Al-Farabi should be heeded as the quintessential philosopher of civilization, built under the aegis of truth, virtue and compassion.
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TURKISTAN – As geopolitical insanity zooms off the charts at the end of 2023, let us seek solace in a brief Silk Road magic carpet ride.
This comes to you from a northern strand of the Ancient Silk Roads in Kazakhstan, from the Ili valley in Western China through the Dzungarian Gate all the way to the gorgeous Zailiysky Alatau mountains, spurs of the great Tian Shan range so close to Almaty.
This Silk Road strand then followed the Chu valley and branched out southwest to Samarkand (in today’s Uzbekistan), via Shymkent and Otrar (both in Kazakhstan).
The first settlers of all these vast latitudes were essentially nomadic Scythians. Their kurgans (circular burial mounds) are still dotting the countryside of southeast Kazakhstan and northern Kyrgyzstan.
The Scythians were followed by assorted, migrating Turkic tribes. By the end of the early 10th century, cities such as Otrar (the ancient Farab) and Turkistan (the ancient Yasy, a key trade center in the Great Silk Road) were blossoming.
Otrar/Farab introduces us to its most famous son, Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Turhan ibn Uzlug al-Farabi – Islamic scientist and philosopher (872-950) but also mathematician and musical theorist. Al-Farabi lived right at the start of the golden age of Islamic civilization.
The medieval Latin world knew him as Magister Secundus: the second greatest teacher of philosophy after Aristotle. Today he is revered as a symbol of the Turkic world, and an established leader of philosophic thought across the lands of Islam.
Al-Farabi was one of the very few philosophers who woke up the West from its scholastic slumber. He was not only a pioneer of philosophy of civilization – as mirrored in books such as On the Philosophy of Politics and Virtuous City, the apex in terms of studying Greek and Islamic concepts of ethics and political order; he was also one of the founding fathers of political science.
He was a descendant of Turkmen, a Turkic people (not exactly Turkish), born and raised along the path of Silk Road caravans carrying key strands of civilization. The history of the Turks starts with the Turkish khaganate in the 6th century. The golden cradle of Turkic civilization stretched from the Altai mountains to the steppes of Central Asia.
A philosopher-sage, al-Farabi excelled in theology, metaphysics, ontology, logic, ethic, political philosophy, physics, astronomy, psychology, music theory, always relaying priceless knowledge from Antiquity to the medieval era and modernity.
A game-changer to the classical system
Turkistan/Yasy, only 60 km north of Otrar/Farab, on the fringes of the Kyzylkum desert, is a university town doubling down as home to the most important Islamic landmark, monument and pilgrimage site in Kazakhstan: the mesmerizing 14th century Timurid tomb of the Sufi master, poet and scholar Khoja Ahmed Yassawi.
Ancient Central Asian Muslims believed that three pilgrimages to Turkistan were the spiritual equivalent of going to the Hajj; badass conqueror Timur was so impressed that he ordered the building of a mausoleum on the site of Khoja Ahmed Yassawi’s original tomb.
Turkistan lives under the spell of both Khoja Ahmed Yassawi and al-Farabi. A whole new town was recently built – mostly by Turkish construction companies – around the mausoleum. On the way back to a caravanserai complex nearby, we find the ultra-modern al-Farabi library, containing precious volumes and exegeses in several languages of the philosopher-sage.
In 2021, at a summit of the Organization of Turkic States (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkiye, Uzbekistan), Turkistan was proclaimed the spiritual capital of the Turkic world – much to the delight of Sultan Erdogan.
How did al-Farabi think – and how can he still remain a model teacher for all of us? It’s all about eclecticism. He tried to reconcile Aristotelian philosophy – his canon – with Plato, at the same time reinterpreting Hellenistic philosophy and building a new system of Islamic thought.
He was a perennial learner; and that was at the heart of his journey over a thousand years ago from the steppes of the Heartland to the cultural capitals of the Islamic world: Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus and Cairo.
Progressively, al-Farabi was getting acquainted with the cultural accumulation of knowledge of universal civilization, drinking straight from the cradle: Mesopotamia and the Tigris and Euphrates basin.
So yes: al-Farabi may be concisely defined as the quintessential philosopher of civilization. And this means he should be considered as the herald and one of the definitive founding fathers of humanism, as he strived to build the foundation of the universal thought of civilization in all his works.
That was a game-changer to the classical system: a shot at reclassifying sciences so they would include Islamic sciences, instead of sticking to the standard classification at the time, the Trivium-Quadrivium, which came from Ancient Greece to Rome and afterwards to Christian scholasticism.
So thanks to al-Farabi, philosophy of civilization came to enjoy a crucial position for the first time in a new science framework.
Al-Farabi’s system of logic also became a primary foundation for Methodology, conceived in the 17th century and one of the key vectors in the formation of modern science.
Al-Farabi influenced Western thinking nearly as much as Islamic thought. Averroes, for instance, not only spread al-Farabi’s insights in Muslim Spain but these also crossed the Pyrenees and reached deep inside Europe.
The tradition of Islamic thought in its entirety is an extension of the outlines explored by al-Farabi’s ideas.
Back in al-Farabi’s days, the concept of “civilization” of course was not employed in the same sense as today. Yet virtually every field within the scope of “civilization”, understood concisely as the essence and sum of higher activities of humankind, has been thoroughly studied by al-Farabi.
The life and thought of al-Farabi is the absolute opposite of the twisted concept of “clash of civilizations” – which may have been constructed with help from al-Farabi’s philosophy and politics, but then has been exploited by the usual suspects with the aim of turning post-modernity into a bloodbath.
That’s why, now more than ever, we need to understand the concept of civilization as developed by al-Farabi, way beyond classic Western colonialism of the “white man’s burden” variety.
Al-Farabi should be heeded as the quintessential philosopher of civilization, built under the aegis of truth, virtue and compassion, especially now that the bloodbath unleashed by a torrent of fallacies – the war of terror, the Greater Middle East, the Abraham Accords, uncontrolled Zionism – ravages the steppes of our souls like an Army of the Doomed.