HIP: Al-Ghazali



Massimo Campanini

If we wish to place al-Ghazali within a history of Islamic philosophy we must make some preliminary remarks. The most obvious starting point is that al-Ghazali did not consider himself a philosopher, nor liked to be considered as such. Yet it is interesting that the Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages, reading his book Maqdsid al falasifah (“The Aims of Philosophers”), a reasoned and objective exposition of the main philosophical topics of his time, looked on him as a faylasuf like Ibn Sina or Ibn Rushd. It not only means that al-Ghazali studied and assimilated philosophy deeply, being aware of its theoretical glamour and its structural strength, but also it leads us to believe that philosophy must have had at least an indirect influence even on his mystical thought. Moreover, although al-Ghazali, who was essentially a theologian, a mystic and a jurist, fought sharply against philosophy, trying to demonstrate its contradictions, it would be misleading not to recognize that his mysticism and theology are not simply practical and religious doctrines but have a noticeable theoretical depth.

A second important issue arises regarding the strictly philosophical question of the relation between truth and certainty, an issue al-Ghazali viewed as a vital problem for the scholar. He argued that philosophy cannot assure the truth because it does not produce certainty; and brought against philosophy the same charge Ibn Rushd brought against theology, namely of yielding to huge compromises about the logical coherence of its arguments. In the Munqidh min al-dalal, al-Ghazali wrote:

They [the philosophers who apply logic] draw up a list of the conditions to be fulfilled by demonstration which are known without fail to produce certainty. When, however, they come at length to treat of religious questions, not merely are they unable to satisfy these conditions, but they admit an extreme degree of relaxation.

(al-Ghazali (1967a): 36)

Actually, in al-Ghazali’s opinion, the relation of necessity which exists between the premisses and the conclusions of a syllogism is not able to persuade both the mind and the heart. True knowledge is the consequence of illumination (ilham), of a divine inspiration. Al-Ghazali says that “when God takes care of the heart . . ., the breast lightens and the mystery of the spiritual realm [malakut] is revealed, and the veil of error vanishes and the reality of divine things shines in the heart” (al-Ghazali (1985), 3: 21). Once the heart becomes owner of truth, the mind then obtains certainty: “the necessary truths of the intellect became once more accepted, as I regained confidence in their certainty and trustworthy character. This did not come about by systematic demonstration or marshalled argument, but by a light which God most high cast into my breast” (al-Ghazali (1967a): 25).

It does not mean that al-Ghazali denied, for instance, the compulsory nature of reasoning (Marmura 1965), especially mathematical and logical reasoning;(1) but it is important to point out that he considered theoretical certainty as an effect of the highest kind of knowledge, a knowledge which attains its top level by mystical experience and taste (dhawq). Here, notwithstanding that his starting point was philosophical, al-Ghazali arrives at conclusions very far from ordinarily philosophical.

Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali was born at Tus, a city in Khurasan, in Persia, in 450/1058. He received a good traditional education first at Jurjan and then Nishapur, the provincial capital, where he attended the lessons of the most distinguished theologian of his time, the Ash‘arite Imam al-Haramayn Abu’l-Ma‘ali al-Juwayni. Under his guide, al-Ghazali adopted the main principles of the Ash‘arite kalam, to which he remained faithful until the end of his life.(2)

Principles like the Unity of God (Tawhid) and the reality of Divine Attributes, which must be distinguished from the very Essence of God, together with other characteristic topics of al-Ash‘ari’s theology are held by al-Ghazali too: the belief in the eternity of the Qur’an; the acceptance of the Qur’anic apparently anthropomorphic descriptions of God, who is said to have sight, hearing and a body even though we cannot know how;(3) the conviction that all the blessed will see the Face of God in Paradise like “a moon in a bright night”; the repeated assertion that the only way to know God is revelation, because human reason is too weak to grasp such sublime realities; and the acknowledgment that the succession of the four righteous caliphs (al-rashidun) is legitimate according to the order of morality.

All these utterances are clearly opposed to the Mu‘tazilite doctrines and can be judged “orthodox”, although it is notoriously difficult to understand the real meaning of orthodoxy in Islam. Some scholars deny that Ash‘arism must be considered the chief orthodox school in the Islamic world (see Makdisi (1963) and (1983)) and even maintain, in relation to al-Ghazali, the impossibility of identifying Ash’arism with Shafi‘ite madhhab (Makdisi in UNESCO (1987)). The solution of this problem does not matter here. The essential point is that al-Ghazali turned Ash‘arite kalam into the dialectical basis of his religious revival, making of it the actual framework of his philosophical and to some extent mystical reflection.

In 478/1085 al-Ghazali joined the court of Nizam al-Mulk, omnipotent vizier of the Seljuq Sultan Malikshah, and became a close friend of the vizier. Nizam al-Mulk appointed him teacher of Shafi’ite jurisprudence in the Madrasah Nizamiyyah of Baghdad (484/1091), and soon al-Ghazali collected around himself a great number of students. After a few years, al-Ghazali was an intellectual of the court, if not a courtier. Occupying this position, he appreciated the corruption and immorality of power, the compromises of orthodox fuqaha’ and ‘ulama’ with depraved kings and emirs, and his political ideas matured (see Laoust (1970) and Watt (1963)).

Al-Ghazali professed a sincere loyalty to the caliphate, recognizing the legitimacy of ‘Abbasid rule. Anyway, he argued that caliphs and sultans had to co-operate to bring peace and safety to the Muslim empire. The caliphs, who were given complete religious authority, had to receive the oath of allegiance from the sultans, on whom supreme political authority rested. The sultan had not only the duty to defend the caliphate but also to repress any possible revolutionary tendency (see Binder (1955) and the papers collected in Lambton (1980)). Above all, al-Ghazali’s political attitude was inspired by a sort of quietism, because he stigmatized any revolt, even against an oppressive and evil monarch (Laoust (1970): 368ff.). This attitude is induced by a particular meaning of the relation between the outward and inner world. In fact, political quietism is functional to the renaissance of religious sciences. Nobody – and surely not a scholar or a mystic – can look after his or her conscience if the outside world is troubled by wars and injustice. The reform of the heart needs social peace and harmony, even though this silence has to be paid for with an autocratic power. The wise person may, however, close the windows of the world to open the door of soul.

Obviously, it can be argued that this quietism was justified by fear and dislike of Isma‘ili Shi‘ism which, at the end of the fifth/eleventh century, seemed still very strong in Fatimid Cairo and indeed was vigorously spreading throughout the Middle East after Hasan Sabbah founded at Alamut a Batini state of warrior monks improperly known as “Assassins”. The same Nizam al-Mulk was finally killed by an Assassin in 485/1092. Farid Jabre interpreted the development of almost all al-Ghazali’s thought in the light of his anti-Batinite polemic (Jabre 1958). This thesis is undoubtedly too simple, but it is true that al-Ghazali viewed Isma‘ilism as a real danger for orthodox Islam, both politically and dogmatically. So he devoted many works to the confutation of Isma‘ilism, perhaps the most important of which is the Fada’ih al-batiniyyah wa fada’il al-mustazhiriyyah or al-Mustazhiri (“The Infamies of the Batinites and the Excellences of the Mustazhirites”), composed in 487-8/ 1094 and dedicated to the new caliph al-Mustazhir.

The core of al-Ghazali’s anti-Batinite criticism consists in underlining the absurdities and the heretical innovations which follow the blind submission (taqlid) the Batinites show to the authoritarian teaching (talim) of their Imams. Really, the only living guide for the Muslims must be the Prophet Muhammad, whose acts and utterances compound the body of Hadith and Sunnah and are necessary and sufficient to rule the life of the Islamic community. An orthodox Muslim, al-Ghazali says,

claims knowledge of only two questions: one of them is the existence of the Maker, the necessary existent, in no need of maker and manager; and the second is the veracity of the Apostle. And regarding the remaining questions, it suffices us to learn them by blind acceptance from the Apostle.

(al-Ghazali (1980a): 250)

Even though al-Ghazali seems here to be substituting a blind submission to another authority, it is also worth pointing out that he charges the Batinites with being bad theologians, making a poor use of logic and arbitrarily altering the meaning of the holy texts. Al-Ghazali thinks that it is deceptive and contradictory to try to invalidate intellectual reasoning by an apodeictic proof exalting the infallibility of the Imams (al-Ghazali (1980a): 218). Indeed, if we pay unconditional approval to the Imam’s utterances, how can we build our doctrine on reasoning? The ta‘lim is in opposition to intellect (al-Ghazali (1980a): 249).

This is quite an intriguing point. Although al-Ghazali continues to speak against the gnoseological legitimacy of reasoning, he does not cease to emphasize the greater rationality of his own position. The same attitude al-Ghazali shows in the Tahafut al-falasifah (“The Incoherence of the Philosophers”), the famous work directed properly against philosophy. Dogmatically, philosophy is as dangerous as Isma‘ilism, and in the Tahafut al-Ghazali intends to demonstrate that philosophers are unable to prove, from a theoretical point of view, the religious truths. Anyway, he does not fight philosophers with the weapons of authority and divine revelation, but with the same techniques philosophy uses (see Leaman (1985): chapters 1-3; and Bello (1989): chapters 6-8). In this sense, al-Ghazali takes perhaps an even more rationalistic position than Ibn Rushd, who, in his Fasl al-maqal and Tahafut at-tahafut, tried to transform philosophy into a doctrine which, if not close to religious law, at least does not contrast with it, rather than describing theology as a rationalist discipline (see Campanini (1989): Introduction). On the contrary, al-Ghazzili keeps religion and philosophy well separated, being aware of the essential irreducibility of the two positions.

In the Tahafut al-falasifah he argues that philosophers cannot demonstrate the creation of the world by God, nor the spiritual substance of the human soul. In particular, he argues that philosophers become infidels on three questions: the eternity of the world (a thesis peculiar to Aristotle); the impossibility of God’s knowledge of particulars (a thesis strongly held by Ibn Sina), and the denial of bodily resurrection and mortality of the individual souls, a naturalistic theory which is not exclusively Aristotelian. These three subjects are enough to transform the philosophical message into a potentially corrupting theory. After all, even if the greatest philosophers cannot in general be charged with infidelity (al-Ghazali (1928): 6-7), their doctrines lead many people “to refuse the details of religions and creeds, and to believe that they are human constructed laws and artifices” (al-Ghazali (1928): 5).

A correct and orthodox starting point must begin by considering God as the highest Being and as the unique actually acting Will. On the one hand,

in God there is an Essence [haqiqah] and a quiddity [mahiyyah], and this Essence is equivalent to his Existence, namely that God is free from non-being and privation. However, His Existence is not additional to Essence . . . No agent has produced the existence of a God who does not come to an end and is eternal without any determining cause.

(al-Ghazali (1928): 196)

On the other hand, “The First Principle is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-willing. He acts as He wants and decides as He wants; He creates all the creatures and natures as He wants and in the shape He wants” (al-Ghazali (1928): 131)

Al-Ghazali stresses vigorously the Will of God, a quality which transforms itself in the potentiality (and actuality) of action. Considering these premisses, is there a place in al-Ghazali’s system for natural causes or causae secundae? The problem of causality is perhaps the most discussed in the historiographical literature on our thinker. Even in recent times, several scholars have faced this issue (see Goodman (1978); Alon (1980); Abrahamov (1988)).

It is wrong to think that al-Ghazali absolutely denied the existence of natural causality. To deny that fire burns cotton would be foolish. What al-Ghazali denies is the existence of a necessary connection between the cause and the caused independently of the Will of God who creates the fact of burning. If the contingent world is also the world of all possibility, al-Ghazali claims that this possibility is just the field of God’s free action. The difficulty does not lie in the objective existence of things which are concrete just because God created them. The epistemological problem resides in the impossibility of connecting directly an effect to a cause. The causes can be always hypothetical, and the only certainty we have is that they are consequences of God’s Will.

It is well known that al-Ghazali precedes David Hume in his theory that the nexus of causality is only apparent and is the effect of the human custom of linking together two occurrences which are happening uniformly in nature: “The continuity of custom [‘adah] regarding them [i.e. the things which seem necessary but are only possible], time after time, implants in our mind so strong [an impression of] flow [jarayan] in accordance with past habits that [the continuity] cannot be separated from the things” (al-Ghazali (1928): 285).

Al-Ghazali expresses the same concept in other places in the Tahafut (al-Ghazali (1928): 277-8), but he always stresses the fact that it is God who creates the linkage among the phenomena: “As to what appears outwardly of the connection . . . it depends on the determining action [taqdir] of God – praise be to Him! – who creates [the appearances] in a sequence [ ala’l tasawuq].”

God is able to overturn the rules of natural eventualities and submit the functioning of nature to completely new laws. But this does not mean that God really behaves in such a manner or that He does not give the fire or the water the natural properties to burn and to extinguish. So it is worth moderating the sceptical value of some of al-Ghazali’s statements such as the following: “I proceeded therefore with extreme earnestness to reflect on sense-perception and on necessary truths, to see whether I could make myself doubt them. The outcome of this protracted effort to induce doubt was that I could no longer trust sense-perception either” (al-Ghazali (1967a): 23).

Even though al-Ghazali sometimes seems attached to a vaguely Cartesian methodical doubt, it does not imply an authentic denial of religious truths nor a refusal of the objective world’s reality. Rather, doubt has a prevailing epistemological meaning, and it is addressed to the trustworthiness of the human sciences.

In 488/1095, owing to a spiritual and psychological crisis whose veracity cannot be questioned (Poggi 1967),(4) al-Ghazali left Baghdad and for two or three years he lived in Syria and Palestine and made the pilgrimage to Mecca. He came back to Persia before 493/1099, and he carried on his concealment till the summer of 499/1106 when Fakhr al-Mulk, vizier of the Seljuq Sultan Sanjar, persuaded him to resume his juridical teaching in the Madrasah Nizamiyyah of Nishapur. Al-Ghazali’s return to public life lasted only a little more than two years, because in 503/1109 he retired finally to Tus, where he died in 505/1111.

The long period of concealment witnessed a deep transformation of al-Ghazali’s speculative interests and even of his Weltanschauung. He did not attend any more to philosophy and applied himself totally to Sufism and to the renewal of orthodox religion. In the Munqidh, the spiritual autobiography composed approximately between 501/1107 and 503/1109, he reveals an almost messianic feeling of being aware that “God Most High has promised to revive His religion at the beginning of each century” (al-Ghazali (1967a): 75). Al-Ghazali had the conviction that he was the person designated to carry out this task for his epoch, and pursued his reforming aim by composing a great work, whose title is significantly The Revivification of the Sciences of Religion (Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din), and an exhaustive abridgement of the major work, that is the Book of the Forty Principles of Religion (Kitab al-arba‘in fi isul al-din), as well as its Persian summary Kimiya-yi sa‘adat (“The Alchemy of Happiness”).

Many scholars argued that al-Ghazali achieved the reconciliation of Sufism and orthodoxy (among the last Glassen (1981)). A fact is that, at the end of his life, he considered Sufism as the best doctrine in comparison with philosophy or theology, because, while the human sciences are abstract and superficial, Sufism leads the learned to a positive knowledge of God and nature:

I apprehended clearly that the mystics 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 by walking in the mystic way.

(al-Ghazali (1967a): 55)

The path to God throughout Sufism is a living experience and like an ascending parabola whose starting point is “science”. In the Arba‘in al-Ghazali interprets “science” as the knowledge of God and His Attributes and of the religious duties like prayer, pilgrimage and the alms tax (al-Ghazali (1970): 12-51). But this kind of science, although necessary, is just propaedeutic to an evaluation of a set of subsequent preparatory stages.

There is, first of all, the necessity of avoiding unlawful and blameworthy behaviour, like wrath, avarice, love of worldly goods, etc., which can remove the faithful and the novice (murid) from the right path. In opposition to these reprehensible attitudes, al-Ghazali suggests commendable conduct, among which of great importance are repentance, asceticism and fear of God.

Repentance is “the way of reverting from the remoteness to the proximity of God” (al-Ghazali (1970): 197; al-Ghazali (1985), 4: 11-12). Asceticism is “the dislike of the soul for materiality”, a dislike whose roots (asl) are the science and the light, that is the mystical knowledge and illumination shining in the heart (al-Ghazali (1970): 211). Fear of God is “pain in the heart and its burning because of the expectation of future adversities” (al-Ghazali (1970): 205), and the best fruit of this feeling is the opening of the soul’s inner doors to a quiet hope (al-Ghazali (1985), 4: 135fI:). In the end, the correct behaviour of a mystic implies a silent satisfaction with God’s decrees. Both in the Ihya’ and in the Arba‘in al-Ghazali concludes his exposition by the rida’ bi’l-qadd’ which is coupled with a sincere thanksgiving for all the benefits (and also all the sufferings) God decides to bring to humankind.

After having attained the best possible disposition, the murid is ready to begin the proper approach to God (Campanini 1991). The first step is the frank intention of worship (niyyah); but the two main moments are the dhikr and the tawakkul. The dhikr is the continuous remembrance of God’s Name (Gardet and Anawati (1961): the fourth part) and it leads the mystic to immersion and annihilation (fana’) in God. Anyway, the fana’ or ecstatic grasp is only a short and transient instant (al-Ghazali (1970): 62) and does not concern any kind of hulul, or descent and incarnation of God in the mystic. Al-Ghazali strongly rejects every immoderate claim of some Sufis, such as the theophatic utterances by al-Hallaj or al-Bastami, because they are dangerous and can lead through incomprehension to heresy and polytheism (shirk).

Rather, al-Ghazali underlines the importance of love (mahabbah) (Siauve 1986) and this represents surely an element of distinctness from some of the other Islamic Sufis. In the Arba‘in al-Ghazali writes that “a true learned man loves only God Most High; and if he loves somebody who is not God, he loves him for God, the Almighty and Sublime” (al-Ghazali (1970): 257). The highest degree of love involves a full confidence in God: this is the meaning of tawakkul, such a complete trust in the Creator that the believer gives himself up to Him “like a dead man in the hands of a corpse-washer” (al-Ghazali (1970): 249; al-Ghazali (1985), 4: 242-3).

Some scholars however denied that al-Ghazali’s mysticism was a real ecstatic experience, stressing on the contrary the technical and practical aspects of his theory (Jabre 1958), although all Sufis themselves consider him to be one of the most outstanding among them. It is difficult to reach a balanced answer to this problem from the outside. An important issue is to point out that the Sufi way did not imply for al-Ghazali the neglect of the orthodox practices of worship and the careful fulfillment of the Sunnah (al-Ghazali (1967a): 71-2). Al-Ghazali is persuaded that exterioriry leads to interiority (al-Ghazali (1970): 102ff.), so that Makdisi is right when he says, drawing a comparison between al-Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyyah on Sufism, that both criticized sharply the exaggerations of some Sufis because Sufism often sides against the religious law and devalues the external (and social) meanings of that law (Makdisi (1983): 55).

Finally, Sufism is not for al-Ghazali simply an individual path to reach perfection but a whole conception of life including ethics and morality, behaviour and belief, cosmology and metaphysics. In this sense, it is perhaps true that al-Ghazali’s mysticism is not only a lived experience but also a rational construction by which the learned person can taste the beatitude of ecstasy without relinquishing the satisfaction of theoretical inquiry.

Already the Mizan al-‘amal, composed in the last year of al-Ghazali’s period in Baghdad, shows a tendency to an intellectual reading of the mystical way of life. Commenting on this book, Laoust writes that in it “al-Ghazali is associating the method of the Sufis with the method of speculative theologians, and in particular of the Ash‘arites” (Laoust (1970): 73). So we can realize that there is not a complete break in al-Ghazali’s conception of ethics before and after the crisis of 488/1095. Reason and mysticism have never been separated in al-Ghazali’s mind.

Even in works devoted primarily to religious reform like Ihya’ and Arba‘in, we find a well articulated image of God who “in his Essence is unique, individual, without companions and there is nothing which looks like Him . . . He is everlasting, continuous in His existence” (al-Ghazali (1970): 13). The concrete reality of God seems absolutely stated, but

He is not a body with a shape, nor a measured or definite substance. Nothing looks like Him, either regarding measurability or regarding divisibility in parts. God is not a substance, nor can substances define Him; He is not an accident nor can accidents define Him. No existent being looks like Him and “nothing can be compared with Him” (Qur’an, 42: 11). God does not look like things. Quantity cannot limit Him; no region can enclose Him; no side can surround Him.

(al-Ghazali (1970): 14)

This description of God, as far as His transcendence is concerned, is very close to the Mu‘tazilite negative theology described by al-Ash‘ari in his Maqalat (al-Ash‘ari (1969), 1: 235), and signifies the irreducibility of God to the natural world and his transcendence (Shehadi (1964); Burrell (1987)). This kind of negative theology removes God from nature and grants his untouchability by any deficiencies or limitations, death or dissolution.

But a danger is implicit in the Mu‘tazilite position, namely the ta‘til, the denial of those Divine Attributes, apparently anthropomorphic, which, none the less, are explicitly declared in the Qur’an. Al-Ghazali wants to avoid such a risk. For him, the Divine Attributes are positive realities, and they are separated from the Essence of God:

God Most High knows science, lives life, is powerful through power, willing through will, speaking with a word, hearing by a capacity to hear, seeing by a capacity to see. He has these qualifications in virtue of the eternal attributes. If someone [a Mu‘tazilite] says that God knows without science, he would say that it is possible to be rich without richness or that there is a science without a scientist or a knowing without an object of knowledge.

(al-Ghazali (1985), 1: 102-3)

The idea of God al-Ghazali sketches is strongly Islamic. God is a person living and willing. He decides the destiny of people and animals and can make people suffer without granting them any reward (al-Ghazali (1985), l: 104). Anyway, as we have already pointed out, this arbitrary power does not mean irrational subjectivity in choices. Rather, there are a few places where al-Ghazali seems to approach Leibniz’s concept of “the best of all possible worlds” (see Ormsby (1984)). In the Ihya; we read:

Everything which God apportions to man . . . is . . . pure right, with no wrong in it. Indeed, 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.

(al-Ghazali (1985), 4: 229-30)

And in the Arba‘in:

There are different ways for grasping, with perfect awareness, the perfection of God’s generosity and wisdom. One of these ways is the reflection on the manner in which God organized [tartib] the causes determining the caused. One may regard the knowledge of the decree [qada’] by which God produced everything in the twinkling of an eye, and of the predestination [qadar] which is the clear cause [sabab] of the decree’s details. They are the most perfect and the best possible [decisions] and there is no way to act better and more adequately.

(al-Ghazali (1970): 202)

Obviously, al-Ghazali does not argue that our world is the best world God was able to create, but simply that the omnipotence of God has established for this universe the most perfect possible rules of functioning, even if He would have been able to produce infinitely different worlds. Al-Ghazali’s theory of God’s omnipotence is perhaps comparable to the Western medieval distinction between potentia absoluta et ordinata Dei,(5) a question faced by the most important Christian thinkers such as Duns Scot, Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham. In al-Ghazali’s view, God can act extra legem, but actually He does not, because He provides for the world after having created it. Furthermore, al-Ghazali thinks that the two potentiae are not two dissimilar divinely acting ways but the result of only one determining disposition.

The rationality of God’s creation is clearly expressed also in the Maqsad al-asna fi sharh asma’ Allah al-husna (“The Highest Aim in the Commentary of the Beautiful Names of God”), a book composed approximately at the same time as Ihya’ and a text which can be placed in a long tradition of Islamic studies about the metaphysical, religious and even cosmological meaning of God’s ninety-nine beautiful Names (Gimaret 1988). So in the Maqsad we read that “what comes out from non-existence to existence needs, first of all, a measure (taqdir); secondly, to exist in accordance with this measure; and thirdly, to obtain a right shape” (al-Ghazali (1987): 75).

These operative functions are signified by three of God’s Names: al-Khaliq, or “who gives the things their measure”, al-Bari, or “who brings out the things from nothing to being” and al-Musawwir, or “who creates the things in accordance with the measure” (al-Ghazali (1987): 76). In reference to the Name al-Musawwir, al-Ghazali specifies that “God disposes the things in the best possible arrangement” (al-Ghazali (1987): 77), so that it is really difficult not to infer a perfect disposition of the universe.

From a mystic cosmological point of view, this universe is doublefaced: there is a natural world which is subdued to God’s compulsory Will and is called by al-Ghazali mulk; and there is a heavenly world which is called malakut (Wensinck (1940): 79ff:). Now, the mulk is only the shadow of the true world. In the Arba‘in al-Ghazali uses quite Neoplatonic terms to maintain that

the corporeal world has no real existence [wujud haqiqi], but it is, in relation to the world of Order [ alam al-amr], like the shadow of a body; the shadow of a man is not the real substance [haqiqah] of that man, and so the individual being is not really existent but it is a shadow of the real substance.

(al-Ghazali (1970): 62)

Even though deprived of metaphysical independence, the world is not a mere phantasm. Otherwise, we would not be able to understand the following statement: “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 more bright than existence. The existence of all things is a light of the Essence of God Most High” (al-Ghazali (1985), 4: 398).

All the beings in the world receive their contingent illumination from God who is absolute Being and absolute Light. Indeed, God is completely manifest in the world, but the divine Light is so blinding that it conceals its original source (al-Ghazali (1987): 136-7, in reference to the beautiful Names al-zahir and al-batin). Analogically, the light of the sun, which is shining over the world, cannot be perceived by an observer who is looking only at the objects and does not turn his or her eyes up to the sky. There is a mystical idea beneath this symbol: that is, all worldly things are nothing in front of the Creator according to the famous Qur’anic verse: “All who live on earth perish, but the Face of your Lord will abide for ever” (55: 26-7).

The path we have hitherto followed may suggest that al-Ghazali’s thought is noticeably homogeneous. Perhaps this is quite correct if we consider the metaphysical problems, but the perspective is different if we consider the epistemological problems. We have already acknowledged al-Ghazali’s trust in reasoning, but in the “Introduction” or muqaddimah to the Tahafut al falasifah he argues that natural sciences and physical utterances cannot be judged by theological or scriptural counterarguments.

Al-Ghazali even suggests that whoever tries to contest the mathematical proofs by a literal interpretation of the Hadith and Sunnah damages religion, because the methods of religion are different from the methods of natural inquiry (al-Ghazali (1928): 7-8). Here, al-Ghazali seems to partake of the same epistemological positions Galileo maintained in his famous letter dated 21 December 1613 to Benedetto Castelli, that the Holy Scriptures are not suitable for scientific questions.(6) Anyway, the Muslim thinker immediately adds: “The theoretical value of natural questions, in relation to research about God, is like asking how many layers an onion or how many seeds a pomegranate has. The only really important thing to point out is that they are acts of God” (al-Ghazali (1928): 8).

In the Ihya’, written after the psychological crisis which led to al-Ghazali’s conversion to Sufism, natural sciences are said to be potentially dangerous for religion, save those practices, like medicine, useful for caring for human life (al-Ghazali (1985), 1: 27). Al-Ghazali speaks about the intellect as the noblest human attribute, but the context shows that he regards intellect (aql) as the privileged tool for receiving divine illumination and for grasping the mystic science of dévoilement (mukashafah), the science of opening the heart to the ecstatic knowledge of God (al-Ghazali (1985), 1: 19 and 25).

Some hesitations are manifest, and the beginning of concealment after 488/1095 denotes a deep mental transformation. So a final judgment on al-Ghazali’s attitude towards knowledge and science must be very tenuous. There is at least one thing for sure: the only important and true knowledge is the knowledge of God and His Acts, because the world is valuable only as an effect of God’s Will. Moreover, even though a deep insight into the mystery of reality can be granted exclusively by an illumination coming from God, it would be silly to obliterate demonstrative reasoning. First of all, there is the necessity to defend religion against all its enemies, many of whom are dangerously skilled in persuasive demonstration. As we have already seen, philosophy can be used against philosophy, supposing that the apologetic aim is prevalent. As to the indispensability of science, from al-Ghazali’s point of view, knowledge of the world and its laws are worthwhile but, employing a strictly juridical vocabulary, supererogatory.

Learned men cannot but know God and appreciate his omnipotence and providence. But this learning is not fitted for the masses. There are many passages where al-Ghazali argues against the desirability of the widespread divulging of esoteric knowledge among ordinary people (al-Ghazali (1970): 31; al-Ghazali (1967a): 39ff.).(7) A deep insight into the mysteries of faith and theology does not help in obtaining eternal salvation. Al-Ghazali wrote his very last work, the Iljam al- awamm an alm al-kalam (“Restraint of the Common People from the Science of kalam”) to show how many and how great are the hazards of propagating science among people not prepared to receive it. Although Ibn Rushd charged al-Ghazali with the intention of divulging knowledge to the unlearned, al-Ghazali’s perplexity in regard to an uncontrolled circulation of science is at least equal to the reluctance of his great adversary from Cordova.

The mystical conversation with God is undoubtedly for al-Ghazali essentially a soliloquium: the mystic finds in himself all the answers and certainties his soul needs. But the existence of other people and the necessity to relate to them cannot be ruled out. Al-Ghazali is much too good a jurist to deny any of the pillars of Islamic behaviour and tradition, for instance the common prayer on Friday or the assertion that the Islamic community cannot agree on a mistake. In this sense, the knowledge shared by the ulama’ and fuqaha’ possesses an obvious social value determined by legal presuppositions. The statements of ahl al-sunnah wal jamaah, namely the orthodox community, are binding for everyone. For Ibn Rushd too the pillars of faith are outstanding references for everyone, philosophers and common people equally. It is characteristic that al-Ghazali often provides for the orthodox a “middle way” between opposite extremities (al-Ghazali (1970): 16-27), a medietas which is coherent with the teachings of the Prophet.

The significance of al-Ghazali’s position is that he blames both the person who is blindly subjugated to the principle of authority, and the person who exceeds in trusting reason. Both depart from obeying the law and the juridical prescriptions of religion which are important because they have the task of determining social relations.

Al-Ghazali is universally known as “the proof of Islam” (hujjat al-islam) and this qualification is meaningful only if we admit that his work is a conscious synthesis of three main aspects of the Islamic conception of rationality: theoretical and philosophical inquiry, juridical legislation and mystical practice. Perhaps this kind of rationality appears quite distant from Western rationality. Yet, the breadth of al-Ghazali’s thought means that he can be viewed as the prototype of the Muslim intellectual (Watt 1963).(8)


  1. There are many passages (for instance al-Ghazali (1967a): 33, or al-Ghazali (1928): 11-12) where he defends the authority of mathematical sciences; moreover he composed treatises such as Mi‘yar al-‘ilm (“The Standard of Science”) to demonstrate the usefulness of logic for distinguishing true propositions from the erroneous and for establishing the inherent strength of a discourse.
  2. It is important to remember that al-Ghazali wrote only one treatise properly concerning kalam, namely al-Iqtisad fi’l-i’tiqad composed the last time he stayed in Baghdad as a professor in the Madrasah Nizamiyyah.
  3. It is the famous question of the balkafah or bila kayfah, especially characteristic of the Ash‘arites (see Gardet and Anawati (1981): 52ff:; Caspar (1987): 174ff.).
  4. It is likely (as Jabre argued) that the concealment of al-Ghazali was provoked also, but not exclusively, by political reasons, for instance the fear of the Batinite threat or the hostility of the Sultan Berkiyaruq who succeeded his father Malikshah in 488/1094. But it would be misleading to undervalue the deeper religious motives.
  5. About this problem in Western medieval philosophy, see T. Rudavsky (ed.), Divine Omniscience and Omnipotence in Medieval Philosopby (Dordrecht and Boston, 1985); W. Courtenay, Covenant and Causality in Medieval Thougbt (London, 1984); M. T. Fumagalli Beonio-Brocchieri (ed.), Sopra la volta del mondo: onnipotenza a potenza assoluta di dio tra medioevo e età moderna (Bergamo, 1986).
  6. See G. Galilei, Opere, ed. by F. Flora (Milan and Naples, 1953): 988-9. Galileo’s firm position in favour of the independence of science from religion scandalized the Church and the official authorities. On the contrary, it is noticeworthy that this – perhaps – accidental statement by al-Ghazali has been neglected by the scholars who studied his thought.
  7. In the Mizan al-‘amal (al-Ghazali (1945): 35) we read that the majority of people need action (namely, obedience to legal and religious rules) more than reasoning. What is important is the Truth, because “doctrine” is always changing (al-Ghazali (1945): 148).
  8. The necessity of considering al-Ghazali as a prototype of a Muslim intellectual and thinker is underlined also by Veccia Vaglieri (1970), and it is important for a correct understanding of al-Ghazali’s position, so that his Sufi creed does not obliterate the meaning of human legal acts and the historical value of Islam.



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