al-Ghazālī Essay - Critical Essays



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.

Principal Works

Al-Iqtiṣād fi-al-i‘tiqād [Moderation in Belief] (philosophy) circa 1091-95

K. Mihakk an-Nazar fi-l-Mantiq [The Touchstone of Thinking] (philosophy) circa 1091-95

Maqāṣid al-Falāsifa [The Aims of the Philosophers] (philosophy) circa 1091-95

Mi‘yār al-‘Ilm [The Standard for Knowledge] (philosophy) circa 1091-95

Tahāfut al-Falāsifa [The Incoherence of the Philosophers] (philosophy) circa 1091-95

Al-Munqidh min aḍ-ḍalāl [The Deliverer from Error] (philosphy) after 1095

Al-Qisṭās al-Mustaqīm [The Just Balance] (philosophy) after 1095

Faysal at-Tafriqa bayn al-Islam wa-z-Zandaqa [The Decisive Criterion for Distinguishing between Islam and Unbelief] (philosophy) after 1095

Iḥyā’ ‘Ulūm ad-Dīn [The Revival of the Religious Sciences] (philosophy) after 1095

Iljām al-‘Awāmm ‘an ‘Ilm al-Kalām [The Restraining of the Commonalty from Science of Theology] (philosophy) after 1095

Mishkat al-Anwar [The Niche for Lights] (philosophy) after 1095

The Confessions of Al Ghazzālī (translated by Claud Field) 1910

Mishkāt Al-Anwār [The Niche for Lights] (translated by W. H. T. Gairdner) 1924

Al-Ghazālī's “Book of Fear and Hope” (translated by William McKane) 1962

Invocations & Supplications (translated by K. Nakamura) 1990

The Incoherence of the Philosophers (translated by Michael E. Marmura) 1997

Deliverance from Error: An Annotated Translation of “Al-Munqidh Min Al Dalal” and Other Relevant Works of Al-Ghazālī (translated by R. J. McCarthy) 2000

On Faith in Divine Unity and Trust in Divine Providence: Kitab at-tawhid wa tawakkul (translated by David Burrell) 2001


Journal of the American Oriental Society (essay date 1899)

SOURCE: “The Life of al-Ghazzālī, with Special Reference to His Religious Experiences and Opinions.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 20 (1899): 71-132.

[In the following essay, the critic examines aspects of al-Ghazālī's life, travels, and studies which readily influenced his theological positions.]

In the history of the development of Muslim theology two names stand out conspicuously, each marking a great point of departure. They are those of al-Ash‘arī1 and al-Ghazzālī. The former was the principal founder of scholastic theology in Islām; it was under the hands of the latter that that theology took its final form, and the Church of...

(The entire section is 29261 words.)

George F. Hourani (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: Hourani, George F. “The Dialogue between al-Ghazālī and the Philosophers on the Origin of the World.” Muslim World 48, nos. 3/4 (July/October 1958): 183-91, 308-14.

[In the following essay, Hourani examines al-Ghazālī's arguments against the proofs of the eternity of the world as advanced by Islamic philosophers.]


Few writings in the history of philosophy reflect such an impression of exciting intellectual combat as the celebrated debate of the two Tahāfuts on whether the world is eternal in the past or originated.1 It is also one of the central texts of Islamic philosophy. But the argument follows a...

(The entire section is 7644 words.)

M. Umaruddin (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: Umaruddin, M. “The Freedom of the Will.” In The Ethical Philosophy of Al-Ghazzālī, pp. 69-81. Aligarh, India: The Aligarh Muslim University Press, 1962.

[In the following excerpt, Umaruddin explains al-Ghazālī's views on divine will, human freedom, and causation.]

The problem of the freedom of the will, because of its great ethical significance, received the close attention of al-Ghazzālī. There are three aspects of this problem. Al-Ghazzālī believes that the efficacy of will in changing and improving character is a necessary postulate of ethics. Secondly, he considers that will is determined by knowledge. This he tries to prove by a penetrating...

(The entire section is 6243 words.)

W. Montgomery Watt (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: Watt, W. Montgomery. “The World of al-Ghazālī.” In Muslim Intellectual: A Study of al-Ghazali, pp. 7-24. Edinburgh: The Edinburgh University Press, 1963.

[In the following excerpt, Watt provides political, religious, and intellectual background to the education of al-Ghazālī.]


In a sense the background of the life of any individual is the whole previous history of his civilization. For an understanding of al-Ghazālī it will be sufficient to glance briefly at the history of the Islamic empire or caliphate from the death of Muḥammad in 632 to the birth of al-Ghazālī in 1058. In these four centuries...

(The entire section is 5770 words.)

A. L. Tibawi (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Tibawi, A. L. “Al-Ghazāli's Sojourn in Damascus and Jerusalem.” Islamic Quarterly 9, nos. 1/2 (January/June 1965): 65-77.

[In the following essay, Tibawi discusses evidence that al-Ghazālī spent years in Syria under the instruction of scholar Shaikh Nasr and also considers how the Risalah was influenced by al-Ghazālā's residency in Jerusalem.]


The comparatively numerous studies on al-Ghazāli1 have left an important period of his life as obscure as it has always been. His decision to relinquish the post of chief mudarris at the Nizāmiyyah in Baghdad, his subsequent sojourn in Syria, and his...

(The entire section is 6958 words.)

George F. Hourani (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Hourani, George F. “Ghazālī on the Ethics of Action.” In Reason and Tradition in Islamic Ethics, pp. 135-66. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

[In the following excerpt, Hourani analyzes al-Ghazālī's theory that rules for action derive from revelation and cannot be learned through reasoning independently.]


With all the breadth of his interests as a theologian, jurist, logician, educator, Sūfī, critic of philosophy and foe of Isma‘ilism, Ghazālī's central concern throughout his life (a.d. 1058-1111) may fairly be described as an ethical one: right conduct and the purification of the soul by the...

(The entire section is 15607 words.)

Elton L. Daniel (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Daniel, Elton L. Preface to The Alchemy of Happiness, by Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazzâlî, pp. xi-xxxix. Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1991.

[In the following excerpt, Daniel explains why al-Ghazālī embraced Sufism and compares and contrasts The Alchemy of Happiness with The Revivification of the Religious Sciences.]

In studying the history of world civilizations, few if any concepts are more difficult for people of modern times to comprehend than the intense religiosity which characterized so many civilizations—medieval European, Byzantine, Islamic, Indian, East Asian—during the period from the fall of the classical empires to the...

(The entire section is 9307 words.)

Majid Fakhry (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Fakhry, Majid. “The Synthesis: al-Ghazālī (D. 1111).” In Ethical Theories in Islam, pp. 193-206. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1991.

[In the following excerpt, Fakhry explores al-Ghazālī's beliefs concerning the soul, happiness, and the seeking of God.]


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. His ethical theory is contained in his only extant ethical treatise, Mīzān al-‘Amal (Criterion of Action), and...

(The entire section is 5766 words.)

Michael E. Marmura (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Marmura, Michael E. Translator's introduction to The Incoherence of the Philosophers, by Al-Ghazālī, translated by Michael E. Marmura, pp. xv-xxvii. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Marmura assesses the importance of al-Ghazālī's Tahāfut al-falāsifa, explains its purpose and chief arguments, and examines some of the critical responses it generated.]


Al-Ghazālī's Tahāfut al-falāsifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers) marks a turning point in the intellectual and religious history of medieval Islam. It brought to a head a conflict between Islamic speculative...

(The entire section is 5823 words.)

Further Reading


Alon, Ilai. “Al-Ghazālī on Causality.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 100, no. 4 (October-December 1980): 397-405.

Contends that al-Ghazālī was not totally opposed to causality, as is widely thought, but accepting of compromise on the issue.

Bello, Iysa A. “Ijma' in the Concept of Ghazālī.” In The Medieval Islamic Controversy between Philosophy and Orthodoxy: Ijma' and Ta'wil in the Conflict between Al-Ghazālī and Ibn Rushd, pp. 29-43. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1989.

Discusses al-Ghazālī's arguments concerning ijma', which he defines as “the consensus of the...

(The entire section is 574 words.)