Who was Al-Farabi?

22 October 2019

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Abu Nasr al-Farabi was one of the preeminent philosophers of the medieval Islamic world. He was regarded by his contemporaries as the greatest philosophical authority after Aristotle.

The great thinker was born circa 870 in Farab, also called Otrar, one of the most ancient cities of Central Asia. The city was located on the Jaxartes (Syr Darya) in the south of Kazakhstan in the vicinity of present-day Turkestan. In the 9th-10th centuries, the city of Otrar was a major political, cultural and commercial center and a nodal point of the caravan routes of the Great Silk Roads, which connected medieval Europe and Asia.

Al-Farabi descended from a privileged caste of Turks as evidence by the title “Tarkhan” in his full name: Muhammad ibn-Muhammad ibn-Tarkhan ibn-Uzlag al-Farabi al-Turki. He completed his earlier education in Otrar where he lived until the age of 20. Here Abu Nasr perused books and manuscripts of the largest library of antiquity, comparable only to the famous Great Library of Alexandria. He later moved to Baghdad where most of his works were written. He spent the last years of his life in Cairo, Aleppo and Damascus and was highly respected. In December 950, at the age of 80, al-Farabi died in Damascus.

Al-Farabi has left no autobiography which is why relatively little is known for certain about his life. His philosophical legacy, however, is large. His philosophical thinking was nourished in the heritage of the Arabic Aristotelian teachings of the 10th-century Baghdad and it is with good reason he was known to the Arabs as the “Second Master”. Al-Farabi mastered several languages and also contributed considerably to science, logic, sociology, medicine, mathematics and music. Al-Farabi’s works had a great influence on the philosophy of Europe and the Middle East.

The author of over 200 treatises, Al-Farabi is unquestionably one of the greatest intellectuals and scholars in history. It is therefore eminently appropriate for Kazakhstan’s top institution of higher learning, the al-Farabi Kazakh National University, to bear his distinguished name. There are also streets in various cities of Kazakhstan that bear the name of the scholar. The Kazakhstani currency, tenge, features an image of al-Farabi’s head. In 2020, the country will officially mark the philosopher’s 1,150 anniversary with commemorative and festive events.