First Iranian Expert in the Art and Science of Music: Farabi


M. Saadat Noury
by M. Saadat Noury


Originally Published Online on October 1, 2005
INTRODUCTION: Among many ancient societies that shaped the history of human civilization, Iran is considered to be one of the few, which preserved steadily and patiently its distinct identity through centuries. And that is mirrored in its literary and cultural heritage, in its superb and lovely tradition of decorative arts and handicrafts, in its outstanding legacy in architecture, and particularly in its fabulous and stylish musical culture. The Persian Mythical King, Jamshid, has been credited with the invention of music. The writings of Greek Historians like Herodotus and Xenophon suggest that music played an important role in court life and religious ceremonies during Achamenid era (550-331 BC). During Sassanid Dynasty (226-642 AD), high-ranking status was conferred to court poet and musicians such as Baarbod, Nakissa, and Raamtin. Although the Arab invasion of 625 AD regrettably suppressed the musical development in Iran, Abbasid Caliphs (750-1258 AD), inspired by Iranians, reestablished music at the courts, and Iranian musicians were scattered throughout the Muslim World. Mohammad Farkhan Farabi (MFF), Pur Sina, and Safey-e-Din Ormavi, are but a few among the group of outstanding Iranian musical scholars in ancient Iran. In this article the life story of MFF, the First Iranian Expert in the Art and Science of Music and his contributions to music and many other fields of knowledge are studied and discussed.

HIS LIFE: Mohammad Farkhan Farabi (also named as Abu Nasr Farabi in Arabic Literature) was born on 1 October 870, when Nasr I (864–892) of Samanid Dynasty was in power in Khorasaan and Bukhara. At the same time, Ya'ghub Laith (869–879), the founder of Saffarid Dynasty was also in power in Sistaan. In present-day Iran, MFF's birthday has been marked as the National Music Day on Iranian Calendar. The older Persian form Paryab, for Faryab, is given in the historical account of Hodudol-Aalam (a geography book written by an unknown author) for MFF's birthplace, and as noted by historian Ibn-e-Nadim, MFF's origin lies in Faryab in Khorasaan. Some historians, most unlikely, claim that Farabi was born in the small village of Wasij near Farab in what is today Turkmenistan. MFF is known as Phrarabius in West and as Alfarabi in Arab world (where the Arabs intentionally add the prefixes as al, abu, ibn, and so on to mislead the readers). His name also originated the Portuguese word of [alfarrbio] meaning an old and a thick book.
MFF was the son of an Iranian army commander who belonged to a noble family. He completed his earlier education at Faryab of Khorasaan and in Bokhara, and in 901 he went to Baghdad to pursue his higher education. According to some researchers, MFF studied under a Christian physician, and acquired mastery over several foreign languages (Greek, Turkish, Arabic, and Assyrian), and many fields of knowledge. He was also a student of Bashir Matta Yuness, the great translator and interpreter of Greek Philosophy. MFF lived and remained in Baghdad for 40 years until 941. That was the time that members of Buyyid Family (in Persian: Khandaan-e-Booyeh or Aal-e-Booyeh) were spreading their powers and commands around Iran and Abbasid Caliphs were becoming weak and weaker. It should be noted that in 945, Iranian family of Buyyid overthrew the Caliph and they ruled Baghdad and most of Iraq and Syria until 1055.
During his early years, MFF worked as a Judge (in Persian: Daavar or Ghaazi), but later on he took up teaching as his profession. As a physician, MFF also practiced Medicine treating his patients free of any charge. In the course of his career, he had suffered great hardships and at one time he was also the caretaker of a garden. MFF traveled to many distant lands and stayed for some times in Damascus (Syria) and in Cairo (Egypt), but repeatedly came back to Baghdad. Once, on a visit to Mecca, not so much for religious as for philosophical purposes, MFF returned through Syria, and he stopped at the court of the King Saif-o-Dowleh Hamedani (SDH), a member of Buyyid family, who was renowned and recognized as the patron of learning at the time. [It is also reported that MFF went to India to visit the ruler SDH there, which is most unlikely]. In the court of SDH in Syria, MFF presented himself in his traveling outfit and dress, in the presence of that King and his courtiers; and, without invitation, coolly sat himself down upon the sofa, beside SDH's son, the Prince. The courtiers and wise men were indignant and resentful; and the SDH, who did not know the intruder, was at first inclined to follow their examples. SDH turned to one of his officers, and ordered him to drive out the presumptuous stranger from the room; but MFF, without moving, dared them to lay hands upon him; and, turned himself calmly to the Prince, remarked that the Prince did not know who was his guest, or he would treat him with honor, not with violence. SDH, instead of being still further incensed, admired MFF's coolness; and requested him to sit still closer to him on the sofa, entered into a long conversation with him upon science and divine philosophy. All the court was charmed with MFF. Questions for discussion were propounded, on all of which MFF showed superior knowledge. He convinced every one that ventured to dispute with him; and spoke so eloquently upon Philosophy, Medicine, Chemistry and many other fields. One of the learned men among the audience, inquired whether a man who knew so many sciences was acquainted with music also? MFF made no reply, but merely requested that a lute (in Persian: Barbat) should be brought him. The lute was brought; and he played such tender melodies, that all the court was melted into tears. He then changed his theme, and played airs so energetic and sprightly, that he set the serious and important dignitaries, SDH and others, started dancing as fast as their legs could carry them. MFF then sobered them again by a mournful strain, and made them sob and sigh as if broken-hearted. SDH, highly delighted with his powers, entreated him to stay, offering him every inducement that wealth, power, and dignity could supply; but MFF resolutely refused all the offers, and left SDH after a while.

HIS CONTRIBUTIONS: MFF contributed considerably to science, philosophy, logic, sociology, medicine, mathematics and music. He may rightly be acclaimed as one of the all time's greatest philosophers in the history of Iran and also in the Muslim World. A well-known story tells how Pur Sina who came after MFF, sought in vain to understand Aristotle's Metaphysics, and it was only through a book by MFF on the intentions of the Metaphysics that helped Pur Sina to understand it finally. MFF's philosophical legacy is large, and he has come to be known as the Second Teacher or Second Master (in Persian: Dovomeen Amoozegaar or Moullem-e-Saani), with Aristotle being the First. In the arena of metaphysics, MFF has been designated as the Father of Neoplatonism in Muslim World, and while he was also saturated with Aristotle’s views and certainly deploys the vocabulary of Aristotle, it is this Neoplatonic dimension, which dominates much of his corpus. This is apparent in his most famous book on the Opinions & Ideas expressed by the Citizens of a Perfect City of the Citizens of a Perfect City or Aaray-e-Ahleh Madineh-e-Faazeleh (AMF), which is far from being a copy or a clone of Plato's Republic, and it is imbued with the Neoplatonic concept of God. AMF is also a significant early contribution to sociology and political science. His influence was wide and extended not only to major philosophers of his time such as Pur Sina, and to lesser mortals such as Yahya Adi, Sijistani, Amiri and Tawhidi, but also to major thinkers of Christian Medieval Europe including Thomas Aquinas.
MFF was also a great expert in the art and science of music. He invented several musical instruments. The invention of Quanun (in Persian and Arabic: Ghaanoon), an Iranian musical instrument, has been attributed to him. MFF also contributed to the knowledge of what we now know as [the musical notes]. It is well documented that MFF was an accomplished composer of music and many songs composed by him are still sung by Dervishes to this day. [The word Dervish, in Persian: Darvish, refers, especially in European Languages, to members of a group of Sufi Muslims known for their extreme poverty and austerity]. He was very well familiar to play lute, and as noted earlier he could play his instrument so well that people start to laugh or weep at will, depending on the piece. He also wrote a book on music, entitled as the Great Book of Music or GBM (in Persian: Ketab-e-Arzeshmand-e-Moosighi, or Ketab-e-Moosighi-e-Kabir). In 1978, Iranian physicist and scholar, Dr Mehdi Barkeshli, published a book entitled as Farabi's Scientific Ideas About Music (in Persian: Andisheh-haay-e-Elmy-e-Farabi Darbaareh Moosighi), in which a general glance was given over GBM, and the relationship of MFF's musical theory with the contemporary Iranian Music was studied and discussed. Although many books authored by MFF have been lost, 107 are known. Out of those 107 books, 43 are on logic, 11 on metaphysics, 8 on ethics, 7 on political science, 27 on music, medicine and sociology, and 11 are as commentaries. Many of his famous books in science and music are still taught at some of the institutions in many countries around the world.

HIS END:  At 80, he died as a bachelor in Damascus in 950. (Some documents also indicate that MFF passed away in 954). The circumstances of his death are not clear; some accounts portray him dying naturally in Damascus while at least one holds that he was mugged and killed on the road from Damascus to Ascalon. Ascalon is also called Ashkelon (in Persian: Essghalaan), and it is an ancient seaport on the coast of Mediterranean Sea just north of Gaza.

DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION:  As noted, MFF was not only an expert in the art and science of music, but he was also a philosopher, a physician, a chemist, and an expert in social and political sciences. MFF had a great desire to understand the Universe and Humankind. He liked to understand the position of the Man within the Universe, so as to ascertain a comprehensive and intellectual picture of the world and of society as a whole. When he undertook his meticulous study of ancient philosophy, particularly of Plato and Aristotle, he absorbed the components of Platonic and Neo-Platonic philosophy, which he then integrated into his knowledge of the Koran. However, he combined these two in a new and unique way: He was the first Iranian philosopher to separate philosophy and theology, influencing the scholars of many different religions who followed him. He concluded that human reason, the tool of the philosopher, was superior to revelation, the tool of religion, resulting in the advantage of philosophy over religion. He claimed that philosophy was based on intellectual perception, while religion was based on imagination. He thus attributed impressive characteristics to the philosopher, and advocated the philosopher as the ideal head of state. In his writings, MFF noted that the best ruler for a Muslim state would be an educated King, chosen for his intelligence, and the one who has studied in science, philosophy, and some other fields of knowledge. MFF blamed political upheavals in the Islamic world of his time on the fact that the state was not run by philosophers, whose superior powers of reason and intellect would result in ideal leadership.
MFF was a physician and his psychological view of humanity was that an isolated individual cannot achieve perfection by himself, but requires the aid of many other individuals. Therefore, to achieve any sort of perfection, every person needed to interact and associate with others. In terms of political thought, MFF described the ideal state as the one with a duty to provide for the physical well being of the citizens, as well as helping people towards religious salvation.

Epilogues (Posted August 2012)
1. Safi-o-Din Ormavi (aka Safi al-Din al-Urmawi or Safi al-Din Abd al-Mu'min ibn Yusuf ibn al-Fakhir al-Urmawi) was born c. 1216 AD in Urmia, died in Baghdad in 1294 AD. He was a renowned musician and writer on the theory of music. Ormavi is perhaps best known for developing in the thirteenth century the widely used seventeen-tone scale later expanded to the Arabic scale of twenty-four quarter tones. He has written two important books about theory of Persian art music of his time, which they are Al-advar and Al-sharafiyyeh (View here: 1 & 2).
2. View more info about Lute (in Persian: Baebat, aka Oode) here: 1 & 2
3. The Farabi's book on the Opinions & Ideas expressed by the Citizens of a Perfect City or Aaray-e-Ahleh Madineh-e-Faazeleh was originally written in Arabic. The Iranian scolar Seyyed Jaafar Sajjadi translated the above famous book of Farabi from Arabic into Persian (View here).
4. View more info about the Iranian musical instrument of Quanun (in Persian and Arabic: Ghaanoon) here 5. According to Farabi, the best ruler for the Muslim state would be a "philosopher-king", which is actually a concept described in Plato's Republic (View here).
6. A Persian Text on his biography and about the Political Phlosophy of Farabi may be viewed online here
7. A Persian Text on the Philosophies of Plato and Farabi, a comparative study, may be viewed online here

Manouchehr Saadat Noury, PhD


Black, D. (2005):  Psychology: Soul and Intellect in Adamson, P and Taylor, R, ed., the Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy, Cambridge University Press.
Butterworth, C. (2005): Ethical and Political Philosophy in Adamson, P and Taylor, R., ed., the Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy, Cambridge University Press.
Corbin, H., Nasr, H. and U. Yahya (1993): History of Islamic Philosophy, ed., Keagan Paul International.
Fakhry, M. (2002): Al-Farabi, Founder of Islamic Neoplatonism: His Life, Works, and Influence, Oxford: Oneworld Publications.
Saadat Noury, M. (2005): Online Articles on the First Iranians.
Saadat Noury, M. (2005): Various Articles on the Persian Culture and the History of Iran.
Various Sources (2005): Notes and News about Iranian Scientist Farabi.
Wikipedia Encyclopedia (2005): Online Articles on Farabi (in Persian and in English).

The Image of Farabi

An Iranian stamp bearing an illustration of Farabi's imagined face


more from M. Saadat Noury

A Study of Falsafah

by fsadri on

May I suggest the following book:

How Early Muslim Scholars Assimilated Aristotle and Made Iran the Intellectual Center of the Islamic World: A Study of Falsafah

Author: Farshad Sadri
Foreword: Carl R. Hasler

This work demonstrates how falsafah (which linguistically refers to a group of commentaries by Muslim scholars) associated with their readings of "The Corpus Aristotelicum" in Iran has been always closely linked with religion. It demonstrates that the blending of the new natural theology with Iranian culture created an intellectual climate that made Iran the center of falsafah in the Medieval world. The author begins this book by exploring the analytical arguments and methodologies presented as the subject of the first-philosophy (metaphysics) in the works of Aristotle (in particular "The Nicomachean Ethics" and "Rhetoric"). Then, he tells the tale of the Muslims' progression as they came to own and expand upon Aristotle's arguments and methodologies as a measure of their own sense of spirituality. Last, Sadri surveys the implications of that sense of spirituality as it is amalgamated within the Iranian culture and today's Islamic Republic of Iran. The author's aim is to present a different perspective of falsafah (as it is received by Muslims and assimilated within Iranian culture), while maintaining a sense that captures the texture of everyday life-experiences in today's Islamic Republic of Iran. This work is thus about (contemporary) Iranian falsafah and how it remains faithful to its tradition (as falsafah has actually been integrated and practiced by Iranian scholars for the last eleven centuries). It is a tradition that has taken on the task of understanding and projecting a sense of order upon the multiplicity of forms, ideas, examples, and images that have passed through Iran from East and West; it is a story that has gathered, sheltered, and introduced a style and order of Iranian Islamic (Shi'at) falsafah.

M. Saadat Noury

Thank you all

by M. Saadat Noury on

WHO visited this thread. Very special thanks go to All-Iranians and Hafez for Beginners for their informative and supportive comments respectively.

Hafez for Beginners

very useful!

by Hafez for Beginners on



حکایتی از ابونصر فارابی


نوشته اند که ابونصر محمد بن فارابی در محضر سيف الدوله همدانی ابتدا خطای يک يک خوانندگان و نوازندگان مجلس را بازنمود، آنگاه از کيسه ای که در کمر داشت چند چوب درآورد و آنها را به هم پيوست و بنواخت. همه را خنده گرفت. پس چوب ها را درهم ريخت و ترکيبی تازه فراهم بساخت و بزد. همه به گريه درآمدند. بار ديگر چوب ها را درهم ريخت و ترکيبی تازه فراهم آورد و ضربی ديگر آغاز کرد. همه حاضران حتی پرده داران و دربان ها نيز به خواب رفتند. او آنها را خفته رها کرد و برفت