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Ghazali, Al- (C. 1059-1111)

GHAZALI, AL- (C. 1059-1111)

Abu Hamid Muhammad bin Muhammad al-Ghazali (or al-Ghazzali) (1058/9–1111) was born some seven years before the Battle of Hastings, the Norman conquest that transformed England. As an intellectual and thinker, Ghazali's legacy is not only rich, but his imprint on the Muslim tradition is both diverse and complex. For this reason the enigma of his legacy makes him both a highly esteemed as well as a controversial figure. Generations of scholars have debated Ghazali's role, studying the range of texts he had written in order to get a better picture of the man and his oeuvre. For some people Ghazali is the great "Defender of Islam" (Hujjat al-Islam, hujjat literally meaning "proof"). Others blame him for damaging the rational edifice of Islamic thought in his sharp critique of Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina and al-Farabi. However, Ghazali's ideas can best be described as a work in progress and not easily abridged. Therefore, reducing his work to such polarities is to grossly oversimplify the achievements of a very complex life and mind.

Ghazali's childhood was marked by a frugal and impoverished existence, partly caused by the untimely death of his father. His early years were spent in his birthplace in Tus, near what is today the city of Mashhad in modern Iran. After his elementary education with his tutor Ahmad al-Radhkani, he traveled to the city of Jurjan near the Caspian Sea for higher studies with a leading scholar, Isma˓il b Mis˓ada al-Isma˓ili (d. 1084). We learn of the apocryphal story of his encounter with brigands during his return journey from Jurjan. After the brigands had robbed all the travelers in the caravan, Ghazali pleaded with the brigands' leader to return only his precious dissertation (ta˓liqa), offering him the rest of his possessions in return. The brigand leader ridiculed Ghazali's claim to knowledge and mocked him by showing that a thief could so easily take it away. Struck by this insight, Ghazali later commented: "He [the leader of the brigands] was an oracle (mustantaq) whom God made to speak, in order that He could guide me through him." After that episode Ghazali committed all his notes to memory.

But the major transformation in Ghazali's intellectual life took place when he attended the Nizamiyya College in Nishapur. There he impressed the leading scholar of the day, Abu 'l-Ma˓ali al-Juwayni (d. 1085), renowned for his expertise in dialectical theology (˓ilm al-kalam) and Shafi˓i law. Juwayni's influence on Ghazali effectively brought him into a full engagement with the rational sciences, especially law, theology, logic, and later philosophy. Thus in Nishapur one begins to see the first signs of Ghazali's extraordinary strength in law and dialectical theology. In law he followed the Shafi˓i school while also studying Ash˓ari theology without being a slavish adherent to this orientation. These intellectual gifts would serve him well in his rise to intellectual celebrity. At Nishapur, Ghazali learned Islamic mysticism (tasawwuf) from Abu ˓Ali al-Farmadhi (d. 1084/5). It is not clear what Ghazali did for roughly seven years after completing his formal studies in Nishapur. Most historians believe that he remained in Nishapur but regularly joined the retinue of scholars cultivated by the indomitable Seljuk wazir (Ar. wazir) Nizam al-Mulk.

In 1091 Nizam al-Mulk appointed Ghazali professor of Shafi˓i law at the Nizamiyya College in Baghdad. It is in Baghdad that Ghazali's intellectual reputation culminated in the honorific "Defender of Islam." It also marked one of the most productive periods in his life. He wrote several books on logic and law. It was also during this period that he wrote his famous refutation of the controversial doctrinal beliefs held by Muslim philosophers about the eternity of the world, their rejection of corporeal resurrection and that God only knew universals, The incoherence of the philosophers (Tahafut al-falasifa), followed by a vitriolic exposure of the doctrines of the Isma˓ili Shi˓a called The obscenities of the esoterists (Fada˒ih al-batiniyya). But his meteoric rise came to an abrupt and dramatic end when he experienced a debilitating spiritual crisis, which he described in some detail in his spiritual testimony, Deliverance from error (al-Munqidh min al-dalal). He decided to abandon his public life of teaching and embarked on a life of contemplative reflection and asceticism. Explanations abound for this dramatic turn in Ghazali's life. Some argue that he suffered intellectual self-doubt in his engagement with philosophy. Others link his anxieties to the series of Ismail˓ili assassinations targeting political and religious figures, which gave Ghazali cause to fear for his own life. There is also a view that he found his political alliances with the Seljuk rulers and his ties to the Abbasid caliphal palace to be a source of moral suffocation. Perhaps cumulatively all these pressures had a deleterious impact on his mind and soul.

Under the pretext of making the pilgrimage to Mecca, Ghazali left his family in the province of Khurasan and sought the anonymity of Jerusalem and Damascus, where he spent time meditating at the Dome of the Rock and the Umayyad mosque. After an absence of nearly five years (1095–1099) Ghazali returned to his native Tus. During this period, as a novice on the mystical path, he engaged in reflection and disciplinary practices of the self as taught by master mystics such as Junayd of Baghdad, Harith al-Muhasibi, and others. It is also in this period of his life that he undertook the writing of his magnum opus for which he is best known in the world of scholarship, The revivification of the sciences of religion (Ihya ulum al-din). This is now a classic in Muslim religious writing and is widely used to this day. In it Ghazali explores the ethical purposes of religious practices but more importantly provides a road map as to how this can lead to a transformation of the self. As a body of writing, Revivification represents Ghazali's personal journey, in which he writes his ailing soul to health. Given his broad intellectual repertoire, Ghazali was able to explore a variety of themes in a complex and convincing manner, drawing on a variety of sources and ideas that he combines into an almost seamless narrative. The Revivification consists of four books, each addressing an overall theme: starting with rituals (˓ibadat), customs and practices (˓adat), practices that lead to peril (muhlikat), and salvific practices (munjiyat).

See alsoAsh˓arites, Ash˓aira ; Falsafa ; Kalam ; Law ; Tasawwuf .


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

Watt, W. Montgomery. Muslim Intellectual: A Study of al-Ghazali. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1963.

Zarrinkub, Abd al-Husayn. al-Firar min al-Madrasa: Dirasa fi Hayat wa Fikr Abi Hamid al-Ghazali. Beirut: Dar al-Rawda, 1992.

Ebrahim Moosa

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