Al-Ghazali Philosophy

The life of Al-Ghazali

Al-Ghazali was born of modest Persian family in A.D 1058, in the city of Tusk in Khurasan. His family had a liking for learning and Sufism. Al-Ghazali lost his father when he was still very young, and his education, as well as that of his brother was left upon the hands of one of his father’s Sufi friend’s, who educated them until their late father’s money ran out. At this point, they went to madrasa 2, where they could obtain boarding and education.

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At elementary level, Al-Ghazali studied Arabic, Persian, the Koran and principles of religion. His higher education at madrasa included Islamic jurispondence, koranic exegesis and prophetic tradition. He later moved to Jurjan at the age of 15 to learn more on Islamic jurispondence, from imam al-Isma’ili. He continued his studies, adding scholastic theology, logic and philosophy under imam al-Juwaini1.

At the death of imam al-Juwaini, Al-Ghazali was 28 years, and he went to meet the Seljuq minister, with whom he lived for several years working as a court jurist. He wrote books and participated in scholarly arguments, before he was assigned to the Nizamiya madrasa, as a professor.

Al-Ghazali took a leading role in three main political and intellectual storms, namely: “the struggle between the philosophy and religion for Islamic and Greek culture, where he sided with religion against philosophy, the struggle between the Sunnites and the Shiites, where he defended the Abbasid Caliphate against the Bitinites, and the struggle between revelation and reason”2. Al-Ghazali studies were more focused on Greek philosophy, with emphasis on Plato, Plotinus and Aristotle, and Islamic philosophy, mainly that of Ibn Sina and al-Farabi3.

Al-Ghazali had a problem in merging philosophy with religion, which he resolved by upholding that philosophy was right only when it concurred with the principles of Islamic religion, and wrong when it differed with it. He also wrote a brief book on the essentials of idealistic notions as perceived during that period. His book, “The aims of the Philosophers” was followed by “the Incoherence of the Philosophers”, where he summed up his disagreement to the philosophers in twenty main points touching on God, man and the universe.

His second book raised a storm, influencing the Christian Europe, which resulted in weakening of the Greek philosophical thought in the Islamic world, despite efforts to defend the philosophy. Al-Ghazali third book was called “The infamies of the Esoterists and the Virtues of the Exotericists”. The book attacked the principle of the infallibility of the imam and a little on the esteric interpretation of shari’a, while it defended the existence of the Abbasid Caliphate. “His attack on esotericism was not as successful as his attack against the philosophers”4.

At the age of 38, al-Ghazali unexpectedly had spiritual crisis that lasted for six months. The conflict was depicted as a fierce internal conflict between logical intelligence and the spirit, between this world and the hereafter. The crisis began with his suspicion of the soundness of the present principles and schools, leading to his doubt on the efficiency of the devices of knowledge.

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The crisis made him physically ill, causing him to be unable to speak or teach. This resulted in al-Ghazali leaving his post and relinquishing his riches, reputation and influence. According to Al-Ghazali the doctrines of his day could be classified into four main groups:

“Scholastic theology, based on logic and reason; Batinism or esotericism, based on initiation; philosophy, based on logic and proof; and Sufism, based on unveiling and receptiveness thereto”5.

In addition to this, al-Ghazali believed that knowledge could be attained either through senses, reason or revelation6.

During the two year period when al-Ghazali was in isolation, practising Sufism, while wandering between Damascus, Jerusalem and Mecca, he wrote one of his most important books; Ihya’ ‘Ulum ad-Din or simple “The Revival of the Religious Sciences”.

The book comprised four volumes of simple, clear and comprehensive words on four main topics namely the causes of perdition, devotional practice, social customs and the means of salvation. After seclusion for a period of about seven years, he returned to teaching madrasa in his former school, and in this period, he wrote another book; Minhaj al-‘Abidin7. The book looked at his way of life, as well as that of his pupils, focusing on renunciation of the world, isolation and development of the innermost self8.

The philosophy of Al-Ghazali

Al-Ghazali philosophy was focused on the concept of God and his relationship with the world and his creation. “Al-Ghazali came up with his own philosophy on the essence, attributes and actions of God, even though he initially followed the mainstream of Islamic fiqh and Sufi undercurrents in describing the attributes of God”9. Al-Ghazali splits the universe into the transient world and the eternal hereafter, whereby the world is seen as a temporary existence that is subject to the will of God.

The world is sustained, overseen and compelled by the unswerving and constant involvement of God, as opposed to governing by a set of technical laws. The philosophy supports that “God is the creator of the universe and all its features and laws, as well as the cause of every event in the world, great and small, past, present and future”10.

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According to al-Ghazali, human beings are creatures with an eternal spirit and a worldly body. In addition to this, his nature does not make him either good or bad, though his usual nature tends more to good than evil. He also believes that man conducts himself according to a limited set of rules since there is more pressure as opposed to freedom of choice. “Man is not meant for this world, where he toils, but for the hereafter, where he aspires to be”11.

Al-Ghazali views society as consisting of human beings who lack virtue, since evil is more common than good. With this view, al-Ghazali thought that man would be better of living in seclusion rather than living in a society. He viewed the society as capable of changing for the worst, since people had obligations to the society. He observed the survival of a single character to be irrelevant compared with survival and vigour of the group.12

“It is a class society divided into thinking and ruling élite, and the masses, whose affairs are entirely in the hands of the élite. Religious and doctrinal questions are left to the scholars, and worldly things and matters of State come under the authority of the rulers. The common people have no choice but to obey13.”

Al-Ghazali also observed the society to be totally subject to the influence and direction of God, since its only objective is to observe the religion of God, and present people with the opportunity to praise him.

The most vital features of man are awareness and knowledge, whereby man obtains knowledge from the human attributes of the senses and reason that are found to be lacking, allowing individuals to acknowledge the material world in which he exists, and the godly features of revelation and motivation allowing him to realize the invisible world.

Al-Ghazali is against comparing the two kinds of knowledge, whether on the basis of their foundation, process or credibility. He observed that absolute knowledge could only be realised once the self had been cultivated through learning and exercise for what is contained in the holy Koran.14

“The more the self comprehends such knowledge, the better it knows God, the closer it comes to Him, and the greater is the happiness of man15.”

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According to al-Ghazali, a man of virtue is supposed to relinquish himself from this world, and turn towards the hereafter. This implies that the man should prefer isolation, rather than the company of his fellow men. He viewed poverty to be better than wealth, and hunger to be better than satisfaction. He observed that a man of virtue was governed by reliance on god, as opposed to the desire to attain domination and his mannerisms are more of patience than struggle.

“At the time when peter the hermit was rallying the European masses to join n the crusades, al-Ghazali was convincing the Arabs to submit to their rulers or to ignore the society. The thinker and philosopher helped to mould society and alter the shape of history”.16

Al-Ghazali philosophy of education

Al-Ghazali was inclined towards understanding and combination of diverse academic schools. He was able to acquire a lawful, idealistic and spiritual enlightened thinking. “Although al-Ghazali worked as a teacher towards the beginning of his career, he was not a ‘philosopher of education, but a philosopher of religion and ethics.”17 Al-Ghazali was a philosopher of religion and ethics, though he ended up teaching his philosophy, which was focused on stability as opposed to change.

His teachings were aimed at providing education necessary to allow man to follow the shari’a so that he can glorify God, and gain everlasting happiness in the after-life.

When al-Ghazali talked of character formation, he emphasized that the parents and teachers had the obligation to bring up the children with the right kind of influence, since it is at this point that children formed their character. He encouraged parents to take their children to school at an early age, since their minds were more receptive at that point, and good character could be cultivated from that point.18

Al-Ghazali referred to scholars as people who sought the truth, and transformed their lives in order to live in accordance to the best of their knowledge, and in so doing serve as examples while disseminating their knowledge to the masses. He believed that the scholars would be rewarded in heaven due to their quest for knowledge, acting on the knowledge and teaching it to the people. He also believed that the teaching process should be selective, taking in mind that not all information was fit for everyone.

Some information was fit for the elite, while some was best kept hidden. Some information that could create confusion regarding religion was also hidden, since it was necessary for the scholars to protect themselves from persecution. Al-Ghazali was also concerned with the relationship between scholars and rulers, and that between scholars and the masses. Al-Ghazali was one of the most profound Islamic thinkers, who lived a short but productive life, influencing not only the Islamic world but also the European Christians.19

The concept of methods and knowledge of teaching

Islam brought with it a new civilisation as well as a variety of spiritual and language regulations. Some of these dealt with the “Koran, linguistics, the biographies of the Prophet and his companions, and the military campaigns of the Prophet, referred to as ‘Arab sciences’.” The development of Arab and Islamic culture based on dealings and communication with external societies, other regulations were adopted, including “medicine, astronomy, chemistry, mathematics, philosophy and logic.”

The combination of indigenous and exotic disciplines brought about clashes between the spiritual sciences and the philosophical doctrines as well as the natural sciences. “Al-Ghazali and his Tahafut al-Falasifa was one of the elements in this struggle, which ended with the victory of the fuqaha’ (and Sufis) over the philosophers and scientists.”20

The battle made the spiritual sciences feeble, leaving them without vigour. The effect was particularly felt after independent inquisitions were denied, and the techniques of depending on previous authorities became dominant. As a result, the Arab culture and skill changed from that of innovation and inspiration to that of descent, replication and assemblage.

Classifications of sciences according to Al-Ghazali

Al-Ghazali classified sciences into various classes based on their nature, origin and rational sciences. In nature, he further classified them into theoretical sciences dealing with theology and religion, and practical sciences, dealing with politics, home economics and ethics.

The category of origin was divided into revealed sciences observed from the prophets, such as morality, customs, rites, exegesis and unity of God, and rational science, a product of thinking and human reason, such as theology, mathematics and natural sciences.

Rational sciences were based on purpose or objective, and were categorized into science of transaction, which observed the behaviour and actions individuals, and the science of presentation, which observed the hesitation due to uncertainty and core of things. This was observed to be “an abstract science which can only be attained through unveiling a light which illuminates the heart when the heart is purified, a light which is ineffable and cannot be contained in books.”21

The effect of Al-Ghazali’s philosophy

Al-Ghazali’s life was rather short since he died at 55, though it was thought to be industrious and dominant. His influence could be observed in factors including his profundity in thought observed in his various works, his well suited views that resulted in a long period of stagnation of the Islamic society after his death and his vast achievements that led to new principles of logic and philosophy.

In addition to him being a valued member of the Islamic community, he was also influential to Christians in Europe, and a deeper effect on Jewish than on Christian theology. “Islamic (particularly Sunnite) educational thought followed the course mapped out by al-Ghazali and this influence has remained valid even after the influx of Western civilization and the emergence of a modern, contemporary Arab civilization.”22

Works Cited

al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid. Al-Ghazali on the Ninety-nine Beautiful Names of God. Cambridge : Islamic Texts Society, 1999.

al-Ghazzali, Muhammad. Al-Ghazzali On Knowing Yourself and God. Lahore, Pakistan : Kazi Publications, 2003.

Graham, William, R. J. McCarthy and Muhammad Al-Ghazali. Al-Ghazali’s Path to Sufism: His Deliverance from Error (al-Munqidh min al-Dalal) and Five Key Texts. São Bernardo: Fons Vitae, 2000.

Griffel, Frank. Al-Ghazali’s Philosophical Theology. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Myers, E. Arabic Thought and the Western World in the Golden Age of Islam. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1964.

Othman, A. I. The Concept of Man in Islam in the Writings of Al Ghazali. Cairo,: Dar al-Maaref, 1960.

Watt, M. Muslim Intellectual: A Study of Al Ghazali. Edinburgh,: Edinburgh University Press, 1963.

Winter, T. J. and Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. Al-Ghazali on the Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife: Book XL of the Revival of the Religious Sciences. Cambridge : Islamic Texts Society, 1989.

Winter, T. J. and al-Ghazali Abu Hamid. Al-Ghazali on Disciplining the Soul and on Breaking the Two Desires: Books XXII and XXIII of the Revival of the Religious Sciences. Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1997.

Zwemmer, S. M. A Moslem Seeker after God. New York: Fleming Revell, 1920.

Footnotes

1 Winter, T. J. and Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. Al-Ghazali on the Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife: Book XL of the Revival of the Religious Sciences. Cambridge : Islamic Texts Society, 1989.

2 Winter, T. J. and Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, 1989.

3 Al Ghazali, Abu Hamid. Al-Ghazali on the Ninety-nine Beautiful Names of God. Cambridge : Islamic Texts Society, 1999.

4 al-Ghazzali, Muhammad. Al-Ghazzali On Knowing Yourself and God. Lahore, Pakistan : Kazi Publications, 2003

5 Griffel, Frank. Al-Ghazali’s Philosophical Theology, 2010.

6 Graham, William, R. J. McCarthy and Muhammad Al-Ghazali. Al-Ghazali’s Path to Sufism: His Deliverance from Error (al-Munqidh min al-Dalal) and Five Key Texts. São Bernardo: Fons Vitae, 2000

7 The Path of the Worshippers

8 Griffel, Frank. Al-Ghazali’s Philosophical Theology. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2010.

9 Griffel, Frank, 2010.

10 Myers, E. Arabic Thought and the Western World in the Golden Age of Islam. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1964.

11 Myers, E.1964

12 Othman, A. I. The Concept of Man in Islam in the Writings of Al Ghazali. Cairo,: Dar al-Maaref, 1960.

13 Othman, A. I., 1960

14 Othman, A. I., 1960.

15 Watt, M., 1963

16 Myers, E. 1964

17 Watt, M., 1963

18 Watt, M. Muslim Intellectual: A Study of Al Ghazali. Edinburgh,: Edinburgh University Press, 1963

19 Winter, T. J. and Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. Al-Ghazali on the Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife: Book XL of the Revival of the Religious Sciences. Cambridge : Islamic Texts Society, 1989.

20 Winter, T. J. and al-Ghazali Abu Hamid. Al-Ghazali on Disciplining the Soul and on Breaking the Two Desires: Books XXII and XXIII of the Revival of the Religious Sciences. Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1997

21 Zwemmer, S. M. A Moslem Seeker after God. New York: Fleming Revell, 1920.

22 Zwemmer, S. M. A Moslem Seeker after God. New York: Fleming Revell, 1920.

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