As to those Works of Alpharabius which are extant, they are most of them Logick. There are a great many things very dubious in his Philosophical Works; for in his Méllatolphadélah, i.e. The most excellent Sect, he asserts expressly, that the Souls of Wicked Men shall suffer everlasting Punishment; and yet says as positively in his Politicks that they shall be dissolv'd and annihilated, and that the Souls of the Perfect shall remain for ever. And then in his Ethicks, speaking concerning the Happiness of Man, he says, that it is only in this Life, and then adds, that whatsoever People talk of besides, is meer Whimsy and old Wives Fables. A principle, which if believ'd would make all Men despair of the Mercy of God, and puts the Good and Evil both upon the same Level, in that it makes annihilation the common end to them both. This is an Error not to be pardon'd by any means, or made amends for. Besides all this, he had a mean Opinion of the Gift of Prophecy, and said that in his Judgment it did belong to the faculty of Imagination, and that he prefer'd Philosophy before it; with a great many other things of the like nature, not necessary to be mention'd here.--Ibn Tufayl Hayy Ibn Yaqzan translated by Simon Ockley (1708).
Because I met Daniel Tangay as a PhD student in graduate school, I read his intellectual biography of Leo Strauss. One of the claims in it that surprised me was that he suggests that Strauss' zetetic species of skepticism is due to, or inspired by or modelled on, Al-Farabi's (200-1). As it happens during the last few years, I have been studying and offering Impressions of Farabi (in translation, alas), and I have been puzzled not by Tangay's interpretation of Strauss, which strikes me as apt, but by what is reported as Strauss's interpretation of Al-Farabi because he (Al-Farabi) quite naturally reads like a neo-Platonic philosopher (who often uses Aristotelian terminology in his arguments). I had made a mental note to study Strauss on Al-Farabi some day, but that plan was put on the long pile of projects to be pursued after I complete the introduction to the experimental novel Celebrating the Obvious, which culminates the descent of reason.
So, I was badly prepared for Ibn Tufayl's remarks quoted above. I have mentioned Ibn Tufayl's Hayy Ibn Yaqzan -- a twelfth century philosophical, Utopian novel -- before (and also last week). At the start the tale is offered to an unnamed disciple who is interested in the esoteric knowledge (or mysteries) emanating from the East sometimes mentioned in Avicenna's work. In fact, the tale is framed by the problem of esoterism because it also closes with these remarks:
I have thought good to give them a Glimpse of this Secret of Secrets, that I might draw them into the right Way, and avert them from this other. Nevertheless, I have not so delivered the Secrets which are comprehended in these few Leaves, as to leave them without a thin Veil or Cover over them, which will be easily rent by those who are worthy of it; but will be so thick to him, that is unworthy to pass beyond it, that he shall not be able to get through it.
Some other time, I'll try to address how we should understand Ibn Tufayl's self-description. Rather, here I note that before Ibn Tufayl gets to his actual tale, which takes up the vast majority of his narrative, he briefly offers a partial history of Islamic philosophy. The paragraph about Al-Farabi I have quoted above is followed by one about Avicenna and one about Al-Ghazali. All three paragraphs remind the reader that one should not take the words of these thinkers literally at face value (e.g., about Al-Farabi he writes, "if the Reader, take the literal Sense only, either of the Alshepha or Aristotle, with, out penetrating into the hidden Sense, he will never attain to perfection, as Avicenna himself observes in the Alshepha.")
As an aside, this theme returns through the tale of Hayy because, first, it is key to debate between two friends, Asâl and Salâman, who disagree over the proper way to understand the revealed text of the "ancient prophet." And, second, it is central to the polical failure of Hayy, who is himself an exemplar of a great self-taught, sufi-style-philosophical-mystic, who fails to persuade his audience to depart from a base literal-ism and so withdraws from human society.
It is notable that when Ibn-Tufayl reads his predecessors, he is primarily focused on noting the tensions and contradictions between the works of each individual author. It is these tensions that provide him with a clue toward their true meaning. (As my student noted, he is not tempted to read these tensions as evidence of intellectual development or change.) Now, Ibn Tufayl does not say that Al-Farabi is a skeptic (although it is possible that the phrase, "There are a great many things very dubious in his Philosophical Works" may be translating the idea that his "philosophical works express much doubt.")* But it is clear that by Ibn Tufayl's lights if you really understand Al-Farabi he is really inclined to deny the reality of the afterlife. (Depending on how this is worded this is a species of skepticism or dogmatic denial.)
In fact, Ibn Tufayl's criticism of Al-Farabi, who is deflationary about the power of prophecy (and anticipates Spinoza in insisting that it is due to the working of the imagination), is not that he denies the afterlife as such, but that if people were to come to recognize Al-Farabi's true views and believe it, a form of generalized nihilism would follow (it would make all Men despair of the Mercy of God). And as context reveals, the concern is that without some such belief in afterlife (with punishment for the wicked and reward for the virtuous), there may well be concern over people's willingness to do good and maintain social order. That is, from our vantage point, Ibn Tufayl reads Al-Farabi in a way that anticipates elements of the philosophy we now more commonly associate with Hobbes and Spinoza. If there is a criticism of Al-Farabi in these remarks, it seems to be primarily that Al-Farabi is not just immoral, but also reckless.
So, has Strauss's reading of Al-Farabi been thereby vindicated? All that has been shown here is that there is historical precedent for it to be found in somebody who had a decent grasp of the intellectual and religious habitus that Al-Farabi inhabited and helped shape. What we can say with more confidence, perhaps, is that Ibn Tufayl left us a text that invites the reader to reflect not just on the nature of allegory, but also modes of writing whose meaning will be understood differently by different readers.
*L.E. Goodman's more recent translation comes closer to suggesting this.