EI2: al-Ghazālī


al-G̲h̲azālī, Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad b. Muḥammad al-Ṭūsī (450/1058-505/1111), outstanding theologian, jurist, original thinker, mystic and religious reformer. There has been much discussion since ancient times whether his nisba should be G̲h̲azālī or G̲h̲azzālī; cf. Brockelmann, S I, 744; the former is to be preferred in accordance with the principle of difficilior lectio potius.

1. Life

He was born at Ṭūs in Ḵh̲urāsān, near the modern Mes̲h̲hed, in 450/1058. He and his brother Aḥmad were left orphans at an early age. Their education was begun in Ṭūs. Then al-G̲h̲azālī went to Ḏj̲urd̲j̲ān and, after a further period in Ṭūs, to Naysābūr, where he was a pupil of al-Ḏj̲uwaynī Imām al-Ḥaramayn [q.v.] until the latter’s death in 478/1085. Several other teachers are mentioned, mostly obscure, the best known being Abū ʿAlī al-Fārmad̲h̲ī. From Naysābūr in 478/1085 al-G̲h̲azālī went to the “camp” of Niẓām al-Mulk [q.v.] who had attracted ¶ many scholars, and there he was received with honour and respect. At a date which he does not specify but which cannot be much later than his move to Bag̲h̲dād and which may have been earlier, al-G̲h̲azālī passed through a phase of scepticism, and emerged to begin an energetic search for a more satisfying intellectual position and practical way of life. In 484/1091 he was sent by Niẓām al-Mulk to be professor at the madrasa he had founded in . Bag̲h̲dād, the Niẓāmiyyā. Al-G̲h̲azālī was one of the most prominent men in Bag̲h̲dād, and for four years lectured to an audience of over three hundred students. At the same time he vigorously pursued the study of philosophy by private reading, and wrote several books. In 488/1095, however, he suffered from a nervous illness which made it physically impossible for him to lecture. After some months he left Bag̲h̲dād on the pretext of making the pilgrimage, but in reality he was abandoning his professorship and his whole career as a jurist and theologian. The motives for this renunciation have been much discussed from the contemporary period until the present day. He himself says he was afraid that he was going to Hell, and he has many criticisms of the corruption of the ʿulamāʾ of his time (e.g., Iḥyāʾ , i); so it may well be that he felt that the whole organized legal profession in which he was involved was so corrupt that the only way of leading an upright life, as he conceived it, was to leave the profession completely. The recent suggestion (F. Jabre, in MIDEO, i (1954), 73-102) that he was chiefly afraid of the Ismāʿīlīs (Assassins) who had murdered Niẓām al-Mulk in 485/1092, and whom he had attacked in his writings, places too much emphasis on what can at most have been one factor. | Another suggestion is that of D. B. Macdonald (in EI 1) that contemporary political events may have made al-G̲h̲azālī apprehensive; shortly before he left Bag̲h̲dād the Sald̲j̲ūḳid sultan Barkiyārūḳ [q.v.] executed his uncle Tutus̲h̲, who had been supported by the caliph and presumably al-G̲h̲azālī; and it was | soon after the death of Barkiyārūḳ in 498/1105 that al-G̲h̲azālī returned to teaching.

From al-G̲h̲azālī’s abandonment of his professorship in Bag̲h̲dād to his return to teaching at Naysābūr in 499/1106 is a period of eleven years, and it is sometimes said, even in early Muslim biographical notices, that al-G̲h̲azālī spent ten years of this in Syria. Careful reading of his own words in the Munḳid̲h̲ (see below), and attention to numerous small details in other sources, makes it certain that he was only “about two years” in Syria. On his departure from Bag̲h̲dād in Ḏh̲u ’l-Ḳaʿda 488/November 1095 he spent some time in Damascus, then went by Jerusalem and Hebron to Medina and Mecca to take part in the Pilgrimage of 489/November-December 1096. He then went back for a| short time to Damascus, but his own phrase of “nearly two years there” (Munḳid̲h̲, 130) must be taken loosely. He is reported to have been seen in Bag̲h̲dād in Ḏj̲umādā II 490/May-June 1097 (Jabre, op. cit., 87; cf. Bouyges, Chronologie , 3), but this can only have been a brief stay in the course of his journey to his home, Ṭūs. It is sometimes said that al-G̲h̲azālī visited Alexandria, but scholars are now inclined to reject this report; if he did go to Egypt it can only have been for a short time.

In this period of retirement at Damascus and Ṭūs al-G̲h̲azālī lived as a poor ṣūfī, often in solitude, spending his time in meditation and other spiritual exercises. It was at this period that he composed his greatest work, Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn (“The Revival ¶ of the Religious Sciences”), and he may have lectured on its contents to select audiences. By the end of the period he had advanced far along the mystic path, and was convinced that it was the highest way of life for man.

In the course of the year 499/1105-6 Fak̲h̲r al-Mulk, son of Niẓām al-Mulk and vizier of Sand̲j̲ar, the Sald̲j̲ūḳid ruler of Ḵh̲urāsān, pressed al-G̲h̲azālī to return to academic work. He yielded to the pressure, partly moved by the belief that he was destined to be the reviver of religion ( mud̲j̲addid ) at the beginning of the new century, in accordance with a well-known Tradition. In Ḏh̲u ’l-Ḳaʿda 499/July-August 1106 he began to lecture at the Niẓāmiyya in Naysābūr and not long afterwards wrote the autobiographical work al-Munḳid̲h̲ min al-alāl (“Deliverance from Error”). Before his death, however, in Ḏj̲umādā II 505/December 1111, he had once again abandoned teaching and retired to Ṭūs. Here he had established, probably before he went to Naysābūr, a k̲h̲ānḳāh or hermitage, where he trained young disciples in the theory and practice of the ṣū life. Several names are known of men who were his pupils at Ṭūs (cf. Bouyges, Chronologie, 4 n.).

2. Works and doctrines

(a) Questions of authenticity and esotericism. A great difficulty in the study of al-G̲h̲azālī’s thought is that, while he undoubtedly wrote many books, some have been attributed to him which he did not write. Bouyges in his Essai de Chronologie (composed before 1924 but only published posthumously in 1959 with additional notes on subsequent publications by M. Allard) lists 404 titles. Many of these are taken from lists of his works and no copies are known to exist. In other cases the same book appears under different titles, and a great deal of work has still to be done on manuscripts before scholars know exactly what is extant and what is not. Further, at least from the time of Muḥyi ’l-Dīn b. al-ʿArabī (d. 638/1240) allegations have been made that books have been falsely attributed to al-G̲h̲azālī (cf. Montgomery Watt, A forgery in al-G̲h̲azālī’s Mishkāt?, in JRAS 1949, 5-22; idem, The authenticity of the works attributed to al-G̲h̲azālī. in JRAS, 1952, 24-45). The works whose authenticity has been doubted are mostly works expressing advanced ṣūfistic and philosophical views which are at variance with the teaching of al-G̲h̲azālī in the works generally accepted as authentic. There are difficulties, owing to the richness of his thought, in establishing conclusively the existence of contradictions. Ibn Ṭufayl (d. 581/1185), however, who called attention to contradictions, also suggested that al-G̲h̲azālī wrote differently for ordinary men and for the élite, or, in other words. that he had esoteric views which were not divulged to everyone ( Ḥayy b. Yaḳẓān , Damascus, 1358/1939, 69-72). This complicates the problem of authenticity: but there is no reason for thinking that, even if al-G̲h̲azālī had different levels of teaching for different audiences, he ever in the “higher” levels directly contradicted what he maintained at the lower levels. An alternative supposition, that he adopted extreme philosophical forms of ṣūfism in his last years, seems to be excluded by the discovery that Ild̲j̲ām al-ʿawāmm , in which he holds a position similar to that of the Iḥyāʾ, was completed only a few days before his death (Bouyges, Chronologie, 80 f.; G. F. Hourani, The chronology of G̲h̲azālī’s writings, in JAOS, lxxix (1959), 225-33). In the present state of scholarship the soundest methodology is to concentrate on the main works ¶ of undoubted authenticity and to accept other works only in so far as the views expressed are not incompatible with those in the former (cf. Montgomery Watt, The study of al-G̲h̲azālī , in Oriens , xiii-xiv (1961), 121-31.

(b) Personal . A year or two before his death al-G̲h̲azālī wrote al-Munḳid̲h̲ min al-alāl , an account of the development of his religious opinions, but not exactly an autobiography, since it is arranged schematically not chronologically; e.g., he knew something of ṣūfism before the stage of development at which he describes it in the book. Most of the details about his life given above are derived from the Munḳid̲h̲ . He is also concerned to defend himself against the accusations and criticism that had been brought against his conduct and the views he had expressed. A small work answering criticisms of the Iḥyāʾ is the Imlāʾ .

(c) Legal . Al-G̲h̲azālī’s early training was as a jurist, and it was probably only under al-Ḏj̲uwaynī that he devoted special attention to kalām or dogmatic theology. Some of his earliest writings were in the sphere of fiḳh , notably the Basīṭ and the Wasīṭ , but he apparently continued to be interested in the subject and to write about it, for a work called the Wad̲j̲īz is dated 495/1101, while the Mustaṣfā was written during his period of teaching at Naysābūr in 503/1109 (Bouyges, Chronologie , 49, 73). The latter deals with the sources of law ( uṣūl al-fiḳh ) in a manner which shows the influence of his earlier philosophical studies but is entirely within the juristic tradition. It is reported in biographical notices that at the time of his death al-G̲h̲azālī was engaged in deepening his knowledge of Tradition.

(d) Philosophy and logic. After the period of scepticism described in the Munḳid̲h̲, al-G̲h̲azālī in his quest for certainty made a thorough study of philosophy, a subject to which he had been introduced by al-Ḏj̲uwaynī. This occupied all the earlier part of the Bag̲h̲dād period. What he studied was chiefly the Arabic Neoplatonism of al-Fārābī and Ibn Sīnā. Though his final aim was to show in what respects their doctrines were incompatible with Sunnī Islam, he first wrote an exposition of their philosophy without any criticism, Māḳāṣid al-falāsifa , which was much appreciated in Spain and the rest of Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This he followed by a criticism of the doctrines entitled Tahāfut al-falāsifa , “The incoherence (or inconsistency) of the philosophers”; this was finished at the beginning of 488/1095 (Bouyges, Chronologie, 23). In it he noted twenty points on which the philosophers’ views were objectionable to Sunnīs or inconsistent with their own claims; in respect of three of these they were to be adjudged unbelievers. In the Tahāfut al-G̲h̲azālī concentrates on demonstrating the inconsistencies of the philosophers and does not argue for any positive views of his own. Because of this he has been accused of having remained something of a sceptic. This accusation fails to notice that the Tahāfut was written just before the crisis which caused him to leave Bag̲h̲dād; it is therefore possible that at the time he was somewhat uncertain of his positive beliefs, but a few years later when he was writing the Iḥyāʾ he was in no doubt about what he believed. What impressed al-G̲h̲azālī most of the various branches of philosophical studies was logic, and in particular the Aristotelian syllogism. For the sake of Sunnī jurists and theologians to whom philosophical books were not easily accessible or, because of their technical language, not readily understandable, he ¶ wrote two books on Aristotelian logic, Miʿyār al-ʿilm and Miḥakk al-naẓar . A justification of the use of this logic in religious matters is contained in al-Ḳisṭās al-mustaḳīm , apparently written for some comparatively simple-minded believers who were attracted by Bāṭinī (Ismāʿīlī) doctrines. While full of enthusiasm for philosophy al-G̲h̲azālī wrote a work on ethics, Mīzān al-ʿamal , though whether the whole of the extant text is authentic has been questioned (JRAS, 1952, 38-40, 45). Since al-G̲h̲azālī does not appear to refer to the Mīzān in his later works, and since he became very critical of philosophical ethics (Munḳid̲h̲, 99 ff.), it is possible that, as his enthusiasm waned, he rejected much of what he had written in this work.

(e) Dogmatic theology. His chief work of dogmatics is al-Iḳtiṣād fi ’l-iʿtiḳād , probably composed shortly before or shortly after his departure from Bag̲h̲dād (Bouyges, 34). This book deals with roughly the same topics as the Irs̲h̲ād of al-Ḏj̲uwaynī, but it makes full use of Aristotelian logic, including the syllogism. In this respect Ibn Ḵh̲aldūn (iii, 41) is correct in making al-G̲h̲azālī the founder of a new tendency in theology, although there is no striking novelty in his dogmatic views. In Kitāb al-Arbaʿīn , (Cairo 1344, 24), written after the Iḥyāʾ, al-G̲h̲azālī says that the Iḳtiṣād is more likely to prepare for the gnosis ( maʿrifa ) of the ṣūfī than the usual works of dogmatics; and this continuing approval strengthens the view that al-G̲h̲azālī never ceased to be an As̲h̲ʿarī in dogmatics, even though he came to hold that intellectual discussions in religion should range far beyond the limited field of dogmatics, and that detailed discussions in dogmatics had no practical value. To dogmatic theology might also be assigned Fayṣal al-tafriḳa bayn al-Islām wa-’l-zandaḳa . This is partly directed against the Bāṭiniyya, but is mainly a defence of his own views on the extent to which taʾwīl is justified, and on the relative places of tawātur and id̲j̲māʿ as sources of religious knowledge. Ild̲j̲ām al-ʿawāmm ʿan ʿilm al-kalām , which appears to be his last work, warns of the dangers in the study of kalām for those with little education.

(f) Polemics . The Mustaẓhirī , edited in abridged form by Goldziher as Streitschrift des Gazālī gegen die Bāṭinijja-Sekte (1916), is a searching theological critique of the Nizārī Ismāʿīlīs or Assassins. A Persian work, edited by O. Pretzl as Die Streitschrift des Gasālī gegen die Ibāḥīja (1933), attacks the antinomianism of certain mystics. The authenticity of a work of anti-Christian polemic, al-Radd al-d̲j̲amīl ʿalā sarīḥ al-ind̲j̲īl (ed. and tr. R. Chidiac, Paris 1939) is doubted by Bouyges (126), but defended by Louis Massignon (in REI, 1932, 491-536).

(g) Ṣūfistic practice . Al-G̲h̲azālī’s greatest work, both in size and in the importance of its contents is Iḥyāʾ ʿū lūm al-dīn , “The revival of the religious sciences”, in four volumes. This is divided into four “quarters”, dealing with ʿibādāt (cult practices), ʿādāt (social customs), muhlikāt (vices, or faults of character leading to perdition), mund̲j̲iyāt (virtues, or qualities leading to salvation). Each “quarter” has ten books. The Iḥyāʾ is thus a complete guide for the devout Muslim to every aspect of the religious life— worship and devotional practices, conduct in daily life, the purification of the heart, and advance along the mystic way. The first two books deal with the necessary minimum of intellectual knowledge. This whole stupendous undertaking arises from al-G̲h̲azālī’s feeling that in the hands of the ʿulamāʾ of his day religious knowledge had become a means of worldly advancement, whereas it was his deep conviction ¶ that it was essentially for the attainment of salvation in the world to come. He therefore, while describing the prescriptions of the S̲h̲arīʿa in some detail, tries to show how they contribute to a man’s final salvation. Bidāyat al-hidāya is a brief statement of a rule of daily life for the devout Muslim, together with counsel on the avoidance of sins. K. al-Arbaʿīn is a short summary of the Iḥyāʾ , though its forty sections do not altogether correspond to the forty books. Al-Maḳṣad al-asnā discusses in what sense men may imitate the names or attributes of God. Kīmiyāʾ al-saʿāda is in the main an abridgement in Persian of the Iḥyāʾ (also translated in whole or in part into Urdu, Arabic, etc.), but there are some differences which have not been fully investigated.

(h) Ṣūfistic theory. It is in this field that most of the cases of false or dubious authenticity occur. Mis̲h̲kāt al-anwār (“The niche for lights”, tr. W. H. T. Gairdner, London 1924; cf. idem, in Isl ., v (1914), 121-53) is genuine, except possibly the last section (JRAS, 1949, 5-22). Al-Risāla al-laduniyya deals with the nature of knowledge of divine things, and its authenticity has been doubted because of its closeness to a work of Ibn al-ʿArabī and because of its Neoplatonism (cf. Bouyges, 124 f.). There are numerous other works in the same category, of which the most important is Minhād̲j̲ al-ʿābidīn . These works are of interest to students of mysticism, and their false attribution to al-G̲h̲azālī, if it can be proved, does not destroy their value as illustrations of some branches of ṣūfistic thought during the lifetime of al-G̲h̲azālī and the subsequent half-century.

3. His influence

A balanced account of the influence of al-G̲h̲azālī will probably not be possible until there has been much more study of various religious movements during the subsequent centuries. The following assessments are therefore to some extent provisional.

(a) His criticism of the Bāṭiniyya may have helped to reduce the intellectual attractiveness of the movement, but its comparative failure, after its success in capturing Alamūt, is due to many other factors.

(b) After his criticism of the philosophers there are no further great names in the philosophical movement in the Islamic east, but it is not clear how far the decline of philosophy is due to al-G̲h̲azālī’s criticisms and how far to other causes. Its continuance in the Islamic west, where the Tahāfut was also known, suggests that the other causes are also important.

(c) Al-G̲h̲azālī’s studies in philosophy led to the incorporation of certain aspects of philosophy, notably logic, into Islamic theology. In course of time theologians came to devote much more time and space to the philosophical preliminaries than to the theology proper. On the other hand, his speculations about the nature of man’s knowledge of the divine realm and his conviction that the upright and devout man could attain to an intuition (or direct experience — d̲h̲aw ) of divine things comparable to that of the worldliness of the ʿulamāʾ does not seem to have led to any radical changes.

(d) He undoubtedly performed a great service for devout Muslims of every level of education by presenting obedience to the prescriptions of the S̲h̲arīʿa as a meaningful way of life. His k̲h̲ānḳāh at Ṭūs, where he and his disciples lived together, was not unlike a Christian monastery; and it may be that he gave an impetus to the movement out of which ¶ came the dervish orders (but this requires further investigation).

(e) His example may have encouraged those forms of ṣūfism which were close to Sunnism or entirely Sunnī. Before him, however, there had been much more ṣūfism among Sunnī ʿulamāʾ than is commonly realized. His influence on the ṣūfī movement in general, however, requires further careful study.


Life, General. P. Bouyges, Essai de chronologie des œuvres de al-Ghazali, ed. M. Allard, Beirut 1959 (pp. 1-6 contain very full references to the main biographical sources). D. B. Macdonald, The life of al-G̲h̲azzālī, in JAOS, xx (1899), 71-132 (still useful but requires to be supplemented and corrected). Margaret Smith, Al-G̲h̲azzālī the mystic, London 1944 (contains large biographical section, also chapter on his influence). W. Montgomery Watt, Muslim intellectual, Edinburgh 1963. W.R.W. Gardner, An account of al-G̲h̲azzālī’s life and works, Madras 1919. S.M. Zwemer, A Moslem seeker after God, London 1920.

Works. Brockelmann, I, 535-46; S I, 744-56. M. Bouyges, Chronologie (as above). In ZDMG, xciii, 395-408, Fr. Meier gives information about the Persian Naṣīḥat al-mulūk and its Arabic translation al-Tibr al-masbūk, English tr. by F. R. C. Bagley, Ghazālī’s book of counsel for Kings, London 1964.

Translations and studies later than Brockelmann:W. Montgomery Watt, The faith and practice of al-Ghazālī, London 1953 (Munḳid̲h̲, Bidāyat al-hidāya); G-H. Bousquet, Ih’ya ou Vivification des sciences de la foi, analyse et index, Paris 1955; Iḥyāʾ, xi, Ger. tr. H. Kindermann, Leiden 1962; xii, Fr. tr. G.-H. Bousquet, Paris 1953; xxxi, Susanna Wilzer, Untersuchungen, in Isl., xxxii, 237-309, xxxiii, 51-120, xxxiv, 128-37; xxxiii, Eng. tr. W. McKane, Leiden 1962; Tahāfut, Eng. tr. S. A. Kamali, Lahore 1958; trs. of Ḳisṭās by V. Chelhot in BÉt.Or., xv, 7-98; and of Munḳid̲h̲ by F. Jabre, Beirut.

Doctrines.M. Asín Palacios, La espiritualidad de Algazel y su sentido cristiano, Madrid 1935, etc. J. Obermann, Der philosophische und religiöse Subjektivismus Ghazalis, Vienna and Leipzig 1921. J. Wensinck, La pensée de Ghazâli, Paris 1940. Farid Jabre, La notion de certitude selon Ghazali, Paris 1958. idem, La notion de la Maʿrifa chez Ghazali, Beirut 1958. M. Smith, al-Ghazālī the Mystic (as above). Roger Arnaldez, Controverses théologiques chez Ibn Hazm de Cordoue et Ghazali, in Les Mardis de Dar el-Salam, Sommaire, 1953, Paris 1956, 207-48.


(W. Montgomery Watt)