Selected Aphorisms And Other Texts
7:02 h Islam
Al-Farabi was a renowned early Islamic philosopher and jurist who wrote in the fields of political philosophy, metaphysics, ethics and logic. He was also a scientist, cosmologist, mathematician and music theorist. In Islamic philosophical tradition he was often called "the Second Teacher", following Aristotle who was known as "the First Teacher". He is credited with preserving the original Greek texts during the Middle Ages because of his commentaries and treatises.
The Political Writings
“Selected Aphorisms” and Other Texts
Translated and Annotated
Charles E. Butterworth

Charles “Chick” Evans Jr.,
Roland F. “Mac” McGuigan,
and Thomas Dutch,
with gratitude for their faith in
the promise of education


Widely referred to as “the second teacher,” that is, second after Aristotle, Abu Nasr Muhammad Ibn Muhammad Ibn Tarkhan Ibn Awzalagh al-Farabli (Alfarabi) is generally heralded as having founded political philosophy within the Islamic cultural tradition. Born in about 870/256 in the village of Farab in Turkestan, he resided in Bukhara, Marv, Harran, Baghdad, and perhaps in Constantinople, as well as in Aleppo, Cairo, and finally Damascus, where he died in 950/339. The son of an army officer in the service of the Samanids, Alfarabi first studied Islamic jurisprudence and music in Bukhara, then moved to Marv, where he began to study logic with a Nestorian Christian monk, Yuhanna Ibn Haylan. While in his early twenties, Alfarabi left for Baghdad, where he continued to study logic and philosophy with Ibn Haylan. At the same time, he improved his grasp of Arabic by studying with the prominent philologist Ibn al-Sarraj and is said to have followed the courses of the famous Nestorian Christian translator and student of Aristotle, Matta Ibn Yunus.

Around 905/293-910/298, Alfarabi left Baghdad for Byzantium (possibly even reaching Constantinople), where he remained for about eight years, studying Greek sciences and philosophy. On his return to Baghdad, he busied himself with teaching and writing until political upheavals in 942/330 forced him to seek refuge in Damascus. Two or three years later, political turmoil there drove him to Egypt, where he stayed until returning to Damascus in 948/337 or 949/338, a little over a year before his death.

His writings, extraordinary in their breadth as well as in their deep learning, extend through all of the sciences and embrace every part of philosophy. Alfarabi’s interest in mathematics is evidenced in commentaries on the Elements of Euclid and Almagest of Ptolemy, as well as in several writings on the history and theory of music. Indeed, his Kitab al-Musiqa al-Kabir, (Large Book on Music) may well be the most significant work in Arabic on that subject. He also wrote numerous commentaries on Aristotle’s logical treatises, was knowledgeable about the Stagirite’s physical writings, and is credited with an extensive commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics that is no longer extant. In addition to writing the accounts of Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophy that form the second and third parts of the trilogy published as the first volume in this series of Alfarabi’s political writings, the Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, he composed a commentary on Plato’s Laws.

As the first philosopher within the tradition of Islam to explore the challenge to traditional philosophy presented by revealed religion, especially in its claims that the Creator provides for human well-being by means of an inspired prophet legislator, Alfarabi has come to be known as the founder of Islamic political philosophy. In the first part of the Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle that is, in the Attainment of Happiness he seeks to pinpoint the common concerns that link Islam and its revealed law with pagan philosophy in its highest form namely, the writings of Plato and Aristotle. That effort finds an echo in the Selected Aphorisms, the first writing presented in this volume, in two ways. First, the opening words of the treatise indicate that Alfarabi draws from what the ancients that is, Plato and Aristotle have to say about governing, but governing with a view to a particular purpose. For him, the goal is to govern cities so that they become prosperous and the lives of their citizens are improved this in the sense that they be led toward happiness. Second, the overlap between this work and the Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, especially the Attainment of Happiness, indicated by these words is made even more explicit toward the end of the Selected Aphorisms. Indeed, a long passage in aphorism 94 paraphrases sections 11-20 of the Attainment of Happiness.

Yet Alfarabi seems always alert to the difficulties religion and revealed law pose for the older approach to politics. In the fifth chapter of the Enumeration of the Sciences, for example, he sets forth two accounts of the old political science. Both presuppose the validity of the traditional separation between the practical and the theoretical sciences, but neither is adequate for the radically new situation created by the appearance of revealed religion. The two accounts explain in detail the actions and ways of life required for sound political rule to flourish, but are utterly silent about opinions especially the kind of theoretical opinions that have been set forth in the now dominant religion and thus are unable, given this religion’s prevalence, to point to the kind of rulership needed. Nor can either speak about the opinions or actions addressed by the jurisprudence and theology of revealed religion. These tasks require a political science that both combines theoretical and practical sciences along with prudence and shows how they are to be ordered in the soul of the ruler.

Such a view of political science is presented in the Book of Religion. It is a political science that is a part of philosophy. Yet even as Alfarabi offers this redemptive vision of political science, he suggests that religion and revelation must also be put into perspective or considered anew and then goes about explaining religion in such a manner that its theoretical and practical subordination to philosophy becomes manifest. Alfarabi’s account of this subordination makes it seem perfectly reasonable so reasonable that the limitations thereby placed on dialectical theology and jurisprudence appear to follow necessarily from it.

To this explanation of the way Alfarabi elaborates the relationship between the philosophy of the ancients and the new revelation, one might object that it relies too much on a presumption of harmony and agreement between Plato and Aristotle on these matters. We know, however, that the two differed about many minor and not-so-minor questions. This issue is addressed in the last work presented in this volume, the highly enigmatic Harmonization of the Two Opinions of the Two Sages, Plato the Divine and Aristotle. Here Alfarabi, desirous of putting an end to the disputes and discord among his contemporaries about the disagreement they claim to discern between “the two eminent and distinguished sages, Plato and Aristotle,” sets out to show that their opinions are in agreement, to “remove doubt and suspicion from the hearts of those who look into their books,” and to “explain the places of uncertainty and the sources of doubt in their treatises.” These goals, set forth in the opening words of the treatise, are surely most appealing. But do they not too readily discount or ignore simple facts manifest to any student of Plato and Aristotle? Precisely for that reason, the reader must look again at Alfarabi’s final observation as he begins this treatise: he deems the attempt to show the agreement or harmonization between these two philosophers’ teachings to be of the utmost importance and, in addition, a most beneficial matter “to expound upon and elucidate.” Stated differently, whether such agreement exists in fact or not, concern for the commonweal prompts Alfarabi to seek for a means of bringing something like agreement to light.

Such are the general features of and linkages between the texts before us. Each has been translated anew for this volume, and each translation relies either on a text newly edited or on the revision of an older edition. To the extent consonant with readable English, Arabic terms have been rendered consistently by the same English word. Similarly, every effort has been made to ensure that once an English word is used for a particular Arabic term, it is subsequently used only for that term. The goal is to reproduce in faithful and readable English the argument of these Arabic texts in a manner that captures their texture and style and also communicates the nuances and variety of Alfarabi’s expression. To this end, notes sometimes point to particular problems in a passage or to the fact that considerations of style or sense have made it necessary to render an important term differently. An English-Arabic and Arabic-English glossary has been placed at the end of the volume to provide the interested reader with the possibility of investigating how particular words have been translated.

The translations presented here have benefited from the kindly suggestions of many readers, especially the students in undergraduate and graduate seminars at the University of Maryland, Georgetown University, and Harvard University, who wrestled valiantly with the complexities of Alfarabi’s thought and expression. May they and all those fellow scholars who have read these translations with such care, pondered over my attempts to render Alfarabi’s teaching in something approaching conventional English, and helped me present it more precisely or perhaps more elegantly, find here my warmest expressions of gratitude. Special thanks are due also to five individuals, each of whom contributed massively to this project. First, as all students of Alfarabi know so well. Professor Muhsin Mahdi discovered many of the manuscripts on which these translations are based and prepared the excellent critical edition of the Book of Religion. In addition, I have benefited greatly from his sound advice on how to resolve particular textual problems. Professor Fauzi M. Najjar’s sterling editions of Selected Aphorisms and Harmonization have proved to be especially helpful, as have his initiative and assistance in translating the latter for this book. Every translator should be so fortunate to have a reader like Miriam Galston, who allows almost nothing to pass unquestioned, especially not infelicities of expression that admit of remedy. If these translations now have anything approaching literary appeal or elegance and some greater accuracy, it is largely due to her painstaking reading of the final manuscript and to her constant probing; for that precious gift of time and effort, my gratitude is boundless. I was also fortunate to have in Thomas Pangle a series editor willing to read each translation with great care, suggest ever so tactfully how awkward formulations might be better phrased, and query passages whose opacity had eluded me. Rima Pavalko’s careful eye for details and gracious assistance with editorial tasks have been invaluable. To each of these benefactors, I express my deepest thanks and hope that this end product will seem worthy of their efforts. Finally, it is a great pleasure to acknowledge the support of the Earhart Foundation.

Selected Aphorisms
The translation

This translation is based on the text of the Selected Aphorisms edited by Fauzi M. Najjar just over a quarter of a century ago. Najjar’s edition was intended to expand upon, correct, and generally improve the edition and translation published by D. M. Dunlop a decade earlier. It was primarily Muhsin Mahdi’s discovery in Turkey of an older and more reliable manuscript of this work that prompted the new edition. This manuscript, from the Diyarbekir Central Library (no. 1970), had not been known to Dunlop and offered better readings of key passages as well as a more complete text. In addition, Mahdi discovered another Turkish manuscript unknown to Dunlop the Istanbul Millet Library, Feyzullah, no. 1279. Though it was not much more reliable than the two manuscripts on which Dunlop had based his work (the Chester Beatty, no. 3714; and Bodleian, Hunt., no. 307., Najjar’s acquisition of copies of two other manuscripts unknown to Dunlop (the University of Teheran, Central Library, Mishkat, no. 250, and the University of Teheran, Faculty of Divinity, Ilahiyyat, no. 695) allowed him to improve considerably upon Dunlop’s edition. These improvements appear throughout the text, but are especially evident in the new aphorisms (3, 15, 23, and 40) and the additional sentences in aphorisms 6, 8, and 26 (corresponding to Dunlop’s 5, 7, and 23). Again, in aphorisms 68-87, where Dunlop had to rely solely on the Chester Beatty source, Najjar’s richer manuscript base offered far better textual readings and clarified many problems Dunlop had not been able to resolve.

The numbering of the aphorisms in the present translation corresponds to Najjar’s edition, but the section titles and other material found within square brackets have been added by me. Some of these divisions are supported by marginal notations found in the Diyarbekir and University of Teheran Central Library manuscripts. Still, Dunlop’s erroneous division of the text into two parts (aphorisms 1-65 and 66-96) on the basis of a marginal note in the Chester Beatty manuscript shows that such decisions cannot be reached on the basis of scribal marginalia alone, but must also be consonant with the sense of the argument. Also of my doing is the sentence punctuation and paragraph divisions within the aphorisms. The numbers within square brackets refer to the pages of Najjar’s Arabic text. With these additions, as with the notes, my primary goal has been to make it easier for the reader to seize and follow Alfarabi’s argument.

The same goal guides this translation. Years of using Dunlop’s translation with students who do not read Arabic showed that it would not be sufficient merely to insert Najjar’s new aphorisms and otherwise lightly touch up his version. Rather, it had become clear that a technically rigorous rendering of the text was needed. For example, in aphorism 57, Dunlop renders the term al-madina al-fadila, not as “the virtuous city” (which corresponds to the context and its discussion of virtue) but as “the ideal city.” In aphorism 2, where Alfarabi contrasts noble actions (al-afal al-jamila) with base actions (al-afal al-qabiha), a contrast perfectly in keeping with the other one he is making between virtue and vice, Dunlop translates these as “fair actions” and “ugly actions,” thereby leaving the reader to wonder what Alfarabi is talking about. In keeping with this lack of rigor is Dunlop’s tendency to use different English terms for the same Arabic terms and the same English term to translate different Arabic ones, a practice that deprives the reader of learning anything about Alfarabi’s philosophic or political vocabulary.

To be sure, the contrary practice I have adopted sometimes obliges the reader to pause and puzzle out certain passages. The attempt to render Arabic terms consistently with the same English ones does not always lend itself to seamless, fluid prose. It should come as no surprise that particularly when he is engaged in discussions of difficult questions, as when he is explaining wisdom (aph. 37), Alfarabi’s Arabic prose is equally strained. The extremes to be avoided in translation seem to be the excessive pedantry or desire for precision that creates confusion where none exists and the insufficient attentiveness that leads to smoothing over just those difficulties that one ought not remove. Though awareness of them offers no immunity, it is surely a better portent for a translation than nescience.

The title of the work

Only one of the known manuscripts namely, the “Book of the Aphorisms of the Statesman, by Abu Nasr al-Farabl” offers a title. It is also one of the latest and least reliable manuscripts, the Bodleian. Moreover, no medieval bibliographic source attributes a book with this title to Alfarabi; nor does the famous nineteenth century historian of medieval Islamic and Jewish philosophy, Moritz Steinschneider, ever refer to it by this name. He, like Najjar, looks back to those traditional sources as well as to the way the work is identified in the first few lines of the other manuscripts and opts for the appellation “The Selected Aphorisms”; in doing so, Steinschneider departs only minutely from the other title traditionally assigned the work, the one Najjar opts for “Selected Aphorisms.”

Najjar relies principally upon the Diyarbekir manuscript to establish this title. With minor variations, the first few lines of this manuscript and three of the other five manuscripts read:

Selected aphorisms that comprise the roots of many of the sayings of the Ancients concerning that by which cities ought to be governed and made prosperous, the ways of life of their inhabitants improved, and they be led toward happiness.