Al Ghazzali (AD 1058 - 1111)

[This is taken from Claud Field's Mystics and Saints of Islam, originally published in 1910.]

Al Ghazzali is one of the deepest thinkers, greatest theologians and profoundest moralists of Islam. In all Muhammadan lands he is celebrated both as an apologist of orthodoxy and a warm advocate of Sufi mysticism. Intimately acquainted with all the learning of his time, he was not only one of the numerous oriental philosophers who traverse every sphere of intellectual activity, but one of those rarer minds whose originality is not crushed by their learning. He was imbued with a sacred enthusiasm for the triumph of his faith, and his whole life was dedicated to one purpose—the defence of Islam. As Browning says, "he made life consist of one idea." His full name was Abu Hamid Muhammad Ibn Muhammad Ibn Ahmed Algazzali, and he was born at Tus in Khorassan, 1058 a.d., where a generation earlier Firdausi, the author of the Shah-*nama, had died. Tus was already famous for learning and culture, and later on Ghazzali's own fame caused the town to become a centre of pilgrimage for pious Moslems, till it was laid in ruins by Genghis Khan, a century after Ghazzali's death.

His birth occurred at a time when the power of the Caliphs had been long on the wane, and the Turkish militia, like the Pretorian guards of the later Roman empire, were the real dispensers of power. While the political unity of Islam had been broken up into a number of mutually-opposed states, Islam itself was threatened by dangers from without. In Spain, Alphonso II. had begun to press the Moors hardly. Before Ghazzali was forty, Peter the Hermit was preaching the First Crusade, and during his lifetime Baldwin of Bouillon was proclaimed King in the Mosque of Omar at Jerusalem. But more serious than these outer foes was the great schism which had split Islam into the two great opposing parties of Shiahs and Sunnis—a schism which was embittered and complicated by the struggle of rival dynasties for power. While the Shiites prevailed in Egypt and Persia, the Turks and Seljuks were Sunnis. In Bagdad the seat of the Caliphate during the reign of Al Kasim, when Ghazzali was a youth, fatal encounters between the two contending factions were of daily occurrence. Ghazzali's native city was Shiite, and not till Khorassan had been conquered by the Ghaznevides and Seljuks did Sunni teaching prevail there. Yet, however bitterly Shiahs and Sunnis might be opposed to each other, they both counted as orthodox and were agreed as to the fundamental principles of Islam, nor did their strife endanger the religion itself. But besides the two great parties of Shiahs and Sunnis, a mass of heretical sects, classed under the common name of Mutazilites, had sprung up within Islam. These heretics had studied Aristotle and Greek philosophy in Arabic translations, and for a long time all that the orthodox could do was to thunder anathemas at them and denounce all speculation. But at last Al Asha'ari, himself formerly a Mutazilite, renounced his heresies, and sought to defend orthodoxy and confute the heretics on philosophical grounds.

The Mutazilites had cultivated the study of philosophy with especial zeal, and therefore the struggle with them was a fierce one, complicated as it was by political animosity. The most dangerous sect of all was that of the Ismailians and Assassins, with their doctrine of a hidden Imam or leader. In some of his works Ghazzali gives special attention to confuting these.

The whole aspect and condition of Islam during Ghazzali's lifetime was such as to cause a devout Moslem deep distress and anxiety. It is therefore natural that a man who, after long and earnest search, had found rest and peace in Islam, should have bent all the energies of his enthusiastic character to oppose these destructive forces to the utmost. Ghazzali is never weary of exhorting those who have no faith to study the Muhammadan revelation; he defends religion in a philosophical way against the philosophers, refutes the heretics, chides the laxity of the Shiites, defends the austere principles of the Schafiites, champions orthodoxy, and finally, by word and example, urges his readers towards the mysticism and asceticism of the Sufis. His numerous writings are all directed to one or another of these objects. As a recognition of his endeavours, the Muhammadan Church has conferred upon him the title of "Hujjat al Islam," "the witness of Islam."

It is a fact worthy of notice that when the power of the Caliphs was shattered and Muhammadanism, already in a state of decline, precisely at that period theology and all other sciences were flourishing.

The reason of this may be found in the fact that nearly all the Muhammadan dynasties, however much they might be opposed to each other, zealously favoured literature and science. Besides this, the more earnest spirits, weary of the political confusions of the time, devoted themselves all the more fervently to cultivating the inner life, in which they sought compensation and refuge from outward distractions. Ghazzali was the most striking figure among all these. Of his early history not much is known. His father is said to have died while he was a child, but he had a brother Abu'l Futuh Ahmed Alghazzali, who was in great favour with the Sultan Malik Shah, and owing to his zeal for Islam had won the title of "Glory of the Faith." From the similarity of their pursuits we gather that the relationship between the brothers must have been a close one. Ibn Khalliqan the historian informs us that later on Abu'l Futuh succeeded his brother as professor, and abridged his most important literary work, "The Revival of the religious sciences." While still a youth, Ghazzali studied theology at Jorjan under the Imam Abu Nasr Ismail. On his return journey from Jorjan to Tus, he is said to have fallen into the hands of robbers. They took from him all that he had, but at his earnest entreaty returned to him his note books, at the same time telling him that he could know nothing really, if he could be so easily deprived of his knowledge. This made him resolve for the future to learn everything by heart.

Later on Ghazzali studied at Nishapur under the celebrated Abu'l-Maali. Here also at the court of the Vizier Nizam-ul-mulk (the school-fellow of Omar Khayyam) he took a distinguished part in those discussions on poetry and philosophy which were so popular in the East. In 1091 Nizam-ul-mulk appointed him to the professorship of Jurisprudence in the Nizamiya College at Bagdad, which he had founded twenty-four years previously. Here Ghazzali lectured to a class of 300 students. In his leisure hours, as he informs us in his brief autobiography, "Al munkidh min uddallal" ("The Deliverance from error") he busied himself with the study of philosophy. He also received a commission from the Caliph to refute the doctrine of the Ismailians.

In the first chapter it has been mentioned how a deep-seated unrest and thirst for peace led him, after many mental struggles, to throw up his appointment and betake himself to religious seclusion at Damascus and Jerusalem. This, together with his pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, lasted nearly ten years. Ibn Khalliqan informs us that he also went to Egypt and stayed some time in Alexandria. Here the fame of the Almoravide leader in Spain, Yusuf ibn Tashifin, is said to have reached Ghazzali, and to have made him think of journeying thither. This prince had begun those campaigns in Spain against the Cid and other Christian leaders which were destined to add Andalusia to his Moroccan dominions. By these victories in the West he had to some extent retrieved the decline of Islam in the East. It is natural to suppose that the enthusiastic Ghazzali would gladly have met with this champion of Muhammadanism. The news of Yusuf ibn Tashifin's death in 1106 seems to have made him renounce his intention of proceeding to Spain.

The realisation of Ghazzali's wish to withdraw from public affairs and give himself to a contemplative life was now interrupted. The requests of his children and other family affairs, of which we have no exact information, caused him to return home. Besides this, the continued progress of the Ismailians, the spread of irreligious doctrines, and the increasing religious indifference of the masses not only filled Ghazzali and his Sufi friends with profound grief but determined them to stem the evil with the whole force of their philosophy, the ardour of vital conviction, and the authority of noble example.

In addition, the governor of Nishapur, Muhammad Ibn Malikshah, had asked Ghazzali to proceed thither in order to help to bring about a religious revival. Thus, after an absence of ten years, he returned to Nishapur to resume his post as teacher. But his activity at this period was directed to a different aim than that of the former one. Regarding the contrast he speaks like a Muhammadan Thomas á Kempis. Formerly, he says, he taught a knowledge which won him fame and glory, but now he taught a knowledge which brought just the opposite. Inspired with an earnest desire for the spiritual progress of his co-religionists and himself, and convinced that he was called to this task by God, he prays the Almighty to lead and enlighten him, so that he may do the same for others.

How long Ghazzali occupied his professorship at Nishapur the second time is not precisely clear. Only five or six years of his life remained, and towards the close he again resigned his post to give himself up to a life of contemplation to which he felt irresistibly drawn, in his native city of Tus. Here he spent the rest of days in devotional exercises in friendly intercourses with other Sufis and in religious instruction of the young. He died, devout as he lived, in the fifty-fourth year of his age, a.d. 1111. He founded a convent for Sufis and a professorship of jurisprudence.

Ghazzali's activity as an author during his relatively short life was enormous. According to the literary historians, he is the author of ninety-nine different works. These are not all known to us, but there are existing in the West a considerable quantity of them, some in Latin and Hebrew translations, as he was much studied by the Jews in the Middle Ages. A writer in the Jewish Encyclopædia says (sub. voc.), "From his 'Makasid-al-Falasifah' in which he expounded logic, physics and metaphysics according to Aristotle, many a Jewish student of philosophy derived much accurate information. It was not, however, through his attacks on philosophy that Ghazzali's authority was established among Jewish thinkers of the middle ages, but through the ethical teachings in his theological works. He approached the ethical idea of Judaism to such an extent that some supposed him to be actually drifting in that direction."

Although Ghazzali was a Persian, both by race and birthplace, most of his works are composed in Arabic, that language being as familiar to Muhammadan theologians as Latin to those of Europe in the Middle Ages. One of his most important works is the "Tahafut al falasifah," "Destruction of the Philosophers," which the great Averroes endeavoured to refute. Somewhat in the style of Mr. Balfour's "Defence of philosophic doubt," Ghazzali attempts to erect his religious system on a basis of scepticism. He denies causation as thoroughly as Hume, but asserts that the divine mind has ordained that certain phenomena shall always occur in a certain order, and that philosophy without faith is powerless to discover God. Although chiefly famous in the West as a philosopher, he himself would probably have repudiated the title. He tells us that his object in studying philosophy was to confute the philosophers. His true element was not philosophy but religion, with which his whole being was penetrated, and which met all his spiritual needs. Even in his most heterogeneous studies he always kept before him one aim—the confirmation, spread, and glorification of Islam.

It is true that more than one of his contemporaries accused him of hypocrisy, saying that he had an esoteric doctrine for himself and his private circle of friends, and an exoteric for the vulgar. His Sufistic leanings might lend some colour to this accusation, it being a well-known Sufi habit to cloak their teaching under a metaphorical veil, wine representing the love of God, etc., as in Hafiz and Omar Khayyam. Against this must be set the fact that in his autobiography written near the close of his life, he constantly refers to his former works, which he would hardly have done had he been conscious of any striking discrepancy between his earlier and his later teaching. There is no reason to doubt his previously-quoted statement that he "studied philosophy in order to refute the philosophers."

He was, at any rate, intensely indignant at having his orthodoxy impugned, as appears from a striking story narrated by the Arabic historian Abu'l Feda. He tells us that Ghazzali's most important work, "The revival of the religious sciences" had created a great sensation when it reached Cordova. The Muhammadan theologians of Spain were rigidly orthodox, and accused the work of being tainted by heresy. They represented to the Caliph Ali Ibn Yusuf that not only this but all Ghazzali's other works which circulated in Andalusia should be collected and burnt, which was accordingly done. Not long after, a young Berber from North Africa named Ibn Tumart wandered to Bagdad, where he attended Ghazzali's lectures. Ghazzali noticing the foreigner, accosted him, and inquired regarding religious affairs in the West, and how his works had been received there. To his horror he learned that they had been condemned as heretical and committed to the flames by order of the Almoravide Caliph Ali. Upon this, Ghazzali, raising his hands towards heaven, exclaimed in a voice shaken with emotion, "O God, destroy his kingdom as he has destroyed my books, and take all power from him." Ibn Tumart, in sympathy with his teacher, said, "O Imam Ghazzali, pray that thy wish may be accomplished by my means." And so it happened. Ibn Tumart returned to his North African, proclaimed himself a Mahdi, gained a large following among the Berbers, and overthrew Ali and the dynasty of the Almoravides. This story is not entirely beyond doubt, but shows the importance attached by Ghazzali's contemporaries to his influence and teaching.

As an example of Ghazzali's ethical earnestness, we may quote the following from his Ihya-ul-ulum ("Revival of the religious sciences"). He refers to the habit common to all Muhammadans of ejaculating, "We take refuge in God." "By the fear of God," he says, "I do not mean a fear like that of women when their eyes swim and their hearts beat at hearing some eloquent religious discourse, which they quickly forget and turn again to frivolity. There is no real fear at all. He who fears a thing flees from it, and he who hopes for a thing strives for it, and the only fear that will save thee is the fear that forbids sinning against God and instils obedience to Him. Beware of the shallow fear of women and fools, who, when they hear of the terrors of the Lord, say lightly, 'We take refuge in God,' and at the same time continue in the very sins which will destroy them. Satan laughs at such pious ejaculations. They are like a man who should meet a lion in a desert, while there is a fortress at no great distance away, and when he sees the ravenous beast, should stand exclaiming, 'I take refuge in that fortress,' without moving a step towards it. What will such an ejaculation profit him? In the same way, merely ejaculating 'I take refuge in God' will not protect thee from the terrors of His judgment unless thou really take refuge in Him."

Ghazzali's moral earnestness is equally apparent in the following extract from his work "Munqidh min uddallal" "The Deliverance from error," in which he sets himself to combat the general laxity and heretical tendencies of his time:—

"Man is composed of a body and a heart; by the word 'heart' I understand that spiritual part of him which is the seat of the knowledge of God, and not the material organ of flesh and blood which he possesses in common with the animals. Just as the body flourishes in health and decays in disease, so the heart is either spiritually sound or the prey of a malady which ends in death.

"Now ignorance of God is a deadly poison, and the revolt of the passions is a disease for which the knowledge of God and obedience to Him, manifested in self-control, are the only antidote and remedy. Just as remedies for the body are only known to physicians who have studied their secret properties, so the remedies for the soul are devotional practices as defined by the prophets, the effects of which transcend reason.

"The proper work of reason is to confess the truth of inspiration and its own impotence to grasp what is only revealed to the prophets; reason takes us by the hand and hands us over to the prophets, as blind men commit themselves to their guides, or as the desperately sick to their physicians. Such are the range and limits of reason; beyond prophetic truth it cannot take a step.

"The causes of the general religious languor and decay of faith in our time are chiefly to be traced to four classes of people: (1) Philosophers, (2) Sufis, (3) Ismailians, (4) the Ulema or scholastic theologians. I have specially interrogated those who were lax in their religion; I have questioned them concerning their doubts, and spoken to them in these terms: 'Why are you so lukewarm in your religion? If you really believe in a future life, and instead of preparing for it sell it in exchange for the goods of this world, you must be mad. You would not give two things for one of the same quality; how can you barter eternity for days which are numbered? If you do not believe, you are infidels, and should seek to obtain faith.'

"In answer to such appeals, I have heard men say, 'If the observance of religious practices is obligatory, it is certainly obligatory on the Ulema or theologians. And what do we find amongst the most conspicuous of these? One does not pray, another drinks wine, a third devours the orphans' inheritance, and a fourth lets himself be bribed into giving wrong decisions, and so forth.'

"Another man giving himself out as a Sufi said that he had attained to such a high pitch of proficiency in Sufism that for him religious practice was no longer necessary. An Ismailian said, 'Truth is very difficult to find, and the road to it is strewn with obstacles; so-called proofs are mutually contradictory, and the speculations of philosophers cannot be trusted. But we have an Imam (leader) who is an infallible judge and needs no proofs. Why should we abandon truth for error?' A fifth said, 'I have studied the subject, and what you call inspiration is really a high degree of sagacity. Religion is intended as a restraint on the passions of the vulgar. But I, who do not belong to the common herd, what have I to do with such stringent obligations? I am a philosopher; science is my guide, and dispenses me from submission to authority.'

"This last is the fate of philosophic theists, as we find it expressed in the writings of Avicenna and Farabi. It is no rare thing to find men who read the Koran, attend public worship at the mosque, and outwardly profess the greatest respect for the religious law, in private indulging in the use of wine and committing other shameful actions. If we ask such men how it comes that although they do not believe in the reality of inspiration, they attend public worship, they say that they practise it as a useful exercise and as a safeguard for their fortunes and families. If we further ask them why they drink wine, which is absolutely prohibited in the Koran, they say, "The only object of the prohibition of wine was to prevent quarrelling and violence. Wise men like ourselves are in no danger of such excesses, and we drink in order to brighten and kindle our imaginative powers.'

"Such is the faith of these pretended Moslems and their example has led many astray who have been all the more encouraged to follow these philosophers because their opponents have often been incompetent."

In the above extracts Ghazzali appears as a reformer, and it would not be difficult to find modern parallels for the tendencies which he describes. Professor D.B. Macdonald compares him to Ritschl in the stress which he lays on personal religious experience, and in his suspicion of the intrusion of metaphysics into the domain of religion. Although intensely in earnest, he was diffident of his powers as a preacher, and in a surviving letter says, "I do not think myself worthy to preach; for preaching is like a tax, and the property on which it is imposed is the acceptance of preaching to oneself. He then who has no property, how shall he pay the tax? and he who lacks a garment how shall he cover another? and 'When is the stick crooked and the shadow straight?' And God revealed to Jesus (upon whom be peace). Preach to thyself, then if thou acceptest the preaching, preach to mankind, and if not, be ashamed before Me."

Like other preachers of righteousness, Ghazzali strove to rouse men out of lethargy by laying stress on the terrors of the world to come and the Judgment Day. He was not one of those who think fear too base a motive to appeal to; he strikes the note of warning again and again. Towards the close of his life he composed a short work on eschatology "Al Durra al Fakhirah" ("The precious pearl") of a sufficiently lurid character. In it he says: "When you watch a dead man and see that the saliva has run from his mouth, that his lips are contracted, his face black, the whites of his eyes showing, know that he is damned, and that the fact of his damnation in the other world has just been revealed to him. But if you see the dead with a smile on his lips, a serene countenance, his eyes half-closed, know that he has just received the good news of the happiness which awaits him in the other life.

"On the Day of Judgment, when all men are gathered before the throne of God, their accounts are all cast up, and their good and evil deeds weighed. During all this time each man believes he is the only one with whom God is dealing. Though peradventure at the same moment God is taking account of countless multitudes whose number is known to Him only. Men do not see each other, nor hear each other speak."

Regarding faith, Ghazzali says in the Ihya-ul-ulum:

"Faith consists of two elements, patience and gratitude. Both are graces bestowed by God, and there is no way to God except faith. The Koran expounds the excellence of patience in more than seventy passages. The Caliph Ali said, 'Patience bears the same relation to faith as the head does to the body. He who has no head, has no body, and he who has no patience has no faith.'"

Ghazzali's philosophy is the reaction of his intensely religious personality against the naturalistic tendencies of men like Avicenna and Averroes. They believed in the eternity of matter, and reduced God to a bare First Cause. He also, though sympathising with the Sufis, especially on the side of their asceticism, was opposed to Sufistic Pantheism. He conceived God chiefly as an active Will, and not merely as the Self existent.

While his contemporaries were busying themselves with metaphysical theories concerning matter and creation, Ghazzali laid stress on self-observation and self-knowledge ("He who knows himself, knows God"). As St. Augustine found deliverance from doubt and error in his inward experience of God, and Descartes in self-consciousness, so Ghazzali, unsatisfied with speculation and troubled by scepticism, surrenders himself to the will of God. Leaving others to demonstrate the existence of God from the external world, he finds God revealed in the depths of his own consciousness and the mystery of his own free will.

He fared as innovators in religion and philosophy always do, and was looked upon during his lifetime as a heretic. He admits himself that his "Destruction of the philosophers" was written to expose their mutual contradictions. But he has no mere Mephistophelic pleasure in destruction; he pulls down in order to erect. He is not a mere sceptic on the one hand, nor a bigoted theologian on the other, and his verdict on the Mutazilite heretics of his day is especially mild. Acute thinker though he was, in him will and feeling predominated over thought. He rejected the dogmatic and philosophic systems of his contemporaries as mere jejune skeletons of reality, and devoted the close of his life to study of the traditions and the Koran.

Like Augustine, he finds in God-derived self-consciousness the starting-point for the thought, and like him emphasizes the fundamental significance of the will. He sees everywhere the Divine Will at work in what philosophers call natural causes. He seeks the truth, but seeks it with a certain consciousness of possessing it already within himself.

He is a unique and lonely figure in Islam, and has to this day been only partially understood. In the Middle Ages his fame was eclipsed by that of Averroes, whose commentary on Aristotle is alluded to by Dante, and was studied by Thomas Aquinas and the school-*men. Averroes' system was rounded and complete, but Ghazzali was one of those "whose reach exceeds their grasp"; he was always striking after something he had not attained, and stands in many respects nearer to the modern mind than Averroes. Renan, though far from sympathising with his religious earnestness, calls him "the most original mind among Arabian philosophers," and De Boer says, "Men like Ghazzali have for philosophy this significance that they are a problem alike for themselves and for philosophy, because they are a fragment of spiritual reality that requires explanation. By the force of their personality they remove what hinders them in the construction of their systems without troubling about correctness. Later thinkers make it their business to explain the impulses that guide such men both in their work of destruction and of restoration. Original minds like his supply food for reflection to future generations."





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