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Al-Farabi in his "blue" period.
Thinking hard
or hardly thinking?

Icon philosophy.svg
Major trains of thought
The good, the bad
and the brain fart
Come to think of it
A just city should favor justice and the just, hate tyranny and injustice, and give them both their just deserts.

Abū Nasr al-Fārābī (c. 872-950), commonly known as al-Fārābī, (Westernized as Alpharabius) was a philosopher during the Golden Age of Islam, known as the "Second Master" (al-mu‘allim al-thānī) after Aristotle for his preservation, expansion, and presentation of Classical Greek philosophy to an Arabic audience. An accomplished thinker in his own right, al-Fārābī combined aspects of classical philosophy, Islamic theology, and even psychology into coherent works, in addition to penning treatises exploring music, physics, and logic.[2]

Al-Fārābī was the first philosopher to merge Islamic theology and political philosophy with his work The Virtuous City (ārā ahl Al-madīna Al-fāḍila), as well as fostering the Arabic philosophical tradition by modifying classical philosophy to be compatible with, and thus supportive of, Islamic views. It is his political philosophy for which al-Fārābī is best known.[3][4]

Although a Muslim, al-Fārābī's conception of prophethood in light of classical psychology, and his affirmation of the classical emphasis on the role of philosophers in society, led him to argue that religion is only meant to impart divine truths to the masses in ways they can understand, via similitude and parable. The elites of society — the philosophers — are able to attain these truths directly by intellectual perfection, and the intellectuals of every society are thus united by their shared love for, and ultimate attainment of, truth, rather than divided by particular dogmas.[4]


Al-Fārābī was heavily influenced by the philosophers he studied, and his thought contains strong Aristotelian and Neoplatonic foundations, especially regarding cosmology. Al-Fārābī was a firm proponent of classical emanationism regarding a First Cause, he integrated this well with the fundamental Islamic concept of tawheedWikipedia's W.svg regarding the nature of Allah. He also incorporated it into his political philosophy and the government of his ideal virtuous state. Note that al-Fārābī's reliance on the emantionist model allows presuppositional apologetics to defend the concept of God itself, since classical philosophy presupposes, and relies on, the First Cause as necessary.

A key function, and intention, of al-Fārābī's work was to rationalize the the works of the classical philosophers with Islamic teachings, so that Muslims would not shy away from studying the intellectual arts, or, worse still, study them only superficially to try and refute them. Like his peers in the classical tradition, al-Fārābī was realistic regarding the differences among people in innate intellectual ability. He believed religion is an incomplete source of knowledge, required for the masses to understand aspects of truth which would be otherwise be the domain of the philosophers alone. While blind or poorly justified belief may be a necessary evil among the masses, it should not dissuade the more devout of the intellectuals from studying philosophy and logic out of fear of abandoning their fears. Al-Fārābī believed rationality and religion could coexist quite easily when the purpose and limits of each were known, though the more dogmatic or simplistic aspects of religion would be rendered obsolete for those who no longer needed them (akin to the Non-Overlapping Magisteria concept).[3][4]

Cosmology and ontology[edit]

All of al-Fārābī's philosophy hinges on his adoption of classcial emanationism, the idea that all of existence "flows out from" a First Cause. He identified six principles and organized them in a hierarchical order, based on both perfection and order of emergence. The first three are independent and immaterial, whereas the final three are attached to bodies. Starting with the most perfect:

1. The First Cause

The nature of al-Fārābī's First Cause is unchanged from the classical conception, with the stylistic difference that he identifies it with the Allah of Islam. The First Cause, unlike the other principles, is unique, perfect, and uncaused. Borrowing from Aristotle's Metaphysics Lambda, al-Fārābī argues the First Cause exists by acting as the object, subject, and act of its own intellection. It should be noted that al-Fārābī's understanding of the First Cause/Allah is much more mystical than the dogmatic conceptions usually found in the Abrahamic religions, as can be seen in his elucidation of how prophethood occurs.

2. The Second Intellects

These "intellects" or second causes are the first entities to proceed from the First Cause, and are associated with the celestial bodies in the traditional Ptolemaic geocentric model. There are nine, corresponding to Heaven (Jannah), the stars, the visible planets, and the Moon. They are not celestial spheres themselves, rather, they are the cause of their existence; the second causes originate the celestial spheres in the same way the First Cause originates them. Note that "heaven" in this model refers to the existence beyond the sphere of the stars, assumed to contain the afterlife (akhirah), and, most importantly, the First Cause itself.

3. The Active Intellect

The active intellect is a tenth second intellect of sorts, but one more uniquely concerned with the sublunary world — the world below the Moon, composed of the four elements. The active intellect is very important in al-Fārābī's philosophy, because it is through this intellect that human intelligence and, ultimately, prophethood, is realized.

4. The Soul

The soul is common to all life, albeit in different levels of perfection, organized by how many faculties the soul possesses. There are five faculties, and only humans possess them all. They are, in order from most basic;

  1. The Nutritional Faculty, which is common to all life;
  2. The Sensitive Faculty, which is comprised of the five senses and common to humans and animals;
  3. The Appetitive Faculty, which is source of desire and revulsion, held by humans and animals;
  4. The Imaginative Faculty, which retains and combines sensations, and is again held by humans and animals;
  5. The Intellectual Faculty, which allows cognition and is unique to humans.

5. Form

Forms are essential nature of bodies, and when the combination of matter takes places, forms appear in the form of, though ultimately distinct from, bodies. There are six bodies, descending from most perfect, they are:

  1. Celestial bodies
  2. Rational animals
  3. Non-rational animals
  4. Plants
  5. Minerals
  6. The Four Elements (Earth, Air, Fire, and Water) [as in alchemy]

6. Matter

Matter is the basic material of form. Although form is composed of matter, matter only exists due to form. Al-Fārābī argued that the motion of the celestial spheres gives rise to prime matter, from which the four elements come. Through the combination of the four elements and the influence of the celestial bodies, the other forms are originated.

From this principles, al-Fārābī derives both the origination and explanation of the rest of existence.[3]

Logic and epistemology[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Epistemology

Al-Fārābī closely follows Aristotle returning to the second sense of intellect (‘aql,), that is, the innate knowledge of fundamental truths. When the soul is at the level of acquired intellect, it can reason and comprehend on its own. Thus, it is able to obtain what al-Fārābī calls scientific knowledge (‘ilm). Scientific knowledge is unrelated to the empirical concept of science, rather, it refers to Aristotle's conception of knowledge that provides absolute certainty (yaqīn) — metaphysics and mathematics. Al-Fārābī emphasizes that this knowledge refers to things which are true regardless of time and circumstance, he uses the example of three always being an odd number. He identifies five categories of logic:

1. Demonstration

Demonstration is the highest of the categories, and refers to arguments which are formed on universally sound premises and lead to certain conclusions.

2. Dialectic

Dialectic arguments rely on generally accepted or popular premises.

3. Sophistry

Sophistry refers to arguments which try to logically support general opinions.

4. Rhetoric

Rhetoric is the category of arguments built on on impressive speech and elocution.

5. Poetics

Poetics refers to arguments which rely on images and stories to support the conclusions.

Al-Fārābī acknowledges that the non-demonstrative categories can provide truthful answers, but emphasizes that only demonstration can provide absolutely certain answers. Al-Fārābī also provided six conditions by which this absolute certainty(al-yaqīn ‘alā al-iṭlāq) can be known. If a person P believes some concept C to be true, then the conditions are:

  1. P believes that C (the belief condition);
  2. C is true (the truth condition);
  3. P knows that C is true (the knowledge condition);
  4. It is impossible that C not be true (the necessity condition);
  5. There is no time at which C can be false (the eternity condition); and,
  6. Conditions 1–5 hold essentially, not accidentally (the non-accidentality condition).

The first three are similar as the well-known idea of justified true belief, but al-Fārābī's makes the end result more thorough by including knowledge instead of justification, in other words, P must know C is true, rather than simply having good reason to believe it. Al-Fārābī's remaining conditions serve to further solidify the status of C, and provide absolute certainty.

Although Al-Fārābī prized absolute certainty, he admitted knowledge could not reasonably be limited to such. He allowed for belief based on the non-demonstrative categories of logic, with with acknowledgment that these would carry different degrees of certainty. Hence, there are different types of beliefs, from absolutely certain beliefs, to strong beliefs and weak or circumstantial beliefs.[3]

Psychology and prophethood[edit]

Al-Fārābī's conception of psychology mostly follows Aristotle regarding the roles of the faculties of the soul, however he argues that the active intellect can directly impress concepts into the imaginative faculty — it is this process through which prophethood can occur.[3][4]

The Imaginative Faculty[edit]

Al-Fārābī followed Aristole and stated that, from the five faculties of the soul, human cognition and experience is realized. Like Aristotle, al-Fārābī placed the imaginative faculty as an intermediate between the sensitive and intellectual faculties. The imaginative faculty packages sensations in a form the intellectual faculty can grasp, and stores them. The imaginative faculty can also combine and divide sensations, and otherwise modify them, in this way reality is perceived by the intellectual faculty through the lens of the imaginative faculty. The imaginative faculty also has another unique characteristic — mimesis (muhākāt). Mimesis is the ability of the imaginative faculty imitate sensations of the other faculties — including the intellectual faculty. In this way, the imaginative faculty can influence and stimulate the rest of the body.[3][4]

The Intellectual Faculty[edit]

Intellect (‘aql) is a term used by most to refer to what Aristotle deemed prudence (ta‘aqqul), that is, the ability to understand the practical nature of things via experience and discernment. Al-Fārābī admitted this definition, as well as using ‘aql in a different sense to describe how universal truths are known, that is, not by logic or experience, but a priori. Al-Fārābī also noted the usage of the term in Islamic theology, where it refers to the consensus of the scholars (ulama) on religious matters. Regarding the first sense, there are four stages or components:

  1. The Material Intellect (‘aql bi-l-quwah).
  2. The Actual Intellect (‘aql bi’l-fi‘l).
  3. The Acquired Intellect (‘aql al-mustafāḍ).
  4. The Active Intellect (‘aql al-fa ‘‘āl).

The material, or potential, intellect, is the innate cognitive ability. When objects are perceived by the senses, and filtered through the imaginative intellect, they reach the material intellect and become actualized. When the potential intellect actualizes these abstractions, it becomes an actual intellect, in the same way that matter becomes form when it exists as a body. But when objects are thus abstracted, they lose their previous qualities: position, mass, age, etc. They become no different than the actual intellect itself. In this way, the actual intellect can comprehend things without requiring the other faculties to experience them. This state is called the acquired intellect, since the intellect has acquired the capability of understanding things on its own.

Forms and concepts linked to matter, such as those perceived by the senses, must be abstracted in order to be intelligible. However, forms not linked to matter — those above the plane of the Earth — don't have to go through this process. These can be perceived directly by the acquired intellect, and for this reason the acquired intellect is the most perfect.

The active intellect, from al-Fārābī's emanationist cosmology, makes a return here. It is the active intellect which allows abstractions to be actualized by the potential intellect in the first place, and it is the active intellect which allows the acquired intellect to comprehend forms beyond the plane of human existence.

Indeed, al-Fārābī argued that the goal of life, and the path to happiness, lies in the human intellect becoming fully immersed in the active intellect, and thus the active intellect is the highest stage the human mind can achieve. When the two intellects no longer differ, than the human soul no longer needs the body to comprehend reality around it, and thus becomes a self-actualizing entity, similar to the First Cause itself. Al-Fārābī thought that at this point, the soul could exist fully without the body, and this would constitute perfection. This view by criticized by later scholars on religious grounds, and on philosophical grounds because they judged it impossible for a material, human intellect to become immaterial like the active intellect.[3][4]


Usually, the active intellect is limited to allowing the potential intellect to actualize impressions from the senses, and thus become the actual intellect. However, sometimes the active intellect can impart concepts directly — concepts which have never been experienced by the senses. Since the imaginative faculty can mimic and represent the sensations of the other faculties, it is this faculty which the active intellect imparts upon. These events are very rare, and usually happen when the other faculties are not active — at night. Thus, al-Fārābī considered prophetic dreams to be delivered through the active intellect.

Sometimes, an individual's imaginative faculty is so strong it doesn't need to rely on the other faculties for new concepts to piece together, and can create its own, similar to the acquired intellect. These cases are mediated by the active intellect, and allow the individual to perceive divine beings and other concepts from beyond the celestial planes. In this way, al-Fārābī linked classical cosmology and classical psychology to allow prophethood.

It should be noted that al-Fārābī's conceptualization of prophethood dismisses the literal interpretation of events. For instance, it implies that Muhammad did not actually encounter to the archangel Jibreel in the cave of Hira, rather, he only imagined he did, though the revelations delivered to him were nonetheless real. In other words, al-Fārābī's psychology of prophethood implies the "prophets" in question were only imagining their experiences, though he still maintains they are true.

The state of union with the Active Intellect that comes via the imaginative faculty is, ultimately, the same as that that comes via intellectual perfection. In this way, the perfection of the philosophers is equal to that of the prophets, and a philosopher can discern divine truth without religion. However, a philosopher, immersed in the abstract, and relying on the demonstrative logic, would not be good at teaching the masses the nature of things. However, the prophet, with an incredible imaginative faculty, will be able to instruct the masses with analogies and thorough use of the four lessor forms of logic. Thus, a prophet is able to best teach the masses divine truths via rhetoric and similitudes, which can be tailored for that population. The result of this process is a religion.[3][4]

Political theory[edit]

Al-Fārābī is best remembered for his political theory, which revolves around the theme of an ideal regime as put forward in his ultimate work, The Virtuous City. The virtuous city is a theocratic autocracy, heavily based on Plato's Republic in its requirement of a philosopher as a leader and its goals and aims. Al-Fārābī diverges from Plato in his addition of the prophet figure as a necessity, at least at the beginning of the regime, and in the importance of theological jurisprudence in times where there is no living prophet figure. Al-Fārābī also agreed with Plato in that the city is the smallest political unit, but he again disagreed that it was the largest possible. He classified the nation and the world as the two other political entities which could become virtuous — the nation by composite of virtuous cities, and the world by composite of virtuous nations.[4]

The Virtuous City[edit]

As with the classical authors, al-Fārābī considered correct religious and metaphysical principles as essential to a good regime, as such a regime exists for the realization of human excellence and the virtue of its citizens. Al-Fārābī argued that happiness is the ultimate goal of man, for the reason that happiness is the only good which is desired for its own sake rather than as a means to another end. For al-Fārābī, happiness is achieved with the perfection of man's intellect and unity of the soul with the Active Intellect. The actions that humans may undertake to attain perfection are the noble activities, and willingly performing them requires a person to have certain virtues of character. The Virtuous City is one in which humans work together and cooperate to learn and attain these virtues, and thus attain happiness. Not all humans are equally endowed, and so al-Fārābī divies the citizens into three groups:

  1. The philosophers and the wise who can comprehend reality.
  2. Those who directly follow the philosophers and listen to them.
  3. Everyone else, who knows truths via similitudes such as religion.

The above groups work together for the benefit of all, and in this way the Virtuous City acts as one body. The City is a strict meritocratic hierarchy, in which each rank of citizen rules those below it and is in turn ruled by those above it. A citizen's rank is determined solely by their virtue and what they are able to achieve, and have achieved this far.

Because religion is merely a means to teach the masses divine truths they could not otherwise understand, with each religion tailored to its population, Al-Fārābī argued that any religion which inspired the citizens to strive towards happiness could form the backbone of the virtuous city. Al-Fārābī pointed out that the philosophers of the world are united by their shared unity with the Active Intellect and comprehension of truth, while only the masses are divided by the incomplete similitudes of religion.[4]

The Autocrat[edit]

The Virtuous City is modeled after the cosmos itself in its varying and strict ranks, and just as all existence radiates from the First Cause, so too does the regime's law and virtue come from an absolute leader. Al-Fārābī follows Plato in asserting the importance of philosophy, and the ruler must be a philosopher-king, one who has actualized his intellectual faculty and its union with the Active Intellect. However, al-Fārābī argued that the ruler must also have perfection of the imaginative faculty — that is, prophethood. As he noted in his discussion of psychology, al-Fārābī stated that the prophet alone is capable of teaching the masses divine truths in ways they can understand, as the philosopher is incomprehensible to them. Thus, in order to teach all citizens of the Virtuous City, the ruler must be a Prophet-King as well. The ideal ruler is therefore a Prophet-Philosopher, one who can instruct the masses by means of analogy and similitude, and one who can instruct the philosophers by means of reason and demonstrative logic.

If such a man cannot be found, it is possible for a philosopher-king to rule without prophecy, but only if the City was founded by a prophet. This can only accomplished if the prophet left behind rules and legislation to follow. In this case, the philosopher-king must become a philosopher-jurist, and interpret and follow the existing laws according to both precedence and the original intention of the laws. If there is still no one man who can do this, or is willing to, then the city can be ruled by a philosopher and another man, or a group of men, who can faithfully act as jurists. In this way, the autocracy becomes an oligarchy, but the requirements of leadership are still fulfilled. Although the jurist qualifications may be disseminated among several people, and the prophetic requirement can be dismissed all together, there can never be a substitute for the philosopher.[4]

The Other Regimes[edit]

In addition to describing the Virtuous City itself, al-Fārābī discusses the types of other regimes, as well as the necessity and purpose of the virtuous state as opposed to them. According to him, there are three general types of non-virtuous states:

1. The Ignorant Regimes

These states have no knowledge of divine truths, and their citizens seek happiness in vain.

2. The Immoral Regimes

These states have knowledge of divine truths, but ignore them and pursue ignorant ends.

3. The Erring Regimes

These states have knowledge of divine truths, and willingness to follow them, but have misinterpreted or misunderstood these truths.

These states are opposed to al-Fārābī's virtuous regime because they lack truth and cannot attain happiness, and as a result follow lower ends. Al-Fārābī identifies six lower ends, and sub-divides the regimes according to which they follow:

1. The Indispensable Regime

The citizens of these regimes strive only to have their basic needs met.

2. The Vile Regime

These are oligarchic or aristocratic regimes, their citizens seek only wealth.

3. The Base Regime

These regimes are hedonistic, and their citizens seek pleasure above all else.

4. The Timocratic Regime

These regimes are based around honor and status; their citizens seek to be praised for their actions.

5. The Tyrannic Regime

These regimes are based around war and domination of other states.

6. The Democratic Regime

Citizens of these regimes prize freedom more than anything.

If a virtuous city does not exist, or could not be created, al-Fārābī argued democracy was the best substitute. The freedom of the citizens would all ideas to flourish, both good and evil, and thus the democratic regime would eventually contain some elements of the virtuous regime by merit of chance alone. In addition, the philosophers would be free to attain intellectual perfection, and those capable of prophethood would be free to teach the masses. In this way, the democratic regime would eventually evolve into the virtuous regime.[4]


See the main article on this topic: Jihad

Al-Fārābī argued that the autocrat must educate the citizens in two ways: using a group with convinces by means by argument and persuasion, and using a group which convinces by force. This is because not all citizens are receptive to reason. In the same way, al-Fārābī asserted that a virtuous regime may attack a misguided state to establish another virtuous regime, but this new regime must then turn to friendship and persuasion to convince the citizens. When combined with his views about the possibility of the entire world being composed of virtuous states, al-Fārābī's support of just war implies a concession to the Islamic concept of holy war (jihad). However, al-Fārābī also argues against imperialism, because different nations and cultures have different characters, and no state could adopt its laws and policies to be fair to all men without watering them down until they are useless for any given group. The alternative, that the imperial state only educates the philosophers of the world, would do a grave disservice to the masses. In addition, al-Fārābī argued the virtuous world is built on the cooperation of virtuous nations, and the virtuous nation built on the cooperation of virtuous cities. In this way, no city or nation is subservient to, or dominate over, any other, all must cooperate to achieve happiness. Finally, al-Fārābī's understanding of religion precludes the dogmatic idea that any one religion is true to the exclusion of all others. Thus, while al-Fārābī encouraged jihad of virtuous states against misguided states, he did not support the concept of jihad merely to spread a particular religion.[4]


  1. H. Gibb et al., eds. (1991). Encyclopedia of Islam, Volume IV. Brill. ISBN 9789004057456
  2. Adamec, Ludwig W. (2009). Historical Dictionary of Islam, pp.95-96. Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0810861615
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 López-Farjeat, Luis Xavier, Edward N. Zalta ed. (2016) Al-Farabi's Psychology and Epistemology. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 Mahdi, Muhsin (2001). Alfarabi and the Foundation of Islamic Political Philosophy. University Of Chicago Press. ISBN: 9780226501871