By Roy Ahmad Jackson
Imam Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058–1111)
The theologian, jurist, philosopher, and mystic al-Ghazali is universally known as the ‘proof of Islam’ (hujja al-islam) and the great ‘renewer’ (mujtahid) of the faith. Much of this is due to his attempt to synthesise the three main strands of Islamic rationality: theoretical and philosophical enquiry, juridical legislation and mystical practice. His importance to Islamic thought lies in his skills in redirecting and reinvigorating Sunni religious thought in the aftermath of the Shi’a intellectual dominance of the previous century. His life and writings have been subject to more study in the Western world than probably any other Muslim, with the exception, of course, of the Prophet Muhammad.
The world of Islam in which al-Ghazali was born was one of political and religious turbulence. The Islamic world was broken up between the Umayyad dynasty ruling in Spain, the Shi’a Fatimid dynasty in North Africa and beyond, and then there was the aging and ailing Abbasid dynasty which reigned from Baghdad but no longer ruled. Baghdad, only three years before al-Ghazali was born, had been conquered by Saljuk Turks and, previous to that, the nominally Shi’a dynasty of the Buyids had ruled in Baghdad for over a century. The Abbasid Caliphs, who were Sunnis, were kept as the symbolic and unifying head of the Muslim world, but were essentially prisoners in their own palaces. The tenth century, therefore, has been called the Shi’a century. Although Islamdom no longer functioned as a single political unit, it was by no means in decline. In fact, rather than one capital in Baghdad, there were now several great cultural centres such as Cairo under the Fatimids, and Cordoba under the Umayyads. The eleventh century, under the Saljuk Turks, was to witness the re-emergence of Sunni Islam as a force, and it was in this historical and intellectual context that al-Ghazali inherited and operated.
Al-Ghazali was born in 1058 in the Iranian city of Tus, in the province of Khurasan. This small town is now in ruins, destroyed in the fourteenth century, but in al-Ghazali’s time it was a thriving place. His father and his grandfather before him were wool-spinners (Arabic ‘ghazzal’) and he belonged to an unlearned but devout family. His brother, Ahmad Ghazali, went on to become a famous Sufi (Muslim mystic) preacher and scholar, and Abu Hamid al-Ghazali himself received Sufi instruction in his hometown by a family friend who was a Sufi. As a teenager, al-Ghazali made a point of travelling to be instructed by other learned figures; in particular, he was attracted to the respected theologian al-Juwayni who resided in Nishapur, 30 miles south-west of Tus. This imam (religious teacher) agreed to be al-Ghazali’s teacher. Al-Juwayni held a chair at the newly founded Nizamiyya school which had been established by the celebrated Nizam al-Mulk, vizier to the Saljuk Sultan Malikshah. This vizier made a point of establishing many new schools in an effort to renew Sunni Islam, and these institutions provided free tuition, board and lodging. Here he spent eight years, from 1077–1085, studying the teachings of the Ash’ari doctrines of kalam (theology) as well as philosophy, logic and the natural sciences. While studying, he taught part-time as al-Juwayni’s assistant, which, it seems, led to the latter feeling jealous about al-Ghazali’s greater intelligence and popularity as a teacher.
In 1085, al-Ghazali went to Baghdad and joined the court of Nizam al-Mulk, who, though a vizier, was effectively a monarch in all but name, and at the height of his power. Realising the importance of having the religious authorities on your side, Nizam lavished his patronage on religious leaders, built grand Sufi lodges and established theological colleges, all of which were named after him. Al-Ghazali became a close friend of the vizier and was appointed to teach Shafi’i jurisprudence (see al-Shafi’i, founder of one of the four main Sunni schools of law) at the Nizamiyya school in Baghdad. The popular new teacher rapidly acquired a large student following and, in 1091, was appointed professor of theology at the college. Al-Ghazali was considered as living an exemplary Muslim life, yet the man in his thirties was riddled by doubts at the time of his greatest success:
I considered the circumstances of my life, and realised that I was
caught in a veritable thicket of attachments. I also considered
my activities, of which the best was my teaching and lecturing,
and realised that in them I was dealing in sciences that were
unimportant and contributed nothing to the attainment of
eternal life. After that I examined my motive in my work of
teaching, and realised that it was not a pure desire for the things
of God, but that the impulse moving me . . . was the desire for
an influential position and public recognition.
Every morning he longed to leave Baghdad and the trappings of his career, but he found he could not tear himself away from the luxuries of his life:
For nearly six months beginning with Rajab 488 [July, 1095],
I was continuously tossed about between the attractions of
worldly desires and the impulses towards eternal life. In that
month the matter ceased to be one of choice and became one
of compulsion. God caused my tongue to dry up so that I was
prevented from lecturing.
This points to a mental and emotional crisis for al-Ghazali and essentially made the decision for him to leave his teaching position, for he physically could not teach any longer, even if he tried. He then took up the life of a wandering Sufi for the next ten years. He went to Syria and Palestine, and made a pilgrimage to the two holiest cities of Mecca and Medina. He led the life of an ascetic, wearing coarse and shabby clothing and sleeping in the mosque. Through abstinence, self-discipline, prayer and meditation he found the peace of mind that his material success had not given him. In 1106, he was persuaded by the new Seljuq vizier Fakhr al-Mulk to return to teaching at the Nizamiyya Madrasa (religious school) in Nishapur. He remained there for little more than two years, retiring in 1109 to his home town of Tus where he died two years later in 1111.
Al-Ghazali was a prolific writer, with over four hundred titles to his name. Some of these are no doubt of dubious authorship and a number are short essays. However, he seems to have covered virtually every discipline of learning known at the time, including poetry and music. His best-known, and largest, work is Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (The Revival of the Religious Sciences). Written after his return from his tenyear sojourn, this work presents the relationship between the inner and outer life, between that of being a good Muslim in daily life (that is, following Islamic law or shari’a) and of pursuing spiritual needs (Sufism). In his view, the essence of the human being is the soul (nafs) which in its original state – that is, before being attached to the body – is a pure, angelic and eternal substance. Through reason, the soul has the potential to know the essence of things and knowledge of God, but to achieve this potential it must attach itself to a body, for the body is the vehicle that carries the soul on its journey to God. However, while the soul is pure in its original state, the body is a corrupting influence as it succumbs to anger, desire and evil. Consequently, the soul, though still possessing its divine elements, also has ‘animal’ elements. Therefore, to perfect the soul, the person must subordinate the animal qualities and pursue the virtues of temperance, courage, wisdom and justice. This can be achieved through Sufi practices which shut the gate to worldly desires. However, al-Ghazali points out that it is still important to engage in outer acts (zahir), especially the rituals associated with Islam such as pilgrimage, prayer, ablutions, alms, fasting, reading the Qur’an, following the shari’a, and so on. The inner activities of abstinence, meditation, and so on that are engaged in by the mystic, inform the outer activities of all Muslims. The mystical insight gives the believer a greater understanding into the more ritual aspects, rather than simply conducting the rituals without meaning. In this journey of the soul we can see al-Ghazali’s own personal quest.
The Revival soon became a great classic of Muslim literature, comparable to the Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica in respect of the believer’s response and love of it. Scholars have compared its greatness as second only to the Qur’an. Much of its attraction lies in the beauty of the writing, for al-Ghazali was not only a good teacher, he was also a first-rate writer. His style is lucid, and he uses anecdotes and parables to illustrate his teaching. For example, he compares the self-deluded man to a gardener who is content with pulling out the weeds yet leaving the network of roots underground intact.
In the same way his Revival is compared to Summa Theologica, his al-Munqidh min al-Dalal (Deliverance from Error), is comparable to St Augustine’s Confessions in that it presents us with a fascinating autobiographical sketch which was a rare form of literature in the Arab world at the time. An early work, Maqasid al-Falasifah (The Aim of Philosophers) is a study of the work of Muslim philosophers, notably that of al-Farabi (d. 950) and Ibn-Sina (d. 1037), but his critique of these individuals in particular is reserved for his celebrated work, Tahafut al-Falasifa (The Incoherence of Philosophers) written just before he left his teaching post to go into retreat. There had for some time been a recognised tension between philosophy (falsafa), with its emphasis on truth through reason, and theology (kalam) which points to revelation as the primary source of truth. Al-Ghazali set out to demonstrate that reason does not in all cases lead to the ultimate truth and that a transcendent God cannot be known by rational insight, although he would employ Aristotelian logic to demonstrate his own arguments. He acknowledged the importance of philosophy for the study of nature and mathematics, but he argued that revelation was the most important source in religious matters. Likewise, he acknowledged that theology has its limitations: it was useful as an intellectual tool to defend religious truth, but in itself was not able to confirm God’s existence. For that al-Ghazali praised religious experience, specifically that gained through mystical techniques employed by the Sufis.
While al-Ghazali was certainly very critical about philosophy, he left his most vitriolic attack for that of the Ismailis. This group were essentially Shi’a to the extent that they could trace their origins to the first Shi’a Imam, Ali, but claim that his line ended with Ismail, son of the sixth Imam, Jafar as-Sadiq. It was a charismatic and esoteric movement that, in 983, had conquered Egypt and set up a dynasty, the Fatimids (see al-Mahdi), that was to last for nearly two hundred years. Al-Ghazali obviously did not approve of the Gnostic tendencies, but he no doubt had personal reasons for his dislike of them. The Ismailis often attempted to de-stabilise the Sunni regime in Baghdad through assassinations of their enemies (the term ‘assassin’ derives from the Arabic ‘hashish’, as the assassins would be given hashish to make them braver), including al-Ghazali’s two friends, the vizier Nizam al-Mulk and his son. In fact, a more cynical interpretation of the reasons for al-Ghazali’s ten-year retreat was that he was more concerned for his own material life than his spiritual faculty. He wrote half a dozen critiques of the sect, focusing on contradiction in their teachings.
Al-Ghazali was trained in both theology and law, and he criticised both. He followed the theological school established by al-Ashari, while in law he followed al-Shafi’i. His criticism of both theology and law as being too stagnant and lacking spiritual values undoubtedly had a lasting effect and helped both to revive. Perhaps al-Ghazali’s greatest influence, however, is with Sufism, although some scholars have argued that his brother did far more in this cause. Nonetheless, it must be remembered that his first ever teacher, in Tus, was a Sufi and he did spend his mature years as a Sufi himself in which he could not help but be impressed by their conduct compared with the wealthy and materialistic citizens of the court. He believed that mysticism is the prime motivation for our lives, for without it all religious practice and belief are meaningless. Some misunderstood his writings on Sufism as being against orthodoxy and, in some places, his books were burned but, more recently, he has been accused of watering down true Sufism to make it more amenable to the orthodox Sunni community. On the whole, however, he did more to help the spread of new Sufi orders – regardless of how true to the ‘essence’ of mysticism they may have been – than hinder it.
Certainly, his impact on non-Muslims was mostly a result of his mystical writings. Less than half a century after al-Ghazali’s death, a Jewish convert to Christianity in Toledo had his works translated into Latin, and the Jewish philosopher Maimonides (d. 1204) of Cordoba often referred to his work The Aim of the Philosophers. Al-Ghazali’s mystical writings on such topics as the soul and on emanation led to debate among Jewish scholars. In Western Christianity, St Thomas Aquinas studied the writings of ‘Algazel’ as he was known in the West and the great poet Dante (d. 1321) frequently quotes al-Ghazali and even had the generosity to confine him to limbo in his poem rather than the inferno where one might expect non-Christians to reside. In the end, al-Ghazali has achieved an integration and religious synthesis that have earned him a place as a great Muslim scholar.
So many of al-Ghazali’s works are now available in English it would not be possible to list them all. The Islamic Texts Society is doing a grand job of translating his Revival of the Religious Sciences as a series of books which I would certainly recommend.
- Revival of the Religious Sciences, trans. various, London: Islamic Texts Society, 1989–.
- The Confession of Al-Ghazali, trans. Claud Field, New Delhi: Kitab Bhavan, 1992.
- Al-Ghazali’s Deliverance from Error and Other Works, trans. R.J. McCarthy, Louisville, KT: Fons Vitae, 2001.
- The Alchemy of Happiness, trans. Claud Field, London: Octagon Press, 2003.
- The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Islamic Translation Series), trans. Michael E. Marmura, Utah: Brigham Young University Publications.
- Mitha, Farouk, Al-Ghazali and the Ismailis: A Debate on Reason and Authority in Medieval Islam (Ismaili Heritage Series), London: I.B. Tauris, 2001.
- Watt, W.M., The Faith and Practice of al-Ghazali, Oxford: Oneworld, 2000.
- Zayd, Abdur Rahman Abu, Al-Ghazali on Divine Predicates and Their Properties, New Delhi: Kitab Bhavan, 1994.
Roy Ahmad Jackson has been a lecturer and writer on religion and philosophy for over fifteen years. He has lectured in Islamic Studies at various universities, including the University of Durham and King’s College London. He has previously written books on Nietzsche, Plato, Islam and the philosophy of religion.