Academic journal article Journal for Islamic Studies

The Dialogical Construction of the Muslim Self: A Reading of the Life and Work of Shaykh Muhammad Al-Ghazali

Academic journal article Journal for Islamic Studies

The Dialogical Construction of the Muslim Self: A Reading of the Life and Work of Shaykh Muhammad Al-Ghazali

Article excerpt

Introduction

Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali (b. 1917) died in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on 9 March 1996. He collapsed at the podium while delivering a lecture on Islam and the West, at a conference deliberating over Samuel Huntington's now infamous 'clash of civilisations' thesis. 2 His death was mourned throughout the Muslim world and beyond. An obituary in The New York Times3 bore strong testament to the far-reaching impact of al-Ghazali's ideas and activism.

Al-Ghazali lived an eventful life, regularly suffering censure, blacklisting, imprisonment and exile. He was a person of prodigious energy and intellect, and left behind a written legacy that included over seventy books,4 ranging from erudite commentaries on the teachings of Islam and their application in the modern world to spiritual works encouraging personal conviction and practice.

Having held teaching posts in universities in Mecca, Qatar and Algeria, al-Ghazali was also a devoted public intellectual, preaching in mosques, appearing on radio and television, engaging in open debates and, toward the end of his life, even finding time to write two weekly newspaper columns in separate publications. He inspired an entire generation of scholars and activists and when death came knocking, it found him engrossed in the singular pursuit he had dedicated his entire life to: serving the cause of Islam.

While his legacy unquestionably attests to the fact that he was a man of unique genius, al-Ghazali was also the product of a specific context. He was born into a world in which the vestiges of the Ottoman Empire were just about to be effaced and where a triumphant Europe majestically straddled conquered Arab and Muslim lands with shackles firmly in hand. Although al-Ghazali's coming into being cannot be separated from his social context, the impact of his immediate environment is nonetheless incapable of accounting fully for the development of his identity. This paper will therefore consider both the psychological and social factors that have contributed to the construction of his moral self.

The Dialogical Construction of the Self

When examining al-Ghazali's legacy, one is immediately struck by two abiding impressions: not only was his identity strongly rooted in religious conviction, but he was also someone driven by a powerful sense of mission. He was a person, to borrow a phrase from the philosopher Charles Taylor, who existed "inescapably in a space of ethical questions."5 Understanding the construction of al-Ghazali's moral self is therefore essential in order to gain an understanding of his life and work.

Charles Taylor has convincingly argued that the dominance of Cartesian epistemology in the modern period has impeded our understanding of selfhood and identity.6 According to Taylor, modern human beings have developed practices of "radical reflexivity" that have resulted in our perspectives being dominated by subjective experience.7 This view of the subject has made deep inroads into social science and has bred various forms of methodological individualism that stand in the way of a richer and more adequate understanding of the human self as it relates to the variety of human culture and knowledge. In a phrase, the modern self has predominantly been viewed as a centre of "monological consciousness."8

As Mark Tappan shows, most of the theoretical and empirical work conducted on the moral self has been conducted from an explicitly "psychological" perspective, which "grants analytic primacy to isolated individual mental functioning, and thus views identity simply as a characteristic of individuals and identity development largely as a function of internal cognitive processes."9 This approach, Tappan hastens to add, fails to appreciate and acknowledge the roles that social, relational, and discursive processes play in the formulation of moral identity. For Taylor, these cognitive processes, or representations as he calls them, cannot be the primary locus of understanding and "they are just islands in the sea of our unformulated practical grasp on the world. …

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