Synthesising western and eastern thought

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Al-Farabi’s philosophy shows need to integrate Western philosophy

Al-Farabi’s philosophical system was, with regards to metaphysics, a breakthrough in the history of philosophy for he expanded the Aristotelian notion of God along neo-platonic lines as an original synthesis of Aristotelian and Platonic thought.

To understand how he arrives at his conclusion, I will briefly discuss Plato’s theory of forms to review his notion on the concept of divine. I will follow it up with Aristotle’s theory of cause and effect (the unmoved mover) and then discuss how al-Farabi’s genius expanded this notion giving it ontological implications like Plato and more importantly for his time, enmeshing this notion with the Islamic notion of God.

Plato’s philosophical inquiry on the absolute truth is effectively described in his theory of forms. For him there is distinction between the world of phenomena and the intelligible world or the world of ideas. Plato gives an existence on its own, being, or an ontology to this world of ideas terming the world of phenomena as realizations of the world of ideas. In trying to explain this, he questions the notion of beauty or rather what is it that makes something in this world beautiful? He argues that an abstract notion of beauty already exists in the mind and the happenings of the world of phenomena can be viewed as realizations of the ideal in mind. Therefore an object might cease to be beautiful in this world but the idea of beauty will remain unchanged forever. This world of ideas is what he calls the higher form and its realizations in the world of phenomena are what he calls the lower form. As a result, no phenomena can occur without the existence of a higher form however, a higher form can exist without any resulting phenomenon. It then becomes very clear that Plato is using transcendent concepts which play a significant role in his metaphysics because they have universal applicability and cause anything whatsoever to exist and to be known.

Aristotle argued that these universal ideas of abstract notions such as beauty and justice derive from particular instances in the world of phenomena. Therefore Aristotle would say that some ideal notion of beauty has no existence on its own beyond that which we draw from the world of phenomena- essentially taking away its ontology or being. As a result Aristotle was more interested in the happenings of the material world which is also evident in his metaphysics especially his interest in cause.

Aristotle’s theology is based on his perception that there ought to be something above and beyond the chains of cause and effect for those chains to exist at all. Aristotle wrote a lot on change and motion in his works and held that everything is subject to this phenomenon, but nothing changes or dislocates without cause. He defined four kinds of cause, or rather kinds of explanation for how things are the way they are. These are; (i) the material cause, which ascertains what a thing is made up of; (ii) the formal cause, which ascertains the form a thing assumes; (iii) the efficient cause, which explains the process by which it came into existence or being; and (iv) the final cause, which explains the end purpose it serves or its telos.

Aristotle believed that all causes must themselves be caused and all motion must be caused by something that is already in motion. The problem with this approach is that it leads nowhere: if all causes have prior causes, there is no first cause that causes motion and change to exist in the first place. This conclusion causes Aristotle to believe that there must be a first cause which he calls the unmoved mover, that is the actual source of all change and motion although itself unchanging and unmoving. This unmoved mover therefore is what Aristotle associates with God and also grants it the most significant place in his cosmological order.

According to al-Farabi, Aristotle did not give adequate attention to studying the ultimate causes of things and rendered his inquiry incomplete because it did not enquire into beings that were above and beyond the natural world. A proper enquiry, argues al-Farabi, would lead to the conclusion that the first principle of all beings is in fact divine and it is this divinity which he says, using Aristotelian terms, is the efficient, formal and final cause of all things. Al- Farabi reaches this conclusion using Aristotelian notion of the causation of motion and applying it to Plotinus’ notion of emanation which essentially is ‘the manner in which the lower hypostases proceed from the One’ and conceptualizes the whole framework in terms of Ptolemy’s planetary hypotheses.

Ptolemy’s Planetary Hypotheses presented a physical picture or conception of the universe as a set of nested spherical bodies giving descriptions of models for planetary motion. Al-Farabi, using this celestial framework formulated a hierarchical system where the intellection of a superior sphere emanates the sphere below it along with its intellect and soul and gives six hierarchical principles of being; (i) the first cause, (ii) the secondary causes (i.e. the first nine incorporeal intellects), (iii) the active or tenth intellect governing the sub lunar world, (iv) soul, (v) form and (vi) matter. Terming the first cause as God, al-Farabi identifies God as the first mover (rather the unmoved mover for Aristotle). By deriving or intellecting itself, the first cause gives rise to the secondary causes foremost amongst which is the first intellect. The first intellect intellects the first cause (God) setting forth the second intellect and also intellecting itself, emanating the celestial sphere of fixed stars. This process of double intellection in which a sphere intellects not only itself but also the sphere above it continues, emanating seven more intellects and eventually ending with the emanation of the tenth or the active intellect.

By creating such a system al-Farabi is ingeniously able to use Aristotelian notion of causation of motion to explain the revolution of the spheres in the cosmological system and even more importantly to account for this motion as the causation of being¬ – essentially giving them an ontological existence. Moreover, apart from Neo-Platonising Aristotle, al-Farabi is able to explain in detail the Aristotelian cosmological system in a way most comprehensible by the people of Baghdad at the time due to its analogies with concepts of Abrahamic faith. For example he identified intellects with angels and the active intellect or the tenth intellect as angel Gabriel assigning it the task to govern the sub lunar world. In fact al-Farabi does not involve the active intellect in intellection emanating other intellects, rather it only affects or influences human intellect in the material world.

Having constructed such a cosmological order, al-Farabi concludes that unless such a causal chain of substantiation is constructed in which God is the first cause and the source of all being and emanation, one cannot be in a position to know the divine. According to him, this inspection of the first cause is evidence of the fact that ultimately the universal notions of Unity and being belong to God and it is only through this channel that these notions are shared by all that exist.

It is surprising to see Muslims from 1,000 years ago so unabashedly use and apply western concepts, build on them and give them an absolutely new meaning. Muslim society, back then seemed more open, and tolerant and able to entertain foreign ideas and concepts and more importantly respect them when they made sense rather than labelling them evil without understanding them. Al-Farabi, known as the second teacher (the first being Aristotle), was also a musician and wrote an encyclopedic book on music, which is a whole new dimension to his works. Those who outrightly reject western philosophy and music as un-Islamic need to study the golden age of Islam and, importantly, understand why it was a golden age.

The writer is a staff member. Works used can be sought from the writer at [email protected]