ER: Al-Ghazali


GHAZALI, ABU HAMID AL- (AH 450-505/1058­1111 ca), named Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Mu­hammad; the distinguished Islamic jurist, theologian, and mystic who was given the honorific title Hujjat al­Islam (Arab., “the proof of Islam”).


Life. Al-Ghazali was born in the town of Tus, near modern Mashhad (eastern Iran), and received his early education there. When he was about fifteen he went to the region of Gorgan (at the southeast corner of the Caspian Sea) to continue his studies. On the return journey, so the story goes, his notebooks were taken from him by robbers, and when he pleaded for their return they taunted him that he claimed to know what was in fact only in his notebooks; as a result of this incident he spent three years memorizing the material.

At the age of nineteen he went to Nishapur (about fifty miles to the west) to study at the important Nizamiyah college under ‘Abd al-Malik al-Juwayni (d. 1085), known as Imam al-Haramayn, one of the leading reli­gious scholars of the period. Jurisprudence would be central in his studies, as in all Islamic higher education, but he was also initiated into Ash’ari theology and per­haps encouraged to read the philosophy of al-Farabi and Ibn Sina (Avicenna). He later helped with teaching and was recognized as a rising scholar. When al-Juwayni died, the powerful vizier of the Seljuk sultans, Nizam al-Mulk, invited him to join his court, which was in fact a camp that moved about, giving al-Ghazali the opportunity to engage in discussions with other scholars.

In 1091, when he was about thirty-three, he was appointed to the main professorship at the Nizamiyah college in Baghdad, one of the leading positions in the Sunni world; it can be assumed that the appointment was made by Nizam al-Mulk, the founder of the colleges bearing his name. After just over four years, however, al-Ghazali abandoned his professorship and adopted the life of an ascetic and mystic.

We know something of al-Ghazali’s personal history during these years in Baghdad from the autobiographical work he wrote when he was about fifty, entitled Al-munqidh min al-dalal (The Deliverer from Error). This work is not conceived as an autobiography, however, but as a defense of his abandonment of the Baghdad professorship and of his subsequent return to teaching in Nishapur about a decade later. It is also not strictly chronological but was given a schematic form. In it, he describes his intellectual journey after the earliest years as containing a period of skepticism lasting “almost two months,” when he doubted the possibility of attaining truth. Once he ceased to be completely skeptical, he set out on a search for truth among four “classes of seekers [of truth],” namely, the Ash’ari theologians, the Neoplatonic philosophers, the Isma’iliyah (whom he calls the party of ta’lim, or authoritative instruction), and finally the Sufis, or mystics. He writes as if these were four successive stages in his journey, but in fact they must have overlapped; it is virtually certain that he gained some knowledge of mysticism during his early studies at Tus and Nishapur. The period of skepticism, too, could only have come after he had some acquaintance with philosophy, since philosophical considera­tions were involved.

The first encounter, according to this scheme, was with the mutakallimun, or rational theologians. These were, of course, the Ash’ariyah, by whom he had been trained and among whom he is reckoned. In the Munqidh he complains that their reasoning is based on cer­tain presuppositions and assumptions which they never try to justify, but which he cannot accept without some justification. In effect what happened was that he found in philosophy a way of justifying some of the bases of Ash’ari theology. This can be seen in his principal work of Ash’ari theology, Al-iqtisad ft al-i’tiqad (The Golden Mean in Belief), where he introduces many philosophi­cal arguments, including one for the existence of God. Until the end of his life he seems to have held that Ash’ari theology was true so far as it went, and in his chief mystical work, Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din (The Revival of the Religious Sciences), he includes an Ash’ari creed of moderate length; this is known as Al-risalah al-qudsiyah (The Jerusalem Epistle) and was probably composed before his extensive study of philosophy.

The second encounter of his intellectual journey was with Greek philosophy and, in particular, the Arabic Neoplatonism of al-Farabi and Ibn Sina. He had probably been introduced to philosophy by al-Juwayni, but he began the intensive study of it early in his Baghdad professorship. Since philosophy, with other Greek sci­ences, was cultivated in institutions distinct from the colleges for Islamic jurisprudence and theology and was looked on with disapproval, al-Ghazali had to study the books of the philosophers by himself. He describes how he devoted to this activity all the free time he had after lecturing to three hundred students and doing some writing. In less than two years he managed to gain such a thorough understanding of the various philosophical disciplines that his book, Maqasid al-falasifah (The Views of the Philosophers), gives a clearer account of the teaching of Ibn Sina on logic, metaphysics, and physics than the works of the philosopher himself. After another year’s reflection on these matters, al-Ghazali wrote a powerful critique of the metaphysics or theology of the philosophers entitled Tahafut al-falasifah (The Inconsistency of the Philosophers). His argument against the philosophers is based on seventeen points on which he attacks their views as heretical and on three others on which he regards the philosophers as infidels. In discussing the seventeen points al-Ghazali demon­strates the weaknesses of the philosophers’ arguments for the existence of God, his unicity, and his incorporeality, and he rejects their view that God is a simple existent without quiddity and without attributes, their conception of his knowledge, and some of their assertions about the heavens and the human soul. The three points contrary to Islam are that there is no resurrection of bodies but only of spirits, that God knows universals but not particulars, and that the world has existed from eternity. Underlying the detailed arguments is his conviction that the philosophers are unable to give strict logical proofs of their metaphysical views. He therefore turned away from them also in his search for truth.

His third encounter was with a section of the Isma`iliyah who held that true knowledge was to be gained from an infallible imam. It seems doubtful whether he seriously expected to gain much from such people. He did, however, study their views carefully, partly because the caliph of the day commanded him to write a refutation of them. He had little difficulty in showing that there were serious inadequacies in their teaching.

His final encounter was with Sufism; he had already realized that this mysticism entailed not only intellec­tual doctrines but also a way of life. After four years in Baghdad he felt himself so involved in the worldliness of his milieu that he was in danger of going to hell. The profound inner struggle he experienced led in 1095 to a psychosomatic illness. Dryness of the tongue prevented him from lecturing and even from eating, and the doc­tors could do nothing to alleviate the symptoms. After about six months he resolved to leave his professorship and adopt the life of a Sufi. To avoid any attempts to stop him, he let it be known that he was setting out on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Actually he went only to Damascus, living there as a Sufi for over a year, and then made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1096. Some six months after that he was back in Baghdad and then seems to have made his way by stages back to his native Tus. There he established a khanaqah (hostel or convent), where some young disciples joined him in leading a communal Sufi life. The genuineness of his conversion to Sufism has sometimes been questioned by Muslim scholars, and it has been suggested that he left his professorship because he was afraid his life was in danger on account of political involvements. To judge from his own account, however, religious considerations were uppermost in his mind.

The Muslim year 500 (which began on 2 September 1106 CE) marked the beginning of a new century. Mu­hammad was reported to have said that God would send a “renewer” (mujaddid) of his religion at the begin­ning of each century, and various friends assured al­Ghazali that he was the “renewer” for the sixth century. This induced him to take up an invitation from the vi­zier of the provincial governor in Nishapur to become the main professor in the Nizamiyah college there. He continued in this position for three or possibly four years and then returned to Tus, probably because of ill health; he died there in 1111. His brother Ahmad, him­self a distinguished scholar, describes how on his last day, after ablutions, Abu Hamid performed the dawn prayer and then, lying down on his bed facing Mecca, kissed his shroud, pressed it to his eyes with the words, “Obediently I enter into the presence of the King,” and was dead before sunrise.


Works. Over four hundred titles of works ascribed to al-Ghazali have been preserved, though some of these are different titles for the same work. At least seventy works are extant in manuscript; it is clear, however, that some of these, chiefly works of a mystical charac­ter, have been falsely attributed to al-Ghazali, though in the case of one or two the inauthenticity is not universally admitted. Certain of these works are written from a standpoint close to that of the philosophers, and earlier scholars, regarding them as authentic, were led to suppose that before his death al-Ghazali came to adopt the views he had previously attacked, or else that in addition to his publicly expressed views, he held esoteric views which he communicated only to a select few. Since about 1960, however, scholars have been aware of a manuscript written four years after his death, which bears a colophon stating that the short

work it contains was completed by al-Ghazali about a fortnight before he died. This work is Iljam al-‘awamm ‘an ‘ilm al-kalam (The Restraining of the Common People from the Science of Theology), and in it he writes as a Shafi’i jurist who, at least up to a point, accepts Ash’ari theology. It is also known that just over two years earlier he had completed a long and important work on the principles of jurisprudence, Al-mustasfa (The Choice Part, or Essentials); this was presumably one of the subjects on which he lectured at Nishapur. These facts make it inconceivable that at the end of his life al-Ghazali adopted the heretical views he had previously denounced, and thus they strengthen the case for regarding as inauthentic works containing views which cannot be harmonized with what is expressed in books like the Munqidh and the Ihya’.

The genuine works of al-Ghazali range over several fields. One of these is jurisprudence, which is dealt with in several early works, as well as in the much later Mus­tasfa mentioned above. These are the works most often referred to in connection with al-Ghazali during the two centuries after his death. Most of these legal works were presumably written before he went to Baghdad. At Baghdad he turned to philosophy, producing the Maqasid and the Tahafut, the exposition and critique of the Neoplatonic philosophers. About the same time, he wrote two small books on Aristotelian logic and a semi­philosophical work on ethics (which may, however, contain some interpolations). He also tells us that it was in Baghdad that he composed for the caliph al-Mustazhir the refutation of Isma’ili thought known after the pa­tron as the Mustazhiri. His exposition and philosophical defense of Ash’ari doctrine in the Iqtisad must have been written either shortly before or shortly after leaving Baghdad.

For some time after that, al-Ghazali’s literary occu­pation seems to have been the composition of his great­est work, the Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din. It consists of four “quarters,” each divided into “books” or chapters; a complete English translation would probably contain at least two million words. The first quarter, entitled “the service of God,” has books dealing with the creed, ritual purity, formal prayer (salat), other types of prayer and devotion, almsgiving, fasting, and the pilgrimage. The second quarter deals with social customs as prescribed in the shari’ah and has books on eating habits, marriage, acquiring goods, traveling, and the like; it concludes with a book presenting Muhammad as an exemplar in social matters. The third quarter is about “things destructive,” or vices, and, after two general books on “the mysteries of the heart” and how to con­trol and educate it, gives counsel with regard to the var­ious vices. The fourth quarter on “things leading to sal­vation” deals with the stages and aspects of the mystical life, such as penitence, patience, gratitude, renunciation, trust in God, and love for him. In most of the books al-Ghazali begins with relevant quotations from the Qur’an and the hadith (anecdotes about Muhammad, sometimes called traditions) and then proceeds to his own exposition. His overriding aim seems to be to show how the scrupulous observance of all the external acts prescribed by the shari’ah contributes to the inner mystical life.

Al-Ghazali presents a simpler version of the way of life to which the Ihya’ points in Bidayat al-hidayah (The Beginning of Guidance). Other works of interest from his mystical period are an exposition of the ninety-nine names of God with the short title Al-maqsad al-asna (The Noblest Aim) and a discussion of light symbolism centered on the “light verse” of the Qur’an (24:35) and entitled Mishkat al-anwar (The Niche for Lights). There is also a Persian work, Kimiya’ al-sa’adah (The Alchemy of Happiness), covering the same ground as the Ihya’ but in about half the compass.

Among the works of doubtful authenticity is a refuta­tion of Christianity with the title Al-radd al-jamil ‘ala sarih al-injil (The Beautiful Refutation of the Evidence of the Gospel). Even if this is not by al-Ghazali, it is of course an interesting document of roughly his period, and the same is true of the spurious mystical works.


The Achievements of al-Ghazali: Philosophy, Theology, and Mysticism. At the present time it is still difficult to reach a balanced judgment on the achievement of al-Ghazali. After the first translation of the Munqidh into a European language (French) was published in 1842, many European scholars found al-Ghazali such an attractive figure that they paid much more attention to him than to any other Muslim thinker, and this fashion has been followed by Muslim scholars as well. His im­portance has thus tended to be exaggerated because of our relative ignorance of other writers. This ignorance is now rapidly decreasing, but care is still needed in making an assessment of al-Ghazali.

Part of al-Ghazali’s aim in studying the various philosophical disciplines was to discover how far they were compatible with Islamic doctrine. He gave separate consideration to mathematics, logic, physics, metaphysics or theology (ilahiyat), politics, and ethics. Metaphysics he criticized very severely in his Tahafut, but most of the others he regarded as neutral in themselves, though liable to give less scholarly persons an unduly favorable opinion of the competence of the philosophers in every field of thought. He himself was very impressed by Aristotelian logic, especially the syllogism. He not only made use of logic in his own defense of doctrine but also wrote several books about it, in which he managed to commend it to his fellow-theologians as well as to expound its principles. From his time on, many theological treatises devote much space to philosophical preliminaries, and works on logic are written by theologians. The great positive achievement of al-Ghazali here was to provide Islamic theology with a philosophical foundation.

It is more difficult to know how far his critique of phi­losophy led to its disappearance. Arabic Neoplatonic philosophy ceased to be cultivated in the East, though there was an important Persian tradition of theosophi­cal philosophy, but there had been no philosopher of weight in the East since the death of Ibn Sina twenty years before al-Ghazali was born. In the Islamic West philosophy following the Greek tradition continued un­til about 1200 and included a refutation of al-Ghazali’s Tahafut by Ibn Rushd (Averroes), so that the decline in the West cannot be attributed to al-Ghazali.

Sufism had been flourishing in the Islamic world for over two centuries. Many of the earliest Sufis had been chiefly interested in asceticism, but others had cultivated ecstatic experiences, and a few had become so “intoxicated” that they seemed to outsiders to claim unity with God. Such persons often also held that their mystical attainments freed them from duties such as ritual prayer. In al-Ghazali’s time, too, yet other Sufis were becoming interested in gnostic knowledge and de­veloping theosophical doctrines. For these reasons many of the ‘ulama’, or religious scholars, were suspi­cious of all Sufism, despite the fact that some of their number practiced it in a moderate fashion without be­coming either heretical in doctrine or antinomian in practice. Al-Ghazali adopted the position of this latter group and, after his retirement from the professorship in Baghdad, spent much of his time in ascetical and mystical practices. The khanaqah which he established at Tus was probably not unlike a monastery of contem­platives. His great work the Ihya’ provides both a theoretical justification of his position and a highly detailed elucidation of it which emphasized the deeper meaning of the external acts. In this way both by his writing and by his own life al-Ghazali showed how a profound inner life can be combined with full observance of the shari’ah and sound theological doctrine. The conse­quence of the life and work of al-Ghazali was that reli­gious scholars in the main stream of Sunnism had to look more favorably on the Sufi movement, and this made it possible for ordinary Muslims to adopt moder­ate Sufi practices.



Two older books still have much of value, though they make use of works probably falsely attributed to al-Ghazali: A. J. Wensinck’s La pense de Ghazzali (Paris, 1940) and Margaret Smith’s Al-Ghazali the Mystic (London, 1944); the latter includes a full account of his life. My Muslim Intellectual: A Study of al-Ghazali (Edinburgh, 1963) looks at his life and thought in its intellectual context. In La politique de Gazali (Paris, 1970), Henri Laoust gives some account of his life as well as of his political thought. Hava Lazarus-Yafeh’s Studies in al-Ghazzali (Jerusalem, 1975) includes among other things discussions of authenticity on the basis of linguistic criteria. The fullest account of all works ascribed to him, with extensive considera­tion of questions of authenticity, is Maurice Bouyges’s Essai de chronologie des ceuvres de al-Ghazali, edited by Michel Allard (Beirut, 1959). (PDF) The following are a few of the numerous trans­lations available: My The Faith and Practice of al-Ghazali (London, 1953) has translations of the Munqidh and Bidayat al-hi­dayah; Richard J. McCarthy’s Freedom and Fulfillment (Boston, 1980) has translations of the Munqidh and “other relevant works” with introduction and notes; William H. T. Gairdner’s Al-Ghazzali’s Mishkat al-anwar (The Niche for Lights; 1924; re­print, Lahore, 1952) is a translation with introduction of a mystical text; Muhammad A. Quasem’s The Jewels of the Qur’an: al Ghazali’s Theory (Bangi, Malaysia, 1977) (PDF), a transla­tion of Jawahir al-Qur’an, shows how the Qur’an was understood and used by Sufis; Robert C. Stade’s Ninety-nine Names of God in Islam (Ibadan, 1970) is the descriptive part of Al-maqsad al-asna.

A general overview of the Ihya’ is given in G: H. Bousquet’s Ghazali, Ih’ya ‘Ouloum ed-din, ou vivification des sciences de la foi; analyse et index (Paris, 1955).

Translations of separate books include: [Webmaster’s Note: The following books are available on this site for download] Nabih Amin Faris’s The Book of Knowledge (book 1; Lahore, 1962); The Foundations of the Articles of Faith (book 2; Lahore, 1963); The Mysteries of Purity (book 3; Lahore, 1966); The Mysteries of Almsgiving (book 5; Lahore, 1974); The Myster­ies of Fasting (book 6; Lahore, 1968); E. E. Calverley’s Worship in Islam (book 4; 1925; reprint, Westport, Conn., 1981); Muhammad A. Quasem’s The Recitation and Interpretation of the Qur’an (book 8; Selangor, Malaysia, 1979); D. B. Macdonald’s “Emotional Religion in Islam as Affected by Music and Singing” (book 18), Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1901): 195­252, 705-748; and (1902): 1-28; Leon Zolondek’s Book XX of al­GhazalI’s Ihya’ (Leiden, 1963); and William McKane’s Al-Ghazali’s Book of Fear and Hope (book 33; Leiden, 1965).