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Mar 28, 2024

Alfarabi’s Political Teaching

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Charles E. Butterworth

University of Maryland

Charles E. Butterworth is emeritus professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.

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Alfarabi’s Political Teaching

Which Comes First, Theory or Practice?

Ambrogio Lorenzetti  Effects Of Good Government In The City  Google Art Project

Effects of Good Government in a City, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, 1938

To counter a prevailing sentiment that intuition or mystical inspiration—Sufi thought, as it were—provides a shortcut to wisdom, it seems appropriate to preface the following remarks about Alfarabi’s rationalism by telling anew the fabled encounter between the famed interpreter of Aristotle, Ibn Rushd or Averroes, and his younger fellow Cordoban, the Sufi Ibn al-¢Arabī. It is related that Ibn al-¢Arabī came one day to pay his respects to his learned elder. After the customary exchange of polite greetings, Averroes turned to Ibn al-¢Arabī and asked, “Na¢am” (yes)—by which he meant “Is the rationalist path the correct one?” To this, Ibn al-¢Arabī replied, “Na¢am” (yes). Averroes was delighted by this response. Then Ibn al-¢Arabī paused, said, “Lā” (no), and added, “Wa bayna al-ithnayn taţīr al-anfus” (no, and between the two, souls fly away). Averroes, crestfallen, hung his head.

Most often, it is inferred that Averroes was dismayed because his younger visitor had thereby judged his life’s work to be of no value: for Ibn al-¢Arabī, the path pursued by Averroes was clearly false; in pursuing it, he had missed the one to happiness in this life and the next. Yet that may be too rash. Another interpretation, one I prefer and will try to validate in what follows, is that Averroes was dismayed to see that this most promising young man had failed to grasp the importance of reason in the quest for human understanding. I turn to Alfarabi for clarification of the issue.

Abū Naśr al-Fārābī was born in about 870/2561 beyond the Oxus River—either in Farab, Kazakhstan, or Faryab, Turkestan. He studied Islamic jurisprudence and music in Bukhara, then journeyed to Marv, where he studied Aristotelian logic with Nestorian Christian monks, most notably Yūĥannā b. Ĥaylān. Not long afterward, he went to Baghdad to continue studying logic with Ibn Ĥaylān. In Baghdad, he attended the courses of the famous Nestorian Christian translator and student of Aristotle, Mattā b. Yūnus, and sought to improve his grasp of Arabic by studying with the prominent philologist Ibn al-Sarrāj.

This period of time is justly considered the Golden Age of Arabic-Islamic culture, and Baghdad was its center. Apart from a prolonged sojourn in Byzantium (perhaps in Constantinople), Alfarabi remained in Baghdad for three or four decades teaching and writing. In about 942/330, political upheavals prompted him to leave Baghdad for Damascus. A few years later, political turmoil drove him to Cairo. After two or three years there, he returned to Damascus, where he died in 950/339.2

It is regrettable that more is not known about the content of the learning that was pursued during this period of time in these different major cities or about the way it was disseminated, not least because of the way our ignorance distorts the political opinions of today. Still, thanks to the careful attention some have given to the annals of that period, it is evident that there was great interest in the philosophy of the ancients—most notably, the ancient Greeks—and the paths to it, logic and language, especially grammar.3 Such interest was prompted both by desire to learn more and by apprehension about the challenge it presented to the revelation central to the dominant culture. Plato, although appealing in many respects because of the suggestions in his writing about the divine, was not that widely understood or read. And the programmatic aspect of Aristotle’s writings that made them so enticing from one perspective did not compensate for the suspicion that their ultimate teaching was not consonant with the precepts of religion.

That Alfarabi was acclaimed the Second Teacher—second, that is, after Aristotle—is thus, for some at least, a not entirely anodyne distinction. Reflection on the challenges philosophy presents to revealed religion seems to prompt his focus on the way philosophy relates to religion and his founding of political philosophy within his cultural milieu. Most often, he presents the success of political philosophy and political science as dependent on certain knowledge about the universe and the place of human beings within it as well as on an understanding of the human soul. In these presentations, he classes political science among the practical sciences as opposed to the theoretical. However, in his elusive Book of Letters (Kitāb al-Ĥurūf), he depicts it as a counterpart to natural science. Strange as that may seem, it does make sense: he understands political science—more precisely, political philosophy—as alone providing human beings the knowledge they need to live well. Such a science brings together what we have learned about nature and what we accept due to religious upbringing. To explore this undertaking is the task of what follows.

The Importance of Beginnings

How does human learning begin? The most direct, and simplest, answer is: from the beginnings. Differently stated, we learn from those with whom we are first in contact—parents, fellow citizens, respected elders, and, above all, Aristotle. He is, after all, the founder and master of logic. Alfarabi’s Book of Letters, part 2, makes explicit how this learning begins to develop; two precise texts, plus a series of others, show clearly how dependent the fuller teaching is on what was first set down by Plato’s most renowned student: Tanbīh ¢alā sabīl al-sa¢ādah (Indication of the path to happiness), Al-Alfāż al-musta¢malah fī al-manţiq (Utterances employed in logic), and the different sorts of expositions—summaries and then short plus long commentaries—on the different logical writings of Aristotle. These texts show how humans learn to think clearly and begin to reason about the way to live in order to reach the highest human good, happiness.

The Tanbīh begins abruptly and notes that all humans long for, and strive after, happiness. About that much, there is no disagreement. It arises only when people seek to identify what happiness is. Alfarabi avoids a precise definition of happiness, focusing instead on the criteria it must fulfill—especially that of being the one good for the sake of which all others are pursued.

He then explains that happiness cannot be attained without human beings performing good and noble actions. Consequently, they must begin by recognizing what constitutes such actions. Then, once there is awareness of them, humans must endeavor to make the performance of those actions habitual. There is no easy path. That is, humans are not more disposed to noble actions—nor, thank goodness, to base ones. Precisely because our task is to learn to discern between the two, we need good beginnings—good upbringing, good nature, and a willingness to make sound choice habitual. Differently stated, we need to be trained in the pursuit of moral virtue and to develop an inclination toward it. It is not easy to identify what is morally virtuous, but a good general rule is to follow the mean—itself relative, rather than absolute—in our conduct. In this endeavor, law is very useful. It makes precise the parameters of correct conduct.

Such conduct falls under the rubric of moral virtue. But it is not sufficient. We must also learn how to discern correctly between noble and base actions. That is, we must learn to identify what is truly pleasant, useful, and noble and to distinguish them from what resembles—but is not—them. For this endeavor, philosophy and what leads to it are fundamental—namely, grammar, the study of utterances, and logic. These are all propaedeutic—preliminary in every sense—to philosophy; they help an individual gain correct discernment or right reason.

More precisely, the art concerned with the pursuit of the noble is philosophy. It admits of two sorts, one striving for awareness of the beings not to be acted on—the theoretical—and the other for attaining awareness of the things that can be acted on—the practical. Although we ought to wonder why those entities that cannot be acted on are beings while those that can be are merely things, Alfarabi offers no way to pursue that query. In this treatise, theoretical philosophy is ignored in favor of practical philosophy. Apparently, pursuit of the former does not advance the quest for human happiness. Practical philosophy is of two sorts: the first, ethics, attains knowledge of the moral habits leading to noble actions, and the other, political philosophy, brings about noble actions in the inhabitants of cities. In other words, Alfarabi presents practical and political philosophy as synonymous.

Insofar as philosophy so understood allows humans to attain noble actions, it—and especially excellent discernment—allows them to attain happiness. Excellent discernment comes about through the art of logic, which is why its acquisition takes precedence over all else. Happiness is acquisition of noble actions or constantly acting in accordance with what is noble or fine. To make such conduct permanent, one must be able to discern what deeds are noble. That is, one must attain excellent discernment about noble or virtuous conduct by means of the mental faculty, leading to correct perception. Excellent discernment, in turn, leads to philosophy. In other words, excellent discernment is first. It seizes with certainty on what is true, distinguishing it from what is false. In this endeavor, it must be guided by sound reason—logic. In sum, happiness is an ongoing activity of discernment—a constant discovery of what is true with respect to the world and the things in it; in other words, happiness is the philosophic life. Politics, rightly understood, facilitates the philosophic life for those capable of achieving it.

Al Farabi 1

Statue of Abū Naṣr al-Fārābī at the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Kazakhstan

Correct Action: The Theoretical Background

Among Alfarabi’s many writings, Political Regime provides the clearest elucidation of these alternatives. That is not to say it is an easy book to understand. It begins abruptly with a detailed account of the universe from something like a Neoplatonic perspective. There is no introduction, nor any attempt to explain what the book is about. The detailed account of the universe reveals it to be thoroughly ordered, with everything that occurs in it forming part of the larger order. There follows an explanation of how human beings fit into that order, of the way political life allows them to fulfill their purpose, and a taxonomy of imperfect cities. Cities are imperfect because their inhabitants misapprehend that order and turn away from conduct that would allow them to achieve human perfection and thus be in accord with the order so thoroughly detailed in the earlier parts of the treatise.

Yet simple reflection reveals that no regime adheres to that order. If all existing political regimes are thus flawed, what can be done to transform them into something admirable? Or, as the work’s subtitle, Principles of the Existents, suggests, is the work better understood as a treatise on metaphysics rather than on politics?

Six sorts of principles, ranked so that each has precedence over the next, account for the bodies and accidents constituting the world. The first three—namely, the First Principle or First Cause, the Secondary Causes (the spiritual existing things that bring about the heavens and the planets), and the Active Intellect—are in no way corporeal. They are neither bodies nor in bodies. Although the latter three—that is, Soul, Form, and Material—are in bodies, they are not bodies. Not only are there six sorts of principles that comprise six rankings, but there are also six kinds of bodies: heavenly, rational animal, nonrational animal, plant, mineral, and elemental (earth, water, fire, and air).

Such is the world—the cosmos or the universe, the whole. But is it always such? That is, does the world always exist with all of these principles, rankings, and bodies? Or do some come into existence after others, some having been derived from others? If not, are bodies alone subject to temporal constraints? And what about the whole itself? Has it always been such? Questions such as these are not addressed directly in our text, but the numerous allusions to them suggest that coming into existence does not apply to the world—that it has always been as it is described here. It is also providential—that is, ordered in such a manner that it is normal or natural for humans to find their fulfillment in the world as do the other existing things. This comes about through the intermediary of the Active Intellect or, more precisely, by means of its activity. Whereas existence alone suffices for the First Cause and the Secondary Causes, a new mode of existence is introduced with the Active Intellect. It acts on human beings by drawing them toward it, but in such a manner that they eventually lose their corporeal attributes in order to become one with it and then to remain in that state of unity. Alfarabi offers no reason for humans needing to shed their bodies. Nor need he do so. Reflection shows how much the body is in tension with thought. But in alerting the reader that “of the Active Intellect it ought to be said that it is the trustworthy spirit and the holy spirit,” he points to a broader context that sheds some light on the stipulation.

Seven Virtues By Francesco Pesellino

Seven Virtues, Francesco Pesellino, ca. 1450

While there are at least as many Secondary Causes as there are heavenly bodies, the multiplicity of existing things first comes to light with the explanation of the Soul. It encompasses not only the souls of the heavenly bodies but those of rational and non-rational animals as well. The highest manifestation of the Soul is reason, the kind of reason that apprehends other entities intellectually. It is highest because intelligence—full rational knowledge of self or essence, and thus of existence—is most characteristic of the First Cause and thus of the effect it has on all other entities. That is to say, the universe is intelligible. It is such as to be intellectually apprehended. Therefore, whatever is or exists fully and completely has knowledge of itself as it is. In this sense, it is actual and thus substantial.

Now the souls of the heavenly bodies differ from those of the rational and nonrational animals in that they are always actual, and thus always intellectually apprehending, and in that their souls are less complex. The souls of rational animals—human beings—move from being potential to becoming actual as they intellect more. Those of nonrational animals remain potential because they have no means of intellectually apprehending anything. The rational faculty proper to human beings allows them to intellect, to distinguish between noble and base actions and moral habits, to deliberate about the course of action that ought to be pursued in a particular instance, and to grasp what is pleasurable and painful as well as useful and harmful. Other faculties of the human soul—the appetitive, imaginative, and sense-perceptive—contribute to the functioning of the rational. Thus, the appetitive faculty prompts pursuit and desire, flight and aversion, and gives rise to the various passions. By the imaginative faculty, both the useful and harmful and the pleasurable and painful are apprehended, while the sense-perceptive apprehends only the pleasurable and painful.

The Active Intellect stands as a demarcation of sorts in the chain of existence. As noted, the Secondary Causes—that is, the souls of the heavenly bodies—are above it in rank. They attain to an intellectual apprehension of their own existence, then look up to the First Cause and seek to apprehend it intellectually. Only on itself does the First Cause look. In apprehending its own self or essence intellectually, it apprehends all other existing things. That is evident insofar as it is the First Cause. This singular focus on self and on what is higher comes to an end only with the Active Intellect. Although it forms an intellectual apprehension of the Secondary Causes, the First Cause, and its own self or essence, it also assists the rational intellect of human beings to gain an intellectual apprehension of their own selves or essences. In a manner of speaking, then, the Active Intellect looks down as well as up.

When human beings gain such an intellectual apprehension, their soul passes from being a potential intellect to being one in actuality. The human being becomes complete; “his happiness is perfected.” Indeed, he “becomes divine after having become material.” What this final judgment means, given the context, is that the human being comes to be fully complete or fully substantial by becoming fully intellectual.

Practice Critiqued: Goals and Accomplishments

Now the political teaching set forth in part 2 of Political Regime is perfectly consonant with the teaching about the universe presented in part 1. Because individual human beings do not have all the virtues needed for human perfection, they work together so that all may obtain what is needed, and a few succeed in reaching ultimate perfection. In this, there is no more reason to hope for exceptional aid from the heavenly bodies than to fear interference from them. Good and evil arise from human volition, not from extraordinary intervention on the part of the universal order or anything superseding it. So human beings must learn to choose responsibly, use their volition wisely, and pursue praiseworthy and noble actions rather than blameworthy or base ones. To this end, the primary sciences and primary intellectual apprehensions acquired by the rational part of the soul guide them.

In sum, the goal for human beings is to become aware of true happiness, distinguish it from what only appears to be happiness, and use deliberation and other faculties to strive toward its attainment. Those unable to accomplish these actions on their own need teachers and guides. Some may even need to be prodded or compelled by a ruler. There are also gradations among rulers, such that some follow the lead of others or discern how to achieve certain kinds of good things, but not all, and thus fall short of bringing their subjects to happiness. The one who can achieve that highest goal stands out as a supreme or first ruler—a king in truth, according to the ancients, and one of whom, Alfarabi notes, “it ought to be said that he receives revelation.” His existence, exceedingly rare, but surely providential, results from his own endeavor and is in accord with the order of the universe. It is not due to the First Cause or Active Intellect singling out a particular human being. Revelation consists in the human being starting from things that are first known and learning about the way the whole functions.

Thus here, as in what he says earlier about the First Cause and the Active Intellect, Alfarabi intimates how philosophic doctrines sustain and enrich the generally received opinions of his day. He thereby buttresses the popular view, even while indirectly correcting it. Not only does he give new meaning to terms like “God,” “holy spirit,” and “revelation”; he also uses others familiar to religious discourse, such as “shariah” and “sunnah,” in novel ways to indicate their applicability to wider horizons.

As noted, the individual Soul that successfully discerns the ultimate principles unites with the Active Intellect. It attains happiness insofar as it frees itself from body or material. Hence, the virtuous city is one in which the best citizens move on to a non-corporeal existence; only those who have not yet filled their Soul with good and rid it of evil remain as citizens. The first ruler, somehow still tied to material existence, strives to assist these laggards to advance to true happiness. It is not clear when or even how those fortunate enough to attain happiness divest themselves of their material forms. 

Still, not all human beings can form a concept of the order of things or become cognizant of the principles of the ultimate existing things. Lack of ability or having no experience in such endeavors makes them dependent on images or representations. Happily, that does not matter. The “meanings and essences are one and immutable,” even though the language and images used to represent them vary. Differently stated, the type of speech used is less important than what is said. Despite his use of scientific or philosophic language here, Alfarabi readily acknowledges the merit of a presentation that imitates what he has said—one set forth in language appealing more readily to most people and approximating the way things are: the language of religion.

Even so, it all too frequently happens that people are not persuaded by such imitations or images and persist in pursuing what they imagine to be happiness. Distinct from the best or virtuous city, governed by a ruler who strives to lead citizens to what they can achieve of true happiness, are ignorant, immoral, and errant cities, as well as individuals within the best city who refuse opinions and actions that would ensure their happiness. There are also individuals who see beyond the dominant images in all cities and point to their insufficiency, apparently without success. Their recalcitrance stems from their discernment that the city might aim higher, and they are thus exceptions to Alfarabi’s larger exposition. Apart from the passing reference to them, Alfarabi’s analysis of these different kinds of cities and the recalcitrant citizens whom he calls “weeds” focuses on ignorant cities, those in which the citizens aim at goods they mistakenly believe will lead them to happiness. The goods in question range from what is needful to preserve their bodies, to wealth, pleasure, honor, domination, and, finally, freedom.

Three things stand out in Alfarabi’s account of the ignorant cities and the weeds. First is the fulsome detail lavished on them, especially in the description of the timocratic and democratic cities, the city of domination, and the weeds. The second is his recourse to unusually strong language when labeling the city intent on wealth as depraved and the one that pursues pleasure as vile. No such terminology occurs in Alfarabi’s lengthy account of the city of domination, but there is little doubt he deems it simply the worst. Third is his ambiguous judgment about the necessary city (that is, the city focused only on providing basic needs: food and shelter), as well as the timocratic and democratic cities—one contrasting starkly with the lack of nuance in his account of the immoral and errant cities. Attributing the rise of the immoral cities to the flawed character of their citizens and that of the errant cities to the faulty instruction their citizens received, he voices no hope for reform with respect to either one. Lack of resolve to pursue the actions they recognize as leading to happiness prompts the citizens of immoral cities to succumb to their desires and substitute one of the goals pursued in the ignorant cities, whereas the citizens of errant cities are prevented from achieving happiness due to their receiving a representation of the universe and the existing things different from the one set forth in this treatise.

Because the timocratic city introduces a hierarchical order among the citizens and obliges them to be useful to one another, Alfarabi calls it “similar to the virtuous city” and deems it “the best among the ignorant cities.” Subsequently, he revises that judgment and urges that “it is more possible and easier for the virtuous cities and the rulership of the virtuous to emerge from the necessary and democratic cities than from the other [ignorant] cities.” Although he offers no reason for the new opinion, perhaps it is prompted by concern that the wrong things might come to be honored in the timocratic city or that excessive love of honor might lead it to become tyrannic. What sets the necessary city apart, despite its focus on the most basic of human goods—self-preservation—is that it promotes an orderly and successful pursuit of this goal.

That the democratic city—the city or association of freedom—offers promise of such radical transformation arises from the great variety in the pursuits permitted in it. Freedom and lack of ordered hierarchy, characteristics that seem at first glance to be great flaws, are precisely what allow it to be so malleable. As long as doubt about the highest human good prevails or to the extent that it appears to be beyond reach, there is need for a city that permits variety of this sort. Such circumstances make freedom and the association that promotes it—the democratic city—worthy of praise.

Bodlein Library Ms  Arab D 84 Roll332 Frame1

Pages from a seventeenth-century manuscript of al-Fārābī’s commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics


In sum, we have now learned that what occurs in political life mirrors what occurs in the universe—or at least should mirror it. Just as there is order in the universe, such that some existing things are subordinated to others according to their functions, so should there be order in the political realm. Some human beings do perform better actions of concern to all than others, just as some human beings are clearly better at ruling than others. To facilitate what is established by reason reflecting what exists by nature, political arrangements should take into account that human beings are not equal. Even more, those setting down political arrangements should observe the natural differences or inequality of talents that exist among human beings when legislating what human beings do.

Such a lesson raises the question of what theoretical knowledge is really—that is, what is actually known about the universe and its parts or even about human beings? All that has preceded in Alfarabi’s exposition points to the way our theoretical understanding of the universe and its parts can guide practice, but it falls short of showing whether we can realistically claim to possess theoretical knowledge. The account presented here, like any account, is no more than a likely story. If we are to be perfectly honest with ourselves, we must admit that we do not have sufficient theoretical understanding on which to base practice. At best, we have only inferences based on what appears to us—unless this is what theoretical understanding is all about. According to Alfarabi, wisdom—which is one element or aspect of theoretical knowledge or understanding—allows us to discern the unity in all things and eventually to see the one. Even if we do not actually have wisdom, we have some inkling of what it aims at and thus can base our practice on that inkling.

Moreover, reflection about the whole and about the order of the existing things in it, especially our species, gives us some idea of what we can and should strive for in order to reach our end or perfection. Though it is difficult to lay out all the steps for achieving that end in political association, we can point to what is wrong with political associations that do not strive for ultimate happiness. Still, if we are to be perfectly honest about this line of reasoning, we must admit that we discern the error about ends only by analyzing our usual actions and seeking to understand why we perform various activities—for what purpose we do them. Such reasoning falls short of the standards for theoretical knowledge.

Observation of political life today—observation guided by these broader considerations, but clearly not by theoretical knowledge or certainty about the way things are—shows it to be based not on citizens sharing in common goods but on selfish acquisition. That is, we strive to obtain wealth, honor, or pleasure for ourselves; at most, we show some concern not to harm others while engaged in this pursuit. If we knew what justice were in itself, we could say that such conduct is not just. But even given our present ignorance, we can be sure that it does not build a sense of association. In sum, it is possible to argue persuasively that the pursuit of such ends, especially in this selfish manner, is not the highest goal for human beings. It is likewise possible to make some inferences about what a better human life would entail. Greater certainty is not available.

Another way out of our ignorance is to examine how people interact and to think about how greater unity can be achieved among them. The premise here is that it is good to have unity among those who live together and cooperate for a common enterprise, whether that enterprise be the advancement of a household’s welfare, that of a city, a nation, or even—on the off chance that we could come to discern how important it is to respect our common humanity—an association of nations. Were love or friendship to prevail among the citizens of a polity and, even more, were they all to hold the same opinions—opinions, not facts or knowledge—about the beginning, the end, and what falls between the two, there would be great unity among them; and it would have a positive force.

Now, however, at least two reasons prompt us no longer to consider striving for such unity appropriate—at least not on this level. Although both are based on the practical awareness we have about human beings, neither reaches to the heart of the matter—that is, to determining whether a particular set of opinions is true. First, despite being aware of different opinions among human beings about all of these issues, we can detect no way to reconcile the differences. Nor do they, in fact, admit of being reconciled. The most it is possible to do today is accept them as different and thus refrain from critiquing and criticizing them or arguing against them in order to promote our own. Differently stated, it is possible only to strive to be tolerant of the opinions held by others and to search for a new ground that might promote unity among human beings. (This is, in some respects, what respect for human rights is all about.) Second, what we have learned about the many intolerant attempts over time to force citizens to hold the same opinions prompts us to conclude that endeavors to promote unity must lead to irreparable loss of freedom. We fear such a danger more than the promised benefit unity of opinion might promote.

But this merely leads back to the need to think constantly about the ends of our actions. We rightly fear the intolerant consequences of enforcing unified opinions. These consequences are known. But we fail to consider the yet unknown ones likely to result from people thinking and then doing what they please. Alfarabi does draw our attention to them, however. He first does so somewhat obliquely when, in his discussion of the immoral cities, he passes over in silence the love people have for freedom. Shortly afterward, he points more directly to consequences in his account of the opinions that characterize one faction of “weeds.”

In sum, the preceding amounts to a long, roundabout way of acknowledging that although we can learn enough to make sound choices and avoid harmful errors, our awareness of the whole and the way it works is limited. Simply put, we do not know everything needful for our well-being. More to the point, there is no shortcut to such awareness or knowledge—assuming that it is even knowable. That, I think, is what dismayed Averroes so much about his younger townsman’s response. But perhaps it is appropriate to pause here—to take a rest, as it were—before pushing ahead on this path guided by reason. In doing so, let us not forget how Averroes struggled to keep that possibility open.


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