al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid


al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid
(alternatively, al-Ghazzali)
(450–505/1058–1111)
   Theologian, jurist, philosopher and Sufi mystic, al-Ghazali is a towering figure in the history of Islam and a pivotal thinker within its philosophical tradition. He is often blamed – somewhat hyperbolically – for bringing Islamic philosophy to an untimely end. Born in Tus, the Persian al-Ghazali studied with the great Ash‘arite theologian al-Juwayni and spent his early adult years lecturing on Islamic jurisprudence and refuting heresies at the prestigious Nizamiyya madrasa in Baghdad. During this productive period he wrote The Intentions of the Philosophers (Maqasid al-falasifa), which offered a clear, accurate exposition of the mashsha’i or Peripatetic philosophers (first and foremost, Ibn Sina). This was soon followed by his monumentally important Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahafut al-falasifa), which critiqued twenty of their most problematic claims. According to al- Ghazali, three philosophical theses in particular were odious enough to qualify as instances of unbelief (kufr): (1) the assertion of the pre-eternity of the world, (2) the claim that God knows the temporal entities and events of this world only as universals and not as particulars, and (3) the denial of bodily resurrection. Not content to play the role of the dogmatic Ash‘arite theologian, however, al-Ghazali went far beyond mere denunciation to refute the claims of the Peripatetic philosophers in accordance with their own intellectual commitments and preferred methods of proof. On the first thesis, he points up various contradictions generated by the eternalist model and argues for the conceptual possibility of the world’s creation. On the second, he attempts to show that, contra the philosophers, God can have complete knowledge of temporal things without Himself being subject to change and multiplicity. On the third, he demonstrates that the much-vaunted principle of causality (which undergirded the philosophers’ rejection of bodily resurrection) is in fact much less certain than they believe. Contrary to the Aristotelian-Neoplatonic conception of causality, al-Ghazali argues that there is no good reason for positing a necessary relation between ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ because the most we can actually establish is their repeated concomitance. Drawing upon Ash‘arite occasionalism, according to which God is the only real cause of all events, he shows that the seemingly iron-clad regularity of natural events is not a function of necessity, but rather benevolent divine habit or custom, which God in His omnipotence is always free to abrogate, making miracles possible. The overall strategy of the Incoherence is thus to show that the philosophers continually fail to fulfill the conditions for demonstrative proof that they themselves stipulate in their logical works, and that the orthodox religious views al-Ghazali sought to defend are not decisively excluded by reason. Subsequent works on Aristotelian logic clarified this critique and closed the deal: the philosophers talked a good game, but were ultimately incapable of demonstrating the conclusions about which they seemed so confident and certain.
   Al-Ghazali’s intervention had wide-ranging, complementary consequences. On the one hand, it effectively dealt a death blow, if not to Islamic philosophy as such, then at least to Greek-inflected falsafa within the Sunni world (Ibn Rushd’s defense, though powerful and resourceful, never achieved anything close to a comparable influence in the East). At the same time, however, al-Ghazali’s protracted engagement with the ideas and argumentative strategies of the philosophers left an indelible impression on his own thought, as well as on subsequent Ash‘arite theologians, whose works became increasingly philosophical in content and method. Thus one might say that his attack on philosophy gave it a new lease on life, albeit in a rather unlikely place.
   After four years of teaching in Baghdad, al-Ghazali underwent a profound spiritual crisis that led him to question the validity of both sense experience and reason and even temporarily rendered him unable to speak. He renounced his academic career and worldly ambitions and became a wandering Sufi before finally returning home, a development that is vividly portrayed in his spiritual autobiography, The Deliverance from Error (al-Munqidh min al-dalal). In this work al-Ghazali details his quest for certain knowledge of the truth about reality, which led him from theology to philosophy to the esotericism of the Isma‘ilis to Sufi mysticism. It is only through the direct, intimate, experiential knowledge of the mystics (i.e. dhawq, lit. ‘taste’), he concludes, that one can attain certain knowledge. Like his earlier engagement with philosophy, al-Ghazali’s mystical turn had wide-ranging and complementary effects. On the one hand, his sober, responsible appropriation of Sufism made mysticism respectable in the eyes of orthodox traditionalists; on the other, it helped to revitalize the stultified Islam of his time. Al- Ghazali’s magnum opus, Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din) exemplifies this mutual enrichment.
   Further reading: Frank 1994; al-Ghazali 1980/2004 1997/2000; Leaman 1985/2002; Marmura 2005; Shehadi 1964; Watt 1963

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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