Friday, June 12, 2009

The Story of Al-Farabi in India

by Don Robertson

Al-Farabi (870-950 A.D.) was the great philosopher and musician from Turkestan who invented the musical instrument called the Quanun. He was known to travel to may parts of the world, always assuming a disguise so as not to be recognized. One day, when he was in India, he appeared in the throne room of the court of the great King Suffudeen, one of the most knowledgeable men in India, dressed as a private in the King’s own army. The king was very surprised to see a private standing in his royal room and demanded the private to tell him what he was doing there.

"Where do you belong, private," he demanded.

"Why, I belong there on the throne, where you now sit!" the private exclaimed, walking up to the throne and sitting on the edge. He then began pushing his weight against the king, sliding him aside until each occupied half the throne.

The king was very angry and turned to one of his guards and began speaking a very obscure tongue so that others could not understand him. He told the guard "This man must either be a fanatic, or else he is someone very amazing. I will ask him some questions and see which case it may be."

The king turned to Al-Farabi to ask him a question; However, before he could open his mouth, Al-Farabi spoke to him in the same obscure language and said "But king, why would you bother?"

At this point, the king and Al-Farabi launched into a lengthy philosophical debate that lasted several hours. Point by point, the king’s arguments were defeated, and as the wisest men in India were brought in to contribute to the debate, one by one they were defeated. Finally, the king graciously accepted his defeat and told Al-Farabi that he would willingly give him whatever he wanted. Al-Farabi said that he wanted nothing. So the King ordered his fine court musicians, who were the best in the land, to play for the, now honored, guest.

When the musicians began playing, Al-Farabi stopped them and corrected their intonation and their interpretation of the ragas. Then he demanded that the musicians replay the music correctly. This kept on occurring, every time the musicians tried to play and after a while, the king dismissed the musicians. He then told Al-Farabi that since he had treated his musicians in such a manner, he must prove his own musical ability.

Al-Farabi pulled three small reeds from his pocket and began playing a high, happy tune that, when played over and over, made everyone in the courtroom, including the king, break out in laughter. Finally, everyone in the court, including the king, were rolling on their sides in fits of uncontrollable laughter. Suddenly, Al-Farabi stopped the tune, and began playing another, a slow mournful one that put everyone to sleep, and when every person in the room, except Al-Farabi, was fast asleep in their chairs or on the floor, Al-Farabi quietly slipped out of the throne room, never to be seen there again.


After studying the philosophy of Alfarabi, one comes to three conclusions; first, that Alfarabi brought about the first penetration of Arabism into Hellenism and of Hellenism into Arabism.

Second, that Alfarabi exerted a great influence on medieval thinkers. This is made clear by the fact that Albertus Magnus quotes Alfarabi, and evidently he could not quote him unless he had known his writings. Hence, the knowledge of the works of Alfarabi gave Albertus Magnus and his pupil, St. Thomas, an opportunity to do some sifting in the sense that they were enabled to throw out the theories that conflicted with Christian teaching and take in at the same time those that appeared to them as logically sound and reconcilable with Christianity.

Third, that Alfarabi improved many Aristotelian theories, solved many problems till then unsolved, and enriched Scholasticism with new philosophical terms, such as quiddity, a necessary being, a contingent being, the speculative and practical intellects, etc.

We have considered the philosophy of Alfarabi under a three-fold aspect: the philosophy of being (Metaphysics), the philosophy of thinking (Psychology), and the philosophy of acting (Ethics).

In the philosophy of being, Alfarabi taught that the most universal concept is being, which cannot be defined, nor re-solved into simpler concepts. Hence, the simplicity of being of the Latin Schoolmen.

The problem of universals which occupied the minds of medieval thinkers was solved by Alfarabi in the words: "Universale

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est unum de multis et in multis." Hence, the traditional definition of the universal, "Aptum praedicari de pluribus."

He also believed that the nature of reality is being in becoming, that is, potentiality and actuality, substance and accident, essence and existence, matter and form, cause and effect. Is all reality that way? Certainly not. For, there is a reality which is beyond all change, and this is God. In comparing the Theodicy of Alfarabi with that of St. Thomas, we found that the latter depends on the former for the first three arguments proving God's existence, and also for the way in which God's nature is known (Via remotionis et eminentiae. )

Furthermore, Alfarabi, three hundred years before St. Thomas, taught in clear and distinct words, that the essence and existence in created things differ as different entities, while they are identical in God. This means that the Saint who came out with the same theory three hundred years later, must certainly have borrowed it from Alfarabi.

In the philosophy of thinking, he describes the history of our speculative intellect. At first it is in potentiality to all things intelligible. It passes from potentiality to act through the action or illumination coming down from above, namely, the active intellect.

In the philosophy of acting, he shows how every human activity tends to happiness. Happiness is the cause that prompts man to live in society, thus creating the state. The model state is the universal state that puts the whole world under one political organization.

In conclusion, there is a unity of thought throughout the philosophy of Alfarabi, who spared no efforts to make the various parts of his philosophical vision converge towards one living God, on Whom the one and the many, being and becoming, are essentially dependent.
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