It was while reading Karen Armstrong’s History Of God that I first came upon the name Abu Nasr al-Farabi. A Middle-Eastern polymath from the medieval ‘golden age’ of Islamic scholarship, al-Farabi held a striking view of God that had as much to do with Aristotle and Plato as it did the Quran. When Armstrong mentioned he was also a musician, I was intrigued to find out more.
As it turns out, al-Farabi wrote on a vast array of subjects – from logic, to metaphysics, politics, and astrology. But he has also been described as ‘probably the greatest writer on the theory of music during the Middle Ages’. Alongside several smaller treatises, this reputation principally rests on a magnum opus: the Great Book Of Music.
In al-Farabi’s story, translation is a key theme. His intellectual world was that of the Abbasid Caliphate – a time when Baghdad was home to ‘The House Of Wisdom’, a great centre of learning where scholarly texts were collected and translated into Arabic from Sanskrit, Persian and Greek. This revival of ancient knowledge goes some way to explain the fact that al-Farabi was often referred to as the ‘second teacher’ – the ‘first’ being Aristotle.
Sadly, as Ian Richard Netton writes in Al-Farabi And His School, it’s practically impossible to construct a reliable biography of the man. Sources about him are suspect and often tend towards the legendary. Netton describes ‘a paradigm of an antinomian scholar-gypsy’ in some early portrayals: al-Farabi appears as an otherworldly figure, a nomadic teacher who speaks over seventy languages, and who wears ascetic Sufi clothing as if to illustrate his commitment to a life of the mind.
Such caveats notwithstanding, it’s thought that al-Farabi was born around 870. There is debate about whether he was Turkic or Persian, but either way he seems to have travelled well. We learn that he came to Baghdad, where he studied logic. He may have visited Egypt, and a period allegedly spent as a gardener in Damascus only helps to cultivate the image of a quiet sage.
But perhaps al-Farabi’s most celebrated association was the generous patronage he received from the ruler of Aleppo, Sayf al-Dawla. He was known as a great patron of poets and scholars, and al-Farabi would have been a valuable addition to a crucial part of the elite culture at this time: the majlis.
Meaning ‘council’ or ‘gathering’, a majlis was an occasion which could include banquets of food and wine, alongside debates and music. And one intriguing story about a majlis at al-Dawla’s court, written several centuries after al-Farabi’s death, shows the scholar’s enduring reputation for musicianship. Here he appears almost as a magician:
[Al-Farabi] then drew from his waist a leather bag, opened it and drew from it some reeds, which he put together. Then he played on them, whereupon all who were at the majlis laughed. Then he took them to pieces and put them together another way, and when he played on them, everyone in the majlis cried. Then he took them to pieces again, put them together differently, played on them and everyone in the majlis, even the doorkeeper, fell asleep. And al-Farabi went out.
While we can certainly take this tale with a pinch of salt, it does tell us something genuine about music theory in his time: instruments were seen as a tool for demonstration, and they revealed systematically different results.
In fact, Majid Fakhry has described al-Farabi as ‘the first system-builder in Arab-Islamic thought’. His Great Book of Music is particularly valuable for its immensely detailed categorisations. George Sawa has taken the deep dive and transcribed al-Farabi’s rhythmic modes, his tone system, and the large number of ornamental techniques laid out in this massive volume.
These categorisations could be quite poetic. A melody, he tells us, contains two types of notes: the ‘warp and woof in a cloth’, and its ‘decorative dyes and fringes’. Rhythmic ornamentations are compared to forms of Arabic grammar, while an intriguing series of timbral ornamentations for the voice are grouped by their likeness to human passions and tactile sensations.
The oud – with which the European lute shares a common ancestor – was al-Farabi’s examplar instrument for theory, and in the Great Book he uses its fret positions as the basis for tonal discussion. But in musical practice, he was clear that instruments should take a subservient role. A melody could only be ‘complete’, in his view, when sung words were attached. Only then could music spur the listener to virtuous thoughts and actions.
This idea may reflect the importance of poetry and song in Abbasid culture. But as Yaron Klein has described in a doctoral thesis, translation takes on a new guise here too.
Al-Farabi believed that some sounds could evoke their own ideas or ‘imaginings’. When these sounds are combined with the correct words in a song, he argued, they convey meaning more effectively than the words alone – what’s more, they can even clarify instances where a poet uses deliberate ambiguity. Fascinatingly, Klein notes that Arab musicians today still use the term tarjama – ‘translation’ – to refer to short instrumental filler passages which imitate a vocal phrase.
In another, later translation movement, intellectuals like al-Farabi helped to pave the way for the European Renaissance. In the twelfth century, scholars flocked to Toledo in Spain, where a previously long period of Muslim rule had bequeathed libraries of Arabic texts which now lay ripe for discovery. A school of Latin translation grew here, through which the achievements of the Islamic golden age would percolate into Europe. Crucially, this also enabled the discovery of many works translated from Greek sources that were previously unknown in the west, among them writings by the so-called ‘first teacher’: Aristotle.
It seems al-Farabi’s Great Book Of Music was never translated into Latin, but as Don M. Randel has written, we know his Classification Of The Sciences was, and furthermore, it had an important influence on European music theory.
In this work, al-Farabi divided the ‘science’ of music into ‘practical’ and ‘theoretical’ categories. While this may seem obvious today, it challenged the prevailing Pythagorean scheme, inherited from Boethius, in which musica mundana (music of the heavenly spheres) and musica humana (music of the body) sat alongside the audible music created by people. As Randel puts it:
His classifications of music as either theoretical or practical […] provided a striking model for Latin writers, and his insistence on demonstrations and on the conformity of theory and practice directly and indirectly prepared the way for a flowering of a new kind of music theory.
As Klein reminds us, there were profound implications to this. Music might no longer be ‘an audible way of representing the mathematical order of the cosmos’, but instead ‘a phenomenon worthy of studying in and of itself’. This is just one of the ways in which al-Farabi seems relatably modern. In the Great Book, he also outlines a theory of the evolution of music – from the invention of basic chants to the development of instruments – which still reads as highly plausible.
But al-Farabi was also, of course, a man of his time. With his seemingly insatiable zest for categorisation, Netton argues that his life represents ‘a striving for order against a background of instability and change’. The Abbasid Caliphate had passed the peak of its power, and cracks were appearing as various regions assumed greater autonomy.
Above all else, al-Farabi prized reasoning. His idea of God was a ‘First Cause’ from which emanated ten ‘intellects’. The last of these – the ‘active intellect’ – gave the soul its rational faculties, and this alone could survive the body after death. Furthermore, Armstrong explains in her History of God that while al-Farabi saw religion as a pragmatic path for society, it was nonetheless inferior to pure reasoning. Philosophy was ‘a superior way of understanding truths which the prophets had expressed in a poetic, metaphorical way, in order to appeal to the people’.
This polymath’s great achievements remind us of the importance of translation. But there is one more yet to come. I was surprised to find out that a complete English edition of The Great Book Of Music does not yet exist. However, I am pleased to read that Professor Alison Laywine of McGill University is preparing one. So while his life may remain the stuff of legend, a thousand years on from his death, I hope more people will soon be able to step into al-Farabi’s musical world – in all its fascinating detail.
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