Al-Farabi, One Of The First Muslim Polymaths

Al-Farabi (870-950) is one of the first Muslim polymaths and arguably the greatest thinker and writer in the world after Aristotle.

It is an unfortunate fact that education in Pakistan fluctuates between various extremes. On the one side, we have proponents of education who advocate for, and stress on, scientific and technical education. The acronym STEM – for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – has become a buzzword to throw around in any discussion on education.

A majority of state-funded conferences and seminars revolve around how important it is to promote STEM and of course nobody can dispute that. On another extreme are the business, marketing, and management focused institutions that have been churning out thousands of BBAs and MBAs looking for jobs in the private sector; again, nobody can challenge that. At yet another extreme is the emphasis on religious education from primary to tertiary and higher education. This mainly encourages rote learning in scriptures and traditions not only in seminaries but also in government and private educational institutions.

There are also left-wing and liberal critics who frown upon any reference to religion at all. However, reading Islamic history and understanding Muslim societies is significant for at least two reasons. One, it helps you comprehend how in history various schools of thoughts evolved, and are still playing negative or positive roles. Two, it also tells us that, just like in Western thought, various developments in Eastern and Muslim societies have collectively contributed to where the world stands today.

Though we frequently talk about the marvelous contributions Muslims made during their glorious period in the five centuries after the advent of Islam, our curriculum at nearly all levels is devoid of any reference to the great minds that existed in our midst. Too many chapters and texts from scriptures and traditions hardly leave any room for content about the great chemists, geographers, philosophers, musicologists, physicians, political scientists, and sociologists who graced the world with their unmatchable contribution at their time. At most, we hear about Ibne Sina and Ibne Khaldun, and that too without any careful considerations.

Even books written by Western scholars and used in our universities tend to simply ignore contributions to the world’s intellectual heritage by Eastern thinkers and writers. A two-volume compendium titled ‘The Great Political Theories’, edited by Michael Curtis, covers political philosophy from Aristotle to Montesquieu in volume one, and from Burke and Kant to modern times – without even mentioning in passing any works by eastern or Muslim thinkers and writers. Or take ‘An Introduction to the History of the Science of Politics’ by Frederick Pollock or ‘A History of Political Theory’ by George Sabine that is used in many Pakistani universities as a standard textbook.

Even a new anthology titled ‘50 Political Classics’ which compiled so-called seminal texts on politics, and included writings from Aristotle and Plato to even Gandhi and Martin Luther King, has just one piece of writing from Fareed Zakaria, bypassing the likes of Al-Farabi, Almarawdi, and even Tusi and Ibne Khaldun who wrote extensively on politics. Similarly, ‘Fifty Great Political Thinkers’ by Ian Adams and RW Dyson published in 2004 has no Muslim name in it. Of course, in our universities there are some exclusive courses covering topics such as Islamic political thought and Islamic institutions, but they fail to stress the universality of many of our thinkers.

One does not need to have only thick tomes for our students; we may also use brief accounts to enlighten our students at various levels. For example, ‘Politics in Islam’ by Khuda Bakhsh summarizes in just 180 pages the politics in Islam from the early caliphs through to Kharijites and the Sultanate. ‘Muslims: The First Sociologists’ by Dr Basharat Ali is another book of just 140 pages containing in brief the sociological thoughts of major Muslim thinkers. There are dozens of Muslim thinkers and writers whose books present a treasure trove for students of social sciences.

Of course, many of them have religious leanings but the same applies to a majority of European writers up until the 18th and 19th centuries. Still, St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and many others – despite their explicitly Christian background – find ample space in Western books on political and social sciences. There are dozens of Muslim thinkers and writers whose contribution is worth studying just in the same manner as we diligently read about the likes of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Though most of what they said or wrote has little significance in today’s world, they help us understand the intellectual journey of humankind.

An Urdu book compiled by Siddique Qureshi titled ‘Aham Siyasi Mufakkirin’ (Major Political Thinkers) introduces us to over two dozen Muslim writers on political science. One of the best introductions to Muslim political thought is by Dr Tara Chand who worked under the instructions of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the first Indian minister for education. Dr Tara Chand’s at least two books have been translated into Urdu. Dr Abu Salman translated ‘Muslim Afkar-e-Siyasat’ and M Masood Ahmed translated ‘Influence of Islam on Indian Culture’ published by Majlis-e-Taraqqi-e-Adab Lahore. The latter focuses on Islam in India only.

But where does one start and how deep can one go? Well, perhaps the best starting point is Al-Farabi (870-950) one of the first Muslim polymaths and arguably the greatest thinker and writer in the world after Aristotle. It is not without reason that even in Europe those who read him called him the Second Teacher in over a thousand years after Aristotle. Haroon Khan Sherwani in his book ‘Studies in Muslim Political Thought’ first published in 1948 in Hyderabad Deccan devotes a full 30-page chapter discussing the political writings of Al-Farabi.

But, Al-Farabi’s contributions went much beyond his political thought. Hussein Nasr in his book ‘Science and civilization in Islam’ has a section ‘Al-Farabi and the classification of the sciences’. Following in the footsteps of his distant predecessor Aristotle and immediate predecessor Alkindi, Al-Farabi surpassed both. His was the most influential classification contained in his book ‘Ihsa al-ulum’ (Enumeration of the sciences). He in turn was surpassed by his successors Ibne Sina and Ibne Rushd in the following centuries. Perhaps the best aspect of that period was that all these scholars interacted with and learned from Christian and Jewish thinkers too.

There was an atmosphere of overall tolerance in Muslim societies, apart from the possibility of inviting the wrath of the rulers. Al-Farabi was one of the first writers in the world to write on such diverse subjects as alchemy and interpretation of dreams. In his classification, the first branch included the science of language including grammar, poetry, pronunciation, and syntax. The second branch included the science of logic with its sub-branches. The third was propaedeutic (introductory or preparatory) sciences which included sciences such as arithmetic, cosmology, and geometry which he divided into practical and theoretical.

Interestingly, he was also a musicologist and wrote the first major treatise on music ‘Kitab al-Musiqa Alkabir’ (Grand Book of Music). He includes music in his third branch of knowledge that all students must learn in their introductory courses. His fourth branch included the sciences of nature with physics and metaphysics. Physics had eight sub-branches and metaphysics three. The fifth and last was the science of society, including jurisprudence and rhetoric. Luckily, Prof Nomanul Haq has done us a favour by editing a series of studies in Islamic philosophy published by the Oxford University Press (OUP).

If I have been able to arouse some of your interest, go for a book titled ‘Al-farabi: the political writings’ which contains Al-Farabi’s selected aphorisms and other texts translated from the Arabic language by Charles Butterworth. If you have interest and patience, I am sure you’ll enjoy it.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Originally Published at The News

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