Al Ghazali (1058-1111 ) is the only Islamic teacher to be put on a level with the four great Imams. The reformer and mystic gave relief and vitality to Islam from the cold formalism and the dead weight of Tradition, saving it from the flatness of scholasticism and opening the possibility of a spiritual life. He tried to show the dangers of philosophy but also showed that it was the hand-maid of Islam but through orthodox dogma he re-introduced into Islam an element of fear as he emphasised the terrors of the day of judgement and the horrors of hell. The mysticism that already existed in Islam gained an assured position amongst pious Muslims in the life of Al-Ghazali. He was buried at Tus in Persia.
The Abbasid Caliphs were a shadow of the former caliphs and under the Seljuk’s they were virtually powerless. In the year 1000 A.D. Islam was in a very bad way; there was a great multitude of Islamic states but solidarity was weak and the most influential state was the Fatamids which was Shiite. The Turks caused dreadful devastation trampling down rather than building up the culture of the human race but they did strengthen the religion of Islam for the Seljuk’s conquered new land in the north-west for Islam and revived the warlike character of Islam.
When Asia Minor and Syria were conquered by the Turks the access to Jerusalem was cut off in the west. In 1076, when Ghazzali was a young man, 3,000 Christian people were massacred and the Patriarch of Jerusalem was dragged by the hair along the streets and cast into prison. On going suffering led to indignation in the west which saw Peter the Hermit, after visiting Jerusalem, return to rouse the European nations. In 1099 the Franks took Jerusalem, and they inflicted a terrible vengeance for their own sufferings. Jews were burned in their synagogues and 70,000 Muslims were killed in three days of massacre. Soon, Godfrey and his successors extended their dominions until only four cities in Syria remained under the Muslims – Aleppo, Damascus, Hamath, Hums. The followers of the Prophet were filled with grief and shame and longed to wipe away the disgrace that had fallen on their religion.
Al-Ghazali spent his first twenty years in Khorasan, Persia where the Nestorians were still very influential under the Baghdad caliphs (750-1258). They were used in the court as physicians, scribes, secretaries, they had their own Patriarch. The Arab scholarship that came to Spain came largely through the Nestorians who handed down to them the Greek culture which was inherited in
His Religious Life
The endless repetition of God’s names is what may be called ‘pray without ceasing’ in Islam. Al-Ghazali led a life devoted to prayer and fasting. His prayers included the recommended wird prayers which involved mystical devotion for whole periods of the day or night. In addition to the meritorious acts of fasting, almsgiving, visiting the sick and attending funerals devotion was supplemented by the special Sufi method of dhikr. The devotee tries to develop a state where existence and non-existence are the same. During this time the worshipper is not to read any religious books but in his solitude he is to think only of God repeating continuously Allah, Allah. He is to persevere in this repetition until all emotion is removed, and the shape of the letters of Allah are removed from thought until the idea alone remains. Nothing remains but to wait for the mercy of God. In this abandoned state the ‘Real’ would shine into his heart whether momentary or for longer periods.
Al-Ghazzali performed the rites of the Hajj but along with earlier Sufi’s gave a mystical interpretation. When putting on the ihram he discarded all the qualities of human nature with the clothes he cast off. At Muzdalifah he renounced all sensual desires; when circling the Ka’aba he looked on the immaterial beauty of God; at Safa and Marwa he sought to attain purity and virtue; when sacrificing he sacrificed worldly desires; in throwing pebbles he threw away all sensual thoughts.
His Doctrine and Teaching
The scholastic theologians of al-Ashari had created a scientific system to counter the Mu’tazilites in order for them to hold their lines against heretics and expose their inconsistencies but against the sceptic they could do nothing. They lacked the necessary knowledge of the philosophical grounding, such as substances, attributes and first principles and were constrained to fall back on authority. Al-Ghazali studied the various philosophical systems but found they could only satisfy the intellect and not the heart. No other way lay open to him but the way of the mystics.
Once he had overcome his early scepticism he was an orthodox Muslim. He believed in the six articles of the creed and the five pillars of practice and was a predestinarian in the fullest sense. He was a dogmatic theologian and laid down with great care every point of dogma. He found God in nature and those verses in the Quran concerning natural theology, as proofs of God, had an especial appeal to him. He had a great love for the Traditions of Bukhari and Muslim yet he also used many traditions that had no pedigree or isnad, quoting from memory too freely.
He believed in divine revelation and that God had established Muhammad’s prophetic character by miracles, such as the splitting of the moon, the praising him of stones, the gushing out of water from between his fingers and the miracle of the Quran. He also believed in the pre-existence of Muhammad. According to Tradition Muhammad was a prophet before creation for he said “I was a prophet while Adam was yet between earth and clay.” For this reason Muhammad is given names such as Universal Reason, the Great Spirit, the truth of humanity, and the Possessor of the Ray of Light – the Nur -i- Muhammad.
He teaches clearly that all the prophets including Muhammad were sinners yet nowhere mentions any sinfulness in Jesus Christ. He believed that personal repentance was necessary and gave the illustration of the heart being like a good garment that had been dragged through filth. However, with the washing of tears and repentance his heart can be clean and acceptable to God.
Many have assigned to Al-Ghazali the highest position among Muslim writers. From his known works (many are short), we find Jawahir al-Quran (Beauties of the Quran), an observation on some verses which he considered having special value; ‘Aqida is a statement of the articles of the Muslim faith; Ihya ‘ulum id-din (Revival of the Religious Sciences) concerns the morality and theology of the mystics in an almost encyclopaedia form of Islamic teaching and ethics; Mizan Al-‘amal is a compendium of ethics and the satisfaction of his mysticism is found in Kimya as-sa’ada (The Alchemy of Happiness). Works on jurisprudence on Shafi’ite law earned a great reputation in the Muslim world. In the domain of philosophy he introduced the subject in Maqasid al-Falasifa (Aims of the Philosophers) but attacked those who followed Greek philosophy in Tahafut al-Falasifa (the Collapse of the Philosophers). He described the development of his own philosophy in Al-Munqidh min ad-Dalal (Confessions – Deliverer from Error).
The Minhaj was written at the close of his life when he had adopted a mystical vocabulary. He speaks of stages in which the soul progresses towards salvation and peace. He comments on the difficulty of this road: “Some seekers can only finish these stages in seventy years, some in twenty, some in ten. Others there are, however, whose souls are so enlightened, so free from the care and perplexity of the world, that they finish the journey and arrive at the goal in a year, a month, what do I say, in an hour; so they awaken like the Companions of the Cave, and the change they see in themselves and those about them is to them as a dream.”
In summing up his works we can say 1) through his interpretation of the Quran he did not follow a slavish adherence to the earlier commentators but gave a spiritual interpretation of the text; 2) he re-introduced into Islam the element of fear in order to bring Muslims back to repentance especially in his short book Al-Durra al-Fakhira (The Precious Pearl); 3) he ensured that mysticism now held an assured position in orthodox Islam; 4) he illustrated how philosophy and Islam is not contradictory one to the other, but can be used as handmaid to faith.
In Islam ideal virtue is found through the imitation of Muhammad. Every detail of outward conduct is regulated by what is said to have been the practice of the Prophet in the books on Adab: how to eat a pomegranate correctly, how to take a bath, how to use the tooth-brush (miswak), how to behave towards Jews and Christians and what ornaments are allowed. A stream cannot rise higher than its source; a tower cannot be broader than its foundation, it is not surprising therefore that the ethical standard is low. Even in Al-Ghazali it remains low but happily sometimes rises higher than the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad. The ethics of Islam bear the character of an outwardly and crudely conceived doctrine of righteousness. It has its high points in conscientiousness in the sphere of social relations, faithfulness to conviction and one’s word and the bringing of an action into relation to God but there is a lack of heart-depth by not basing it on the moral law found in love.
Muslim doctors of jurisprudence, define sin as “a conscious act of a responsible being against a known law” therefore sins of ignorance and of childhood are not reckoned as real sin. They divide sin into ‘great’ and ‘small’ some list seven great sins; others seventeen and the ceremonial is scarcely distinguished from the moral. Al-Ghazali is in total agreement with this definition. What we get from Ghazzali’s ethical teaching is only a matter of good and bad advice, yet his sincerity and moral earnestness have made him far more influential than those with a purely intellectual approach like Averroes. In his Al-Adab fi Din (Ethics in Religion) we learn more about behaviour, conduct, etiquette, politeness and decency (adab) rather than truth, heart-purity or moral courage. In the Ihya he deals with the question of lying concluding a lie is legitimate “We say the end justifies the means” – “We must lie when truth leads to unpleasant results, but tell the truth when it leads to good results.”
In his Ihya a section deals with the education of boys and the improvement of their morals. Education is shown to be very important in order for the child to distinguish between good and evil; it consists of teaching table-manners, avoidance of unclean food, gluttony and impoliteness. He should learn the Quran, the traditions and the lives of pious Muslims; good character should be praised, erotic poetry avoided. Once again it is basically a mingling of good and bad advice. Nothing is said about the education of girls.
The ethics of marriage holds a large place in Muslim literature, and also in the works of Al-Ghazali. Marriage is enjoined on all Muslims and celibacy is discouraged. Muhammad said “Marriage is my custom, and he who dislikes it does not belong to my people” and again “Marriage is half of one’s religion.” Marriage is defined by Muslim jurists as “a contract by which the husband obtains possession of the wife and is allowed to enjoy her, if there be no legal impediment preventing the same.” Al-Ghazali concurs “Marriage for the wife is a kind of a slavery and it is her duty to obey her husband in absolutely everything, except what is contrary to the laws of Islam.” He is fully Islamic in his outlook towards marriage: he gives advice as to the appropriate qualifications which should be found in the woman when selecting a wife; the duties of the husband to the wife and the duties of the wife to the husband; and encouragingly the need for kindly treatment towards the wife. He looked upon divorce as an evil, one would like to know whether he himself had more than one wife, but his biographers are silent. He deemed that the very word ‘divorce’ caused a woman pain “for how can it be right to pain anyone?” He advised that the divorce formula should not be repeated three times but on three different occasions. The divorce should be made kindly and others should not be told the reason for the divorce.
He gives the advice that “a man should remain on good terms with his wife ….. bearing any annoyance she causes him, whether by reasonableness or ingratitude, patiently” remarking that “woman was created weak and requires concealment: she should therefore be borne patiently.” The prophet said “He who bears the ill-humour of his wife patiently will earn as much merit as Job did by the patience of his trials.” He recommended that there should be a mixture of severity and tenderness in marriage, with the great proportion of the latter. The Prophet said “woman was formed of a crooked rib; if you try to bend her, you will break her; if you leave her alone, she will grow more and more crooked; therefore treat her tenderly.”
Al-Ghazali is conscious of a struggle between the higher and lower natures in man. The body is simply the riding animal of the soul and perishes while the soul endures. “The soul should take care of the body just as a pilgrim on his way to Mecca takes care of his camel; but if the pilgrim tends to spend his whole time in feeding and adorning his camel the caravan will leave him behind and he will perish in the desert.” Al-Ghazali tried hard but failed to find in Muhammad the ideals of his own heart. This is the tragedy of Islam.
One of Ghazzali’s favourite authorities was al-Junaid (A.H. 297) the great leader of the Sufi movement that spread throughout Islam. The preachers of the new doctrine travelled everywhere and mixed with men of all conditions. In this way they adopted ideas from many sources, although always professing to base their teaching on the Quran. Al-Ghazali says that the aim of the Sufi’s is to “free the soul from the tyrannical yoke of the passions, to deliver it from its wrong inclinations and evil instincts, in order that in the purified heart there should only remain room for God and for the invocation of his holy name.”
Union with God is the goal of all the Sufi teachings and practices. While some Sufi’s set aside external religion al-Ghazali was not one of their number. He taught that the ordinary theologian cannot enter the mystic path because he is in bondage to dogma. Prayer, fasting, pilgrimage observations had two roles a formal and a spiritual but this esoteric knowledge was only grasped by those who gave themselves entirely to God. He was aware and condemned those who practised excesses in mysticism which was orientated towards pantheism and complete oneness with God.
His mysticism was dependent on the six articles of faith and the five pillars of practice which he considered to create in the soul its fundamental impulse towards God. His was an ethical mysticism, founded on the trio of mysticism, law and dogma, these subjects constituted the religious sciences of the Sufi. Ethical mysticism has been expressed in the following way: “the law offers the bread of life to all the faithful, the dogmatics are the arsenal from which the weapons must be taken to defend the treasures of religion against unbelief and heresy, but mysticism shows the earthly pilgrim the way to heaven.” The disappointing feature of this ethical teaching was that this mysticism was not for everybody. It was esoteric, for a particular class; the teaching of Al-Ghazali was intended not for the masses but for initiates. While he himself founded a cloister for Sufi s at Tus he left no established order behind him, despite this his teaching is popular among all the dervish orders of today.
Music and dancing as Aids to the Religious Life: The topic of the lawfulness of these activities was discussed in earnest among the theologians. The Sufi’s had already introduced the practice which al-Ghazali justified, he even justifies erotic poetry if sung for the glory of God. Music and dance “fan into flame whatever love is already dormant in the heart, whether it be earthly and sensual, or divine and spiritual.” In respect of reciting the Quran and stirring metric he noted “all the verses of the Quran are not adapted to stir the emotions, for example commands that a man should leave his mother the sixth part of his property and his sister half, or that a widow must wait four months after the death of her husband before becoming contracted to another man. He admitted that sometimes the recital of such verses can lead to religious ecstasy, but only with the particularly sensitive and it was very rare.
The Tradition of the Seventy Thousand Veils: Al-Ghazali has recourse to the Tradition “God has Seventy Thousand Veils of Light and Darkness: were he to withdraw them, then would the glory of His countenance consume everyone who looked upon Him” The idea behind the Tradition is that the human soul has become alienated from its divine source by these veils and they therefore need to be removed. Those veiled by pure darkness, the first class, are the atheists who deny the existence of Allah and the Last Day. The second class are veiled by light mingled with darkness these feature those who believe in the true God but have false notions of Him. The third class are veiled by pure light, they are free from anthropomorphism but still have not yet attained to the highest conception of Divine Unity. The purpose of the mystic is to set the soul free from its fetters, purify the heart and remove the veils between the soul and God, so that it may be able to return to its true home and be united with its source.
The great mystic was also superstitious. Some of his books deal with magic formulae based on the Quran. One of the most well known is the magic squares used on amulets which is called ‘Square of Al-Ghazali’ (Al-Buduh). In his Munkidh it is cited that he devised the formula from divine inspiration by combining the letters which open Sura 19 and 42, which in themselves are used as talisman. On the square each letter stands for a number and the figure which emerged was 8642. In the popular mind benefits obtained were relief from pains in the stomach, rendering oneself invisible, success against temporary impotence and commonly used to ensure the arrival of letters and packages.
Jesus Christ in Al-Ghazali
What place has Jesus in the teaching of these greatest of all theologians? Either Al-Ghazali was too proud to search for the true historical facts of the Christian religion, or perhaps it would be more charitable to say that he had no adequate opportunity. In spite of his quotations and misquotations from the Gospels he did not resort there to find satisfaction for his soul.
As a student of the Quran he would have noticed the high place Christ occupies there. Three suras derive their names from references to Jesus Christ, namely, that of Amram’s Family (Surah 3), The Table Spread (Surah 5) and Miriam (Surah 19), however, we search in vain among all his works for a sketch of the life of Christ or of his teaching. Al-Ghazali was probably only well acquainted with the popular works of his life from Muslim sources like Kitab qusus al Anbiya by Ibn Ibrahim Ath-Thalabi (d.1036), a doctor of the Shafi School. In truth, we are in ignorance as to where he obtained his knowledge of the Gospels. He does write on one occasion “I have read in the Gospel” and he does reproduce the stories and sayings of Christ in the very words of the text, yet there is a considerable amount of apocryphal material which makes the whole issue of his sources questionable.
In his Ihya he does appear to quote the words of Christ in support of his argument against worldly religious teachers (John 10/ Matthew 7:15), the snare of riches (Matthew 19:16-23), men unaware of their own faults (Matthew 7:3), and trust in God (Matthew 6:26). In other works also he seems to make reference to some of the teaching of Jesus for example his denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees and the Parable of the Last Judgement. He gives Jesus the usual titles given to Him in the Quran, namely, Son of Mary, Spirit of God, Word of God, Prophet and Apostle .
There is much apocryphal material in volume 3 of the Ihya, whether this was the result of hearsay, gathered from the lips of Christian monks it is difficult to say. Apocryphal stories occur in connection with Christ’s sinlessness, encounters with the devil, incidents in the days of his youth in Nazareth, his fasting, his miracles and healing powers, his relations to unclean animals, his poverty, humility and homelessness. Whatever Al-Ghazali grasped from this plethora of material he never seems to have drawn the conclusion that true renunciation of the world is only possible in the service of others and not by withdrawing from men. In his al-Radd al-Jamil li Ilahiyat ‘Isa bi sarh al-Injil he seems to base his arguments on the fourth Gospel, quoting also from Mark, but he concluded it an error of Christian teaching that Christ was one with God. He considered Christians were deluded in supposing that the Divine nature could be made one with the human.
In his “Confessions” he said that “I saw that Sufism consists in experiences rather than in definitions, and that what I was lacking belonged to the domain, not of instruction but of ecstasy and initiation. For a period of six months he fell into despair and became weak and it seemed to observers that his whole organism was shutting down due to his grievous sadness. He left Baghdad and went to Damascus Syria (a journey of nearly 500 miles), where he remained for two years in devotional exercises, self-improvement, discipline and purification of the heart by going through Sufi forms of devotion he had learnt. The great Ummayad Mosque of Damascus was one of the grandest buildings of Islam. Like many other famous places of Muslim worship, this mosque was once the site of a Christian church dedicated to St. John the Baptist. Up until 708 when the Christians were driven out the building was shared between Christians and Muslims. One of the three minarets was called by the name Isa and above a gate in Greek “Thy kingdom, O Christ, is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth through all generations”. Al-Ghazali spent many hours under the shadow of this 11th century great building. Today, no Muslim is dependent on Al-Ghazali’s few quotations from the Gospel. Everywhere the New Testament is better known than all his works and we may say without exaggeration, that the New Testament finds a larger circle of readers.