al-Ghazālī, Muḥammad (450 or 451 AH [1058 or 1059 CE]–505 AH [1111 CE])

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(450 or 451 AH [1058 or 1059 CE]505 AH [1111 CE])

Muammad al-Ghazālī (in Persian, "Ghazālī"), the Islamic theologian known to medieval Scholastics as Algazel, was born in Ghazāleh, a village on the outskirts of Tūs, in Khorāsān, northeastern Iran. His name is the same as that of his birthplace, which should be transcribed as Ghazālī, not as Ghazzālī. He died at Tūs. He was undoubtedly one of the strongest spiritual personalities of Islam, one of those who strove most effectively for the establishment of an "orthodox" Sufism that would transcend the legalistic and superficial religion of the doctors of the Law. Al-Ghazālī was well known to the medieval Scholastics through a Latin translation of an unfortunately truncated work, Maqasīd al-Falāsifa ("The Intentions of Philosophers"). As a result the true meaning of his work was completely misunderstood, and he was thought to be a philosopher, whereas in fact he was the most ardent critic of philosophy.

At the age of thirty-six, al-Ghazālī experienced a profound crisis, provoked by the problem of intellectual certitude. He abandoned his professorship and his position as rector of Niāmīya University of Baghdad. During a period of ten years, clothed in the characteristic wool garment of the Sufis and completely absorbed in spiritual practices, he made solitary pilgrimages throughout the Muslim world, to Syria, Egypt, Mecca, and Medina. What he conveyed in his doctrines cannot be separated from this pathetic experience. He solved the problem of knowledge and certitude by affirming a degree of comprehension that left the heart no room for doubt, a comprehension that is the essential apprehension of things. The thinking soul becomes the focus of the universal Soul's irradiations, the mirror of intelligible forms received from the universal Soul. This theme dominates certain characteristic short treatises (the Monqidh, or "Preservative from Error," and the Risālat al-Ladonīya ) as well as the great synthesis titled Ihyāʾ ʿUlūm ad-Dīn ("Revival of the Religious Sciences"). But this theme had already been treated, undoubtedly without his knowledge, by the Imāms of Shiʿism, and it does not differ essentially from the Ishrāq of Sohrawardī. This very theme led Sohrawardī to advance philosophy on a new basis rather than destroy the efforts of philosophers as such.

It is principally this aspect of al-Ghazālī's work, developed in his Tahāfut al-Falāsifa ("Autodestruction of the Philosophers") that Westerners have been inclined to emphasize. An attempt has even been made to read into it a more incisive and decisive critique or metaphysics than that of Immanuel Kant. In fact, al-Ghazālī strove vehemently to destroy the demonstrative range that philosophers, Avicennians as well as others, accorded to their arguments regarding the eternity of the world, the procession of the Intelligences, the existence of purely spiritual substances, and the idea of spiritual resurrection. In general al-Ghazālī strove to refute the idea of any causality, of any necessary connection. According to him all that can be experimentally affirmed is, for example, that combustion of cotton occurs at the moment of contact with fire; it cannot be shown that combustion takes place because of the contact between cotton and fire. Nor can it be shown that there is any cause whatsoever. From this bursts forth the paradox of a thinker who professes the inability of reason to attain certitude while maintaining the certitude of destroying, with massive doses of rational dialectic, the certitudes of the philosophers. Averroes clearly discerned this self-contradiction and replied to it with his celebrated Tahāfut al-Tahāfut ("Autodestruction of the Autodestruction").

The same paradox is apparent in al-Ghazālī's other polemical works; in the "Courteous Refutation of the Divinity of Jesus Christ according to the Gospel"; in his treatise in Persian against all sorts of "freethinkers," or heretical thinkers (Ibāhīya ); and, finally, in the treatise against the Ismāʿīlites (the Bātinites, or "esoterics"). The last treatise was overly influenced by the fact that it had been commissioned for political reasons by the ʿAbbāsid caliph al-Mostażhir, and the savage dialectic, deployed against an essentially hermeneutic Shiʿite thought, rings false. The Ismāʿīlites met this attack in the twelfth century with a monumental response (a work of the fifth Yemenite Dāʿī, in 1,500 pages), which unfortunately, is still unedited.

In any case, these polemical works had but a limited echo; al-Ghazālī's influence made itself felt principally through the Iya. Without doubt this influence was, and remains, considerable in Sunnite Islam. In Shiʿite Islam, notably in Iran, it was another matter. First of all, his effort did not respond to the same necessity, since the teaching of the Imāms of Shiʿism had already opened the way to spiritual Islam. But his effort was not ignored in Shiʿism, especially in the Ispahan School. Mosen Fayż (d. 1091 AH/1680 CE), one of the most celebrated pupils of Mullā adrā Shīrāzi (d. 1050 AH/1640 CE), even went so far as to rewrite the whole Iya with a Shiʿite interpretation. (Certain authors believe with him, assuming the authenticity of the book titled Sirr al-ʿĀlamayn, "Secret of the Two Universes," that al-Ghazālī would finally have rallied to Shiʿism.) In any case, in Iran no one ever thought or heard it said, as in the West, that the Ghazalian critique might have rendered impossible the continuation of philosophy in Islam and that Islamic philosophy was perhaps obliged to transport itself to Andalusia, where its last flames glowed with Ibn Bājja, Ibn ufayl, and Averroes. Avicennianism, for example, enriched and modified by diverse contributions, continued to develop in Shiʿite Iran, not only during the Safavid epoch but also afterward, even to this day.

See also al-Ghazālī, Ahmad; Averroes; Ibn Bājja; Ibn ufayl; Suhrawardī, Shihāb al-Dīn Yayā.


For works by al-Ghazālī, see Al-Ghazali's Tahafut al-Falasifah (Incoherence of the Philosophers ), translated by S. A. Kamali (Lahore, Pakistan: Philosophical Congress, 1963); Al-Ghazali's Iyāʾ ʿUlūm al-Dīn, Book XX, translated and annotated by L. Zolondek (Leiden: Brill, 1963); W. Montgomery Watt, The Faith and Practice of al-Ghazāli (London: Allen and Unwin, 1951), which contains translations of the Monqidh under the title "Deliverance from Error" and of "The Beginning of Guidance"; Ignaz Goldziher, Streitschrift des Ghazālī gegen die Bāinijja-Sekte (Leiden: Brill, 1916; Neudruck, 1956), an abbreviated edition with introduction and summary of the work against the Ismāʿīlites; and Réfutation excellente de la divinité de Jésus-Christ d'après les Évangiles, a translation and commentary on the "Courteous Refutation," by R. Chidiac (Paris: Leroux, 1939). See also Averroes' Tahafut al-Tahafut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence), translated by Simon van den Bergh, 2 vols. (London: Luzac, 1954), which incorporates most of al-Ghazālī's Tahāfut al-Falāsifah.

For works on al-Ghazālī, see Henry Corbin, Histoire de la philosophie islamique, Vol. I (Paris: Gallimard, 1964), pp. 251261, with a detailed bibliography on pp. 358359. See pp. 278283 for Ahmad al-Ghazālī. See also W. Montgomery Watt, Islamic Philosophy and Theology, pp. 114124, which includes bibliography (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1962); this is Vol. I of Islamic Surveys.

Henry Corbin (1967)

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al-Ghazālī, Muḥammad (450 or 451 AH [1058 or 1059 CE]–505 AH [1111 CE])

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