Political Philosophy of Abu Nasr Muhammad Al-Farabi

Abstract

In this paper the main principles of the political philosophy of Abu Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi (870-950) are under the analysis. His views are adequately commented and regarded in a way of explaining the main points of view by this outstanding philosopher. The work consists of an introduction, three body parts, and a conclusion. In the main body 12 main qualities of the perfect political leader are analyzed. Moreover, the notions of al-Farabi’s biography and his education are represented. In this paper the relevance between the philosophy and the philosophy of al-Farabi is described and explained.

Keywords: al-Farabi, political philosophy

 

Introduction

While in Europe of Middle Ages there appeared to be not easy times for the new way of thinking, because of the conservative influence of the church to the cultural life of people, in the East there appeared new political philosophy, formulated by Abu Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi.

In a way of reworking, interpreting and expanding the principles of ancient Greek philosophy, al-Farabi managed to present significantly new way of thinking, which became the bridge between Western and Eastern civilization.

Al-Farabi’s philosophy did not present some radical notions, although his way of thinking was definitely new to the Muslim world. Islamic philosophy in all of its aspects was founded on the principles of traditionalism. While formulating the qualities of the perfect leader of the state, al-Farabi added to the principles borrowed from Plato and Aristotle the concept of prophecy. So, in al-Farabi’s opinion, the gift of prophecy granted by God is a significant quality for the leader of the perfectly organized state.

In the first part of this paper there will be presented some facts about al-Farabi’s biography, including his education and formation of his political philosophy. His theory was formed under special circumstances. In the second part of the paper, twelve qualities of the perfect leader of the state will be presented, which are of the significant importance for the development of the social institutions and a government of a state. Commentaries on these principles will be given in general. In the third part of this paper, the prominent question of great actuality nowadays will be answered. This is about how to gain happiness. Is it possible only when all the principles of al-Farabi’s philosophy are implemented to the way of governing the country? Is it really possible to implement all the principles of this philosophy? Is it real that all the qualities of the perfect leader formulated by the philosopher are combined in one personality, or this question is just rhetorical, and the philosophy of al-Farabi is just an imaginary concept?

These questions will be answered in this paper, while analyzing the main arguments, principles and concepts formulated by al-Farabi. The major attention will be focused on explaining the principles of his political theory as it presents the great interest not only for the researchers of the Middle Ages, but also for the researchers of the modern times.

The object of this research is not only to reproduce the main arguments of the political philosophy of al-Farabi, but also to explain his main arguments in a way of commenting the philosopher’s main points of view.

It will be cleared how al-Farabi managed to gain the respect and trust from the contemporary researchers, for whom this political theory presents a great interest. The main states presented by this philosopher will be revealed, either they are applicable to the modern world.

Al-Farabi’s Biography: Education and Formation of His Viewpoints – the Background of His Philosophy

Abu Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi (870-950) is one of the most outstanding philosophers of the Middle Ages period. Additionally, he was a famous linguist, who made a significant contribution to the development of different kinds of philosophy in the Muslim world. Al-Farabi influenced many Islamic philosophers, for example Avicenna. Moreover, his great skills in linguistics helped him to translate the works by Plato and Aristotle, with an addition to the thoughts of his own.

The philosopher started his early education at Bukhara and Farab; he continued his later higher studies in Baghdad, where he lived and worked for years. During the period of education in Baghdad, al-Farabi got the Master’s degree in several languages and other subjects. Al-Farabi made an outstanding contribution to the various branches of knowledge, like science, medicine, sociology, logic, music and mathematics, but his major achievements belong to the field of philosophy.

Al-Farabi was the first who in his numerous works separated philosophy and theology as the different subjects of knowledge. It is not easy to find a philosopher of the Middle Ages both of Muslim and Christian society, who was not influenced by his philosophical and political views. Al-Farabi believed in the existence of the Supreme Being that had invented the world through the balanced intelligence. His philosophy also concerned the rationality, as well as political side of life. Al-Farabi’s political theory became the foundation for the further studies in this field.

For example, this philosopher formulated the qualities that political leader has to obtain, like he should follow the rule of good quality, exhibiting the good attitude to this rule. Al-Farabi’s political views were concentrated around the issue of happiness, being in a state of which people should cooperate to get contentment. Those views correlated with the Greek philosophy, where the concept of happiness was associated with the rank of happiness about obtaining the ideal sovereign, who has “the Active Intellect”. So the views of al-Farabi served a great source of inspiration for the political, social, economic, cultural and spiritual leaders of the Middle Ages period. Moreover, his thoughts are compatible with the modern world, with all of its changes and trouble situations. Al-Farabi’s philosophy of leadership presents the great actuality even nowadays.

The philosopher’s epistemology presents a great interest for the modern researchers. It is worth to mention that it is of both an Aristotelian and a Neoplatonic dimensions. Al-Farabi’s knowledge is classified in the best way in his Kitab ihsa al-ulum, in the work which in a neat way illustrates his esoteric and exoteric beliefs. This work is also characterized by a known Aristotelian stress on the high importance of the knowledge.

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Al-Farabi also worked at writing books concerning the Muslim sociology, and the most notable of them is so called “The Book of Music”. It presents the theoretical studies on Persian music of those days. In the Western world this book was presented as a study on Arabic music. Besides contributing to the musical studies, al-Farabi invented some musical instruments, and could play them so well that could make people listening to them laugh and cry. Moreover, the philosopher went to discussion about the music therapy. He thought that with the help of playing music it is possible to make therapeutic effect on the human’s soul.

Al-Farabi travelled through different distant lands to understand the culture of the other nations. During his life he contributed to many fields of knowledge. He developed the unique philosophy, which was significant for the further studies by the other researchers, both from Muslim and Christian countries. In spite of facing with many hardships all life long, he worked with a high dedication to his researches that made him famous all over the world. Al-Farabi died in Damascus in 950 A.D. when he was 80 years old.

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Boer described him as a kind and quiet man, who always wore his Sufi dress. He was entirely devoted to philosophy and sank in thinking (Boer 1967). Saeed Sneikh called al-Farabi one of the best Turkish philosophers who transmitted Aristotle’s logic and the concepts of Greek philosophy through his interpretation and explanation in a unique way. Al-Farabi tried to relate Greek philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, and other thinkers, to the ideology of Islam. In spite of this, in the Western countries the philosophy of al-Farabi is mainly known by his unique way of interpretation of Greek philosophy to the rest of the world, and the rest of his fundamental works, including ones about the philosophy of politics and metaphysics, were barely known in Europe. (Sneikh 1962)

In this paper the arguments and main concepts of political philosophy formulated by al-Farabi will be reproduced. He worked hardly at clarifying them all life long.

Towards al-Farabi’s Political Philosophy

According to al-Farabi, any of the group of people cannot attain successful life, happiness and order, since any of these features are not possible without the rule of political situation, or, in his own words, without “societies of people”. Political association is needed conceptually, as by their nature none of the humans can live alone. They can gain success when the state is created, which is guided by the ruler and justice. People’s needs for wealthy and happy life are able to be fulfilled this way only. The association of people is needed to be formed for reaching the common goals, which otherwise cannot be reached. So al-Farabi arose with the concept of “virtuous city” against the one, which is not virtuous. (Al-Farabi 2007)

Al-Farabi compared virtuous (perfect) city with a healthy body, the organs of which work like a unity, one mechanism, like clockwork. So, the heart is the main organ of the body, it stands in the first rank; while the other (lower) organs stand in the second rank, they all execute the aim ordered by the main organ. The city, according to al-Farabi, is also like this – the master of it is followed by the subordinates. The role of the ruler of the perfect city is very significant, as the whole mechanism is not able to work perfectly without the good way of governing. So the role of the ruler of the city is related to the role of its parts, like

the First Cause is related to the other existents. As the philosopher pointed out, the imaginary First Cause is close to the immaterial existents; beneath them the heavenly bodies stand, and under the heavenly bodies the material bodies are supposed to be present. So, all these existents, depending on their ranks, are conformable with the First Cause (Al-Farabi 2007: 12). This theory of al-Farabi’s prefers the existence of the head of the state. Additionally, the philosopher worked not on improving the present political regime of his time, but he was inclined to create principally new virtuous city (state) (Al-Farabi 2007:13).

The Qualities For The Leader of The Ideal State

In comparison with the First Cause, ideally a ruler must possess the good way of thinking, being intellectually perfect one. As the First Cause, according to al-Farabi, is related to God, who is the ideal ruler and unique ruler of the whole Universe. Among the philosopher’s findings is his comparison between the ideal leader and God, God in all of his glory is really a mighty one. He rules the Universe using the principles of justice, kindness, mercy, order and other features that should be necessarily present in the personality of the ruler as well.

Moreover, God is great not only that he can manage to rule on the unique principles that can make people happy. God possesses intellectual mind that is possible to change the world with only one decision. With the power granted from God, the leader should possess all these qualities in order to bring happiness to people, making the life for them more comfortable and easier. In addition, a good ruler has to manage to solve problems of great actuality, giving people hope for better, even in a very difficult situation. Not only powerful, but also very mentally strong and wise leader can gain respect of his authority from the community of people called society.

Al-Farabi describes 2 conditions for good rulership: a leader should be pre-justiced to the rulership by the inborn nature of his; he has to possess the habit of will for the forthcoming leadership. The 1st condition is presupposed to the intellectual perfection in the full measure. In a way of mastering his own intellect, a leader realizes his great mission and becomes a ruler of the state. And when he continues his mental exercises, he gains even more knowledge, and this makes him a very wise man that is not afraid to take the responsibility for the lives of the others, and the future of the whole state, on him. By going further, according to al-Farabi, it is possible to become a prophet who is able to rule the nation by the complex of advices on various issues, and, of course, by the revelations, which are sent from the far above. Prophecy is the God’s gift, so it is regarded by al-Farabi as the greatest issue granted by God.

Being a prophet means serving to the God’s will completely, dedicating oneself to the people in the whole measure. Prophecy does not mean living in pride, being wealthy and happy. Sometimes the gift of prophecy is related to the hard life, full of uncertainty, uneasiness, mental exhausting and misunderstanding from the people. But, in al-Farabi’s opinion, being a prophet is like being a leader; anyway a prophet stands much higher than the state leader, as the first one sees everything from the different point of view.

The second condition described by the philosopher is related to another requirement – being a good orator. With the help of chosen words, a good leader should be able to lead people through a right pass to their main goal. Leader’s speech should by full of well chosen stylistic devices and expressive means, emotionally colorful, represented in a good manner of speaking. By voice a leader should not only proclaim speeches well, but make people understand his will, the reasons of events, and other important principles of the leader’s ruling over the state. In order to make his speech more understandable, a leader should make it easier for perception. In the other words, the speech should be concise and well-constructed, with the help of the short sentences and emotionally colorful words. That would work well.

When these conditions are united into the one sovereign, it has a right to be called Imam – the ruler of the perfect city or state (17). Political theory of al-Farabi is developed by the twelve more natural qualities that a leader should possess in order to finally establish the city of excellent order. These are:

  • The leader should obtain the so called free organs that do no perform any of the functions until they are needed. In a certain moment only the leader has the right to use them to help to reach the common welfare or a goal.
  • A good leader should be not only a good orator, but also a good listener. He has to listen attentively and carefully in order to understand the real intentions of a speaker.
  • After the talk he should be able to remember every detail of conversation and never miss anything. So a leader should be good in memorizing.
  • He should obtain intelligence and wisdom. If someone has dropped a hint of a thing, the perfect leader should grasp the concept immediately, no matter how difficult it may be.
  • A leader should obtain a fine diction. He should be able to express what in his mind well and accurately.
  • He should be ready to learn the unknown or new things for the whole life. No matter how hard it is, the perfect leader should be able to do this well. He should be able to grasp everything easily and keep in mind for as long as it possible.
  • By nature the perfect leader should respect truth and justice and hate false, liars and hypocrites.
  • Naturally, the perfect leader should not be fond of the pleasures of the world, like women, food, drink, gambling, and others, as all these pleasures significantly distract from ruling the country.
  • His heart and soul must be inclined to the good things, and hate bad ones. The perfect leader should be proud of high spirit and knowledge, while hating everything ugly and uncomfortable.
  • The perfect leader should take care of his people and state first, and then about his problems.
  • The leader of the perfect state should be fond of justice by his nature, as it is the most important concept of human being. He should hate every kind of oppression in relationships between people, especially just and noble humans. If, for example, the leader is asked to do both evil and injustice, he should definitely refuse at any reason. So, al-Farabi denied the common thought that was popular in the ancient world, as if it is possible to do evil for the good reason. The philosopher thinks that any kind of evil is evil anyway, even if it is done for good. Nothing good can come out of evil, and it is impossible to build the foundation of the perfect state on the notions of injustice, disorder and lack of welfare of people.
  • The perfect leader should be able to plan his life and the lives of people properly. He should have to mange to accomplish everything that must be done without any doubts and fear.

So, if the leader of the state possesses these qualities, maybe even not all, but the majority, he will be able to rule the country in a proper way. According to al-Farabi, all these principles-qualities of the perfect leader can undoubtedly form a good government of a state or a city.

By formulating the rules for the good leadership, by enumerating the main qualities of the perfect leader, al-Farabi presents conceptually new way of thinking, not typical for the rest of Islamic philosophers, whose views were commonly grounded on the traditions of the Muslim countries. On the contrary, the views of al-Farabi were formed in a way of reworking and interpretation, sometimes accepting the principles of ancient Greek political philosophy, which were more common for developing of the European philosophers’ way of thinking.

Views of al-Farabi are completely unusual for the Muslim countries, as they are not related to the common state of things, like supporting the ruling dynasties of the states, or making some real concepts that are very easy to implement. The political philosophy formulated by al-Farabi is more related to the alternative way of thinking, as the changes, which are proposed by him, are almost impossible to implement by the existing regimes of the Eastern and Western countries.

By reworking and reformulating the ideas of Greek philosophers, al-Farabi develops the new philosophy, although significantly influenced by the backgrounds of the Western civilization (ancient Greek). Plato’s principles are mirrored in al-Farabi’s works, but in another shape, acceptable by Eastern civilization. So, al-Farabi, by reworking the principles of the Greek philosophy, managed to contribute to the creation of a new bridge between the East and the West. Plato’s philosophy was developed by him in a way of expanding it with the prophecy. It means that religion, in al-Farabi’s opinion, was a very significant quality for the leader of the perfect state.

Anyway, all these qualities are impossible to be combined in one personality and it is impossible to find the ideal king or ruler. Al-Farabi presents the ideal state of things and the perfect leader’s mind, and in reality the ideal leader of the state, who rules according to the principles of justice and common sense, is almost impossible to find.

It is possible to agree with Robert Hammond (1947) that regarded the political philosophy principles as a combination of Plato’s and Aristotle’s principles of politics. The major Platonic elements of al-Farabi’s philosophy are founded in putting all the humanity in the united universal state without any national boundaries, and Aristotelian principles are seen from the necessity of change from monarchy to aristocracy, as the moral values required for ruling the country are possible to be founded in several persons (31).

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How to Reach Happiness?

In al-Farabi’s opinion, happiness is the highest degree that a human needs to be perfect. When we are happy, we don’t need any other thing to accompany our state of mind. Al-Farabi concludes that we reach happiness when we come to obtain the dispositions by means of discipline of philosophy. In the other words, when simplifying the philosopher’s states about the happiness, we consider that all the principles of political philosophy are implemented into the real way of state governing, the people of the country may be regarded as happy.

When clarifying the principles of happy state, al-Farabi points out that the perfection and goodness can be reached only when both powerful mind and noble disposition are combined in the personality of a leader. He is a mighty one force, who encourages people to be excellent in all they do, and, therefore, to be happy of it.

In his opinion, all the actions of people in any case follow two mighty forces – pleasure or pain. For example, by performing an ignoble action we experience pleasure, so it is very easy to do it. On the contrary, performing the noble action seems to bring pain to people, so this kind of action is not so easy to perform. Pleasure comes from our sensory system, and it often makes us neglect some good and noble actions.

As it was already mentioned above, the perfect leader, among the other important qualities, should possess high moral values and resist easy affordable pleasure. Otherwise, the leader of the country will be a slave of his pleasures and emotions that come out from his inner world. And ruling the country takes so much responsibility from the leader that he has little time for himself.

Conclusion

Undoubtedly, the political philosophy, formulated by Abu Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi (870-950), presents a great issue for studying by the contemporary researchers either of Western, or Eastern countries. It is because in his viewpoints the philosophies of different worlds are linked to each other.

Influenced by the works of Greek philosophers, especially by Plato and Aristotle and their concepts of the ideal state and the government, al-Farabi added very important religious concepts, like, for example, the gift of prophecy, like one of the most significant qualities of the leader of the perfect state.

Anyway, nothing is perfect. And the political philosophy, formulated by al-Farabi, is not quite possible to be called perfect, for twelve qualities of an ideal leader cannot be really combined in real person of flesh and bones. Like, for example, al-Farabi states that the perfect leader should take himself away from such pleasures of the world as women, drink, food, or gambling. According to the philosopher, these are not the only temptations, but also not good passions, especially for the ideal leaders of the perfect country.

While analyzing all the qualities of the perfect leader of the state, which are formulated by al-Farabi, in general and particular, the following was found:

  1. These qualities can not be combined in the real person of flesh and bones, for all the humans are led by their desires. So, al-Farabi formulates the principles of ascetic behavior for the perfect leader. When turn back to the ancient Greece, such qualities were inherent to Alexander the Great, who was the leader of victorious troops, ate and slept in tents beside them, lived in an ascetic and very simple way.
  2. The principles of al-Farabi’s philosophy are too good to be true, very far from reality, and are impossible to implement in modern world, while they were not possible to be implemented in the period of the Middle Ages as well.
  3. The positive feature of al-Farabi’s philosophy consists in that it represented the Western philosophy of ancient Greece to the society and culture of the Eastern countries. This way of thinking, which was partially borrowed from ancient Greece, was the great opportunity to understand the old way of thinking in considerably new way.

So, the political philosophy of al-Farabi presented the way of thinking, which was conceptually new for the developing of the Eastern societies. The problems, arisen by the philosopher, are of great actuality nowadays, like they were actual in the Middle Ages. The philosophy of al-Farabi made the great influence on the further philosophical studies – essays, research papers, dissertations, theses. Nowadays, the political philosophy of al-Farabi is represented by numerous research papers – their findings conclude that the political philosophy, the principles of which are formulated by al-Farabi, presents the new and different reality. It correlates with the principles of the other studies by his contemporaries. Religion and philosophy are closely related to each other in the works by Abu Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi.

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