Philosophy, Religion, & Science: Alfarabi and the Foundation of Islamic Political Philosophy

By Abed, Shukri B. | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Philosophy, Religion, & Science: Alfarabi and the Foundation of Islamic Political Philosophy


Abed, Shukri B., The Middle East Journal


Alfarabi and the Foundation of Islamic Political Philosophy, by Muhsin Mahdi. Foreword by Charles E. Butterworth. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2001. xvii + 240 pages. Refs. to p. 248. Index to p. 264. $37.50.

In his book Alfarabi and the Foundation of Islamic Political Philosophy, Muhsin Mahdi, arguably the leading scholar in this field, discusses Alfarabi's political thought, and presents as one of its key themes, the link between political life and religion. Mahdi's book is a collection of 11 essays, grouped into three parts. These essays, most of which were published previously as research papers, reflect a lifetime of scholarly research and teaching on this subject. Without a doubt, Muhsin Mahdi has contributed in a major way to what is known today about the 10"' century Alfarabi. In a sense, Mahdi's work on Alfarabi has really restored the latter's rightful place in the history of political philosophy in general and as the founder of Islamic political thought in particular. Mahdi did that through editing many works of Alfarabi which have not been known before, by publishing many articles analyzing Alfarabi's political thought, and last but not least, by teaching at Harvard University.

Through his writings and teaching, Mahdi greatly influenced many students. In fact, most of the works written on Alfarabi in the last two decades were written by some of those students. It is unfortunate, however, that Mahdi chose not to refer to any of these works in the book under consideration, some of which are major studies on the topics dealt with in his book, notably Miriam Galston's Politics and Excellence: The Political Philosophy of Alfarabi (Princeton University Press, 1990). In fact, the only contemporary works to which Mahdi does refer are those of Ibrahim Madkour and Leo Strauss (p. 5), both written in the first part of the 201 century by scholars considered pioneers in the study of Alfarabi.

The book under consideration reflects Mahdi's extensive knowledge of Alfarabi's writings and is written in a graceful style that makes reading this volume a pleasurable as well as intellectually enriching experience. Mahdi's historical, as well as conceptual analysis of Alfarabi's political thought as presented in this book is the definitive work in this field. The foreword to this book by Professor Charles Butterworth, a disciple of Mahdi, deserves special praise, as it reflects very accurately Mahdi's work, focusing the reader's attention on the main themes of the book and thereby providing a link between the various chapters - link which might otherwise seem tenuous from the non-specialist's point of view.

In the book under review, Mahdi lays bare the essentials of Alfarabi's political theory.

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