To turn then to Alfarabi, he was the founder of a political and religious philosophy which in essence was adopted by his medieval Islamic philosopher successors. Sadly, however, we know so little about his personal life and his attitudes towards the then existing political situation. Born around 870 in Transoxania, of Turkish ancestry, he came (at an unknown date) to Baghdad, the cosmopolitan capital of the Abbasid caliphate, and lived there until 941. In Baghdad he was associated with the circle of Nestorian commentators and logicians. The Nestorian logician, Yuhanna Ibn Haylan (d.910) was his teacher and according to one medieval Arabic source, also the logician and translator Abu Bishr Matta (d. 940). In addition to his being the initiator of an Islamic Platonic political philosophy, Alfarabi was a leading Aristotelian commentator, the foremost logician of his day, a metaphysician of note, and medieval Islam's leading musical theorist and musicologist. The Baghdad in which Alfarabi lived was undergoing a very dark period of its history, though ironically, in cultural matters a very creative one. After an initial period of recuperation and relative strength at the turn of the 10th century, the caliphate rapidly declined as power fell into the hands of military adventurers. In 941, the troops of some of these adventurers (the Baridi brothers) looted Baghdad. This is the year when Alfarabi left Baghdad for Syria. But it is not known whether he left it before or after the event and, if after the event, because of it. In Syria, sometime after 942, he was given a subsidy by Sayf al-Dawla, the Arab King of Aleppo, noted for both his wars with Byzantium and for his patronage of the arts. Alfarabi died in Damascus in 950.
Alfarabi's religious and political philosophy tends to be highly theoretical. He makes no references to contemporary events. This seems to be a characteristic of his writings as he seeks the Aristotelian demonstrative ideal of attaining knowledge that is universal. At the same time, it does not seem likely that he was formulating a political philosophy for purely theoretical reasons. The Islamic concern is evident if not always explicit. Although his political thought is inspired by Plato, the Islamic ideal of the umma, of a community of believers governed by divine law, is conceivably a guiding idea implicit in his thought. One cannot prove this, but the influence of Islam manifests itself in other aspects of his thinking. For example, he uses Qur'anic terms to characterize the Active Intellect, the last of a series of intellects that emanate from God, and he discusses the function of Islamic law, fiqh and of dialectical theology, kalam, in the state. There is also a universalism in his political thinking, very much in tune with Islam's universalism. Thus, although the model of Alfarabi's ideal state is a city, the virtuous city, of which Plato's Republic is the ancestor, we meet in his political thought an extension of the desirable ideal political state of affairs beyond the one city. Thus Alfarabi suggests that while the virtuous city is good, a nation consisting of virtuous cities is better; still better is a world made up of virtuous nations. Again, as we shall see, he maintains that religious language is an expression of philosophical truth in symbolic terms. As such, he argues that since languages and symbols differ, it may well be the case that there are different virtuous religions where the differences between them reflect only differences in symbolization, not in what is being symbolized. This tendency towards ecumenism is suggestive of a cultural aspect of medieval Islam—a cosmopolitan universalism encountered in some circles.
Still, when turning to his philosophical interpretation of Islam, what one becomes conscious of at first is not so much its Islamic milieu, as its cosmological setting. This is because his interpretation manifests itself primarily in his political theory where, for example, the model of the ideal state is the cosmos as Alfarabi conceives it. This cosmos is hierarchical, rational, orderly, harmonious. What Alfarabi conceives to be the ideal state is likewise hierarchical, rational, orderly, harmonious. While the metaphysical framework of his cosmology is Neoplatonic, his concept of the ideal state is essentially Platonic. Plato's philosopher-king acquires an Islamic garb as he becomes the law-giving prophet-philosopher. Society is hierarchically organized, where each class under its leader performs a special function, acting harmoniously with every other class.
The world, according to Alfarabi, proceeds from God as a series of emanations. An eternal divine overflow brings about the existence of an eternal first intelligence. This intelligence is eternally engaged in two acts of cognition, knowledge of God and knowledge of itself. These two eternal cognitive acts necessitate respectively the existence of two other beings, a second intelligence and a body, the body of the outermost sphere of the world. The second intelligence is also eternally engaged in two similar acts of cognition, knowledge of God and knowledge of itself, producing a third intelligence and the sphere of the fixed stars. The process is repeated by the third and successive intelligences, giving rise to the existence of the planets, the sun and the moon. How our terrestrial world, the world of generation and corruption, comes into existence is not too clear in Alfarabi. It seems in some way to have been created by the heavenly bodies. Whatever the case, it is a world governed by the last of the celestial intelligences, the Active Intellect.
In this terrestrial world, humans being endowed with reason, stand highest in the scale of value. But there are degrees of rationality. The majority of mankind are incapable of abstract thought, of philosophy. With individuals capable of philosophy, their rational souls, initially material dispositions, become immaterial souls when the material forms they attain through the senses are transformed by the illuminary action of the Active Intellect and rendered abstract. The rational soul thus becomes actualized, becoming "the actual intellect." Having attained an immaterial status, this soul with the death of the body separates to live a life of eternal bliss or misery, depending on its performance in this life.
With some rational souls a higher form of abstraction is attained when the actual intellect becomes the object of its own cognition. The soul then becomes the acquired intellect. A yet higher stage is reached with very exceptional individuals, namely the prophet-philosophers, when their rational soul, through the mediation of the acquired intellect, "receives" the Active Intellect. The result is a composite in which the prophetic rational soul plays the role of matter, the Active Intellect the role of form. Alfarabi also expresses this union by referring to the prophet as "the human in which the Active Intellect indwells." He also uses Qur'anic language in referring to the Active Intellect. He refers to it as the faithful spirit (al-ruh al-amin) and the holy spirit (al-ruh al-qudus). But while this union of the prophetic acquired intellect with the Active Intellect, is a necessary condition for prophethood, it is not sufficient. The prophet must also be endowed with an exceptional powerful imaginative faculty.
The prophetic role of the imaginative faculty has to be understood in terms of Alfarabi's Aristotelian division of the rational soul into the theoretical and practical. The function of the theoretical faculty is the acquisition of abstract knowledge, while the function of the practical faculty is deliberation for the sake of action—this latter function involves ethical principles in terms of which moral actions are undertaken. The imaginative faculty holds an intermediate position between the senses and the rational soul. One of its functions, according to Alfarabi is imitation. As a non-intellectual faculty, it can neither acquire purely abstract knowledge, nor the practical principles in terms of which deliberation for practical action takes place. Hence when imitating both these types of knowledge, it can do so only in terms of particular images. These images either symbolize rational knowledge or gives particular instances of it. The prophet's imaginative faculty, no less than his rational faculty, must be very powerful to enable it to form imitations of the intelligibles that overflow from the Active Intellect onto the prophet's rational faculty.
Now, the imports of these images that imitate theoretical knowledge, are expressed in declarative statements about God and His creation. Images imitating practical knowledge are expressed in prescriptive language—the particular commands, prohibitions, and recommendations. These constitute the divine law. Put in another way, the prophet's imaginative faculty translates, so to speak, demonstrative knowledge into the language of imagery, of the particular example and the symbols which the non-philosopher can understand. Hence the central Farabian definition of religion as the imitation of philosophy, where imitation is not to be used in any derogatory sense. For this imitation is the revealed religion, the revealed law, without which society cannot survive. What we have here is not a theory of double truth, but of one truth understood on different levels. At the same time, we also encounter here the elitism of this Islamic brand of Platonic political philosophy where only the philosophical few are entrusted with interpreting the revealed word on the philosophical, demonstrative level.
Alfarabi's definition of religion as the imitation of philosophy, which is at the heart of his political and religious philosophy, was adopted by such of his successors as Avicenna, Ibn Tufayl (d. 1185) and Averroes. Averroes's political philosophy, though often couched in legal Islamic terms and buttressed by Qur'anic quotations, cannot be properly understood without cognizance of this Farabian definition. Averroes, it is true, elaborates and expands on it, but it remains at the core of his political and religious thought.
There are aspects of Alfarabi's theory of prophecy, however, that are not entirely clear. Uncertainties arise regarding his position on two other miraculous functions of prophets, functions depicted in the Qur'an. One of them is the causing of an event that is a complete departure from the normal course of natural events—what is generally referred to as a miracle. There is nothing in the extant writings of Alfarabi that offers a philosophical explanation for this type of miracle. The other miraculous function is that of the prophet's prediction of future events. Alfarabi says something about this, but his discussion raises questions of interpretation. For he tells us that the Active Intellect conveys knowledge of future contingents to the imaginative faculty through the mediation of the practical rational faculty. How this takes place is not clear. Is it that the Active Intellect, a pure intelligence, whose knowledge is universal and abstract knows particulars? Or, is it that particular notions already present in the prophet's practical faculty are illumined by the Active Intellect so that future consequences of these notions are unconsciously inferred by the prophet and conveyed to his imaginative faculty? Given this latter interpretation, the Active Intellect itself would not know future contingents but activates the prophetic soul to attain such knowledge. But Alfarabi in his Commentary on Aristotle's De Interpretatione asserts that God, who is pure intellect, has knowledge of future particular events.9 If this is the case, then the Active Intellect, also a pure intellect, an emanation from God, would also have such knowledge. But Alfarabi does not explain how a pure intellect has knowledge of particulars.
It is here that we must return to Avicenna whose triadic emanative system (as distinct from Alfarabi's dyadic scheme) gives a fuller explanation of such prophetic miracles. As with Alfarabi, in Avicenna's scheme a first intelligence emanates from God. It emanates, however, as a necessary consequence of divine self-knowledge. This intelligence encounters and contemplates three facts of existence: God as the existent necessary in Himself, its own existence as necessitated by God, and it own existence as in itself only possible. From these three contemplative acts, three existents necessarily proceed— another intelligence, a soul and a body, the outermost body of the world. This contemplative activity is repeated by the second and successive intelligences, forming a succession of triads. In these triads, the celestial soul desires the celestial intelligence. Its act of desire moves the sphere. The celestial intelligence has universal knowledge and universal will. But this universal will by itself does not produce a particular motion. The celestial soul, akin to the practical soul in us, has a particular will and wills each part of the movement of the sphere. And while God and the celestial intelligences know only the universal aspects of terrestrial particulars, the celestial souls know the terrestrial particulars in their particularity. For the terrestrial events are caused by the movements of the spheres. The celestial souls that cause these movements, and know each of them, know all their effects in the terrestrial realm. This includes knowledge of future terrestrial events. This knowledge is conveyed to the prophet's imaginative faculty. In addition to this, Avicenna holds that the prophetic soul can influence external events. Just as the ordinary human soul can influence the human body with which it is associated, in the case of exceptionally strong souls, those of prophets, this influence can transcend the human body to affect the external world.10
Avicenna's interpretation of Islam includes philosophical exegesis of Qur'anic verses. Although essentially Farabian, his interpretation offers a fuller account of prophecy and is also more explicit in accommodating Islamic institutions within his emanative philosophy. But perhaps above all else, it completes his metaphysical system. It is no accident that Bk. X, the concluding book of the Metaphysics of the Shifa, (Healing), which is the final volume of this voluminous work, is devoted to the theory of prophecy and to a discussion of Islamic institutions within his emanative cosmic scheme.
Philosophy in the Islamic medieval period we are discussing can be regarded in part as a continuation of Greek philosophy. Greek philosophical ideas were alive, thriving and developing creatively in a new cultural environment. One of their developments was their interpretation—at the hand of Islam's philosophers—of the religion which conditioned the cultural life of their new abode. Parallels to this are encountered in both medieval Jewish and Christian philosophical thinking.
1 [This chapter was a keynote address at the 26th Richard R.Baker Philosophy Colloquium held at the University of Dayton (April 11-13, 1999).—ed.].
2 It is also referred to as speculative theology, and dogmatic theology. The Islamic philosophers in their conflict with kalam refer to the theologians as dialecticians largely because the latter (according to the philosophers) rest their doctrinal arguments on widely accepted statements, al-mashhurat, not statements that are necessarily true—hence their arguments are dialectical, not demonstrative.
3 Ibn Maymun (Maimonides). Dalalat i"/-H(ilH7ft,[The Guide of the Perplexed], 185.
4 Al-Kindi, Kastfil al-Kindi al-Falsafiyya, 123-162. For an English annotated translation with commentary, see A.L.Ivry.
5 For a discussion of the argument of this part and its Greek background, see M.E.Marmura and
6 In introducing his major philosophical work, al-Shifa (Healing), Avicenna writes: "There is nothing reliable in the books of the ancients but we've included in this our book. If something is not found in a place where it is customarily found, it would be found in another place where I judged it more fit to be in. I have added to this what I have apprehended with my thought and attained through my reflection, particularly in physics, metaphysics and logic. Ibn Sina (Avicenna), al-Shifa (Healing), al-Madkhal (Isagoge), 9-10.
7 In his Commentary on the Metaphysics of the Shifa <A1-Naraqi (d. 1764) argues that these primary concepts have precedence over the self-evident logical truths and that existence as a primary concept has precedence over the direct awareness of the existence of one's rational soul. Al-Naraqi, 214-15. For a discussion of Avicenna's notion of self-awareness, see the author's, "Avicenna's 'Flying Man' in Context."
8 Avicenna (Ibn Sina), al-lsharat wa al-Tanbihat, 146.
9 Al-Farabi. Sharh al-Farabi li Kitab Aristotalis S ¿t'lbara, 98
10 This type of miracle is explicable in terms of Avicenna's causal theory that includes the idea of necessary causal connection. Scriptural accounts of miracles that violate this causal theory would have to be understood philosophically as metaphor, not as literary true.
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