Al-Ghazali’s Turning point:
On the writings on his personal crisis
This paper is latest version (11/09/01) to be presented at the following conference:
1. Middle East Studies Association (MESA) November 18, 2001.
Table of Contents
continues to be one of the most important Muslim thinkers to this day.
Al-Ghazali wrote on a wide range of subjects that continue to generate
interest among scholars of Islam. His intellectual legacy continue to have an effect on
Muslims today. Al-Ghazali is unique -not to mention a difficult person to
assess- in that just mentioning him brings to mind not one single person but a
multitude. When one speaks of Ibn Rushd, Ibn Sina or Ibn Taymiyah, one would
have as singular image of his personality in mind. This is why we should specify
which role of Al-Ghazali are we referring to. Are we speaking about the saintly Sufi mystic?
the Shafi'i jurist? Is it the philosopher? Or is it the anti-philosophy
paper discusses the reasons that brought about his crisis leading to his departure from Baghdad at the high point of his career. There was
little precedent, except with the Sufis as will be mentioned hereinafter, at
his time. The time period for the apex of his crisis is dated circa 488 /1095.
on al-Ghazali restate modern re-assessments given by McDonald,
Their re-assessments are not always compatible within the whole framework of
al-Ghazali’s life and social milieu. The re-assessments concentrate upon two
alleged fear of Ismaili assassins.
as a work of autobiographical fiction.
This is a “work in progress.”
I make no claims to comprehensiveness as it is aimed at a few select
works on al-Ghazali's life in general and his crisis in particular.5
Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali at-Tusi
was born in 450/1058 and
died on Monday morning (14/6/505) December 18, 1111. Al-Ghazali’s life
begins with his fatherwho loved the company of jurists and Sufis alike; he had
hoped to have children who would become like them. Al-Ghazali was born in the village of Tabaran nearby Tus in
northeast Iran. He came from a poor background. His father died when he and
his younger brother Ahmad were still young. His father left them with little money
in the care of a Sufi friend. When their father’s money ran out, they
enrolled in a Madrasah. The Madrasah system enabled them to get a
stipend including room and board. He then studied fiqh at the hands of
a Sufi in his hometown called Ahmad ar-Radhkani. Then he traveled to Jurjan
and studied under Abu Nasr al-Ismaili. He returned home briefly and then
traveled to Nisahapur to study with the famous scholar al-Juwayni (d.
478/1085) at the Nizamyah College there. Al-Ghazali stayed as his student
until he died. He was one of his most illustrious students and al-Juwayni
called him an ocean of knowledge.
Thereupon al-Ghazali went to al-Muaskar (the camp) of the Seljuk wazir
Nizam al-Mulk. He stayed at al-Muaskar, which was a gathering place for
scholars and quickly distinguished himself in such an illustrious company.
Nizam al-Mulk recognized the genius of al-Ghazali and appointed him as a
professor at the famed Nizamyah college of Baghdad. It was there that his
crisis would take place.
the height of his career, al-Ghazali would undergo a personal crisis so severe
as impede his speech, his eating and his health. According to his own account,
first it is thought of as a medical ailment. The doctors diagnosed it as
psychological crisis for which there is no medical cure. Around the time of
the crisis, he was struck with fear of the Divine punishment as he felt his
actions were for worldly gain and not purely for God. He tried many times
quitting and going but, he would have that intention in the morning and by the
afternoon, it would disappear. This lead to the apex of his crisis culminating
in his loss of speech.
came to realize that his crisis had one solution; that he must escape from his
current environment. As he saw it, he would have to truly dedicate his life to
God through asceticism. He would have to fully cleanse himself of all
unnecessary material possessions. He would have to do this very soon before
his life ended and there was no better time then the present. He would resign
his teaching position and assign his brother in his place. He would leave his
family as well, after providing them with a trust to continue providing them
with a steady source of income. Baghdad had an excellent system of trusts that
he even praised it in his works.
He would tell his people that he was leaving for Hajj so that people would not discover his true intention -leaving for good. He was beloved by his numerous students and had many admirers, including the current sultan, –not to mention many who were jealous. Had he made his intentions public he would not have been allowed to drop everything and just take off on a whim.
leaving Baghdad, he would change direction and head towards Damascus.
However he would literally disappear from the intellectual scene for ten
years. He would not be doing any teaching, lecturing or anything other than
occasional writing. This period of isolation would inspire the writing of his
famed Ihya (Revival).
After some consultation with his ‘brethren’, he decided that it is ‘safe’ for him to come out of ‘exile’ back into the intellectual world. He would head home after briefly stopping at his old school: al-Nizamiyah of Baghdad. Then he would establish a school in his hometown to continue teaching and learning. He would be forced by the Nizam al-Mulk’s son to accept a teaching position at the Nizamiyah school of Nishapur. He would, however, leave it after a short stint and would then die shortly thereafter, in 1111.
crisis although of primary importance to him personally occupied only a small
part of his life. It should be noted here and clearly defined that a clear
distinction has to be made from his episode of doubt and the events that led
him to leave Baghdad. With that said it is also noted that the cure
of the episode of doubt led to his second crisis which
led to his eventual leave.
was a major turning point in his life and career. One could envision what his
career might have been had he not been plagued by his crisis. He would have
perhaps written a great juristic work on Shafi Fiqh. He could have had
a longer and more luminous teaching career. He in fact has done much more for
his lasting legacy due to his crisis. For example, his major work the Ihya
was written after his crisis.
could possibly make a case that in his life he had many smaller crises that
culminated in a major crisis. The earliest time possible that this crisis
could have taken place is when he was a student of al-Jawayni and Ilm al-Kalam.
Next phase could be in the camp of al-Nizam al-Mulk and the next and final
attack would have to be at Baghdad. We should remember that he only spent four
years at the Nizamayah of Baghdad. After al-Ghazali left Baghdad he was no
longer plagued by episodes of crisis. According to his own account, Sufism had
that he was not cured but continued to have episodes of doubt and more crises.
They point out to the works that have been attributed to him. Here I would
emphasize that these writings are of suspect attribution to him at best. Even
if one considers that al-Ghazali has written these works they would not
necessarily point to a crisis but to a vibrant scholar who has re-worked and
reformulated issues over and over again. It is perhaps this resilient quality
that al-Ghazali was not afraid to re-visit issues that he had already dealt
with in his previous works or in his youth.
crisis is not only important to his personal development as a scholar. It also
has implications on his major works –namely al Ihya - that were
completed both during and after his self imposed exile. There are two other
works that are of prime importance – al-Munqidh and al-Mustasfa;
his work on Isul al-Fiqh. Al-Munkhul was praised by al-Juwayni
and written before coming to Baghdad, however it is al-Mustasfa –the
latter post-crisis work- that is more important. Other important works were
written before his crisis, [specifically his al-Maqasid (Aims) and at-Tahafut
(Incoherence of philosophers.)].
understand the reasons behind the onset of the crisis one must make use of
other sources as well. Of particular importance are his biographers,
contemporaries and historical records of the period. Since then, there have
been many analyses of his crisis and what brought it about. As implied by the
title of this essay, there has been more than one re-assessment, as well
re-assessments of the re-assessments.
own assessment of the crisis is found in his autobiographical laden work al-Munqidh
and he also drops some auto-biographical hints here and there in the
introductions to his other works. Assessments of the crisis by Al-Ghazali’s
admirers tend to support al-Ghazali’s view as laid out in al-Munqidh.
While others who are less sympathetic, or who were flat out antagonistic,
naturally do not support al-Ghazali’s assessment and his personal account.
They offer many theories that are less than plausible and highly unlikely to
have taken place.
not unique to Ghazalian studies is sharp positions and opinions regarding his
crisis and his personality specifically. There have been many biographers of
Al-Ghazali who were not ardent fans as one might expect. On the other hand,
there were many staunch supporters as well who were blinded by their strong
admiration –not to mention adoration, for him. Al-Ghazali’s strong
personality that shines throughout his writings has had such an effect on
people; so much so one scholar once declared that there are no neutral
biographers of al-Ghazali. There have been very few middle-roaders with
regards to Ghazalian scholarship.
depending on whom you take as your source you are liable to get many
different, needless to say opposing, viewpoints that are not all very
sympathetic to their subject. Al-Ghazali is one of such personality to elicit
such variant responses and provocative reading of his life in people. One only
needs to read some of Ibn Rushd’s comments on his at-Tahafut (his
philosophical criticism) to get an idea of the heated rhetoric that is taking
place. Recently al-Jabri has compared al-Ghazali’s Tahafut to an
inquisition of freethinking.
emphasis has been placed on al-Ghazali’s alleged fear of Ismaili assassins.
So much so that many consider it an unquestionable fact that is part and
parcel of al-Ghazali’s biography. For example R. Arnaldz work on Ibn Rushd
states this in the paragraph that he mentions on al-Ghazali’s life. Not only
is this alleged fear unwarranted, it is also misplaced.
the words of one of his contemporary biographers “he was struck with fear,
fear of the divine.”
It is the fear of the divine and not fear of others that would be the spark
that would send him up and running. Jabre, who translated it as a fear of
Ismailis, misunderstood this passage. The earliest source in the western world
to mention this fear is D. Macdonald’s 1899’s article about the life of
The fear would have been more appropriate for political leaders of that time
period. There are several facts that totally contradict this provocative
theory. Namely that al-Ghazali continued to write anti-Ismaili/Ta'limi works
after and during his period of exile. Therefore this fear could not be a
contributing factor to the cause of his crisis. The Ismaili political power
continued to increase after al-Ghazali’s crisis, which would in fact lead
al-Ghazali to write more works that are anti-Ismaili/Ta'limi. Had there been
any fears he would not have written them any more. On a further note, who
wants more trouble than one could handle?
have cited the assassination of Nizam al-Mulk as another cause to bring about
his fear of the assassins. This sounds shocking given the fact that Al-Ghazali
wrote the first anti-Ismaili/Ta'limi work three years after the assassination
of Nizam. Therefore if he were afraid of Ismailis after Nizam’s
assassination he would not have written the work. Further, it has been
questioned that the assassination of Nizam [recently by M. Ibrahim] was not
from an Ismaili hand rather as a result of inter-court tensions. It has been
stated that there were strong anti-Nizami feelings at the Abbasid court that
wanted to be rid of him. It could
have been these forces that plotted and carried out the assassination and not
the Ismailis. The fact that it looked like Ismaili’s was a God sent to them.
there been any real fear of Ismaili reprisals against him al-Ghazali he would
not write any further tracts on the issue. Al-Ghazali, throughout the rest of
his life, would write at least five more anti- Ismaili/Ta'limi
tracts (7 in total in his lifetime.)
Even if he was “forced” -as MacDonald and others would allege- by the Khalifah
al-Mustazhir bil-lah to write the tract that would not explain why he
continued to write them in the future. Furthermore, he would not have gone
into lands that are under heavy Ismaili influence. Prof. Abu Sway points out
that had al-Ghazali truly feared the Ismaili’s he would not go back home
where the Ismaili influence was greater. Additionally, Nizam’s son was also
assassinated at Ismaili hands and al-Ghazali continued to write against them.
incident from al-Ghazali’s youth had demonstrated his bravery. Upon his
return from Jurjan, one of his educational trips, bandits attacked the caravan
and looted everything including his precious notes. Al-Ghazali bravely –or
recklessly went up to the leader of the bandits demanding his notes. This
incident would at least indicate that later on in life al-Ghazali would not
just turn and run at the first sign of trouble.
would argue that fear of the political climate would not contribute to his
crisis and did not adversely affect al-Ghazali. Al-Ghazali was dealing with
his own internal demons and not external ones. It is however that in spite of
the terrible political strife, al-Ghazali was doing very well and left at a
high point in his career. The fact remains that he did not wait till things
got worse to do this. It was actually easier for him to leave then than at any
other point in his life. He would not have been able to leave his family well
off. He alludes to this fact in al-Munqidh that it was God who made it
easier for him leave. So he must have seen all these events as facilitating
his leave. Had there been any fear or real concern he would not run. He would,
at least he would take his family to safety. He would not leave his brother in
his place and just run off out of fear for his own life.
the timing must have been just right; it was just a coincidence that it was
almost Hajj time and that he would announce his intention late in the season.
This, I would have to assume, because otherwise others would have followed
him. [I.e. his students, friends and admirers.] A last minute decision would
explain his sudden departure –“he said he was going to Hajj and he never
came back.” This is what it would have seemed in retrospect to his students.
As a matter of fact one of his students Abu Bakr ibn al-Arabi would see him
and ask him about his sudden departure. This leads one to think that this was
the trigger for writing his autobiographical portions of al-Munqidh).
work can have historical value even though it might not be chorological
ordered or accurate. There are many examples of autobiographical accounts that
are not chorological such as Usamah bin al-Munqidh’s
account. Further a work
can have literary value and still have historical value and be in itself a
work of history. Al-Aqd al-Farid by Ibn Abdi Rabi –The history of al-Andlus
set in verse- is one such example. More than one writer on al-Ghazali has
noted that al-Munqidh (his quasi-autobiography) is not one of
historical importance. On the contrary, I do believe that it is one of immense
historical, as well as psychological, value to anyone who is studying
al-Ghazali. Least of all, it is also perhaps how al-Ghazali wanted others to
see him in this period of his existence. Al-Ghazali placed emphasis on his
crisis and analyzed himself on a psychological level in addition to writing a
biting social commentary on the occupation of teachers and the social position
that they occupied. It is the equivalent of al-Ghazali sitting on the
proverbial couch in retrospect since he wrote it many years after the crisis.
own assessment of the events as he lived them and his own feelings are of
vital importance to understanding his crisis and personality. Even though it
does not offer us a total raison d’être of all his works during and after
his crisis. His realization that he had to totally alter the course of his
life at that time directly impacted his output. This alteration had led him
not only to change his whole life-style but to sort out his priorities as
has been the source of the alleged Ismaili fear in al-Ghazali, however on the
other hand he was firm in considering al-Munqidh as true state of al-Ghazali’s
affairs. MacDonald says about Munqidh: “…[T]he result of a careful
study of it has been to convince me of the essential truth of the picture
which al-Ghazali there gives us of his life.” Watt however, disagrees with
this position and is supported by Jabre and others. McCarthy provides support
and goes into great detail to prove al-Munqidh’s veracity in his book
“Freedom and Fulfillment.” He cites many arguments that pro and against al-Munqidh.
He states in his introduction, “I see no reason why they [the biographical
passages from al-Munqidh] should not be accepted literally, despite al-Baqri
and … Jabre.” McCarthy also cites additional sources to support his
position for which there is no need to repeat here.
al-Ghazali did state clearly that he was going to Hajj, he went directly to
Syria instead. He did perform Hajj two years later and visited the holy
places. This strategy was to prevent others from thwarting his plans to leave
Baghdad altogether. This unusual strategy has caused some critics to question
the truth of the al-Munqidh not to mention of al-Ghazali himself.
McCarthy, as well as others, did answer these criticisms by stating that
al-Ghazali had little choice in this matter given his position at that time.
He had so many people that were attached to him that would not simply allow
him to leave.
though Watt did not consider al-Munqhid as “historically valid” he
did accept its basic premise namely that of the “conversion” to the mystic
life as genuine.
Margaret Smith in her biography of al-Ghazali said: “The reasons for the
abandonment of his career and for the rejection of all that the world had to
offer him –a decision which astonished and perplexed all who heard of it–
al-Ghazali sets forth in his apologia pro vita sua [al-Munqhih].”
Prof. Nakamura says of al-Munqhid: “ ‘by and large genuine and reliable’
and that his two crises are historical facts beyond doubt with no evidence to
also charge that he was made to know that was no longer desired at the
Nizamiyah of Baghdad. This was not true years later he would be welcomed back
on his way home. Also the son of Nizam al-Mulk would force him to accept a
position at the Nizamiyah of Nishapur. Critics have also stated that there was
a general decline in education due to the depressed and charged political
atmosphere. The fact remains that the political crisis did not have an
immediate effect on the educational and intellectual environment at al-Ghazali’s
time for the Nizamiyah continued to flourish for many years after his death.
other reasons were given by scholars about what brought about his crisis
should be considered as secondary contributing factors. One such issue is his
background; a poor family from a small village whose member suddenly rose to
fame and renown in a short time period. The argument being that his sudden
move to the city from such a rural area would be an additional contributing
factor to his leaving. There have been cases in which scholars of fame and
renown that came from poor backgrounds without any affect whatsoever on their
mind. One such scholar is Murtatha az-Zubadi author of Taj al-Urus: the
commentary on the al-Qamous and a commentary on al-Ghazali’s Ihya.
Az-Zubadi did not go into crisis, until his wife died.
secondary contributing factor is his study of philosophy. Ibn Taymiyah has
mentioned that al-Shifa of Ibn Sina had made al-Ghazali sick and it had
contributed to his crisis. As-Shifa could have contributed to his skepticism
and methodical doubt. While this theory is very interesting and insightful it
has its weaknesses. There have been many scholars who have studied philosophy
without having a nervous breakdown. For example, Ibn Taymiyah himself as well
as ar-Razi, author of the famed at-Tafseer al-Kabir were not affected
in any way.
back to al-Ghazali’s own account of his crisis in al-Munqidh, we
would naturally be led to critically re-assessed events of his life in harsher
tones from a skewed perspective –even though it is al-Ghazali’s. This, I
would argue is not correct. What al-Ghazali had done in his life is not wrong
even by his own standards and there is no shame in it. He was just like any
other professor/scholar of his time. No mater how hard one looks at his life
one would not find any defects there because they simply did not exist. It is
not the outward actions that are the cause of his problem because the problem
itself is internal and psychological in nature. Al-Ghazali knew the problem,
the malady, and the cure. He knew all the theories that he needs to diagnose
his problem. He is a jurist, not to mention one of the best of his time. The
doctors who came to look at his condition only re-affirmed for him the
severity of his condition. He only needed to implement the cure. That moment
would be the moment in which the Divine would make it easier for him to leave.
He mentions this fact in al-Munqidh.
Another factor that could prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back is the visit to Baghdad of a famous Sufi who had quite an effect on students and scholars of that time. According to Ibn Kathir’s account: “more than thirty thousand men and women were present at his circles, many people left their livelihood, many people repented and returned to mosques, wines [intoxcants] were spilled and [musical] instruments were broken.”
abandonment of everything should be seen in light of other famous Sufis who
did similar such as al-Muhasibi (d. 243/857).
Al-Junyad (d. 298/910) had doubts of his worthiness to lecture, al-Shibli
(d. 334/946) who was governor of Deoband renounced his position and asked the
inhabitances for forgiveness. Abu Yazid al-Bistami
(d. 261/874) gained his knowledge on a hungry belly and al-Makki (d. 386/996)
lived on a diet of wild herbs.
So it is not strange that al-Ghazali would follow suit to these past masters.
at his time, on the outside looking in considered his leaving as a curse on
the Muslim world. The Muslim world did not deserve such a scholar and he was
gone as quick as he came. As soon as his star was shining it disappeared –or
so it seemed to chroniclers of the time.
He must have tried to cure himself but without much success. He finally realized deep inside himself that he had to abandon his current environment altogether. He had no choice but to make the sacrifice. He literally walked out leaving everything behind, his fame, his family, his fortune and the world. Ten years later, he realized that he had proved to himself and to the whole world that he had become a changed man. Author's Note
1 Including accounts by R. Frank, E. Ormsby, Carra de Vaux, A. A. al-‘Asam and Umar Farrukh.
2 In his seminal article about the life of al-Ghazali. (The Muslim World 1899; vol. xx.: )
3 Farid Jabre in his introduction to the French Translation of al-Munqidh.
4 W. Montgomery Watt, Muslim Intellectual: A study of al-Ghazali Edinburgh: The Edinburgh University Press, 1963.
5 At the time of writing, I was unable to get a hold of an important article that re-evaluates al-Ghazali’s Crisis and was only able to access second hand. The article was “An approach to Ghazali’s Conversion” by Kojiro Nakamura: Orient XXI (1985).
6 As-Subki, 6:196. (Tabaqat Ashafiyah al-Kubra, edited by A.F. Helo and M. M. Tanji. Matbat al-Halabi first printing.)
7 As to why he chose Syria is not a concern of this paper.
8 The cure which was a divine light which led him to give up worldly attachments.
9 Abu Sway. P. 81.
10 E. Ormsby in his sometimes inaccurate, and other times lacking study of al-Munqidh claimed that even his episode of methodical doubt which he confuses with the crisis occurred in his youth!
12 Statement by ‘Abd al-Ghafir al-Farisi. as-Subki, 4:209. This is mentioned by Abu Sway, p. 90.
13 PPs. 78 and 80
14 This is mentioned in al-Munqhid, 7:54. Lebanon, 1988.
15 Cf. Abu Sway p89. cff.48 for a complete listing and A. Badawi’s mu’alfat al-Ghazali.
16 Freedom and Fulfillment. Twayne Publishers, Boston. 1980 pps. xxix and thereafter.
17 Watt, P. 140
18 Margaret Smith, p. 23.
19 Nakamura, p. 49. I spoke to Prof. Nakamura and he said that studying al-Ghazali is like getting the Measles that everyone gets it at one point or other. This could explain why so much is written about him.
20 Ibn Kathir, al-Bidyah wal-Nihyah, Beirut, Dar al-Kotab al-Ilmyah, 1985,12:153 Events of the year of 486. In other editions it is found on page 144. It was the visit by Ardashir Ibn Mansur Abu al-Husyan al-Abbadi in 486/1093 who visited Baghdad and lectured in al-Ghazali's place and many people had repented, left their livelihoods, broke liquor containers and changed their ways by becoming more pious. He only stayed for a very short period of time.
22 Ibn Khallikan, I: 511.
23 Ibn Khallikan, I: 662.
24 al-Munqidh, 131.
25 The author is indebted to the many e-mail exchanges with Prof. Ebrahim Moosa of Duke U. and the work of Prof. Mustafa Abu Sway of al-Qudus U. who wrote on this topic. I found his article in Kula Lumpur while we both attended a conference on al-Ghazali in October 2001 after submitting this paper to MESA. Both are al-Ghazali specialist. Also my daughter has helped in correcting my linguistic quirks. Any remaining mistakes are of course all mine.
An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades (Records of Western Civilization Series) by Usamah Ibn Munqidh translated by Philip K. Hitti. Columbia University Press; ISBN: 0231121253. May 2000. With an introduction by Richard W. Bulliet.
Birth of al-Ghazali at Tus (450.A.H.)
Began Studies at Tus
Went to Gurgan to study
Study at Tus
Went to Nishapur to study
Death of al-Faramdhi
Death of al-Juwayni, left Nishapur (iv. 478)
Arrival in Baghdad (v. 484)
1092 Oct. 14
Nizam-al-Mulk killed (10. ix. 485)
Study of Philosophy*
Present at sermons in Nizamiyya
Present at oath to new caliph, al-Mustaz’hir
1095, Jan 12
Tutush killed, Barkiyaruq recognized in Baghdad
Impediment in speech (vii. 488)**
Left Baghdad (xi. 488)
Made pilgrimage of 489
Abu Bakr ibn al-‘Arabi saw him Baghdad (vi. 490)
Went by Hamadhan to Tus
Returned to teaching in Nishapur (499)**
Wrote Deliverance from Error
1109, Aug. 5
Finished Mustasfa (on law) (6. i. 503
Returned to Tus
1111, Dec. 18
Death (14. vi. 505)
According to Fr. M. Bogyes, al-Ghazali’s works are divided up into 5 distinct periods:
1st: 465 - 478
Fiqh and Isul al-Fiqh
2nd: 478 - 488
Fiqh, Isul, Khilaf (comparative law), Logic, philosophy, Kalam, Aqeedah, Fatwas (legal writing), Sectarianism
3rd: 488 – 499**
Fatwas, Herisography, Aqeedah, Ihya (one of a kind), Fiqh
4th: 499 - 503
Al-Munqidh, Isul (The great al-Mustasfah), Aqeedah
5th: 503 - 505
Iljam (anti-Kalam tract), Dura al-Fakhira fi uloom al-Ikirah (sufi), Minhaj al-Abeedeen
Source: Badawi’s Les Oeuvres D’al-Ghazali. Kuwait. 1977
*Al-Ghazali himself states that he studied philosophy for two years.
** Period of his self imposed exile
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