al-Ghazālī Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Al-Ghazālī is widely regarded as the greatest theologian of Islam; his thought and writing bridged the gap between the Scholastic and the mystical interpretations of religion and formed an ethical and moral structure that has endured.

Early Life

Abū Hāmid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Tūsī al-Ghazzālī was one of a number of children born to a prominent family of the Ghazala, specialists distinguished for their knowledge of Muslim canon law (Shariʿa). Although little is known of his childhood, his pattern of education strongly suggests that his family intended for him to follow its professional traditions. Much of his education and religious training was at home in Tus, with some time also spent at the important intellectual center of Jurjan. His advanced education was undertaken at the major university city of Nishapur. In 1085, al-Ghazālī visited the influential Nizām al-Mulk, the most important vizier of the early Seljuk period and a major figure himself in the propagation of education and scholarship. In 1091, Nizām appointed al-Ghazālī to a professorship at the university which he had established in Baghdad in 1065.

For several years, al-Ghazālī remained in Baghdad as a popular and successful lecturer, whose classes drew students by the hundreds. Beneath it all, however, al-Ghazālī was a deeply troubled man. His views became increasingly skeptical with respect to theology and deeply critical of the corruption often associated with administration of canon law. He took up a writing campaign against the Ismaʿili cult of the Assassins, a political-religious terrorist group of the time whose members, holed up in the mountains of Iran, had been responsible for numerous assassinations of administrative authorities and intellectuals who took issue with the Assassins’ eccentric views. Nizām al-Mulk himself was among those who died at their hands.

Around 1095, according to some sources, al-Ghazālī suffered a debilitating nervous illness which forced him to interrupt his career as a scholar and teacher. The illness was only a symptom of the intellectual and spiritual crisis his life had reached. Al-Ghazālī experienced the sort of self-confrontation which inevitably reminds one of the youth of Martin Luther. He had arrived at a crossroads, and his decision was to change direction.

Al-Ghazālī now abandoned his comfortable professorship in Baghdad (taking care to secure it for his younger brother) and embarked upon years of wandering, during most of which he lived a life of poverty and celibacy as a Sufi, a Muslim mystic. After a short stay in Damascus, he went on to Palestine and thence to Mecca, participating in the pilgrimage at the end of 1096. By some accounts, he visited Egypt briefly and even contemplated a journey to the Almoravid court in faraway Morocco.

Life’s Work

For more than a decade, al-Ghazālī lived in solitude, meditating and performing mystical rituals. Near the end of this period, he produced his greatest work, Ihya ʿulum al-din (c. 1103; The Revival of Religious Sciences, 1964). Around 1106, yielding to the entreaties of the new Seljuk vizier to return to academic life, he took up a professorship in Nishapur. Shortly before his death in 1111, however, he retired once more to a life of meditation at a retreat near Tus, where he gathered a small band of ascetic disciples.

Evaluation of al-Ghazālī’s thought and religious doctrine is made difficult by the uncertain authorship of many works attributed to him over the centuries. His influence was such that historians of later generations have tended to identify almost any significant theological treatise of the time with him. Shortly before the end of his life, al-Ghazālī composed a kind of testament of his religious opinions containing much material since inferred to be biographical. The evolution of his thought must be traced using only works indisputably his own.

Al-Ghazālī’s earliest writing, late in his Baghdad professorship, sought to expose contradictions between the beliefs of Sunni Islam and the philosophy of Arabic Neoplatonism espoused by the likes of al-Farabi and Avicenna (or Ibn Sina). He first wrote a dispassionate exposition of their beliefs which, ironically, became a welcome guide in lands around the Mediterranean, where Neoplatonism remained popular among Christian and Jewish communities. Al-Ghazālī then produced a severely critical work titled Taha-fut al-falasifa (Incoherence of the Philosophers, 1958), which went so far as to brand certain aspects of Neoplatonism as anti-Muslim.

Al-Ghazālī’s most significant work was in the application of logic to Muslim theology, in preference to the intuitive and metaphysical components of Neoplatonic thought. In particular, he made use of the Aristotelian syllogism as a frame of...

(The entire section is 2017 words.)