Al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid Muhammad

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Abu Hāmid Muhammad al-Ghazālī

BORN: 1058 • Tus, Persia

DIED: 1111 • Tus, Persia

Persian religious scholar; writer

Although Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazālī was a legal scholar and teacher, he is best known for his writings on religion and philosophy. In the middle of his life, al-Ghazālī gave up his academic career and spent years of deep thought on religion. He joined the Sufi sect of Islam, the mystical branch that emphasizes a direct connection with God through prayer and self-denial. Al-Ghazālī wrote more than four hundred works, including IbyaʾʿUlum ad-Din (The Revival of the Religious Sciences), which brought the mysticism of Sufism into the mainstream of Islam. Known as Algazel in the West, al-Ghazālī and his writings have influenced not only Islamic thinkers but Christian ones as well.

"What remained for me was not to be attained by oral instruction and study, but only by immediate experience and by walking in the mystic way."

Period of learning

Al-Ghazālī was born in 1058 ce in the small village of Tus, near the town of Masshad in Persia (modern-day Iran). He may have been named after his father's business, as ghazzali means "wool merchant." His father was a Sufi. He had several sisters and a brother, Ahmad, who became a Sufi poet. Al-Ghazālī's father died when he was very young, and he and his brother were left in the care of a Sufi friend, Ahmad al-Radkhani, who had promised to educate the boys. Economic conditions were not good, but by the age of fifteen, arrangements had been made for al-Ghazālī to continue his studies with a leading scholar, Abu Nasr al-Ismaʾili, in the region of Jurgan, on the Caspian Sea.

Al-Ghazālī would later note in his autobiography, al-Munkidh min al-Dalal (Deliverance from Error), that he was more ambitious than religious as a young man. He pursued a scholarly religious path at first because that was what was available to a young man with little money or family standing. So, while studying with various teachers, he took notes, but did not bother to consider or memorize the lessons. One story tells how he was returning to his native Tus from Jurgan when his group was attacked by bandits. When al-Ghazālī begged that they not steal his school notebooks, the leader of the robbers laughed at him. The robber said that obviously al-Ghazālī was not much of a scholar if all his learning was kept in notebooks and not in his mind. From this point on, al-Ghazālī memorized his lessons instead of simply copying them down.

When al-Ghazālī was nineteen he earned a place at a religious college, or madrasa, in Nishapur, about 50 miles west of Tus. In Nishapur he studied with one of the major religious scholars of the generation, Abu al-Malik al-Juwayni (died 1085), also known as Imam al-Haramayn. Al-Juwayni was the imam, or religious leader, of the two most sacred cities in Islam, Mecca and Medina. Al-Ghazālī studied both Islamic law and religion and was introduced to the work of two earlier Islamic thinkers, Abu al-Nasr al-Farabi (870–950) and Ibn Sina (980–1037). These men attempted to combine the use of reason and rational thought developed by ancient Greek philosophers with the Islamic belief in one supreme being, Allah.

Al-Ghazālī was a bright student and became a favorite of al-Juwayni. After finishing his studies, he remained for a time at the school and helped with teaching. The young Muslim scholar soon came to the attention of the powerful vizier (state official), Nizam al-Mulk (1018–1092). The minister had built the college in Nishapur, as well as several others in Persia and what is modern-day Iraq. After the death of al-Juwayni, Nizam al-Mulk invited al-Ghazālī to come to Baghdad, in modern-day Iraq, the administrative center of the Islamic empire.

A brilliant career

In Baghdad al-Ghazālī served Nizam al-Mulk as a legal advisor, taught, wrote, and enjoyed the company of other scholars. In 1091, at only thirty-three years old, he was named the chief professor at Baghdad's Nizamiyya college. This was one of the most prominent positions in the Muslim world. He lectured to large crowds of students on law and logic. He was noted for giving clear and easily understood presentations on complicated religious matters. He also wrote one of his best known works, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, in which he attempted to reveal the mistakes in the theories of al-Farabi and Ibn Sina. He believed these earlier thinkers had relied too much on rational thought, which he felt was not adequate for understanding concepts such as Allah and infinity, or something without boundaries.

Al-Ghazālī's philosophy was adopted by a group known as the Kalam thinkers, who attempted to prove that the universe had a beginning and therefore was created by Allah. The basic Kalam argument takes the following form: The universe had a beginning. Everything that has a beginning has a cause. Therefore, the universe has a cause, which is Allah. In their rejection of Aristotle 's (384–322 bce; see entry) theory that the world of matter and motion is eternal, the Kalam thinkers and al-Ghazālī had much in common.

During his time in Baghdad, Al-Ghazālī also wrote Fada¿ih al-Batiniyya (The Obscenities of the Esoterics), a critical account of, among other things, the Assassins, a radical sect of Muslims organized in the late eleventh century. The Assassins often killed their enemies by using knives or poison. The name came from their practice of preparing themselves for their work by using hashishin, or the drug hashish. The word "assassination" later became used to describe a planned murder. The Assassins killed a number of prominent Muslims during al-Ghazālī's years in Baghdad, including his sponsor, Nizam al-Mulk

Al-Ghazālī's rise in popularity came to a sudden halt. He suffered a crisis of belief, and maybe even a nervous collapse. In 1095 he developed a stutter that prevented him from lecturing and that ultimately made him mute, or unable to talk. Though he later recovered his voice and lost the stutter, al-Ghazālī gave up his teaching position and left Baghdad. It is possible he left the city in part because he feared being killed, due to his published criticism of the Assassins. In his autobiography, al-Ghazālī claims he could no longer stand the dishonesty he found in many of his fellow scholars. He believed they were more interested in money and fame than in real learning. He also decided that true religion could only come through a direct experience with Allah, not through scholarship. As he wrote in his autobiography: "I apprehended clearly that the mystics are men who had real experiences, not men of words, and that I had already progressed as far as possible by way of intellectual apprehension. What remained for me was not to be attained by oral instruction and study, but only by immediate experience and by walking in the mystic way."

Retires from the world

Al-Ghazālī moved his family back to Tus. He gave up his wealth and began to live the severe ascetic life of a Sufi. Such a life is marked by contemplation, prayer, self-denial, and poverty. The ultimate goal is to understand and become one with Allah. For Sufis, learning and education are the least important ways a person can experience Allah. More important is the physical experience of the divine, such as enjoying beautiful art or poetry, dancing, fasting (not eating), and even self-mortification, or beating and whipping oneself. For the next decade, al-Ghazālī traveled throughout the Middle East. He lived for a time in Damascus (in modern-day Syria), made a pilgrimage to Mecca (in modern-day Saudi Arabia), and visited Egypt. In 1099 he returned to Tus, where he established a Sufi retreat and school. He lived a quiet life of prayer and writing, and became known as a mystic, one who seeks enlightenment or understanding through religious mysteries.

In 1106 Nizam al-Mulk's son persuaded al-Ghazālī to return to teaching. After much debate al-Ghazālī finally decided to teach at the Nizamiyya in Nishapur, where he had once studied. It was during these years that he completed his greatest work, IhyaʾʿUlum ad-Din. In this book al-Ghazālī explains the rules and practices of Islam. It is basically an encyclopedia of the religion. Al-Ghazālī also attempts to show how devotion and practice of Islamic traditions ultimately lead to a higher mystical level of life for the believer. This principle brought Sufism into the orthodox, or traditional, practice of Islam. In another work, Bidayat al-Hidayah (The Beginning of Guidance), al-Ghazālī presents a simplified version of this same subject. A third major piece, Michkat al-Anwar(Corner for Lights), compares the mystical experience to other ways of thinking and understanding.

After teaching in Nishapur for four years, al-Ghazālī returned to Tus in poor health. He died in 1111, but his influence has survived for centuries. He is known as a "Defender of the Faith," for his teachings and writings on Islamic practice. His arguments about the weakness of reason in understanding spiritual issues were later adopted by Christian scholars such as St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274) to establish the power of Catholic Christianity in Europe. Indeed, al-Ghazālī was so successful in his arguments in favor of religion that some scholars have accused him of damaging the growth of philosophy.

About a century after al-Ghazālī's death, the great Spanish Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd (1126–1198) attempted to disprove The Incoherence of the Philosophers with his own book, Tahafut al-Tahafut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence). Despite the fine reasoning in that work, al-Ghazālī's comments about the weakness of philosophy still influence Islam. Al-Ghazālī's own experiences provided examples of how a rich inner life and a mystical pursuit of Allah could be combined with the full observance of the rules of Islam. His work ended the suspicions of Islamic religious scholars regarding Sufism and made them look more favorably on the practice. This in turn ultimately made it easier for ordinary Muslims to participate in Sufi practices.

For More Information


"al-Ghazali." In Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1998.

Campanini, Massimo. "al-Ghazali." In History of Islamic Philosophy. Edited by S. H. Nasr and O. Leaman. London: Routledge, 1996, 258-74. This chapter is also available online at http://www.ghazālī.org/articles/gz2.htm.

Ghazali, Abu Hamid Muhammad al-. Freedom and Fulfillment: An Annotated Translation of al-Munqidh min al-Dalal and Other Relevant Works of al-Ghazali. Translated by Richard J. H. McCarthy. Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1980.

Ghazali, Abu Hamid Muhammad al-. The Incoherence of the Philosophers. Translated by Mchael E. Marmura. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 2002.

Smith, Margaret. Al-Ghazali, the Mystic. London, England: Luzac and Co., 1944.

Watt, W. Montgomery. Muslim Intellectual: A Study of al-Ghazālī. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1963. Also available online at


Dallal, Ahmad. "Ghazali and the Perils of Interpretation." Journal of the American Oriental Society (October-December, 2002): 773-87.


Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. (accessed on June 2, 2006).

"Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali." Window: Philosophy on the Internet. (accessed on June 2, 2006).

Halsall, Peter. "Medieval Sourcebook Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058–1111 CE): Munkidh min al-Dalal (Confessions, or Deliverance from Error), c. 1100." (accessed on June 2, 2006).

Nakamura, Kojiro. "al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid (1058–1111)." Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (accessed on June 2, 2006).

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