Al-Ghazali is one of the greatest Islamic jurists, theologians and mystical thinkers. He learned various branches of the traditional Islamic religious sciences in his home town of Tus, Gurgan and Nishapur in the northern part of Iran. He was also involved in Sufi practices from an early age. Being recognized by Nizam al-Mulk, the vizir of the Seljuq sultans, he was appointed head of the Nizamiyyah College at Baghdad in ah 484/ad 1091. As the intellectual head of the Islamic community, he was busy lecturing on Islamic jurisprudence at the College, and also refuting heresies and responding to questions from all segments of the community. Four years later, however, al-Ghazali fell into a serious spiritual crisis and finally left Baghdad, renouncing his career and the world. After wandering in Syria and Palestine for about two years and finishing the pilgrimage to Mecca, he returned to Tus, where he was engaged in writing, Sufi practices and teaching his disciples until his death. In the meantime he resumed teaching for a few years at the Nizamiyyah College in Nishapur.
Al-Ghazali explained in his autobiography why he renounced his brilliant career and turned to Sufism. It was, he says, due to his realization that there was no way to certain knowledge or the conviction of revelatory truth except through Sufism. (This means that the traditional form of Islamic faith was in a very critical condition at the time.) This realization is possibly related to his criticism of Islamic philosophy. In fact, his refutation of philosophy is not a mere criticism from a certain (orthodox) theological viewpoint. First of all, his attitude towards philosophy was ambivalent; it was both an object and criticism and an object of learning (for example, logic and the natural sciences). He mastered philosophy and then criticized it in order to Islamicize it. The importance of his criticism lies in his philosophical demonstration that the philosophers' metaphysical arguments cannot stand the test of reason. However, he was also forced to admit that the certainty of revelatory truth, for which he was so desperately searching, cannot be obtained by reason. It was only later that he finally attained to that truth in the ecstatic state (fana') of the Sufi. Through his own religious experience, he worked to revive the faith of Islam by reconstructing the religious sciences upon the basis of Sufism, and to give a theoretical foundation to the latter under the influence of philosophy. Thus Sufism came to be generally recognized in the Islamic community. Though Islamic philosophy did not long survive al-Ghazali's criticism, he contributed greatly to the subsequent philosophization of Islamic theology and Sufism.
The eventful life of Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali (or al-Ghazzali) can be divided into three major periods. The first is the period of learning, first in his home town of Tus in Persia, then in Gurgan and finally in Nishapur. After the death of his teacher, Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni, Ghazali moved to the court of Nizam al-Mulk, the powerful vizir of the Seljuq Sultans, who eventually appointed him head of the Nizamiyyah College at Baghdad in ah 484/ad 1091.
The second period of al-Ghazali's life was his brilliant career as the highest-ranking orthodox 'doctor' of the Islamic community in Baghdad (ah 484-8/ad 1091-5). This period was short but significant. During this time, as well as lecturing on Islamic jurisprudence at the College, he was also busy refuting heresies and responding to questions from all segments of the community. In the political confusion following the assassination of Nizam al-Mulk and the subsequent violent death of Sultan Malikshah, al-Ghazali himself fell into a serious spiritual crisis and finally left Baghdad, renouncing his career and the world.
This event marks the beginning of the third period of his life, that of retirement (ah 488-505/ad 1095-1111), but which also included a short period of teaching at the Nizamiyyah College in Nishapur. After leaving Baghdad, he wandered as a Sufi in Syria and Palestine before returning to Tus, where he was engaged in writing, Sufi practices and teaching his disciples until his death.
The inner development leading to his conversion is explained in his autobiography, al-Munqidh min al-dalal (The Deliverer from Error), written late in his life. It was his habit from an early age, he says, to search for the true reality of things. In the process he came to doubt the senses and even reason itself as the means to 'certain knowledge', and fell into a deep scepticism. However, he was eventually delivered from this with the aid of the divine light, and thus recovered his trust in reason. Using reason, he then set out to examine the teachings of 'the seekers after truth': the theologians, philosophers, Isma'ilis and Sufis. As a result of these studies, he came to the realization that there was no way to certain knowledge except through Sufism. In order to reach this ultimate truth of the Sufis, however, it is first necessary to renounce the world and to devote oneself to mystical practice. Al-Ghazali came to this realization through an agonising process of decision, which led to a nervous breakdown and finally to his departure from Baghdad.
The schematic presentation of al-Munqidh has allowed various interpretations, but it is irrelevant to question the main line of the story. Though certain knowledge is explained in al-Munqidh as something logically necessary, it is also religious conviction (yaqin) as mentioned in the Ihya' 'ulum al-din (The Revival of the Religious Sciences). Thus when he says that the traditional teachings did not grip him in his adolescence, he means to say that he lost his conviction of their truth, which he only later regained through his Sufi mystical experiences. He worked to generalize this experience to cure 'the disease' of his time.
The life of al-Ghazali has been thus far examined mostly as the development of his individual personality. However, since the 1950s there have appeared some new attempts to understand his life in its wider political and historical context (Watt 1963). If we accept his religious confession as sincere, then we should be careful not to reduce his thought and work entirely to non-religious factors. It may well be that al-Ghazali's conversion from the life of an orthodox doctor to Sufism was not merely the outcome of his personal development but also a manifestation of a new stage in the understanding of faith in the historical development of Islam, from the traditional form of faith expressed in the effort to establish the kingdom of God on Earth through the shari'a to a faith expressed as direct communion with God in Sufi mystical experience. This may be a reflection of a development in which the former type of faith had lost its relevance and become a mere formality due to the political and social confusion of the community. Al-Ghazali experienced this change during his life, and tried to revive the entire structure of the religious sciences on the basis of Sufism, while at the same time arguing for the official recognition of the latter and providing it with solid philosophical foundations.
Al-Ghazali wrote at least two works on theology, al-Iqtisad fi'l-i'tiqad (The Middle Path in Theology) and al-Risala al-Qudsiyya (The Jerusalem Epistle). The former was composed towards the end of his stay in Baghdad and after his critique of philosophy, the latter soon afterwards in Jerusalem. The theological position expressed in both works is Ash'arite, and there is no fundamental difference between al-Ghazali and the Ash'arite school (see Ash'ariyya and Mu'tazila). However, some changes can be seen in the theological thought of his later works, written under the influence of philosophy and Sufism (see §4).
As Ash'arite theology came into being out of criticism of Mu'tazilite rationalistic theology, the two schools have much in common but they are also not without their differences. There is no essential difference between them as to God's essence (dhat Allah); al-Ghazali proves the existence of God (the Creator) from the createdness (hadath) of the world according to the traditional Ash'arite proof. An atomistic ontology is presupposed here, and yet there are also philosophical arguments to refute the criticism of the philosophers. As for God's attributes (sifat Allah), however, al-Ghazali regards them as 'something different from, yet added to, God's essence' (al-Iqtisad: 65), while the Mu'tazilites deny the existence of the attributes and reduce them to God's essence and acts. According to al-Ghazali, God has attributes such as knowledge, life, will, hearing, seeing and speech, which are included in God's essence and coeternal with it. Concerning the relationship between God's essence and his attributes, both are said to be 'not identical, but not different' (al-Iqtisad: 65). The creation of the world and its subsequent changes are produced by God's eternal knowledge, will and power, but this does not necessarily mean any change in God's attributes in accordance with these changes in the empirical world.
One of the main issues of theological debate was the relationship between God's power and human acts. The Mu'tazilites, admitting the continuation of an accident ('arad) of human power, asserted that human acts were decided and produced (or even created) by people themselves; thus they justified human responsibility for acts and maintained divine justice. In contrast, assuming that all the events in the world and human acts are caused by God's knowledge, will and power, al-Ghazali admits two powers in human acts, God's power and human power. Human power and act are both created by God, and so human action is God's creation (khalq), but it is also human acquisition (kasb) of God's action, which is reflected in human volition. Thus al-Ghazali tries to harmonize God's omnipotence and our own responsibility for our actions (see Omnipotence).
As for God's acts, the Mu'tazilites, emphasizing divine justice, assert that God cannot place any obligation on people that is beyond their ability; God must do what is best for humans and must give rewards and punishments according to their obedience and disobedience. They also assert that it is obligatory for people to know God through reason even before revelation. Al-Ghazali denies these views. God, he says, can place any obligations he wishes upon us; it is not incumbent on him to do what is best for us, nor to give rewards and punishments according to our obedience and disobedience. All this is unimaginable for God, since he is absolutely free and is under no obligation at all. Obligation (wujub), says al-Ghazali, means something that produces serious harm unless performed, but nothing does harm to God. Furthermore, good (hasan) and evil (qabih) mean respectively congruity and incongruity with a purpose, but God has no purpose at all. Therefore, God's acts are beyond human ethical judgment. Besides, says al-Ghazali, injustice (zulm) means an encroachment on others' rights, but all creatures belong to God; therefore, whatever he may do to his creatures, he cannot be considered unjust.
The Mu'tazilites, inferring the hereafter from the nature of this world, deny the punishment of unbelievers in the grave from their death until the resurrection, and also the reality of the various eschatological events such as the passing of the narrow bridge and the weighing on the balance of human deeds (see Eschatology). Al-Ghazali, on the other hand, rejecting the principle of analogy between the two worlds, approves the reality of all these events as transmitted traditionally, since it cannot be proven that they are rationally or logically impossible. Another important eschatological event is the seeing of God (ru'ya Allah). While the Mu'tazilites deny its reality, asserting that God cannot be the object of human vision, al-Ghazali approves it as a kind of knowledge which is beyond corporeality; in fact, he later gives the vision of God deep mystical and philosophical meaning. In short, the Mu'tazilites discuss the unity of God and his acts from the viewpoint of human reason, but al-Ghazali does so on the presupposition that God is personal and an absolute reality beyond human reason.
Al-Ghazali's relationship with philosophy is subtle and complicated. The philosophy represented by al-Farabi and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) is, for al-Ghazali, not simply an object of criticism but also an important component of his own learning. He studied philosophy intensively while in Baghdad, composing Maqasid al-falasifa (The Intentions of the Philosophers), and then criticizing it in his Tahafut al-falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers). The Maqasid is a precise summary of philosophy (it is said to be an Arabic version of Ibn Sina's Persian Danashnamah-yi ala'i (Book of Scientific Knowledge) though a close comparative study of the two works has yet to be made). In the medieval Latin world, however, the content of the Maqasid was believed to be al-Ghazali's own thought, due to textual defects in the Latin manuscripts. As a result, the image of the 'Philosopher Algazel' was created. It was only in the middle of the nineteenth century that Munk corrected this mistake by making use of the complete manuscripts of the Hebrew translation. More works by al-Ghazali began to be published thereafter, but some contained philosophical ideas he himself had once rejected. This made al-Ghazali's relation to philosophy once again obscure. Did he turn back to philosophy late in life? Was he a secret philosopher? From the middle of the twentieth century there were several attempts to verify al-Ghazali's authentic works through textual criticism, and as a result of these works the image of al-Ghazali as an orthodox Ash'arite theologian began to prevail. The new trend in the study of al-Ghazali is to re-examine his relation to philosophy and to traditional Ash'arism while at the same time recognizing his basic distance from philosophy.
Al-Ghazali composed three works on Aristotelian logic, Mi'yar al-'ilm (The Standard Measure of Knowledge), Mihakk al-nazar fi'l-mantiq (The Touchstone of Proof in Logic) and al-Qistas al-mustaqim (The Just Balance). The first two were written immediately after the Tahafut 'in order to help understanding of the latter', and the third was composed after his retirement. He also gave a detailed account of logic in the long introduction of his writing on legal theory, al-Mustasfa min 'ilm al-usul (The Essentials of Islamic Legal Theory). Al-Ghazali's great interest in logic is unusual, particularly when most Muslim theologians were antagonistic to it, and can be attributed not only to the usefulness of logic in refuting heretical views (al-Qistas is also a work of refutation of the Isma'ilis), but also to his being fascinated by the exactness of logic and its effectiveness for reconstructing the religious sciences on a solid basis.
There is a fundamental disparity between al-Ghazali's theological view and the Neoplatonic-Aristotelian philosophy of emanationism. Al-Ghazali epitomizes this view in twenty points, three of which are especially prominent: (1) the philosophers' belief in the eternity of the world, (2) their doctrine that God does not know particulars, and (3) their denial of the resurrection of bodies. These theses are ultimately reducible to differing conceptions of God and ontology. Interestingly, al-Ghazali's criticism of philosophy is philosophical rather than theological, and is undertaken from the viewpoint of reason.
First, as for the eternity of the world, the philosophers claim that the emanation of the First Intellect and other beings is the result of the necessary causality of God's essence, and therefore the world as a whole is concomitant and coeternal with his existence (see Creation and conservation, religious doctrine of). Suppose, say the philosophers, that God created the world at a certain moment in time; that would presuppose a change in God, which is impossible. Further, since each moment of time is perfectly similar, it is impossible, even for God, to choose a particular moment in time for creation. Al-Ghazali retorts that God's creation of the world was decided in the eternal past, and therefore it does not mean any change in God; indeed, time itself is God's creation (this is also an argument based on the Aristotelian concept of time as a function of change). Even though the current of time is similar in every part, it is the nature of God's will to choose a particular out of similar ones.
Second, the philosophers deny God's knowledge of particulars or confine it to his self-knowledge, since they suppose that to connect God's knowledge with particulars means a change and plurality in God's essence. Al-Ghazali denies this. If God has complete knowledge of a person from birth to death, there will be no change in God's eternal knowledge, even though the person's life changes from moment to moment.
Third, the philosophers deny bodily resurrection, asserting that 'the resurrection' means in reality the separation of the soul from the body after death. Al-Ghazali criticizes this argument, and also attacks the theory of causality presupposed in the philosophers' arguments (see Causality and necessity in Islamic thought). The so-called necessity of causality is, says al-Ghazali, simply based on the mere fact that an event A has so far occurred concomitantly with an event B. There is no guarantee of the continuation of that relationship in the future, since the connection of A and B lacks logical necessity. In fact, according to Ash'arite atomistic occasionalism, the direct cause of both A and B is God; God simply creates A when he creates B. Thus theoretically he can change his custom (sunna, 'ada) at any moment, and resurrect the dead: in fact, this is 'a second creation'.
Al-Ghazali thus claims that the philosophers' arguments cannot survive philosophical criticism, and Aristotelian logic served as a powerful weapon for this purpose. However, if the conclusions of philosophy cannot be proved by reason, is not the same true of theological principles or the teachings of revelation? How then can the truth of the latter be demonstrated? Herein lies the force of al-Ghazali's critique of reason.
Philosophy declined in the Sunni world after al-Ghazali, and his criticism of philosophy certainly accelerated this decline. Nearly a century later, Ibn Rushd (Averroes) made desperate efforts to resist the trend by refuting al-Ghazali's Tahafut in his Tahafut al-tahafut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence) and Fasl al-maqal (The Decisive Treatise), but he could not stop it. Philosophy was gradually absorbed into Sufism and was further developed in the form of mystical philosophy, particularly in the Shi'ite world (see Mystical philosophy in Islam). In the Sunni world also, Aristotelian logic was incorporated into theology and Sufism was partially represented philosophically. In all this, al-Ghazali's influence was significant.
Ghazali committed himself seriously to Sufism in his later life, during which time he produced a series of unique works on Sufism and ethics including Mizan al-'amal (The Balance of Action), composed just before retirement, Ihya' 'ulum al-din, his magnum opus written after retirement, Kitab al-arba'in fi usul al-din (The Forty Chapters on the Principles of Religion), Kimiya'-yi sa'adat (The Alchemy of Happiness), Mishkat al-anwar (The Niche of the Lights) and others. The ultimate goal of humankind according to Islam is salvation in paradise, which is depicted in the Qur'an and Traditions as various sensuous pleasures and joy at the vision of God. The greatest joy for al-Ghazali, however, is the seeing of God in the intellectual or spiritual sense of the beatific vision. In comparison with this, sensuous pleasures are nothing. However, they remain necessary for the masses who cannot reach such a vision.
Resurrection for Ibn Sina means each person's death - the separation of the soul from the body - and the rewards and punishments after the 'resurrection' mean the pleasures and pains which the soul tastes after death. The soul, which is in contact with the active intellect through intellectual and ethical training during life, is liberated from the body by death and comes to enjoy the bliss of complete unity with the active intellect. On the other hand, the soul that has become accustomed to sensual pleasures while alive suffers from the pains of unfulfilled desires, since the instrumental organs for that purpose are now lost. Al-Ghazali calls death 'the small resurrection' and accepts the state of the soul after death as Ibn Sina describes. On the other hand, the beatific vision of God by the elite after the quickening of the bodies, or 'the great resurrection', is intellectual as in the view of the philosophers. The mystical experience (fana') of the Sufi is a foretaste of the real vision of God in the hereafter.
A similar influence of philosophy is also apparent in al-Ghazali's view of human beings. Human beings consist of soul and body, but their essence is the soul. The human soul is a spiritual substance totally different from the body. It is something divine (amr ilahi), which makes possible human knowledge of God. If the soul according to al-Ghazali is an incorporeal substance occupying no space (as Ibn Sina implies, though he carefully avoids making a direct statement to that effect), then al-Ghazali's concept of the soul is quite different from the soul as 'a subtle body' as conceived by theologians at large. According to al-Ghazali, the body is a vehicle or an instrument of the soul on the way to the hereafter and has various faculties to maintain the bodily activities. When the main faculties of appetite, anger and intellect are moderate, harmonious and well-balanced, then we find the virtues of temperance, courage, wisdom and justice. In reality, however, there is excess or deficiency in each faculty, and so we find various vicious characteristics. The fundamental cause for all this is love of the world (see Soul in Islamic philosophy).
The purpose of religious exercises is to rectify these evil dispositions, and to come near to God by 'transforming them in imitation of God's characteristics' (takhalluq bi-akhlaq Allah). This means transforming the evil traits of the soul through bodily exercises by utilizing the inner relationship between the soul and the body. Al-Ghazali here makes full use of the Aristotelian theory of the golden mean, which he took mainly from Ibn Miskawayh. In order to maintain the earthly existence of the body as a vehicle or an instrument of the soul, the mundane order and society are necessary. In this framework, the traditional system of Islamic law, community and society are reconsidered and reconstructed.
The same is also true of al-Ghazali's cosmology. He divides the cosmos into three realms: the world of mulk (the phenomenal world), the world of malakut (the invisible world) and the world of jabarut (the intermediate world). He takes this division from the Sufi theorist Abu Talib al-Makki, although he reverses the meanings of malakut and jabarut. The world of malakut is that of God's determination, a world of angels free from change, increase and decrease, as created once spontaneously by God. This is the world of the Preserved Tablet in heaven where God's decree is inscribed. The phenomenal world is the incomplete replica of the world of malakut, which is the world of reality, of the essence of things. The latter is in some respects similar to the Platonic world of Ideas, or Ibn Sina's world of intelligibles. The only difference is that the world of malakut is created once and for all by God, who thereafter continues to create moment by moment the phenomenal world according to his determination. This is a major difference from the emanationist deterministic world of philosophy. Once the divine determination is freely made, however, the phenomenal world changes and evolves according to a determined sequence of causes and effects. The difference between this relationship and the philosophers' causality lies in whether or not the relation of cause and effect is necessary. This emphasis on causal relationship by al-Ghazali differs from the traditional Ash'arite occasionalism.
The Sufis in their mystical experience, and ordinary people in their dreams, are allowed to glimpse the world of the Preserved Tablet in heaven, when the veil between that world and the soul is lifted momentarily. Thus they are given foreknowledge and other forms of supernatural knowledge. The revelation transmitted by the angel to the prophets is essentially the same; the only difference is that the prophets do not need any special preparation. From the viewpoint of those given such special knowledge of the invisible world, says al-Ghazali, the world is the most perfect and best possible world. This optimism gave rise to arguments and criticism even in his lifetime, alleging that he was proposing a Mu'tazilite or philosophical teaching against orthodox Ash'arism. He certainly says in his theological works that it is not incumbent upon God to do the best for humans; however, this does not mean that God will not in fact do the best of his own free will. Even so, behind al-Ghazali's saying that God does so in actuality, we can see the influence of philosophy and Sufism.
Al-Ghazali's criticism of philosophy and his mystical thought are often compared to the philosophical and theological thought of Thomas Aquinas, Nicholas of Autrecourt, and even Descartes and Pascal. In the medieval world, where he was widely believed to be a philosopher, he had an influence through the Latin and Hebrew translations of his writings and through such thinkers as Yehuda Halevi, Moses Maimonides and Raymond Martin of Spain.
See also: Ash'ariyya and Mu'tazila; Causality and necessity in Islamic thought; Ibn Sina; Ibn Rushd; Islam, concept of philosophy in; Mystical philosophy in Islam; Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophyKOJIRO NAKAMURA