Al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid (b. 1058, d. 1111)
Islamic teacher, theologian
, and mystic.
Born and raised in the town of Tus, located in modern Iran. Father died while young, committed to the care of a family friend for his upbringing and education, which included study of the Qur'an, hadith, and the tales of lives of Sufi saints. Student of the Sufi Shaykh Yusef al-Nassaj, whom he later credited with opening him to the possibility of directly encountering Allah. Began formal study of theology and Islamic law at the age of 19 in the town of Nishapur, and is thought to have continued his studies of Sufism during this period. Well known as a student of law and the Qur'an, al-Ghazali also spent significant time studying Hellenistic philosophy, including the works of Avicenna. His reputation as a scholar resulted in an appointment as a teacher of law and theology at Nizamiya University in Bagdhad in 1091.
Around 1095 C.E, al-Ghazali suffered something of a crisis of confidence regarding the philosophies with which he had occupied his time. He found the Hellenistic philosophy of the time to be filled with internal inconsistencies, without a sound, provable basis, and therefore to not be an adequate source of eternal, infallible knowledge. Those assumptions and postulates which underlay the field of philosophy of the day seemed to his mind to be unearned, and therefore suspect according to the program of rational inquiry in which the philosopher was expected to engage.
The theology of the day, heavily influenced by Muslim contact with the products of Hellenistic cultures, suffered many of the same problems, in al-Ghazali's view. From his perspective, theology had initially been intended to preserve the orthodox and correct view of religion from those who sought to sow dissention among the community. Since heretics might seek to attack the orthodoxy using the tools of logic and philosophy, it must be able to defend itself in the same arena. Having accomplished this goal, however, theologians had refused to set down the tools of logical inquiry, and had instead kept on, speculating at length on religious matters and minutia, until they had reached ends that either denied religious truth or were indefensible. al-Ghazali also rejected the claim, offered by some theological scholars, that a deep understanding of obscure theological principles was necessary for one to be a good Muslim.
Following this crisis, al-Ghazali fled Bagdhad, adopting the life of a wandering mystic for 10 years. In his mind, since logic must ultimately give way to assumptions that themselves cannot be logically proven, the only possible answer was to rely on faith and the direct experience of God as the ultimate source of knowledge. His mystical teachings, crafted while he lived in such varied spots as a minaret tower in Syria and a Sufi monastery in Tus, were heavily influenced by his earlier contact with theology and rational philosophy, as he himself admitted. A number of his mystical teachings regarding the symbolized form of knowledge and the relative rankings of different categories of good and bad deeds seem to be inspired by the teachings of Plotinus and various Platonic and neoplatonic theories. Some scholars have gone so far as to speculate that his departure from Bagdhad and apparent adoption of the life of a Sufi was a ploy to give himself freedom to surreptitiously expound a heterodox theology based on neoplatonic ideals, but evidence of this is either lacking or suspect, and seems to ignore both al-Ghazali's earlier sincere interest in Sufism and the overt way in which Ghazali presented his Hellenistic influences.
However, it is true that al-Ghazali took great pains to discredit many of the Hellenistic theories of which he had once been a student. In his book Destruction of the Philosophers, al-Ghazali refuted the neoplatonist theories of many of his predecessors and contemporaries, in particular Avicenna. This work is considered to be largely responsible for the eventual abandonment of pure rationalism in Islamic philosophy and theology.
al-Ghazali's break from his early role as a respected teacher and interpreter of the law can be seen rather as an attempt on his part to integrate his early and continued passion for the direct experience of divinity through Sufism with his later leanings, in light of his conviction that pure philosophy and endless theological speculation were leading men away from God and the truth. He relates the story of his spiritual crisis and eventual decision to embrace the life of a mystic in his book The Deliverance from Error, and presented his ideas on mysticism, incorporating many of his formerly rationalist beliefs, in his masterwork The Revival of the Religious Sciences, considered by some to be the greatest book written by a Muslim, and the second most important book in Islam after the Qur'an.
This summary is derived from a paper I wrote in the fall of 1999 for Prof. Nur Yalman at Harvard University on a related subject. The following works were referenced throughout that paper:
Esposito, John, ed. Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995
Gibb, H.A.R & Kramer, J.H, eds. The Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1953
Smith, Margaret. Al-Ghazali The Mystic. London: Luzac & Co., 1944
Watt, W. Montgomery. “Deliverance from Error,” The Faith and Practice of Al-Ghazali. Chicago: Kazi Publications, 1982
Zwemer, Samuel. A Moslem Seeker After God. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1920