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Al-Farabi, the melancholic thinker and philosopher poet.

In his masterly article on al-Farabi's biography, Dimitri Gutas rightly remarks that "[t]he sources for the life of Farabi are such as to make the reconstruction of his biography beyond a mere outline nearly impossible," (1) and he distinguishes between information that is beyond doubt and "stories and legends" about al-Farabi that are, as he puts it, "dubious at best and legendary at worst." We know little for certain about Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Farabi. He studied philosophy in Baghdad in a circle of Christian Aristotelians among whom was Yuhanna ibn Haylan (who died during the reign of the caliph al-Muqtadir, i.e., between 908 and 932). Another Christian philosopher, Yahya ibn cAdI (d. 974), was his student. He also visited Egypt and lived in Syria, where he died, probably in late 950 or early 951.

What Gutas calls "legends," on the other hand, abound. For instance, later sources report that he was of Turkish ancestry, and that he was a veritable polyglot, mastering not only Arabic, but also Greek, Persian, and Sogdian; one source puts the number of languages that al-Farabi knew at more than seventy. (2) Moreover, they report that al-Farabi followed a philosophical way of life, bordering on the ascetic; and that he was totally absorbed by his studies. This last point interests us here, as al-Farabi's poetry appears to confirm that he retired from the world to study the ancient authorities. Moreover, a hitherto overlooked medical author lists al-Farabi as a person suffering from scholarly melancholy--like Mr. Casaubon in George Eliot's Middlemarch, he is the quintessential melancholic scholar who eventually succumbs to his passion for learning.

Dimitri Gutas and others have tried hard to distinguish myths and legends from historical truths when it comes to al-Farabi's biography. The present article challenges this dichotomy. It draws attention to hitherto overlooked aspects in the accounts of al-Farabi's biography, notably by investigating closely the poetry attributed to him and confronting it with a new medical source for his life. On the basis of previously known sources that are reconsidered and new sources that are discussed here for the first time, it will argue that the topoi of literature are often the topoi of life. In other words, even when accounts appear to be anecdotal or legendary, they may well reflect historical reality. Although one might never reach absolute certainty about the exact details of al-Farabi's life, some accounts hitherto labeled legends may contain at least a grain of truth.


Let us look at one aspect of this legendary information about al-Farabi, namely, his ascetic behavior and love of study. Ibn Abl Usaybi'a offers the most extensive bio-bibliographical entry on al-Farabi in 'Uyun al-anba' fi tabaqat al-atibba' (Essential Information about the Classes of Physicians), (3) which as a work is known to include historical inaccuracies, chronological impossibilities, and information that cannot possibly reflect historical realities. (4) At the beginning of his entry, Ibn Abi Usaybi'a paints al-Farabi as someone devoted to studying (M, 2: 134 11. 4-6; CU, 557 11. 5-7): '


   He used to [...] turn away from the world and eke out some means of
   subsistence by living like the ancient philosophers [...] At night,
   he would stay up to read and write.

This corresponds well to what al-Zawzani reports in 1249 in his epitome of the Ta'rikh al-hukama' by Ibn al-Qifti (d. 1248), namely, that al-Farabi "stayed under his protection [sc. Sayf al-Dawla] for a while, wearing the dress of the Sufis (wa-aqama fi kanafihi muddatan bi-zayyi l-tasawwuf)." (6) Sufis were known for meditation and retreat from the world, even if some of them became involved in worldly affairs. (7) Likewise, Ibn Khallikan (d. 1282) insists that al-Farabi was a loner, and singles out his time in Damascus (ed. cAbbas, 5: 156 11. 3-5):


   He kept to himself and did not keep anybody's company. During his
   stay in Damascus, he was generally only found at collections of
   water and the undergrowth in a garden: there he wrote his books and
   his students besieged him.

The topos of the philosopher who disdains material goods and withdraws from the world dates back at least to Classical Greek times. In the Arabic tradition, Socrates, for instance, appears as a Cynic philosopher, residing in a barrel and eating with the dogs. (8) Gutas notes that "[a]s for the real Farabi, beyond the idealized image of the abstemious philosopher of the later biographers and of the Turkish philosopher of Ebn Kallikan, we have no direct means of knowing." (9) Indeed, we cannot know for certain whether the historical al-Farabi really lived the life of an abstentious philosopher, but similarly, one could say that it is also possible to doubt the information about his death in Damascus in 339h. I shall develop this point further, but it is necessary first to consider al-Farabi's poetry and rhymed prose, as well as a new medical source.


Ibn Abi Usaybi'a's entry on al-Farabi can usefully be divided into five parts. The first (2: 134 Il. 2-7) contains a brief description of al-Farabi, from which we have just quoted. The second part (2: 134 1. 7-136 1. 8 from the bottom) consists of a number of stories about al-Farabi. at the end of which he states that "[but] in the History it is reported that (aqulu wa-fi l-ta'rikhi anna)" and then he relates that al-Farabi studied Arabic grammar with a famous exponent and also used to compose poetry. Finally, he lists two gnomic utterances in which al-Farabi describes his relationship with Aristotle. In the first, answering the question whether Aristotle or he was more knowledgeable, al-Farabi replied, "If I had known him, I would have been his greatest pupil (law adraktuhu, la-kuntu akbara talamidhihi)." As for the second, al-Farabi is reported to have said: "Although I have read the lecture (10) by Aristotle forty times, I am still of the opinion that I need to revisit it (qara'tu l-sama'a li-Aristu arba'ina marratan, wa-ara anni muhtajun ila mu'awadatihi)."

The third part (2: 136 1. 7 from the bottom-138 1. 1) consists of a long prayer in rhymed prose with four verses of poetry roughly in the middle. It begins as follows:


   O God, I ask Thee, Whose existence is necessary, O cause of causes
   ('ilal), O Ancient and Eternal One (lam yazal), that Thou protect
   me from error (zalal), and that Thou grant me hope (amal) in what
   Thou wishest me to do ('amal).

The poem is a hymn to God, the creator and sustainer of all being. Some passages in this prayer certainly have Islamic overtones, such as "Thou art the God next to whom there is no God (anta llahu lladhi la ilaha illa anta)" (2: 137 11. 2-3), which obviously evokes the first of the two Muslim articles of faith ("There is no god but God"). But the prayer also strikes philosophical notes, as, for instance, when God is addressed as "cause of causes" or "cause of all things ('illata l-ashya'i jam'an)" (2: 136 1. 7 from the bottom; 137 1. 7). There is a long list of philosophers who address personal prayers to deities; examples include the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes and his hymn to Zeus, (11) and the Epicurean Lucretius and his address to Venus at the beginning of his De rerum natura. (12) In the Islamic tradition, the philosopher al-Kindl sought to reconcile revealed religion and philosophy and often resorted to pious formulae. Moreover, al-Farabi himself identifies God with the first cause from which all other beings emanate. (13) However, he also uses religious language in his own works, such as his so-called Kitab al-Huruf, which begins with a customary invocation to God in rhymed prose: (14)


   In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate,
   Him we ask for help.
   Thanks be to God, the Master of the Universe,
   And peace be upon His Prophet and all his family.

The objection could be raised that this beginning is not actually by al-Farabi, but rather an addition by an overzealous scribe. This is unlikely, however, as al-Farabi describes God as the "Most Perfect, Most Stable, and Most Lasting Being (al-akmal wa-l-athbat wa-l-adwam)" on the same page. Al-Farabi also uses the example of God when he explains the concept of "for the sake of" saying (ed. Mahdi, 129 1. 19-130 1. 2):


   Jihad is for the sake of God. God is He for Whose sake there is
      jihad, prayer, acts of piety, and
   the observance of the laws that He legislates. (15)

This would suggest that the prayer quoted by Ibn Abi Usaybica is not significantly different in tone from other utterances by al-Farabi. Whether the prayer can indeed be traced to him, however, is likely to remain speculative.

The fourth part (2: 138 11. 1-13), with the title "From the poetry (shi'r) of Abu Nasr al-Farabi," consists of two poems. The first poem deals with solitariness, and is discussed in detail below. The second poem, introduced by wa-qala aydan ("He also said"), begins (M, 2: 13811. 8-13):


   Brother, leave the realm (hayyiz) of the liar,
          and rather be in the possession (hayyiz) of the truth.

The poem goes on to discuss the futility of human existence and competition. Ibn Khallikan also quotes this poem with some variations, and gives a provenance (ed. 'Abbas, 5: 156 11. 3-4 from bottom):


   I saw that in Kharida these verses were attributed to the shaykh
   Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Malik al-Fariqi who lived in Baghdad.

Indeed, in the poetic anthology Kharidat al-qasr wa-jaridat ahl al-'asr (The Palace Pearl and Register of Contemporary Personages) by 'Imad al-Din al-Katib al-Isfahani (d. 1201), we find a slightly different and shorter version of this poem attributed to 'Imad's older contemporary Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Malik al-Fariqi (d. 1168). (16) Since this anthology, which is roughly a hundred years older than Ibn Abl Usaybi'a, attributes these verses to a twelfth-century author without mentioning al-Farabi, Ibn Khallikan is probably right in doubting the correctness of this attribution. The confusion between al-Fariqi and al-Farabi is easily explained in palaeographical terms.

The fifth part of Ibn Abi Usaybi'a's entry (2: 138 1. 14-140 1. 6) consists of a long list of al-Farabi's works, which is of less interest to us here.

We return therefore to the first poem (composed using a variation of the basit meter), which unlike the second is attributed only to al-Farabi; it comprises six verses (M, 2: 138 11. 2-7):


1) When I saw that time was treacherous and that keeping company had no benefit

2) for each chieftain (ra'is) is full of tediousness, (17) and each head (ra's) full of headache

3) I stayed at home and preserved a reputation that is strong enough to be content with. (18)

4) I drank the wine (rah) that I acquired: its gleaming rays shone onto my hand (raha)

5) I make its wine flasks (qawarir) my boon companions, and its gurgling sound (qararir) my conversation

6) I benefit from the talk of people of whom the lands have been emptied.

The general theme of the poem is already expressed in the first line, namely, that being alone is preferable to the company of people. Al-Farabi hints at the tediousness of social intercourse, which gives him a headache. His solution is to stay at home and drink, but to drink alone, as the fifth verse makes beautifully clear; instead of the boon companions who characterize drinking sessions in society, he keeps company only with the wine bottles and their content. Finally, al-Farabi states that he converses with the dead, not the living; he takes from those who have departed this world. In verses two, four, and five, al-Farabi employs a popular rhetorical feature called paronomasia (jinas, tajnis), whereby words that are phonetically similar but semantically different are used for word-play. (19)

As a whole, the poem is cleverly composed and therefore has a certain literary merit. It expresses the feeling of ennui with the world. This is a feeling that accords well with the characterization of al-Farabi as the solitary philosopher who retires from the world in order to study and contemplate. On the one hand, it fits well with other information about al-Farabi in the bio-bibliographical sources. On the other, it represents a literary topos: that of withdrawal from the world and conversation with the dead, who have more to offer than the living. It evokes the idea of the melancholic thinker, and we find that al-Farabi was described as such in a hitherto overlooked medical source.


A picture of al-Farabi as the scholar who devotes all his time to intellectual pursuits and avoids human company is painted in a new and surprising source, al-Mu'alajat al-buqratiyya (Hippocratic Treatments) by Abu l-Hasan al-Tabari, (20) who studied with Abu Mahir Musa Ibn Sayyar, who also taught al-Majusi (Haly Abbas, d. 994). We also learn that al-Tabari served as personal physician to the Buwayid ruler Rukn al-Dawla (r. 932-976), (21) and that he was the student of Yahya ibn 'Adi (d. 974). (22) This would mean that al-Tabari probably studied and practiced in Baghdad some time between 930 and 970, but the lack of corroborating information does not allow us to be more specific. As Yahya ibn 'Adi was a pupil of al-Farabi and al-Tabari a pupil of Yahya ibn 'Adi, they seem to have moved in the same circles. The chronology does not rule out the possibility of al-Tabari's knowing al-Farabi, and al-Mu'alajat al-buqratiyya appears to offer additional evidence in the affirmative, to which we shall return below. This medical handbook has not yet been edited, although Fuat Sezgin published a facsimile of Teheran, Malik Milli Library, MS 4474. (23) The texts from the handbook reproduced below are provisionally edited on the basis of this facsimile and two other manuscripts; Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS arab. 810, and Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Marsh 158. (24)

In the handbook al-Tabari discusses various so-called topical diseases, that is, disorders that affect a specific part of the body. In this context he includes a fairly long chapter on melancholy, (25) in which he distinguishes between three types--epigastric, encephalic, and general--a division that goes back to Rufus of Ephesus. (26) After describing the etiology, nosology, and treatment for each type, al-Tabari presents another type (now known as "scholarly melancholy"), which he describes in the following terms: (27)

   Know that staying awake and studying for a long period of time,
   contemplating theoretical sciences, avoiding the company of
   different people, and being alone with one's thoughts all cause a
   difficult type of melancholy that is similar to the kind that
   occurs when the brain is specifically affected by melancholy
   humors; in addition to this, the other humors are [also] burnt.
   (28) Therefore, he [the patient] becomes crazy and frequently
   raves. Sometimes he ends up tearing off his clothes and running
   around in the streets, arguing wildly. He constantly talks about
   the sciences that he is thinking about, while all his ideas become

This description of a scholarly melancholic also goes back to Rufus of Ephesus. In fact, Rufus's main claim to fame is to have seen in excessive study a cause for melancholy. (29) The famous Aristotelian problem 30.1 had previously established a link between melancholy and great achievements in philosophy, politics, and the arts; Rufus, however, inverses the causal link and further developed the concept. (30) He describes people of excellent nature being "predisposed to melancholy, since excellent natures move quickly and think a lot." Put differently, "[v]iolent thoughts and worries may make one succumb to it [sc. melancholy]." (31) Rufus records the case history of a patient "in whom melancholy began because of blood being burnt." This burning of the blood was partly caused by "constant contemplation of geometrical sciences." (32) This case of melancholy resulted in madness (junun) and death. Rufus of Ephesus does not yet speak of a separate "scholarly melancholy," but he did establish a link between study and melancholy; likewise, the physician Ishaq ibn 'Imran (d. ca. 904) recognized excessive thinking to be one of the psychic affects that cause melancholy, others being, for instance, fear and shame. (33) It would seem that Abu 1-Hasan al-Tabari was the first to conceive of scholarly melancholy as a separate type (darb min al-malinkhuliya).

Al-Tabari proceeds to give advice on how to treat it:

   This kind [of melancholy] requires a treatment that is made up [of
   elements] from the other [three] types that we have discussed
   earlier, namely, moistening; dissolving; gentle and slow purging;
   feeding with what is appropriate for the mixture of his [body];
   keeping him company;
   letting him take part in social gatherings and meetings where
   learned people and those enjoying entertainment and drink come
   together; making him drink a little bit of mild wine; attentively
   watching the symptoms and other aspects that affect him; and
   strengthening his heart. (One should also strengthen the heart of
   people suffering from [other types] of melancholy, phrenitis, and
   catalepsy (jumud); for strengthening the heart of these people
   strengthens them [more generally] and invigorates their souls;
   therefore your treatment will have a beneficial effect.)

Thus, in addition to purging and diet, al-Tabari prescribes social intercourse and entertainment as treatment. This, of course, follows the well-established Hippocratic principle contraria contrariis curantur ("opposites are cured by opposites").

Finally, al-Tabari mentions a number of cases of great contemporaries of his succumbing to scholarly melancholy. The passage consists of a brief introductory remark ([section] 1), six cases described in varying degrees of detail ([section] [section] 2-7; [section] 3 is that of al-Farabi), and a concluding exhortation to take time out and enjoy the pleasures of life ([section] 8). The passage constitutes an extremely interesting example for the application of medical theory, and notably the theory of melancholy, in order to interpret the behavior of elite personalities. (34)

[1.1] In our time I have seen a large number of excellent people who sought to be alone, thought constantly, and avoided others, refusing to be with them; they gave up all activities except the sciences and study. [1.2] Their humors were burnt, and they contracted melancholy.

[2.1] One of them was Mu'izz: (35) he was affected by a hectic fever. (36) [2.2] This led to consumption and he died.

[3.1] Another was al-Farabi: he did not mingle with people, but rather avoided them. [3.2] When he criticized someone, he did so on the grounds that he was frequenting the common crowd, and talked and associated with the rabble. [3.3] He succumbed to a kind of melancholy. [3.4] He used to go out into the street and the market, and would sit [there] and ramble on about logic with all people; young people and the rabble played with him. [3.5] I have heard that one day [al-Farabi] was passing by the village of al-Karkh. (37) [3.6] He looked at someone who sold some sort of sweets. [3.7] He said to him: "How do you sell this?" [3.8] The hawker replied to him by saying: "A pound of it for such and such [a price]." [3.9] [Al-Farabi] became angry with him and attacked him, so that people gathered around the two, and the two were brought before the police. [3.10] The magistrate asked what was going on between the two and what led him [al-Farabi] to attack him [the merchant]. [3.11] He [al-Farabi] said: "I asked him about quality, yet he answered me about the quantity!" [3.12] The magistrate laughed and ordered that he be left alone and released. [3.13] His condition worsened, because he did not take the advice of physicians, until he eventually died.

[4.1] Another was Isa, a follower of Ibn Masawayh: he stayed on his own and devoted himself solely to studying and reading books, and avoiding the company of, and conversation with, people, communal meals, drink, and discussion, and occupying himself with any of the joys of this world. [4.2] Abu Mahir [Musa ibn Sayyar] wrote to him from Baghdad, advising him to drink wine, to keep people's company, to enjoy virgins, and to converse with boys whose intellect is small and whose mind is bent on entertainment and play, and to avoid driving people away and not associating with them. [4.3] He [Abu Mahir] warned him about this in the strongest possible terms, but he ['Isa] did not follow his advice. [4.4] Only a few days passed until he contracted a type of melancholy. [4.5] He was afraid of his slaves [ghilman] and his neighbors. [4.6] He used to call on his ruler for help, saying: [4.7] "Yesterday, my slaves plotted to kill me. [4.8] O God, o God, how wretched I am!" [4.9] Sometimes he would take his possessions and hand them over to untrustworthy people. [4.10] He would say: "Such-and-such yesterday plotted to kill me and to take my money." [4.11] Then the symptoms increased and became more severe, so that he cried abundantly. [4.12] His humors dried out and were burnt, and he died of this.

[5.1] Another was Abu Bakr ibn Abl Sa'id in Basra: he used to keep to himself and stay away from people, as he hated to be in their company; he devoted himself to study and occupied himself with intellectual sciences. [5.2] Therefore his humors were burnt and he succumbed to a difficult melancholy. [5.3] He used to run in the markets, with the boys following after him. Eventually he died of this.

[6.1] Another was Abu Zakariya ibn Qsm'lw' [?]: he imposed upon himself, taking the Katholikos as witness, that if he did not study a hundred folios of medical and philosophical books each day, then all that he possessed would belong to the Katholikos, not him. [6.2] He [Abu Zakariya] was of moderate understanding, but he did this [study a hundred folios each day], and thought excessively; he occupied himself in the way that we have described, and avoided people. [6.3] This led to his humors being burnt, so that he became mad and died.

[7.1] Another is 'Umar ibn Thaqf. He used to serve as physician to Ibn Hamdan. [7.2] He was of moderate understanding, but forced himself in his old age to read books on logic, and to study geometry. [7.3] He locked himself in. [7.4] He used to be completely engrossed in his thought, so much so, that when his slaves talked to him, he did not understand them, until he was finished thinking. [7.5] He was like that until his humors were burnt and he became mad. [7.6] Catching himself in time, however, and fearing what would happen to him, [7.7] he began to treat himself with the help of Ibrahim ibn Baksl. [7.8] As a result, he was cured before the symptoms had become severe. [7.9] He took his leave and returned to Baghdad, [7.10] where he lived a life of affluence. [7.11] Then his intellect returned to him, [7.12] and he took part in drinking, carousals, and listening to music, until he died.

[8.1] This kind of lifestyle--I mean avoiding people, keeping to oneself, not conversing nor consorting with people, retiring to think, and soul searching--leads to the results that we have mentioned. [8.2] Therefore, an intelligent person should divide his day--and if he is unable to do so, his week; and if he is unable to do this, his month--and make time for entertainment, conversation, and having company, as well as acquiring virtues and doing good. [8.3] He should not conduct any of the affairs of his body and soul on his own. [8.4] For this leads to killing off the other faculties, and the orderly function and guidance of the body become corrupted.

This passage is rich in prosopographical detail. Unfortunately, most of the names given by al-Tabari are so short or so obscure that future research will need to determine whether other sources also mention them. The problems begin with the first patient ([section] 2.1). Starting with the second case, all cases are introduced by (wa-)minhum [name] [verb in the perfect]. Following wa-minhum in [section] 2.1, however, is m-m-n (MsM, MsT), which is not a name I am familiar with, nor, as mimman, does it make any sense in the present context. My tentative conjecture of Mu'izz is palaeographically justified, but shaky--the Hamdanid ruler Mu'izz al-Dawla (d. 967) does not fit the description of a scholarly melancholic, since he was reportedly quite uncouth, (38) and one would not expect the name Mu'izz to appear without a genitive construct or the definite article.

From a prosopographical point of view [section] 3, al-Farabi's case, is unproblematic, but [section] 4 is not: who is 'Isa sahib Ibn Masawayh? 'Isa (Jesus) was not an uncommon name among the Christian community. (39) The physician mentioned in [section] 4.3, who advised 'Isa not to overdo his studies and take some time to relax, was probably Abu l-Hasan al-Tabari's teacher, Abu Mahir Musa ibn Sayyar. But the names of the next three patients, Abu Bakr ibn Abl Sa'id, Abu Zakariya ibn Qsm'lw', and 'Umar ibn Thaqf, as well as the physician Ibrahim ibn Baksi are difficult to match with individuals mentioned in other sources. For Abu Zakariya ibn Qsm'lw', we can be nearly certain that we are dealing with a Christian because of the Katholikos reference, the head of the orthodox church outside the Byzantine empire. But his patronym remains a mystery, as does that of 'Umar ibn Thaqf, which is equally obscure (and can be read with other combinations of dots and vowels). Ibn Hamdan is undoubtedly one of the Hamdan id rulers, perhaps Nasir al-Dawla (r. 929-969), who ruled Mosul and was in conflict with Mu'izz al-Dawla for many years.

Therefore, the picture that emerges from this prosopographical survey is a mixed one. There are well-known personalities and others who must remain mere names for the time being. However, we have none of the anachronisms or inaccuracies by which some of the later bio-bibliographical sources are marred.

All six cases end in death. As wa-minhum begins the story, wa-halaka (or variations) ends it. The lesson is a stark one: unless one takes the required rest from one's studies, one will end up dead. In two cases ([section][section] 3-4), the patients do not heed the medical advice given to them, and perish as a result. In one case ([section] 7), the patient is a physician himself; his medical knowledge and his willingness to seek medical help delay the fatal outcome of his illness. The moral is clear: the patient ought to listen to the physician and follow his advice in order to combat the illness. This is a familiar topos at the heart of the so-called Hippocratic triangle of doctor, patient, and disease. (40)

Case histories such as these are motivated not only by the physicians' desire to record their patients' histories, but also to promote their own image, to portray themselves as competent practitioners and to exclude the medical other, the charlatan. (41) These narratives can employ interesting plot devices. (42) Indeed, in the final case there is an unexpected twist. When the formulaic "until his humors were burnt and he became mad" appears, we expect the verb "and he died" to conclude the episode, as in the other cases. Instead, the physician of modest abilities treats himself. He escapes the illness of scholarly melancholy and attends parties, drinks wine, and enjoys entertainment. In addition, al-Tabari subverts the expectations of the reader in a number of cases. Melancholics suffer from delusions, and these scholarly melancholics appear to be no exception. Therefore, their strange behavior can also be entertaining. (43) Their roaming and ramblings can present a ridiculous spectacle: children make fun of them. The most carefully crafted anecdote, which entertains as well, occurs in al-Farabi's case history, to which we shall return after a brief look at the medical aspects of these narratives.

All of these cases follow a fixed pattern--someone studies, reads, or thinks too much and prefers solitude to company. This leads to his humors being burnt, his body drying up, and his eventual death. In other words, a psychic event--excessive study coupled with isolation--results in a bodily reaction. The treatment that is prescribed, interrupting the studies with light entertainment, counters the causes. Drinking wine and having sex also appear as remedies. In this sense, the therapeutic arsenal is nearly identical with that found already in Rufus of Ephesus, and advocated by many later physicians in both the Greek and the Arabic traditions. (44) As noted above, Rufus also mentions the burning of blood, one of the four humors, as a feature of melancholy in general, and in particular of those studying geometry. Moreover, the patients in the cases who succumb to this melancholy all possess scholarly excellence (afadil). Here again, we find an interesting echo with Rufus's notion of the melancholic thinker, as he uses the same qualifier--taba i fadila, "excellent (scholarly, highly cultured) natures"--for those predisposed to melancholy. (45)

Finally, al-Tabari describes the cases as being of his time (fi zamanina)--they are thus not reports of past cases--and he suggests (ra'aytu) that he knew al-Farabi personally.

As for al-Farabi's melancholy, the case begins by saying that al-Farabi avoided people ([section] 3.1), that he chided others for keeping company with the undeserving ([section] 3.2), which led to melancholy ([section] 3.3). The results of this melancholy are illustrated by al-Farabi's going out and talking unintelligibly about logic ([section] 3.4); and by a longer anecdote ([section] 3.5-12), whose point is that the hawker naturally took the question al-Farabi asked to be about price, whereas for al-Farabi it was about quality in the philosophical sense. It culminates in the high drama of al-Farabi appearing before a judge, but is resolved through the judge's grasping the reason for the misunderstanding--he is amused and dismisses the case. The case concludes in the familiar manner: the patient dies, as al-Farabi was unwilling to follow medical advice, a topos that recurs in other cases.

Al-Tabari was unlikely to have invented these patients and their suffering from scholarly melancholy. These were afadil, great people like al-Farabi who must have been known to many of his immediate readers, at least in Baghdad. Al-Tabari also belongs to a long tradition of physicians recording real cases. The fact that all these end in failure perhaps adds to their credibility. After all, the Hippocratic Epidemics, the original collection of case histories if ever there was one, was admired throughout the centuries for the fact that they recorded failure as well as success. (46) The cases share a number of elements on various levels, whether it be the lesson not to ignore medical advice or the fact that melancholics are the laughing stock of the uncultivated society around them.

This section from al-Mucalajat al-buqratiyya also highlights the fluidity of genre. Anecdotes not only appear in Arabic works of belles-lettres (adab), such as Ibn Abi Usaybria's 'Uyun al-anba, but also in a medical handbook. Yet across the various genres--poetry, adab, medical writings, bio-bibliography--we find evidence that al-Farabi was a scholarly melancholic. Can we--and if so, how do we--decide whether these reports reflect legends or historical facts, to use Gutas's distinction. It is to this question that I turn in the conclusion.


The bio-bibliographical sources paint al-Farabi as a withdrawn ascetic who studied day and night. Ibn Abl Usaybi'a refers specifically to his burning the midnight oil, and both al-Zawzani (excerpting Ibn al-Qifti) and Ibn Khallikan mention that when al-Farabi was in Damascus toward the end of his life, he endeavored to be alone in order to study and write. Al-ZawzanI even makes a point of mentioning that al-Farabi wore Sufi dress. Ibn Abi Usaybi'a offers that al-Farabi had excellent training in Arabic and wrote poetry, and we find al-Farabi in one of his poems advocating solitary study and drinking because human company is tedious. Only voices from the past, not those of his contemporaries, bring him benefit.

If we compare this picture to the information that we can glean from Abu l-Hasan al-Tabari's al-Mualajat al-buqratiyya, we find many common features. The first is the desire to be alone; the second is the extensive or overzealous study; and the third is how al-Farabi's actions appear strange and ridiculous to his fellow men. Al-Farabi appears to have died in Damascus in late 950 or early 951. Both al-Zawzani and ibn Khallikan mention al-Farabi's strange behavior there, while al-Tabari implies that al-Farabi died because he would not heed medical advice for his scholarly melancholy. Could his condition have worsened toward the end of his life, in Damascus, and did he die of melancholy there?

Of course, at present we have no certainty about this or most other aspects of al-Farabi's life, including whether he did indeed live the life of the melancholic thinker; or, to put it differently, whether these accounts are fact or fiction, myth or reality. More fundamentally, however, it makes little sense to apply these dichotomies to the accounts about al-Farabi. To illustrate this point further, I shall briefly turn to two other figures whose lives are shrouded in mystery: al-Kindi and Ibn Sina.

For al-Kindi's (d. ca. 870) life, we have similar types of sources: the bio-bibliographical literature; the internal evidence gleaned from his writings; and literary accounts about him. (47) Verses preserved by Ibi Abl Usaybi'a (M, 1: 208, last line-209 1. 1) have al-Kindi enumerating the four aspects of his beloved that cause him agony, (48) and a chapter on al-Kindi in al-Jahiz's Kitab al-Bukhala' (Book of Misers) (49) portrays him as a greedy landlord and scheming skinflint: in a letter to his tenants, al-Kindi argues that an increase in the number of occupiers from six to eight (because two visitors are staying at the flat) warrants an increase in rent by one-third. Moreover, al-Jahiz's al-Kindi warns against the temptation of buying fruits early in the season when they are still very expensive. We cannot know whether al-Jahiz provides an accurate historical representation of Abu Yusuf al-Kindi; yet he clearly had him in mind when writing the chapter in al-Bukhala. Likewise, we cannot know whether the historical Abu Yusuf al-Kindi really wrote the verses attributed to him; yet they do reflect his style and his love for division and enumeration.

In Ibn Sina's (Avicenna, d. 1037) autobiography and biography, preserved in the bio-bibliographical tradition, he emerges as an extremely able medical practitioner. In one notable episode from Nizami's Chahar maqala (Four Discourses), Ibn Sina discovers that a patient suffers from lovesickness by feeling his pulse and mentioning names of people and neighbor hoods in order to elicit a reaction. (50) Although Cristina Alvarez-Millan has rightly pointed out that this episode has a close parallel in Galen, (51) and argued that it therefore reflects a literary topos rather than historical reality, (52) I have recently argued that Ibn Sina's referring to such treatments in his al-Qanun fi l-tibb (The Canon of Medicine) provides good corroborating evidence that this case actually did occur. (53) In other words, the external report by a third source is confirmed by Ibn Sina's own (internal) account.

Certain themes become topical in literature. Lovesickness and miserly behavior are certainly two such topoi. Scholars have rightly pointed out the problem of such narratives, (54) but because a narration is topical does not mean that it does not reflect reality; the topoi of literature are the topoi of life. When Seneca the Younger (d. 65) was ordered by Nero to take his own life, he did so without qualm, as Socrates had done in 399 b.c. when he was ordered to kill himself. (55) There can be little doubt that Seneca knew of Socrates choosing to drink the hemlock, and Tacitus, too, in relating the episode of Seneca's imposed death, undoubtedly had the example of Socrates in mind. (56) Yet the act of forced suicide recurs as a topos. Similarly in the case of Ibn Sina, who was in all likelihood familiar with Galen's account and may well have followed in his footsteps when faced with a sick patient.

The anecdotes about al-Farabi in al-Tabari's al-Mualajat al-buqratiyya and in the biobibliographical sources appear to be independent from one another, that is, al-Tabari's stories do not figure in Ibn Abl Usaybia, al-Zawzani, or Ibn Khallikan, although they fit the personality profile that the latter establish. Even so, the problem of the literary topos still remains: could not al-Farabi be painted as the ascetic thinker because of models such as Socrates, as he is depicted in the Arabic tradition? (57) We might never know the historical truth about al-Farabi, but we should not dismiss these reports as legends without historical value. A near contemporary, Abu l-Hasan al-Tabari, has now been found who depicts al-Farabi as a melancholic thinker who paid the price for his intellectual endeavors by being perceived as an outcast. An epigram, echoing that of another melancholy, Robert Burton, could well have served as an inscription on al-Farabi's tombstone: Hic jacet Socrates junior cui vitam pariter et mortem dedit philosophia ("Here lies Socrates, the Younger, to whom both life and death were given by philosophy"). (58)


For the manuscript abbreviations, see nn. 23, 24 above; om. stands for omisit ("omitted in). The apparatus only records significant variant readings.

Text one (p. 215) (a)


Text one (p. 216) (o)


a. MsT, 148 11. 3-10; MsM, fol. 104b 11. 8-15; MsO, fol. 120b 11. 16-20.




e. MsT, 148 11. 10-149 1. 9; MsM, fol. 104b 1. 15-fol. 105a 1. 17; MsO, fol. 121a 1. 4-fol. 121b 1.14.

f. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] I thank the anonymous reviewer for this emendation; [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] MsO, MsM, MsT.


h. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] I thank the anonymous reviewer for this emendation; [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].



Peter E. Pormann

University of Manchester

I would like to thank Peter Adamson, Lena Ambjorn, Aileen Das, Taro Mimura, and Elvira Wakelnik for their help with various aspects of this article. I also benefited greatly from the comments of the anonymous referees, most of which I have incorporated. This research was made possible through an ERC grant related to my project "Arabic Commentaries on the Hippocratic Aphorisms."

(1.) Dimitri Gutas, "Farabi i. Biography," Encyclopaedia Iranica, 9: 208-13; an updated version of this article is available at

(2.) Ibn Khallikan (Wafayat al-acyan, ed. Ihsan 'Abbas, 8 vols. [Beirut: Dar al-Thaqafa, 1968-72], 5: 155 11. 15-16) reports that al-Farabi said, "I speak more than seventy languages well (ahsana akthara min sabHna lisanan)."

(3.) Ed. August Muller (Cairo and Konigsberg: al-Matba'a 1-Wahbiyya, 1884), 2: 134-40. Other editions include those by Muhammad B. 'Uyun al-Sud (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-'Ilmiyya, 1998), 557-64, and 'Amir al-Najjar (Cairo: Dar al-Ma'arif, 1996-). The editions are referred to below as M, 'U, and N respectively.

(4.) See Peter E. Pormann, "Islamic Hospitals in the Time of al-Muqtadir," in Abbasid Studies II: Occasional Papers of the School of Abbasid Studies, Leuven, 28 June-1 July 2004, ed. John Nawas (Leuven: Peeters, 2010), 337-82; repr. in Islamic Medical and Scientific Tradition: Critical Concepts in Islamic Studies, ed. Pormann, 4 vols. (London: Routledge, 2010), 1: 136-78, where I analyze (pp. 352-63) the historicity of various accounts about hospitals in 'Uyun al-anba'. See also the discussion of an autobiographical account contained in 'Uyun al-anba'--shown to be more literary fiction than historical truth--in Michael Cooperson, "The Purported Autobiography of Hunayn ibn Ishaq," Edebiyat n.s. 7 (1996): 235-49.

(5.) I corrected to bi-sayri; M and 'U have yasiru, N (4: 13 1. 7) bi-sirat.

(6.) Ibn al-Qifti, Ta'rikh al-hukama', ed. Julius Lippert (Leipzig: Dieterich'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1903), 279 11. 3-4.

(7.) See Nile Green, Sufism: A Global History (Chichester, West Sussex and Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

(8.) Dimitri Gutas, Greek Wisdom Literature in Arabic Translation: A Study of the Graeco-Arabic Gnomologia (New Haven: AOS, 1975), 84-115, 276-331; Oliver Overwien, Die Spruche des Kynikers Diogenes in der griechischen und arabischen Uberlieferung (Stuttgart: Steiner, 2005), 403-8.

(9.) Gutas, "Farabi i. Biography," 9: 212b.

(10.) Ar. samac, which in its turn is a caique of Gk. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE EN ASCII]; it refers here to the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE EN ASCII] or al-samac al-tab'i, namely, Aristotle's Physics.

(11.) See P. A. Meijer, Stoic Theology: Proofs for the Existence of the Cosmic God and of the Traditional Gods, Including a Commentary on Cleanthes' Hymn on Zeus (Delft: Eburon, 2007), appendix I; Matthew E. Gordley, Teaching through Song in Antiquity: Didactic Hymnody among Greeks, Romans, Jews, and Christians (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011), 79-86.

(12.) See, for instance, Elizabeth Asmis, "Lucretius' Venus and Stoic Zeus," Hermes 110 (1982): 458-70; Gordley, Teaching through Song, 86-98.

(13.) See David C. Reisman, "Al-Farabi and the Philosophical Curriculum," in Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy, ed. Peter Adamson and Richard C. Taylor (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004), 52-71, at 56-60 with further literature; and, more specifically, Amina Rachid, "Dieu et l'etre selon Al-Farabi: Le chapitre de l'etre," in Dieu et l'etre: Exegeses d'Exode 3, 14 et de Coran 20, 11-24, ed. P. Vignaux (Paris: Etudes Augustiniennes, 1978), 179-90.

(14.) Ed. Muhsin Mahdl (Beirut: Dar al-Mashriq, 1970), 61.

(15.) Jihad (lit. striving, effort) has a wide semantic field, ranging from the spiritual struggle to do good by God to waging holy war in His name.

(16.) Ed. Shukri Faysal (Damascus: al-Matba'a al-Hashimiyya, 1959), 2: 432.

(17.) I have tried to capture the ambivalence of bihi malalun, which can mean either he is bored easily, or that one is easily bored by him.

(18.) This third line is only given in 'U (561 1. 4 from the bottom).

(19.) On paronomasia as an Islamic rhetorical figure, see W. P. Heinrichs, "Tadjnis," in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed., 10: 67b-70b; Hermann Reckendorf, Uber Paronomasie in den semitischen Sprachen (Giessen: A. Topelmann, 1909).

(20.) See Lena Ambjorn, "Book-Titles Mentioned in the 10th Century Medical Encyclopedia al-Mu'alajat al-Buqratiyya," Galenos 5 (2011): 103-11. For al-Tabari, see Fuat Sezgin, Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums, vol. 3 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1970), 307. The death date of "around 375/985" given by Sezgin has no supporting evidence.

(21.) This information is derived from M, 1: 321 11. 21-24; see also Manfred Ullmann, Die Medizin in Islam (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1970), 140.

(22.) Ahmad Hasnawi, "Un eleve de Abu Bisr Matta b. Yunus: Abu 'Amr al-Tabari," Bulletin d 'Etudes Orientales 48 (1966): 35-55, at 43.

(23.) Abu l-Hasan al-Tabari, al-Mu'alajat al-buqratiyya, fasc. ed. Fuat Sezgin, 2 vols. (Frankfurt: Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science, 1990). This manuscript will be cited as MsT; all references are to the first volume.

(24.) The manuscripts are referred to below as MsM and MsO respectively.

(25.) Book three, chapter thirty-one, entitled: "On melancholy, meaning the unnatural corruption of the functions of the intellect through black bile in both quality and quantity" (fi l-malinkhuliya wa-macnahu fasadu af'ali l-caqli bi-l-sawda'i l-khariju can al-tab'ati bi-l-kammi wa-l-kayf).

(26.) See Rufus of Ephesus, On Melancholy, ed. Peter E. Pormann (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), 5-6; all references below to Rufus's "On Melancholy" are to this edition.

(27.) Al-Tabari's Arabic text and variants are given in the appendix, below.

(28.) Yellow bile and other humors being burnt, i.e., overheated, was considered one of the causes for melancholy. When yellow bile, for instance, is burnt and turns into black bile, this leads to a type of melancholy characterized by anger and aggressiveness. For more details, see Rufus of Ephesus, On Melancholy, ed. Pormann, 5.

(29.) Pormann, ed., F33-F36 (and commentary).

(30.) For Aristoteles and melancholy, see Philip J. van der Eijk, Aristoteles over melancholie (Groningen: Historische Uitgeverij, 2001); idem, Medicine and Philosophy in Classical Antiquity: Doctors and Philosophers on Nature, Soul, Health and Disease (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005), 139-68. For Rufus's developing the concept, see idem, "Rufus' On Melancholy and Its Philosophical Background," in Pormann, ed., 159-73.

(31.) Pormann, ed., F33-F35.

(32.) Manfred Ullmann, Rufus von Ephesus: Krankenjournale (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1978), 72; Pormann ed., F68.

(33.) Ishaq ibn 'Imran, Maqala fi l-malikhuliya (Traite de la melancholie), ed. 'Adil 'Umrani (Tunis: al-Majma' al-Tunisi, 2009), 38-40, 50-52; Pormann, ed., 289-93 (Appendix 2: "Ishaq ibn 'Imran on 'Scholarly Melancholy'").

(34.) See Pauline Koetschet and Peter E. Pormann, "Religion, Melancholy and Islamic Medicine," forthcoming.

(35.) MsM, MsT see the discussion below.

(36.) "Hectic fever" (impera; ektiko?) is a particularly virulent fever that affects the whole body.

(37.) Al-Karkh was a walled city or quarter in western Baghdad known for its canals and markets; see also Yaqut, Mu'jam al-buldan, 5 vols. (Beirut: Dar Sadir, 1955-1957), 4: 448.

(38.) Heribert Busse, Chalif und Grosskonig: Die Buyiden im Iraq (945-1055) (Beirut: Orient-Institut der Deutschen Morgenlandischen Gesellschaft, 1969), 502-3.

(39.) For mention of an ode making fun of 'Isa, the physician who brings death, unlike 'Isa (Jesus) of the Bible and Quran, who brought life, see Franz Rosenthal, "The Physician in Medieval Muslim Society," Bulletin of the History of Medicine 52 (1978): 475-91, at 485.

(40.) Danielle Gourevitch, Le triangle hippocratique dans le monde greco-romain: Le malade, sa maladie et son medecin (Rome: Ecole Frangaise de Rome, 1984).

(41.) See, for instance, Geoffrey E. R. Lloyd, "Galen's un-Hippocratic Case-histories," in Galen and the World of Knowledge, ed. Christopher Gill et al. (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009), 115-31; Philip J. van der Eijk, "Exegesis, Explanation and Epistemology in Galen's Commentaries on Epidemics, Books One and Two," in "Epidemics" in Context: Greek Commentaries on Hippocrates in the Arabic Tradition, ed. Peter E. Pormann (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2012), 25-47; the work of Cristina Alvarez-Millan: "Graeco-Roman Case Histories and Their Influence on Medieval Islamic Clinical Accounts," Social History of Medicine 12 (1999): 19-33; "Practice versus Theory: Tenth-Century Case Histories from the Islamic Middle East," Social History of Medicine 13 (2000), 293-306; "The Case History in Medieval Islamic Literature: Tajarib and Mujarrabat as Source," Medical History 54 (2010): 195-214. See also Peter E. Pormann, "The Physician and the Other: Images of the Charlatan in Medieval Islam," Bulletin of the History of Medicine 79 (2005): 189-227.

(42.) For an exploration of medical narratives contained in literary texts using such plot devices, see Julia Bray, "The Physical World and the Writer's Eye: Al-Tanukhi and Medicine," in Writing and Representation in Medieval Islam: Muslim Horizons, ed. J. Bray (London: Routledge, 2006), 215-50; repr. in Peter E. Pormann, Islamic Medical and Scientific Tradition, 1: 343-80.

(43.) Michael W. Dols, Majnun: The Madman in Medieval Islamic Society (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), esp. chap. 11.

(44.) Pormann, ed., F58-F60 (with commentary); Peter E. Pormann, "Al-Razi (d. 925) on the Benefits of Sex: A Clinician Caught between Philosophy and Medicine," in O Ye Gentlemen: Arabic Studies on Science and Literary Culture, in Honour of Remke Kruk, ed. Arnoud Vrolijk and Jan P. Hogendijk (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 115-27; repr. in Pormann, Islamic Medical and Scientific Tradition, 2: 134-45.

(45.) See p. 215, above.

(46.) See, for instance, Volker Langholf, Medical Theories in Hippocrates: Early Texts and the "Epidemics" (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1990).

(47.) For an analysis of al-Kindi's biography and its sources, see Peter Adamson, Al-Kindi (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2006), 4-6; Peter Adamson and Peter E. Pormann, The Philosophical Works of al-Kindi (Karachi: Oxford Univ. Press, 2012), xx-xxiii, xlix-lxxii.

(48.) Translated in Adamson and Pormann, Philosophical Works of al-Kindi, lxix.

(49.) Al-Jahiz: Kitab al-Bukhala' (Le livre des avares), ed. Gerlof van Vloten (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1900), pp. 83-99. Many scholars have doubted that this al-Kindi is the famous philosopher (see, for instance, al-Jahiz: Kitab al-Bukhala', ed. Taha al-Hajiri [Cairo: Dar al-Ma'arif, 1967], 252-54), but a stylistic analysis of al-Jahiz's prose shows that where al-Jahiz quotes al-Kindi there are many parallels in tone, argument, and even content between the text in al-Bukhala' and the philosophical writings of Abu Yusuf al-Kindi. See Adamson and Pormann, Philosophical Works of al-Kindi, xx-xxiii.

(50.) E. G. Brown, Revised Translation of the Chahar maqala ('Four Discourses') of Nizami-i-Arudi of Samarqand (London: Luzac & Co., 1921; repr. 1978), 88-90.

(51.) Galen, On Prognosis, chap. 6, in Galeni opera omnia, ed. C. G. Kuhn, 20 vols. (Leipzig: C. Cnobloch, 1821-1833), 14: 631-35; see also Galen: On Prognosis, ed. Vivian Nutton (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1979), 100-105. We find the topos of the physician taking a woman's pulse to discover that she is lovesick also in Aethiopica, a novel by Heliodorus (fl. ca. third century), book 4, chap. 7 (Heliodori Aethiopica, ed. A Colonna [Rome: Typis Regiae Officinae Polygraphicae, 1938], 119-21).

(52.) Alvarez-Millan, "The Case History in Medieval Islamic Medical Literature," 209-13 with further references to primary and secondary sources.

(53.) Ibn Sina, Kitab al-Qanun fi l-tibb (Rome: Typographia Medicea, 1593), 316 11. 19-21; ed. New Delhi (Ma'had Ta'rikh al-Tibb wa-l-Abhath al-Tibbiyya, 1981-1996, 5 vols.), 3a: 103 11. 4-6. For my argument, see Peter E. Pormann, "Avicenna on Medical Practice, Epistemology, and the Physiology of the Inner Senses," in Interpreting Avicenna: Critical Essays, ed. Peter Adamson (Cambridge; Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013), 91-108, at 102-5.

(54.) See, for instance, the many interesting contributions in Story-Telling in the Framework of Non-Fictional Arabic Literature, ed. Stefan Leder (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1998), exploring the ambiguous area of fact and fiction.

(55.) The relevant texts about Socrates's trial and death are conveniently collected, translated, and interpreted in Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, Plato and the Trial of Socrates (New York: Routledge, 2004). For a sophisticated literary interpretation of Seneca's death narratives, see James Ker, The Deaths of Seneca (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009).

(56.) Tacitus, Annals, book 15, chaps. 60-64.

(57.) See n. 8, above.

(58.) See Angus Gowland. The Worlds of Renaissance Melancholy: Robert Burton in Context (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006), for a thorough study of Burton's melancholy; epitaph at pp. 300-301.
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