The Mind and Heart of al-Ghazali

Professor Abd al-Karim Crow, ISTAC

August 1, 2001 / 11 Jumada l-Awwal 1422


The great Islamic thinker al-Ghazali died eight hundred and ninety years ago, yet his teachings continue to provide a model for contemporary humanity. Many Muslims look to lesser figures such as the argumentative and intolerant Ibn Taymiyyah for intellectual and religious guidance in the complexities of today's world, while ignoring the lessons offered by al-Ghazali.

His life and thought still poses a challenge for us: How to integrate intellectual and rational activity with inner experiencing of truth in a balanced and harmonious way. 

In the year, 478 H of the Islamic calendar (1085 CE) the lawyer-theologian Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (b. 1058-d. 1111) left his hometown of Tus in Khurasan in N.E. Iran, to enjoy the patronage of the powerful Persian statesman Nizam al-Mulk at the Saljuq court in Isfahan. Thereby the rising star of one of the greatest classical Muslim thinkers, acknowledged as "Hujjat al-Islam / The Proof of Islam," became linked to the service of the Saljuq Sultans-Türkmen military warlords ruling over the central Islamic lands of Iraq, Iran and Central Asia under the nominal authority of the Sunni 'Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad. Seven years later in 1092 Nizam al-Mulk, the Vizier of the great Saljuq Sultan Malik shah, was assassinated by a revolutionary agent of the Isma’ili Shi’ite leader al-Hasan al-Sabbah. Malik shah himself died suddenly the same year, victim either of an internal feud for succession within his own court or of an Isma'ili assassin.

Orphaned at an early age, Abu Hamid and his younger brother Abu l-Futuh Ahmad were first raised by a Sufi family friend. In their youth they were trained in the Islamic religious sciences of Law and Tradition (fiqh & hadith), becoming pupils of the distinguished Ash'ari theologian "Imam al-Haramayn" al-Juwayni in Nishapur, the provincial capital of Khurasan. Al-Ghazali remained committed to Ash'ari theological teachings (kalam) and to the Shafi'i principles of jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh) throughout his life, making this form of Sunni "orthodoxy" the doctrinal basis for his philosophic and mystic thought. Abu Hamid recalled an event in his early travels for religious knowledge that taught him a fundamental lesson. Crossing the high peaks with his donkey laden with study notes, his caravan was robbed by brigands. Abu Hamid pleaded with the robber chief to leave him the papers containing all his knowledge he had painstakingly gathered over years. Mockingly the brigand chief instructed him: "Knowledge lies not on the back of a donkey; knowledge lies within the heart of man!" The search for 'certainty' in the heart (qalb) became the hallmark of his life work, leading al-Ghazali along the well traveled byways of legal methodology into the steep paths of rational theological and philosophical speculation, and beyond onto the narrow highway of trans-rational experience (kashf).


In 1091 Nizam al-Mulk appointed al-Ghazali as chief professor of the Shafi'i legal-rite at the Madrasah Nizamiyyah in Baghdad, the central college of the ‘Abbasid empire, where he taught for over four years. Al-Ghazali was present at the accession ceremony in 1094 when the ‘Abbasid Caliph al-Muqtadi was succeeded by the seventeen year-old al-Mustazhir bi-llah (reigned 1094-1118). That same year the new Caliph commissioned al-Ghazali to write a refutation of the ideological claims of the Isma'ili movement the chief religious and political threat to 'Abbasid authority. The Nizari Isma'ili leader al-Hasan al-Sabbah had seized the mountain fortress of Alamut in N.E. Iran in 1091, conducting an intensive underground campaign promoting the rights of the Shi'i Isma'ili Imam to be the divinely appointed leader of all Muslims. They rejected the legitimacy of the 'Abbasid rule, calling for submission to the unimpeachable teaching (ta'lim) of their Imam whom they held possessed all esoteric knowledge (batin). Al-Ghazali wrote his Fada'ih al-Bataniyyah wa Fada'il al-Mustazhiriyyah / The Infamies of the Batinites and the Excellencies of the Mustazharites, describing the reprehensible innovations of blind submission (taqlid) to the authoritarian teaching of the Isma'ili Imam, and emphasizing the greater rationality of reason ('aql) over unconditional acceptance of esoteric knowledge from an infallible religious guide. The only real guide for Muslims must be the Prophet Muhammad, God's peace upon him, whose acts and teachings are sufficient to rule the life of the Islamic community; and the authority of the 'Abbasid Caliph as preserver of stability and order in the face of anarchy and chaos.

Al-Ghazali was to write four more works refuting Isma'ili claims to exclusive possession of true knowledge, and promoting logic and reason as surer guides to truthful doctrine. As a leading intellectual at both the caliphal and vizieral courts, his close association with the Caliph, sultans and viziers allowed him to appreciate the corruption and immorality of power, as well as the self-serving compromises of religious scholars infatuated by fame and fortune. Abu Hamid's own political ideas matured from such experience and observation. He formulated a pragmatic position defending the necessity of legitimate religious authority (the Caliph) and autocratic central power (the Sultan) as a bulwark against disorder, while insisting on the duty of educating and reforming the power-possessors by the light of ethical and spiritual ideals. The Caliph and the Sultan both had to co-operate to ensure social peace and harmony in Muslim realms; and any revolt was illegitimate, even against an oppressive and evil ruler. In his letters to leading office holders, and in his political manual Nasihat al-Muluk / Advice to Kings, al-Ghazali sought to moderate and temper the brutal excesses and injustices common during his era.

PHILOSOPHY & the limits of REASON

In his remarkable autobiography al-Munqidh min al-Dalal / Deliverance From Error, Abu Hamid describes his painfully sincere search for true knowledge, leading him from a crisis of radical doubt of the truth of sense perception, to a deep study of contemporary scientific-philosophical systems, and finally to the mystic discipline of experiential cognition. It is hard to accept al-Ghazali's own assertion that he mastered the subtleties of Islamic philosophy in less than two years while engaged in the burdens of teaching and writing at the Nizamiyyah college. He may well have begun his study of Falsafah six years earlier upon joining the entourage of his patron Nizam al-Mulk, who promoted literary and intellectual disciplines among his entourage. However, al-Ghazali upheld the separation between religion and philosophy, and worked to reverse the trend of integrating revealed religion (shari'ah) with philosophy (hikmah) initiated by the Arab scientist-philosopher al-Kindi (d. 870) and consummated by the brilliant Iranian thinker Abu 'Ali Ibn Sina (d. 1037).

Ibn Sina's philosophical system offered Muslim intellectuals a rational explanation of religious truths couched in the latest scientific findings of the day, popularized in easily accessible handbooks written in both Arabic and Persian. Dubbed "al-Ra'is/the Chief" in recognition of his impressive intellectual achievement, Ibn Sina succeeded in explaining rationally such aspects of religious practice as the validity of mystical experiences, the nature of mystic Love, or visitation to tombs of saints. Al-Ghazali was strongly attracted to the logical and psychological teachings of Islamic Philosophy, but he attacked some of its major metaphysical doctrines that contradicted essential religious beliefs. In his Tahafut al-Falasifah / The Collapse of the Philosophers, he argued cogently that philosophers cannot demonstrate God's creation of the world, nor the spiritual substance of the human soul. He condemned their doctrines of the eternity of the world (first taught by Aristotle), and the impossibility of God having knowledge of particular things and events (taught by Ibn Sina), as well as their denial of the physical resurrection of the body in favor of a spiritual resurrection. Al-Ghazali felt that these doctrines lead many people "to refuse the details of religions and creeds, and to believe that they are human constructed laws and artifices" (in Tahafut). As a preparation for his Tahafut, al-Ghazali also wrote a useful philosophic summary, Maqasid al-Falasifah / The Aims of the Philosophers, basically an Arabic translation and clarifying rearrangement of Ibn Sina's Persian handbook Danish Nama. Ironically, the Maqasid later became a basic text for the study of philosophy in medieval Europe when it was translated into Latin, with 'Al-Gazal' being viewed in the West as a leading eastern philosopher.

In several other works written during his teaching period in Baghdad (1091-1095), al-Ghazali summarized the science of formal Logic (mantiq), stressing the importance of demonstrative proof for both theology and legal methodology. He produced his classic manual of Ash'ari theological doctrine, al-Iqtisad fi l-I'tiqad / The Middle-Way in Correct Belief, striking a balance between the principle of authority in accepting the pillars of Islamic faith and an excessive trust in rational methods. In his very last work Iljam al-'Awamm 'an 'Ilm al-Kalam / Restraining the Masses from the Science of Theology, al-Ghazali points out that deep intellectual insight into the mysteries of doctrine does not help ordinary believers to rectify their being and obtain salvation.  He also wrote a significant work on ethical philosophy, Mizan al-'Amal / The Balance-Scale of Action, integrating previous philosophic thought on the psychology of the soul and the levels of knowledge into a rational spirituality.  Here he boldly outlined the three levels of belief that the teacher of truth should embrace: 1) the level of beliefs of the generality of people who cannot comprehend higher rational or spiritual teachings; 2) the level the teacher shares with a select circle of pupils who have the preparation to grasp higher teachings; and 3) what he privately holds as true within himself, to be guarded from those incapable of understanding. Al-Ghazali thus accepted the esoteric principle of 'withholding knowledge' from those lacking the aptitude to receive it, and cautioned against uncontrolled circulation of metaphysical and psychological sciences without proper preparation and safeguards. Otherwise, knowledge could become destructive and impair spiritual aspiration, rather than beneficial.


In 1095, at the peak of discharging the teaching duties of his official office, al-Ghazali experienced a profound psychological spiritual crisis marked outwardly by an inability to speak that forced him to abandon his eminent public position, turning to the Sufi upbringing of his earliest years. His brother Abu l-Futuh helped at this critical period, deputizing for Abu Hamid in his teaching post and caring for his family and sisters during his absence. (Abu l-Futuh al-Ghazali was an important Sufi master known for his specific teaching on Love ('ishq & mahabbah.) Abu Hamid left Baghdad ostensibly to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca , and spent almost three years in Palestine and Syria as a wandering Sufi dervish or ' seeker of truth' practicing intensive self-work.  Some claim that he left his position of influence and authority in fear for his life from the dreaded Isma'ilis, who were known to leave a warning note attached t o a dagger piercing the pillow of their intended victim while they slept .

 But this interpretation of his motive for abandoning public office is too simplistic. It is clear from al-Ghazali's Deliverance from Error that he was driven by the inner logic of his own intellectual and spiritual search for 'certain truth' (yaqin) to dedicate his remaining life to the Sufi path seeking 'experiential knowledge' of God and nature:

"I apprehended clearly that Sufis are men who had real experiences, not men of words, and that I had already progressed as far as possible by way of intellectual apprehension. What remained for me was not to be attained by oral instruction and study-but only by immediate experience and walking in the Sufi Way."

Until today, the Sufis are known to possess effective techniques enabling humans to purify their physical and psychic functions until the perceptive and knowing faculties attain such clarity and intensity that reality may be directly grasped: the state of kashf or 'unveiling' of Truth that utterly transforms one's being. It was this hunger for inner certainty and cognition of real truth that propelled him onto his chosen path-the path of the Heart.

During the sixteen years from his withdrawal until his death, al-Ghazali produced his most significant works intended to renew the relevance and application of Islamic religious thought by means of a mature synthesis of traditional religious disciplines, the rational sciences, and an original spiritual metaphysic grounded in the science of 'inner interpretation' (ta'wil). In his masterpiece Ihya' 'Ulum al-Din / Revivifying the Religious Sciences “which is divided into four sections, each of ten books” al-Ghazali aimed to integrate Islamic Law, Tradition and Ethics with Sufi psychology and higher metaphysics.  While the Ihya' is limited to the sciences of religious praxis (mu'amalah), it also provides glimpses of the science of experiential cognition (mukashafah), especially in its 3rd & 4th sections treating the spiritual virtues.  He abridged the Ihya' in his al-Arba'in fi Usul al-Din / Forty Principles of Religion, as well as in a Persian summary Kimiya' al-Sa'adah / Alchemy of Happiness.

al-Ghazali returned first to Iraq sometime before 1099, and finally to Khurasan, remaining in withdrawal till 1106 when Fakhr al-Mulk, the son of Nizam al-Mulk and vizier of Sultan Sanjar, coaxed him to resume legal teaching at the Nizamiyyah college of Nishapur. After a little more than two years he retired to his hometown Tus in 1109, where he directed a 'preparatory school' for Sufi novices and privately taught a select circle of disciples. Abu Hamid passed away in Tus in the presence of his brother and sisters in 1111 (505 H), reportedly conscious of his impending moment of release from the body.



The basic structure of al-Ghazali's thought places God and His essential attributes of Will and Knowledge at the basis of all phenomena. This universe has two aspects: there is the natural physical world subdued to God's Will, called Mulk / 'Wordly-Dominion'; and a heavenly realm termed Malakut / 'Spiritual-Kingdom'. The Mulk is merely the shadow of the true realm of spiritual existence. Abu Hamid states: "the bodily world has no real existence, but is in relation to the 'World of Divine-Order' (alam al-amr) like the shadow of a body; the shadow of a man is not the real substance of that man, and so the individual being is not really existent but is a shadow of the real substance (in `Arba'in).  Likewise, the human is basically composed of two aspects: the body and the spirit interpenetrating one another.  The body is the 'riding-animal' for the spirit (ruh).  The essential reality of the human lies in the spirit, also termed nafs "soul", qalb "heart", or 'aql "mind-intelligence".

Al-Ghazali portrays the intelligence as the noblest human attribute, and the key to ultimate felicity.  He regards ‘aql as the privileged tool for receiving divine illumination and grasping the inner science of opening the heart to the experiential knowing of God (Ihya I 19, 25). The highest most real knowledge is the knowledge of God and His Actions, for the world is only valuable as an effect of God's Will. This does not cancel the value of demonstrative reasoning, which is required to defend religion against polemic attacks employing rational arguments. Yet exercising theological reason is not incumbent upon all and need only be undertaken by those equipped for it (fard kifayah), since it is never a substitute for the works of the heart. Furthermore, al-Ghazali adapted aspects of Ibn Sina's psychology of the rational soul in order to provide a more thorough and consistent portrait of human knowledge and spiritual advancement. Abu Hamid placed special emphasis upon the idea of increasing levels of intensity or purity of human awareness and understanding, culminating in the level of the sacred 'prophetic mind', which is the highest attainment of human intelligence shared only by Prophets. Yet the rationality of God's creation and the God's providential 'Generosity' (Jud) conceals a mystery to be grasped only by the heart.

Al-Ghazali understood that God arranges His creation with a perfect disposition of the universe: "God disposes the things in the best possible arrangement" (in al-Maqsad al-Asna, his commentary on God's Beautiful Names). For Abu Hamid, God's Omnipotence established this universe according to the most perfect possible functioning: "it is according to the necessarily right order, in accord with what must be and as it must be and in the measure in which it must be; and there is not potentially anything whatever more excellent and more complete than it" (Ihya' IV 229-30).

In a brief work Mishkat al-Anwar / The Niche for Lights al-Ghazali provides a profound interpretation (ta'wil) of the famous Qur'anic Light verse "God is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth...", beginning with the observation that the only true light in the universe is God in His eternal existence. All the beings in the world receive their borrowed illumination from God, the absolute Being and absolute Light. He wrote:

"All the beings of this world are the effects of God's omnipotence and lights of His Essence. There is no darkness more obscure than non-existence and there is no light brighter than existence. The existence of all things is a light of the Essence of God Most High" (in Ihya' IV 398).

God is completely manifest in the world, but the divine Light is so blinding that it conceals its original source. Similarly, the light of the sun which shines over the entire world cannot be perceived by an observer who looks only at the objects and does not face up to the sky. This implies that all worldly things are nothing before the Creator, according to the Qur'anic verse (al-Rahman 55:26-7): "All who live on earth perish, but the Face of your Lord will abide forever."

Abu Hamid's intellectual contribution to the unfolding of Islamic thought in a number of areas helped shape the growing synthesis between the disciplines of theology, philosophy, and mysticism. The writings of al-Ghazali have guided generations of Muslims in their personal devotions and spiritual efforts. His teachings continue to pose an important challenge for all humans today: How to integrate intellectual activity and rational thought with meaningful inner experience of truth in a balanced and harmonious way.


Guide to Further Readings:

  1. - al-Ghazali: Ihya Ulum al-Din / Revivifying the Religious Sciences, Arabic text ed. by A. 'Izz al-Din al-Sirwan (Beirut, 1985); + a number of earlier Cairo & Beirut editions.  /  Several of the forty "books" contained in Ihya' are translated into English, notably:

  2. --The Book of Knowledge, trans. N. A. Faris (Delhi, 1962);

  3. --Inner Dimensions of Islamic Worship, trans. M. Holland (Leicester, 1983);

  4.  The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife, trans. T. J. Winter (Cambridge, Islamic Texts Society, 1989);

  5.  On Disciplining the Soul and Breaking the Two Desires, trans. T. J. Winter (Cambridge, 1995).

  6. - al-Ghazali: al-Munqidh min al-Dalal, trans. W. M. Watt as The Faith and Practice of al-Ghazali (London 1967; Lahore 1981; rpr. Oxford, One World, 1998). also trans. R. J. McCarthy, in Freedom and Fulfillment (Boston, 1980).

  7. - al-Ghazali: Nasihat al-Muluk / Advice for Kings, trans. F. Bagley (London, 1964).

  8. - al-Ghazali: al-Risalat al-Laduniyya / On the True Meaning of Esoteric Knowledge, trans. M. Smith, in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 1938 pp. 177-200 & 353-374; new trans. forthcoming by L. Lewisohn in Esoteric Traditions in Mediæval Islamic Thought (London, Institute of Ismaili Studies).

  9. *Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas: Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam (Kuala Lumpur, International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization / ISTAC, 1995).

  10. *Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas: The Nature of Man and the Psychology of the Human Soul (K.L., ISTAC, 1990).

  11. L. Binder: "al-Ghazali's Theory of Islamic Government," in The Muslim World v. 45 (1955) pp.229-241.

  12. M. A. Sherif: al-Ghazali's Theory of Virtue (Albany NY, SUNY, 1975).

  13. E. Ormsby: Theodicy in Islamic Thought (Princeton Univ. Press, 1984).

  14. W. M. Watt: Muslim Intellectual: a Study of al-Ghazali (Edinburgh Univ. Press, 1963).

Editor's Note:

This article "... appeared in the New Straits Times was cut up into pieces." in 2001 in time for the Conference on al-Ghazali's relevancy that took place in Kula Lumpur, Malaysia at ISTAC Campus. The author was kind enough to e-mail the article to us. Article is copyright by the author (A. Karim D. Crow) posted with permission. 

Imam Ghazali Home - E-mail - Guest Book