Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Spiritual Quest of Al-Ghazali

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Spiritual Quest of Al-Ghazali

Article excerpt

The spiritual quest of al-Ghazali

ABU Hamid al-Ghazali, a greattheologian, a penetrating and subtle critic of rationalist philosophy and a mystic with great gifts of psychological and moral analysis, was born in 1058 in Tus, today called Meshhed, in eastern Iran, and died in 1111. One of the greatest thinkers humanity has ever known, he was honoured with the title hujjat-al-islam (Proof of Islam) for his role as a defender of religion against the rationalist atheism of the philosophers and of orthodox Islam against sects preaching heresy and subversion. The lucidity of his writings and the beauty of his prose were such that his works were widely circulated and won a very extensive readership. His masterpiece, entitled Ihya' "ulum al-din ("The Revival of the Religious Sciences'), was, and is still, a reference work on the principles and practice of the Muslim religion.

There were three stages in al-Ghazali'sspiritual development: a stage of practical involvement and political commitment, a stage of doubt and criticism, and a mystical stage.

Having received a sound training in caselaw and theology from the great masters of his time, and primarily from the Imam al-Haramayn (al-Djuwaini), al-Ghazali went to seek favour with the great vizir Nizam al-Mulk in Naysabur. The latter was impressed by al-Ghazali's learning and cogency in debate, and, as an earnest of his admiration, he appointed him in 1091 to teach at the Nizamiyyah school in Baghdad. One year later, Nizam al-Mulk was murdered by a young Batinite. The Batiniyya was a Shi-'ite sect, the militant branch of the Isma'ili sect. During and after the crusades, its members were known by the name of hashishi. The activities of the Batinites posed a serious threat to the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad.

The Caliph al-Mustazhir accordingly instructedal-Ghazali to wage war with his pen against the Batinite sect. Al-Ghazali wrote a book entitled the Mustazhiri, or The Depravity of the Batiniyya, in which he revealed its impostures and unmasked its evil designs against Islam and its great conspiracy against the State. This work analyses in detail the sect's stratagems to attract well-wishers and rally them to its cause, for the Batinites were skilled at making converts.

At the age of thirty-four, al-Ghazali beganto study philosophy. He then entered a period of profound spiritual crisis in which he came to doubt his faith. That doubt was transient and lasted for only two or three months. It was more a "dark night of the soul' than the methodical type of doubt practised by Descartes, as some scholars have mistakenly suggested. But that doubt was a goad which spurred him to subject his beliefs to unrestricted scrutiny. In Mizan al-amal, he asserts the usefulness of such doubt, for "he who does not doubt, does not think; he who does not think, does not see; he who does not see remains in a state of blindness, perplexity and error'.

Being blessed with a positive attitude ofmind, he could not remain in a state of doubt for very long. Thus we see him entering a new phase: that of certainty based on reason. He had found a new vocation, which drove him to defend the great articles of faith against the rationalism of the Islamic philosophers, including al-Farabi and in particular Ibn Sina (Avicenna).

By way of a prologue to his diatribeagainst the philosophers, he wrote for the layman a clear and easily grasped summary of the three principles of philosophy: logic, physics and metaphysics. That summary is entitled Maqasid al-Falasifah ("The Aims of the Philosophers'). It is a brief and limpid expose, unclouded by polemic or personal opinions.

This was the prelude to his philosophicalmasterpiece, Tahafut al-Falasifah ("The Incoherence of the Philosophers'), in which he launches a sustained attack on the rationalist philosophers. As he states in the prologue, this book is a refutation of the ancient philosophers, designed to prove the falsity of their doctrines, to expose their contradictions in the sphere of philosophical theology (metaphysics) and to reveal the dangers inherent in their opinions. …

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