Redefining the Muslim Community

Ethnicity, Religion, and Politics in the Thought of Alfarabi

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Alexander Orwin
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , April
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Alexander Orwin’s excellent book brings the thought of the medieval philosopher Alfarabi (870-950) to bear upon the Muslim self-understanding of believers as forming a single community, the ummah. What does this self-understanding mean given the multiplicity of ethnic and linguistic communities, which are also ummahs, this time in the plural? Chapter 2 develops Alfarabi’s exploration of a concept of ummah as rooted in ethnicity and language, with no religious connotation. In this chapter, “Umma emerges as a civilization defined primarily by common language and literature” (86). Here the focus is on Alfarabi’s Book of Letters. Chapter 4 develops the contrast between ummah as an ethnic and linguistic community, of which there are many, and ummah as the unique Islamic ummah. The universality of Islam must engage the diversity of ethnic and linguistic ummahs. In chapters 4 and 5, Orwin turns to Alfarabi’s Book of Religion as a “brief tour de force [presenting] an entirely new view of Islamic religion and civilization” (94). Alfarabi recognizes the two meanings of ummah and explains what would be necessary for their full harmonization. Orwin quotes Alfarabi’s “marvelously subtle passage”: “The Umma and the Ummas become like a single…thing performing a single action by which a single purpose is obtained” (115). The Islamic ummah and the many ethnic and linguistic ummahs included within it become as one. The point here is subtle because the passage is heavily ironical. Alfarabi’s “account of a multinational empire led by the virtuous Umma cannot be regarded as a serious, practical proposal” (121). Alfarabi is too well aware of the “insurmountability of human diversity” not to warn us against the utopian character of political universalism in religious form. Chapter 7 joins the concerns of Alfarabi to those of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Islamic thinkers such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Iqbal. While both al-Afghani and Iqbal clearly thought in terms of a single Islamic ummah, Orwin finds reason to conclude that “Alfarabi and Iqbal both argue that Islam would flourish only by respecting human diversity and evolving over time” (197).

My highly compressed summary cannot do justice to the erudition and perspicacity with which Orwin supports his argument that Alfarabi aims at “ethnic accommodation within Islam” (113). It is hard to tell whether the issue for Alfarabi is the desirability of such accommodation and the undesirability of a universal empire under one religious law, or whether we are being told that a single, all-encompassing ummah, however desirable, faces an impossible obstacle in the “overwhelming fact of human diversity” (134). Orwin writes of the “great concessions that Alfarabi makes to human diversity” (139). Does Alfarabi long for a virtuous city and a virtuous ruler governing the entire inhabited world (160), though he knows this to be impossible? Orwin gives some evidence to the contrary based on Alfarabi’s Summary of Plato’s “Laws.” In the Summary, we are told, Alfarabi “views the prospect of a universal code of law with some dread: it would attempt to govern humans as humans keep bees” (119).

Orwin mentions, without quoting, a passage from the Attainment of Happiness in which Alfarabi says that for the ancients, religion is an imitation of philosophy (95). Orwin points out that Alfarabi does not here emphasize the link between religion and law; rather religion seems to be a kind of imitation. This same relation between religion and philosophy is mentioned as a possible scenario in the Book of Letters (102).  Every ummah will have its own way of imitating the truth of philosophy, contingent on the language and history of that particular ummah. The varieties of imitation are the very diversity that Alfarabi wants to accommodate. In a very useful way, Orwin brings out the surprising character of Alfarabi’s emphasis on imitation as central to religion given the Islamic prohibition on imitation. He especially notes the prohibition on sculpture as leading to idolatry. Orwin has a strong case that when Alfarabi compares religion itself to the kind of imitative statuary that would be prohibited by Islam, he is going “against the norms of his civilization” (128).

The conclusion Orwin draws from his discussion of imitation in religion is that “Alfarabi favors relaxing the prohibition against the use of graven images in religion” (129). This is an excellent example of the way that Orwin makes “the case for a more Muslim-oriented approach to Alfarabi” (11), causing us to see how Alfarabi’s teaching looked in its Islamic context. Orwin emphasizes that the images will differ in different cities and different ummahs (123). Religion itself may differ from ummah to ummah (83, 124). All of this supports Orwin’s thesis that Alfarabi recognizes and accommodates the diversity of human cultures or, in Orwin's preferred term, civilizations. But it does not answer, indeed it does not raise, the question whether there is one and only one philosophic truth, knowable to humanity, which is the original that all true religions imitate. Or does Orwin mean to answer this question in a footnote that tells us that Alfarabi “describes Aristotle’s philosophy as true” (221n.51)? But the footnote goes on to tell us that Alfarabi may have regarded some parts of Aristotle’s teaching as false. To put the question another way, we are told that “Alfarabi offers no examples of universally applicable images” (124). But does he offer examples of universally knowable truths that are the originals for the diversity of images? If not, what does this say about the so-called imitations? Are the imitations, in fact, original creations?

One final observation of a topical nature: One might easily draw the conclusion that Alfarabi would be an advocate of modern nationalism, but Orwin does not think so (186). Orwin takes Ernest Renan as a representative of modern nationalism, and draws the following comparison: “Renan disparages the Ottoman arrangement of separate and unassimilated ethnic or religious communities living side by side within the same cities as ‘the ruin of the Orient’…; Alfarabi might have considered such an arrangement quite satisfactory….Imperial diversity and tolerance, rather than national self-determination, are in Alfarabi’s view the most practical arrangement for limiting national or religious conflict” (190).

Orwin brings a wealth of knowledge and insight to his interpretation of Alfarabi as he addresses issues as relevant in our time as they were in Alfarabi’s. The book is highly recommended.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Colmo is Professor of Political Science at Dominican University.

Date of Review: 
January 25, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alexander Orwin teaches political science at Louisiana State University.

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