“Farabi was a philosopher, one day he came into the assembly of the Caliph dressed in a short cloak and simple clothes, for he was of Turkish origin. Farabi began to play his cymbal and to sing. Now there were three kinds of music, according to this philosopher. One made people laugh, another made them cry, and a third put them to sleep or rendered them unconscious. In short, when Farabi began to play the cymbal, at first the whole assembly erupted in laughter. The when he began to sing, they all fell to crying, “Ah! Ah!” Then when he kept on singing, they all became unconscious. Writing these words on the wall, he left:
Farabi did indeed appear here, but then he disappeared.
When the members of the assembly regained consciousness and read what he had written, they said to themselves: ‘This Farabi was indeed a philosopher; alas we did not recognize him as such!’”
Like all good stories, there are many lessons that can be gleaned from this humorous tale about one of the greatest philosophers of all time, Abu Nasr Al-Farabi (late 9th, early 10th century). I’d like to focus on the meaning of mastery.
How does one distinguish between a proficient musician and a master?
The proficient musician possesses all the skills a musician must have — his artistry is impeccable. However, the master possesses something more. The master brings new life to music. For the master, the music is merely a means to convey the deepest experiences: whether joyous, passional or dreamy.
Similarly, the master of any art brings new life to their craft. Technique is something that the student focuses on. The master simply expresses their idea — it as if the master breathes through their medium.
When the master performs, the experience takes central stage. The true master, like Al-Farabi, disappears even before he takes his leave.
I have often reflected on this story while working on my coding craft. There are so many methods, languages, tools, etc. Rarely do I feel like I am breathing through my medium. Yet there are times when my objective is clear; I know instantly what tools I need; I know how to proceed. All I have to do is open my computer and inscribe the code in electric pulses. Most of the time, however, I’m a student, developing my repertoire and honing my craft (read: Googling and checking Stack Overflow). However, those rare moments of unimpeded breath give me a glimmer of what I’d like to become.
There are many versions of this story. The text that I used is from: Auliyā, Niẓāmuddīn. translated by Bruce B. Lawrence. (1992) Nizam ad-din Awliya: Morals for the Heart.; Published by Paulist Press. p. 272
Check out Ibrahim Kalin’s beautiful telling of this story: https://www.dailysabah.com/columns/ibrahim-kalin/2014/07/30/a-farabian-tale)
To learn more about Al-Farabi: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/al-farabi/
Based on an old blog post of mine (from 2009): http://yehudathoughts.blogspot.com/2009/07/ralbag-livens-things-up.html