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.

 

Dancing Dervishes

Whether you believe there is a God, Gods, or that there is nothing else other than us, or that everything is just waves, vibrating on some form of energy, or that there are infinite other realms, or that we are merely simulations – whatever it is, they are all attempts to understand the universe around us, indeed, how we came to be, and why.

Often times my friends berate me for going off on what they call “philosophical” tangents, laughing and saying “oh there she goes again” or “this is too philosophical for me right now”. Yet isn’t philosophising merely the act of being a human? A self-aware, conscious human, that is. To speculate, to theorise, yes, to philosophise- about our existence- is this not the most common and fundamental thing of man? For a man not to wonder where he came from, well, he must not truly understand what it means to be alive-  how miraculous it is, that we are here, conscious, self-aware; that all of this around us, is here. I’m not sure if I envy that man. For those angry atheists (of which I used to be one) – name a culture or time where man didn’t have some form of a “religion”? What is culture without religion? At what point do you draw the line between culture and religion? Granted, they have some different elements, but the point is they are inextricably intertwined. Ergo, religion should not be scoffed at, dismissed, or ridiculed- neither should philosophy.

Yet there is an age old argument between philosophy and religion. Many philosophers were persecuted or executed for their condemned thoughts on monotheistic religions. Perhaps most famously, poor Socrates, for not believing in the god of the state, condemned to drink hemlock. The list is too long to go through here. In the Islamic world, during the Islamic Golden Age, many philosophers began to use allegories, which led to what we now call the philosophical allegory. This is a tool, a weapon, of philosophers to use, a clever, sly, way, to theorise, stipulate, ponder upon the wonders of the universe without being clad by the iron fist of certain religions. It is similar to the hidden transcript method used by the persecuted Uyghurs in the North-West of China, who practice Islam and are heavily controlled and abused by the government. Here a religious minority, persecuted for their beliefs, uses linguistic tools in their defiance against the wrath of a nation-state, while, ironically, philosophers in the Islamic Golden Age, persecuted for their beliefs used philosophical allegories, to continue to express their ideas without being prosecuted for it by religious entities. Examining the history of man, it may be still up for debate whether war is natural or not, but one thing is clear – man has always persecuted one another for each other’s beliefs.

And so, one of these many ways of pondering about the universe that is particularly intriguing, and beautiful, to me, is Sufism. It is the mystical, spiritual way of understanding Islam, with most of them being Sunni. Sufism emphasises ridding oneself of one’s ego, of materialism, in order to become one with God. Due to their rather spiritual take on Islam, Sufis are often looked down upon by many Muslims, some even believing they are heretical, others believing many of them are on drugs, or crazy. The Islamic State and other extremist Sunni groups condemn them as heretical. In 2017 235 or more were killed in a Sufi mosque bombing in Northern Sinai.

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These dervishes would twirl for up to twenty minutes without stopping, shedding layers of their brightly coloured clothing. This symbolises the ridding of materialism that Sufis believe is necessary to become one with God. near the end, the boys went into a trance- raising their arms as they faced the heavens, lost (Sufi Concert, Cairo)

One of my favourite films, Bab’Aziz – The Prince who Contemplated His Soul, is a Tunisian film about a blind dervish traveling with his granddaughter towards a massive Sufi gathering. This is one of the few pieces of art, that is authentic and that I would recommend for anyone slightly interested in Sufism, or just anyone looking at different paths to facing and understanding the world and the universe. This is a film that deconstructs many misconceptions about Islam, and about Sufism.

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“You’d think he’s contemplating his image at the bottom of the water.”
“Maybe it’s not his image. Only those who are not in love see their own reflection.”
“So what does he see?”
“He’s contemplating his soul.”

“Hassan: But there can’t be light in death because it‘s the end of everything.

Bab’aziz: How can death be end of something that doesn’t have a beginning? Hassan, my son, don’t be sad at my wedding night.

Hassan: Your wedding night?

Baba’aziz: Yes. My marriage with eternity.”

———————————————————————

The people of this world are like the three butterflies
in front of a candle’s flame.

The first one went closer and said:
I know about love.

The second one touched the flame
lightly with his wings and said:
I know how love’s fire can burn.

The third one threw himself into the heart of the flame
and was consumed. He alone knows what true love is.

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Bab’aziz and his grand-daughter in the film, “Bab’aziz”. 

This brings me to Rumi. Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, Persian, of the 12th century, is one of the most read poets in the world. Referred to typically as Rumi, his works have been translated into countless other languages, and has influenced Turkic, Iranian, Turkish, Azerbaijani, and other literatures. And, yes, he was a Sufi mystic. His master, Shams of Tabriz, is often pondered about what the nature of their relationship was – merely student and teacher? friends? lovers? I believe all, their love transcended these categories, they had the deepest, purest, form of love- in all of its being. These are some books I have on Rumi, Shams, and Sufism; given to me by someone very special, and that I know will aid anyone in their journey, regardless of the nature of their journey:

  • Discourses of Rumi – Jalaluddin Rumi
  • Fiih Ma Fihi – Jalaluddin Rumi
  • 40 Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

Finally, the moth and flame metaphor, which is said to describe certain parts of Sufism. It is said to describe the relationship between Man and God, or between Shams and Rumi, or to symbolise self-transformation, as the moth’s annihilation occurs again and again as it is always drawn to the flame- the annihilation is said to depict the passing into the Divine (fana) on the Sufi path. Or perhaps the love affair of the soul of the human with That Which We Cannot Understand, which is also Everything. Some call it God. others call it Nothingness.

Moth: I gave you my life.
Flame: I allowed you to kiss me.
-Sufi Master Hazrat Inayat Khan

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