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September 10, 2018

Why reading Alfarabi is so relevant today

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Over the past century or so, political Islamism has hijacked my beloved religion with its violent, bullying agenda and distorted narratives. Tragically, Muslims themselves were and often still are the first victims of its tactics.

In such a destructive climate, fewer and fewer writings of great Muslim thinkers (past and present) are as widely accessible as they should be. Some have been forgotten altogether, while others have been banned or devalued by organized smear campaigns.

One such thinker who has fallen victim to the anti-intellectual ideology of political Islamism is Abu Nasr Alfarabi (870 – 950 CE), a renowned Muslim scholar, mathematician and musician who fully accepted God’s communication to humanity through the voices of history’s prophets.

But he also believed and taught that successful nation-building must be based on free people, free markets and limited top-down government – a very modern concept indeed, although he did not articulate it in terms that we might recognize right away.

Although Alfarabi’s less-is-more stance on politics and governance was considered too radical for his own day (and the following millennium), writers like Prof. Joshua Parens are taking a new look at the questions and challenges he posed to his tenth-century readers.

In An Islamic Philosophy of Virtuous Religions: Introducing Alfarabi (2006), Parens writes: “Now more than at any time for centuries, Alfarabi, a tenth-century Muslim political philosopher, is especially timely,” and goes on to focus on one of his works in particular, “His book The Attainment of Happiness,” as being especially relevant to 21st-century society.

Parens notes that while Alfarabi had no problem envisioning the spread of Islam “as the virtuous religion to the inhabited world,” he was also farsighted enough to pose some key questions: “Is one religion suited to the great variety of human communities throughout the world? Is it possible for more than one virtuous religion to exist? If more than one virtuous religion can exist, how and why can they exist?”

In the face of increasing Islamism (politicized Islam) in our world, Alfarabi’s questions are no mere abstraction.

In the name of religion, Islamism has historically endorsed and employed violence against all opponents, or “the other,” even describing itself as another brand of “democracy” in order to gain support from the West. But its claims of religious virtue and democracy are both blatant lies.

In fact, political Islamism has been collaborating with the West for more than a century, from collusion with Great Britain during the early 1900s (the falsely romanticized “Lawrence of Arabia” era) to its present involvement with the U.S. and Israel.

That in itself raises a conundrum.

Why would the U.S. and Israel support political Islam in the Middle East even though Islamist movements everywhere are shouting “death to America … death to Israel”?

The short answer is: The U.S. and Israel use political Islam to achieve their ends through the old but proven method of divide-and-conquer.

For example, take Hamas, the Palestinian arm of the powerful and secretive international Muslim Brotherhood.

Hamas is strongly supported by Qatar and Turkey, with the blessing of both the U.S. and Israel. Why? Because a divided and occupied Palestine will never, ever gain anything from Israel. This is a hard truth repeated time and time again through the entire history of failed liberation movements.

One policymaker who strongly advocated for Western support of political Islam was the pro-Israel British academic, Bernard Lewis. In The Middle East and the West (1963) he wrote: “Of all the great movements that have shaken the Middle East during the last century and a half (nationalism, socialism, etc.), the Islamic movements alone are authentically Middle Eastern.” Today, Alfarabi himself might not agree!

Parens cautions however, that “Alfarabi is not a premodern version of John Locke [English philosopher and “natural law” political theorist, 1632-1704]. But he offers a solution to intercommunal conflict; all religions are equal as long as they promote a characteristically modern morality and avoid interference in politics (italics mine) … Alfarabi describes what makes a religion truly virtuous and leaves it to his reader to compare existing religions.”

Thus, unlike John Locke, Alfarabi does not offer specific mechanisms or institutions of governance such as the separation of powers, which have the potential to create balanced and fair governments; he was more interested in educating his readers to think critically, than in offering cut-and-dried solutions.

He came by his liberated, but responsible attitudes honestly – through fully-lived experience in the world. He travelled to and resided in some of the most enlightened centres of his time, including Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo.

Known as “the second master” (second only to Aristotle), many of Alfarabi’s writings were translated into English and other languages from Arabic.

His academic specialties and contributions included philosophy, logic, languages, physics, metaphysics, astronomy, mechanics, optics, higher mathematics (including geometry) and music.

In fact, he is credited with helping to scientifically establish the close correlation between musical structures and mathematics.

It is interesting, for example, that Alfarabi’s Great Book of Music suggests that while organized sound derives some of its principles from mathematics, live performance is also very important. On some points the ear, rather than theoretical reflection, is the ultimate judge – even when its subjective responses seem to contradict empirical values. In this respect alone, today’s musical specialists regard Alfarabi as being far ahead of his time.

Returning to the realm of politics and Islamism, I agree with Parens’ conclusion that while Alfarabi’s approach of illuminating “one reader at a time” may be a difficult one to apply today, it is nevertheless especially important for Muslims and non-Muslims alike to take this ancient but enduring wisdom to heart. In many ways, our collective future could depend on it.

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On July 7, 2024 in Toronto, Canada, Dimitri Lascaris delivered a speech on the right to resist oppression.

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