Many people today don’t agree when someone chooses music as a career or at least as an area of expertise. The glittery outfits, the glamorous lifestyle, and not to mention the controversial rumor sparked by the fame, make it hard to imagine that someone could be a genius both in music and in other fields as well. But there are some examples of musical geniuses who are also geniuses in some other fields, like science, maths, and astrology. Of course, we’re not talking about musical geniuses like Freddie Mercury, Stevie Wonder, Mozart, or Beethoven, we’re talking about someone way back in the 10th century.
Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad ibn Ṭarkhan ibn Awzalaghal-Farabi, also known by his latinized name Alpharabius, was born in 872 C.E. His biography is a matter of discussion among historians. Up to now, they’ve been unable to define whether his lineage is of Turkic or Persian origin. In medieval philosophy, Al-Farabi was honorably known as the Second Teacher. The title was given due to his originality to interpret the philosophy of Aristotle (who was the First Teacher) in relation to Islamic teachings. In that way the contemporary Islamic world was heavily influenced by Aristotle. As a polyglot, Al-Farabi could speak many different languages: Arabic, Persian, Turkic, Syriac, and Greek. This knowledge helped him travel and adapt to new cultures. He traveled from Persia to Baghdad and lived there for two decades. In Baghdad, he met notable philosophers like Ibn-Kindi and Ar-Razi.
Al-Farabi had an enthusiastic attitude to learn, experiment, and to uphold a rational and common sense while doing so. Al-Farabi took it very seriously to clarify, understand, and teach other people. He recommended the use of visual observation for whatever could actually be seen, by simply placing the object before the eye. Combined with a sense of spirituality and rationality, Al-Farabi taught that it was also important to be happy and that a leading figure was necessary to achieve common happiness. Because of his rational and Aristotelian philosophy, Al-Farabi was famous both in the Eastern and Western world.
Much of the world’s scientific understanding of music comes from the ancient Greeks: the word music comes from the Greek word mousiki, which in its turn means the science of composing melodies. But it was the book by Al-Farabi himself, the Kitab al-Musiqa, that significantly expanded upon Ancient Greek theories by exploring the aesthethics of music and providing detailed information on musical instruments. As Europeans began to travel to new lands during the Middle Ages, they stumbled upon Arab musical instruments and the writings of Al-Farabi. In fact, Arab culture is the pioneer behind music – the percussion instruments specifically – in European music.
Another work can be studied to measure Al-Farabi’s influence on contemporary and later philosophers like Ibn Rushd or Averroes, Ibn Khaldun, and Maimonides, a famous Jewish philosopher. Maimonides calls Al-Farabi the Second Teacher in his work called The Treaties on Logic (Maqala Fi-Sinat Al-Mantiq). He illustrates the essentials of Aristotelian logic found in Al-Farabi’s teachings.
Some of Al-Farabi’s works were translated into Latin and Hebrew. Elements of Al-Farabi’s philosophy still remain valid today: his emphasis on the importance of mathematics and the sciences, the experimental method, the integration of knowledge, and the importance of values and aesthetic taste. One could even add that Arabic culture has declined in relation to his educational philosophy, which was designed to form an integrated personality in body, intellect, ethics, aesthetics, and technology.
WHY WE SHOULD LEARN FROM AL-FARABI
In the hands of Al-Farabi, science and art indeed exercised their true nature, that is to unite mankind regardless of ethnicity, belief, and nation. There is a city called Harran in the north of today’s Syria, where Ancient Greek culture used to flourish. There, he met his mentor, Yuhana bin Jilad, a famous Christian philosopher. His work was studied and has influenced the above mentioned Maimonides. His close relation with Sayf al-Dawla Hamdanind, a prominent figure of Shia Muslims in Aleppo, bonds a strong coexistence between Shia and Sunni in ancient Syria. Al-Farabi shows us that the interest in music did not limit his pursue in scientific and mathematical matters. On the contrary, he combined mathematical patterns when constructing a melody. Maybe next time when you see the president of a chess club there could be a chance he’s also member of a badass band.