al-Ghazālī Introduction - Essay


al-Ghazālī 1058-1111

(Full name Abu Hamid al-Ghazālī) Persian philosopher and theologian.

“The renewer of the fifth Islamic century,” al-Ghazālī is considered a seminal figure in Muslim philosophy and religion, and one of Islam's greatest theologians. His Tahāfut al-Falāsifa (circa 1091-95; The Incoherence of the Philosophers) uses Aristotelian logic and Neoplatonic techniques against Greek philosophy, which was then strongly influencing Muslims, explaining that reason has its limitations, that reason and religion need balance, and that both operate in different, exclusive, areas. His most acclaimed book, Iḥya’ ‘Ulūm ad-Dīn (after 1095; The Revival of the Religious Sciences,) is an attempt to use Sufism to steer Islam back on the proper course to orthodoxy, which will in turn lead to absolute truth. The work stresses that the ultimate purpose of Islam is to help in forming a relationship with God, to truly experience Him, and it warns that men gain nothing by mindlessly obeying religious words and rules without understanding them. Some of al-Ghazālī's writings were translated and have influenced both Jewish and Christian theologians in Europe in the Middle Ages, including Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Biographical Information

Al-Ghazālī was born near the city of Tūs (modern-day Khorasan), in northeast Persia. His immediate family was probably relatively poor. His uncle was a scholar and may have influenced the young al-Ghazālī's interests. Educated initially in a free mosque school, al-Ghazālī later received more advanced instruction in Islamic law and private tutoring by Sufis in the ways of mysticism. His expertise in law brought him to the attention of the noted theologian al-Juwaynī, who became his teacher in 1077 at the Nizāmiyya college of Nishapur; some of the legal texts al-Ghazālī wrote while at college are still in use today. He eventually gained favor with the important politician Nizām al-Mulk and through his influence was admitted to the court of Malik Shah. In turn this position led to his appointment in 1091 as professor at the finest Sunni Muslim school in Baghdad, the Nizāmiyya Madrasa. In 1095 al-Ghazālī experienced a revelation that he had hitherto followed the wrong spiritual path. He resigned his position and for the next ten years lived the life of a Sufi ascetic, holding only menial positions, writing prolifically, and traveling widely, including journeys to Mecca, Syria, and Jerusalem. In 1105 he accepted a teaching job in Baghdad, during which he used The Revival of the Religious Sciences as his text. Al-Ghazālī continued teaching and writing until his death in 1111.

Major Works

Al-Ghazālī wrote numerous books, but the exact number is disputed since many that were attributed to him in the past are now rejected by scholars. Dating his works is problematic; with few exceptions, the dates are no more than guesswork based on internal references in his writings. In the autobiographical Al-Munqidh min al-Dalāl (after 1095; The Deliverer from Error), he recounts his spiritual breakdown and the quest for truth to which it led. He describes the many false paths he took on the way to his destination and offers criticism of many religious movements. Another major work, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, expands on and sharpens this criticism. A recent editor and translator, Michael E. Marmura, points out that in order for al-Ghazālī to attack philosophy, he first had to explain its tenets, and that he explained the ideas of Greek and Islamic philosophers so clearly that he made them more accessible than they had ever been. Considered his magnum opus, The Revival of the Religious Sciences is an attempt to revitalize Islam, the followers of which, al-Ghazālī writes, have been led astray by Satan. His method of bringing new life to the religion is to infuse it with the best practices of Sufism. The Revival of the Religious Sciences is a comprehensive guide for devoted Muslims, covering philosophical fundamentals, practical and daily advice, and mystical guidance.

Critical Reception

Al-Ghazālī was acclaimed in his own lifetime and called the “Proof of Islam.” His reputation has not diminished in the intervening centuries. Majid Fakhry writes: “We have in al-Ghazālī's thought, both speculative and practical, the most articulate synthesis of the fundamental currents in Islamic thought, the philosophical, the religious and the mystical.” Elton L. Daniel calls al-Ghazālī “perhaps the greatest and certainly one of the most original of Muslim thinkers.” Marmura writes that The Incoherence of the Philosophers marks no less than “a turning point in the intellectual and religious history of medieval Islam” and that it “put Islamic philosophy on the defensive in a way that it had never been before.” Duncan B. Macdonald praises al-Ghazālī for tempering the harsher elements of Islam (“What rigidity of grasp the hand of Islam would have exercised but for the influence of al-Ghazālī might be hard to tell”) and considers him one of the greatest figures in the history of the Muslim religion. Because al-Ghazālī's ideas evolved over the course of writing his many books, students of his teachings have ample material to trace his development as they try to understand apparent contradictions in his thought. Many scholars, including M. Umaruddin, Muhammad Abul Quasem, and George F. Hourani focus on his ethical theory, while others attempt to explicate his views on such subjects as causality and creation. W. Montgomery Watt and Hava Lazarus Yafeh are among scholars who have attempted to determine whether certain disputed titles can be linked to al-Ghazālī. Although their deductions are interesting, they are ultimately of minor consequence because the reputation of al-Ghazālī is based on undisputed works.