THE VIRTOUS CITY AND THE POSSIBLITY OF ITS EMERGENCE FROM THE DEMOCRATIC CITY IN AL-FARABI’S POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

THE VIRTOUS CITY AND THE POSSIBLITY OF ITS EMERGENCE FROM THE DEMOCRATIC CITY IN AL-FARABI’S POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

 Haidar Bagir

 Introduction

Al-Farabi (870-950), also known in the West as Alfarabius, was the Medieval Muslim political philosopher par excellence. Mainly under the influence of Plato, he developed his idea of the virtuous city (polis, al-madina al-fadilah)) as the association in which human species can best meet its various needs. In contrast to that, Al-Farabi also developed the idea of the imperfect cities which he divided into four. These are the ignorant city (al-madina al-jahiliyya), the immoral city (al-madina al-fasiqa), the erring city (al-madina al-mubaddala) and the straying city (al-madina al-dalla). In its turn, the ignorant city is divided into 6: indispensable city (al-madınah al-darurıyah),) vile city (al-madına al-nadalah), base city (al-madına al-khissah), timocratic city (al-madınah al-karamıyah) and despotic city (al-madına al-taghallub), and democratic city (al-madına al-jama’iyah).

In his Siyasah Madaniyah Al-Farabi devoted a section on the democratic city, as one among the six kinds of ignorant cities that exists as the opposite of the virtuous city. This city was of special interest in Al-Farabi’s political philosophy since, according to him, “… the construction of virtuous cities and the establishment of the rule of virtuous men are more effective and much easier out of the indispensable and democratic cities than out of any other ignorant city.[1]” In another place in the same writing and about the same city, Al-Farabi wrote, “… it is quite possible that, with the passage of time, virtuous men will grow up in it. Thus it may include philosophers, rhetoricians, and poets, dealing with all kind of things. It is also possible to glean from it certain [men who forms] parts of the virtuous city; this is the best thing that takes place in this city.”[2]

Unfortunately, those are the only descriptions that Al-Farabi gave in regards to this issue. As for the rest, Al-Farabi left them for us to analyze, including how a virtuous city can come out of a democratic city, a city with characteristics which are generally in contrast with the virtuous city. To make the problem more complicated, almost in a single breath Al-Farabi followed the statements quoted above with another seemingly contradictory statement as follows:

“As for the truly virtuous man — namely the man who, if he were to rule them, would determine and direct their actions toward happiness — they do not make him a ruler. If by chance he comes to rule them, he will soon find himself either deposed or killed or in unstable and challenged position. Therefore, they refuse the rule of virtuous men and resent it.”[3]

This paper will try, with the help of Al-Farabi’s own works, especially A1-Siyasah al-Madaniah and Al-Madinah Al-Fadhilah, to solve the problem of the seemingly ambiguous position taken by the author in his writings concerning the problem in question.

In addition to this, this paper will also try to throw light on, despite the contrasts between the two, the common features that are shared by Al-Farabi’s democratic city and his ideal city, i.e. the virtuous city.

For this purpose, this paper will focus on the following questions:

  1. What is the virtuous city? What are its characteristics? Is the establishment of the city possible? How does it come into existence? How does it operate?
  2. What is democratic city? What are its characteristics that distinguish it from the virtuous city?
  3. How can, if it is possible at all, the democratic city be converted to the virtuous city, considering the contrasts between the two?

 The Virtuous City

“The virtuous city is the city that aims, through the association contained therein, at cooperation for the things by means of which real happiness is acquired.”[4] Al-Farabi frequently likened the virtuous city with the perfect and healthy body, all of whose limbs co-operate to make the life of the animal perfect and to preserve it in this state. They all contribute to the larger activity of the body as a whole by virtue of carrying out their particular and subordinate immediate objectives.”[5]

In A1-Siyasah Al-Madaniyah, the virtuous city was described in terms of its ruler. “The supreme ruler without qualification is he who has actually acquired the sciences and every kind of knowledge He is able to comprehend well each one of the particular things that he ought to do. He is able to guide well all others to everything that he instructs them, to employ all those who do any of the acts for which they are equipped, and to determine, define and direct these acts toward happiness. This is found only in the one who possesses great and superior natural dispositions, when his soul is in union with the Active Intellect. This man is the true prince according to the ancients; he is the one of whom it ought to be said that he receives revelation. The rule of this man is the supreme rule; all other Human rulers are inferior to it and are derived from it.”[6]

Is this type of rule possible?

It is possible, not only because there were figures that can fulfill all of the requirements of the supreme leader without qualification, but also by the possibility of inferior types of virtuous cities. Immediately after giving the qualifications of the supreme ruler without qualification — i.e. the Prophet or the Imam (the Leaders) who receives revelation – Al-Farabi mentioned about the men who are governed by the rule of this ruler are the virtuous, good and happy men, as if they are (potential) virtuous ruler. Still, “if it does not happen that a man (after the absence of the preceding virtuous ruler(s)) exists with these qualifications, then one will have to adopt the Laws prescribed by the earlier ones, write them down, preserve them, and govern the city by them. The ruler who governs the city according to the written Laws received from the past imams (leaders – HB) will be the prince of the law (sunnah).”[7]

Al-Farabi went further in his description of the qualifications of the supreme leader (Al-Rais Al-Awwal) in an excellent city in Fushul Al-Muntaza’ah, followed by a description of the possibility of a group of men who, together, represent the qualifications of a supreme ruler. Also, the possibility of a leader who is even inferior to the second arrangement, who must be informed about the laws that has been prescribed by the past rulers, provided he is himself a virtuous man and capable of healthy opinions to interpret and apply the laws in new situation, as well as possessing persuasive capability and imaginative representation[8]. Still, if this kind of person is not available, a group of men who as a combination sufficiently meet the qualifications mentioned above can act as rulers.[9]

Based on that description  — and the fact that Al-Farabi was enough optimistic about the possibility of such an excellent city, at least when he talked about political science not as a part of philosophy — it is justifiable to conclude that Al-Farabi indeed believe in the possibility of the virtuous cities, i.e. cities which sufficiently share some of the characteristic of a “cities of absolute virtues” that are lead by rulers without qualifications, without necessarily eluding the distinguishing and superior features of this kind of city in relation to the others.

Concerning the operation of the virtuous city, Al-Farabi stated that first of all the citizen are divided into groups according to their merits — i.e. according to their natural dispositions and to the habits of character they have formed — that is, by given each a subservient or a ruling rank of order. Beginning with the highest ruling rank of order, they will descend gradually until they become subservient ranks of order devoid of any element of ruling and below which there is no other rank of order. The parts of the city will thus be linked and fitted together, and ordered by giving precedence to some over the others. Thus the city becomes similar to the natural beings. The prince of the city will be like the First Cause, which is the cause for the existence of all other beings until they reached down to possible beings — that is prime matter and the elements — that possess no ruling element whatsoever, but are subservient and always exist for the sake of others.

The attainment of happiness takes place only through the disappearance of evils — not only the voluntary but also the natural– from the city and nations, and the acquisition of all the goods, both the natural and the voluntary. The function of the city governor — that is, the prince — is to manage the cities in such a way that all the city’s parts become linked and fitted together, and so ordered to enable the citizen to cooperate to eliminate the evils and to acquire goods.”[10]

While, in A1-Siyasah, Al-Farabi’s emphasis was on the “ruling and the giving of order” by the more superior to the more inferior,  in Tahsil al-Sa’adah (Atainment of Happiness) it is more on delegation and the education (ta’lim) of the inferiors in the same descending order that will provide them with capabilities to receive such delegation from their superiors, providing them with sufficient mastery of theoretical and demonstrative knowledge to the extent that would enable them to “excel in the discovery of what was not actually given to this man or to this group but is, nevertheless, of the same kind.”[11] Al-Farabi, then, included the group of the educated men that are appointed to assume political office, among the elect the most of which is the supreme ruler. “They should not be confined to what is in conformity with unexamined common opinion”.[12] Mahdi, in his footnote to this passage, mentioned this group of men as possible successors in a second best arrangement out of their mastery of theoretical knowledge and hence the ability to be a true lawgiver.[13]

Finally, it seems clear that, in Al-Farabi’s works, the education and perfection of all the citizens of the city — that will ultimately provide them with the mastery of theoretical knowledge to enable them to lead a contemplative and philosophical life — is the goal of his virtuous city, despite his insistence on the inability of the majority to engage in these affairs. To cite only one example, in Tahsil al-Sa’adah Al-Farabi equates instruction (ta’lim) with introducing the theoretical virtues in nations and cities.”[14]

 The Democratic City

The democratic city, in Al-Farabi’s political philosophy, is “the one in which each one of the citizens is given free rein and left alone to do whatever he likes. Its citizen is equal and their laws say that no man is in any way at all better than any other man. Its citizen are free to do whatever they like; and no one, be he one of them or an outsider, has any claim to authority unless he works to enhance their freedom. Those who rule them do so by the will of the ruled, and the rulers follow the wishes of the ruled.

All the endeavors and purposes of the ignorant cities are present in this city in the most perfect manner; of all of them, this is the most admirable and happy city. On the surface, it looks like an embroidered garment full of colored figures and dyes. Everybody loves it and loves to reside in it, because there is no human wish or desire that this city does not satisfy. The nations emigrate to it and reside there, and it grows beyond measure. People of every race multiply in it and this by all kinds of copulation and marriages, resulting in children of extremely varied dispositions, with extremely varied education and upbringing.”[15]

It was in this context that Al-Farabi mentioned the possibility of the emergence of virtuous men in this city with a passage of time. And owing to that, according to Al-Farabi, “this city possesses both good and evil to a greater degree than the rest of the ignorant cities. The bigger, the more civilized, the more populated, the more productive, and the more perfect it is, the more prevalent and the greater are the good and the evil it possesses.”[16]

Comparing the features of the democratic city to that of the virtuous city has led writers, Galston among others, to see Al-Farabi’s hope for the establishment of the rule of virtuous men out of the democratic city as one of his inconsistencies while others, like Najjar, would like to think that, in substance, Al-Farabi never really meant the possible realization of the virtuous city and, instead, suggested that it is the democratic city that was intended by Al-Farabi as the best possible alternative.

According to Galston, “This assertion is especially anomalous given that in a democracy all notions of merit are entirely eradicated, there is no hierarchy among the citizens or distinctions between rulers and ruled, and the whole range of illusory human goods is sought here.”[17]

To reply to this objection, two arguments are given here.

First, Al-Farabi’s own assertion that in the democratic city there are opportunities and venues for the virtuous men to grow up in it – either as a result of the seeking of a good and real desire or the pursuing of the whole range of illusory human goods – so that they can educate their fellow citizens to prepare them for the conversion of their city to a virtuous one.  

Second, it is wrong to conclude that, in Al-Farabi’s democratic city, “ there is no hierarchy among the citizens or distinctions between rulers and ruled”. This is, as quoted before, what Al-Farabi wrote “Its citizen are free to do whatever they like; and no one, be he one of them or an outsider, has any claim to authority unless he works to enhance their freedom (emphasize is from the writer of this paper). Those who rule them do so by the will of the ruled, and the rulers follow the wishes of the ruled.” Democracy, either in its modern notion or in Al-Farabi’s view, does not entirely eradicate authority on the part of the rulers. There are indeed rulers and the ruled. Indeed, in democracy rulers would have to govern in such a way that the desires of the people can be best met. Yet, even in modern liberal democracy, rulers preserve the rights to have a say in the making of the law — and then impose and sanction it. Also, we can infer that these two cities share the same principle of delegation. It is inconceivable to run a democracy without this principle — Al-Farabi’s democratic city not excluded. This also applies in regards with the virtuous city (as alluded in the Attainment of Happiness quoted above).

As for Najjar’s opinion,[18] he based it on what he supposes to be Al-Farabi’s conclusion that the establishment of the virtuous city is impossible owing to the impossibility of survival of its supreme leader, as also quoted before.

To respond to this, first I would like to draw the reader’s attention to Al-Farabi’s description of the possibility of the virtuous city, especially as a second best arrangement as explicitly mentioned by Al-Farabi himself. As to Al-Farabi’s statement about the vulnerability of the position of virtuous men in the democratic city — which is not at all surprising — a careful examination of it will reveal that Al-Farabi did not exclude the possibility of virtuous men succeeding in converting a democratic city to a virtuous city. It is not very hard to surmise that, indeed, there is a possibility that virtuous men can succeed in winning the hearts of the inhabitants and be accepted by them as their supreme ruler, as long as they carefully prepare the foundations for his rule through educating their fellow citizens in the best way possible.


[1] Fauzi M. Najjar, The Political Regime, an english translation of Al-Farabi’s al-Siyasa al-Madaniya,in Ralph Lerner & Muhsin Mahdi (ed.), Medieval Political Philosophy, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 1989, p. 51-52

[2] Ibid, p. 51

[3] Ibid, p. 51

[4] Ibid, p. 36

[5] Richard Walzer, Al-Farabi on the Perfect State, an English translation of Al-Farabi’s Mabadi’ Ara’ ah1 Al-Madina Al-Fadila, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1985, p.231-232

[6] Al-Farabi, Fushul al-Muntaza’ah, edited by Fauzi Najjar, Dar Al-Masyriq Publishers, Beirut, 1971, p. 66-67

[7] Ibid, p. 37

[8] This is, according to Al-Farabi, the faculty with which the Prophet and Imams receive revelations

[9] Al-Farabi, Fushul al-Muntaza’ah, edited by Fauzi Najjar, Dar Al-Masyriq Publishers, Beirut, 1971, p. 66-67

[10] The Political Regime, p. 39-40

[11] Muhsin Mahdi, The Attainment of Happiness, an English translation of Farabi’s Tahsil al-Sa’adah, in Medieval Political Philosophy, p.73

[12] Ibid, p.70

[13] Ibid, p.82

[14] Ibid,  p.69

[15] The Political Regime, p. 50-51. It can be safely concluded, through comparing Al-Farabi’s idea of democracy with the ones of Plato and Aristotle, that Al-Farabi had deliberately taken the extreme position. That is, to be more exact, if compared to the more moderate position of Aristotle or even to the one of Plato who actually wielded a very big influence on him. We know that, later in his career, Plato had abandoned his insistence to the ideal form of the aristocratic and autocratic virtuous city and support a middle ground between the two. It might not be difficult to know why Al-Farabi never mentioned Aristotle’s Politics even in his Philosophy of Aristotle, by pointing to the fact that Al-Farabi did not have access to the Arabic translation of the book. What is interesting, though, in his comment on Plato’s Laws he also did not mention the shift taken by Plato. Instead, he underlined Plato’s preference for the autocratic rule, even for a certain degree of despotism (Abu Nasr al-Farabi, Laws, an English working translation by Muhsin Mahdi, unpublished, p. 25).  For a good discussion of the political philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, see, Sir Ernest Baker, The Political Thought of Plato and Aristotle, Dover Publication, Inc., 1974.

[16] Ibid, p. 51

[17] Miriam Galston, Politics and Excellence : The Political Philosophy of Alfarabi, Princenton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1990, p. 169

[18] Fauzy Najjar, “Democracy in Islamic Philosophy”, Studia Islamica, vol.LI, 1980, p.115

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