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Al-Farabi – A Political Theologian or Political Philosopher

Al-Farabi’s work, due to its extensive philosophical and religious nature – is not easy to comprehend. Scholars have contradicting opinion about what could be the nature of his political understanding. For intellectuals like Massimo Campanini, al-Farabi is a theologian and his political ideas are influenced by the religion to a greater extent. He perceives the former’s understanding about politics as political theology. Contrary to that Charles E. Butterworth comes up with a different point of view; for him al-Farabi is a political philosopher. The issue arises from the close interaction of political science, religion and philosophy in the works of al-Farabi. Though both authors are able to find a lot of commonalities about the concepts, they have a conflict about the source of his political theory. This essay will follow a linear pattern: first by explaining the common assumptions then presenting the viewpoints of authors and coming up with a personal conclusion/opinion.

Before we proceed, it is necessary to understand the difference between political theology and political philosophy. According to political theology studies, political and ethological concepts are closely linked and political concepts are derived from the theology. On the other hand, political philosophy is the inquiry of nature of politics – the state, rights, and obligations and so on. Political philosophy, contrary to the political theology, can be understood as an independent or value-free discipline. One aspect that needs our attention in both cases – especially regarding political theology – is that Islam is a unique religion and it must not be judged on the same scale as Christianity. The core doctrine of Islam is significantly different than the Christianity and so the understanding of politics. For time being, it is enough to know that while Christianity sees power as an evil, Islam shows a positive attitude towards it.

There are a number of common aspects of al-Farabi’s philosophy discussed in both articles. Foremost is Medina al-Fadilah which is a city created as a consequence of human nature. Humans are naturally in pursuit of happiness which cannot be attained individually so they live in community to reach it. The city is ruled by a philosopher – also known as first ruler, prophet, imam, law makers and so on in al-Farabi’s works. He himself is virtuous and thus leads the inhabitants of the city to a virtuous life. He is able to communicate using reason and rule by proper judgment. The mankind share a common goal which is seeking ultimate happiness. That happiness can be attained via knowledge about the universe and one’s position in it. Religion makes it easy for a person to achieve his goal and facilitates the implementation of truths discovered by philosophy. All those needs lead to establishment of a political order yet the regime type is not specified by al-Farabi.

Another significant theme is the injury about the hierarchy between religion and philosophy. Al-Farabi seems to he put philosophy at higher position as he argues that intellectual theoretical elements are termed philosophy when it comes to elites/legislator and religion when comes to masses. The subordination of religion is on the practical level of action rather than the theoretical one. However, both religion and philosophy are equally convenient ways for reaching the truth but philosophy – due to its epistemological superiority – is more convincing. In other words, both are truth expressed in two different ways. In Kitab al-Siyasa al-madaniyya he suggests that elites/philosophers tend to understand the principles thorough conceptualization and intellect while masses/believers do the same by the means of imagination and imitation. Religion, according to him cannot be simplified to piety or worship but it is a worldview shared by the inhabitants of a city. It includes various philosophical aspect like understanding the God, the structure of universe, politics and other worldly affairs. Philosophy is the theoretical understanding of God while religion is the spiritual one. Simply, religion is a sub-philosophy.

Massimo Campanini believes that al-Farabi was the founder of Islamic political theology. It has two main aspects: theological legitimacy of political order and reflection of theology in politics. He suggests that Islam does not hint on the establishment of any particular political order in the revelation yet throughout history kings legitimized their power thorough religion. However, if God is considered as the supreme legislator and the rulers under him in hierarchy, Islam does establish a political theology. Moreover, unlike Christianity (reference to St. Augustine’s dualism), Islam shows a positive attitude to the power. Islamic scholars, throughout the history, have tried to established politics as divinely ordained social order. They have created a political theology with assertion of will of God in the form of a political order at its center. Moreover, there has been a coherence between jurisdiction and theology when it comes to political affairs. He adds that some might reject his proposition on the basis of sovereignty of God for Allah being the master (rabb) and king (malik) of universe, yet this is an essential part of the theology as everything in universe is in an order.

Political science, he says, according to al-Farabi is the investigation of goal oriented voluntary actions and way of life in the pursuit of ultimate happiness. It also originates from the political and social nature of man. He states that political science, as per al-Farabi, is a religious science with philosophy at its base as it is concerned with the divine arguments of who is the supreme authority and what is the ultimate happiness. He also adds that fiqh and kalam are the by-products of political science. Religion, however, is subordinated to the philosophy itself or at least at risk of being so. His ideas about philosophy being the domain of elites while region being the domain of masses is already discussed. Politics, he concludes, is sole theology and authentic religious science as it draws its legitimization from the religion. He uses the word milla instead of din for religion (sometimes both are synonymous), the former being more concerned with the socio-political organization. He suggest that for a proper political order, people of the city must share the same ideology or milla mushtarka yet different faiths may co-exist in the order. To assert his opinion, Campanini adds that religion is a driving belt between politics and philosophy which gives rise to political theology. Moreover, he says that medieval political philosophy being philosophy of religion strengthen his point of view. Al-Farabi suggests that fiqh itself is part of political science and subordinated to practical philosophy. At the end he suggests that religion and political are focused on the same goal of happiness which makes the arguments much plausible. He concludes with the fact that religion has a political extension which does not create theocracy but leads the secular level of politics by adding religious morals and ethics to it. He suggest that politics is not enough to establish the truth so it needs assistance from the religion to do so. Though he has a strong feeling that al-Farabi is a political theologian, he does not neglect the fact that al-Farabi can be seen as a political philosopher.

In opposition of Campanini, Butterworth brings up a philosophical standpoint. He suggests that Campanini was wrong in his assumption as al-Farabi did come up with a theory of religious implication – political theology. He also denied the claim that major portion of Islamic though is dedicated to assertion of authority of Allah. In opposition of that belief, Butterworth suggests that al-Farabi’s goal was revival of philosophy of his predecessors like Plato and Aristotle. He tend to free religion from theology – possibly by bringing in reason and other philosophical elements. He tried to come up with more of less the same understanding of happiness with the predecessors and suggested that true happiness is gaining the knowledge about the things and order between them. Political order, hence facilitates this process. Philosophy itself is a superior science or “wisdom of wisdoms” and it could be the only source of happiness or perfection.

According to the Butterworth, religion – but not revelation – is subordinated to the philosophy. Moreover, revelation does not include any instructions about political order or statecraft. Based on this assumption, he says that politics is guided by philosophy and not by other sciences – including religion and theology. Al-Farabi creates a sharp distinction between philosophy and religion by arguing that the former is a domain of elites while later is a domain of masses. He suggests that religion tends to imitate philosophy as only philosophy demonstrates the truth. He suggests those who are able to understand and demonstrate the truth – being philosopher – qualify to rule. On the other hand, those who have opinions and vague understanding – being religious – tend to serve.

Al-Farabi tries to restructure philosophy and remove the imbalances that have been brought about by the revealed religion yet it does not give rise to a theocracy nut dictates the morals and principles of governance. It is true that religion and philosophy reach the same truth but there is a need of validating the truth of former by reason. The rulers and laws of first rulers are not revealed but conventional and human made. Politics for al-Farabi, according to Butterworth, must be guided only by philosophy and not by other sciences like religion and theology. He adds that religion does not grasp universal realties and thus comprises of opinions about them. The work of religion is to persuade people to follow the truth of philosophy. About milla mushtarka, he says that different community might have different religions and different understandings of perfection for humans are very different among themselves. Though in some cases, virtuous religion – that is in accordance with the philosophy – facilitates virtuous rule yet theology is restricted in those cases. Butterworth goes on suggesting that first rules and laws were man made. Al-Farabi does not concern himself with the regime or rule of law either. Butterworth concludes that Farabi is a philosopher but not a theologian as he gives more importance to the knowledge over opinions. And he wants to keep religion subordinate to the philosophy thus his focus is on political philosophy than theology.

 From personal understanding, it is hard to determine whether al-Farabi was a political theologian or philosopher without an extensive study. Both authors provide different and opposite views yet the arguments given are not up to my personal satisfaction. Both authors have difference of opinion, probably due to their personal understanding of the subject. However, one thing that appeals me is that the medieval philosophy was inspire by religious themes. Due to this, al-Farabi might lean more towards being a theologian – obvious not in the modern sense. However, he remain open to the further debates.

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