Al-Fārābi

According to Al-Fārābi, “Religion is opinions and actions, determined and restricted with stipulations and prescribed for a community by their first ruler, who seeks to obtain through their practicing it a specific purpose with respect to them or by means of them” (Book of Religion, 1). Religion is an applied ideology that gives its interpretation, via religious laws, of how human beings can best go about living a truly happy life. Furthermore, religion and religious laws are culturally specific, because they are bound to one culture; inducing true opinions and laying down injunctions in a way tailored to that culture via a prophet. According to Al-Fārābi, every virtuous prophet-ruler and every philosopher understand the same truths. For example, the oneness of God as the first principle and the descent of his providential influence through the heavens and celestial intellects. These same truths are symbolized different ways by different prophetic revelations, which provides the basis for what Al-Fārābi calls virtuous religions. A religion is virtuous if its first ruler only seeks to obtain true happiness for themselves and their citizens. For instance, a good political ruler can help its citizens be happy by bringing them to virtue. Al-Fārābi also recognizes the possibility that an entire city can be virtuous, just as a person can be with the help of religion. A virtuous city is one in which the citizens, with the help of their prophet-ruler, have attained the right opinions and perform the right actions. By contrast, ignorant cities are full of people doing the wrong things, because they hold the wrong opinions. Al-Fārābi asserts that ignorant cities pursue honor, wealth, or pleasure, rather than genuine happiness. Moreover, this typically occurs under the guidance of an ill-equipped prophet-ruler. Ultimately, the goal of a religion is to obtain ultimate happiness, which, ideally, is achieved through a virtuous prophet-ruler. 

Additionally, the prophet-ruler is a lawgiver. This is because the citizens of a city gain their opinions from someone who knows – namely the true prophet-ruler or king of their community. This prophet-ruler will not be just a king, but also a philosopher. His intellect will be completely realized by receiving an emanation from the separate, active intellect – which knows everything there is to possibly know. Henceforth, since the ideal ruler knows everything anyone might need to know, he can help his subjects form virtuous opinions. Moreover, he will help them perform virtuous actions. Without his guidance, the citizens will lack the right goals, because of the false opinions they have regarding practical affairs. Furthermore, as becomes especially clear in The Book Of Religion, the practical abilities of the ideal ruler are realized, above all, in the handing down of laws. The ideal prophet-ruler has to keep on eye on both universal goals and individual cases. His laws represent an application of the general to the particular in a way appropriate for the city and its inhabitants.

Ideally, when the prophet-ruler is no longer alive, another such ruler who possessed the same qualities would succeed him. But when no qualified prophet-ruler was available, a group of people who collectively had the traits the prophet-ruler combined in his single and singular person took over. Lastly, if the gifts of universal understanding, excellence and deliberation about particulars, and revelation are possessed by no individual or group of prophet-leaders, the citizens would then adhere to the laws that had been previously laid down by the perfect ruler or rulers before. However, circumstances change, and problems may arise that have no clear solution in the existing law. After all, each given city would have its own unique needs because of its location, climate, and the temperament of its people. The successor to the original prophet-king will understand all of this and legislate accordingly. He will also be able to act appropriately as new situations arise. When this happens, Al-Fārābi says, we must turn to jurisprudence because jurisprudence stays within the (existing) legal framework and symbolic world of a religion. For instance, the jurist would make careful guesses about how best to extend the original, ideal teachings, without inquiring too deeply into their actual foundations. In this sense, the jurist never ventures beyond the parochial confines of his own religion.

In Principles of the Opinions I.2, Al-Fārābi argues that there cannot be more than one First Cause. His argument is as follows:

1) Suppose that A is uncaused and B is uncaused.

2) Suppose that A does not equal B

3) For any X and Y, if X does not equal Y then there is some difference between X and Y

4) Given 2 and 3, it follows that there is some difference between A and B

5) Given 1, it follows there is no difference between A and B

Thus, if Supposition 1 is true then Supposition 2 is false.

To fully understand Al-Fārābi’s argument, one must understand Al-Fārābi’s course of study. According to Al-Fārābi’s course of study, one should begin with logic, thereafter progressing to physics, and then metaphysics. Finally one should turn to the practical subjects of ethics and political philosophy. Philosophical sciences can be built upon one another. Higher sciences provide the principles or assumptions on which lower sciences are built. For example, knowledge of geometrical principles is necessary for knowledge of optics, but knowledge of optics is not necessary for knowledge of geometrical principles. Ideally, according to Al-Fārābi, the whole body of possible human knowledge can be envisioned as a hierarchy of sciences, with metaphysics or first philosophy establishing the highest principles upon which all other sciences depend. Al-Fārābi wants humans to fully realize their potential for knowledge by working their way up from familiar phenomena to genuinely primary phenomena, and by grasping all the sciences as one interlocking system.

A problem arises with Al-Fārābi’s fifth premise; it does not follow that just because two substances share one common property that they are necessarily the same thing. Moreover, according to the fifth premise, if A and B were the same thing, then they would not be represented by two different variables; they would be represented by the same variable. A would be A. Therefore, the premise is incorrect. Lastly, one can use the exact same structure of his argument to show how absurd it actually is – simply by rewording the first premise. The hypothetical argument could go something like this:

1) Suppose that A is a mammal and B is a mammal.

2) Suppose that A does not equal B

3) For any X and Y, if X does not equal Y then there is some difference between X and Y

4) Given 2 and 3, it follows that there is some difference between A and B

5) Given 1, it follows there is no difference between A and B

Thus, if Supposition 1 is true then Supposition 2 is false

This hypothetical argument, which is the same style of argument put forth by Al-Fārābi is not actually putting forth any new information. Clearly, two different things can be a mammal, as demonstrated via this specific reconstruction of Al-Fārābi’s argument – which sheds light upon how flawed Al-Fārābi’s argument really is. In Al-Fārābi’s original argument, he was trying to show that two substances containing a common property (being uncaused) is a contradiction, but that just simply is not that case as demonstrated via my hypothetical argument. Two substances, an animal, can share a common property, being a mammal. Showing that just because two substances share a common property, it does not necessarily follow that they are or are not the same substance. This type of argument is completely valid, but this is also a perfect example of how logic can yield impractical solutions.

Furthermore, Al-Fārābi put forth an understanding of God as a first cause who creates the rest of the universe by emanating it from Himself. This process of emanation occurs, necessarily, and is achieved through a series of intermediaries. Al-Fārābi also integrates his theory of knowledge into that emanationist system, making one and the same intellect, responsible for both human knowledge and the forms of things down here on Earth. The mind of the first is self-caused and only thinks of itself. God does not know anything else in virtue of itself. Everything flows from God understanding Himself, but God does not know that events are following from that because all God knows is understanding Himself – that is His essence. Self-Sufficiency is how God is different from other beings.

Al-Fārābi begins his account of the first principle by fusing together the emanationist scheme of Neo-Platonism with ideas taken from Aristotle. For example, according to Aristotle, God is a pure mind, which is the first cause of motion for the entire universe. Furthermore, Aristotle not only posits this highest, separate intellect, but one intellect for each of the simple motions of the heavenly bodies. Broadly following this idea, Al-Fārābi tells us that every heavenly sphere has its own intellect. The Neo-Platonism part comes in when adds that these intellects and spheres descend from God in a kind of cascade of causation. God begins that cascade by emanating a first intellect, which is associated with the outermost sphere of the heavens. Furthermore, Al-Fārābihas a whole series of celestial intellects proceeding one by one, each one giving rise to the next, much as the first intellect came from God. The intellects are associated with the nested heavenly spheres, which are like transparent glass balls, one inside the other. Their motions around the Earth are revealed to us by the visible planets seated upon them. This goes on until we arrive at the lowest of the intellects, which has responsibility for our material/physical world below the heavens.

As abstract as this theory sounds, it actually solves a problem of philosophy that plagued late antiquity. Plato introduced his infamous theory of forms in part because he wanted to explain the one-over-many phenomenon. But Al-Fārābi was well aware of Aristotle’s searching critique of the theory of forms and agreed that we should not posit a second, transcendent world of perfect exemplars to solve the one over many problem. Because his own theory, with its giver of forms is introduced in a context of emanation, it is often described as being Neoplatonic or Platonist, but Al-Fārābi, himself, was anti-Platonist. According to his account unity is provided, not by platonic forms, but by forms that are simply ideas in a mind. Albeit that this mind is a single transcendent one. The first principle relies on nothing else in order to validate its own existence or to even exist in the first place – rather, everything relies upon the first principle in order to exist.

When philosophy has no share in governing the excellent city, that city will be on the verge of destruction. This is evident in Al-Fārābi’s work when he suggests that the ideal ruler is a prophet, yet the prophet-ruler also has to be a philosopher. The prophet-ruler needs to have a theoretical grasp of the world; he has to keep on eye on both universal goals and individual cases. Moreover he prophet-rulers laws represents an application of universal knowledge to particular knowledge in a beneficial way for the city and its inhabitants. A prophet is an ideal ruler because he gets divine recollection, with which he is most effectively able to influence and change how the society lives. A prophet can change the views of other people. They have the much more effective power of persuasion of the common man the philosophers. This is because philosophers can provide proofs, but the common person cannot understand a proof. Generally speaking, people can only begin to comprehend high-level concepts through symbols, via a myth or an analogy. Therefore, prophets are more persuadable than philosophers. Yet the prophet must also be a philosopher, because if he were not, he would not be able to explain his prophetic visions to skeptics, to people that adhere to reason. The prophet would be incapable of conveying his message to all. Thus, he also needs to be a philosopher.

The importance of philosophy further emerges during the state of transition from one prophet-leader to another. This is because when the original prophet-ruler passes away, ideally, another such ruler would replace him. But when no prophet-ruler was available, a group of people who collectively had the traits that the original prophet-rule possessed took over. And if the gifts of universal understanding, excellence and deliberation about particulars, and revelation were possessed by no individual or group of prophet-leaders, the citizens would then simply adhere to the laws that had been previously laid down by the original prophet-ruler. When this happens, the city had to turn to jurisprudence, and this is where the importance of philosophy fully emerges.

Philosophy gives us a way to understand the true basis of the prophet-ruler’s laws. The truths that lay behind the merely symbolic images offered in religious texts. Al-Fārābiwhole-heartedly embraced the late, ancient idea that philosophy must be grounded in the study of logic. This enabled a way of providing a convincing argument to people who were not merely persuaded by symbolic images via mythologies. What jurisprudence does, by contrast, is to stay within the legal framework and symbolic notion of a religion. The jurist does his or her best effort to best extend the religious teachings without probing into their actual foundations. In this sense, the jurist never ventures beyond the parochial confines of his or her own religion. When this occurs, and philosophy is no longer occurring, meaning the status quo of society is not being challenged, but rather being dogmatically accepted, the city will be on the verge of destruction.

Works Cited

Fakhry, Majid. A History of Islamic Philosophy. New York: Columbia UP, 2004. Print.

Fārābī, and Charles E. Butterworth. Alfarabi, the Political Writings: Selected Aphorisms and Other Texts. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2001. Print.

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