Alfarabi and Kalam (Theology) in the Mabadi’


In his Mabadi’ ara’ ahl al-madinat al-fadilah (Mabadi’ from now on), Alfarabi discusses various kalami issues such as God, His attributes, His relationship to the world, prophecy, and revelation. He also develops his philosophy of prophecy and epistemic status of knowledge that a prophet can possibly have, and the relationship between this knowledge and a prophet’s community. While Alfarabi discusses his philosophy of kalam, its subject-matters, and methods in his other works such as Enumeration of Sciences, The Book of Religion, and The Book of Letters, in the Mabadi’, he investigates mostly the relationship between religion, politics, and philosophy.

            Mabadi’s opening discussion is about the First Cause, which in Alfarabi’s corpus stands for God.[1] From his opening discussion on First Cause, it becomes apparent that from the beginning, Alfarabi makes the reader understands that his account of God and universe is not religious but philosophical. By this, he alludes to the idea that philosophy investigates everything in the universe that is known as existence, from earth to heavenly bodies and among them the status of revelation. This philosophical attitude is unprecedented among his contemporary religious fellows or other Abrahamic religions followers. The notion of First Cause goes back to Aristotle who introduces the notion in his Book 12 of Metaphysics.[2] Alfarabi’s notion of the First Cause is influenced by Aristotle. To him the First Cause is the cause of entire existence. It is with no deficiency. Although everything is dependent on it, it does not depend on anything else. It has no end, and it is an end in itself. It is the most excellent thing, and nothing existed prior to it. It is needless to say that except one crucial quality, Alfarabi’s notion of the First Cause shares many qualities of Aristotle’s same notion; this quality is emanation.

Even Aristotle’s First Cause, like Alfarabi’s, metaphorically speaking, lives a perfect life. However, Aristotle’s First Cause, unlike Alfarabi’s, lacks emanative quality. Alfarabi’s First Cause, through the other mediators, emanates the whole universe. The First Cause emanates the Second Cause and the Second the Third Cause and so on. The first Cause overflows the universe with its emanation.

Prophetology and the Soul

Another crucial topic that Alfarabi discusses in the Mabadi’ is prophecy (Nubuva’). His discussion of prophecy takes place in the context of his discussion on the soul and more precisely when he discusses the capacity of the faculty of representation with regard to intelligibles. The soul has cognitive and non-cognitive parts. The cognitive faculty consists of three parts. Tripartite cognitive part of the soul consists of sensible, representative, and rational faculties, and non-cognitive faculty consists of nutritive and appetitive parts. Needless to say, the rational faculty is superior to the two other faculties. Each faculty has its apt perfection when it perceives its most suitable object perfectly. Intelligibles as they are intelligible are suitable objects of rational faculty of the soul. However, the faculty of representation, because of its limitations, can receive the intelligibles, not as intelligibles, but as their imitations.

To him, the faculty of representation functions as an intermediate between the         sensible and the rational part of the soul. It receives the sensibilia from what the faculty of sense has received from sensibles. It also restores sensibilia, and it has a capacity to imitate what it has restored. Furthermore, the faculty of representation has a capacity to imitate intelligibles as much as its capacity allows. It entails that the capacity of the faculty of representation to receive intelligibles is not without limitations. He states

“If it is in its nature not to receive the thing as it is, its reception takes place by its     imitation of that thing through the sensibles which it finds in itself, which can imitate it. But since it may be beyond its capacity to receive the intelligibles as intelligibles, when the rational faculty provides it with the intelligibles which are present (in) it, it will receive them as they are in the rational faculty but imitate them with appropriate sensibles” (Mabadi’14.4.9-13).

Here Alfarabi clearly talks about the limited capacity of the faculty of representation to imitate all intelligibles. However, it is striking that in two passages further he claim that, The faculty of representation also imitates the rational faculty by imitating those intelligibles which are present in it with things suitable for imitating them. It thus         imitates the intelligibles of utmost perfection, like the First Cause, the immaterial           things and the heavens, with the most excellent and most perfect sensibles, like         things beautiful to look at; and the defective intelligibles with the most inferior and defective sensibles like things ugly to look at. (Mabadi’ IV, 14,6. 5-10)

Some of the things he lists here as suitable for the faculty of representation to imitate are the most excellent things in Alfarabi’s universe. So if Alfarabi believes that the faculty of representation is capable to imitate these most excellent things, but not as they are but as their imitation. To understand what his account of the soul in its fullest, one needs to understand what is an imitation according to Alfarabi, which for the sake of space I need to investigate later.

In the Mabadi’, he never states that prophecy requires the perfection of rational faculty; he is aware that prophets are not philosophers or they never had been philosophers. Perhaps it is for this reason that Alfarabi does not explain prophecy by perfection of the rational faculty, but as perfection of faculty of representation. However, the crucial point is that, in Alfarabi’s scheme of the soul, the faculty of representation is inferior to the rational faculty. To him, the Active Intellect emanates intelligibles not as intelligibles but as their imitations to the faculty of representation, while Active Intellect emanates intelligibles as intelligibles to faculty of reason. What implies in Alfarabi’s scheme of the soul is that prophecy is inferior to philosophy.

Divine things are those things that prophecy is concerned the most, and majority of people understand divine things through prophecy. How does Alfarabi view the statues of the divine things in the soul with regard to prophecy? In a crucial passage in the Mabadi’, he mentions the divine things with respect to the faculty of representation. His explanation is short and ambiguous as it is his customary attitude when he talks about sensitive topics. He says, “Regarding divine things, what the Active Intellect bestows upon the faculty of representation from intelligibles that it receives, it [the faculty of representation] receives them as imitations, [which are] foretelling [of divine things] (alkahinat)[3] IV,14, 7-8). In fact, alkahinat has a negative connotation in Arabic, especially for a rational philosopher like Alfarabi, and it actually means fortune telling based on astrology. Here Alfarabi in his ambiguous way compares the prophetical knowledge-claims of the divine things as the knowledge claim of a fortuneteller.

Although the faculty of representation is inferior to the rational faculty, prophecy is a manifestation of the ultimate perfection of the faculty of representation. Since Alfarabi gives philosophy and knowledge of intelligibles a superior epistemic status. It is for this reason that, unlike Alkindi, he maintains that kalam cannot be the First Philosophy. To him, First Philosophy is seeking knowledge of intelligibles through employing the method of demonstration. In fact, if all people could be philosophers, there would be no need for prophets since what prophets introduce to their communities are the imitations of those intelligibles that philosophers receive by the Active Intellect in their rational faculties. However, the fact is that people whom Active Intellect emanates intelligible are not many, and people who have to rely on the imitations of intelligibles are in majority. Consequently, religion has vital role for a well-ordered politics that a Farabian philosopher needs always to acknowledge.[4] However, a Farabian philosopher should not confuse intelligibles with their imitations.


[1] It is striking that in Mabadi’, he never uses the term Allah when he talks about God. I think this is more than a stylistic choice from our philosopher, and in fact it shows that his God is not the God of religions, but a philosophical God. Indeed, as we see in his further discussion he brings religion to the tribune of reason rather than giving higher position to prophetic knowledge.

[2] What is known as Aristotle’s notion of First Cause is what he calls it ὃ οὐ κινούμενος κινεῖ “that which moves without being moved.”

[3] I did not find Walzer’s translation of this sentence accurate. He translated the sentence as following, “But divinations concerning things divine will arise from the intelligibles provided by the Active Intellect, which it receives by taking their imitations instead” The problem with Walzer’s translation is that he mistakes divination (alkahinat) as the subject of the sentence while the subject of the sentence is divine objects.

[4] Imitation causes plurality of representation of intelligibles among nations. Each nation develops its own system of representations, which form the identity of the nation.

Works Cited

Alfarabi, Abu Nasr. 1968. Kita ̄b al-millah wa nus.u ̄s. ukhra. Ed. Muhsin Mahdi. Bayru ̄t:Da ̄r al-Mashriq (Arabic).

Alfarabi, Abu Nasr. 1995. Maba ̄di’ a ̄ra ̄’ ahl al-mad­inat al-fa ̄dila’. Bayru ̄t: Da ̄r va         Maktaba’ Alhila ̄l. (Arabic).

Alfarabi. 1998. On the Perfect State. Trans. Richard Walzer. London: Oxford University Press.

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