an islamic philosophy of virtuous religions

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An exceptional text on the Islamic point of view of virtue and religious practice.


  • An Islamic Philosophy

    of Virtuous Religions

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  • An Islamic Philosophy

    of Virtuous Religions

    Introducing Alfarabi

    Joshua Parens

    State University of New York Press

  • Published byState University of New York Press, Albany

    2006 State University of New York

    All rights reserved

    Printed in the United States of America

    No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission. No part of this book may be stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means including electronic, electrostatic, magnetic tape, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.

    For information, address State University of New York Press, 194 Washington Avenue, Suite 305, Albany, NY 122102365

    Production by Michael HaggettMarketing by Anne M. Valentine

    Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

    Parens, Joshua, 1961An Islamic philosophy of virtuous religions : introducing Alfarabi / Joshua Parens.

    p. cm.Includes bibliographical references and index.isbn 0-7914-6689-2 (hardcover: alk. paper) 1. Faaraabai. 2. Philosophy, Islamic.

    I. Titleb753.f34p27 2006201'.5dc22 2005014014

    isbn-13: 978-0-7914-6689-6 (hardcover : alk. paper)

  • Acknowledgments vii

    Abbreviations ix

    Chapter 1 Introduction 1Alfarabis Life and His Inuence 3Alfarabis Manner of Writing 5Overview 7

    Chapter 2 The Impossibility of the City in the Republic 9Kallipolis as Ideal State or Totalitarian Nightmare? 12The Three Waves and the Problem of Possibility 14The First Wave 17The Second Wave 19The Digression on War 22The Third Wave 24

    Chapter 3 The A Fortiori Argument 29Alfarabi on the Republic in the Attainment of Happiness: EducatingPhilosopher-kings to Rule the Inhabited World, the Challenge 30Tension in the Unity of the Virtues: Hard vs. Soft 38The Uneasy Peace between Prudence and Wisdom 47

    Chapter 4 Alfarabi on Jihd 55From mn vs. kufr to islm vs. harb 58Alfarabis Aphorisms on Jihd 60Aphorisms 67 and 79 61Aphorisms 1116 64Aphorisms 6876 67


  • vi An Islamic Philosophy of Virtuous Religions

    Alfarabis Attainment of Happiness on Jihd 72Challenges to Compelling Good Character 74

    Chapter 5 The Multiplicity Argument 77The Increasing Tendency toward Conquest and Domination 80The Task of Deliberation: Shaping a Multiplicity of Characters 85The Task of Theoretical Virtue: Shaping a Multiplicity of Opinions 93Religion as an Imitation of Philosophy 97

    Chapter 6 The Limits of Knowledge and the Problem of Realization 103Knowledge and Exploitation 104

    Attainment of Happiness 105The Philosophy of Aristotle: The Limits of Our Knowledge of Final Causes 108

    Certainty and the Knowledge of Universals and Particulars 115The Limits of Knowledge and the Inherent Multiplicity of Religion 121

    Notes 125

    Bibliography 155

    Subject/Author Index 159

    Index of Passages from Alfawarabis Attainment of Happiness 169

  • vii

    I thank the Earhart Foundation, together with my university, the Univer-sity of Dallas, for generously funding a sabbatical leave (AY 20032004),during which I drafted this book. I also thank Cornell University Press forallowing me to reprint words, phrases, and paragraphs from Alfarabi: ThePolitical Writings: The Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, trans. MuhsinMahdi (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1969, 2001) and Alfarabi:The Political Writings: Selected Aphorisms and Other Writings, trans.Charles E. Butterworth (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001).Even more than in my rst book, my debt to Muhsin Mahdi is evident onevery page.

    I thank my parents for their support throughout my life and for a con-versation I had with them, especially my mother, one day that led to thisbook. To my wife and son, I am most grateful for your patience.


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  • ix

    AH Alfarabi, Attainment of HappinessAphorisms Selected AphorismsBR Book of ReligionBL Book of LettersPA Philosophy of AristotlePP Philosophy of PlatoPPA Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle (the trilogy of AH, PP, PA)PR Political RegimeVC Principles of the Opinions of the Inhabitants of the Virtuous City

    Meta. Aristotle, MetaphysicsNE Nicomachean EthicsREP. Plato, Republic

    AFIPP Muhsin Mahdi, Alfarabi and the Foundation of Islamic Political Philosophy


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  • 1Now more than at any time for centuries, Alfarabi, a tenth-century Mus-lim political philosopher, is especially timely. This book is intended as anintroduction to Alfarabis thought not through a survey of his many writ-ings but through an analysis especially of one of them, one with special rel-evance to our times. In his Attainment of Happiness, Alfarabi envisions thefulllment of Islams ambition to spread Islam, as the virtuous religion, tothe inhabited world. Along the way, however, he raises a few questions: Isone religion suited to the great variety of human communities throughoutthe world? Is it possible for more than one virtuous religion to exist? Ifmore than one virtuous religion can exist, how and why can they exist?One thing is certain: Alfarabi is not a premodern version of John Locke.Alfarabis solution to intercommunal conict, to the extent he intends tooffer one, is not to pronounce all religions equal as long as they promote acharacteristically modern morality and avoid interference in politics. (Inthis introduction, I will refer to this all-too-brief account of Lockes teach-ing, not even entertained by Alfarabi, as tolerance, though I use the termloosely here.) On the contrary, Alfarabi describes a world lled with rankand hierarchy. (Furthermore, he does not separate religion from politics.)He has no qualms about pronouncing one religion superior to anotherthough he does so without pointing ngers. He describes in challengingways what makes a religion truly virtuous. Rather than declaring in ad-vance the superiority of Islam to all other religions, he analyzes what ittakes to be virtuous and rightly guided and leaves it to his readers to com-pare existing religions with his account. Most importantly, he does not



  • 2 An Islamic Philosophy of Virtuous Religions

    exclude the possibility of a multiplicity of virtuous religions.1 For a varietyof reasons, Alfarabi was considered too radical for his times. At least tosome extent, his time may have just arrived. I do not intend to offer a pan-acea. Alfarabi does not offer mechanisms or institutions of governancesuch as the separation of powers, which have the potential, if rightly insti-tuted, to establish a balanced modern government. Rather, he is moreinterested in educating his reader than in offering institutional solutions.He seeks to explore and illuminate his readers own hopes and aspira-tionsthrough a dialogue of sorts with themone reader at a time. Suchan education, though often difcult to come by in our loud and hurriedtimes, is, I believe, especially important today, for both Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

    In his Attainment of Happiness, Alfarabi extrapolates from insights thatPlato developed in the Republic. In the Republic, Socrates envisions a per-fectly just city (polis) as one in which all citizens are devoted solely to thecommon good. The harm done to the private good of most citizens in thatcity is familiar to most undergraduates. Alfarabi uses that insight and ap-plies it to his own setting. He wonders what it would take for Islam toachieve its ambition to rule the world justly. He argues that it would re-quire that not only every nation but also every city within every nationshould be virtuous. Furthermore, to be truly just, the rulers of each nationwould need to be philosopher-kings, and each city would need to have itsown peculiar adaptations or imitations of philosophy suited to its particu-lar climate and locale. In other words, a virtuous world regime would re-quire a multiplicity of virtuous religions to match the multiplicity of virtu-ous nations.

    Alfarabi does not intend this world regime to be a realistic or even anideal plan. Rather, he seeks to persuade his reader that the effort to estab-lish a just world regime is an impossibly high, even if a noble, goal. The At-tainment of Happiness, like the Republic, is intended as a cautionary talepromoting political moderation. Above all, it seeks to educate the youngand politically ambitious Muslim to temper his or her desire to spread thetruths of Islam to the world as a whole. Once again, this form of politicaleducation is quite different from the modern focus on mechanisms and in-stitutions of governance. It almost goes without saying that such institu-tions are indispensable. At the same time, mechanisms alone will not standa chance in the face of citizens lled with religious zeal for the highest andnoblest aspirations of the human heart.

    There are obvious similarities between Alfarabis claim that there canexist a multiplicity of virtuous religions and the liberal democrats claim

  • Introduction 3

    that different religions need to coexist in tolerance. Nevertheless, the twoclaims are not synonymous. The former bets a world in which the pri-mary form of political education is to temper the zeal and ambition of theyoung; the latter bets a world in which zeal and ambition are directed, forthe most part, away from politics toward material acquisition. Could theformer be used as a stepping-stone to the latter? Or could the former beused to complement the approach of the latter? There is room for argu-ment, debate, and