How is Aristotle viewed in Shiite Islam

Al-Farabi and his political philosophy

Free University of Berlin

Department of Philosophy and Social Sciences II / Institute for Islamic Studies PS 29301 Introduction to Muslim state and rule theories

Speaker: Christofer Burger

Al-Fārābī was the second known philosopher of Islam after al-Kindi. In Islamic philosophy he is referred to as the “second teacher” after Aristotle. Not only was he a pioneer in the naturalization of Greek philosophy, his teachings must also be viewed as the first culmination in the development of Islamic rationalism.

Biography of the AL-FĀRĀBĪ

We have no reliable sources about the life of Al-Fārābī; later authors, especially Ibn Abi Usaybi’a, offer us little helpful and credible information.

The following life data are considered to be secured:

- Abu Naşr Muhammad b. Ţarhān Al-Fārābī was born around 870 AD. Born in Wasij in the Fārāb district of Turkestan. His father was a Turkish mercenary in the service of the Abbasid caliphs.
- He spent the greater part of his life in Baghdad, where he studied in the environment of Christian Syrian scholars and finally achieved a high reputation as a polymath himself.
- He spent the last 10 years of his life at the court of the Hamdanid emir of Aleppo, Sayf al-Dawla. Here he died in 950.

There is contradicting and unbelievable information to be read about his immediate living conditions, but there is a certain consensus on the following statements:

Al-Fārābī was of simple Turkish origin, his father probably served in the bodyguard of the caliphs. His economic situation forced him to work hard, possibly as a gardener, to earn a living.

But even after he had achieved scientific prestige, he made no profit from it, but led a life that is more like that of a Cynical philosopher than that of a famous intellectual. Al-Fārābī had a circle of educated followers and disciples in Baghdad; but he did not accept a lucrative public office here.

Even at the court of the famous Māzens Sayf al-Dawla, he was content with a modest wage, which enabled him to live a carefree, but by no means opulent, life. The fact that he followed the call to Aleppo, in addition to its reputation as a refuge of the arts and sciences, is therefore primarily due to the fact that Sayf al-Dawla had introduced Imamite Shiism as the official religion in Aleppo, to which Al-Fārābī probably followed.

Influences, traditions and sources

Many of the central doctrines of the Imāmiyya fit seamlessly into Al-Fārābī's political philosophy. In addition to the Imāmiyya, Al-Fārābī is primarily in the tradition of the Alexandrian school of Neoplatonism. Here the legacy of Plato and Plotinus was reconciled with both Christianity and (partially) with the doctrine of Peripatos. This school was not limited to Plotin's metaphysics / mysticism and aesthetics, but never lost sight of politics and practical philosophy.

The Syrian Christian Yuhannā ibn Haylān is mentioned as the teacher of Al-Fārābī, and practically nothing is known about the development of Neoplatonic philosophy after the closure of the Academy of Alexandria in the 7th century until Al-Fārābī.

The POLITICAL situation during AL-FĀRĀBĪS lifetime

The decline of the Abbasid caliphate had already begun with the birth of Al-Fārābī. Separatist movements in Persia, Transoxania and Kurdistan questioned the authority of buying, as did heterodox movements such as the Mu‘tazilites and Shiites.

Power shifted to more “mobile” offices such as wazir and amir, which were awarded depending on the political constellation, while the lifelong caliphate reflected less and less the real balance of power. In 861, for example, the caliph Al-Mutawwakil was murdered by a Turkish officer.

The eleventh imam died in 873, and his successor disappeared shortly afterwards. This is how the imamist “twelve” Schiism with its doctrine of the hidden imamate came into being.

Between 890 and 930 the domestic political rule of the caliphs consolidated somewhat. At the same time, however, religious, social and ethnic conflicts were mixed up. There was a paranoid fear of people of different faith, which resulted in massive pressure on Shiites, Christians, Jews and Sufis. It was only after the non-Arab peoples came to power, initially the Ismaili Buyids in 945, that a climate of religious tolerance developed

The meaning of politics in AL-FĀRĀBĀS writings

Al-Fārābī developed his theory of the state primarily in the three books "al-madina al-fādila", "al-siyāsāt al-madaniyya" and "tahşil al-sadaāda". They first deal extensively with metaphysics, physics and anthropology before, as we understand them, discussing political questions. In none of these works is Al-Fārābī interested in the art of governance, institutional or organizational issues.

For him politics is rather a cooperative ethics, the central discipline of practical philosophy. It is not based on sociological or even empirical knowledge, but is derived from metaphysics.

Basics of his philosophy

Al-Fārābī believed in the ultimate unity of truth, and that this could be found in the revealed sources of Islam as well as in Plato and Aristotle. His philosophy is therefore a synthesis of these three sources.

In the tradition of Neoplatonism, Al-Fārābi developed a metaphysical hierarchy of the world, at the top of which stands God, the One, the First Reason. This is followed by the immaterial beings, the material but perfect heavenly bodies, man and then the rest of the world.

The human being is the only being that is neither attached to matter nor perfect by itself. He has the potential to overcome the material world, therein lies his destiny and his happiness. Actions that lead to it are good and virtuous, the others evil and vicious. So in order to know which actions are good, man must have some idea of ​​the nature of the universe.

There are basically three organs available to man for knowledge: his senses, his imagination and his reason.

The philosopher experiences the structure of the world and thus also virtues and tactile senses through rational knowledge. He can teach it to some of his followers through reasoning.

But those who are incapable of such theoretical knowledge must be brought closer to the truth through examples and pictures. That is the job of religion.

It is not based on rational knowledge, but on revelation. Analogous to the philosopher, whose intellect is so highly developed that he unites with the divine, the prophet gains his insight through the perfection of his imagination, which, so to speak, intuitively and pictorially recognizes by bypassing the intellect. The visions in which the Prophet receives the revelation are understandable to the masses, but indistinguishable from the mere hallucinations of a madman. In addition, the pure prophet lacks the ability to interpret his revelation correctly and to develop instructions for action from it. A true religion can only be founded by a prophet-philosopher.

There can be several true religions: the ultimate truth they depict is always the same, but the different peoples of the earth need different metaphors in order to understand them.

The perfect ruler

If this prophet-philosopher also has the qualities of a ruler, he can found a perfect community; he is "the real Imam", the perfect ruler over the city, the nation and the whole world.

After the true laws and the true religion have been created by this prophet-philosopher-ruler-lawgiver, his successor can dispense with prophethood. In order to continue religion and laws and to interpret them correctly, one needs a man who combines metaphyical insight with the qualities of rulership, the philosopher-king Plato. Only he correctly understands the law on the one hand and can ensure that it is enforced on the other. If such a man cannot be found, a philosopher can rule together with a king or a council of several particularly qualified people. But if philosophy has no part in government, the city is lost.

The virtuous city

Man as a political being can only achieve perfection in a community. Only when all citizens of a city act virtuously, i.e. cooperate in such a way that everyone can develop their full potential, will that lead to happiness, the goal of human activity.

For this it is necessary that all people in the city are aware of this goal, that the law is just, properly understood and obeyed, and that everyone occupies the position in the community that corresponds to his abilities. The virtuous city therefore needs a true religion (including law) and a perfect ruler.

He teaches the virtues, interprets and changes the law when necessary, and assigns everyone their place in the community. These positions form a strict hierarchy: the most capable only serve the ruler and command everyone else. Others obey them and still command others. After all, the most incomprehensible only serve and have no command.

Other forms of government

In addition to the virtuous city, there are various types of “ignorant” cities that know nothing about the universe and human happiness and therefore pursue other goals, e.g. fame, fortune or power. Al-Fārābi differentiates from this between the “evil” cities, which, although they know the true destiny of man, do not pursue it. Its citizens have the views of the virtuous city, but the behavior of the ignorant cities.

There are also cities that were once virtuous, but which have strayed from the right path; either by falsifying the doctrine or because the citizens no longer obeyed it.

Finally, there are cities whose founders mistakenly believed they had received a revelation. Their actions resemble those of the virtuous city, but their views are wrong - these cities too have no prospect of happiness.

Al-Fārābi does not say a word about the classification of actually existing states and religions in this scheme.

Historical significance and evaluation

Al-Fārābī achieved a remarkably coherent synthesis of classical philosophy with Islam, of reason with religion. A weak point is the attempt to unite the Islamic conception of paradise and hell with the Platonic transmigration of souls. Al-Fārābis personal merit is difficult to judge because its immediate sources are unknown.

Within Islamic rationalism, Al-Fārābi's political doctrine is arguably the most complete and independent. For the later development of the Sunni theory of the state, however, it remained meaningless, since it was accused of subordinating the divine revelation to human reason.


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