The Philosophy of Alfarabi
And, Its Influence on Medieval Thought
By Robert Hammond
Forgotten Books, 2008, 79 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - November 13, 2009
Reverend Hammond wrote this brief book to show that the highly respected Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) drew much of his philosophy from the famed Muslim philosopher Abu Nasr Alfarabi (c. 872-c. 950). Hammond states that a person can read Alfarabi and think that the words were written by a Christian. In fact, Hammond gives examples where Aquinas presents his arguments virtually the same way as the Muslim.
Alfarabi drew much of his thought from pagan Greek neo-Platonism and Aristotle. Neo-Platonism is a philosophy based on the works of the philosopher Plato. Alfarabi brought Hellenistic philosophy to the non-Greek world.
Hammond succeeds in his plan, but, all in all, the book misses opportunities. It is frequently unclear because it is not written in simple English. Hammond also writes many ideas of the two men in Latin, without a translation, as if Alfarabi, who wrote in Arabic, knew Latin, leaving the thoughts obscure to people who do not know Latin.
Curiously, Hammond misuses the term theodicy repeatedly when he means to say knowledge about God’s being. Theodicy is something entirely different. It is the study of how a good God could allow evil in the world.
Hammond tells how Alfarabi believed that God and matter always existed. God did not create matter; he only formed the matter into a universe. Hammond writes that the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1138-1204) disagreed and stated that God created the world from nothing, and Aquinas drew his view on this subject from Maimonides.
Hammond does not reveal that Aquinas also drew many more of his ideas from Maimonides, who also took teachings from neo-Platonism and Aristotle. For example, Alfarabi believed that the human end goal – that which people strive to achieve - is happiness, but Maimonides disagreed and said the goal is knowledge, and Aquinas agreed with Maimonides, Hammond missed the opportunity to stress that all the great philosophers – the pagans Plato and Aristotle, the Muslim Alfarabi, the Jew Maimonides, and the Christian Aquinas – had absolutely no scruple from drawing ideas from one another. Contrary to many modern people, who should learn from them, they understood that "the truth is the truth no matter what its source" and this understanding helped them become outstanding thinkers. Thus, like these greats, people should respect, listen and learn from others, even people of other faiths.
Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of fifteen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides, the latest being Maimonides: Reason Above All, published by Gefen Publishing House, www.israelbooks.com.