When Islam rushed like fire born of lightning across the Arabian peninsula, through Egypt and the whole of North Africa, spreading into the eastern and western ends of Europe and into Persia and India, the world it transformed seemed to be ready for burning like dry, ripe grass. Byzantium had inherited the Gordian knot of Graeco-Persian hostility, and behind the masks of imperial splendour both sides were psychically and economically vulnerable. With the collapse of Rome, northern Africa, more exploited than nurtured by its Mediterranean master, fragmented into petty kingdoms which fought with one another and clung to vestiges of Greek and Roman glory remembered with ambiguous feelings. Christian sectarianism weakened the will and eroded the social norms of these peoples, producing a moral and social vacuum which resulted in a cycle of competitive conflict and enormous malaise. The vastly different geographical and political areas which succumbed so quickly to Islamic expansion shared one feature in common: they were acclimatized to sophisticated social structures which had ceased to function. Whilst a cosmopolitan, cohesive social spirit was present, available vehicles for its expression were missing. Under the guidance of Muhammad and his successors, Islam became a religious movement which combined simplicity and fervency of faith with pervasive social order, an alchemical alloy that was a therapeutic tonic for the peoples who first received it.
Islam brought together theological openness and straightforward public profession in a way that stressed social and political order as a manifestation of human solidarity, whilst allowing for a rich diversity of inward spiritual experience free from the pressures of public opinion. Whilst imams offered social and religious guidance, manipulative priestcraft was banished from the Muslim community. The flexibility and confidence of the nomadic tribesman, generated by centuries of learning in dealing with the unexpected, imbued Muslims with a sense of awe and insight into possibilities whilst they moved amongst the decaying remnants of the classical world. They did not feel the loss of a glorified and romanticized past; they saw ways to express the vital impulse surging within them. Renaissance followed conquest. The new social and spiritual order assimilated and transformed ancient inheritances, and during its golden age Islam flourished and encouraged cultural revivals amongst the Jews, Persians and Egyptians, whilst giving greater life to the recently migrating peoples of Spain, Tunisia and Libya, and even creating new forms of art and culture in India. Muslim thinkers wholeheartedly absorbed the lore of the Nile, Greek philosophy and Persian art. Reflective questions began to arise in the new culture, and the heritage of half the world was available to answer them.
Within a century and a half, Arabic, the language of commerce and the Qur'an, became a sublime philosophical tongue. The caliph al-Ma'mun al-Rashid established the House of Wisdom early in the ninth century to translate Hellenistic writings from Syriac into Arabic. Within a few decades Prince Ya'qub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi set forth the foundations of the Mu'tazila school, arguing that the human will is free, that Deity is transcendent, and that reason can show the difference between right and wrong, whilst revelation confirms it. The Mu'tazilites would eventually be routed by Sunnah orthodoxy, but not before they gave rise to the greatest philosopher of reason to appear in Islam and in his time – al-Farabi, a universal spirit who came to be called 'the second Teacher' after Aristotle, who was the first.
Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Tarkhan ibn Uzalagh al-Farabi was born around A.D. 878 at Farab in Transoxiana (now Otrar in Turkistan). Though he was a prolific writer, he recorded no biographical details and little is known of his life. Al-Farabi was of Turkic origin but he learnt Arabic whilst still young. His first tutor was Yuhanna ben Hailan, a Nestorian Christian philosopher whose knowledge of Alexandrian thought was great. When his father joined the Caliph's court in Baghdad, al-Farabi accompanied him to the heart of Islamic government and the centre of Greek philosophy and science. Nothing is known of his activity in Baghdad save that he declined to serve in government, lived an ascetic life, and devoted himself to strenuous study in mathematics, medicine, music and philosophy. By the time he had matured, he was a philosopher second to none. In addition, he became an accomplished musician and wrote several books on music which profoundly affected musical developments in Arabic courts, medieval Europe and even India. Perhaps his musical abilities more than his philosophical acumen attracted the attention of the Hamdanid prince Saif al-Dawlah of Aleppo. Upon the prince's invitation al-Farabi entered the court of Aleppo and remained there until his death. There he found a congenial atmosphere in which to work. In about 950 he travelled with the prince to Damascus, where he died in December of that year.
By the time he died, al-Farabi had written more treatises and commentaries than can be gathered into a convenient list. Besides commentaries on Aristotle's works and books on logic, he developed a rational psychology through essays on the soul and its powers, on unity and the One, on intelligence and the intelligible, and set out a metaphysical conception of the world in works on substance, time, space, measure, wisdom and knowledge of Deity. He outlined a broad view of ethics, elaborated musical theory and classified the sciences. Perhaps his most original thought is found in his writings on political theory. Something of his influence can be sensed in the fate of his Ibsa' al-'Ulum (Enumeration of the Sciences). The eleventh century Arabic scholar Sa'id ibn Ahmad called it "an indispensable guide to studies in the sciences", and a century later Moses ibn Ezra used it in Jewish schools. John of Seville translated it into Latin about the same time, and as De Scientiis it remained an important part of education until the sixteenth century. As a handbook it inspired a tradition of aphoristic compendia that spread from Europe to Persia. Even though the philosophical standpoint al-Farabi espoused was eventually rejected by Islamic orthodoxy, ibn Khallikan called him "the greatest philosopher the Muslims ever had", and Moses Maimonides declared that he alone was worth reading on logic, for "all that he wrote is as fine flour".
Al-Farabi thought of himself as an Aristotelian in the tradition of the Mu'tazilites and al-Kindi. When Muslim thinkers immersed themselves in Greek philosophy and science, they drew upon the traditions preserved in the Levant and in Alexandria, where the original divergence of perspective represented by the Academy and the Lyceum had given way before the doctrine of essential unity taught by Ammonius Saccas and the theurgic conjunction of reason and experience embodied in Iamblichus. The powerful deductive method set forth in the Posterior Analytics had become an adjunct to the elusive dialectic of the Republic, both having been subsumed in the threefold criterion for knowledge taught by Plotinus. For al-Farabi, knowledge results from agreement of reason, intuition and experience.
The order of the world reflects an emanative creation which arises between God and matter. Whilst reason can show that God exists, a fact confirmed by revelation, neither can say what God is in essence. An imperfect knowledge is possible through the methods of removing all limiting qualities and asserting perfections, but these approaches at best allow one to say that God is simple, infinite, immutable, intelligent, a unity, the truth and life itself. Attributes which restrict by stripping away imperfections and which expand by imagining perfections are nothing more than negative and positive extensions of what is commonly known in the emanated world of ordinary experience. They do not really discover the self-subsistent nature of Deity.
God is the creator of the world, as all 'religions of the Book' attest, but this should not be understood in any crude or mechanistic sense. Images of a potter giving form to clay or of a being breathing into moulded shells are only graphic analogies which underscore limitations of human intellect.
God is the highest One of neo-Platonic philosophy and Aristotle's supreme First Cause. All attributes of Deity, including the power of creation, are identical with his essence, and that is why all analogies comprehensible to the human mind fall short of strict truth. The One thinks Itself – God contemplates Himself – and this eternal act of self-examining reflection instantaneously gives rise to an intellect which is also an archangel. This intellect-being, the first emanation (which is not an emanation in the same sense as subsequent emanations), has a dual nature which manifests on its own level as a material sphere and an active intelligence. This dual emanation gives rise to a second emanation, also a sphere and an intelligence, and the process continues until there are nine emanated spheres and intelligences. The spheres, beginning with the invisible all-encompassing field, include the spheres of the fixed stars, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury and the Moon. The lunar sphere is associated on the spiritual side with the Agent Intellect, which is also the Angel Gabriel. Gabriel first conveyed the Qur'anic revelation to Muhammad and presides over the realm of Platonic archetypes.
This perspective is reminiscent of the Kabbalistic Sephirothal Tree of Lights, whose ten luminaries are both material realms and angelic hosts. The ninefold emanation is ceaseless in respect to time, for it is a timeless necessity deriving from God's Self-contemplation. It constitutes the whole transcendental realm of Being as contrasted with the terrestrial realm of becoming. Being, as distinct from becoming, is spiritual existence, consisting of six immutable principles, the aeviternal elaboration of the primal act. God is the first principle of Being. His emanative Self-contemplation down through the Agent Intellect, together with the nine spheres, is the second principle. The active intellect which flows from the Moon and enters the sublunary world and man is the third principle, whilst eternal souls constitute the fourth. Matter and form are the fifth and sixth principles of Being, closing the series of spiritual existences. Only the first principle, God, represents total unity, the other five depicting the potentialities of plurality, and only the first three are absolutely spiritual, since the last three, spiritual in themselves, are associated with bodies. Corresponding to the six eternal principles of Being and embodying the last three – soul, form, matter – are six kinds of bodies: celestial, rational animal, irrational animal, vegetal, mineral and the four elements, called fire, earth, air and water. The six principles and six kinds of bodies together compose the universe.
Al-Farabi well understood that Hellenistic philosophy pointed to the eternity of the world, holding that both spirit and matter were uncreated, ex nihilo nihil fit, whilst the Semitic religions taught that the world was created initially out of nothing, creatio mundi ex nihilo. He resolved this glaring contradiction by deploying the Aristotelian technique of distinguishing the sense in which words are used.
From the standpoint of time, the creation of the world must appear to be instantaneous, for the creation of the world is the initial motion which signals the beginning of time. Every element of the world is the effect of divine action, and the idea that evil can be separated off from God is as impossible for al-Farabi as it had been for the prophet Isaiah.
The power to think is man's closest link with the Divine. In his analysis of Aristotle's psychology, al-Farabi concluded that intellect exists in four senses. There is the faculty in the human soul that thinks, and this is potential intellect. When this power operates to extract the Platonic archetypes from material substances, it becomes actual intellect. In addition, it can come to think of archetypes themselves and thus of itself, and this is acquired intellect. Such changes require an efficient cause, which is the Agent Intellect, the lowest self-existent intellect of the lunar sphere, directly connected through emanation with the first intellect, the eternal divine act of Self-contemplation. Since the Agent Intellect is the intellective activity which generates the temporal world, man is the culmination of this process, a fully organized body on the material side and a rational soul on the spiritual.
For al-Farabi, the only proper goal of any human being is the nurture and development of the rational power by use of the will. The wise individual will reach falsafa (philosophy), recognition and contemplation of the principles of Being. One who tarries in the confusing mental wasteland of becoming remains undeveloped as a rational soul. Though one may find the sensual life of the tellurian caravanserai pleasant and appealing, it contains the greatest danger: one in whom the rational intellect is not nurtured will not experience the immortality of the soul after death of the body. By becoming self-consciously immortal in life, the end of all true philosophy, one remains self-consciously immortal at death, which is the dropping away of the perishable vesture that embodied one's spiritual nature.
It is necessary to identify with what is imperishable in oneself, and this must be done not only theoretically by strong and consistent mental affirmation but also practically through the way in which one lives in society. The social order is therefore essential to all spiritual attainment, and it is on this foundation that the human community is based.
The cohesive spirit and moral guidance of society is provided by the prophet. Since human bliss is known only to one whose active intellect has become the vehicle of the Agent Intellect, as matter is the vehicle of form, the prophet is not arbitrarily selected to communicate the divine command. The prophet possesses all the human perfections, possessing a healthy constitution, all the moral and intellectual virtues and a powerful imagination. The true philosopher and the authentic prophet are identical, and as the guide of developing souls, the prophet will also be a statesman. He leads by civic guidance and moral example, and since he cares for the common good, he rules through just laws. The ordinary citizen will not share the prophet's blissful experience and cannot make philosophical sense of it. He may easily misunderstand the prophetic example or the prophet's reluctance to lead, believing that the prophet is impractical or lacking in capacity to govern. Since ordinary citizens may ascribe familiar motives to the prophet, he uses his imagination to persuade them. All religions revealed by prophets are thus collections of extended metaphors which, whilst not literally true, provide the means for growth in all aspects of human virtue and intellectual contemplation.
The ra'is, leader, of an ideal state guides others without their guidance. Thus the structure of the state reflects and corresponds to the structure of the universe, with total unity at the top, the principles of plurality in the middle, followed by manifest existence. The ra'is, philosopher and prophet, has at his right hand a second leader, whose virtues are concentrated in executive powers. Where no second leader can be found, his functions may be exercised by a body of individuals, just as the principles of plurality are themselves plural. The overarching rule of the ideal society is such that each citizen fulfils those tasks for which he is best fitted. The intellectual governing elite consists of those who can understand the transcendental demonstrations of the prophet-philosopher. Such understanding is marked by their ability to put into practice instantly what they hear and understand. For al-Farabi as for Pythagoras and Plato, an intellect divorced from daily application is useless and at root false. Under the intellectual élite are the masses of ordinary citizens who cannot grasp transcendent abstractions but who may be inspired by persuasive arguments. Each class improves itself and the whole by attending to those responsibilities suitable to it. Where this system of shared and mutual responsibility breaks down, society is degraded, the people languish spiritually, and the false coin of transitory pleasures is sought in place of the gold of supreme bliss. Where the élite exploit or abuse the masses, or where the masses shirk their responsibility to support and follow the guidance of the élite, society ceases to be good. Depending on the case, an imperfect society may be ignorant, misguided or retarded. None of these, of course, are worthy of having a prophet at their head.
Religion is the cohesive principle of any society, and just as societies may be corrupt and imperfect, so can religions, and both degrade their members. True religion is nothing other than the highest philosophy, known to the individual who has perfected what it is to be human through developing the active intellect to the point of becoming a pure channel of the Agent Intellect. Since the average person has not attained this lofty end, the religions that proliferate in the world are images, more or less true, of essential religion. As congeries of persuasive arguments and metaphors, each has its imperfections. Many are helpful, though a few are demonic and necromantic. Al-Farabi thought that Islam was close to the true religion of philosophical insight and eternal wisdom, but he insisted there were others. He refused, however, to name them, for he wanted his point to be understood and avoided engaging in sectarian squabbles.
History is ironic because it is bound to time and temperament. Orthodox Muslim intellectuals rejected the Mu'tazilite doctrine that revelation could be confirmed by reason as a test of its authenticity. Misunderstanding al-Farabi's exalted and spiritual conception of reason, the Ahl al-Sunnah wa'l-Jama'ah banished al-Farabi's teaching from the history of Islamic thought. Not recognizing that, despite his rationalistic argumentation, his philosophical thought was based on his own mystical experiences, the orthodox banned his works and ignored his teachings. This belligerent attitude helped to bring al-Farabi's writings to the attention of European scholastics, who incorporated many of his ideas into the late medieval schools, thence to find their way into the Renaissance. Thus the philosopher from Turkistan, who never travelled from the Middle East, became one of the most influential philosophers in Europe. At the same time, his teachings were welcomed into Sufi circles, where sublime mysticism is at home with rigorous reason. For the Sufi companions, as for many who have not heard of his name, al-Farabi remains 'the second Teacher'.