Islam's virtuous states

Alfarabi and the Foundations of Islamic Political Philosophy
October 25, 2002

Muhsin Mahdi is one of the most eminent scholars working on medieval Arabic philosophy. All in the field are in his debt for editing and publishing many works previously available only in manuscript; Mahdi has also produced the definitive edition of The Thousand and One Nights .

This book is a miscellany of Mahdi's studies of Alfarabi's political philosophy. Alfarabi, who died in Syria in 950, became known among his immediate successors as "the second teacher" (after Aristotle), and his philosophy has been Mahdi's lifelong academic preoccupation. The earliest piece here was first published in 1963, and it finds its place alongside other studies written in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The reader can only wonder at the steadfast vision that has produced, over 40 years, pieces that fit together so seamlessly. Although most of the chapters are already easily available, bringing them together allows one more easily to follow Mahdi's cumulative argument about how we should read Alfarabi. And it is this argument that is likely to prove controversial.

In Mahdi's view, most modern readings go awry because they start with the assumption that Alfarabi was a neo-Platonist philosopher, interested in metaphysics rather than political philosophy as a subject of study. This reading assumes that works by Alfarabi, such as The Virtuous City and The Political Regime , detail Alfarabi's sober and official views. Such a reading, Mahdi argues, mistakes popular works as properly philosophical. Less popular works, such as The Book of Religion , make clear that Alfarabi's true project is to rework Plato's political philosophy in the context of a revealed religion, Islam. This is "the unfinished task of political philosophy, namely, the need to develop a philosophy of religion".

Once one understands Alfarabi's project as set out in The Book of Religion , The Virtuous City and The Political Regime can be seen for what they really are: experimental models of possible virtuous regimes. Further, his properly philosophical works, especially the trilogy The Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle , can now be fully appreciated. In distinguishing between works intended to be popular or philosophical, Mahdi gives an almost neurotically close reading of the texts.

It is worth noting, in assessing the broad lines of Mahdi's argument and the methods deployed in its development, that the book is dedicated to Leo Strauss, an influential political theorist who strove to subvert the modern liberal project, which, by its stress on reason, had neglected religious faith and thereby corroded moral and political life. In making ancient authors speak to his theme, Strauss distinguished their popular writings from their properly philosophical ones by a close reading of the texts. Presented as he is by Mahdi, Alfarabi becomes an important contributor to the Straussian project, investigating how philosophy relates to religion.

This book is not for those who want an introduction to contemporary studies on Alfarabi, since it makes virtually no reference to what is a thriving field of study. It is nonetheless philosophically provocative and worthwhile reading for those interested in Straussian political theory. I suspect, however, that the reading of Alfarabi that it offers will reach about the same currency as Strauss's reading of The Republic .

Tony Street is assistant director of research in Islamic studies, University of Cambridge.

Alfarabi and the Foundations of Islamic Political Philosophy

Author - Muhsin S. Mahdi
ISBN - 0 226 50186 8
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £26.50
Pages - 264

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