Imam Muhammad al-Ghazali RA remains one of the most celebrated scholars in the history of Islamic thought. His exceptional life and works continue to be indispensable in the study of jurisprudence, theology, philosophy and mysticism. The tens of books that he left behind were the result of an inquisitive mind that began the quest for knowledge at a very early stage. In the introduction to his autobiographical work Deliverance from Error (Al-Munqidh min al-Dalal, p. 81), Imam al-Ghazali RA said:
“The thirst for grasping the real meaning of things was indeed my habit and want from my early years and in the prime of my life. It was an instinctive, natural disposition placed in my makeup by Allah Most High, not something due to my own choosing and contriving. As a result, the fetters of servile conformism fell away from me, and inherited beliefs lost their hold on me, when I was quite young.”
Imam al-Ghazali RA – early life
Imam Al-Ghazali RA full name is Muhammad Ibn Muhammad Ibn Muhammad Ibn Ahmad al-Tusi. He was born in 450/1058 in Tus, Khurasan near Meshhad in present-day Iran. He bore the title of respect Hujjat al-Islam (Proof of Islam) for the role he played in defending Islam against the trends of thought that existed at the time. His father was a wool spinner (Ghazzal) and thus, relative to this profession, al-Ghazali acquired this name. (al-Subki, Tabaqat al-Shafi`iyyah al-Kubra, vol. VI, pp. 191-193) Although he was born in Tus, a Persian, non-Arabic land, Al-Ghazali wrote the overwhelming majority of his works in Arabic, the lingua franca of his world.
Before his death, al-Ghazali’s father entrusted him and his brother Ahmad to a Sufi friend. He asked him to spend whatever little money he left behind, to teach them reading and writing. When the money was finished, the Sufi asked them to join a school so that they might subsist. According to Al-Subki (Tabaqat, vol. VI, p.195), schools used to provide room, board and stipend.
Imam Al-Ghazali RA began studying at Tus where his teacher was Ahmad Al- Radhakani. His next station was Jurjan where he wrote Al-Ta`liqah from the lectures of Abu Al-Qasim Al-Isma`ili Al-Jurjani. He returned to Tus for three years only to leave afterwards for Nishapur, where he joined the Nizamiyyah school and studied under Imam Al-Haramayn Al-Juwaini for eight years until the death of his teacher in 478 AH / 1085 CE. (Al-Subki, Tabaqat, vol. VI, pp. 195-196) During this period Imam al-Ghazali RA excelled in all the Islamic sciences with the exception of the science of the Hadith; he confessed this in the last paragraph of his work Qanun al-Ta’wil (The Law of Metaphorical Exegesis). This may have been the reason for the presence of some unsound traditions in his works, such as the famous Ihya’ Ulum al-Din (The Revival of the Islamic Sciences).
After the death of Al-Juwaini, al-Ghazali went to the Camp (Al-Mu`askar) of vizier Nizam Al-Mulk who founded the Nizamiyyah schools. The Camp was reputed as a meeting place for scholars who debated in the Islamic sciences. Imam al-Ghazali RA won the respect of other scholars and was assigned by Nizam Al-Mulk to be the teacher at the Nizamiyyah of Baghdad. He lectured there between 484 AH / 1091 CE and 488 AH / 1095 CE. (Al-Subki, Tabaqat, vol. VI, pp. 196-197) This position won him prestige, wealth and respect that even princes, kings and viziers could not match. (Al-Zubaydi, Ithaf, vol. I, p.7)
During this period, Imam al-Ghazali RA studied philosophy on his own and wrote Maqasid al-Falasifah (The Aims of the Philosophers) and appeared as if he was one of them. His critique of philosophy followed, in a book he called Tahafut Al-Falasifah (The Incoherence of the Philosophers). Almost all scholars tend to generalize and say that al-Ghazali gave a coup de grace to philosophy in this book. Indeed, few notice that he was critical of Greek metaphysics and its spread in an “Islamic” dress at the hands of reputed Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina and Al-Farabi. A detailed discussion of al-Ghazali’s relationship with philosophy and science will follow.
The end of Imam al-Ghazali RA’s career at the Nizamiyyah of Baghdad was unexpected. The circumstances surrounding this event became known as the “Spiritual Crisis” of al-Ghazali. He discussed the reason that prompted him to quit his position in Deliverance from Error. After discussing the methodologies of the Muslim theologians (Al-Mutakallimun), the philosophers and the esoterics (Al-Batiniyyah), he chose the Sufi path as the way to acquire indubitable knowledge. He noted though that this method has prerequisites; one should abandon all worldly attachments. Al-Ghazali thought that, in order to implement this, he should “shun fame, money and to run away from obstacles.” (Al-Munqidh, p. 134) He made it clear that any deed that was not for the sake of Allah was an obstacle. Upon scrutinizing his activities, he decided that his motivation for teaching was not for the sake of Allah. (Al-Munqidh, p. 134) Of this al-Ghazali said:
“ For nearly six months beginning with Rajab, 488 AH [July, 1095 CE], 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. (Allah) caused my tongue to dry up so that I was prevented from lecturing. One particular day I would make an effort to lecture in order to gratify the hearts of my following, but my tongue would not utter a single word nor could I accomplish anything at all. ” (Hayman and Walsh, eds., Philosophy in the Middle Ages, p. 277)
Imam Al-Ghazali RA’s health deteriorated and the physicians gave up any hope for they realized that the source of his problem was not physical. He “sought refuge with Allah who made it easy for his heart to turn away from position and wealth, from children and friends.” (Hayman and Walsh, p.278) He distributed his wealth and departed from Baghdad to begin a spiritual journey that lasted for about eleven years. He went to Damascus, Jerusalem, Hebron, Madinah, Makkah and back to Baghdad where he stopped briefly. This part of the journey lasted until Jumada Al-Akhirah, 490 AH / June,1097 CE. He continued to Tus to spend the next nine years in seclusion (Khalwa). He ended his seclusion to teach for a short period at the Nizamiyyah of Nishapur in 499 AH / 1106 CE. From there he returned to Tus where he remained until his death in Jumada Al-Akhirah, 505 AH / December,1111 CE. (Abu Sway, M., al-Ghazali: A Study in Islamic Epistemology, p. 24)
Yet, before delving into Imam al-Ghazali RA’s ideas, it is important to remember that he lived in what might be described as a post-golden age context. The production of the exact sciences faded away, the Islamic state had grown into a massive caliphate that faced disintegration as the provincial governors gained power. Just before Imam al-Ghazali RA was born, the institution of the Sultan was introduced or rather forced on Baghdad. The year 450 AH marked the first time a split in power took place between the Sultan, who was the actual ruler, and the Caliph whose role was reduced to dignitary functions. (Ibn Kathir, Al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, vol. XII, p. 66)
It was a classical case of a wealthy and powerful civilization that lost track of its sense of direction and lost sight of its roots, its source of power. The indulgence in material life had led many celebrities to abandon public life and to live in seclusion. It was a search for a meaning of life in asceticism. Sufism thrived before al-Ghazali was born and he ultimately subscribed to the mystics’ path.
Imam al-Ghazali RA – Famous Quotes
“ Whoever says that all music is prohibited, let him also claim that the songs of birds are prohibited. ”
“ If you see Allah, Mighty and Magnificent, holding back this world from you, frequently trying you with adversity and tribulation, know that you hold a great status with Him. Know that He is dealing with you as He does with His Awliya’ and chosen elite, and is watching over you. ”
“ The way to paradise is an uphill climb whereas hell is downhill. Hence, there is a struggle to get to paradise and not to hell. ”
“ People count with self-satisfaction the number of times they have recited the name of God on their prayer beads, but they keep no beads for reckoning the number of idle words they speak. ”
“ O youth…….be assured that knowledge alone does not strengthen the hand……Though a man read a hundred thousand scientific questions and understood them or learned them, but did not work with them—They do not benefit him except by working…..Knowledge is the tree, and working is its fruit; and though you studied a hundred years and assembled a thousand books, you would not be prepared for the mercy of Allah the Exalted except by working. ”
“ The happiness of the drop is to die in the river. ”
“ In God, there is no sorrow or suffering or affliction. If you want to be free of all affliction and suffering, hold fast to God, and turn wholly to Him, and to no one else. Indeed, all your suffering comes from this: that you do not turn toward God and no one else. ”
“ Neglect not your time, nor use it haphazardly; on the contrary you should bring yourself to account. Structure your litanies and other practices during each day and night. This is how to bring about the spiritual blessing (baraka) in each period. If each of your breaths is a priceless jewel, Be not like the deceived fools who are joyous because each day their wealth increases while their life grows ever shorter. ”
“ Half of disbelief in Allah in the world is caused by people who make religion look ugly due to their bad conduct and ignorance. ”
Imam al-Ghazali RA – Thoughts
Al-Ghazali was an encyclopedic and prolific scholar. He was trained as a jurist in the Shafi`i school which is traditionally Ash`arite in its expression of Islamic faith. He contributed many books to these fields. In addition, he wrote extensively about Islamic mysticism. He wrote about politics and the sects of the time and he wrote poetry. Yet, in what follows, the discussion will be restricted to his position on science.
The early works of al-Ghazali were in the area of jurisprudence. Nevertheless, in Al-Mankhul fi `Ilm al-Usul, a book on usul al-fiqh. He devoted a chapter to a discussion of the nature of the sciences (al-kalam fi haqa’iq al-`ulum). It should be noted that al-Ghazali’s use of the word “sciences” is general and restricted to the natural or physical sciences; it covers all subjects of knowledge including those of the Shari`ah. This chapter included important insights reflecting his position regarding science. One of these insights was regarding the definition of `ilm [science]. He said: “science cannot be defined” (inna al-`ilma la hadda lah). He explained his statement by saying that it was possible to know science and that “our inability to define (science) does not indicate our ignorance about the same science”. (Al-Mankhul, p. 42)
Al-Ghazali divided the sciences or knowledge into eternal and accidental. Eternal knowledge belongs to God alone. He divided accidental knowledge into immediate (hajmiyy) and theoretical (nazariyy). The first is the kind of knowledge that one has to know with the beginning of reason, such as the existence of the self. On the other hand, theoretical knowledge is the result of sound thinking (al-nazar al-sahih). Related to this is al-Ghazali’s definition of reason. He said that it is “the qualification which enables the qualified [person] to perceive knowledge and to think about the cognizable.” (Al-Mankhul, pp. 44-45)
While al-Ghazali classified the senses into different categories in terms of their function in acquiring knowledge, he maintained that there were no differences between the sciences once knowledge is acquired, regardless of how difficult the subject of the science is. This view of al-Ghazali regarding the equality of the sciences, once they are achieved, is consistent with his position regarding his interchangeable use of the terms “science” and “knowledge”. (Al-Mankhul, p. 48)
The first period of public teaching at the Nizamiyyah of Baghdad (478-488 AH/1085-1095 CE) was the time when al-Ghazali encountered philosophy. In Al-Munqidh min al-Dalal, a biographic work that he wrote towards the end of his life, he sketched his quest for knowledge. Al-Ghazali reduced the list of the seekers for knowledge to four groups: the dialectical theologians (Al-Mutakallimun), the esoterics (al-Batiniyyah), the philosophers, and the Sufis (Al-Munqidh, p. 89). His discussion of philosophy is the most relevant to his position on science.
Al-Ghazali stated that in his quest for true knowledge he started studying philosophy after he was done with `ilm al-kalam, which did not provide “certain knowledge” (`ilm al-yaqin) he sought. In his introduction to the section on philosophy he outlined his approach to this new field. He wanted to pursue philosophy to a level higher than that of the most knowledgeable in the field. Only then, he argued, could one know the intricate depths of the science, as he referred to philosophy. (Al-Munqidh, p. 94)
Al-Ghazali was aware that he could not rely on secondary sources, such as those of the Mutakallimun, in order to study philosophy. For him, their books included fragmented philosophical words that were complex and contradictory to one another. Instead, he decided to read books of philosophy directly without the assistance of a teacher. Although he was teaching three hundred students at the Nizamiyyah of Baghdad and writing on the Islamic revealed sciences at the same time, in his spare time he was able to master philosophy in less than two years. He spent almost another year reflecting on it. (Freedom and Fulfillment, p. 70) al-Ghazali wanted the readers, through such a detailed account of his effort, to have confidence that he had a thorough grasp of philosophy and that his conclusions are trustworthy.
As a result of his study he wrote two books: Maqasid al-Falasifah (The Aims of the Philosophers) and Tahafut al-Falasifah (The Incoherence of the Philosophers). It was al-Ghazali’s intention to write a book that would encompass the thought of the philosophers without criticizing or adding anything to it.
Knowledge is divided, in the second section of the book of knowledge of Ihya’ `Ulum al-Din, into `ulum shar`iyyah (sciences of the Shari`ah) and ghayr-shar`iyyah (non-Shari`ah sciences). To the latter belongs mathematics and medicine, which al-Ghazali described as praiseworthy sciences. The latter sciences are considered fard kifayah (i.e. there should be enough Muslims who are experts in the concerned field to the degree that they can fulfill the needs of the Islamic society). Nevertheless, al-Ghazali criticized unnecessary studies in mathematics that do not have practical applications. (Ihya’, pp. 16-17)
The fact that al-Ghazali categorized mathematics and medicine as fard kifayah is a positive position. This means that the society at large would be committing a sin if they neglect any of these sciences to the degree the shortage would have negative impact on the society. In fact, he blamed the students of jurisprudence for their indulgence in minute details of the Shari`ah. The context indicates that they better study medicine instead of specializing in issues in jurisprudence that might never prove to be of any benefit. (Ihya’, vol. I, p. 21) Despite this positive stance, al-Ghazali did not remain consistent in his position.
Al-Ghazali criticized the philosophers on twenty accounts in the Tahafut. Of relevance to the discussion here is his position on issue number seventeen, causality. Long before David Hume, al-Ghazali said that, in his opinion, “the conjunction (al-‘qtiran) between what is conceived by way of habit (fi al`adah) as cause and effect is not necessary (laysa daruriyyan).” He provided a list of pairs that were usually thought of as cause and effect by the philosophers (e.g. fire and burning, light and sunrise, diarrhea and laxatives). For him, the conjunction between them was a result of the sequence in which Allah created them, not because this conjunction was necessary in itself. Moreover, he thought that it was possible for one of these pairs to exist without the other. He did not see any contradiction since these pairs are the phenomena of nature and nature as such, according to the philosophers own admission, does not belong to the realm of necessity but that of possibility, which may or may not exist. (Tahafut, p. 239)
Al-Ghazali criticized the philosophers’ proof of causality because it was limited to observation (mushahadah) which depends on the senses, a source of knowledge that he could not accept on its own merit. Thus his position regarding causality is consistent with his theory of knowledge. Using the example of fire and burning, he said that “observation could only prove that burning took place when there was fire, and not by the fire.” He held that inert and lifeless objects such as fire are incapable of action and thus cannot be the agent (al-fa`il) that causes burning. To prove his point, al-Ghazali used a proof, which is neo-platonic in its tone, from the arguments of the philosophers. They held that accidents (a`rad) and incidents (hawadith) emanate at the time of contact between “bodies”, from the provider of forms (wahib al-suwar) whom they thought to be an angel. Accordingly, one cannot claim that fire is the agent of burning. In addition, he argued that the agent “creates” burning with his will (bi’iradatihi). al-Ghazali reduced the problem of causality to that of “will” which makes it rationally possible for the agent, whom he held to be Allah, not to create burning even though there is contact. (Tahafut, pp. 242-243)
Al-Ghazali presented this theory of causality in order to allow room for the existence of miracles (mu`jizat) that were associated with the prophets, without resorting to allegorical interpretations as the philosophers did. One of the miracles that he chose as an example was that of Prophet Ibrahim. The story was that his people attempted to burn him for breaking their idols by throwing him into fire but no burning took place. In the Qur’an (21:69) it was Allah’s will that the fire would not harm Ibrahim. al-Ghazali maintained that Allah was the agent (fa`il) of every action, either directly or indirectly (i.e. by the angels). (Tahafut, pp. 243-247)
Al-Ghazali knew that he could not exhaust all the sciences in his writings. He had an insight that there are more sciences within reach of human beings. He said: “It appeared to me through clear insight and beyond doubt, that man is capable of acquiring several sciences that are still latent and not existent.” (Jawahir al-Qur’an, p. 28).
Imam al-Ghazali RA Islamc Thought & Beyond
Al-Ghazali was the scholar per excellence in the Islamic world. He had literally hundreds of scholars attending his lectures at the Nizamiyyah school of Baghdad. His audience included scholars from other schools of jurisprudence. The list includes Judge Abu Bakr Ibn Al-`Arabi who was Maliki, Al-Khattabi and Abu Al-Wafa’ Ibn `Aqil who were Hanbalites.
Reflecting the influence of al-Ghazali on the Latin world, Manuel Alonso listed forty-four medieval philosophers and theologians who made reference to al-Ghazali. This included Thomas Aquinas who referred to Maqasid Al-Falasifah thirty-one times (Al-Andalus, XXIII). Needless to say, that al-Ghazali is still celebrated in many academic institutions in the West, with numerous orientalists writing about him and translating his books. `Uthman Ka`ak has related that he found a translated copy of Al-Munqidh min al-Dalal in Descartes’ library in Paris with Descartes’ comments in the margin. The numerous similarities between Al-Munqidh and Discourse on Method support Ka`ak’s observations. Ka`ak passed away and I have attempted to locate the book that he mentioned by corresponding with several libraries in France that contain some of Descartes’ book collection, yet to no avail.
The Death of Imam al-Ghazali RA
He died on the 14th Jamadi-as-Sani 505 AH (1111 CE) at the age of 53. His younger brother Ahmad al-Ghazali gives an account of his last moments:
“On Monday morning Imam woke up, he performed wudu and prayed salat al Fajar and then asked for his shroud and kissing it said “I eagerly accept my Lord’s command. He lay down and he was dead”. May Allah bless and sanctify his soul. Bir hurmati Habib bir hurmati Anzalta Surat al-Fatiha.
The Books of Imam al-Ghazali RA
Imam al-Ghazali RA was a prolific writer, Shibli Nuamani has compiled an alphabetical list of all his treatise, essays and books, some in 40 volumes and lists 67 books. Some of the books are widely published in different languages, others remain in manuscript form and yet others are not traceable, only their names are mentioned. Amongst the popular books of Imam Ghazali are the following:
A link to the Ghazali website and comprehensive list of works click here.