The scholar Abu Nasr Muhammad Ibn Muhammad Ibn Uzalag Ibn Tarkhan, born in 870AD in Turkestan region (now Kazakhstan), was known in the Arab world as Al-Farabi. Passionate about reading from a young age, he was fond of reading about logic and philosophy, and decided to travel to Baghdad — the capital of the Islamic caliphate — at that time.
Historians note that Al-Farabi read all the books of philosophy by Aristotle and Plato. He made several attempts to understand the science of philosophy until he recorded a phrase: “I have read it more than forty times, and I still need to read it.”
At a time when Muhammad Abu Nasr al-Farabi delved into philosophy and logic many Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars were already settled in Baghdad.
Knowledge flourished based on dialogue between the three main religious beliefs. Among the most important Christian scholars (some of whom were Al-Farabi’s teachers) included Abu Bishr Matta bin Yunus in Baghdad, Yohana Ibn Haylan in Harran (Turkey), and Ibrahim Al-Marwazi from Merv in Turkmenistan.
And in what is a completion of the circle — one of the greatest Islamic philosophers graces the bibliotheques of the Western world.
Al-Farabi learnt the science of logic from Abu Bishr Matta bin Yunus who was known for his mastery of several languages and his translation of ancient texts from Latin into Arabic.
Abu al-Bashir Matta was a student of a Christian teacher, Ibrahim al-Marwzi. Al-Farabi desired to learn more beyond the science of logic, and delved into grammar and morphology, so his teacher took him to Abu Bakr Al-Sarraj to master the language.
It is said that Al-Farabi surpassed his teacher in grammar and morphology and learnt it within a few months. Once he mastered these sciences, Al-Farabi travelled to the city of Harran (Turkey) to delve into the science of philosophy which he learnt from Youhanna ibn Helan.
He picked up philosophy and Aristotle’s teachings from the Christian scholar. Here you see how thinkers of other faiths contributed to the formation of one of the greatest philosophers in Islamic history.
A Christian scholar called Abu Zakariya Yahya bin Adi, who contributed to translating Aristotle’s books, was also apprenticed by Al-Farabi.
Historical sources indicate that some Muslim scientists such as Ibn Sina and Al-Razi, also studied at the hands of Christian scholars. Many Christian scholars have contributed to the strengthening of Islamic civilisation.
Al-Farabi was the founder of Arab philosophy and was called the philosopher of all Arabs. He placed his philosophy in a framework compatible with the Islamic environment and wrote many books on logic and philosophy.
Some of the famous books include “Opinions of the Virtuous City” and “Combining two views of Plato and Aristotle” in an attempt to reconcile the views of these two worlds with the beliefs of the Islamic religion. His books are often dubbed as “The Second Education”, considering that Aristotle is the first teacher.
Al-Farabi’s interest was not limited to philosophy and logic. He was equally brilliant in other sciences, the most important of which were astronomy, physical engineering, and musicology.
Many Arabic references mention that Al-Farabi was passionate about music, as he was a professional player on the oud musical instrument when he was a child.
He was famous for writing many books on musicology too. Among the most important legacies that Al-Farabi composed included “Words in Music”, “Rhythm Statistics”, “A Book on Transition” and “Great Music”.
Only the book “The Great Music”, published over 1200 pages, reached us in the Arab world.
Pertinently his works on music was influenced by the thought of both Plato and Aristotle. In the introduction to the Great Music, it is written that “music indeed is one of main human instincts”. That book has been translated into several European languages and preserved in multiple European libraries.
Over the centuries his books became the most important references in continental Europe, thanks to his theoretical and practical development of musicology.
And in what is a completion of the circle — one of the greatest Islamic philosophers of all times graces the biggest bibliotheques of the Western world.
Dr Noura S. Al Mazrouei is a writer, academic, international tolerance expert and artist