A Reflection on Al-Ghazali- Mystic and Islamic Philosopher

أبو حامد محمد بن محمد الغزالي (Abu Hamid Muhammed Ibn Ahmed Al-Ghazali), born in the Persian town of Ghazala, also known as the “proof of Islam” (Hujjat al-Islam), transgressed through an personal journey that very much is reflected by his intellectual journey as a philosopher, theologian and Sufi mystic. Perhaps he was one of the more honest philosophers and thinkers of his time, as he abandoned his posts in Baghdad in 1095, embarking on a solitary, spiritual journey for eleven years – where he, similarly to Al-Farabi, traveled around the Islamic world. Ghazali’s realization that he was going the “wrong way”, where this Doubt shook him to his core, as he saw the materialism and superficiality within which his life was rooted in, prompted him to embarked on a journey to find the “righteous path”. The first scholar to combine Sharia and Sufism, or, in other words, religion with Sufism, or theology with taste, he went against many of the thinkers of his time.

Ghazali’s intellectual journey may be divided into three stages. The first may be classified as “doubt”, during which he began to doubt the premise of defending or justifying religion as something that requires dogmatic defense. It was during this stage where he wrote the infamous “Incoherence of the Philosophers”, a rigorous rant on the issues and constraints of the الفلاسفة (“falasifa”, translates to “the Philosophers”). Doubt was the means to reach the Ultimate Truth, the second stage. Ghazali believed the Intellect was not enough to reach the Ultimate Truth, and, as such, trust is needed. Just as the Intellect aids our constrained senses, something was behind the Intellect, governing the Intellect. In this sense, the Intellect is similarly able to deceive, just as our senses are. This brings us to his third stage, the Final Truth. Here he emphasised the importance of trust in prophecy, as prophecy is beyond the Intellect. It is a natural perception, he believed, beyond the Intellect, faith, or religion, and instead, should be understood as a spiritual experience of heart and ذاق (“douqh”, meaning taste).

Ghazali’s belief and argument that the Intellect has the ability to be impotent and deceiving, and therefore cannot be wholly trusted leads to the conclusion that trust in prophecy, instead, may aid intellect. Ghazali placed a heavy emphasis on prophecy. According to his writings, after the Prophet Muhammed died, there is now a need for trust in the prophecies, and from this will sprout inspiration, which is the extension of the revelation- almost as if the prophecy had been revived, in a way. The Final Truth is attained by believing in Prophecy first, as prophecy is beyond the Intellect. This has a similar echo to Ibn Sina’s writings on prophecy, where he argued prophesizing is rational, and uses syllogisms. However, prophets merely state the conclusion without the premises, although this does not lead to the conclusion that it isn’t based on the premises. Ibn Sina believed that the prophet’s intellect was such that it didn’t need the premises. Here the revelation’s are seen to be above rationality and intellect, in a similar vein to Ghazali’s beliefs.

Ghazali’s influence is widespread and variant. He has had an effect on Islamic Fundamentalists, as they have exploited and used his writings to their own gains. This has, in turn, caused a widespread misconception of Ghazali as having closed the doors to philosophy in the Islamic World, and opened the doors to Islamic Fundamentalism, as some blame him for the decline of science in the Islamic world. However, this Western theory is privy to being reductionist to Ghazali himself and his writings. Furthermore, the belief that the phenomena of the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism may be attributed to one person, thing, or entity, is an oversimplification and therefore faulty.

His writings also largely effected Western philosophers, including the well-known René Descartes. Descartes’ “basket of apples” philosophy argues that one must inspect each apple in the basket, carefully, and only putting back the sound ones. This is a metaphor for one’s mind, to inspect each thought within his or her mind, and in this sense, not taking anything for granted. To turn over each belief and determine which are true. This is strongly reminiscent of Ghazali on Doubt. This doubt echoes throughout various philosophers. One cannot help but think of Plato’s cave allegory in comparison to Ghazali’s work. Both men were plagued by doubt (as was Plato’s mentor, Socrates), however they diverged in where this skeptical journey led them. While Plato believed one could achieve truth and infallible knowledge by emerging out of the dark cave and into the world, Ghazali believed that only by looking within, into the soul and by trusting in God and the revelations, would one be able to truly attain Ultimate Truth. The two great philosophers have interesting overlaps, with Ghazali being almost confused as to how there can be so many different sects that men tended to believe merely because he was brought up in this way, while Plato depicting the falsehood of data that men tend to be bound by – symbolized by the shadows of the Cave.

In  المنقذ من الضلال (“al-Munqidh min al-dalal”, translates to “Deliverance from Error”), an autobiographical account of Ghazali, one can understand his approach and thoughts towards skepticism and doubt, which was what led him to initially leave his teaching position, and is essential to search for the Unshakable Truth (حقيقة). His quest for certainty led him to question uncritically accepted religious beliefs, and instead search for a kind of عِلم الْيَقين (“‘ilm al-yaqin”). This diverges from Socrates’ “the only thing I know is that I know nothing”. Ghazali experienced two personal crises, with the second leading him to look within in, and resulting in his conclusion that only through a life of trust or تَوَكُّل (“tawakkul”) would the seeker be able find the Unshakable Truth, which he called the Ultimate Truth. In this way, one could remove the veil- a common Sufi concept in which knowledge of the heart surpasses that of the intellect, and by going through personal, spiritual, struggles, will one reach the truth, and the veil covering the spiritual realms will be unveiled.

In تهافت الفلاسفة (Incoherence of the Philosophers), Ghazali denounced Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina and Al-Farabi. He refuted Aristotelian logic and the Falasifa’s certainty of rational logic being superior to knowledge derived from the revelation was incorrect. In particular, he saw theology as a dead body of rituals, with men blindly believing certain things without really understanding why. Perhaps one of the biggest contributions Ghazali perpetuated was the idea that Intellect, and rationalism, have constraints on understanding many of the main philosophical questions within Islamic Philosophy, such as Creation and God’s attributes.

Ghazali’s honesty, and lack of fear for political or social retaliation of consequence is admirable, and is reminiscent of less fortunate philosophers and thinkers like Socrates and the Sufi mystic Mansur Al-Hallaj. If we are to understand Islamic Philosophy within four groups- المعتزلة  (“Mu’tazila”), الأشعرية (Ash’arites), الْتَّصَوُّف (the Sufis) and those of أصول الفقه (Islamic Jurisprudence), Ghazali is not able to be easily classified into any one of these, as he explored them all throughout the course of his life. Many would classify him as a philosopher, a mystic, a theologian and a Muslim jurist. Various ideas of his fall under the Ash’rites predisposition of placing revelation over rationalization. Meanwhile, his spiritual journey led him to wholly follow the beliefs and ways of a Sufi, such as his emphasis on trust to attain absolute Truth, or, in other words, to be one with God. Ghazali began his journey as an al Kalaam, before going to the Philosophers, and then the Sufis.