Alfarabi, The Political Writings


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).[1] The sources for his life are scant which makes the reconstruction of his biography beyond a mere outline nearly impossible.[1] 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.[1] 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.

When major Arabic biographers decided to write comprehensive entries on Farabi in the 6th-7th/12th-13th centuries, there was very little specific information on hand; this allowed for their acceptance of invented stories about his life which range from benign extrapolation on the basis of some known details to tendentious reconstructions and legends.[1] Most modern biographies of the philosopher present various combinations of elements drawn at will from this concocted material.[1] The sources from the 6th/12th century and later consist essentially of three biographical entries, all other extant reports on Farabi being either dependent on them or even later fabrications:[1] 1) the Syrian tradition represented by Ibn Abī Uṣaibiʿa.[1] 2) The Wafayāt al-aʿyān wa-anbāʾ abnāʾ az-zamān (“Deaths of Eminent Men and History of the Sons of the Epoch”; trans. by Baron de Slane, Ibn Khallikan’s Biographical Dictionary, 1842–74) compiled by Ibn Khallikān.[1] 3) the scanty and legendary Eastern tradition, represented by Ẓahīr-al-Dīn Bayhaqī.[1]

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 950-1.[6]


His name was Abū Naṣr Muḥammad b. Muḥammad Farabi, as all sources, and especially the earliest and most reliable, Al-Masudi, agree.[1] In some manuscripts of Fārābī’s works, which must reflect the reading of their ultimate archetypes from his time, his full name appears as Abū Naṣr Muḥammad b. Muḥammad al-Ṭarḵānī, i.e., the element Ṭarḵān appears in a nisba (family surname or attributive title).[1] Moreover, if the name of Farabi’s grandfather was not known among his contemporaries and immediately succeeding generations, it is all the more surprising to see in the later sources the appearance of yet another name from his pedigree, Awzalaḡ.[1] This appears as the name of the grandfather in Ibn Abī Uṣaibiʿa and of the great-grandfather in Ibn Khallikan. Ibn Abī Uṣaibiʿa is the first source to list this name which, as Ibn Khallikān explicitly specifies later, is so to be pronounced as Awzalaḡ.[1] In modern Turkish scholarship and some other sources, the pronunciation is given as Uzluḡ rather than Awzalaḡ, without any explanation.[1]


His birthplace is Fārāb on the Jaxartes (Syr Darya) in modern Kazakhstan [1] or maybe Fāryāb in Greater Khorasan (modern day Afghanistan). The older Persian[1] Pārāb (in Ḥudūd al-ʿĀlam) or Fāryāb (also Pāryāb), is a common Persian toponym meaning “lands irrigated by diversion of river water”.[7][8] By the 13th century, Fārāb on the Jaxartes was known as Otrār.[9]


There is a difference of opinion on the ethnic background of Farabi.[1][10][11] According to Dimitri Gutas, "[...] ultimately pointless as the quest for Farabi’s ethnic origins might be, the fact remains that we do not have sufficient evidence to decide the matter [...]"[1] The Cambridge companion to Arabic philosophy also states that "[...] these biographical facts are paltry in the extreme but we must resist the urge to embellish them with fanciful stories, as the medieval biographers did, or engage in idle speculation about al-Farabi’s ethnicity or religious affiliation on the basis of contrived interpretations of his works, as many modern scholars have done."[12] According to the Oxford Encyclopaedia of African Thought "[...] because the origins of al-Farabi were not recorded during his lifetime or soon after his death in 950 C.E. by anyone with concrete information, accounts of his pedigree and place of birth have been based on hearsay [...]".[13]

Iranian origin theory

Medieval Arab historian Ibn Abī Uṣaibiʿa (died in 1269)—al-Farabi's oldest biographer—mentions in his ʿOyūn that al-Farabi's father was of Persian descent.[1][14] Al-Shahrazūrī who lived around 1288 A.D. and has written an early biography also states that Farabi hailed from a Persian family.[15][16] According to Majid Fakhry, an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, Farabi's father "was an army captain of Persian extraction."[17] As noted by Dimitri Gutas, Farabi has in a number of his works references and glosses in Persian and Sogdian (and even Greek but not Turkish).[1][18] Sogdian has also been suggested as his native language[19] and the language of the inhabitants of Fārāb.[20] Muhammad Javad Mashkoor argues for an Iranian-speaking Central Asian origin.[21] A Persian origin has been discussed by other sources as well.[22]

Turkic origin theory

The oldest known reference to a Turkic origin is given by the medieval historian Ibn Khallikān (died in 1282), who in his work Wafayāt (completed in 669/1271) states that Farabi was born in the small village of Wasij near Fārāb (in what is today Otrar, Kazakhstan) of Turkic parents. Based on this account, some modern scholars say he is of Turkic origin.[23][24][25][26][27][28] Dimitri Gutas, an American Arabist of Greek origin, criticizes this, saying that Ibn Khallikān's account is aimed at the earlier historical accounts by Ibn Abī Uṣaibiʿa, and serves the purpose to "prove" a Turkic origin for al-Farabi, for instance by mentioning the additional nisba (surname) "al-Turk" (arab. "the Turk")—a nisba Farabi never had.[1] However, Abu al-Fedā', who copied Ibn Ḵhallekān, corrected this and changed al-Torkī to the descriptive statement "wa-kāna rajolan torkīyan", meaning "he was a Turkish man."[1] In this regard, Oxford professor C.E. Bosworth notes that "great figures [such] as al-Farabi, al-Biruni, and ibn Sina have been attached by over enthusiastic Turkish scholars to their race".[29]

Life and education

Al-Farabi spent almost his entire life in Baghdad. In the auto-biographical passage about the appearance of philosophy preserved by Ibn Abī Uṣaibiʿa, Farabi has stated that he had studied logic,medicine and sociology with Yūḥannā b. Ḥaylān up to and including Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, i.e., according to the order of the books studied in the curriculum, Fārābī said that he studied Porphyry’s Eisagoge and Aristotle’s Categories, De Interpretatione, Prior and Posterior Analytics. His teacher, Yūḥannā b. Ḥaylān, was a Christian cleric who abandoned lay interests and engaged in his ecclesiastical duties, as Fārābī reports. His studies of Aristotelian logic with Yūḥannā in all probability took place in Baghdad, where Al-Masudi tells us Yūḥannā died during the caliphate of al-Moqtader (295-320/908-32).[1] He was in Baghdad at least until the end of September 942 as we learn from notes in some manuscripts of his Mabādeʾ ārāʾ ahl al-madīna al-fāżela, he had started to compose the book in Baghdad at that time and then left and went to Syria.[1] He finished the book in Damascus the following year (331), i.e., by September 943).[1] He also lived and taught for some time in Aleppo. Later on Farabi visited Egypt; and complete six sections summarizing the book Mabādeʾ in Egypt in 337/July 948-June 949.[1] He returned from Egypt to Syria. Al-Masudi writing barely five years after the fact (955-6, the date of the composition of the Tanbīh), says that he died in Damascus in Rajab 339 (between 14 December 950 and 12 January 951).[1] In Syria, he was supported and glorified by Sayf al-Dawla, the Hamdanid ruler of Syria.

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