There are people in history whose ideas helped save the world from catastrophe through the centuries, whose thoughts must be read deeply so as not to slide into the abyss of strife and war. They appear not by chance, but as if the Universe itself sends saviors to the world and calls people to raise their self and global awareness.
Al-Farabi is one of the largest representatives of the medieval philosophy of the East. This year, the world is celebrating the 1150th anniversary of the great scientist and philosopher, who established a kind of dialogue between the cultures of the East and West and showed people the essence of an integral and conflict-free worldview. Al-Farabi is rightfully called the Second Teacher. The second, after Aristotle. The works of Plato and Aristotle reached the Middle Ages thanks to Al-Farabi’s commentaries on the treatises of ancient Greek philosophers. The way of thinking and analysis of the ancient treatises of Al-Farabi influenced the greatest thinkers of the Middle East such as Avicenna and Maimonides. For more than a thousand years, scientists, philosophers, politicians and people have turned to his legacy. The scientist and philosopher spoke about the harmony of consciousness, about the unity of everything that makes up this world, and more and more, younger generations are turning to his works.
We talked about this outstanding thinker with an Arabist and Turkologist, a translator of medieval oriental literature and author of numerous publications Zifa-Alua Auezova, the granddaughter of the well-known writer Mukhtar Auezov, who introduced Abai Kunanbayev to the world, and the daughter of Murat Auezov, a famous culturologist and orientalist, former Ambassador of Kazakhstan to China. Zifa lives and works in the Netherlands, graduated from Leningrad University, did an internship at Oxford, speaks Kazakh, Russian, English and several Arabic languages.
– The name of Al-Farabi appears in history with an enviable frequency. It is generally difficult to imagine the philosophy of modern times without Al-Farabi. And now, in the 21st century, we turn to his legacy again and again. Why do his ideas live on through the ages?
– On the one hand, Al-Farabi is a huge figure, both spiritual and scientific. The whole world accepts this thanks to his treatises, that cover the widest range of scientific topics and is rightfully called the encyclopedic collection.
He is known as a scientist who thought about the foundations of the universe, uniting all of humanity, regardless of the place of residence or worldview of certain peoples. His scientific heritage, which originated in ancient Greek philosophy, inspired European thinkers such as, for example, the philosopher, theologian and teacher canonized by the Catholic Church, Thomas Aquinas, who lived in the 13th century.
On the other hand, Al-Farabi is called a dissenter by the standards of the era in which he lived. His views and ideas went beyond the established genres that prevailed in the scientific disputes of his contemporaries. He directed his search for truth along the path of possible unification, a reconciliation of different worldviews and conflicting ideas about how the world works.
Al-Farabi is a man who accomplished quite a feat, because despite everything he was able to maintain his attitude towards the world, and, being already a famous philosopher in the Muslim Caliphate, he was sure that, despite serious differences in the views of representatives of different religions, peoples and intellectuals currents, that people are united by their desire for happiness, truth and knowledge.
Al-Farabi is an intellectual Citizen of the World, a scientist who drew his ideas, knowledge and inspiration from various sources available in his time. Born and raised in a Muslim environment, in a remote province of the Abbasid Caliphate in the 9th century, he became a kind of alien in the center of the empire – Baghdad, which was the center of the development of science, culture, writing in the caliphate, with a wide variety of intellectual movements and translations of valuable treatises from different parts of the world being translated to the Arabic language.
Unfortunately, even today there is very little biographical information about Al-Farabi, but sources indicate that he was from the town of Farab. Three candidate cities are claiming the status of his homeland: Farab – the city of Otrar in the south of Kazakhstan, Farab – present-day Turkmenabat in the territory of Turkmenistan and Faryab in Afghanistan. Whichever of the three cities considered al-Farabi as his homeland, he had to go a long way to Baghdad, where he became a scientist, and where he received a lot of knowledge and became a world-famous philosopher. In Baghdad, he spent most of his life studying logic, medicine, social studies and ancient philosophy. While working on his treatises, al-Farabi traveled to Morocco, Egypt, and taught in Aleppo. The scientist spent the last years of his life in Damascus under the auspices of the Hamdanid ruler Seif al-Dawl. By the end of the 9th century, the Muslim world conquered large areas, but it did not limit Al-Farabi as a person and as a scientist within the framework of one system of values.
Al-Farabi managed to create a very modern and interesting intellectual synthesis of Muslim, Christian and pre-Christian worldviews through science, managed to create a promising and productive philosophical model. He was able to develop such scientific and worldview concepts that for centuries proved to be attractive both for the East and for the West, arousing the interest of scientists from all over the world at different times. Al-Farabi, in fact, found himself at the origins of a new intellectual chain, which found continuation in the East, first of all, in the works of the Jewish thinker Maimonides, and the Persian philosopher Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and, later, in Europe.
– How did Al-Farabi manage to unite East and West in a Muslim state?
– On the one hand, as a stranger from afar, Al-Farabi in Baghdad found himself open to a variety of cultural and ideological influences, on the other, his intellect seemed to be free from dogma or one dominant tradition. In Baghdad, Al-Farabi could study not only the works of Islamic theologians, commentaries on the Koran, and related theological disciplines, but also get to know more about Christianity through the Nestorian heretics, whose communities existed in the Middle East even before the founding of the Caliphate, and whose teachings turned out to be interesting for him as a scientist. He did not set before himself the goal of studying only the theological sciences, he was interested in understanding the place of man in the Universe.
But Al-Farabi was an independent person, was open to everything new, and this made him a scientist and philosopher for all time.
Al-Farabi got acquainted with the translations of the works of the ancient Greek scientists Plato and Aristotle in Baghdad, through the Nestorians. From scant biographical sources about the scientist, it is known that he studied logic, medicine and sociology under the Nestorian mentor Yuhanna bin Khaylan. Perhaps, chance played an important role in Al-Farabi’s life, since he came from a remote Muslim province to a big city and found himself in an unfamiliar environment, where he had to find like-minded people and teachers. But bearing in mind that at that time there were Nestorian communities in both Central Asia and Iran, it can be assumed that Al-Farabi went to Baghdad purposefully in search of knowledge in philosophy.
Reasonable human purpose
– Do all Al-Farabi’s works have theoretical value or are they applicable in life? Can we say that he opened the world to a new path of knowledge and self-knowledge?
– Al-Farabi is a scientist whose worldview is based on logic, and therefore the theoretical part is integral to his works. But, yes, of course, his views are very vital. Man’s knowledge of his own nature is logically connected with the knowledge of the whole world and the laws common to the universe. The scientist’s views are so universal that one can safely call him a Teacher of self-knowledge.
Al-Farabi’s legacy should not be immediately divided into separate directions. Of course, he also wrote about happiness, an ideal state, metaphysics, music, astronomy, mathematics, and the methodology of science. But all these areas are united by a common “picture of the world,” the relationship between people and the common source, meaning of their existence and purpose in life. Al-Farabi’s metaphysics helps us understand the scale of his worldview.
By taking the metaphysics of cause-and-effect relationships from Aristotle, the emanational cosmology from the Neoplatonists, and astronomical concept from Ptolemy, Al-Farabi creates a picture of the world where everything in the world originates from the single source – the First Cause, or God, whose essence is impossible to know by using reason.
All of us think about themselves. So why can’t the First Cause (God, Reason) do this? According to Al-Farabi, the First Cause reflects, analyzes itself and, as a result, creates the Universe. The First Cause goes beyond its boundaries, that is, it emanates, emanates from something to somewhere, as a result, a “second intellect” arises, which also thinks about itself and about the First Cause and creates a sphere of motionless stars and “third intellect.” And so on until the “tenth intellect,” under which the material world, visible to humans, is located.
Thus, according to Al-Farabi, God (Reason) becomes the source of emanation, which explains the relationship between the divine and living beings and speaks of the unity of the world and the place of man in it. We must try to unite, find a connection, bring together and consider everything as a whole – this is one of the main driving ideas of Al-Farabi. At the same time, all that exists has a special place, depending on its purpose.
– What, according to Al-Farabi, is the integrity of the personality? How do we develop and preserve it? In his writings, a lot is said about harmony. How are the integrity of the personality and its harmony connected?
– Of course, integrity is the basis of Al-Farabi’s worldview. An individual as an element of an integral system existing in the pursuit of goodness and order must find his own path leading to the optimal realization of the possibilities inherent in him.
For Al-Farabi, God is one and immaterial, it is an intellectual entity that exists and reflects beyond all spheres accessible to man. And if God is a mind and self-reflecting, then the man created by him from birth strives for knowledge. It was the intellectual activity of God that led to the creation of the universe. For Al-Farabi, this is not an accidental result of an explosion, but a part of the Cosmos that is created by an intellect. Thus, each person can realize himself as a small part of the world’s intellect. It is important not to divide and disparage the other, but to unite and be aware of one’s involvement with everything that happens and with other people. This, one might say, imposes a deep responsibility on a person for his thoughts and for his every action. The need to comprehend everything, in the end, gives more hope to a person for a better future.
I think this is an understandable and harmonious picture of the world that fits into the human consciousness. It is natural. In other words, harmony is intellectual, logical and meets the Creator’s intention, and everything that violates harmony is not logical and not correct. That is, a violation of harmony in any area of life – in music, in politics, in a person’s life – is always a violation of reasonable purpose and consistency. How can we not recall the ancient Indian idea that if God wants to punish a person, then, he deprives him of reason?
By the way, in his treatise on the music, Al-Farabi, following Al-Kindi and the Pythagorean Neoplatonists, explains how to achieve a harmonious sound, which chord is consonant and which is not. The harmony of the chord lies in the correctness of the proportion, which Al-Farabi compares with the proportion of the location of the planets in the solar system. He developed exactly the idea of the Neoplatonists, who believed that with an ideal chord, the whole world would improve. Harmony corresponds to the divine plan, like everything that is created in the Universe. Therefore, a person can improve his life with the help of his intellect, being fully aware of life and harmonizing it.
But if there is ideal harmony, then its direct opposite should also exist – complete disharmony, which destroys. So complete disharmony contradicts the ideal purpose of the object. It leads to a violation of integrity in a person and in relations between religions, nations by leading people to wars, to chaos.
When classifying the sciences, Al-Farabi described in detail all the areas of knowledge of the world known at his time and the goals they faced. For example, Pakistan is not now turning to the classification of Al-Farabi in order to revise the structure of scientific activity, and, probably, this will lead to a new round in the development of education in the country and, possibly, will be in demand in the near future in other countries.
The experience of many nations
– What did Al-Farabi mean with the concept of “Truth”? Is it possible to reach it? Could you please explain the disharmony of war again?
– In the hierarchical system of Al-Farabi, a person is given a special place: on the one hand, the material body and the mortal world in which people live is the “lowest” level. But the ability to think connects people with the “higher” spheres. The ideal, or happiness, is attainable by people as a result of constant knowledge and reflection.
By knowing something, the human mind penetrates the essence of the object of knowledge. Knowledge of all entities accessible to human intellect is possessed by the “Active Intellect”, or the “Tenth Intellect” associated in the Al-Farabi scheme with the sphere of the Moon. Achievement of “Truth” is associated with the comprehension of the essence of the knowable. According to Al-Farabi, having acquired some knowledge, a person can decide how to live – is it righteous or not, whether to strive for true happiness or not. Only by reflecting on what is actually right and virtuous, a person can come closer to the “Active Intellect,” to the truth. Only the soul of a thinking and righteous person can live forever.
Any war is illogical from the point of view of the integrity of the universe and, and the point here is not in general humanistic traditions and ideas, but in the absence of Universal logic, in the violation of harmony. Therefore, Al-Farabi, without talking directly about war and peace, brings us with his whole worldview and logic to the conclusion that the world, the Universe is existence without war. And everything that leads to conflicts, wars, the death of people is disharmony that destroys, first, those who initiate conflicts on any scale. Harmony does not allow destructive manifestations in life. A person, as a part of the world intellect, as a harmonious person who realizes his place in the Universe, simply cannot come to war. And in the treatises of Al-Farabi, the Prophet, who manages a society and is most open to a higher intellect, more sensitive and wiser, who understands well what harmony is, a priori cannot lead this society to war.
With his integrated worldview, Al-Farabi inspired a huge number of minds around the world. The integrity of the individual, integrity in building relationships with other people and between nations, gaining knowledge about the world – these are the vectors that at all times unite people. And, such a worldview can save the world. The world is a logically clear and unalterable state of societies striving for good and creation.
– Can Al-Farabi be called a utopian?
– Partly. Only in the sense that he wrote about the structure of an ideal society in which each person would consciously strive for “true happiness.” And at the top of such a society would be a wise philosopher, able to convey to fellow citizens the meaning of this concept. However, Al-Farabi, who had traveled to many countries, understood that life in cities is usually far from ideal. He described and analyzed the biggest obstacles to the “vicious” cities in his treatise, The Virtuous City. But in his philosophy of reason, he is not utopian. He is a logician.
Al-Farabi needs to be read in depth and thoughtfully, probably then it will be possible to change something in the human worldview.
– What in the legacy of Al-Farabi is especially valuable for our modern society?
– The worldview that unites all of humanity in the 9th-10th centuries, tolerance to any religion, to any nation, openness to the knowledge of the world in any of its manifestations made Al-Farabi a global thinker. His works have been translated into many languages of the world and have become the basis for a deep and comprehensive understanding of life. Today, in the era of digital technologies and global processes, a holistic approach to understanding the world is extremely important, as it is impossible to build either politics or relations with people without it. Thanks to such Islamic scholars as al-Farabi, Avicenna and Averroes, who preserved and developed ancient philosophy, Europe was able to overcome the scholasticism of the Middle Ages and dogmatism, largely accepted by peoples and manifested in history by irreconcilable contradictions, including wars and become peaceful and harmonious like the Islamic world. But the philosophy, addressed to universal human problems and values, helps to unite East and West, different confessions and ethnic groups, as there is no place for war in a reasonable desire for peace and “true happiness”. Therefore, turning to the heritage of Al-Farabi is one of the ways to preserve the world in which we live.
And although Al-Farabi did not call for a dialogue of cultures, he created universal intellectual standards based on a non-partisan, non-confessional, non-national philosophy that has absorbed the experience of many peoples. His philosophy does not belittle any religion, nor a single person. There are no separate harmonies for Muslims or Christians or pagans, there is only general harmony, the harmony of Reason, it is the basis of human life and the root cause of everything that exists.