Alfarabi Paper

Argument of Alfarabi’s Book of Religion

Paul M. Bushmiller
GVPT 447 Prof. Charles Butterworth
07 November 2000

alfarbi Khazistani one tengi Alfarabi on the Khazistani one Tengi note

For this paper I reviewed four works by the philosopher Abu Nasr al-Farabi (864-933d ce). These were the Enumeration of the Sciences, the Book of Religion, Selected Aphorisms, andthe Attainment of Happiness. Three of these were new translations by Ch. E. Butterworth, the fourth Attainment of Happiness: is from the anthology Medieval Political Philosophy edited by Ralph Lerner and Muhsin Mahdi, the latter being the translator of the piece. The assignment calls for an analysis of one of the above works.

Some difficulties were encountered associated with returning to this material after a twelve year hiatus and doing so without the benefit (I now recognize) of lectures. I found myself continually backpedaling from the ambitions of my initial outline - which were largely inspired by the introductions which called for careful inspection of the structure of the arguments and attention to the seeming parallels and repetitions both within and between the texts in question. This, it turned out, was somewhat beyond my abilities. Be that as it may I settled on the text the Book of Religion and did what I could.

All four of these readings inter-mesh, some explicitly so. The Book of Religion is designed to present an argument answering questions left unanswered by the presentation in The Enumeration of the Sciences, chapter five. My reading of Selected Aphorisms left me thinking that in addition to forming a parallel self supporting piece it was possible to see it as a glossary of supporting arguments and detail covering the exposition in Enumeration of the Sciences. and particularly Book of Religion.

The first task I would like to attempt with this paper is to examine Al-farabi’s stated goals for the Book of Religion. I see three statements, two direct and one implicit.

There is the opening paragraph in the first section: a definition of Religion, how it exists in a community1, who founds that community and how it is led. What its purpose is. There is the concluding (and penultimate) paragraph: a discussion of order and harmony (and by inference here - prosperity) in the community which flows from a common religion and purpose. And that this is given to a people by God. The first flows gradually and in a crafted naturalness into a discussion of political philosophy and political science. The latter flows out out of it. The implicit argument is in this construction. What is really here is a definition of Political Science one to be used in a world where the true nature of God and mans purpose has been revealed, at least in part, to a community of believers. And it must be a radically altered political science that can deal with an active, involved, morally demanding conception of God that is quiet different from the one encountered in Lucretious’ de Natura Rerum: A uninvolved God whose abode is the cold quiet places between the planets2. Here we see that religion establishes the community, and defines the role and starting point of political science within its framework. Philosophy (of which political science is a part) in turn is the realm of a reason and logic that forges through its process a conceptual understanding of God and judges the claims of religion.

At the opening we are given the statement:

Religion is opinions and actions...restricted...and proscribed for a community by their first ruler. If the first ruler is virtuous...he seeks to obtain the ultimate happiness. If his Rulership is ignorant, then he seeks only to obtain for one of the ignorant win that good...and to make those under his rulership tools (§1).

The ignorant goods are such necessary goods as health and well-being, and also wealth, pleasure, honor, glory, and conquest. The ignorant ruler may seek them for the people as well, even selflessly seek them for the people but not himself. Errant Rulership occurs when ultimate happiness is the presumed goal but is not the goal in actuality. By contrast the craft of the virtuous first ruler is kingly and joined with revelation from God. This occurs in two ways either particular actions and opinions are revealed directly and/or they can be determined by a faculty received by revelation. All the elements of the argument are more or less present at this point. The Community is established by God, The establisher is a man, a political leader, chosen by God3. He brings with him to the task at the outset a body of particulars - opinions and actions by which the foundations of the community are laid and has besides a faculty - a special wisdom - to continue leading the community through time and circumstance. This faculty is described carefully. It is a craft the connotation is that it is partly learned, a skill between art and science (if I owned a Greek dictionary I would look up the word techne at this point). It is beside this kingly, that is, it only accrues to an individual to whom the highest leadership qualities are already ascribed4. But, it also is a form of revelation.

We see Religion defined as actions and opinions but not as truth, We see revelation as only meaningful and purposeful in the hands of a man committed to the highest order of reason. We see mans purpose in life described in a term of the established religion. So far happiness is more defined by what it is not than what it is. The term itself ultimate (or true) happiness is Eudaemonist which would lead us to believe it is a creed of personal fulfillment along moral lines established by reason and harmony.

Following this through the body of the work Al-Farabi embarks on a careful program of equating the terms and parts of his two societal models. In §4 he states that religion and creed are almost synonymous, as are law and tradition. Specific religious decrees are like law, so law religion and creed are synonymous - specifying opinions, determining actions. Religion orders its community as the political regime rules the city; though this is not stated here. Instead we get the only direct reference to religion and truth

Thus the determined opinions in the virtuous religion are either the truth or a likeness of the truth. In general, truth is what a human being ascertains either by himself by means of primary knowledge, or by demonstration (§4).

Here he has laid claim to reason being the ultimate judge of truth, but (and!) for religion being a valid symbolic representation of truth. In §5 he goes on to say therefore virtuous religion is similar to philosophy in fact subordinate to it as philosophy supplies demonstrative proofs (theoretical) and reasons for action (practical). Further where dialectic yields presumption demonstrative proofs yield certainty (this is an enormous and problematic assertion. For now I simply note that he makes it, and that in Aphorisms of the Statesmen he specifically moves to negate the true congruence of knowledge claims of those who [have] received revelation without having become perfect in theoretical knowledge5 (Aphorisms 94 last Para.). However, dialectic plus rhetoric are devices to bring persuasion to the people (untutored masses that they are).

The next few sections extend a discussion of law and jurisprudence as a civil enterprise, but clearly from the framework of religious leadership. With §11 there is a break. Now we are discussing Political Science and what it investigates and sets forth about society and the leadership's role and responsibilities. Specifically we are told that Political science investigates happiness first of all. The description of happiness is the same as before but now we are told that is not obtained in this life but comes about in the one next. Overall these sections parallel the previous sections but in a manner that might almost be termed secular. This discussion culminates in §14 where the faculty by which the universals are made particular (the craft which preserves a virtuous society) is analogized to the procedure of a physician curing sickness. It is made clear that this is knowledge informing action; acquired experience positively identified as prudence This faculty as it is sometimes referred to, seems to me to be a pefection of (the ability to) experiance. The prudent man will experiance events as they are. A non prudent man might experiance the same thing differently the lesson gained from the experiance would be different and the application of experiance incorrect (the wrong act/cure/causation/law).

At §15 the plan shifts again we are told that

Political science that is part of philosophy is universals and to giving their patterns. It also brings cognizance of the patterns for determining the leaves them undetermined in actuality because determining in actuality belongs to a faculty other than philosophy...(§15).

We see some residual parallelism in this both to the virtuous first rulers not determining contingencies for all phenomenon by direct revelation and to the special nature of this faculty.

The plan so far has been to lay out the prophet and the kings realm & roles and equate them. Now we are treated to the universals of political science which shades into a description of the world and its beings from first principles and back. Both as to how God orders the world and to how the ruler orders the city. The trustworthy spirit of revelation is formally equated to a communication of Gods will, fruitful to only a prepared perfection of reason. To me the focus subtly seem to shifts from an exposition of the ruler and the community as a monolithic entity to one where the community and its parts (divisions) and harmony, linkages, mutual support, and organization are revealed as the relationships of individuals. One begins to see the individual as the unit of analysis. The City and its Rulership exist in a harmonious community by virtue of a common religion established by revelation for what purpose is the seeking of ultimate happiness which is a good of the individual soul.

In dry simplified form Al-Farabi has two hierarchical models of organization, of order. One mostly metaphysical with weak terrestrial elements, the other while not without metaphysical elements is largely a design for living. The key link is not the equation of Philosopher king with the Prophet so much but that the goal of these two orders can be said to be the same, the Good. If a man lives a balanced virtuous life he obtains perfect happiness. Revelation holds the result of the virtuous life, truly lived and believed - opinions and actions, as the soul joined with God. Al-Farabi calls this (when true) ultimate happiness, states that it is sought for its own sake and all other things sought to obtain it, and he sets this goal against the opinions of the multitude (paraphrased from §.11). Not withstanding this at the heart of political science an explicitly religious goal is formed. This is problematic what can be said of the ineffable experiences of the soul. Precisely nothing: it cannot be valued by virtue of something about it, or anything it says, does, or brings, only for itself. In Selected Aphorisms Al-Farabi cautions against interpretation of happiness as a quid pro quo reward, Rather, he says it is like knowledge it follows on the toil and missed rest of study, but cannot be regard as a pleasure, for the gain of which, one undertook study6 (paraphrased from Aphorism #76).

In the first part of a brief middle section to this paper I want to describe and comment on what Al-Farabi explicitly states that he is doing and in a following section look into why he might want to set such a purpose. With each succeeding ruler Al-Farabi saw the Islamic community traveling further into a era of laws. Noting that the First ruler will not be able to preside over all possible happenings of a community. Succeeding rulers will become jurists and if not possessed by revelation themselves jurists of tradition which implies a body of tradition that must be ordered maintained and rationalized. It is at this point in the text where the discussion changed to an exposition on Political Science. Al-Farabi is showing that the Islamic community is becoming something best examined now by the descriptive and proscriptive powers of political science, but he recognizes that the religious community has an answer, symbolically expressed or not, for another question: what, and for what, is man.

Theological Jurisprudence was in Al-farabi’s time a powerful social-political force7 . The juridical - non reasoned linkage to direct tradition was held equal to the claims of theology whose tactic was to ascertain Facts and context of revelation it’s meaning and interpretation. The period leading up to Al-farabi’s lifetime was one of two notable intellectual developments. The Mutazilah movement ( rationalist) in theology and not unrelated, the era of translation (of Greek texts or Greek works in Syriac) which extended through Al -farabi’s career. The Mutazilah adherents had suffered a reaction (they were apparently somewhat humorless) and now theologians and philosophers both, in their separate traditions, were occupied by notions of synthesis between reason and revelation. The issues are free will, recognition of good and evil, and mans (reason & soul) relation to Gods omnipotence.

Gods nature is particular important it was seen by the Mutazilah as pure unified essence, with no temporal components, eternal attributes. Mans terrestrial and temporal mind and speech cannot interact with God - thought of in this manner. There are still traces of this in Al-Farabi. Communication from God is not something that he sees happening directly but descends by stages and even then seems reached out to by a transcendent human nature. In aphorism 86 he describes God knowing things-in-the-world as possessing a changeable essence being one thing or another in conjectured moments (which if I’m considering this right does allow God to interact with man).

Free will also required some thinking and precise formulation. It was held that two realms of action could be thought to exist in the universe. God in the realm of nature -- tantamount to comprehensive, and man in the realm of moral human action. All acts of man are created by, belong to, God but man has potential for action, against a particular circimstnace, if allowed and creates responsibilities at the moment of action . However free will is created8, Al-farbi’s view (aphorism 74) that it exists is pretty clear. Both good and evil can be pursued through voluntary actions, further evil is knowable as the misery opposite to happiness and actions which lead to it. It is a category which exhausts evil. Latter in Aphorism 87 he makes two different arguments against omnipotent governing: that ordered ranking among men would make man a partner to god in the rule of others, and the existence of clearly blameworthy (and arbitrary) acts for which God is hardly likely a partner (see also §3 Book of Religion).

In order to put together his synthesis Al-farabi’s must make use of extensive rationalist elements for which at least on the theological side there has been a reaction. Movements of this reaction are on the ascendant. The four works read for this paper are a small subset of a much larger lifetime of work, but they represent a passion and a vision. They are directed most towards the nascent and impulsive forces of reform. Al-Farabi is working within the notion that the virtuous community once founded is long term in its nature. The Community he describes is meant to be fulfilling and harmonious, grounded in reason above all and shared common opinion, just and self-stabilizing. I would say he expected it to last as long as he understood human history to be. It would be a community in a state of Pareto Optimality as well as virtuous (by virtue of being virtuous: happiness in this life (§27)).

But his special purpose is anagogic in nature. This community aims to exist in seamless propagation with Gods will. Another way of saying this is that the design of the community was to make ultimate happiness, a voluntary compliance with the good, universal within the community.

This City, though, is a rigorously centralized one - in opinion and in action.. We are left to wonder if that is a necessary part of virtue. We know Al-farabi believes the city is the level of organization where to look for virtue

Moreover he cannot labor towards this perfection except by exploiting a large number of natural beings...for an isolated individual cannot achieve all the perfections by himself and without the aid of many other individuals (Attainment of Happiness §18).


Once the images representing the theoretical things...are produced in the souls of the multitude and they are made to assent to their images, and once the practical things take hold of their souls and dominate them so that they are unable to resolve to do anything else (Attainment of Happiness §59).

This is not an open society. On a general level the more unassailable religious opinion and the more over-all answers it is allowed; the more authoritarian the society will be. Further down in the above passage:

He is the one who invents the image and the persuasive arguments not for the sake of establishing these things in his own far as he is concerned these things are certain... ...they are religion for others, where as so far as he is concerned they are philosophy (Attainment of Happiness §59).

But it needn’t be so for this process to work, dogmatism or virulent nationalism (there is no other kind) would serve just as well.

Lets look quickly at a few other things Al-farabi says :

[just war] Warring against those who do not submit to slavery and servitude, it being best for serve and be slaves. [unjust war] for a ruler to war against a people only to humiliate them make them submissive and have them honor him for nothing other than to honor him (APH. 67 subsection [d] war and [a] unjust war).

Were it possible for slavery and servitude to exist without humiliation this might be read as something other than an injunction against wars of conquest (the Law of peace: spare the humble, war down the proud9. Looking at contestation with the other (by which I mean psychological other) more generally in Enumeration ch. five §5, as Al-farabi goes through the ways of oral disputation (which I believes he intends to have seem a little short of convincing) we encounter this:

He would either be an enemy and it permissible to use falsehood and deceit to ward him off and conquer him as is the case in struggle and warfare. Or he would not be an enemy, but one who due to weakness of his intellect and discernment is ignorant of the good fortune for him from this religion

The second statement is noteworthy as it show the start of what I feel is an inevitable process of schism (political, social, as well as religious) towards those who do not agree with the elites even towards those who ascent to the statement There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet. Note as well that as he sometimes does Al-farabi has been generic in his description of reilgion.

Now consider from again Selected Aphorisms: on Rhetoric Virtuous practitioners of this faculty use it...[for] good things, while those who are cunning use it...[for] evil things (Aph. 54). And Prudence fraudulence deception and deceitfulness concern excellently inferring what is...better for completing some base deed(Aph. 39). Cunning and fraudulent persons are evil and posses defects(Aph. 41). While I may have mistook the general tenor of his argument it seems to me that Al-farabi does not see his virtuous city as requiring coercion or coercive tactics by the leadership.

All societies; though, encounter periodic swings between consolidation and erosion of central authority (Powers, 127)10.The more centralized the more dramatic such events would seem. Regimes change when decadent rulers succumb to opposition movements led by people who have less taste for luxury and are more proficient in the willful use of naked force (Powers, 127).

This is the reason Al-farabi writes, given that it is curious that he presents such a non-dynamic model of society unless it be in deliberate contra position (which would explain all that talk of harmony in the divisions and taking lessons from the order of the natural world). Powers goes on to describe Pareto as coming around to a structured analysis a view of organizational change versus an exclusive focus on changes in personnel. It is this sort of notion that Al-farabi seems to lack most.

The period of Revelation it seems to me must always lie in the past. This is simply because despite any miraculous or mystic claims for religious experience the reception of revelation obeys the same laws of diffusion, perception and consensus building as other human phenomenon. By the time such unanimous agreement exists towards a revelation as to have societal wide impact it is a generation behind if not more. There are certainty prophets even now (I would assume entirely false) waiting only for someone to listen. The point is this despite the considerable attention Al-farabi devotes to the character and attributes of the initial ruler. It is those rulers of the tradition, their training, their abilities to cope with events responsibilities and duties, which genuinely confront and occupy him.

One of the questions I had was as to how many leadership figures Al-farabi was describing or implying. and in these persons, has he reasonably allowed for the sinusoidal dynamics of ordinary leadership. I tried to create a taxonomy from the adjectival phrases used in Book of Religion, but I don’t believe these phrases were used with such intent in mind. We get from that these elements: First, Virtuous, Ruler, King (or Kingly), Craft, Jurist , Tradition, Prophet and Imam. It is clear that none of these are truly synonymous though in practice (even as he uses them) many are virtually so. He generally regards the regime initiating figure as being the First Virtuous Ruler of the Kingly Craft (1VRKC) described in §1. I could not tell if he positively rules out other combinations. Think of Nehru coming after Gandhi: (v)RKC succeeding 1VR. In §7 Al-farabi specifically states that what a man can rule on and demonstrate by example, in a lifetime will never be enough to completely organize human life (I imagine there are some who take exception to this). As noted earlier Al-farabi see this ruler as best establishing fundamentals and foundations. Then in §8 he describes successors to this ruler identical to the first explicitly allowing each capacity for lawgiving (VRKC(n+1,2,3...) ). Only then in §9 does Al-farabi describe a ruler who is truly circumscribed in his abilities. A ruler who is not like the other in all respects. will be necessary...for the successor to follow in the footsteps of the predecessor...he should not do anything differently, nor make any alteration(§9). An open question is who decides this necessity. and further if there is more than one predecessor is this one limited to only the example of his immediate predecessor or the examples of all. A partial answer to this is given by Al-farabi as jurisprudence, and this particular type of leader is like a jurist.

A freedom of will and potential for action is allowed others beyond the first virtual leader. If the movement from these to rulers of tradition is naturally occurring - non systemic then it is possible to see these rulers as crest of the leader ship sine wave and jurist rulers of tradition as the troughs (best model), signs of a stalled culture or possibly transitional figures to non virtuous rulership in less sanguine models. One might even question whether at certain points the virtuous ruler must even be the titular political head and not some other opinion leader within the community. As well there are the ideas of the institutionalists such as Douglas North who generally regard political figures as the most transitory elements in a society, and regard societies as in their essence evolutionary. Particularly informal institutions which are in constant flux and are primarily problem solving in nature. Formal Institutions more closely match the devices of Al-farabi's model. Slow to change embedded in a body of laws or doctrine and usually fortified by a non personal authority (Such as - a constitution, prophet, or a messiah). I class the latter two as non personal for the reasons I gave earlier in this section about the existential position of revelation to the city that can be acted on. They lie in the acknowledged past and hold meaning beyond who they were as men (or women for that matter).

Take for granted at this point I now give a long passionate exposition on the unheralded majesty the shining beacon of light cast into the shuddering dark corners of the world that is the doctrine of separation of powers, the Constitution, Federalist papers and American (big D) Democracy.

Al-farabi’s Virtuous city would be less dependent on the rigorous programmle based and not capricious it must be promulgated , prospective in action, understandable, and actions undertaken by the regime toward an individual under the law correspondent with behavior.11

While the portion of Book of Religion that deals with political science does not goes back into a discussion of law directly it seems designed to elicit a parallel process to theological rule and jurisprudence where the relation of the latter to the former is a new open, scientifically reasoned and organized tradition of law, bound by and extending from the first and designed to take foot traffic of the political off the well trodden path of the first.

In §27 he writes governance of the world takes place in one way whereas governance of the city takes place in another way Governance of the world is the realm of nature - of God ordained beneficence of the natural order. Governance of the city as he makes clear in the paragraph that follows is a complex and constant set of deliberate political acts and where many things must be set down and proscribe[d] that will bring the many divisions of the community into workable harmony.

The final thing I would like to bring up is the point being touched upon in Aphorism 96 in Selected Aphorisms of the Statesmen. Everything we have seen so far would lead in the direction of virtue being a function of the perfection, unity and harmony of the city. And that this is the responsibility of the leader whose will and expertise is being exorcised. Now Al-farabi again posits the analogy: health is to the body as virtue is to the soul. the physician cannot guarantee all health (or all kinds of heath.

The case is the same with [our] souls in that they cannot acquire the virtues or most of them, or can only acquire a slight amount of them....It is not up to the virtuous leader and the supreme leader to establish virtues in someone the nature and substance of whose soul do not accept the virtues. For souls like this it is up to them to obtain as much of the virtues as is possible for them...[and] is useful for the inhabitants of the city (Aph 96).

Now it seems that in the end moral choice and the soul are the concern of the individual. Together with residual duty (obligation) to the city and to its other inhabitants, whose happiness is dependent on the harmonious functioning of the entire city. True Happiness we were told is sought for its own sake and all other things sought to obtain it (Book of Religion §11 ). As a goal it is rather nebulas. It functions more like a categorical imperative12.. It is not mediated through anything that can be concretely conceived. Its compass is intended to be universal and universally desired. There is nothing in it prejudicial to the interests of the individual agent. ...a command of duty is not founded upon the advantages or disadvantages of observing it ...[the] mention of [which] is dispensable in itself, but serves as a vehicle of taste for those who are frail by nature (Kant, Fragments of a moral catechism). The general implication here is that all men possess and exert free will. The good is obtained through obligated duty bound by rules.

Works Cited

Al-Farabi, Abu Nasr.
- - Enumeration of the Sciences, Ch. 5. Trans. Charles Butterworth (from Arabic ed. edited by Uthman Amin as noted in text).
Distributed manuscript GVPT dept. U. Md 2000.
- - Book of Religion. Trans Charles Butterworth. (from Arabic Ed. edited by Muhsin Mahdi). Distributed manuscript GVPT dept. U. Md 2000.
- - Selected Aphorisms. (trans. and edited Charles Butterworth). course packet GVPT 241 U. Md Fall 2000
- - The Attainment of Happiness (trans. Mushin Mahdi) Medival Political Philosophy . Ed. Ralph Lerner & Muhsin Mahdi. Ithica NY: Cornell UP 1963. 59 - 82

Muhammad and the Religion of Islam. Ethics: Western Ethics...Kant

Deontological ethics.Teleological ethics Nestorian Christianity

Dialectec CD 99 SE Encyclopedia Britannica 1994-1999.

Kant, Immanuel. Fragments of a Moral Catechism Metaphysical Principles of Virtue 1797. Rpt. Reason and Responsibility. Ed. Joel Feinberg. Belmont Ca : Wadsworth. 1981 597- 599

General introduction to the Metaphysic of Morals. GBWW no. 42. Chicago : Encyclopedia Britannica inc. 1952.

Powers, Charles H. Vilfredo Pareto: Masters of Social Theory Vol. 5. Newbury Park, CA : Sage 1987


1 Throughout I will use the terms nation, state,city, society, and community somewhat synonymously. In general except when the discussion is statute law or boundaries, I prefer community.

2 This rendition of statements made in several places in Lucretious was to my memory a quote, but as I cannot find it now, regard a paraphrase,( see Lucretious bk V 146). It is in some ways a standard neoplatonic formulation one that Al-Farabi would not altogether dismiss except that for Lucretious God’s back (so to speak) is turned on man and the world and for Islam God is engaged with man.

3 the choice is to the one most perfect in widom and virtue & with an apptitude to lead.

4 Presumably this would subsume the qualities Plato set forth in the Republic for his king

5 ie you can’t really know what you don’t understand (see end §4). This may be an argument against simple mysticism, and doctrines of direct revelation.

6 I suppose there could be a feeling of satisfaction in study I’ve never encountered it myself, but I’ve heard of it. Its certainly no invocation of the pleasure principle.

7 Back ground in this section largly comes from Encyclopedia Britannica article on Islam and a few other sources The comtemorary theologian Al-maturidi is followed for the first description of moral freedom of action. I felt this was more germane to Book of Religion than what contemporary philosophic opinion may have held.

8 The moral act is formed by the will, anterior to the moral virtue is the deliberative virtue which discovers the good but does not presume it. joined to it (?) is a/the natural virtue which enables (the possessor of the deliberative virtue) to wish the good This is my understanding of §35 attainment of happiness. Which I might restate as: Reason (alone ) can recognize the good, righteousness makes one desire it, together they impel one to act for it.

9 Virgil, Aeneid bk vi 1136

10 Quotations are in the original. Powers is directly quoting a phrase of Vilfredo Pareto, otherwise he’s summarizing the argument of Pareto’s Transformation of Democracy, and I’m attempting to gloss his summery.

11 This is paraphrased but very directly from the Encyclopedia Britannica article on jurisprudence - section labeled five desiderata implicit in the concept of law (1972 ed.)

12 Most of my rendering of Categorical imperative comes from the Encyclopedia Britannica article on Kant and from the hour or so I spent reading through something called General Introduction to the Metaphysic of Morals, still more from Fragments of a moral catechism (taken from metaphysical principles of virtue)