The Intellectual tradition and Ghazzali’s Peerless Contribution(s)

The Intellectual tradition and Ghazzali’s Peerless Contribution(s)
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By Tahir Iqbal

Imam Ghazzali was one of the most profound scholars of Islam who earned the title hujjat al-Islam (proof of Islam). He was not only an Islamic jurist and eminent mystic but also a great philosopher who debunked Greek philosophy and the Aristotelian approach of philosophers towards the ontological essence of the Cosmos and the transcendental truths/metaphysical realities. He argued that philosophical tradition cannot assure the truth because it does not produce certainty and certitude. Ghazzali wrote a famous book Tahafut al-falasifah (The Incoherence of Philosophers) on the rejection of Greek philosophy and argued that philosophers cannot demonstrate the creation of the world by God. One of the remarkable features of Ghazzali’s approach is that he didn’t fight against philosophers with the tool of revelation but used the same methods that philosophy employed. According to Ghazzali, philosophers suffered from three main structural lacunae:
The eternity of the world.
The impossibility of God’s knowledge of particulars.
And the denial of bodily resurrection.
Imam Ghazzali was born at Tus, a city in Khurasan. He honed his intellectual skills while attending the lessons of the most reputed scholar and theologian of his time, Imam Juwayni. He wrote extensively on metaphysics, philosophy, jurisprudence and mysticism. Ghazzali’s Ihya al-Uloom al-Din is the magnum opus on mysticism, jurisprudence and ethics.
Unlike Imam Ibn Taimiyah, Ghazzali did not reject logic and mathematics. In his autobiography ‘Deliverance from the Error’, he writes “the mathematical sciences deal with arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. But nothing in them entails denial or affirmation of religious matters.” He further adds,” nothing in the logical sciences has anything to do with religion by way of negation and affirmation.” Ghazzali argued that it was in the metaphysical sciences that most of the philosophers’ errors are found. He believes that if philosophy confined itself to mundane, observable phenomena as in medicine, astronomy or mathematics, it was extremely useful but it could tell us nothing about God and metaphysical realities. The reality that we call God lay outside the realm of sense perception(s) and logical thought. Therefore science and metaphysics could neither prove nor debunk the existence of the Ultimate Reality-Allah.
Imam Ghazzali was a man of research. He didn’t dismantle the edifice of falsehood on the basis of some pre-conceived expositions and doctrines but rather used an unbiased approach to understand reality. He in fact, he analyzed and searched as a genuine seeker of truth. As he says in his book, ‘Deliverance from the Error’: “I have poked into every dark recess, I have made an assault on every problem, I have plunged into every abyss. I have scrutinized the creed of every sect; I have tried to lay bare the inmost doctrines of every community. All this I have done this so that I might distinguish between true and false, between sound tradition and heretical innovation.”
Apart from the philosophical expeditions, Ghazzali also endeavored to delve into the mystical subtleties. Karen Armstrong, a renowned scholar of religions, writes that “mystical religion is more immediate and tends to be more help in time of trouble than a predominantly cerebral faith”. And, to Ghazzali mysticism is the real solution to the intellectual as well as the spiritual problems of a truth seeker. He did attack on the pantheistic creeds of many Sufis/mystics and held a position of moderation based on the sacred text of Islam. For him, Sufism is not something that could be studied but the realm of experience which could be achieved through austerity and purity of one’s self. It would be germane to quote his own words here:
“I learn from a sure source that the Sufis are the true pioneers on the path of God; that there is nothing more beautiful than their life, nor more praiseworthy than their rule of conduct, nor purer than their morality”
Ghazzali believed that that highest virtue is tawakkul (reliance) which is based on the knowledge of tawhid (oneness of God). He says, “useful knowledge is that which makes you grow in the fear of Allah, increase you in awareness of your defects, deepens your knowledge of the worship of your Lord, decreases your desire for the this world and increases your desire for the life to come, and opens your eyes to the defects of your actions so that you guard against them.”

—The author is an Assistant Professor at the Higher Education Department. He can be reached at:


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