It is said that al-Farabi (870-950) had such a growing reputation that the scholarly community in Baghdad, the center of learning at the time, invited him to a night of conversation and debate. Having grown jealous of this obscure figure's fame, the philosophers, linguists and religious scholars of Baghdad wanted to scale him up. The sultan, too, was interested in knowing more about this mysterious man.
When Farabi entered the big hall where the sultan, his officials and scholars were present, he told him to choose a place for himself that he thought suited his stature the best. Having heard the call, Farabi walks through the hall, unseats the sultan and takes his place. Scholars are shocked and the sultan's people are enraged. The sultan turns to his grand vizier and tells him in a local dialect which only a handful of people spoke that "if this man does not prove himself, I will have his head chopped off." To the utter surprise of the sultan, Farabi responds in the same dialect and says "Don't worry. I will prove myself!"
Farabi proves his vast knowledge and self-confidence. Since he was known as a great logician and philosopher (he was called the "Second Teacher" after Aristotle), the scholars first ask him all sorts of philosophical and logical questions, which Farabi answers with great mastery. They turn to religious sciences. Then they ask him about linguistics, history, geography, cosmology, politics and so on, all of which Farabi answers with convincing arguments. Scholars begin to feel embarrassed and angry. They decide to change their strategy and turn to sciences such as astrology and alchemy. Farabi shows his erudition again.
Feeling desperate and embarrassed in the presence of the Sultan, they think of something that they thought would save their day. They decide to ask Farabi questions about music, an area in which they assumed he would have no knowledge or training. Of course, they did not know that Farabi had already composed a major book in music called "Kitab al-Musiqa al-Kabir" (The Great Book of Music), in which he had studied the theory of music, harmonics and musical scales. Growing increasingly impatient and hopeless, they come up with a final idea. They acknowledge that Farabi is a great scholar with vast knowledge in many subjects. But can he can practice any of the sciences? For instance, can he play music?
So they ask him to play something for them, and tell him that if he can, they would recognize him as the greatest scholar of all times. Farabi smiles and, without saying a word, brings out his nay (reed flute) and begins to play. He plays a happy tune to which everyone joins by clapping. He changes the tune and plays a sad melody which makes everyone cry. Then he plays a tune which puts everyone to sleep. Looking around the hall and greeting the people who have fallen asleep, he leaves Baghdad and never returns there again.
This is the story of Farabi. Even though sources narrate versions of it, this is probably a fictional story. What is important, however, is the fact that such a story has been told about Farabi and not someone else. It underscores the high esteem in which the posterity held this great thinker.
The story, though embellished by later generations, says a lot about the scholar-thinker prototype that guided the quest for knowledge in the Muslim world for centuries. Farabi's humility, simplicity, erudition, analytical precision and scholarly depth are remembered as qualities that all seekers of knowledge are expected to possess. His mastery of music is seen as in perfect harmony with his deep knowledge of logic, science and philosophy. Unlike the "rationalist" philosophers who are deaf musically and lack heart-knowledge, Farabi was a sharp philosopher, devout person and artist all at once.
He was also a man of spiritual refinement. His disinterest in worldly accolades put him above courtly and scholarly politics. He led a simple life, wearing the simple dress of the Sufis, playing the flute of the Turkish herdsman. Farabi's groundbreaking contributions point to a civilizational imagination in which his "virtuous city" (al-madinat al-fadilah) prescribes a socio-political order based on justice, virtue and rule of law. He defined happiness as partaking in intellectual and spiritual virtues beyond material gains and carnal desires.
As a man of faith and reason, Farabi spoke the language of universal truth, overcoming ethnic, linguistic and cultural divides. His synthesis of science and religion, truth and love, logic and art is an achievement that has never fallen short of enlightening and inspiring generations of seekers of knowledge. He left an indelible mark on the brightest minds of the Islamic intellectual tradition including Ibn Sina (d. 1037), Ibn Bajja (d. 1139), Ibn Tufayl (d. 1185) and Ibn Rushd (1198). After putting his opponents to sleep, Farabi may have never returned to their company. But he has never left the minds and hearts of those who seek knowledge, virtue and happiness.
Today more than ever, Muslims and the world at large need luminaries like him.
About the author
Presidential spokesperson for the Republic of Turkey