Sources returnpage

Al-Ghazzali

Category: Mystic

 

Al-Ghazālī, also spelled Al-ghazzālī, in full Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad Ibn Muḥammad Aṭ-ṭūsī Al-ghazālī   (born 1058, Ṭūs, Iran—died Dec. 18, 1111, Ṭūs), was a Sufi mystic, philosopher and theologian. 

We could thus have placed him in a number of sections, but there is one work of his - the Alchemy of Happiness which is pure mystic thought and thus we have placed him here in the mystics for this book alone.

One of Al-Ghazālī’s abiding positive legacies is the partial reconciliation he achieved between religious Islam and mystic Sufism.  Indeed the Encyclopedia Britannica in the assessment of its contributor William Montgomery Watt, judged that  Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm ad-dīn (“The Revival of the Religious Sciences”), “helped make Ṣūfism an acceptable part of orthodox Islām”.

 

Joseph Ernest Renan, a philosopher and French expert of Middle East ancient languages and civilizations, has also called him “the most original mind among Arabian philosophers.”  This said, Al-Ghazālī was deeply critical of any philosophy that was not 'orthodox' in the sense of agreeing with the Qu'ran.  From a mystical point of view this is one of the blots on the landscape of an otherwise mystical man. 

A true mystic rises above all religion.  Furthermore, he or she can see the 'truth' in the views of anyone who is also a mystic, religion does not come into it.  Al-Ghazālī did not quite get there.  And his Tehafot-al-falasifa, or “Destruction of the Philosophers” is deeply critical of philosophers who were not 'wrong', as he believed, but simply not Muslim. 

History of Islamic philosophy – Henry Corbin
it appears ludicrous to say of this critique, as was said in the last century, that it dealt philosophy in the Islamic East a blow from which it was unable to recover. Great astonishment is expressed when, for example, one describes to certain Iranian shaykhs the importance which Western historians have accorded to al-Ghazali's critique of philosophy. Al-Suhrawardi, Haydar Amuli, Mir Damad and others would have been equally astonished.

The Mystic thread

 

Much of Al-Ghazālī 's  the Alchemy of Happiness is mysticism as its best.

The first four chapters of The Alchemy of Happiness are a commentary on the famous verse in the Hadis (traditional sayings of Muhammad), “He who knows himself knows God.”  The Ihya was written in Arabic, and the Kimiya’e Saadat (“The Alchemy of Happiness”) is an abridgment of it in Persian for popular use.

Al-Ghazālī’s mysticism is based entirely on the need for personal spiritual experience and the application of what he/she has learnt, in order to propel one along the spiritual path

Preface to The Alchemy of Happiness
In his autobiography Ghaz­zali tells us that, after emerging from a state of Pyrrhonic scepticism, he had finally arrived at the conclusion that the mystics were on the right path and true “Arifin,” or Knowers of God. But in saying this he meant those Sufis whose mysticism did not carry them into extravagant utterances.

In effect, he had no time for anyone who wasted these experiences or started to get delusions of importance from them:

Ihya-ul-ulum - Ghazzali
“The matter went so far that certain persons boasted of a union with the Deity, and that in His unveiled presence they beheld Him, and enjoyed familiar converse with Him, saying, ‘Thus it was spoken unto us and thus we speak.’ This style of discourse exerts a very pernicious influence on the common people. Some husband­men indeed, letting their farms run to waste, set up similar pretensions for themselves; for human nature is pleased with maxims like these, which permit one to neglect useful labour with the idea of acquiring spiritual purity through the attainment of certain mysterious degrees and qualities. This notion is productive of great injury.”

Life

 

Al-Ghazālī was born at Ṭūs (near Meshed in eastern Iran) and was educated there, then in Jorjān, and finally at Nishapur (Neyshābūr), where his teacher was al-Juwaynī.

History of Islamic philosophy – Henry Corbin

While being on guard against certain exaggerations, one may freely  admit that this Khurasfinian [Ghazzali] was one of the most powerful personalities and possessed one of the best organized minds that Islam has ever known, as is evidenced by his honorary title, shared with a few others, of Hujjat al-hlam: the proof or guarantor of Islam.
He and his brother, ….. lost their father when they were still young children. But before his death, he had consigned them to the guardianship of a friend, a Sufi sage, at whose hand they received their first education. Later the young Abu Hamid went to Nishapur in Khurasan, then one of the most important intellectual centres in the Islamic world. Here he became acquainted with the master of the Ash'arite school of the time, Imam al-Haramayn, and became his follower.

Al-Juwaynī had the title of imām al-ḥaramayn  - the imam of the two sacred cities of Mecca and Medina.

 
 

After the latter’s death in 1085, al-Ghazālī was invited to go to the court of Niẓām al-Mulk, the powerful vizier of the Seljuq sultans. The vizier was so impressed by al-Ghazālī’s scholarship that in 1091 he appointed him chief professor in the Niẓāmīyah college in Baghdad.

While lecturing to more than 300 students, al-Ghazālī also studied the Neoplatonist philosophies of al-Fārābī and Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā), Pythagoras, Plato and Socrates.  He rejected all but Aristotle as being 'unorthodox', which of course they were.  Thus it is before he had his conversion that he studied the philosophers and it appears he did not let his conversion adapt these impressions.

But in 1095, he had a spiritual experience/crisis that so frightened him that it rendered him physically incapable of lecturing for a time.  He had, as he tells us in his Confessions, experienced “conversion”; God had arrested him “on the edge of the fire”. 

History of Islamic philosophy – Henry Corbin

His thirty-sixth year was a decisive turning-point in al-Ghazal's life. At this time the problem of intellectual certainty presented itself to his conscience in a form so acute that it brought on a severe inner crisis, which completely disrupted his professional activity and his family life. In 488/1095 he abandoned the university and his family, sacrificing everything to the quest for inner certainty, the guarantee of Truth. We can imagine the shock caused by al-Ghazali's decision — after all, he was then rector of the Nizamiyah university and mouth- piece of the Ash'arite doctrine, identified at that time with the orthodoxy itself of Sunni Islam; and it reveals in al-Ghazali the strength of an exceptional personality.

 

 

He left Baghdad and set out on ‘the narrow way which leads to certainty’.

For ten years, clothed in the garb of a Sufi, he went on his solitary pilgrimage through the Muslim world. His travels took him to Damascus and Jerusalem (before it was captured by the Crusaders), Alexandria and Cairo, Mecca and Medina, and he devoted all his time to the spiritual practices of the Sufis.

 

Preface to The Alchemy of Happiness

After his conversion he retired into religious seclusion for eleven years at Damascus (a corner of the mosque there still bears his name—“The Ghazzali Corner”) and Jerusalem, where he gave himself up to intense and prolonged meditation.
But he was too noble a character to concentrate himself entirely on his own soul and its eternal prospects. The requests of his children caused him to return home.
Besides this, the continued progress of the Ismailians (connected with the famous Assassins), the spread of irreligious doctrines and the increasing religious indifference of the masses not only filled Ghazzali and his Sufi friends with profound grief, but determined them to stem the evil with the whole force of their philosophy, the ardour of vital conviction, and the authority of noble example. 

 

In 1106 he was persuaded to return to teaching at the Niẓāmīyah college at Nishapur. He died at Tus in 505/1111 on the 19th December, at the age of fifty-two — younger even than Avicenna.

Works

 

More than 400 works are ascribed to al-Ghazālī, but according to William Montgomery Watt “he probably did not write nearly so many”. Frequently the same work is found with different titles in different manuscripts, but many of the numerous manuscripts have not yet been carefully examined. Several works have also been falsely ascribed to him, and others are of doubtful authenticity. At least 50 genuine works are extant.

According to many scholars, Al-Ghazālī’s greatest work is Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm ad-dīn (“The Revival of the Religious Sciences”).  In 40 “books” he explained the doctrines and practices of Islām and showed how these can be made the basis of a ‘profound devotional life’, leading to the higher stages of Ṣūfism, or mysticism.

The relation of mystical experience to other forms of cognition is discussed in Mishkāt al-anwār (The Niche for Lights).

Al-Ghazālī’s abandonment of his career and adoption of a mystical, monastic life is described in the autobiographical work al-Munqidh min aḍ-ḍalāl (The Deliverer from Error).

 

There is a separation that appears in some scholarly articles assessing his works, between those works completed before his conversion and those after.

After his ‘crisis’, he came to the conclusion that theology—the systematic presentation of religious beliefs—was greatly inferior to mystical experience.  Thus the dating of his non mystical works becomes quite key. 

His compendium of standard theological doctrine (translated into Spanish), al-Iqtiṣād fī al-lʿtiqād (The Just Mean in Belief), was probably written before he became a mystic.  This may also be true of many of his philosophical studies beginning with treatises on logic and culminating in the Tahāfut (The Inconsistency—or Incoherence—of the Philosophers).  Many of his other earlier books are simply on the field of jurisprudence and theology.

Toward the end of his life, however, he completed a work on general legal principles, al-Mustaṣfā (Choice Part, or Essentials). 

History of Islamic philosophy – Henry Corbin

what makes this quest of al-Ghazali's so moving is the drama into which it precipitated his life. When he speaks about true knowledge, what he says rings with the authenticity of personal testimony. In his al-Munqidh Min al-dalal ("The Preservation from Error') he writes: 'True knowledge is the knowledge through which the known object is utterly disclosed (to the spirit), in such a manner that no doubt can exist with regard to it, and no error can tarnish it. It is the level at which the heart cannot admit or even conceive of doubt. Any knowledge which has not attained this level of certitude is incomplete and susceptible to error.'

This is excellent positive philosophy, and all philosophers, especially an ishraqi, would freely acknowledge its merit and validity. Unfortunately Al-Ghazali's negative attitude towards philosophers achieves a violence which is astonishing in so elevated a soul. No doubt the polemical aspect of his work reveals his inner torment. This polemic takes up no less than four works, in which he turns successively against the Ismailis, the Christians, the so-called free-thinkers, and finally the philosophers. And what is even more astonishing is the degree to which al-Ghazali relies on logic and rational dialectic in order to achieve his polemical purpose, when elsewhere he is so utterly convinced of their inability to attain the truth!

 

The 'Conversion' he describes was thus a very fundamental and violent one. 

Al-Ghazzali is not dissimilar in his experiences and background  to van Ruysbroeck, an orthodox almost fanatical Christian,  whose early work is best forgotten, but who, after some similar conversion experience, changed his views and attitudes dramatically.

It makes the Alchemy of Happiness an extremely important text, as it may be the only genuine reflection of Al-Ghazzali's later views.

Legacy

William Montgomery Watt – Encyclopedia Britannica

Al-Ghazālī’s abandonment of a brilliant career as a professor in order to lead a kind of monastic life won him many followers and critics among his contemporaries. Western scholars have been so attracted by his account of his spiritual development that they have paid him far more attention than they have other important Muslim thinkers.

 

 

But we believe that one of his greatest attractions to anyone interested in the spiritual path is that later on, after all his trials and tribulations, meditations and involvement in Sufi practises,  he ‘knew’.

He is a genuine mystic, suffering the pangs that mystics do and also deeply sincere in what he says.  His explanations in the Alchemy of Happiness at least, are also amazingly simple and to the point.  Only those who ‘know’ are capable of this.  A person who writes 5 volumes about the spiritual world is not in possession of the 'Truth'.  A person who can condense it to perhaps 50 intelligible pages, is.

Ghazzali - Ihya-ul-ulum:
Satan laughs at pious [meaningless] ejaculations. Those who utter them are like a man who should meet a lion in a desert, while there is a fort at no great distance, and, when he sees the evil beast, should stand exclaiming, ‘I take refuge in that fortress,’ with­out moving a step towards it. What will such an ejaculation profit him?

One of the greatest of all the Sufi poets, Jalaluddin Rumi, born a century after Ghazzali’s death (A.D. 1207), paid him the compliment of incorporating several of the allegories which occur in the Ihya into his own Masnavi.

References

 

In selecting the following passages, we have simply extracted key passages that demonstrate various aspects of mystic thought.  The wording is exactly as it in the translation and thus presumably Al-Ghazzali's words.  The version we have used was translated by Claud Field and was first published in 1909.  A more recent edition of the same translation has been published by Bibliobazaar, and it can also be obtained via the Internet in pdf format.

 

Observations

For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.