Ghazāli, Abū Ḥāmid Al-

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GHAZĀLI, ABŪ ĀMID AL- (ah 450505/10581111 ce), named Muammad ibn Muammad ibn Muammad, was the distinguished Islamic jurist, theologian, and mystic who was given the honorific title ujjat al-Islām (Arab., "the proof of Islam").


Al-Ghazālī was born in the town of ūs, near modern Mashhad (eastern Iran), and received his early education there. When he was about fifteen he went to the region of Gorgān (at the southeast corner of the Caspian Sea) to continue his studies. On the return journey, so the story goes, his notebooks were taken from him by robbers, and when he pleaded for their return they taunted him that he claimed to know what was in fact only in his notebooks; as a result of this incident he spent three years memorizing the material.

At the age of nineteen he went to Nishapur (about fifty miles to the west) to study at the important Niāmīyah college under ʿAbd al-Malik al-Juwaynī (d. 1085), known as Imam al-aramayn, one of the leading religious scholars of the period. Jurisprudence would be central in his studies, as in all Islamic higher education, but he was also initiated into Ashʿarī theology and perhaps encouraged to read the philosophy of al-Fārābi and Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna). He later helped with teaching and was recognized as a rising scholar. When al-Juwaynī died, the powerful vizier of the Seljuk sultans, Niām al-Mulk, invited him to join his court, which was in fact a camp that moved about, giving al-Ghazālī the opportunity to engage in discussions with other scholars.

In 1091, when he was about thirty-three, he was appointed to the main professorship at the Niāmīyah college in Baghdad, one of the leading positions in the Sunnī world; it can be assumed that the appointment was made by Niām al-Mulk, the founder of the colleges bearing his name. After just over four years, however, al-Ghazālī abandoned his professorship and adopted the life of an ascetic and mystic.

Something of al-Ghazālī's personal history during these years in Baghdad may be gleaned from the autobiographical work he wrote when he was about fifty, entitled Al-munqidh min al-alāl (The deliverer from error). This work is not conceived as an autobiography, however, but as a defense of his abandonment of the Baghdad professorship and of his subsequent return to teaching in Nishapur about a decade later. It is also not strictly chronological but was given a schematic form. In it, he describes his intellectual journey after the earliest years as containing a period of skepticism lasting "almost two months," when he doubted the possibility of attaining truth. Once he ceased to be completely skeptical, he set out on a search for truth among four "classes of seekers [of truth]," namely, the Ashʿarī theologians, the Neoplatonic philosophers, the Ismāʿīlīyah (whom he calls the party of taʿlīm, or authoritative instruction), and finally the ūfīs, or mystics. He writes as if these were four successive stages in his journey, but in fact they must have overlapped; it is virtually certain that he gained some knowledge of mysticism during his early studies at ūs and Nishapur. The period of skepticism, too, could only have come after he had some acquaintance with philosophy, because philosophical considerations were involved.

The first encounter, according to this scheme, was with the mutakallimūn, or rational theologians. These were, of course, the Ashʿarīyah, by whom he had been trained and among whom he is reckoned. In the Munqidh he complains that their reasoning is based on certain presuppositions and assumptions that they never try to justify, but which he cannot accept without some justification. In effect what happened was that he found in philosophy a way of justifying some of the bases of Ashʿarī theology. This can be seen in his principal work of Ashʿarī theology, Al-iatiād fī al-iʿtiqad (The golden mean in belief), where he introduces many philosophical arguments, including one for the existence of God. Until the end of his life he seems to have held that Ashʿarī theology was true so far as it went, and in his chief mystical work, Iyā ʾ ʿulūm al-dīn (The revival of the religious sciences), he includes an Ashʿarī creed of moderate length; this is known as Al-risālah al-qudsīyah (The Jerusalem epistle) and was probably composed before his extensive study of philosophy.

The second encounter of his intellectual journey was with Greek philosophy and, in particular, the Arabic Neoplatonism of al-Fārābi and Ibn Sīnā. He had probably been introduced to philosophy by al-Juwaynī, but he began the intensive study of it early in his Baghdad professorship. Because philosophy, with other Greek sciences, was cultivated in institutions distinct from the colleges for Islamic jurisprudence and theology and was looked on with disapproval, al-Ghazālī had to study the books of the philosophers by himself. He describes how he devoted to this activity all the free time he had after lecturing to three hundred students and doing some writing. In less than two years he managed to gain such a thorough understanding of the various philosophical disciplines that his book, Maqāid al-falāsifah (The views of the philosophers), gives a clearer account of the teaching of Ibn Sīnā on logic, metaphysics, and physics than the works of the philosopher himself. After another year's reflection on these matters, al-Ghazālī wrote a powerful critique of the metaphysics or theology of the philosophers entitled Tahāfut al-falāsifah (The inconsistency of the philosophers). His argument against the philosophers is based on seventeen points on which he attacks their views as heretical and on three others on which he regards the philosophers as infidels. In discussing the seventeen points al-Ghazālī demonstrates the weaknesses of the philosophers' arguments for the existence of God, his unicity, and his incorporeality, and he rejects their view that God is a simple existent without quiddity and without attributes, their conception of his knowledge, and some of their assertions about the heavens and the human soul. The three points contrary to Islam are that there is no resurrection of bodies but only of spirits, that God knows universals but not particulars, and that the world has existed from eternity. Underlying the detailed arguments is his conviction that the philosophers are unable to give strict logical proofs of their metaphysical views. He therefore turned away from them also in his search for truth.

His third encounter was with a section of the Ismāʿīlīyah who held that true knowledge was to be gained from an infallible imam. It seems doubtful whether he seriously expected to gain much from such people. He did, however, study their views carefully, partly because the caliph of the day commanded him to write a refutation of them. He had little difficulty in showing that there were serious inadequacies in their teaching.

His final encounter was with Sufism; he had already realized that this mysticism entailed not only intellectual doctrines but also a way of life. After four years in Baghdad he felt himself so involved in the worldliness of his milieu that he was in danger of going to hell. The profound inner struggle he experienced led in 1095 to a psychosomatic illness. Dryness of the tongue prevented him from lecturing and even from eating, and the doctors could do nothing to alleviate the symptoms. After about six months he resolved to leave his professorship and adopt the life of a ūfī. To avoid any attempts to stop him, he let it be known that he was setting out on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Actually he went only to Damascus, living there as a ūfī for more than a year, and then made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1096. Some six months after that he was back in Baghdad and then seems to have made his way by stages back to his native ūs. There he established a khānāqāh (hostel or convent), where some young disciples joined him in leading a communal ūfī life. The genuineness of his conversion to ūfīsm has sometimes been questioned by Muslim scholars, and it has been suggested that he left his professorship because he was afraid his life was in danger on account of political involvements. To judge from his own account, however, religious considerations were uppermost in his mind.

The Muslim year 500 (which began on September 2, 1106 ce) marked the beginning of a new century. Muammad was reported to have said that God would send a "renewer" (mujaddid) of his religion at the beginning of each century, and various friends assured al-Ghazālī that he was the "renewer" for the sixth century. This induced him to take up an invitation from the vizier of the provincial governor in Nishapur to become the main professor in the Niāmīyah college there. He continued in this position for three or possibly four years and then returned to ūs, probably because of ill health; he died there in 1111. His brother Amad, himself a distinguished scholar, describes how on his last day, after ablutions. Abū āmid performed the dawn prayer and then, lying down on his bed facing Mecca, kissed his shroud, pressed it to his eyes with the words, "Obediently I enter into the presence of the King," and was dead before sunrise.


More than four hundred titles of works ascribed to al-Ghazālī have been preserved, though some of these are different titles for the same work. At least seventy works are extant in manuscript; it is clear, however, that some of these, chiefly works of a mystical character, have been falsely attributed to al-Ghazālī, though in the case of one or two the inauthenticity is not universally admitted. Certain of these works are written from a standpoint close to that of the philosophers, and earlier scholars, regarding them as authentic, were led to suppose that before his death al-Ghazālī came to adopt the views he had previously attacked, or else that in addition to his publicly expressed views, he held esoteric views which he communicated only to a select few. Since about 1960, however, scholars have been aware of a manuscript written four years after his death, which bears a colophon stating that the short work it contains was completed by al-Ghazālī about a fortnight before he died. This work is Iljām al-ʿawāmm ʿan ʿilm al-kalām (The restraining of the common people from the science of theology), and in it he writes as a Shāfiʿī jurist who, at least up to a point, accepts Ashʿarī theology. It is also known that just over two years earlier he had completed a long and important work on the principles of jurisprudence, Al-mustafā (The choice part, or essentials); this was presumably one of the subjects on which he lectured at Nishapur. These facts make it inconceivable that at the end of his life al-Ghazālī adopted the heretical views he had previously denounced, and thus they strengthen the case for regarding as inauthentic works containing views that cannot be harmonized with what is expressed in books such as the Munqidh and the Iyāʾ.

The genuine works of al-Ghazālī range over several fields. One of these is jurisprudence, which is dealt with in several early works, as well as in the much later Mustafā mentioned above. These are the works most often referred to in connection with al-Ghazālī during the two centuries after his death. Most of these legal works were presumably written before he went to Baghdad. At Baghdad he turned to philosophy, producing the Maqāid and the Tahāfut, the exposition and critique of the Neoplatonic philosophers. About the same time, he wrote two small books on Aristotelian logic and a semi-philosophical work on ethics (which may, however, contain some interpolations). He also relates that it was in Baghdad that he composed for the caliph al-Mustahir the refutation of Ismāʿīlī thought known after the patron as the Mustahirī. His exposition and philosophical defense of Ashʿarī doctrine in the Iqtiād must have been written either shortly before or shortly after leaving Baghdad.

For some time after that, al-Ghazālī's literary occupation seems to have been the composition of his greatest work, the Iyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn. It consists of four "quarters," each divided into "books" or chapters; a complete English translation would probably contain at least two million words. The first quarter, entitled "the service of God," has books dealing with the creed, ritual purity, formal prayer (alāt ), other types of prayer and devotion, almsgiving, fasting, and the pilgrimage. The second quarter deals with social customs as prescribed in the sharīʿah and has books on eating habits, marriage, acquiring goods, traveling, and the like; it concludes with a book presenting Muammad as an exemplar in social matters. The third quarter is about "things destructive," or vices, and, after two general books on "the mysteries of the heart" and how to control and educate it, gives counsel with regard to the various vices. The fourth quarter on "things leading to salvation" deals with the stages and aspects of the mystical life, such as penitence, patience, gratitude, renunciation, trust in God, and love for him. In most of the books al-Ghazālī begins with relevant quotations from the Qurʾān and the adīth (anecdotes about Muammad, sometimes called traditions) and then proceeds to his own exposition. His overriding aim seems to be to show how the scrupulous observance of all the external acts prescribed by the sharīʿah contributes to the inner mystical life.

Al-Ghazālī presents a simpler version of the way of life to which the Iyāʾ points in Bidāyat al-hidāyah (The beginning of guidance). Other works of interest from his mystical period are an exposition of the ninety-nine names of God with the short title Al-maqad al-asnā (The noblest aim) and a discussion of light symbolism centered on the "light verse" of the Qurʾān (24:35) and entitled Mishkāt al-anwār (The niche for lights). There is also a Persian work, Kīmiyāʾ al-saʿādah (The alchemy of happiness), covering the same ground as the Iyāʾ but in about half the compass.

Among the works of doubtful authenticity is a refutation of Christianity with the title Al-radd al-jamīl ʿalā arī al-injīl (The beautiful refutation of the evidence of the gospel). Even if this is not by al-Ghazālī, it is of course an interesting document of roughly his period, and the same is true of the spurious mystical works.

The Achievements of al-GhazĀlĪ: Philosophy, Theology, and Mysticism

At the present time it is still difficult to reach a balanced judgment on the achievement of al-Ghazālī. After the first translation of the Munqidh into a European language (French) was published in 1842, many European scholars found al-Ghazālī such an attractive figure that they paid much more attention to him than to any other Muslim thinker, and this fashion has been followed by Muslim scholars as well. His importance has thus tended to be exaggerated because of relative Western ignorance of other writers. This ignorance is now rapidly decreasing, but care is still needed in making an assessment of al-Ghazālī.

Part of al-Ghazālī's aim in studying the various philosophical disciplines was to discover how far they were compatible with Islamic doctrine. He gave separate consideration to mathematics, logic, physics, metaphysics or theology (ilāhīyāt ), politics, and ethics. Metaphysics he criticized very severely in his Tahāfut, but most of the others he regarded as neutral in themselves, though liable to give less scholarly persons an unduly favorable opinion of the competence of the philosophers in every field of thought. He himself was very impressed by Aristotelian logic, especially the syllogism. He not only made use of logic in his own defense of doctrine but also wrote several books about it, in which he managed to commend it to his fellow-theologians as well as to expound its principles. From his time on, many theological treatises devote much space to philosophical preliminaries, and works on logic are written by theologians. The great positive achievement of al-Ghazālī here was to provide Islamic theology with a philosophical foundation.

It is more difficult to know how far his critique of philosophy led to its disappearance. Arabic Neoplatonic philosophy ceased to be cultivated in the East, though there was an important Persian tradition of theosophical philosophy, but there had been no philosopher of weight in the East since the death of Ibn Sīnā twenty years before al-Ghazālī was born. In the Islamic West philosophy following the Greek tradition continued until about 1200 and included a refutation of al-Ghazālī's Tahāfut by Ibn Rushd (Averroës), so that the decline in the West cannot be attributed to al-Ghazālī.

Sufism had been flourishing in the Islamic world for more than two centuries. Many of the earliest ūfīs had been chiefly interested in asceticism, but others had cultivated ecstatic experiences, and a few had become so "intoxicated" that they seemed to outsiders to claim unity with God. Such persons often also held that their mystical attainments freed them from duties such as ritual prayer. In al-Ghazālī's time, too, yet other ūfīs were becoming interested in gnostic knowledge and developing theosophical doctrines. For these reasons many of the ʿulamāʾ, or religious scholars, were suspicious of all Sufism, despite the fact that some of their number practiced it in a moderate fashion without becoming either heretical in doctrine or antinomian in practice. Al-Ghazālī adopted the position of this latter group and, after his retirement from the professorship in Baghdad, spent much of his time in ascetical and mystical practices. The khānāqāh that he established at ūs was probably not unlike a monastery of contemplatives. His great work the Iyāʾ provides both a theoretical justification of his position and a highly detailed elucidation of it which emphasized the deeper meaning of the external acts. In this way both by his writing and by his own life al-Ghazālī showed how a profound inner life can be combined with full observance of the shariʿah and sound theological doctrine. The consequence of the life and work of al-Ghazālī was that religious scholars in the main stream of Sunnism had to look more favorably on the ūfī movement, and this made it possible for ordinary Muslims to adopt moderate ūfī practices.


Two older books still have much of value, though they make use of works probably falsely attributed to al-Ghazālī: A. J. Wensinck's La pensée de Ghazzālī (Paris, 1940) and Margaret Smith's Al-Ghazālī the Mystic (London, 1944); the latter includes a full account of his life. My Muslim Intellectual: A Study of al-Ghazali (Edinburgh, 1963) looks at his life and thought in its intellectual context. In La politique de Ghazālī (Paris, 1970), Henri Laoust gives some account of his life as well as of his political thought. Hava Lazarus-Yafeh's Studies in al-Ghazzali (Jerusalem, 1975) includes among other things discussions of authenticity on the basis of linguistic criteria. The fullest account of all works ascribed to him, with extensive consideration of questions of authenticity, is Maurice Bouyges's Essai de chronologie des œuves de al-Ghazālī, edited by Michel Allard (Beirut 1956). The following are a few of the numerous translations available: my The Faith and Practice of al-Ghazālī (London, 1953) has translations of the Munqidh and Bidāyat al-hidāyah ; Richard J. McCarthy's Freedom and Fulfillment (Boston, 1980) has translations of the Munqidh and "other relevant works" with introduction and notes; William H. T. Gairdner's Al-Ghazzālī's Mishkāt al-anwār (The Niche for Lights; 1924; reprint, Lahore, 1952) is a translation with introduction of a mystical text; Muammad A. Quasem's The Jewels of the Qurʾān: al Ghazali's Theory (Bangi, Malaysia, 1977), a translation of Jawāhir al-Qurʾān, shows how the Qurʾān was understood and used by ūfīs; Robert C. Stade's Ninety-nine Names of God in Islam (Ibadan, 1970) is the descriptive part of Al-maqad al-asnā.

A general overview of the Iyāʾ is given in G.-H. Bousquet's Ghazālī, Ihʾya ʿOuloum ed-dîn, ou vivification des sciences de la foi; analyse et index (Paris, 1955). Translations of separate books include Nabih Amin Faris's The Book of Knowledge (book 1; Lahore, 1962); The Foundations of the Articles of Faith (book 2; Lahore, 1963); The Mysteries of Purity (book 3; Lahore, 1966); The Mysteries of Almsgiving (book 5; Lahore, 1974); The Mysteries of Fasting (book 6; Lahore, 1968); E. E. Calverley's Worship in Islam (book 4; 1925; reprint, Westport, Conn., 1981); Muammad A. Quasem's The Recitation and Interpretation of the Qurʾān (book 8; Selangor, Malaysia, 1979); D. B. Macdonald's "Emotional Religion in Islam as Affected by Music and Singing" (book 18), Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1901): 195252, 705748; and (1902): 128; Leon Zolondek's Book XX of al-Ghazālī's Iyāʾ (Leiden, 1963); and William McKane's Al-Ghazali's Book of Fear and Hope (book 33; Leiden, 1965).

W. Montgomery Watt (1987)