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Al-Farabi on Society and Happiness

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Al-Farabi on Society and Happiness

Abu Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi, known in the West as Alpharabius, was a Muslim polymath and one of the greatest scientists and philosophers of Persia and the Islamic world in his time (late 9th and early 10th century). He was also a cosmologist, logician, musician, psychologist and sociologist. Eminent founder of a philosophical system as he was, he devoted himself entirely to contemplation and speculation and kept himself aloof from political and social perturbations and turmoil. He left a considerable amount of literature. Beside his immediate pupils, there were many who studied his works after his death and became his followers. His philosophy set the standard of scholarly speculations both in East and the West long after his death.

While recasting the philosophical views of Plato, Aristotle and other Greek thinkers, al-Farabi always keeps in view the Islamic tenets which have formed the inner links of his writings. In his political philosophy, he has followed the same line. Under the influences of Plato and Aristotle he evolves his own system which markedly differs from the system of the Greeks, the Iranians as well as the Indians.

Commenting on society and state, al-Farabi makes it clear that healthy social fabrics and institutions are necessary to form better society. According to him, the City-State and the family State are places that contain inhabitants, no matter whether their dwellings are constructed of wood, mud, wool or hair. The house or family is limited to only four relationships husband and wife, master and slave, father and son and property and proprietor. He, who makes them unite in cooperation and aims at providing for them an abode with best facilities and maintenance, is called the master of the family. He is in the house what the administrator of the city is in the city.

In al-Farabi’s views, men are naturally as constituted that they need many things for their best achievements. Hence, they need mutual help and cooperation of everyone doing his best for obtaining a particular kind of object. Thus, by uniting their individual efforts for different objects they organize different societies.

The greater the society, the better are the facilities it achieves for its individuals. The grouping of men is not confined to a house it extends to lanes, localities, villages, towns and cities. Men work for the welfare of society and in the long run serve the State. The people living in a State are ailed a nation (Ummah). One nation can be distinguished from another by natural character, temperament, habits and language.

Human societies are either perfect or imperfect. The perfect society may be great, middling or small. The great human society is the one consisting of several nations uniting themselves in one unit and helping one another. The middling one is the society of one nation in a part of the world, and the small is the society of the people of a city. The imperfect society is that of the people of a village, a locality, a lane or a house, the last being the smallest.

Now, the highest good and perfection are primarily achieved through volition and will. Similarly, evil finds its scope by volition and will. The City-State can, therefore, develop by mutual help and efforts to attain some evil purpose or to attain happiness. The society in which the members of the society cooperate to attain happiness is in reality the ideal City-State. In this state the citizens help one another to achieve qualities of the greatest excellence through which they live in the best manner and enjoy the best life perpetually. But if they help one another to obtain the bare necessities of life and its preservation, this City-State is evidently the necessary State.

Al-Farabi emphasizes on the necessity of ideal state for attaining happiness for the residents, however, he further extents his theory to certain other aspects as well. He explains that when human factors or the four excellences, speculative virtues, theoretical virtues, the moral virtues and the practical arts, form the qualities of a nation or of the people of a city, their worldly happiness in this life and the lasting happiness in the next are insured.

Commenting on the leaders and the qualities of the leaders of the state, al-Farabi says that the chief of the State should be physically free from all defects and should have a sharp intellect, memory and wit. He should be devoted to sciences, truth loving and not easily upset by difficulties, contented, without greed for things to eat and lofty ideals, a lover of justice, without thought of wealth or worldly position and should have strong resolution, boldness and courage.

Plato’s philosopher-king has also been described as truth-loving, fond of the knowledge of existents, one who keeps away from vice, is free-thinking, intelligent, sagacious, witty and ambitious. But the State of al-Farabi is international in character. Plato wants to entrust the affairs of the State to a group of philosophers and names of organization “aristocracy”. Al-Farabi not only calls the Head of the State Imam but identifies him with a prophet. It is in the absence of the Imam or the second chief who has the necessary qualities to follow the tradition of the Imam that he entrusts the affairs of the State to a group of individuals who between themselves possess most of the qualities of the chief. It is, therefore, not true to say that al-Farabi has based his theory entirely on the Republic of Plato, or that he is simply Aristotelian in his thought.

Looking at the theories of al-Farabi, we come to know that there are many ideas that can help as a nation in finding our way and finding ways to peace and happiness. There are clear messages that we need to concentrate more on the social life and try to strengthen the bonds of brotherhood among each other. On the other hand there are very vivid directions for the leaders and the heads of the states. Some of these directions, if followed with honesty and clear minds and hearts can really teach our ruling elite some golden rules which will help them and the people as a whole to turn our society into a better society and achieve bliss and contentment.   

Dilawar Sherzai is the permanent writer of the Daily outlook Afghanistan. He can be reached at dilawar.sherzai@gmail.com.

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