Al-Farabi's Doctrine of Education: Between Philosophy and Sociological Theory

Throughout the ages thinkers have raised the question of what the human being ought to learn in order to be in tune with his own epoch, to live intelligently in society, and to be a citizen bringing benefit both to himself and to the community; hence the importance of education. It is the aim of education which takes precedence, only then come the means to realize these aims. The following article aims at presenting the theory of education of the Muslim philosopher and scholar Abu Nasr al-Farabi within the framework of his philosophical system, an aspect of his work not frequently hit upon in the scholarship.

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By Professor 'Ammar al-Talbi 1

Note of the editor

The following text was originally published as: "Al-Farabi (259-339 AH/872-950 AD)" by Professor 'Ammar al-Talbi in the series "Thinkers on Education" published by Prospects: the quarterly review of comparative education (Paris, UNESCO: International Bureau of Education), vol. 23, no. 1/2, 1993, pp. 353-372; ©UNESCO, 2000. Our republishing of the article relies on the authorisation embedded by the publisher according to which the document may be reproduced free of charge as long as acknowledgement is made of the source. The version we republish hereafter was edited and revised; we publish it with a slightly different title, new images and captions. Click here for the original version (in PDF format).

Table of contents

1. Al-Farabi: A Biographical outline
2. The aims of education
3. What is education?
4. Teaching methods
5. The teacher and the learner
6. The curriculum
7. Philosophy, the queen of disciplines
8. Ways and means of elucidation in teaching
9. Evaluation
10. The influence of Al-Farabi
11. References
           11.1. Works by Al-Farabi
           11.2. Works about Al-Farabi

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Throughout the ages thinkers have raised the question of what the human being ought to learn in order to be in tune with his own epoch, to live intelligently in society, and to be a citizen bringing benefit both to himself and to the community; hence the importance of education. It is the aim of education which takes precedence, only then come the means to realize these aims.

For the most part, it is philosophy which is concerned with defining these aims, and here it may come into direct conflict with religion; the Islamic civilization has experienced numerous controversies between religious lawyers (fuqaha) and philosophers in this respect, each with his own opinion about gnoseology.

The aim of this paper is to present the attitudes to education of Abu Nasr al-Farabi within the framework of his philosophical system, an aspect of his work about which little was known, since researchers have been more interested in the logical, metaphysical and political aspects, to the neglect of his educational concepts. However, scholars do know that al-Farabi studied Plato's Republic and this work, by which he was most certainly influenced, deals mainly with education, as is now accepted by historians of philosophy [2]. It is even more unlikely that al-Farabi could have been unaware of this dimension of Plato's philosophy since he made a summary of Plato's Laws, a work which we know expresses his final thoughts on education.

1. Al-Farabi: A Biographical outline

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Figure 1: Modern imaginary portrait of Al-Farabi (Source).

So who is al-Farabi, and what is his contribution to education?

Al-Farabi was born in Wasij, in the province of Farab in Turkestan, in 872 AD (259 AH) of a noble family. His father, of Persian origin, was an army commander at the Turkish court. Al-Farabi moved to Baghdad, where he studied grammar, logic, philosophy, music, mathematics and sciences; he was a pupil of the great translator and interpreter of Greek philosophy, Abu Bishr Matta b. Yunus (d. 942/329) in Baghdad; he then studied under Yuhanna b. Haylan, the Nestorian (d. 941/328), in Harran. Thereby he is affiliated to the Alexandrian school of philosophy which had been located at Harran, Antakya and Merv, before definitively settling in Baghdad. As a result of these years of study, he accumulated such knowledge of philosophy that he earned the name of the ‘Second Teacher', by reference to Aristotle, the ‘First Teacher'.

He moved to Aleppo in the year 943 (330) and became part of the literary circle in the court of Sayf al-Dawla Hamdani (d. 968/356). Al-Farabi was given to wandering on his own in the countryside to reflect and to write, and it was probably his despair at reforming his society that inclined him towards Sufism. His travels brought him to Egypt and it was in Damascus in 950 (339) that he died at the age of 80 [3].

Al-Farabi had a great desire to understand the universe and humankind, and to know the latter's place within the former, so as to reach a comprehensive intellectual picture of the world and of society. He undertook the meticulous study of ancient philosophy, particularly of Plato and Aristotle, absorbing the components of Platonic and neo-Platonic philosophy, which he integrated into his own Islamic-Arabic civilization, whose chief source is, as we all know, the Qur'an and the various sciences derived from it.

Al-Farabi represents a turning-point in the history of Islamic philosophical thought, since he was the true first founder of epistemology which relies upon ‘universal reason' and the demonstrations he gave. The intellectual, political and social circumstances prevailing in his day no doubt explain his approach since, in fact, he lived in a historical period of great turmoil, during which the central Islamic caliphate was torn apart into independent states and principalities in both the east and west; and sects and schools of thought (madhahib) sprang up undermining the nation's intellectual and political unity (oumma). Thus al-Farabi's concern was to restore unity to Islamic thought by confirming the gnoseology based on demonstration.

He established logic within Islamic culture, and this is why he is known as the ‘Second Teacher', as already mentioned. He was also engaged in restoring unity in politics [4], making political science the core of his philosophy, basing himself on the system of rules which governs nature and on the Qur'an which emphasized the relationship between gnoseology and values (axiology). He believed the first aim of knowledge was knowledge of God and his attributes, a knowledge which has a profound effect on the human being's moral conduct and helps him to find the way to the ultimate aim of his existence, while indirectly arousing the intellect so that it should achieve wisdom, which al-Farabi held to be the highest level of intellectual attainment permitted to human beings in this life [5]. Thus the core of his philosophy came to be the unity of society and of the State to be achieved by unity of thought, wisdom and religion, each of these being the foundations of the community's government, which should be the same as the unity and order found in the universe. Indeed, al-Farabi often compares the order and unity of the city to that of the universe. Philosophy and religion were for him simply two expressions of a single truth, the variance between them being only in the form of expression: philosophy explains religion and provides proof of it; it is neither in conflict nor in contradiction with it. Therefore we find him also bringing together the philosophy of Plato and of Aristotle to explain the unity of intellect; for, in his opinion, there is a general unity of thought between Plato and Aristotle, the disparities being mere details.

It is especially important to note here that al-Farabi described something that was taboo in the Hellenistic era: namely, the logical category called ‘demonstration' whose social and educational function he illustrated in the formation of the mind and of political awareness.

2. The aims of education

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Figure 2: Abu Nasr al-Farabi depicted on 1 Kazakhstani Tenge (issued in 1993) (Source).

In fact, education is one of the most important social phenomena in al-Farabi's philosophical system. It is concerned with the human soul and makes sure that the individual is prepared from an early age to become a member of society, to achieve his own level of perfection, and thus to reach the goal for which he was created. However, while it is true that there are no writings specifically devoted to education in al-Farabi's books, anyone who follows his writings with care will come upon various texts scattered here and there containing clear educational elements corresponding to his overall philosophical views, which incline to integrate separate concepts and thoughts into a ‘unified world view'.

Indeed, the whole activity of education, in al-Farabi's view, can be summed up as the acquisition of values, knowledge and practical skills by the individual, within a particular period and a particular culture. The goal of education is to lead the individual to perfection since the human being was created for this purpose, and the goal of humanity's existence in this world is to attain happiness, which is the highest perfection—the absolute good [6].

The perfect human being (al-insan al-kamil), thought al-Farabi, is the one who has obtained theoretical virtue—thus completing his intellectual knowledge—and has acquired practical moral virtues—thus becoming perfect in his moral behaviour. Then, crowning these theoretical and moral virtues with effective power, they are anchored in the souls of individual members of the community [7] when they assume the responsibility of political leadership, thus becoming role models for other people. Al-Farabi unites moral and aesthetic values: good is beautiful, and beauty is good; the beautiful is that which is valued by the intelligentsia [8]. So this perfection which he expects from education combines knowledge and virtuous behavior; it is happiness and goodness at one and the same time.

Theoretical and practical perfection can only be obtained within society, for it is society that nurtures the individual and prepares him to be free. If he were to live outside society, he might only learn to be a wild animal [9]. Then, one of the goals of education is the creation of the ideal community, ‘the one whose cities all work together in order to attain happiness' [10].

One of the aims of education is the formation of political leaders, because ‘ignorance is more harmful in monarchs than it is in the common people' [11]. So, in al-Farabi's view, just as the body needs food and the ship must have a captain, moral conduct must proceed from the soul and the citizens have a real need for a leader who conducts an acceptable policy, directing their affairs in a praiseworthy manner and improving their situation. There is integration between the individual, the family and the city in social life: ‘What we say about all cities is also true of the single household, and of each person' [12]. The political leader, al-Farabi considers, has the function of a doctor who treats souls and his political skill is to the wellbeing of the city what the physician's skill is to bodily health. The work of the politician should not be restricted to the organization and management of cities, inasmuch as he encourages people to help one another in achieving good things and overcoming evil; he must use his political skills to protect the virtues and praiseworthy activities that he has been encouraging in the citizens [13] so that they are free of failings. Among the other characteristics of the political leader is the ‘consultative faculty', in other words ‘an intellectual capacity by which he can draw out what is most beneficial and most fair in the search for the good among others' [14].

The soundness of the city is a reflection of ‘the good balance of morals among its people' [15], and achieving this balance is one of the most important aims of education. When moral behavior declines and there is doubt over behavior and opinions, the absence of these common values governing people's conduct disturbs the city. Morality, then, is a fundamental objective of education. Al-Farabi defines virtues as ‘states of mind in which the human being carries out good and kind deeds. [...] They can be either ethical or rational; the latter are virtues of the rational element in the intelligent human being, such as wisdom, common sense, inventiveness and cleverness. The ethical virtues are, among others, temperance, courage, generosity and justice' [16]. These virtues in the individual must be internalized in the soul so that a person is ready to act upon them ‘to earnestly desire them and, rather than being harmed by them, finds them attractive [...] so that he pursues always those ends which are truly good and makes them his goal' [17].

Among the other aims assigned to education, al-Farabi includes ‘proficiency in the arts', because, in his view, perfection in theoretical and practical arts is one of the expressions of wisdom; for the wise are ‘those who are very proficient in the arts, and reach perfection in them' [18].

Thus, in al-Farabi's view, one of the goals of education is to combine learning with practical action, for the purpose of knowledge is that it should be applied, and perfection lies in its being transformed into action: ‘Whatever by its nature should be known and practiced, its perfection lies in it actually being practiced' [19]. The sciences have no meaning unless they can be applied in practical reality, otherwise they are void and useless. The real practical sciences ‘are those which are linked to readiness for action' [20] and absolute perfection is ‘what the human being achieves through knowledge and action applied together' [21]. Moreover, if the speculative sciences are learned without having the opportunity to apply them, this wisdom is marred [22].

Concerning the realization of these aims and the supervision of education and teaching, al-Farabi agrees with Plato and the ‘Twelver Shi'a' that it is the priest, ruler or philosopher who should be responsible [23]. And since the lawgiver is also the ruler, al-Farabi concludes that the law has an educational function: ‘The meaning of imam, in Arabic, indicates one whose example is followed, one who is well-regarded' [24] . Issuing laws for society does not simply mean ‘that citizens should be obedient and diligent, but also that they should have praiseworthy morals and acceptable behavior' [25] .

Therefore al-Farabi considers that the one who prescribes the laws must be bound by them himself before expecting others to conform to them: ‘The one who sets the laws must first follow them, and only then make them compulsory' [26] . For he would not be acceptable to those under his command, nor would they respect him, if they did not see him observing his own laws. In short, the law has an educational function since it leads to the inculcation of virtues when the leaders conform to it themselves and are seen as role models for the general public. For this purpose, the lawgiver must be trained from childhood in the affairs of State [27] , and the imam's or caliph's aim in legislation must be to please God. Only those whom God has prepared may make laws, including the Prophet, whom al-Farabi defines as: ‘He who lays down the practices and the holy laws, and admonishes the people by incitement and intimidation' [28] . The function of the caliph is to pursue the educational role previously undertaken by the Prophet.

Al-Farabi considers it a duty of the State to put aside a budget for education, taking a portion from the alms tax (zakat) and land tax (kharaj), as well as other State resources for this purpose: ‘Taxes and duties are of two kinds: one is taken to support mutual assistance and the other for the education of the young' [29] .

3. What is education?

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Figure 3: Book cover of Al-Farabi, Founder of Islamic Neoplatonism: His Life, Works, and Influence by Majid Fakhry (Great Islamic Thinkers, Oneworld Publications, 2002).

Al-Farabi used a large number of technical terms to describe this concept: discipline (ta'dib) [30], correction/assessment (taqwim) [31], training (tahdhib) [32], guidance (tasdid) [33], instruction (ta'lim) [34], exercise or learning (irtiyad) [35], and upbringing or education (tarbiya) [36]. Good manners or culture (adab), in his opinion, in their true educational meaning are the ‘combination of all the good qualities' [37], while discipline is the ‘way of creating the moral virtues, and the practical arts in the nations' [38]. Instruction (ta'lim) is ‘creating the speculative virtues in nations and cities'[39]. Al-Farabi distinguishes between instruction (ta'lim) and discipline (ta'dib). The former is the way of acquiring a theoretical culture, and is mainly verbal. The latter forms ethical conduct, and leads to technical or practical skills. They are therefore quite different.

But al-Farabi did not insist on this division, and on another occasion he defined instruction as including discipline [40]. Al-Farabi divides instruction between ‘special' and ‘general'. The special is ‘that which is achieved exclusively by demonstration' [41]. This kind of instruction is directed at the elite ‘who do not restrict themselves in their theoretical knowledge to what is expected by generally accepted opinions, because among nations, as among citizens, there is an elite and the general public. The general public designates those who are restricted in their theoretical knowledge -whether by obligation or not - to what is demanded by generally accepted opinions' [42].

It is the elite of the elite which exercises leadership [43]. It is for this reason that the method of instruction is different: ‘Persuasive and descriptive methods are used in the instruction of common people and the masses in nations and cities; while demonstration methods [...] are used for instructing those who are destined to form part of the elite' [44], those who have been tested and found to have superior intelligence.

Al-Farabi believes that education is founded upon the basis of the human being having certain inborn aptitudes, which he calls ‘nature'; ‘in other words the power which the human being possesses at the moment of birth, and which he could not have acquired'[45]. No normal human being lacks it, just as