect in humanity may consider certain things objectionable and imagine that they are impossible, although in reality they are not. The reasons why these [dialectical theologians] held the opinion that religions must be considered valid are as follows. He who brought us revelation from God (praised be His name) is veracious and it is inadmissible that he may have lied. That he is such, may be attested in one or both of two ways: the miracles that he performs or that take place through him, or the testimonies to his veracity and his place with God (the Mighty and Majestic) of the veracious and trustworthy ones who preceded him. Once we validate his veracity in these ways, and [acknowledge] that it is inadmissible that he may have lied, there ought not to remain any room for intellecting, reflection, deliberation, or speculation with respect to the things he says. It is with such and similar arguments that these [dialectical theologians] thought they should define religion.
(B) Another group of them are of the opinion that they should defend religion by first presenting everything stated explicitly by the founder of the religion in the very words he used to express them. Then they look around for the various sensible, generally, accepted, and intelligible things. Whenever they find that one of these, or something that follows from it as consequence, supports, though remotely, anything in the religion, they use the former to defend the latter; and whenever it contradicts anything in the religion, and they are able to interpret, no matter how remote the interpretation may be, the words in which the founder of the religion has expressed it [that is, what is in the religion] in such a manner as to make it harmonious with that which contradicts it, they would proceed to interpret it in this manner. If these were not possible for them, but it were possible to argue against that contradicting thing, or to construe it in a manner that would make it accord with what is in the religion, they would do so. When, however, the testimony of the generally accepted opinions and of the objects of sense contradict each other - for instance, when the objects of sense or their consequences require one thing and the generally accepted opinions or their consequences require the contrary - they would look for the one whose testimony in support of what is in the religion is stronger and adopt it, and they would dismiss the other and argue against it.
Now, when it proves impossible to construe the religious text to accord with either of these [that is, the objects of sense or the generally accepted opinions], or to construe any of these to accord with the religion, or to dismiss or argue against any of the objects of sense, the generally accepted opinions, or the intelligibles that contradict a certain thing in the religion, they then hold the opinion that this thing [in the religion] should be defended by arguing that it is true on the ground that it is reported by him who could not have lied or erred. These [dialectical theologians] argue concerning this part of the religion as the first group argued concerning all of it. This, then, is the way in which these [dialectical theologians] thought they should defend religions.
A certain group of them hold the opinion that they should defend things of this sort [in their religion] (namely, the ones that they imagine to be absurd) by looking into all other religions and selecting the absurd things in them, so that when a follower of one of the other religions seeks to vilify something in theirs, they will confront him with the absurd things in the religions of others and thus ward off his assault upon their own.
Another group of them, realizing that the arguments they advance in the defense of things of this sort are insufficient to prove their complete validity - so that their adversary's silence would result from his accepting them - were then forced to use certain things that would drive him to cease arguing against them, either from shame and his inability to express himself adequately, or from fear of being harmed.
And still others, convinced of the validity of their own religion beyond any doubt, hold the opinion that they should defend it before others, show it to be fair and free it of suspicion, and ward off their adversaries from it, by using any chance thing. They would not even disdain to use falsehood, sophistry, confounding, and contentiousness because they hold the opinion that only one of two men would oppose their religion. He is either an enemy, and it is admissible to use falsehood and sophistry to ward him off and to defeat him, as is the case in war (jihad) and combat. Or he is not an enemy, but one who, owing to weak intellect and poor judgment, is ignorant of the advantage he would derive from this religion; and it is admissible to use falsehood and sophistry to make man seek his well-being, just as is done in the case of women and children.
The Political Regime
Translated by Fauzi M. Najjar
A - The Ignorant Cities
The indispensable city... is that which leads to cooperation to acquire the bare necessities for the subsistence and safeguarding of the body. There are many ways to acquire these things, such as husbandry, grazing, hunting, robbery, and so forth... The citizens of this city regard the best man to be the one who is most excellent in skill, management, and accomplishment in obtaining the bare necessities.... Their ruler is he who can govern well and is skillful in employing them to acquire the indispensible things, who can govern them well so as to preserve these things for them, or who generously provides them with these things from his own possessions....
The vile city... is that whose members (a) cooperate to acquire wealth and prosperity... and the accumulation beyond the need for them and for no other reason than the love and covetousness of wealth; and (b) avoid spending any of it except on what is necessary for bodily subsistence.... They regard the best men to be the wealthiest and the most skillful in the acquisition of wealth. Their ruler is the man who is able to manage them well in what leads them to acquire wealth and always to remain wealthy....
The base city... is that in which the citizens cooperate to enjoy sensual pleasures or imaginary pleasures (play and amusement) or both. They enjoy the pleasures of food, drink, and sex, and strive after what is most pleasant of these.... This city is the one regarded by the citizens of the ignorant city as the happy and admirable city.... They regard whoever possesses more resources for play and the pleasures as the best, the happiest, and the most enviable man.
The timocratic city... is that in which the citizens cooperate with a view to be honored in speech and deed.... In the eyes of the citizens of the ignorant city, merits are not based on virtue, but (a) on wealth, or (b) on possessing the means of pleasure and play..., or (c) on obtaining most of the necessities of life..., or (d) on man's being useful, that is, doing good to others with respect to these three things. (e)... one more... well liked by most of the citizens of the ignorant cities, that is, domination... that he be immune to being harmed by others, while able to harm others at will. For, in their eyes, this is a state of felicity for which a man merits honor; hence the better he is in this respect, the more he is honored....
In their eyes, the one who merits more honor rules over the one who merits less of it. This inequality continues on an ascending scale terminating in the one who merits more honors than anyone else in the city. This, therefore, will be the ruler and the prince of the city.... Accordingly, if honor, according to them, is based on distinguished ancestry alone, the ruler ought to have a more distinguished ancestry than the others; and similarly if honor, according to them, is based on wealth alone. Next, men are distinguished and given ranks of order according to their wealth and ancestry; and whoever lacks both wealth and a distinguished ancestry will have no claim to any rulership or honor.... The one who covets honor by whatever means, may also claim distinguished ancestry for himself and his offspring after him; and so that his fame survive through his offspring, he designates his immediate offspring or members of his family as his successors. Furthermore, he may appropriate a certain amount of wealth for himself to be honored for it, even though it is of no benefit to others. Also, he honors a certain group so that they may honor him in return. He thus possesses all the things for which men may honor him, reserving for himself alone the things regarded by them as manifesting splendor, embellishment, eminence, and magnificence - such as buildings, costumes, and medals, and, finally, inaccessibility to people.... Once he assumes a certain office and people are accustomed to the fact that he and his family will be their princes, he then orders the people into ranks in such a way as to obtain honor and majesty. To each kind of rank, he assigns a kind of honor and things by virtue of which one merits honor, such as wealth, building, costume, medal, carriage, and so forth, and which contribute to his majesty.... Furthermore, he will show special preference for those men who honor him more or contribute more to the enhancement of his majesty, and he confers honor and distributes favor accordingly. The citizens of his city who covet honor keep honoring him until he acknowledges what they have done and confers honors on them, because of which they will be honored by their inferiors and superiors.
...when their love of honor becomes excessive, it becomes a city of tyrants, and it is more likely to change into a despotic city.
The despotic city... is that in which the members cooperate to achieve domination. This happens when they are all seized by the love of domination, provided that it is in different degrees...; for instance
The democratic city is the one in which each one of the citizens is given free rein and left alone to do whatever he likes. Its citizens are equal and their laws say that no man is in any way at all better than any other man. Its citizens are free to do whatever they like; and no one, be he one of them or an outsider, has any claim to authority unless he works to enhance their freedom.... Those from among the multitude of this city, who possess whatever the rulers possess, have the upper hand over those who are called their rulers....
All the endeavors and purposes of the ignorant cities are present in this city in a most perfect manner; of all of them, this is the most admirable and happy city.... Everybody loves it and loves to reside in it, because there is no human wish or desire that this city does not satisfy. The nations emigrate to it and reside there, and it grows beyond measure.... Strangers cannot be distinguished from the residents.... Consequently, it is quite possible that... virtuous men will grow up in it. Thus it may include philosophers, rhetoricians, and poets, dealing with all kinds of things.... Therefore, this city possesses both good and evil to a greater degree than the rest of the ignorant cities. The bigger, the more civilized, the more populated, the more productive, and the more perfect it is, the more prevalent and the greater are the good and the evil it possesses.
... when someone finally holds a position of authority, it is either because the citizens have favored him with it, or else because they have received from him money or something else in return.... As for the truly virtuous man - namely the man who, if he were to rule them, would determine and direct their actions toward happiness - they do not make him a ruler. If by chance he comes to rule them, he will soon find himself either deposed or killed or in an unstable and challenged position.... They refuse the rule of virtuous men and resent it. Nevertheless, the construction of virtuous cities and the establishment of the rule of virtuous men are more effective and much easier out of the indispensable and democratic cities than out of any other ignorant city.
... they develop... gluttony and lust for food, drink, and sex. Some of them are dominated by softness and luxury, weakening their irascible faculty to the extent that none or very little of it remains.
B - The Immoral City
Immoral cities are the ones whose citizens once believed in, and cognized, the principles [of beings]; imagined, and believed in, what happiness is; and were guided toward, knew, and believed in, the actions by which to attain happiness. Nevertheless, they did not adhere to any of those actions, but came to desire and will one or another of the aims of the citizens of the ignorant cities - such as honor, domination, and so forth - and directed all their actions and faculties toward them.
C - The Erring City
Erring cities are those whose citizens are given imitations...; a kind of happiness that is not true happiness..., and actions and opinions... by none of which true happiness can be attained.
D - The Weeds in the Virtuous City
... They constitute neither a city nor a large multitude; rather they are submerged by the citizen body as a whole.
... Members of another class [of Weeds] imagine happiness and the principles, but their minds are totally lacking in the power to cognize them, or it is beyond the power of their minds to cognize them adequately. Consequently, they falsify the things they imagine and come upon the places of contention in them, and whenever they are raised to a level of imagination that is closer to the truth, they find it to be false.... It leads (1) some of them to a state of perplexity in all things, and (2) others to think that no apprehension whatever is true, and that whenever someone thinks that he has apprehended something that he is lying about it and that he is not sure or certain of what he thinks. These individuals occupy the position of ignorant simpletons in the eyes of reasonable men and in relation to the philosophers.... (3) Others among them think that the truth consists of whatever appears to each individual and what each man thinks it to be at one time or another, and that the truth of everything is what someone thinks it is. (4) Others among them exert themselves to create the illusion that everything that is thought to have been apprehended up to this time is completely false, and that, although a certain truth or reality does exist, it has not yet been apprehended. (5) Others among them imagine - as if in a dream or as if a thing is seen from a distance - that there is a truth, and it occurs to them that the ones who claim to have apprehended it may have done so, or perhaps that one of them may have apprehended it. They feel that they themselves have missed it, either because they require a long time, and have to toil and exert themselves, in order to apprehend it, when they no longer have sufficient time or the power to toil and persevere; or because they are occupied by certain pleasures and so forth to which they have been accustomed and from which they find it very difficult to free themselves; or because they feel that they cannot apprehend it even if they had access to all the means of it. Consequently, they regret and grieve over what they think others may have attained. Hence, out of jealousy for those who may have apprehended the truth, they think it wise to endeavor, using sham arguments, to create the illusion that whoever claims to have apprehended the truth is either deluded or else a liar who is seeking honor, wealth, or some other desirable thing, from the claim he makes.
Now many of these perceive their own ignorance and perplexity; they feel sad and suffer pain because of what they perceive to be their condition, they are overcome by anxiety, and it torments them; and they find no way to free themselves of this by means of a science leading them to the truth whose apprehension would give them pleasure. Hence they choose to find rest from all this by turning to the various ends of the ignorant cities, and to find their solace in amusements and games until death comes to relieve them of their burden.
Some of these - I mean the ones who seek rest from the torment of ignorance and perplexity - may create the illusion that the true ends are those that they themselves choose and desire, that happiness consists of these, and that the rest of men are deluded in what they believe in. They exert themselves to adorn the ends of the ignorant cities and the happiness [that they pursue]. They create the illusion that they have come to prefer some of these ends after a thorough examination of all that the others claim to have apprehended, that they have rejected the latter only after finding out that they are inconclusive, and that their position was arrived at on the basis of personal knowledge - therefore, theirs are the ends, not the ones claimed by the others.
The Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle
Translated by Muhsin Mahdi