Episode 20: Al-Ghazali
Question: Mohamed Islam: One of the leading Islamic Philosophers was Al-Ghazali. Who was he? Can you tell us about him?
Answer: Abdel Wahab El Messeri:He was, like most Islamic thinkers or philosophers of the time, quite versatile, well rounded: He was a lawyer, a scientist, a jurist, a judge. Non of the Islamic thinkers were confined to the discipline of philosophy. They had comprehensive knowledge (alchemists. Scientists, literary critics, mystics, etc.). This well-roundedness and comprehensiveness occurred in the west only during the renaissance.
He was born in Tus, near the Iranian border in 1058, during the time of the last florescence in Islamic Philosophy. He went to the Nazamia School in Baghdad, where he made quite an impression. He was preceded by Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina. The philosophical outlook before him was quite impressive.
Later in Baghdad he underwent a change, he started suspecting every thing he had learned. The radical skepticism of Descartes. He is always compared to Descartes. But differences between them are much more than resemblances. Descartes fell back on the Ego to resolve the crises of meaning. ‘ I think therefore I am’. This was the beginning of modern rationalism which resulted in the absolute polarity of man versus nature. Now we know that nature conquered man.
Al-Ghazali left school and went on a quest. When he returned, he came with a world outlook which represented a synthesis of the best in Islam. It was based on a critique of all the trends in Islamic thought during his time. He pointed out
The Cosmology of Al-Ghazali: man is here, God is there. In between is the world of norms, both ontological and psychological, Moral and axiological. In other words, it is not a an arid world, or abyss. It is a field. One can interact with god in that field. If man fulfills some of these norms, and man recognizes his separateness, he can get closer to God. There is a great role for mysticism. Not leading to unity with God, but simply spiritual exercises. The mind for Al-Ghazali is not , like for other philosophers, absolute. It can not be. Otherwise, whence would it derive its norms.
Causality: This is his real contribution to philosophy. Philosophers say: cause lead to effect. Al-Ghazali says : to follow after does not mean to follow from. He says : the power is not the cause. The power is God. God has imposed the pattern. The cause is God. Not like ‘natura naturans’ of Spinoza/ Descartes, they make this latent in nature. This is Pantheism. The patterning force in nature is eminent in it, but transcendental at the same time. This is the essence of Islamic Epistemology, which means: we can know nature but not completely because of the power that is there, both latent and transcendental. Unlike the modern Secular Concept, where you have to know nature completely, and you control it, and harness it to your service. Of course, since modern western man has failed, now you have Materialist Irrationalism, where they claim there is no causality at all. We go from absolute causality of the Cartesian or Hegelian variety, to the Post-modern denial of causality completely.
The Ghazali Islam assures us a level of certainty, enough to go along, but it does not promise us absolute certainty and absolute control of the universe.
MI: The other contribution of Al-Ghazali was the revival of the science of religion?
AWM: He wanted to defy the sciences of religion and at the same time infuse spirit into them. The essence of Al-Ghazali’s Epistemology was this attempt to bring in the full complexity of man. With science there had to be emotion. The heart had to be operative, not just the mind. He then moved on to Miskat un Anwar (the mystical: the Niche of Light) where he talks about certain mystical exercises .
He also had educational books to fulfill the function of a well rounded, versatile philosopher: Educator, thinker, psychologist, mystic.
MI: What kind of following did he have?
AWM: I understand that Al-Ghazali dominated the Islamic world from that time on. There was opposition who rejected his view. Saying that it would subvert the mind completely. The Philosophers saw man in the form of polarity: it is either the heart or the mind. Whereas Al-Ghazali says man operated in a complex integrated duality. That is why he said there was a field and not a gap between man and God.
MI: How were the philosophers viewed or received by the ruling elite of the time.
AWM: There were ups and downs. For example : the Mu’tazilites or pure rationalist : if the ruler was of the same persuasion, they would be supported, if not they were persecuted.
Al-Ghazali: he had no problem, because he had ideas of order. He tried to harness the mystical impulse, which sometimes ran amok.
MI: Al-Ghazali as a jurist, what role did he play?
AWM: The same interplay of mind and heart. Between the attempt to apply the idea of law inspired by Divine Revelation. He did not believe in empirical law, but did not reject it. It is all encapsulated in Divine dictates.
MI: How was the world after Al-Ghazali?
AWM: The Mongol invasion of the Islamic world occurred, and then the Crusades. The Islamic World withdrew inwards. Al-Ghazali is sometimes blamed for this withdrawal. But it was a result of these historical forces which were much more powerful in determining the future developments.
Conversations on Islam