Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, full name Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali (Arabic): ابو حامد محمد بن محمد الغزالى for short: الغزالى ) (born 1058 C.E. in Tus, Khorasan province of Persia in modern day Iran; died 1111 C.E. in Tus) was a Muslim theologian and jurist, known as Algazel to the western medieval world. Al-Ghazali was one of the greatest jurists, theologians and mystical thinkers in the Islamic tradition. He is credited with reconciling legalistic and mystical Islam, and gained a reputation within Christian as well as Muslim circles for his piety and godliness. He is widely regarded as a renewer of Islam, raised up by God to revive the faith. He influenced Thomas Aquinas who cited his Maqasid-al-Falasifa (Aims of Philosophers) 31 times.
Al-Ghazali condemned the earlier attempts of Al-Farabi and Avicenna to acheive a synthesis between the Qur'an and the methods and discoveries of Greek philosophy. He asserted that philosophy had no role in the discovery of truth. One far reaching consequence of this was that Islam did not develop a philosophy of science. Another consequence was that Islamic culture was steered in the direction of fundamentalism.
Nevertheless, al-Ghazali's opposition to Greek philosophy was not based on dogma, but from an assessment of man as a spiritual being. His thought is sufficiently rich that W. M. Watt (1952 - 1995) has suggested that the contemporary Muslim world may benefit from a study of al-Ghazali as they wrestle with Western thought today, just as they "once wrestled with Greek philosophy." “Deep study” of Al-Ghazali, Watt wrote, "…may suggest to Muslims steps to be taken if they are to deal successfully with the contemporary situation. Christians, too, now that the world is in a cultural melting pot, must be prepared to learn from Islam, and are unlikely to find a more sympathetic guide than al-Ghazali."
Similarly, S. M. Zwemer (1867 - 1952) suggested that a study of Ghazali might awaken in non-Muslims 'a deeper sympathy for that which is highest and strongest in the religion of Islam', as his 'books are full of reverence for the teaching of Christ' (1920: 12).
Al-Ghazali tried to hold the internal and external aspects of religion in harmony, teaching that external deeds must flow from inner spiritual strength. He was not dogmatic, and his teachings positively impacted on the treatment of non-Muslim subjects of Muslim rulers. It has been suggested that recent revived interest in the work of the more exclusivist thinker Ibn Taymiyyah has helped to fuel hostility towards the non-Muslim world, while Al-Ghazali's influence has a more positive impact (Ruthven 2001: xii). People from any faith can appreciate al-Ghazali's spiritual insight.
Al-Ghazali's father died while he and his brother, Ahmad, were still children. Upon his death, their father entrusted them to the care of a Sufi friend, mainly so that they would receive an education. The Sufi taught them reading and writing then arranged for them to attend a school, which provided both board and a stipend. Ghazali later joined the famous Nizamiyyah school in Nishapur, where he was taught by Abul Maali al-Juwayni (d. 1085), who not only held a chair in Shafi law but also was sponsored by the vizier Nizam al-Mulk (d. 1092), who was one of the most powerful men of his day. Ghazali was trained in the Asharite School. He studied in Nishapur for eight years, until Juwayni's death. Ghazali's initial love was for Islamic law. Early on in his career, Ghazali excelled as a lecturer in Shafi jurisprudence. Having been noted for his outstanding abilities, Nizam al-Mulk, following the death of al-Juwayni, appointed him head of the Nizamiyyah College at Baghdad in 1091. As a lecturer until 1095, Ghazali managed to attract literally hundreds of scholars, demonstrating his extensive contemporary popularity. He was the scholar par excellence in the Islamic world. His audience also included scholars from other schools of jurisprudence. This position won him prestige, wealth and a respect possibly unparalleled at the time. He thus was justifiably referred to as Hujjat-ul Islam ('The Testimony, or proof, of Islam'). His book on the incoherence of philosophy earned him his scholarly reputation. However, he grew skeptical about the possibility of any certainty in knowledge and this uncertainty eventually resulted in a crisis that was to change his life.
Only four years after being appointed as head of the Nizamiyyah College, he started to doubt the usefulness of his teaching career and comfortable life, and became profoundly conscious of a struggle within himself between his spiritual thirst on the one hand and his attachment to worldly pursuits on the other. He no longer derived satisfaction from his teaching. He later wrote that he was “deeply involved in affairs, and that the best of his activities,” his teaching, “was concerned with branches of knowledge which were unimportant and worthless.” Examining his motive for teaching, he found that it was not from a “sincere desire to serve God” but that he “wanted an influential position and widespread recognition,” which he in fact did enjoy. He had no doubt, reflecting on this, that he “stood on an eroding sandbank …worldly desires were trying to keep” him “chained” where he was. Ghazali described himself as standing “on the edge of an abyss, and that without an immediate conversion,” he felt that he “should be doomed to eternal fire.” Ghazali would resolve to take to the road, to leave his post, but then “the mood would pass.” Satan would say, “…this is a passing mood …. Do not yield to it.” Ghazali was free from any financial or other worries and thought that if he did leave he would probably soon regret it and return. Six months went by in this manner, as he was “tossed about between the attractions of worldly desires and the impulses towards eternal life.” Then, “the matter ceased to be one of choice and became one of compulsion,” and “God caused [his] tongue to dry up so that [he] was prevented from lecturing…[this] impediment [produced grief in his] soul” (Watt 1952: 136ff; Zwemer 1920: 102-103). Doctors were unable to help.
He realized that the only solution was to leave his teaching and to search for inner peace through travel and spiritual inquiry. When he announced his intention to leave, his friends tried to dissuade him. He comments how, although he spoke of performing the hajj (pilgrimage at Mecca), no one “would admit that this sacrifice had a religious motive, because they considered my position as the highest attainable in the religious community, ‘Behold, how far their knowledge goes’” (Qur'an 53: 31) (Zwemer 1920: 104).
Having provided for his family, Ghazali renounced his position and his worldly possessions and left Baghdad in November 1095. His brother Ahmad took over his teaching responsibility and he made sure that financial provision was made for the support of his family, remarking that “there is nothing more lawful in the world than that a learned man should support his family.” Some sources say that a disciple traveled with him, Abu Tahir Ibrahim, who had also studied at Nishapur (Zwemer 1920: 115).
There is some speculation that fear of assassination may also have influenced his decision to travel. He opposed the Ismailis, whose Shi'a dynasty ruled Egypt (the Assassins, hasheshin, who had murdered Nizam al-Mulk in 1092, were an offshoot of the Fatimids). Ghazali left for Damascus, where he lived in seclusion in the city's principle mosque; then he continued on to Jerusalem, to the Dome of the Rock, possibly shortly before 1099 (the year Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders) and to Hebron to pay respect to the tomb of God's friend, Abraham (Khalil).
In 1096 he performed the pilgrimage at Mecca (Zwemer: 122-123) and also the visit (Ziyarah) to the Prophet's tomb at Medina. Later, he wrote about the benefit of the Ziyarah (see Peters, 1994: 302-303). He subsequently traveled to Egypt visiting Cairo and Alexandria where the Fatimids were in power. Alexandria enjoyed 'high honor' in 'Muslim tradition' for the tombs of Daniel and of Alexander the Great. Some said that if Mecca was lost, Alexandria would substitute for the Holy (haram) City. (Zwemer 1920: 133). Ghazali saw himself as searching for the truth. He had investigated many different schools of thought and found them wanting. It was finally among the Sufis that his spiritual thirst was quenched.
Among the Sufis, al-Ghazali came to know the certainty that philosophy had failed to provide. He became convinced that knowledge of God results only from spiritual illumination, from the soul journeying back towards its source. He wrote:
Returning to his hometown of Tus, he took charge of a khanka (Sufi hospice or even monastery, which included a study house). There he taught what became the content of his most important work, the Ihya ulum al-din (The Revivication of the Religious Sciences). This work again singled him out as the most important theologian of the day. However, after 11 years away from his formal post, he again felt the compulsion to teach, commenting that it was “God most high who determined this move.” He began to ask colleagues whether he ought to return to teaching, as he now feared that it was love of retirement and of a life of ease that was holding him back from public duty. His friends urged him to return to his own alma mater, Nishapur, which had become lax. They pointed out the promise of a renewer (mujaddid) towards the start of each new century, and that he was well equipped to take up that reviving role. Ghazali therefore ended his seclusion for a short period, at the behest of Fakhr al-Mulk, the vizier of the Seljuk ruler of Khorasan, to teach at the Nizamiyyah (1106). He also gave some lectures on the Ihya in Baghdad. It was not really, he wrote, a 'return' to what he had been doing before, since before he had “disseminated the knowledge by which worldly success is gained,” while now he taught the knowledge “whereby worldly success is given up and its low portion in the Scale of real worth is recognized.” During this time, he wrote his autobiography, al-Munqidh min al-dalal (Deliverance from Error), and died in his native Tus in December of 1111.
The Incoherence (Tuhafut al-Tuhafut), which Ghazali wrote while teaching in Baghdad, marked a turning point in Islamic philosophy in its vehement rejections of Aristotle and Plato. The book took aim at the falasifa, a loosely defined group of Islamic philosophers from the eighth century through the eleventh centuries. It especially singled out Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and al-Farabi, who drew intellectually upon the Greek philopsophers. He takes their views as “the authentic expression of their mis-leaders”, namely Socrates, Hippocrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who had deceived Muslims by their claims that the “principles they have discovered are unquestionable,” thus reducing “the positive contents of historical religion” to “sanctimonious lies and triviality” (Ghazali 1963: 2). He bitterly denounced the Greek philosophers as mushrikuwn ('polytheist') and labeled those who employed their methods and ideas as corrupters of the Islamic faith. His criticism was that they cited the Qur'an to support their ideas but derived these from philosophy, not from revelation:
“What … we assert is that the philosophers are unable to know these things by rational demonstration. If these things were true, the prophets would know them through inspiration or revelation; but rational arguments cannot prove them” (Ghazali, 1963: 163).
Their error was in trying to “discover Hidden Things by deductive methods” (2). The Qur'an was window dressing. Reason and philosophy, he said, could not prove the existence of God or the createdness or un-createdness of the world. Rather, belief in these are acts of faith based on revelation. For example, the philosophers denied the creation in favor of "emanation". In Ghazali's view, the Qur'an teaches creation; but some cite “The Day We roll up the heavens with the same parallel of a scroll rolling up books; as We produced the first creation We repeat it, a promise We have undertaken, verily We shall fulfill it” (21: 104) to support emanation, on the basis that this would constitute causation—a change in the nature of God—and, since all moments of time are exactly the same—even God cannot choose a particular moment in time for creation.
Al-Ghazali's retort is that God had decided to create the world in the eternal past; therefore creation did not require any change in God. According to Ghazali, God is the creator of time itself (Ghazali 1963: 23).
Too often, philosophers drew their notion from observation (mushahadah). Muslims should 'accept the authority of the prophets in regard to the fundamentals of these things and' should submit to that authority', without inquiring about 'the Why, and How Much, and What, for these things lie beyond the power of man' (Ghazali 1963: 88). The philosopher's view of causality posited that a necessary cause and effect exists between fire and burning, light and sunshine. Ghazali countered that the relationship between these derives from the order in which God created them, not from any necessity and that either could exist without the other. Observation could not actually prove that fire causes burning, only that burning occurs where there is also fire. Ghazali argued that as a lifeless ‘object,’ fire is not capable to perform any action so could not be the agent (al-fa`il) that causes burning (Ghazali 1963: 186).
What Ghazali disliked was formalistic observance and normative debate. External obedience (the zahiri, or outer aspect) had to be accompanied by inner conviction (the batini). Simply going through ritual was worthless. On the other hand, he also encouraged the Sufis to also comply with the external requirements of Islamic obedience, which they tended to neglect and were thus criticized by the legalistic scholars. He came to understand the human personality as having three parts: head, heart and limbs. Theology and philosophy could nourish the mind; mystical illumination could nourish the heart but it was the law that bound all three together into a whole. The heart illuminated with knowledge of God, Ghazali taught, overflows with love (mahabbah), which expresses itself in service and sacrifice, hence his return to the world to teach. At the highest level of tawakkul, the believer surrenders him or herself completely to God. Fana (the passing away of a sense of self) for al-Ghazali (see below) did not involve a descent of God (hulul, indwelling).
His Ihya was in many respects his answer to his own Incoherency; he details in four volumes and ten books how the religious life should be lived, what knowledge is beneficial, what knowledge harmful (or blameworthy), and how beneficial knowledge should be acquired and spread. He regards both the pursuit and the sharing of knowledge as profoundly Islamic, and suggests that knowledge is “seeing things as they really are, which is one of the attributes of Allah” (Faris edition, Book 1, Section 3: 1). Ghazali taught that wrath, avarice, and worldly goods should be avoided; asceticism should be cultivated. Without sincere intent to worship or to serve God (niyyah), no act is valid. Marriage, however, is a religious institution, and to maintain one's wife properly is more meritorious than almsgiving. One book was devoted to the etiquette of marriage.
Throughout his life, Ghazali identified himself with the Asharite kalam. This identification is bolstered by the fact that his teacher, al-Juwayni, was also in his lifetime a leading master of Asharite kalam (theology). This association affected much of his theological output. Ghazali probably did contribute to the decline of philosophy in Islamic thought. However, it can be argued that his criticism was not of philosophy per se but of an approach to philosophy that elevated reason, or even empiricism, over revelation. The problem was these established what to believe, but did not in themselves entail a living realization of faith. Ghazali therefore turned to a mystical approach to engage with the divine, which he thought transcended both of these and enabled the individual Sufi traveler to ‘taste’ the divine union—and therefore to experience annihilation of selfhood in the presence of God. Ghazali was thus instrumental in cementing the position of Sufism in mainstream Islamic tradition. Though Ghazali was an Asharite and avowedly anti-philosophical it is notable—as pointed out by Ibn Rushd in his bitterly entitled Incoherence of the Incoherence (Tahafut al-Tahafut) that Ghazali refutes the falasifa on their own terms by employing philosophical models of his own. Some of his other works, most notably The Niche of Lights, in fact displays a definite affinity for the rational faculty, which would suggest that Ghazali saw a benefit in using reason to support living faith. Goddard (2000) points out that Ghazali's Maqasid-al-falasifa (the Aims of Philosophers) that meticulously summarized the views of different schools gained such a reputation in Europe, and it was assumed that al-Ghazali had been a philosopher himself (101).
It was his renown as a legal scholar within the Shafi tradition that enabled him to convince others that mystical Islam was not heretical. Just as he challenged the legalists to develop an inner spiritual life, so he challenged Sufis to observe external requirements of fard (obligatory duties). Moreover, he explained that when such Sufis as al-Hallaj cried out while intoxicated with a sense of Oneness with God (an-ul-haq, “I am Truth, that is, God”) and was executed for blasphemy in 922, his mistake had been both to attempt to describe his experience and to confuse a feeling of closeness with God with identity. Thus, he should have said, “the wine is as it were the wine glass,” and not “the wine is the wine glass” (see Peters 1994: 343-344). The “words of lovers passionate in their intoxication should be hidden away, and not spoken of,” he wrote. Unfortunately, much of the ground he won in terms of the acceptance of the mystical expression of Islam among he more legalistic scholars would be lost, due to the work of the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century scholar Ibn Taymiyyah (1263 - 1328).
W. M. Watt (1953; 1995) speaks for many when he describes al-Ghazali as 'the greatest Muslim after Muhammad', and says that 'he is by no means unworthy of that dignity' (13). However, on a negative note it has been argued that al-Ghazali's encounter with skepticism led him to embrace a form of theological occasionalism, or the belief that all causal events and interactions are not the product of material conjunctions—but rather the immediate and present will of Allah—that has subsequently resulted in a turn towards fundamentalism in many Islamic societies. However, as noted above, while al-Ghazali probably did contribute to the decline of rational thought in Islam, it is highly unlikely that any link can be established between his legacy and fundamentalist Islam. In fact, where fundamentalism is popular, al-Ghazali is not—perhaps because fundamentalism is usually associated with intense dislike of Sufi Islam, which he championed. As Kabbani (1996) pointed out, there is a tendency for fundamentalists to attack “Imam Ghazali and [to belittle] those who read his works and cite them to illustrate their opinions” (326). Al-Ghazali is sometimes charged with having had a negative view of non-Muslims and to encourage jihad against them. The following passage from his work on Shafi law, Al-wajiz fi fiqh al-imam al-shafi'i, which he wrote in 1101, and is widely cited:
one must go on jihad (i.e., warlike razzias or raids) at least once a year… one may use a catapult against them [non-Muslims] when they are in a fortress, even if among them are women and children. One may set fire to them and/or drown them...If a person of the Ahl al-Kitab [People of The Book – Jews and Christians, typically] is enslaved, his marriage is [automatically] revoked. A woman and her child taken into slavery should not be separated...One may cut down their trees…. One must destroy their useless books. Jihadists may take as booty whatever they decide… they may steal as much food as they need… (1979: 186-90 cited by Boston, 2004).
However, alongside this negative passage several more positive ones can be set and it is worth pointing out that in the above-cited text, Al-Ghazali was outlining Shafi's legal tradition, not stating his own views. The dominant legal device was taqlid (imitation), not innovation.
Zwemer, not the most sympathetic of scholars towards the faith of Islam, cited two contradictory passages on al-Ghazali's attitude towards non-Muslims. The first is from his Faysal at-tafriqa, where he wrote:
I would say that the majority of Turks and Byzantine Christians of our time come under the divine mercy, God willing. I refer to the inhabitants of the Byzantine and Turkish regions most distant from us, whom the call has not yet reached to embrace Islam (Zwemer: 291; see extract at http://www.diafrica.org/nigeriaop/kenny/views/views32.htm).
The second is from the last past of the Ihya, where Ghazali repeats a tradition that all Muslims will be saved and that to enable this, for every Muslim destined to go to hell, a Christian or a Jew will be substituted. Nonetheless, says Zwemer, his statements elsewhere about Christianity “and his quotations from the Gospel narrative did much to leaven Persian thought and gave Jesus of Nazareth a large place in later mysticism especially in the foremost mystical poet the immortal author of the Mashnavi, Jallal-udin-Ar-Rumi” (192).
The Tunisian scholar, Muhammad al-Talbi, cites Ghazali as evidence that according to Islam, there are “certain circumstances in which non-Muslims can be saved” (Goddard 2001: 163). W. C Smith (1916 - 2000), who advocated that scholars should write theologically for a world audience, suggested that just as few Muslims reading Aquinas or Kierkegaard would fail to be perceptive to the value of their writing, so no Christian reading al-Ghazali should fail to see the value of his writing “about God, and about the human condition in relation to Him” (1991).
Although al-Ghazali's popularity has been overshadowed by that of the salafist (return to the origins of Islam) scholar Ibn Taymiyya, he remains one of the most widely cited and most revered Muslim intellectuals of all time. Perhaps his enduring legacy was making tasawwuf (Sufi Islam) respectable, although it would still be rigorously opposed as heretical (compromising God's unity) by a scholar such as Ibn al- Jawzi (1126 - 1200), who reviled al-Ghazali and influenced Ibn Taymiyya (who saw tasawwuf as a Christianized version of Islam).
From The Way of The Sufi by Idris Shah:
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