The Scholars of Aleppo: Al Farabi, Al-Qifti and al-Adim

by Salah Zaimeche Published on: 23rd March 2005

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The works of three prominent scholars are highlighted: Al- Farabi who was keenly interested in the relation between logic and language, Al-Qifti's vast scholarship, ranging from lexicography to medicine and finally al-Adim's historical works are accounted.

bannerExtracted from the full article: Aleppo by Salah Zaimeche


The ruler Sayf al-Dawla provided a house at Aleppo for al-Farabi, known in Latin as Alpharabius. Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Tarkhan ibn Uzlagh al-Farabi was born in Wasit near Farab, Turkestan, of a Turkish family; studied in Baghdad; flourished chiefly in Aleppo; died in Damascus 950-51, aged c. 80. Al- Farabi, who was keenly interested in the relation between logic and language, also studied Arabic grammar with the noted grammarian Ibn al-Sarraj (d. 929). For reasons not fully known, al-Farabi left Baghdad for Syria in 942, where he is said to have been sponsored by the Arab prince of Aleppo, Sayf al-Dawla (who came into power in 945). “He (Al-Farabi) was the most indifferent of men to the things of this world,” says Ibn Khallikan; “he never gave himself the least trouble to acquire a livelihood or possess a habitation.” Sayf al-Dawla asked him how much he needed for his maintenance; al-Farabi thought that four dirhems (~$2) a day would suffice; the prince settled this allowance on him for life.

Thirty-nine works by al-Farabi survive. Some of his works, notably The Enumeration of the Sciences and the Treatise on the Intellect, were translated into Latin and known to medieval Scholastics and to philosophers of the Italian Renaissance.

He wrote a number of commentaries on Aristotle (physics, meteorology, logical treatises, etc.), on Porphyry’s “Isagoge,” on Ptolemy’s Almagest,” but his own writings deal chiefly with psychology and metaphysics. His own philosophy is developed in such works as Tahsil al-Sa’ada (The attainment of happiness), which forms the first part of a trilogy, Ihsa al-‘ulum (The enumeration of the sciences), Kitab al-milla (The book of religion), al-siyasa al-madaniyya (The political regime), and Ara ahl al-madina al-fadila (The opinions of the citizens of the virtuous city). The Bezels of Philosophy, (Risala Fusus al-Hikam) is a short philosophical introduction.

Al-Farabi is the author of a treatise on the classification and fundamental principles of science, Kitab ihsa al-‘ulum,De Scientiis,” and “De ortu scientiarum“. It summarizes the knowledge of his time in philology, logic, mathematics, physics, chemistry, economics, and politics. This work was translated in the 12th century by the Latin translator Gundisalvi. A much later translation of this work is into Spanish by G. Palencia who publishes the Arabic text of Ihssa al-Ulum or catalogue of the sciences according to MS. Escorial Arab 646.

Al-Farabi was conversant with the whole scientific thought of his day. He wrote a very important treatise on the theory of music (Kitab al- musiqi), where he demonstrated knowledge of mensural music and recognized the major third (4:5) and the minor third (5:6) as consonances.

His work Al-Medina al-Fadila—The Ideal City; (The Model city) (Risala fi mabadi ara ahl al-Madina al-Fadila); the organisation of an ideal city, is of great sociological interest. Al-Farabi discusses the structure of the “virtuous” city, the qualities its leadership must have, and the various types of “non virtuous” cities. The majority of these latter are characterized as “ignorant” because of their leaders’ ignorance of the true nature of happiness. Related to this is al-Farabi’s eschatology, according to which immortality is confined to those souls that have knowledge of what constitutes true happiness. Durant outlines the contents of this work further. It opens with a description of the law of nature as one of perpetual struggle of each organism against all the rest—; every living thing, in the last analysis, sees in all other living things a means to its ends. Some cynics argue from this, says al-Farabi, that in this inescapable competition the wise man is he who best bends others to his will, and most fully achieves his own desires. How did human society emerge from this law of the jungle? Some thought that society had begun in an agreement, among individuals, that their survival required the acceptance of certain restraints through custom or law; others laughed this “social contract” out of history and insisted that society, or the state, had begun as the conquest and regimentation of the weak by the strong, where states themselves struggle with one another for ascendancy, security, power, and wealth; war is natural and inevitable; and as in the law of nature, the only right is might. Al-Farabi counters this view with an appeal to his fellow men to build a society not upon envy, power, and strife, but upon reason, devotion, and love. He ends safely by recommending a monarchy based upon strong religious belief.

Djamal Eddin Ibn Al-Qifti

During the crusades, Aleppo remained a great centre of Muslim scholarship where many scholars retired to form a sort of fraternity, especially as this city remained protected by the might of the armies of Nur Eddin Zangi (1145-1173), in particular, hence, the one place, which protected Muslim scholarship until 1260 when it was devastated by the Mongols. This fraternity is symbolised by Djamal Eddin Ibn Al-Qifti, a vizier around whom much scholarship thrived in Aleppo. He was born in Egypt, in the year 1172. At a young age, his father took him to Cairo to learn to read and write, then he left Cairo for Jerusalem then, finally Aleppo, where he spent the rest of his life, first by the side of Emir Maymun al-Kasry. In Aleppo Ibn al-Qifti met another great scholar, who was close to the Emir: Youssef al-Sibti (d. 1226). When the Emir Al-Maymun died, Ibn al-Qifti retired from his functions into utmost solitude, running away from the world, and instead devoting all his time and energies to studies, still, subsequent rulers called upon him to resume his ministerial functions until he died in 1248.

Ibn Al-Qifti enjoyed the company of scholars and their discussions, and was also the patron of scholars, and he became scholar himself, helped by his own assiduous efforts. He is a singular character who only found pleasure amongst books, so much so he never acquired a house despite his ministerial functions, and his morality remained impeccable to the end. Such was his love for books, he collected them in all their large numbers and variety, and his private library amounted to 50,000 books, which were legated to Malik AnNasir, a collection estimated after his death at 60000 Dinars, or by Leclerc at the end of the 19th century at nearly a million Francs. His books were collected from all parts of the world and were all masterpieces; the authorship of the greatest scholars, even written by their own hand. Once, Ibn al-Qifti bought a book, which was missing a part. One day a tradesman brought him some pages of this part, which Ibn al-Qifti purchased, asking for the rest. When the tradesman told him he had used them to wrap his goods for sale, Ibn Al-Qifti mourned so much the loss that he suspended his ministerial functions.

Ibn al-Qifti’s own scholarship concerns lexicology, grammar, jurisprudence, tradition, the Qur’an, logic, astronomy, mathematics, history, and medicine. He is famed for his biography of scholars, called Kitab Ikhbar al-Ulama bi Akhbar al-Hukama, or “information given to the learned on the history of the wise”. This work is known through the summary made in 1249-50 by Al-Zawzani in a work generally known as Tarikh al-Hukama (the history of the wise). The Tarikh al-Hukama was edited on the basis of August Muller’s investigations by Julius Lippert. The Spanish orientalist, Casiri, was the first to bring to light this work. The work contains information on the life and works of more than 414 very unequal biographies of ancient and Muslim physicians, men of sciences and philosophers. The information is very substantive, including very useful and rich information on the lives of such scholars. To have an idea of the length and volume of information in the work, it ought to be reminded that the manuscript at the Escurial in Madrid contains 500 pages, with fifteen lines each of small writing. The richness of this work on the life of Islamic scholarship is obvious, yet, as Sarton rightly observes, there has never been a full English translation of this work, which is very much needed.

Ibn al-Qifti is also the author of other works, which include:

· Annals of grammarians.

· Annals of Egypt from the beginning to the time of Salah Eddin

· History of the Yemen

· Discourse on Sahih al-Bukhari

· History of the Seljuk

· Response to the Christians

· The best transcriptions since the invention of writing.

Kamal Eddin Ibn al-Adim

Kamal Eddin Ibn al-Adim (1192-1262) is the historian of his native city, Aleppo, most especially through his enormous biographical work, not yet published in modern times: Bughyat al-Talab (The student’s desire), which is a collection of biographies of the famous men of Aleppo arranged alphabetically, of which only a part remains. He also wrote his history of the city: Zubdat al-Halab fi ta’arikh Halab (The cream of the history of Aleppo), which describes the history of Aleppo up to 1243. Ibn al-Adim also wrote a guide for the making of perfumes, Kitab al-wuslat (or wasilat) ila-l- habib fi wasf al-tayibat wal-tibb

Ibn al-Adim was appointed professor in a madrasa of Aleppo in 1219-20, and later Qadi and Visier to the Ayyubid rulers of Aleppo, Al-Aziz and Al-Nasir. It is with the latter that he fled to Egypt when the Mongols captured and devastated the city in 1260. This is only one episode of the very dramatic history of the city, which had earlier played a decisive role in Muslim history during the crusades as the last part of this work will show. Ibn al-Adim gives a very interesting and enlightening account, which is briefly summed up here, of one of the most decisive battles of the first crusade, at Balat in 1119, a battle that saved Aleppo from the crusader onslaught, which devastated much of Syria and Palestine:

`Il-Ghazi and Tughtikin (The Muslim leaders) went together to Mardin and from there sent messages to the Muslim armies and to Turcoman soldiers far and near to join them in the great army they were mustering…. Messengers arrived from Aleppo begging Il-Ghazi to hurry there as the Franks were raiding al-Athrib, south of Aleppo, and morale was low… Sir Roger, the crusade ruler of Antioch assembled the Frankish and Armenian armies and made straight for the iron bridge (over the Orontes) and went from there to take up his position at Balat, between the two mountains near the Sarmada pass, north of al-Atharib. He camped there on Friday 20 June 1119. The Muslims waited for Tughtekin to arrive but he did not. Il-Ghazi was thus goaded into immediate action against the enemy. He made all the emirs and commanders renew their oath to fight bravely, to stand form without retreating, and to offer their lives in Holy War. To this they cheerfully swore… At the head of the Muslim army was Ibn al-Khashab, the Qadi of Aleppo, mounted on a mare and carrying a lance, and urging the Muslims on to war. A soldier seeing the Qadi said: `So we left home and come all this way to march behind a turban.’ But the Qadi at the head of the troops rode up and down the lines haranguing them and using all his eloquence to summon every energy and rise to the highest pitch of enthusiasm, until men wept with emotion and admiration. Then Tugha Arslan Ibn Dimlaj (Amir of Arzan in the Jazira, and vassal of Ilghazi) led the charge, and the army swept down on the enemy tents, spreading chaos and destruction. God gave victory to the Muslims. The Franks who fled their camp were slaughtered. The Turks fought superbly, charging the enemy from every direction. Arrows flew thick as locusts, and the Franks, with missiles raining down on infantry and cavalry alike, turned and fled…. Roger was killed, and so were 15,000 of his men… A signal of victory reached Aleppo as the Muslims were assembled for the noon prayer in the Great Mosque…. When the prisoners were brought in front of Il-Ghazi, he noticed one of magnificent physique who had been captured by a small, thin, ill armed Muslim. As he passes before the Prince the Turcoman soldiers said to him: `are not you ashamed to have been captured by this little man with a physique like yours? The Frank replied: `By God, this man did not capture me; he is not my conqueror. The man who captured me was a great man, greater and stronger than I, and he handed me over to this fellow. He wore a green robe and rode a green horse.’

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