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al-Ghazālī, Aḥmad (c. 1062–1126)

(c. 10621126)

Amad al-Ghazālī's reputation as an Islamic thinker has unfortunately been overshadowed by that of his more celebrated elder brother, Muammad al-Ghazālī, author of the famous Revivification of the Sciences of Religion. The former was in fact the foremost metaphysician of love in the Sufi tradition and the chief founder of the philosophy of love in mystical Islam, and his impact on the later Persian Sufi tradition was more profound than his brother the theologian.

He spent most of his life in his khānaqāh (Sufi cloister) in Qazvīn, where he was famed for his eloquence as a preacher, and died there in 1126. Al-Ghazālī was the teacher of Abūʾ l-Najīb al-Suhrawardī, who was in turn the master of his nephew Shihāb al-Dīn Yayā Suhrawardī, founder of the Suhrawardī order, famed as the "mother of Sufi orders." He was also the master of the enigmatic mystical theologian ʿAyn al-Quāt al-Hamadhānī, who was executed in 1132 by fanatical Muslim clerics for his uncompromising Sufi beliefs. He features as a central figure in the initiatic chains of most of the great Islamic Sufi orders.

His fame derives mainly from his authorship of the first treatise on mystical love in Persian, the Sawāni al-ʿushshāq (The lovers' experiences), a short work on the spiritual psychology of divine love couched in the terminology of human erotic relationships. The main subject of his philosophy is passionate love (ʿishq ), which is not formally speaking "philosophy"Falsafa but rather comprises a sort of erotic theosophy apprehended by intuitional means (dhawq ), based on contemplative experience rather than on rational meditations and deliberations. Expressing little of the same animosity to peripatetic philosophy manifested by his famous brother, almost all his teachings are set in the context of commentary on Qurʾānic verses and prophetic traditions. Al-Ghazālī deliberately abstained from using any overt philosophical vocabulary in the text, employing instead terminology from a number of other fields, ethics, erotic poetry, and psychology, and so on. He follows Manūr al-allāj in identifying love with the divine essence as well as with the divine spirit. He maintained that knowledge (ʿilm ) alone is unable to grasp love (ʿishq ), comparing knowledge to the shore of the sea and love to a pearl in an oyster buried in its lowest depths. Forever shore-bound in immanence, neither dry reason (ʿaql ) nor barren knowledge (ʿilm ) can ever access or apprehend the transcendent truths of love's apophatic teachings. The summit of knowledge lies in a kind of drunken inapprehension that is nonetheless a kind of apprehension without any of the limitations of subjective consciousness. Al-Ghazālī paradoxically describes this understanding of love that is "beyond knowledge" as being a kind of surmise or conjecture. This conjectural wisdom is higher than certainty for it is only that surmise or conjecture that can swim love's ocean to dive under in pursuit of its pearl. Due to Sawāni and the many works of imitations it spawned, al-Ghazālī has come to be generally regarded as the foremost metaphysician of love in the Sufi tradition and the founder of the literary topos and mystical persuasion known as the "religion of love" (madhhab-i 'ishq ) in Islam.

See also al-Gazālī, Muhammad; Sufism.


al-Ghazālī, Ahmad. Sawāni, edited by Helmut Ritter. Tehran, Iran: Tehran University Press, 1989.

Pūrjavādī, Nasr Allāh, trans. Sawānih: Inspirations from the World of Pure Spirits: The Oldest Persian Sufi Treatise on Love. London: KPI, 1986.

Leonard Lewisohn (2005)

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