Early Islam, Part 3: The Path of Reason

By Namit Arora

Part 1: The Rise of Islam / Part 2: The Golden Age of Islam

(This five-part series on early Islamic history begins with the rise of Islam, shifts to its golden age, examines two key currents of early Islamic thought—rationalism and Sufi mysticism—and concludes with an epilogue. It builds on precursor essays I wrote at Stanfords Green Library during a summer sabbatical years ago, and on subsequent travels in Islamic lands of the Middle East and beyond.)

ArabPhilosophers Islamic scholars during the golden age of Islam (roughly 9th-12th centuries) widely referred to Aristotle as the ‘First Teacher,’ evidence of the high regard in which they held the ancient Greek philosopher. The man ranked by them as second only to Aristotle was a tenth-century Muslim thinker by the name of Abu Nasr al-Farabi (870-950 CE). [1] Perhaps a good way to illustrate the rational current of early Islam is through the life and times of this important thinker. In the words of Muhsin Mahdi, a modern scholar of Islamic studies,

‘[Al-Farabi was] the great interpreter of the thought of Plato and Aristotle and their commentators, and the master to whom almost all major Muslim as well as a number of Jewish and Christian philosophers turned for a fuller understanding of the controversial, troublesome and intricate questions of philosophy … He paid special attention to the study of language and its relation to logic. In his numerous commentaries on Aristotle’s logical works he expounded for the first time in Arabic the entire range of the scientific and non-scientific forms of argument and established the place of logic as the indispensable prerequisite for philosophic inquiry.’ [2]

For a flavor of what other notable thinkers of his age thought of him, consider this remarkable passage from the autobiography of Ibn Sina (aka Avicenna, 980-1037 CE), the Persian philosopher and physician famous in the West as the ‘Islamic Galen.’ Ibn Sina wrote that after a diligent study of ‘the logical, natural, and mathematical sciences’ in his youth, he finally reached the study of metaphysics:

BukharaArkCitadel‘I read the Metaphysics [of Aristotle], but I could not comprehend its contents, and its author’s object remained obscure to me, even when I had gone back and read it forty times and had got to a point where I had memorized it. In spite of this I could not understand it nor its object, and I despaired of myself and said, ‘This is a book which there is no way of understanding.’ But one day in the afternoon when I was at the booksellers’ quarter a salesman approached with a book in his hand which he was calling out for sale. He offered it to me, but I refused it with disgust, believing that there was no merit in this science. But he said to me, ‘Buy it, because its owner needs the money and so it is cheap. I will sell it to you for three dirhams.’ So I bought it and, lo and behold, it was Abu Nasr al-Farabi’s book on the objects of Metaphysics. I returned home and was quick to read it, and in no time the objects of that book became clear to me because I had got to the point of having memorized it by heart. I rejoiced at this and the next day gave much in alms to the poor in gratitude to God, who is exalted …’ [3]

On al-Farabi’s works on logic, Maimonides (1135-1204 CE), the foremost intellectual figure of medieval Judaism, had this to say:

‘You should always follow this rule: in studying logic, deal only with what was written by the wise Abu Nasr al-Farabi, for all that he wrote, and particularly his work Madabi al-Mawjudat [The Principles of Being], is a pure meal … The books of Ali Ibn Sina [Avicenna], on the other hand, although they are very accurate, do not match the writings of al-Farabi.’


Thanks to Alexander the Great and his successors, the memory of Classical Greece had survived in parts of Syria and Iraq, amid both Eastern Christianity and Zoroastrianism. In the cities of Byzantium in the 7th- and 8th-centuries, the language of high culture and theology continued to be Greek (though interest in Classical Greek works was negligible). Even Syriac-speaking Christian scholars studied Greek in order to gain access to theological texts written in Alexandria and Antioch. This changed only when the Umayyad caliph al-Malik made Arabic the official state language (end of 8th-century) replacing both Persian and Greek, which catalyzed translations of Greek texts—as well as Greek works previously translated into Syriac—into Arabic by the Nestorian and Jacobite Christians.

Besides theological texts, a few scientific and medical texts, as well as collections of moral aphorisms ascribed to Socrates, Solon, Hermes, and Pythagoras were the earliest works to be translated into Arabic. However, it was the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad, especially al-Mamun, who actively commissioned most translations of the scientific, philosophical, and medical texts of the Greeks, a great many of which we know today only through these translations. [4] Partaking of this new intellectual goldmine in Arabic and extraordinary institutions like the Bayt al-Hikma (‘House of Wisdom’), al-Farabi emerged as the first significant philosopher in Islam.

Alfarabi Not very much is known of al-Farabi’s private life. It’s not even certain if he was of Turkish or Persian descent though he was born in the Farab (now Otrar) district of Turkestan. His father is believed to have served in the Abbasid army. Al-Farabi grew up in Farab and Damascus and later moved to Baghdad. Although a competent physician and a musician, he disdained a career derived from such learning and was intent neither on financial gain nor public position or influence. Before settling down to teach in Baghdad, he worked as a laborer in a garden and vineyard in Damascus, living on a frugal diet and immersed in nocturnal study by the lamps of the night watchman in the garden.

According to two modern scholars, Joel L. Kramer and Miriam Galston, Baghdad was, during most of al-Farabi’s time there,

Asturlabi ‘The city of Peace … the scene of vibrant cultural renaissance … With its vast number of scholars, its bookstores, its meeting places for learned discussions, its diversified population, the sophistication of its intellectual elite, the ambition and energy of its rulers, this great urban center witnessed a splendor hardly equaled in the entire Medieval world.’ [5]

‘One of the most revealing measures of the intellectual variety of the period … was the frequency in Baghdad of public debates between members of opposing schools of thought. [For example, one] debate in 932 CE between ibn Yunis and al-Sarafi was on the relative merits of the sciences of logic and grammar … sponsored by the Caliph’s vizier … the atmosphere … was generally cosmopolitan.’ [6]

In Baghdad, al-Farabi learned philosophy, science, and languages from the leading teachers of the day and despite his youth, soon outstripped them in fame. [7] One of his early conclusions was that man could find truth by reason alone and live according to it. Scholars have inferred from his works that he held reason superior to revelation and the ultimate highway to happiness. [8] Here is an expression of his confidence in the rational approach, [9]

HappinessBowl ‘The attainment of certain truth is aimed at in every problem. Yet frequently we do not attain certainty. Instead we may attain certainty about part of what we seek, and belief and persuasion about the rest … Or we may become perplexed, as when the arguments for and against strike us as having equal force. The cause of this [confusion] is the variety of methods we use in treating a problem … So let it be clear to you that before setting out to investigate problems we must realize that all these methods have to be learned as an art … This [logical] faculty enables us to discern whether what we infer is certain knowledge or mere belief, whether it is the thing itself or its image and similitude.’

Al-Farabi’s attempt to resuscitate and elevate ideas and texts written over a millennium ago was in itself an act of boldness and supreme self-confidence, especially when they came from outside his tradition. One can only imagine his mounting excitement as he discovered and dissected them. Here is, for instance, how he begins his introduction to the philosophy of Plato, perhaps the very first scholarly exposition of Plato in medieval times, [9]

1. First [Plato] investigated … whether man’s perfection consists only in having his bodily organs unimpaired, a beautiful face, and soft skin; or whether it consists also in his having a distinguished ancestry and tribe, or having a large tribe and many friends and lovers; or whether it consists also in his being prosperous; or being glorified and exalted, ruling over a group or a city in which his command is enforced and which submits to his wish. In order to attain the happiness that gives him his ultimate perfection, is it sufficient for man to have some or all of these? It became evident to him … that either they are themselves not happiness at all but are only believed to attain happiness, or they are not themselves sufficient for man to attain happiness without having something else in addition to them or to some of them.

2. Then he investigated what this other thing might be. It became evident to him that this other thing … is [a] certain [kind of] knowledge and a certain way of life.

3. Then he investigated what this knowledge is and its distinguishing mark, until he found … that it is knowledge of the substance of each of the beings: this knowledge is the final perfection of man and the highest perfection he can possess.

4. Then, after that, he investigated the happiness that is truly happiness, what it is, from which kind of knowledge it proceeds, which state of character it is, and which act it is. He distinguished it from what is believed to be happiness but is not. And he made it known that the virtuous way of life is what leads to the achievement of happiness.

The framework of his philosophy had a political science at its apex concerned with happiness realized in this life, and how it could be achieved in cities and nations—without recourse to revelation. He drew a close relation between happiness and knowledge. ‘Happiness is an end attained by virtuous actions, as knowledge results from learning and study…’ [10] This is also the basis for the ‘highest perfection of man.’

‘The human things through which nations and citizens of cities attain earthly happiness in this life and supreme happiness in the life beyond are of four kinds: theoretical virtues, deliberative virtues, moral virtues, and practical arts. [Theoretical virtues are innate in mankind, the rest] are acquired by meditation, investigation and inference, instruction and study.’ [9]

Akbar Al-Farabi is regarded as the founder of political philosophy in Islam. [11] He embraced Plato’s philosopher-king as the ideal: just as God rules the universe, so should the philosopher, being the best of mankind, rule the state. He thus relates the political travails of his time to the divorce of philosophy from governance. He decried wars fought for conquest or gain, derided the superstition, mysticism and astrology of the day, advocated an allegorical interpretation of scripture, and declared the pursuit of scientific knowledge a prerequisite for the good life man must seek. For human beings are not only free to choose their actions, they are fully responsible for them.

‘The two areas that appear to have occupied al-Farabi most are logic and political philosophy … [his] logical theories, in the last analysis, are informed by and reflect a theory of human nature and human happiness. For al-Farabi, the end of human existence includes, if it is not confined to, the effort to understand being in so far it is knowable through reason …

‘At the same time, the second conspicuous fact of al-Farabi’s political theory is his recognition of the challenge that revealed religion poses to the philosophic way of life. Simply put, revealed religion claims to give a complete and authoritative account of all things—human and divine, natural and metaphysical … [it] exalts certainty over investigation … there are no basic truths left to discover, and wisdom becomes a system of rules to be learned and taught. To meet the challenge … al-Farabi resorts to an ingenious applications of Aristotle’s logical theories according to which religion can be explained as an imitation of philosophy … a direct presentation of truths for which philosophy provides the proofs …’ [6]

If the philosopher could live happily by reason alone, what about the non-philosopher? Al-Farabi said that the latter could lead a good life only through the symbols expressed in prophetic faith: heaven, hell, the last judgment, and so on. Different religions employ different symbols to drive home similar truth. Philosophy and the religion of Islam express the same truths in different forms, which correspond to the different levels at which human beings can comprehend it. The enlightened man can live by philosophy alone; those who grasp the truth via symbols but reach a certain level of understanding can be guided by theology; [12] the rest should live by the Shari’a and be governed by a philosopher-king.

ArabPaintingSocrates Curiously enough, al-Farabi maintained that Muhammad was the kind of ruler Plato had envisaged and that his ideal state could therefore be created within Islam. However, besides the qualities of Plato’s philosopher-king, the ideal ruler must also possess prophetic vision. [13] Realizing the difficulty of finding all these qualities in a single man, he relaxes the requirement of prophetic vision first, even proposes a small council of men who collectively achieve the list, and then enumerates the qualities that can be sacrificed next until reaching a stage where, with further compromise, ‘the city will undoubtedly perish.’ [14] He also classified the character of cities based on their proximity to virtue and knowledge.

Islamic philosophers in al-Farabi’s tradition—the faylasufs—while remaining devout Muslims believed rationalism to be the most advanced form of religion, and which in fact, led them to marginalize the role of God, akin to the Unmoved Mover of Aristotle rather than the watchful and judgmental God of revelation. They also elaborated on the major theological issues of the day: the nature of God (unity or plurality of attributes), creation (ex-nihilo vs. emanation from the One), free will (is man responsible for his actions?) and body and soul (material and spiritual attributes of life). However, in case of a conflict between reason and revelation that could not be resolved by creative interpretation, they acquiesced to the ultimate authority of the Qur’an. As in the Christian West until long after the Renaissance, reason and science were not seen as opposed to revelation. Instead, they were seen as a subsidiary system within revelation’s overarching framework, no doubt with an anxious coexistence at times.

Farabi_tengi In the last decade of his life when Abbasid power went into sharp decline and Shiite orthodoxy was on the rise, al-Farabi returned to Syria where he died a bachelor at the age of 80. The Hamdani Amir Saif al-Daula, patron of the arts in Aleppo, held him in high esteem, by now a famous writer and scholar with books on logic, metaphysics, ethics, political science, music, medicine and sociology. Al-Farabi, who shunned attention in general, tried to rebuff his favors. Despite his asceticism and modesty, the story goes that he often turned playful showman before his patron and ‘exasperated him with his outlandish attire and boorish manners.’ [15] The circumstances of his death are reported as follows: [14]

‘Al-Farabi was journeying from Damascus to Ascalon, and was met by a company of thieves called ‘the Lads’. Al-Farabi said to them, ‘Take what I have of riding animals, arms and clothing, and let me go.’ But they refused and determined to kill him. Seeing that there was no escape, al-Farabi dismounted and fought till he was slain, with his friends. This greatly displeased the Hamdani rulers of Syria who pursued the thieves and crucified them on tree-trunks close by his grave.’

MuslimPhilosopher Al-Farabi lived more like a despairing, retiring philosopher than a flamboyant public intellectual. Scholars have speculated that, having concluded that conscious, enduring happiness is in principle outside the grasp of virtually all but a few, and that revelation is irrelevant for happiness, he wished to conceal this from the non-philosophers. The idea that revelation is unnecessary, if adopted blindly, could lead people to reject scripture with nothing to supplant it with. The fragile social structure would fall apart. Convinced of the dangers inherent in the masses living without structured guidance, he continued to advocate scripture for them. Perhaps what worried him was the transformation of Abbasid society into one with large numbers of badly behaving irreverent people, but this will have to remain our conjecture.

Avicenna Al-Farabi inspired a great many thinkers including al-Amiri, al-Sijistani, al-Tawhidi, and Ibn Miskawayh, not to mention the polymath Avicenna, who founded the influential Avicennean school of philosophy that advanced the domain of logic, postulated the idea of existence vs. essence, and developed the concepts of empiricism and tabula rasa, giving rise to the nature vs. nurture debate. Avicenna’s attempt to reconcile Greek thought with theology decisively shaped Thomas Aquinas. Also known as the father of modern medicine, he studied the contagious nature of infectious diseases, introduced the practice of quarantine, pursued experimental and evidence-based medicine using clinical trials and efficacy tests, and proposed the idea of the syndrome. He came up with the concept of ‘momentum’ in physics and made several discoveries that make him the father of geology as well. Avicenna attained great renown as an astronomer, chemist, geologist, logician, paleontologist, mathematician, physicist, poet, psychologist, and teacher. [16]

Challenges to Islamic rationalism came from two different flanks: the orthodox theologians (led by Ibn Hanbal, al-Ashari, Ibn Hazm, Ibn Taymiyah) and the Sufi mystics (led by al-Ghazali, Ibn al-Arabi, al-Suhrawardi, Rumi, Mulla Sadra). Though the philosophical tradition of al-Farabi and Avicenna continued after them in elite circlesfrequently by peripatetic medical men dependent on the whims of their patrons—it was increasingly pursued with caution and often treated with suspicion. The next major crop of Islamic rational philosophers came from Moorish Spain (led by Ibn Bajjah, Ibn Tufayl, Ibn Rushd/Averroës). The changing fortunes of these three viewpoints characterize much of medieval Islamic thought. Let’s now turn to Islamic mysticism and examine its pivotal role in shaping the course of Islam.

(Part 4 on Sufi mysticism will appear on December 7.)



1. Shukri B. Abed, Aristotelian Logic and the Arabic Language in al-Farabi, SUNY Press, 1991.
2. Al-Farabi’s Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, translated and introduced by Muhsin Mahdi, 1962.
3. William E. Gohlman, translator, The Life of Ibn Sina, 1974. After an initial (somewhat bombastic) autobiographical account by Ibn Sina, the remainder is written as a biography by one of his students. It is anecdotal in nature and includes an account of how he died after suffering for many weeks from colic and other ailments.
4. One notable Christian translator was Gerard of Cremona (1114-87 CE), who went to Toledo in Spain after its reconquest by Christians, ‘where seeing an abundance of books in Arabic on every subject, and pitying the poverty he had experienced among the Latins concerning these subjects, out of his desire to translate he thoroughly learnt the Arabic language.’ Source: C. Burnett, Arabic-Latin Translation Program in Toledo, p. 255.
5. Joel L. Kraemer, Philosophy in the renaissance of Islam: Abū Sulaymān Al-Sijistānī and his circle, 1986, p. ix.
6. Miriam Galston, Politics and Excellence—The political philosophy of Al-Farabi, Princeton University Press, 1990. pp 3-21.
7. These include Nestorian Christian scholars like Abu Bishr Matta Ibn Yunis (870-939 CE) and Yuhanna Ibn Haylan (860-920 CE), from whom he studied Arabic grammar.
8. These scholars include Leo Strauss, Shlomo Pines, Fauzi Najjar, Majid Fakhry and Richard Walzer.
9. Al-Farabi’s Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, translated and introduced by Muhsin Mahdi, 1962. This book has three parts: the first spells out al-Farabi’s own philosophy and is titled, ‘The Attainment of Happiness.’ The second and third parts deal with the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, respectively.
10. Al-Farabi, Fusul Al-Madani (Aphorisms of the Statesman). Translated, annotated and introduced by D. M. Dunlop, 1961, p. 61.
11. Scholars disagree on al-Farabi’s immediate purpose in turning to classical Greek political philosophy but politics was a central part of Classical Greek thought and certainly compatible with al-Farabi’s concern with happiness realized in this life.
12. In al-Farabi’s time, the major school of theological Islam was the Mu’tazilah. It was liberal in outlook and receptive to reason, although ultimately opposed to Greek rationalism. Centered in Abbasid Baghdad, it was strongest during the progressive reign of caliphs al-Mansur, Haroon al-Rashid and al-Mamun. It was rejected by the Sunnis but found moderate support among the Shi’a. The Mu’tazilah school survived another century after al-Farabi and then got supplanted by Sunni orthodoxy.
13. The qualities of Plato’s philosopher-king: Intelligence, good memory, keenness of mind, love of knowledge, moderation in matters of food, drink and sex, love of truthfulness, magnanimity, frugality, love of justice, firmness or courage. To this list, Al-Farabi added physical fitness and eloquence.
14. Al-Farabi, Mabadi Ara Ahl Al-Madina Al-Fadila (available as ‘Al-Farabi on the Perfect State’), Chapter 15: Perfect Associations and Perfect Ruler; Faulty Associations, sections 13, 14. Translated, annotated and introduced by Richard Walzer, 1985.
15. Majid Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy, Second Edition, Colombia University Press, 1983.
16. Avicenna in Encyclopedia Iranica online.


1. An Arabic painting of Socrates.
2. Ark Citadel of Buhkara, Uzbekistan.
3. A conventionally accepted portrait of Al-Farabi.
4. Celestial sphere, Signed by Yunus Ibn al-Husayn al-Asturlabi, Iran, Isphahan? 1144-1145 (source).
5. Bowl, 9th century, Abbasid Iraq, Earthenware, tin-glazed and stained. This ceramic bowl is one of the earliest examples to incorporate calligraphy as the main element of decoration. The Arabic word ghibta (happiness) is repeated in the center and creates a balanced composition when combined with the half-circles decorating the rim (source).
6. A portrait of Akbar, who comes as close to al-Farabi’s philosopher-king ideal as anyone else.
7. Socrates and his Students, Mukhtar al-Hikam wa-Mahasin al-Kalim (‘Choice Maxims and Finest Sayings’) by Al-Mubashshir. Syria, beginning of 13th century. Ahmed III 3206, folio 40a (source).
8. Al-Farabi appears on the currency of the Republic of Kazakhastan (source).
9. A painting of a Muslim philosopher, conventionally Ibn Rushd/Averroes (source: nature.com).
10. A conventional portrait of Avicenna.

More writing by Namit Arora?