Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali (born 1058 in Tus, Khorasan province of Persia, modern day Iran, died 1111 in Tus) was a Muslim theologian and philosopher, known as Algazel to the western medieval world. Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, or al-Ghazzali as he is written sometimes.
Al-Ghazali is one of the greatest jurists, theologians and mystical thinkers in the Islamic tradition. Ghazali began his studies in Nishapur being taught by al-Juwayni (d. 1085), who not only held a chair in Shafi law, but was sponsored by the vizier Nizam al-Mulk (d. 1092) who was one of the most powerful men of his day. Ghazali’s initial love was therefore for Islamic law. And thus early on in his career he 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 per excellence in the Islamic world. His audience also included scholars from other schools of jurisprudence. This position won him prestige, wealth and respect that even princes and viziers could not match. He thus was justifiably referred to as Hujjat-ul Islam (‘The Testimony of Islam’).
Only four years after being appointed to the head of the Nizamiyyah College, however, Ghazali underwent a spiritual crisis that was to completely overhaul his theological perspective. Having provided for his family, he thus renounced his position, and worldly possessions and left Baghdad. He left for Damascus, where he lived in seclusion in the city’s principle minaret, and then on to Jerusalem and the Dome of the Rock, and Hebron. He went on pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina in 1096 and subsequently travelled widely to Baghdad and Egypt and many other places. Finally he returned to his hometown of Tus. During this time Ghazali had written his most important work, Ihya ulum al-din (The Revivication of the Religious Sciences), which again immediately singled him out as the most important theologians of the day. He ended his seclusion for a short lecturing period, at the behest of Fakhr al-Mulk, the vizier of the Seljuk ruler of Khorasan, at the Nizamiyyah of Tus in 1106. Here he wrote his autobiography al-Munqidh min al-dalal. Here he remained until his death in December, 1111.
Ghazali, throughout his life, also 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. And this association affected much of his theological output. This is evidenced in his 11th century book the “The Incoherence of the Philosophers” which marks a major turn in Islamic epistemology, as Ghazali effectively discovered philosophical skepticism that would not be commonly seen in the west until George Berkeley and David Hume in the 18th century. The encounter with skepticism led Ghazali 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, the Islamic divine being. The logical consequence of this belief in practice, and an outcome that has developed in part from it over the subsequent centuries, is a turn towards fundamentalism in many Islamic societies.
The Incoherence also 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 8th through the 11th centuries (most notable among them Ibn Sina (Avicenna)) who drew intellectually upon the Ancient Greeks. Ghazali bitterly denounced Aristotle, Socrates and other Greek writers as mushrikuwn (‘heathen’) and labelled those who employed their methods and ideas as corrupters of the Islamic faith.
Al-Ghazali wrote at least two works on theology, al-Iqtisad fi’I-i`tiqad (The Middle Path in Theology) and al-Risala al-Qudsiyya (The Jerusalem Epistle). The former was composed towards the end of his stay in Baghdad and after his critique of philosophy, the latter soon afterwards in Jerusalem. The theological position expressed in both works is Ash’arite, and there is no fundamental difference between al-Ghazali and the Ash‘arite school (see ASH‘ARIYYA AND MU‘TAZILA). However, some changes can be seen in the theological thought of his later works, written under the influence of philosophy and Sufism (see §4).
As Ash‘arite theology came into being out of criticism of Mu‘tazilite rationalistic theology, the two schools have much in common but they are also not without their differences. There is no essential difference between them as to God’s essence (dhat Allah); al-Ghazali proves the existence of God (the Creator) from the createdness (hadath) of the world according to the traditional Ash‘arite proof. An atomistic ontology is presupposed here, and yet there are also philosophical arguments to refute the criticism of the philosophers. As for God’s attributes (sifat Allah), however, al-Ghazali regards them as `something different from, yet added to, God’s essence’ (al-Iqtisad: 65), while the Mu‘tazilites deny the existence of the attributes and reduce them to God’s essence and acts. According to al-Ghazali, God has attributes such as knowledge, life, will, hearing, seeing and speech, which are included in God’s essence and coeternal with it. Concerning the relationship between God’s essence and his attributes, both are said to be ‘not identical, but not different’ (al-Iqtisad: 65). The creation of the world and its subsequent changes are produced by God’s eternal knowledge, will and power, but this does not necessarily mean any change in God’s attributes in accordance with these changes in the empirical world.
One of the main issues of theological debate was the relationship between God’s power and human acts. The Mu‘tazilites, admitting the continuation of an accident (arad) of human power, asserted that human acts were decided and produced (or even created) by people themselves; thus they justified human responsibility for acts and maintained divine justice. In contrast, assuming that all the events in the world and human acts are caused by God’s knowledge, will and power, al-Ghazali admits two powers in human acts, God’s power and human power. Human power and act are both created by God, and so human action is God’s creation (khalq), but it is also human acquisition (kasb) of God’s action, which is reflected in human volition. Thus al-Ghazali tries to harmonize God’s omnipotence and our own responsibility for our actions (see OMNIPOTENCE).
As for God’s acts, the Mu‘tazilites, emphasizing divine justice, assert that God cannot place any obligation on people that is beyond their ability; God must do what is best for humans and must give rewards and punishments according to their obedience and disobedience. They also assert that it is obligatory for people to know God through reason even before revelation. Al-Ghazali denies these views. God, he says, can place any obligations he wishes upon us; it is not incumbent on him to do what is best for us, nor to give rewards and punishments according to our obedience and disobedience. All this is unimaginable for God, since he is absolutely free and is under no obligation at all. Obligation (wujub), says al-Ghazali, means something that produces serious harm unless performed, but nothing does harm to God. Furthermore, good (hasan) and evil (qabih) mean respectively congruity and incongruity with a purpose, but God has no purpose at all. Therefore, God’s acts are beyond human ethical judgment. Besides, says al-Ghazali, injustice (zulm) means an encroachment on others’ rights, but all creatures belong to God; therefore, whatever he may do to his creatures, he cannot be considered unjust.
The Mu‘tazilites, inferring the hereafter from the nature of this world, deny the punishment of unbelievers in the grave from their death until the resurrection, and also the reality of the various eschatological events such as the passing of the narrow bridge and the weighing on the balance of human deeds (see ESCHATOLOGY). Al-Ghazali, on the other hand, rejecting the principle of analogy between the two worlds, approves the reality of all these events as transmitted traditionally, since it cannot be proven that they are rationally or logically impossible. Another important eschatological event is the seeing of God (ru’ya Allah). While the Mu‘tazilites deny its reality, asserting that God cannot be the object of human vision, al-Ghazali approves it as a kind of knowledge which is beyond corporeality; in fact, he later gives the vision of God deep mystical and philosophical meaning. In short, the Mu‘tazilites discuss the unity of God and his acts from the viewpoint of human reason, but al-Ghazali does so on the presupposition that God is personal and an absolute reality beyond human reason.
The supposition that Ghazali was in fact an Asharite and anti-philosophical has, however, been contested (no more vigorously than by Ibn Rushd (Averroes), in his bitterly entitled Incoherence of the Incoherence). The conclusion of several scholars is that Ghazali was in fact a crypto-Avicennan philosopher and was simply using the orthodoxy of Asharism for careerist reasons. Indeed it is apparent that although Ghazali refutes the falasifa he does so on their own terms, by employing philosophical models of his own. Some of his other works, most notably The Niche of Lights, does in fact display a definite affinity for the rational faculty, which would seem to suggest that Ghazali did not necessarily give faith primacy over reason. It is, however, clear that Ghazali self-identified as an Asharite throughout his life, and also that by the time Ghazali’s writing that Asharite theology was appreciably more rationalistic than it had been at its inception, 120 years before Ghazali’s birth. Therefore although it has often been assumed that with Ibn Rushd’s funeral the truly philosophical elements of Islamic culture died, it is clear that on closer inspection it is perhaps more sensible to look for these philosophical traits within the tradition of Asharite theology.
This debate does, however, seem to fade into insignificance, on the realisation of Ghazali’s eventual association to the Sufi way of thinking. His adoption of Sufism in the later stages of life seems to indicate, as Ghazali himself professes, that this mystical path was in fact the only verifiable way of coming to terms with the divine presence. His conclusion, as it appears in his autobiography (al-Mustafa min ‘ilm al-usul), seems to suggest that Ghazali found fault with both a purely faith based approach and a purely rationalistic approach. The problem was that neither of these two could ratify the other, for they were essentially separated functions. Ghazali therefore turned to an ecstatic (fana) and mystical approach to engage with the divine, which he thought transcended both of these and enabled the individual Sufi traveller to ‘taste’ the divine union – and therefore to experience annihilation of self-hood in the presence of God. Ghazali was thus instrumental in allowing Sufism to become part of the mainstream Islamic tradition.
Then at the end of his life, Al-Ghazali came back to the beliefs of Ahl al-Sunnah wa’l-Jamaa’ah. He focused on the Qur’an and Sunnah and condemned ‘ilm al-kalaam and its proponents. He advised the ummah to come back to the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of His Messenger (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), and to act in accordance with them, as was the way of the Sahabah. After that he came back to the path of the scholars of hadith, and wrote Iljaam al-‘Awwaam ‘an ‘Ilm al-Kalaam.
Last page of Al-Ghazali’s autobiography in MS Istanbul, Shehid Ali Pasha 1712, dated A.H. 509 = 1115-1116.
A glance at Iljaam al-‘Awwaam ‘an ‘Ilm al-Kalaam will prove to us that he had indeed changed in many ways:
1 – In this book he advocated the belief of the salaf, declared that the way of the salaf (“Righteous Predecessors,” a term for the first three generations of Islamic adherents) was the truth, and that whoever went against them was an innovator or follower of “bid’ah.”
2 – He emphatically denounced ta’weel (interpretation of the attributes of Allaah in a manner that differs from their apparent meaning). He advocated affirming the attributes of Allaah and not misinterpreting them in a manner that would lead to denying the attributes of Allaah.
3 – He emphatically denounced the scholars of ‘ilm al-kalaam and described all their principles and standards as “reprehensible innovations” which had harmed a great number of people and created trouble for Muslims. He said: “The harm caused to a great number of people is something that has been seen, witnessed and experienced. The evil that has resulted since ‘ilm al-kalaam began has become widespread even though people at the time of the Sahaabah forbade that. This is also indicated by the fact that the Messenger (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) and the Sahaabah, by consensus, did not follow the way of the scholars of ‘ilm al-kalaam when they produced arguments and evidence and analysis. That was not because they were incapable of doing so; if they had thought that was something good, they would have done it in the best manner, and they would have studied the matter hard, more than they did with regard to the division of the estate among the heirs (al-faraa’id).”
He also said, ‘The Sahaabah (may Allaah be pleased with them) needed to prove the Prophethood of Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) to the Jews and Christians, but they did not add anything to the evidence of the Qur’aan; they did not resort to arguments or lay down philosophical principles. That was because they knew that doing so would provoke trouble and cause confusion. Whoever is not convinced by the evidence of the Qur’aan will not be convinced by anything other than the sword, for there is no proof after the proof of Allaah.’
Although Al-Ghazali delved into different fields of Islamic thought and philosophy, it is clear that by the end of his life he departed from this course. Still many Sufis honour him as a great scholar and thinker, despite his later refutation of Sufism. We may never be sure what influenced these changes in him, but we can be sure that throughout his life he was a great intelectual thinker and scholar.
Relation To Philosophy
Philosophy declined in the Sunni world after al-Ghazali, and his criticism of philosophy certainly accelerated this decline. Nearly a century later, IBN RUSHD (Averroes) made desperate efforts to resist the trend by refuting al-Ghazali’s Tahafut in his Tahafut al-tahafut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence) and Fasl al-maqal (The Decisive Treatise), but he could not stop it. Philosophy was gradually absorbed into
Sufism and was further developed in the form of mystical philosophy, particularly in the Shi’ite world (see MYSTICAL PHILOSOPHY IN ISLAM). In the Sunni world also, Aristotelian logic was incorporated into theology and Sufism was partially represented philosophically. In all this, al-Ghazali’s influence was significant.
Ghazali committed himself seriously to Sufism in his later life, during which time he produced a series of unique works on Sufism and ethics including Mizan al-‘amal (The Balance of Action), composed just before retirement, Ihy’ ‘ulum al-din, his magnum opus written after retirement, Kitab al-arba‘in fi usul al-din (The Forty Chapters on the Principles of Religion), Kimiya’-yi sa‘adat (The Alchemy of Happiness), Mishkat al-anwar (The Niche of the Lights) and others. The ultimate goal of humankind according to Islam is salvation in paradise, which is depicted in the Qur’an and Traditions as various sensuous pleasures and joy at the vision of God. The greatest joy for al-Ghazali, however, is the seeing of God in the intellectual or spiritual sense of the beatific vision. In comparison with this, sensuous pleasures are nothing. However, they remain necessary for the masses who cannot reach such a vision.
Resurrection for IBN SINA means each person’s death – the separation of the soul from the body – and the rewards and punishments after the `resurrection’ mean the pleasures and pains which the soul tastes after death. The soul, which is in contact with the active intellect through intellectual and ethical training during life, is liberated from the body by death and comes to enjoy the bliss of complete unity with the active intellect. On the other hand, the soul that has become accustomed to sensual pleasures while alive suffers from the pains of unfulfilled desires, since the instrumental organs for that purpose are now lost. Al-Ghazali calls death `the small resurrection’ and accepts the state of the soul after death as Ibn Sina describes. On the other hand, the beatific vision of God by the elite after the quickening of the bodies, or ‘the great resurrection’, is intellectual as in the view of the philosophers. The mystical experience (fans) of the Sufi is a foretaste of the real vision of God in the hereafter.
A similar influence of philosophy is also apparent in al-Ghazali’s view of human beings. Human beings consist of soul and body, but their essence is the soul. The human soul is a spiritual substance totally different from the body. It is something divine (amr ilahi), which makes possible human knowledge of God. If the soul according to al-Ghazali is an incorporeal substance occupying no space (as Ibn Sina implies, though he carefully avoids making a direct statement to that effect), then al-Ghazali’s concept of the soul is quite different from the soul as ‘a subtle body’ as conceived by theologians at large. According to al-Ghazali, the body is a vehicle or an instrument of the soul on the way to the hereafter and has various faculties to maintain the bodily activities. When the main faculties of appetite, anger and intellect are moderate, harmonious and well-balanced, then we find the virtues of temperance, courage, wisdom and justice. In reality, however, there is excess or deficiency in each faculty, and so we find various vicious characteristics. The fundamental cause for all this is love of the world (see SOUL IN ISLAMIC PHILOSOPHY).
The purpose of religious exercises is to rectify these evil dispositions, and to come near to God by `transforming them in imitation of God’s characteristics’ (Iakhalluq bi-akhlaq Allah). This means transforming the evil traits of the soul through bodily exercises by utilizing the inner relationship between the soul and the body. Al-Ghazali here makes full use of the Aristotelian theory of the golden mean, which he took mainly from IBN MISKAWAYH. In order to maintain the earthly existence of the body as a vehicle or an instrument of the soul, the mundane order and society are necessary. In this framework, the traditional system of Islamic law, community and society are reconsidered and reconstructed.
The same is also true of al-Ghazali’s cosmology. He divides the cosmos into three realms: the world of mulk (the phenomenal world), the world of malakut (the invisible world) and the world of jabarut (the intermediate world). He takes this division from the Sufi theorist Abu Talib al-Makki, although he reverses the meanings of malakut and jabarut. The world of malakut is that of God’s determination, a world of angels free from change, increase and decrease, as created once spontaneously by God. This is the world of the Preserved Tablet in heaven where God’s decree is inscribed. The phenomenal world is the incomplete replica of the world of malakut, which is the world of reality, of the essence of things. The latter is in some respects similar to the Platonic world of Ideas, or Ibn Sina’s world of inteiligibles. The only difference is that the world of malakut is created once and for all by God, who thereafter continues to create moment by moment the phenomenal world according to his determination. This is a major difference from the emanationist deterministic world of philosophy. Once the divine determination is freely made, however, the phenomenal world changes and evolves according to a determined sequence of causes and effects. The difference between this relationship and the philosophers’ causality lies in whether or not the relation of cause and effect is necessary. This emphasis on causal relationship by al-Ghazali differs from the traditional Ash‘arite occasionalism.
The Sufis in their mystical experience, and ordinary people in their dreams, are allowed to glimpse the world of the Preserved Tablet in heaven, when the veil between that world and the soul is lifted momentarily. Thus they are given foreknowledge and other forms of supernatural knowledge. The revelation transmitted by the angel to the prophets is essentially the same; the only difference is that the prophets do not need any special preparation. From the viewpoint of those given such special knowledge of the invisible world, says al-Ghazali, the world is the most perfect and best possible world. This optimism gave rise to arguments and criticism even in his lifetime, alleging that he was proposing a Mu‘tazilite or philosophical teaching against orthodox Ash‘arism. He certainly says in his theological works that it is not incumbent upon God to do the best for humans; however, this does not mean that God will not in fact do the best of his own free will. Even so, behind al-Ghazali’s saying that God does so in actuality, we can see the influence of philosophy and Sufism.
Al-Ghazali’s criticism of philosophy and his mystical thought are often compared to the philosophical and theological thought of Thomas AQUINAS, NICHOLAS OF AUTRECOURT, and even DESCARTES and PASCAL. In the medieval world, where he was widely believed to be a philosopher, he had an influence through the Latin and Hebrew translations of his writings and through such thinkers as Yehuda HALEVI, Moses MAIMONIDES and Raymond Martin of Spain.
Ghazali had an important influence on both Muslim philosophers and Christian medieval philosophers. Margaret Smith writes in her book Al-Ghazali: The Mystic (London 1944): “There can be no doubt that Al-Ghazali’s works would be among the first to attract the attention of these European scholars” (page 220). Then she emphasizes, “The greatest of these Christian writers who was influenced by Al-Ghazali was St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), who made a study of the Arabic writers and admitted his indebtedness to them. He studied at the University of Naples where the influence of Arab literature and culture was predominant at the time.”
Ghazali’s influence has been compared to the works of St. Thomas Aquinas in Christian theology, but the two differed greatly in methods and beliefs. Whereas Ghazali rejected non-Islamic philosophers such as Aristotle and saw it fit to discard their teachings on the basis of their “unbelief,” Aquinas embraced them and incorporated ancient Greek and Latin thought into his own philosophical writings.
“A careful study of Ghazali’s works will indicate how penetrating and widespread his influence was on the Western medieval scholars. A case in point is the influence of Ghazali on St. Thomas Aquinas — who studied the works of Islamic philosophers, especially Ghazali’s, at the University of Naples. In addition, Aquinas’ interest in Islamic studies could be attributed to the infiltration of ‘Latin Averroism’ in the 13th century, especially at [the University of] Paris.”
Ghazali also played a very major role in integrating Sufism with Shariah. He combined the concepts of Sufism very well with the Shariah laws. He was also the first to present a formal description of Sufism in his works. His works also strengthened the status of Sunnite Islam against other schools. The Batinite (Ismailism) had emerged in Persian territories and were gaining more and more power during Ghazali’s period, as Nizam al-Mulk was assassinated by the members of Ismailis. Ghazali strictly refuted their ideology and wrote several books on refutation of Baatinyas which significantly weakened their status.
Ijtihad is the process through which Islamic scholars can generate new rules for Muslims. Ijtihad was one of the recognized sources of Islamic knowledge by early Islamic scholars – that is, in addition to Quran, Sunnah and Ijma. While it is not widely agreed that Al-Ghazali himself intended to “shut the door of ijtihad” completely and permanently, such an interpretation of Al-Ghazali’s work led the Islamic societies to be “frozen in time”. Works of critics of Al-Ghazali (such as Ibn-Rushd, a rationalist), as well as the works of any ancient philosopher, were practically forbidden in these “frozen societies” through the centuries. As a result, all chances were lost to gradually revitalize religion – which may have been less painful had it been spread over a period of centuries.
Whether the actual outcome of “freezing Islamic thinking in time” was the goal of Al-Ghazali is highly debatable. While he himself was a critic of the philosophers, Al-Ghazili was a master in the art of philosophy and had an immense education in the field. After such a long education in philosophy, as well as a long process of reflection. But only taking Al-Ghazali’s final conclusions, while lacking a comparable education (and a reflection process) in the area, and as a result being unable to trace Al-Ghazali in his thought process, only exacerbates the probability of the misuse of Al-Ghazali’s conclusions.
• al-Munqidh min al-dalal, “Deliverance from Error”
• al-1qtisad fi’I-i`tiqad
• al-Risala al-Qudsiyya
• Kitab al-arba?in fi usul al-din
• Mizan al-?amal
• Ihya ?ulum al-din, “The revival of the religious sciences”, Ghazali’s most important work
• Kimiya?-yi sa?adat, “The Alchemy of Happiness”
• Mishkat al-anwar, “The Niche of Lights”
• Maqasid al-falasifa
• Tahafut al-falasifa, “The Incoherence of the Philosophers”, on which Ibn Rushd wrote his famous refutation Tahafut al-tahafut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence)
• al-Mustasfa min ?ilm al-usul
• Mi?yar al-?ilm (The Standard Measure of Knowledge)
• al-Qistas al-mustaqim (The Just Balance)
• Mihakk al-nazar f’l-mantiq (The Touchstone of Proof in Logic)
• Laoust, H: La politique de Gazali, 1970
• Campanini, M.: Al-Ghazzali, in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman, History of Islamic Philosophy 1996
• Watt, W M.: Muslim Intellectual: A Study of al-Ghazali, Edinburgh 1963
• Marmura: Al-Ghazali The Incoherence of the Philosophers, (2nd ed.). Brigham: Printing Press. ISBN 0-8425-2466-5.
• Frank, Richard: Al-Ghazali and the Asharite School, London, 1994
From ‘The Way of The Sufi’ by Idris Shah:
• Possessions – You possess only whatever will not be lost in a shipwreck.
• Gain and Loss – I should like to know what a man who has no knowledge has really gained, and what a man of knowledge has not gained.