Ghazali, al- (Abu Hamid Mohammad ibn al-Ghazali)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Ghazali, al- (Abu Hamid Mohammad ibn al-Ghazali)

Ghazali, al- (Abu Hamid Mohammad ibn al-Ghazali) (1058-111 1) Persian philosopher and theologian

The Persian sage Abu Hamid Mohammad ibn al- Ghazali demanded more from Islam than a meaningless obedience to temporal powers and religious hierarchy. A native of Tus (near present- day Mashhad, Iran), a Persian city that flourished under the Seljuk dynasty, al-Ghazali enjoyed puppetry, which he later related to the relationship between humanity and God. He and his younger brother Ahmad acquired reverence for orthodox Islam from their father, a self-educated wool spinner, the source of the name al-Ghazali. Orphaned in boyhood, al-Ghazali and Ahmad received a more formal education from their foster father, a Sufi religious teacher who taught them piety, scripture, and hagiography.

Learning stabilized al-Ghazali's life. At Gurgan in what is now north central Iran, at age 12, he began seven years of scholarly study that included astronomy, law, logic, and scripture. After five years of postgraduate work in jurisprudence at Nishapur, he served Nizamul al-Mulk Tusi, a vizier, or administrator, of the Seljuk Empire. A respected philosopher and affable person who made friends easily, al-Ghazali debated with the intellectuals of his day. After 1091, he lectured in Baghdad at the Nizamiyyah College, which the vizier al-Mulk founded in 1065 to teach Islamic law. The excellence of al-Ghazali's teaching earned him the sobriquet of the people's imam (professor), but the demands of the classroom thrust him into depression, apprehension, and emotional collapse at a time when shifting alliances in the Seljuk family and civil wars arising over succession beset Persia.

Over months of a physical and spiritual crisis, al-Ghazali, then 37, received treatment from the caliph's personal physician. In 1095, leaving the college principalship to his brother Ahmad, he abandoned his possessions, made a pilgrimage to Mecca, worked as a sweeper in Damascus, and, in the guise of a peasant ascetic, meditated in the minaret of the city's great mosque. Two years later, he returned to his hometown to live as a recluse. Later wanderings took him to Jerusalem and Hebron in Palestine and, around 1099, among Coptic Christians in Cairo and Alexandria. In 1106, he returned to the theology department at Nizamiyyah College, then retired a second time to mentor Sufi teachers at his monastery until he died of a chronic illness on December 18, 1111. In his final hours, he dressed himself in his shroud and welcomed death as a future union with an eternal light, which he called the Beloved.

In an era of dispute between Shiites and Sunnis, al-Ghazali, like his Sufi successor RUMI, concentrated on the sanctity of the inner human. He set

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himself the task of reconciling Sufist individualism with an overbearing Islamic orthodoxy. For his classes, he wrote al-Risalah al-Qudsiyyah (The Jerusalem tract, 1097), a handbook to Islam. He also composed a valuable manifesto, al-Munqidh min al-Dalal (Deliverance from Error, ca. 1108), a medieval AUTOBIOGRAPHY rich in the philosophical insight of a brilliant religious skeptic. By defending Sufism, he rescued Islam from the esoteric and legalistic debate of extremists. He made religion more accessible to the average seeker by promoting a return to personal piety for comfort, direction, and salvation. At the core of his faith lay his trust in the individual soul.

Written mostly in Arabic and sometimes in Persian, al-Ghazali's 70 titles, from monographs and textbooks to multivolume treatises on philosophy and mysticism, dealt with the challenges of his day. Through lucid prose, subtle parables, and hypothetical conversations, he freed Islamic thought of Hellenistic atheism and rationalism and denounced those clerics who based their thinking on Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. In Kimiya-yi Sa’adat (The Alchemy of Happiness, 1097), al- Ghazali proposed that in place of Greek philosophy, individuals should recognize themselves as weak humans reaching beyond base desires and delusions for oneness with the Almighty. He defined misfortune as the hand of God directing human affairs.

Critics charge al-Ghazali with an all-knowing arrogance but admire his transcendental spiritualism, which rose above disdain of Greek philosophy and of Sunni-Shiite squabbles and blood feuds. In Mishkat al-Anwar (The Niche of Lights, ca. 1105), the philosopher exalts human intuition as a means to enlightenment and ethical justice. Without hesitation, he declares, “God is the highest and furthest light… . He is the real, true light—He alone, without any partner in that” (Ghazali 1998, 3). He pictures humans as individual microcosms created through God's mercy. In place of undisciplined mysticism and wonder, the philosopher encourages a mindset in worshippers that their only earthly tasks are to love God and prepare for eternity. Translated into Arabic, English, Turkish, and Urdu, his profound views on law, theology, and worship influenced the Jewish Kabbalists, Saint

Thomas Aquinas, and the French philosopher Rene Descartes.


Abrahamov, Binyamin. Divine Love in Islamic Mysticism: The Teachings of al-Ghazali and al-Dabbagh. London: Routledge, 2003.

Ghazali, al-. The Niche of Lights. Translated and annotated by David Buchman. Salt Lake City, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1998.

Mitha, Farouk. Al-Ghazali and the Ismailis: A Debate on Reason and Authority in Medieval Islam. London: I. B. Tauris, 2001.