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Method- Structure and Development in al-Farabi’s Cosmology

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 Method Structure And Development In Al Farabis Cosmology
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al-Farab, Janos
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1. The Late Antique Greek and Early Islamic Contexts

Al-Fārābī’s cosmology can be explained by the legacy of Greek science and philosophy on the one hand and the intellectual developments that characterized early Islamic civilization on the other ((It should be stressed from the outset that al-Fārābī and medieval Arabic thinkers in general do not use a specific term to express our modern notion of ‘cosmology.’

Rather, as this study will show, their cosmology consisted of various disciplines, espe-cially astronomy, physics, metaphysics, and sometimes astrology, whose relations vary from one system to another. It is insofar as these thinkers attempted to provide a sys-tematic and rational interpretation of the cosmos using the various sciences available to them that one may legitimately speak of ‘medieval cosmology)).

With regard to the former, al-Fārābī inherited a dual cosmological tradition: an astronomical one embodied chiefly in the Ptolemaic works, as well as per-haps in some minor astronomical treatises by various Greek authors; and a philosophical one contained in the Aristotelian corpus and its commentaries, as well as the Arabic adaptations of Neoplatonic works, especially the Proclus arabus and Plotinus arabus.

This duality is reflected in the Fārābīan corpus itself: while his commentary on Almagest was inscribed in an ancient astronomical tradition that endured until his time, his so-called ‘emanationist’ treatises, Ārāʾ and Siyāsah, cover a variety of physical, metaphysical, and political issues and are more in the vein of philosophical works such as Plato’s Timaeus and Republic, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, and Proclus’ Elements of Theology ((Al-Fārābī’s Ārāʾ and Siyāsah seem to possess a unique structure when compared to other works of the Greek and Arabic philosophical traditions, but as Maróth (1995, 105–106) and Genequand (in Alexander 2001, 21–22) have shown, they do share structural parallels with Alexander’s Mabādiʾ. Rudolph (2008) has argued that their format can be fruitfully compared to contemporary kalām works. At any rate, these treatises are usually referred to as ‘emanationist,’ due to the so-called doctrine of ema-nationism they articulate. In spite of the ambiguity of this concept in al-Fārābī’s meta-physics and the fact that I will question its specificity in a later section of this book (ch. 3, 2.6.),

I decided to follow this common appellation for the sake of convenience, although I will also refer to them as the ‘metaphysical’ works. I have used Najjār’s edi-tion for Siyāsah (al-Fārābī 1964), as well as the English translation of the first section of this work by McGinnis and Reisman (2007, 81–104). As for Ārāʾ, I have relied on both Walzer’s (al-Fārābī 1985a) and Nādir’s (al-Fārābī 1985b) editions. The former contains some lacunae and has been criticized (see Mahdi 1990a), but it occasionally provides a better reading than the latter. Unless otherwise stated, all English translations are taken from McGinnis and Reisman and Walzer.)).

Hence, one may from the outset raise the questions of how al-Fārābī perceived this heritage, whether he attempted to achieve a reconcilia-tion of these two disciplinary traditions, and how his corpus was adapted accordingly. In turn, this raises the question of the place occu-pied by astronomy, physics, and metaphysics in al-Fārābī’s approach to cosmology.

The degree of his acquaintance with contemporary astro-nomical research and his interest in scientific methodology are factors that should be taken into consideration. These questions will form the backdrop of chapter 1, but first I wish to say a few words concerning al-Fārābī’s biography.


I will not provide a detailed account of al-Fārābī’s biography in what follows, since very few facts about his life are known with certainty. Moreover, readers can now choose between two authoritative accounts, a skeptical and ‘minimalist’ article by D. Gutas, and a more elaborate yet speculative account by P. Vallat ((Gutas (1982a); Vallat (2004, 11–25).

Legends and folklore, just as much as valid historical information, are the stuff of al-Fārābī’s life, but Gutas has deftly sorted out these various threads and provided a solid critical account of the Second Teacher’s career. I, for my part, prefer to adhere to this ‘minimalist’ account, except with respect to the issue of al-Fārābī’s birthplace and to his intellectual formation with the Christian thinkers, two crucial points concerning which Vallat’s arguments seem convincing and open several avenues for further research)).


Rather, I will limit myself to high-lighting a few aspects of al-Fārābī’s life that can help us to better under-stand the formation and development of his philosophy. Abū Nasr al-Fārābī was born in 870 CE, most likely in the district of Fārāb situ-ated on the Jaxartes River (also known as Syr Darya) in Turkestan ((As stated above, I follow Vallat and others on this point. The alternative place of birth, Fāryāb (or Fāriyāb), mentioned by Ibn al-Nadīm and apparently favored by Gutas (1982a, 210–211) in his critical evaluation of the biographical sources strikes me as less plausible. First, one may rightly assume that if al-Fārābī had been born in or hailed from Fāryāb, he would have been known as ‘al-Fāryābī’ and not as ‘al-Fārābī,’ the two names being written and pronounced differently in Arabic. But the Arabic tradi-tion seems unanimous on this point. Second, one of the names attributed to al-Fārābī, ‘ibn Tarkhān,’ (sometimes in nisbah form ‘al-Tarkhānī’), even by some of the early biographical sources, such as Ibn al-Nadīm, is clearly an Arabicized form of a Turkic name. Regardless of whether it refers to al-Fārābī’s grandfather, as has been suggested or to another member of his family, it agrees with the previous point in suggesting al-Fārābī’s Transoxanian origin, a not altogether surprising hypothesis given the number of thinkers active in Baghdad during the ninth and tenth centuries who originated from this region.)).

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