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Muhsin Mahdi – Alfarabi’s ‘On the Rise of Philosophy’

Muhsin Mahdi, Harvard

James Richard Jewett Professor of Arabic,

director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies

& chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.


Another sharing from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA, is an extract from professor Muhsin Mahdi’s’ ‘Alfarabi and the Foundation of Islamic Political Philosophy‘, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2001. This introductory article initiates a few coming posts devoted to polymath Al Farabi.


A little introduction from the book’s cover of the Albin Michel French 2000 edition

‘Held by his successors, in particular Avicenna, Averroes and Maimonides, for the greatest philosopher of Islam, often called the “Second Aristotle”, Alfarabi has nevertheless remained unknown since the Middle Ages. If some of his works have passed to the Latins, his most important writings have remained inaccessible, the Arabic texts, buried in libraries, no longer circulating in the Muslim world. Fifty years ago, the great historian of political philosophy, Leo Strauss, sensing the major importance of Alfarabi for the understanding of medieval philosophy, already recommended an attentive study of his works.

This task, Muhsin Mahdi (who was his student before becoming his friend) would carry it out. During his research, he discovered manuscripts older than those available or previously unknown works, such as The Book of Letters. It is therefore the substance of thirty years of study on Alfarabi that is presented in this work. For the first time, there will be exhibited an approach and a work that are at the starting point of medieval philosophy in its three currents: Muslim, Hebrew and Latin. For Alfarabi, distancing himself from the philosophical tradition of Baghdad where the Christian Aristotelians dominated, raises the central question of the human or divine origin of the laws. In this way, he put the philosophical tradition on notice to take up the challenge posed by the revealed religions – in particular the foundation of the city by a prophet’.


‘Alfarabi and the Foundation of Islamic Political Philosophy’

Part I-Chapter III-Alfarabi’s On the Rise of Philosophy

‘There are a few details of a historical nature that appear to be crucial for understanding the origins of the new tradition in Islamic philosophy. The surviving fragments from Alfarabi’s lost book On the Rise of Philosophy are our primary source for reconstructing this important episode in the history of philosophy, but there seems to be no good reason to doubt its main features. Alfarabi explains that he belongs to a particular philosophic
school. This school, according to him, is a direct continuation of a tradition of philosophic learning that existed in Alexandria in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D. He gives an account of the movement of that school from Alexandria to Antioch, to Carrhae (Harran), and then farther east to Iran and down to Baghdad. He provides some information about the teachers, students, and books that represent this line of scholarship.

The school became almost extinct except for two or three students who kept the tradition alive. He gives the name of his own teacher, Yuhanna Ibn Haylan, a Christian cleric, who is otherwise unknown as a teacher, scholar, or writer. It seems certain that neither al-Kindı nor al-Razı, nor any other earlier philosopher in Islam, had access to this school tradition, which does not mean access just to men but also to books and conversely does not mean access just to books but also to men: it was a dual tradition, both oral and written. An important part of that tradition was the reading of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, the logical work of Aristotle that deals with the question of science and the method of science. Alfarabi relates that church authorities had forbidden the study of various books, especially this one, because they were thought to be dangerous; the church had limited the study of logic to certain parts (i.e., to formal logic up to certain chapters of the Prior Analytics) and had forbidden study of the rest in public.

Presumably, this means that one could obtain permission to study these other chapters in private, so that some sort of a tradition of studying the rest did continue. Alfarabi then states that he was the first (Muslim) to have studied the Posterior Analytics. What Alfarabi perhaps means here is that he was the first to read this book with a man who had spent years, perhaps a lifetime, studying and trying to understand it with a master, who in turn had done so with an earlier master, and so on. There is, then, the connection with the school at Alexandria. This connection was evidently very important.

More important, however, is what Alfarabi learned from this Alexandrian tradition and how he in turn understood and interpreted it. The connection with the school of Alexandria reveals itself in many ways in Alfarabi and his colleagues, students, and successors. One can see it, for instance, in the writing of so-called great, or large, commentaries (we have two of them by Alfarabi), in the care with which Aristotle’s text is analyzed and interpreted, and also in the continuity of the scholarly tradition. Aristotle had written the book.

Earlier thinkers expressed their own ideas about the subject; all of these are discussed. There were significant disagreements among them. These are explained. Earlier commentators are cited and their explanations are approved of, criticized, or developed in detail. The commentary becomes a depository of a thousand years of thought and reflection on the questions discussed in Aris totle’s text. It pays a great deal of attention not just to the text but also to the recently translated writings of earlier commentators.

Here, again, paying attention to earlier commentators does not mean that one accepts the views of these commentators or tries to synchronize these views. One can accept the view of one commentator, reject the view of a second, discuss the view of a third, and show that this one is superficial or that the other one is profound. It is an open field in which the thinker inquires into all the alternatives and considers the possibilities embedded in the tradition. In the end, he has to make up his own mind. Such, at least, are the external features of the tradition of Alexandria.

In contrast, al-Kindı may be connected with the Hellenistic-Roman Athenian school rather than the school of Alexandria. The great name that is usually mentioned in connection with the Athenian school is that of Proclus. People who talk about Neoplatonism sometimes do not realize that they are referring to a long, complex, and many-sided tradition.

In a way, all philosophy since Plato is Neoplatonic. But there are Neoplatonists and Neoplatonists. There were, for instance, the Middle Platonists, who paid some attention to Plato’s political teachings and who incorporated much of Aristotle’s logic and metaphysics into the Platonic tradition. There was also the Neoplatonism of Plotinus, who tries on almost every page to tackle problems that had been posed by Plato and Aristotle—the two great masters. When we talk about Neoplatonism, we should not think of it as necessarily syncretic or necessarily anti-Aristotelian or anti-Platonic. Then there was the Neoplatonism of Plotinus’s successors, especially the Neoplatonism of the scholars who were at the head of the philosophic schools in Athens and Alexandria. As heads of these philosophic schools, they were primarily teaching the works of Plato and Aristotle. The notes they wrote for, or the notes their students took from, their lecture courses are in the form of large or middle commentaries on works by Plato or Aristotle. Most of their own ideas, different as they may have been from those of the two great masters, are contained in these commentaries and take the form of developments of certain notions in the Platonic and Aristotelian texts.

Now the Athenian school, at least in some periods of its long life, was characterized by the teachings of Proclus and others who seem to have gone wild in developing a cosmology consisting of many layers of angels or spirits, which is not present in Plotinus. They were concerned with the interpretation of things like magic and oracles and alchemy, with which other Neoplatonists were not concerned. The Alexandrian school seems to have been particularly sane and moderate in this respect. It tried to meet the challenge of the time, which was Christianity, and succeeded in harmonizing some of the basic differences between philosophy and Christianity.

The Athenian school, on the other hand, seems to have gone to extremes in trying to support the pagan religious movement against Christianity, and its members wrote pseudo-philosophic, pseudo-scientific works on things like magic and pagan religious practices of various kinds. Broadly speaking then, it makes sense to say that there was a difference in attitude in the way the two schools looked at such questions as the relation between philosophy and religion, at least during a certain period in the history of the two schools— when one compares Athens and Alexandria in, let us say, the period from the fourth to the sixth century A.D. I say “broadly speaking” because there was a great deal of movement between the two schools. A bright young man from Alexandria would go to Athens, study under Proclus, then return to become the head of the school or the successor to the chair of philosophy at Alexandria, and vice versa; the two schools did not represent two traditions hermetically sealed from each other.

The Alexandrian scientific and philosophic traditions are historically crucial to everything that happened later on in science and philosophy in the Islamic world, in Byzantium, as well as in the Latin West. These philosophers, commentators, and thinkers—“Alexandrine” though they were in certain respects—were the ones who handed down to the Muslims the books and the tradition of reading or studying these books and interpreting them; this took the form of a clearly defined scholarly tradition, not vague connections with earlier thought as was the case in the first stages of Islamic theology. But although this Alexandrian connection between the Muslims and classical Greek thought is extremely important, we must realize that the tradition of Alexandria (and Athens) was available to Byzantium and later to the Latin West from the renaissance of the eleventh–twelfth century onward. Yet these three heirs to the Alexandrian tradition and, through Alexandria, to the classical Greek tradition did not understand or develop philosophy in the same way.

Alfarabi, who was the first philosopher to claim that he represented this Alexandrian tradition in Islam, was not a translator or a historian of philosophy, not merely a carrier of a philosophic tradition, but a philosopher in his own right; and if one is to believe such men as Avicenna, Averroes, and Mulla Sadra, he was a philosopher who must be ranked next to Aristotle himself. It is therefore important that we begin to understand how Alfarabi himself understood, interpreted, and presented the tradition of philosophy to his Muslim readers.


The 2001 U.S. Edition.


The 2000 French Edition.


Professor Muhsin Mahdi was surnamed the ‘smiling Buddah’ by his friends and colleagues.


More about professor Muhsin Mahdi: 🌿 More about the book and the publisher:
Muhsin Mahdi – Alfarabi’s ‘On the Rise of Philosophy’

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