Al-Farabi

The existing variations in the basic accounts of al-Farabi's origins and pedigree indicate that they were not recorded during his lifetime or soon thereafter by anyone with concrete information, but were based on hearsay or guesses (as is the case with other contemporaries of al-Farabi). The sources for his life are scant which makes the reconstruction of his biography beyond a mere outline nearly impossible.

The earliest and more reliable sources, i. e., those composed before the 6th/12th century, that are extant today are so few as to indicate that no one among Fārābī’s successors and their followers, or even unrelated scholars, undertook to write his full biography, a neglect that has to be taken into consideration in assessing his immediate impact.

The sources prior to the 6th/12th century consist of: (1) an autobiographical passage by Farabi, preserved by Ibn Abī Uṣaibiʿa. In this passage, Farabi traces the transmission of the instruction of logic and philosophy from antiquity to his days. (2) Reports by Al-Masudi, Ibn al-Nadim and Ibn Hawqal as well as by Said Al-Andalusi (d. 1070), who devoted a biography to him.

Majid Fakhry (1983) has described al-Farabi as 'the founder of Arab Neo-Platonism and the first major figure in the history of that philosophical movement since Proclus'. This should be borne in mind as we survey the metaphysics of the philosopher whom the Latin Middle Ages knew as Abunaser and whom the Arabs designated the 'Second Master' (after Aristotle).

It should be noted that al-Farabi was an Aristotelian as well as a Neoplatonist: he is said, for example, to have read On the Soul two hundred times and even the Physics forty times. It should then come as no surprise that he deploys Aristotelian terminology, and indeed there are areas of his writings that are quite untouched by Neoplatonism.

Furthermore, al-Farabi tried to demonstrate the basic agreement between Aristotle and Plato on such matters as the creation of the world, the survival of the soul and reward and punishment in the afterlife. In al-Farabi's conception of God, essence and existence fuse absolutely with no possible separation between the two. However, there is no getting away from the fact that it is the Neoplatonic element which dominates so much else of al-Farabi's work.

We see this, for example, in the powerful picture of the transcendent God of Neoplatonism which dominates al-Madina al-fadila. We see this too in al-Farabi's references to God in a negative mode, describing the deity by what he is not: he has no partner, he is indivisible and indefinable. And perhaps we see the Neoplatonic element most of all in the doctrine of emanation as it is deployed in al-Farabi's hierarchy of being.

Farabi travelled to many distant lands and studied for some time in Damascus and Egypt, but repeatedly came back to Baghdad, until he visited Saif al-Daula's court in Halab (Allepo). He became one of the constant companions of the King, and it was here at Halab that his fame spread far and wide. During his early years he was a Qadi (Judge), but later on the took up teaching as his profession. During the course of his career, he had suffered great hardships and at one time was the caretaker of a garden. He died a bachelor in Damascus in 339 A.H./950 A.D. at the age of 80 years.

From incidental accounts it is known that he spent significant time in Baghdad with Christian scholars including the cleric Yuhanna ibn Haylan, Yahya ibn Adi, and Abu Ishaq Ibrahim al-Baghdadi. He later spent time in Damascus, Syria and Egypt before returning to Damascus where he died in 950.