Ghazali: The Legacy of a Scholar 13 November 2013

Muhammad al-Ghazali is a scholar, philosopher and mystic known to Muslims globally as one of the most influential Muslims who has ever lived. His legacy in the West is lesser known however. Abdul-Azim Ahmed tells the story of one of Islam’s greats.

Try this as an experiment. Find someone well acquainted with Western philosophy and ask them to name the most important Muslim philosophers they know of. By and large, they would respond Avicenna (Ibn Sina), Avveroes (Ibn Rushd) and possibly Alpharabius (al-Farabi). These three philosophers and Muslim scholars are easily the most recognised amongst Europeans, and their impact on the development of Western thinking is well documented.

Yet ask a Muslim well acquainted with the history of Muslim philosophy the same question, and the responses are likely to focus on a single man. Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali, an eleventh century polymath whose impact on the development of Islam is substantial, and who arguably had a greater influence on Western thought than Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd and al-Farabi combined.


One of the few extant pictures of Ghazali available

Scholar, philosopher and mystic; al-Ghazali laid claim to all three titles. During his relatively short life he was given the titles Proof of Religion, Reviver of Islam and Leader of the Scholars. The eminent British scholar of Islam, William Montgomery Watt, considered Ghazali to be the most influential man in the history of Islam after the Prophet Muhammad. Modern English translations of Ghazali’s work are testament to his contemporary importance and a revived interest in his teachings, yet few outside Muslim circles would be familiar with his name.

To understand Ghazali requires an understanding of his life. His work so closely reflected his spiritual and intellectual journey that the two are inseparable. And to understand Ghazali’s biography requires understanding the world he lived in.

The ‘Golden Age’
Ghazali was born in 1058 in the town of Tus, an ancient city located in modern day Iran. Tus was part of the Seljuq Empire, which would reach its zenith during the scholar’s lifetime and encompass an area that spanned from modern day Turkey all the way to modern Pakistan. The Abbasid Caliphate also ruled during this era, controlling (in name at least) the strategically and symbolically important cities of Jerusalem, Baghdad and Damascus. The relations between the Seljuqs and the Abbasids were cordial enough, with the latter effectively allowing itself to be controlled by the former.

This era is sometimes called the ‘Golden Age’ of Islam. The term is not unproblematic, but nonetheless describes important religious and socio-economic realities of the time. There was little warfare, substantial economic growth and most importantly, a flourishing of academia and the arts. There were colleges and universities all across the Middle East, almost all free for students, allowing substantial scholarship to flourish. Sultans, Caliphs and Kings offered their patronage to institutions of learning and scholarly endeavours. To be learned became one of the most lucrative trades. During this era, Ibn al-Haytham famously developed the modern scientific method, Ibn Khuldun first wrote his treatises that would later be considered the earliest known work of social science and Ibn Sina developed principles of medicine and surgery that are still in use today. Ghazali was born in the middle of this exciting and intellectual world.

The scholar was orphaned at a young age. On his father’s wishes, he and his brother were sent to study. Ahmed al-Ghazali would go on to become a significant Muslim scholar in his own right, and indeed would play an important role in the development of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali’s own thoughts. It was clear to any who taught him, Ghazali was a ferociously bright young student. He excelled in all the Islamic sciences to which he applied himself and studied under the most important scholars of the era (of which there were many). Imam Yusuf al-Juwayni, a leading scholar of Makkah and Madinah, was perhaps his most well-known teacher. Ghazali’s period of itinerant study took him across the width and breadth of the Middle East.

During these days of travel a significant event took place that would shape much of his later thought, especially his struggles with epistemology. On one particular journey, the caravan that Ghazali had joined was attacked by raiders. They naturally took all the wealth and precious metals available, but they also took Ghazali’s copious notes and literary books. Ghazali approached the leader of the bandits himself, pleading for the return of his work, which after all were of little value to the raiders but of immeasurable value to the young student. The leader of the bandits laughed at Ghazali, asking him whether it was truly his knowledge if it could be stolen from him. Regardless, he accepted the request and returned his notes. This event shook Ghazali – the bandit was right, how could it ever be considered his knowledge if it was so easily stolen? What then, was the nature of true knowledge? What did it mean to truly ‘know’ something? These questions would plague Ghazali through to his adulthood. As an immediate solution, he resolved to learn his notes by heart.

Defender of Orthodoxy
At the age of 33, still young by all measures, Ghazali was appointed a Professor of the newly established Nizamiyyah College of Baghdad, a centre of learning and teaching established by the powerful Nizam al-Mulk (died 1092). It is necessary to take a moment to consider the significance of this appointment.

Ghazali grave harouniyeh mosque

The Harouniyeh Mosque in Tus, Iran – considered by some to be the location of Ghazali’s grave.

In the eleventh century, religious and cultural diversity in the Middle-East had reached its zenith, and it would perhaps remain the most diverse place in the world until the Mongol invasions. In Baghdad you could not only find Muslims, Jews and Christians, but also Mandaeans, Manichaeans, Yazidis and Zoroastrians. These terms disguise the true religious diversity however, as even within what we would consider a single religious movement, there existed a significant internal diversity – and the same was the case with Islam. Eleventh century Islam was substantially heterogeneous and an orthodoxy had yet to emerge. Nizam al-Mulk sought to assist the process; by sponsoring and creating a substantial network of colleges dedicated to training Muslims, he intended to educate a new generation of scholars who were capable of publicly defending and carving out a coherent orthodoxy. The Nizamiyyah of Baghdad was the flagship college, Ghazali was appointed the star professor. At the age of 33, Ghazali had already reached the height of his career.

The Incoherence of the Philosophers
During his tenure at Nizamiyyah College, Ghazali’s reputation grew and he became a celebrity of sorts. The brightest students of theology would travel hundreds of leagues to study at his feet. It was during this time he wrote one of his most famous works, The Incoherence of the Philosophers.

The discovery of the works of Plato and other Greek thinkers led to an explosion in popularity of Hellenistic philosophy amongst Muslims. The texts of Socrates, Aristotle and most importantly, Plato, became the basis of a Neoplatonic movement during Ghazali’s time. Neoplatonists attempted to merge theology and philosophy. Aspects of Platonic thought could be found in sects such as the Alawi of Syria, or the heterodox Mu’tazilites. The latter at one time held political power, and during this era famously enforced the position that the Quran was created (a position considered heretical by mainstream Muslims). The founder of one of the four great schools of Islam, Ahmed ibn Hanbal, was tortured for not relenting from his position that the Quran was uncreated.

The merging of Islamic teachings and Hellenistic philosophy troubled Ghazali, and so he sought to challenge it on its own basis – by using the principles of logic and philosophy itself.

Thus The Incoherence of the Philosophers was born, a tract of twenty points that challenged Neoplatonists, particularly Ibn Sina, on their thought, theology and philosophical musings.

In ‘The Incoherence’ Ghazali sought to demarcate what he considered valuable philosophy and philosophy that led astray. He was concerned by the way that the philosophers of his era would appropriate scientific knowledge. Ghazali saw mathematics, astronomy and rational argument as positives of philosophy to be encouraged and commended. But the appropriation of these sciences by philosophers who also held heretical beliefs meant people would either accept philosophy wholesale, or reject it wholesale. Ghazali wanted something different, he wanted to show where philosophy should be utilised, and where it should be abandoned. Thus in ‘The Incoherence’, he attacked the problematic aspect of philosophy, namely its application to the metaphysical.

His argument had two important conclusions. First, he stressed that a thoroughly orthodox Muslim should have no objections to accepting the conclusions of philosophy in the realms of mathematics and astronomy and so on. Second, he argued that philosophy had limits and those limits pertained to the physical world – the dunya. The spiritual world was beyond the scope of philosophy, and other tools had to be adopted.

In many ways the questions Ghazali addressed were similar to the questions posed by New Atheism. Despite having lived over 900 years ago, ‘The Incoherence’ feels like a thoroughly modern work, and indeed many contemporary Muslim scholars have relied on Ghazali to address modern questions about the role of science and religion.

‘The Incoherence’ led to Ghazali’s reputation as a formidable philosopher. Evidence to this is his introduction to the tract, which was a smaller work in which he outlined the philosophy of his primary target (Ibn Sina) prior to deconstructing it. His summary of Ibn Sina is so clear and precise that it is often used in the modern era in lieu of Ibn Sina’s actual writings – a testament to Ghazali’s dedication to mastery over the topic.


Ghazali’s approach to knowledge was consistently that of a sceptic. He would question the basis of knowledge, how did he know what he knew? Of what could he be certain? He meticulously examined the way he received information and how he understood it. This would ultimately lead him to a number of life-changing experiences, a product, by his own admission of his insatiable curiosity. He wrote later in his life that he ‘would penetrate far into every murky mystery, pounce upon every problem, and dash into every mazy difficulty’ in search of truth.

Ibn Rushd Averroes

The above figure in The School of Athens by Rafael, is widely considered to be Ibn Rushd, who is much more recognised in Europe than Ghazali.

His first crisis came during his early years at Nizamiyyah. In his search for absolute knowledge, he lost confidence in almost everything. He was conscious that his senses, sight, smell, hearing, could all be fooled if he were asleep or suffering a fever – in which case, how did he know he wasn’t being fooled at this moment? This dilemma plagued him until it threw him into a heavy period of depression and in his own words, a form of agnosticism. It was ultimately resolved however, not by his own meditation or intellect, but by a ‘light thrown into his heart by God’.

To resolve an intellectual conundrum with such a personal and religious reflection would satiate few, something Ghazali was certainly aware of. Yet by being honest in his reflections, he articulates an important part of his emerging epistemology. Intellect and logic had limits – in the end, it was not the mind that gave him certainty, it was his heart.

Following this turbulence, Ghazali continued teaching at Nizamiyyah. But as his fame, repute and indeed wealth grew, he became increasingly disillusioned. The opulence and intellectualism of Muslim civilisations that he was surrounded by troubled him – had Muslims disconnected from the core of their tradition? Islam was clear for him; it was a transformative tradition, aimed at renewing the person’s heart and putting them in direct contact with God. Muslim society had forgotten this he felt, and in nothing was this more evident to him than in his own actions. He increasingly felt like a hypocrite, and the words recited to him by his brother served as a life-changing remonstration: –

“O whetstone! How long will you sharpen but not allow yourself to be sharpened too?!”

Ghazali realised that despite offering religious guidance to thousands, he had not yet tasted the ‘sweetness of faith’.

His brother’s advice, his own dissatisfaction and the assassination of his sponsor Nizam al-Mulk all forced him to consider whether he was truly serving his soul by remaining in his position. He was well aware that he was one of the greatest minds of his time, but mere intellectualism was not enough for him. He was always aware that there was a distinction between simply falling into religious practice, due to assuming the hegemony of your upbringing, and the active search for truth. He wrote about this distinction later in his life: –

“I observed Christian children always grew up to be Christian, Jewish children always grew up to be Jewish, and Muslim children grew up to be Muslim. I also heard the tradition related from the Prophet of God (peace and blessings be upon him), in which he said “Every child is born with a sound nature, it is then his parents who raise them as a Jew, a Christian, or a Magian.” I therefore felt an inner urge to seek the true meaning of this sound nature, and the true meanings of the beliefs arising through slavish aping of parents and teachers.”

Spiritual Crisis
He felt he had to purify his heart, and achieve a state of gnosis of God. Was he simply a Muslim due to chance, or could he experience God himself? This was the true purpose of Islam for him, and everything else he did was fruitless. To truly embark on a route of purification of his heart, he could not do it from the comfort of his wealthy home in Baghdad and his prestigious teaching position in Nizamiyyah. He had to go elsewhere, alone, and deprived of material luxury.

He wavered for months, until his spiritual crisis took its toll on his body. He had lost the ability to speak. He could no longer teach, no longer lecture his students. As he writes later in his life, God made the decision for him.  Unable to teach, only one option remained, he had to leave his career and embark on his own spiritual quest.

So it was in 1095, Ghazali packed a few small provisions, made arrangements for his family, and on the pretext of making the pilgrimage to Makkah, left his teaching position. For the next eleven years, he would live the life of a wandering ascetic. He realised intellectualism could not grant him closeness to God, something else was needed. He resolved to follow the path of the Sufis. He spent days and nights in worship, contemplation and reflection on God.

This period of seclusion, in which he left his career, his family, and all his successes, led to the figure of Ghazali we know today. Had Ghazali’s legacy been all that he had done prior, he would have no doubt been remembered as a capable scholar of Islam. But it was what came after that cemented his position as one of the most influential thinkers of Islam. It also ensured he would be remembered as Mujaddid ad-Deen, or Reviver of the Religion. The Prophet Muhammad promised his followers that in every century there would appear a person who revives, protects and reasserts the true teachings of Islam. For the fifth century of the Islamic calendar, no Muslims question that it was the Proof of Religion, Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali.

The Revival of Religious Sciences

After a decade-long absence, Ghazali returned to the public eye with much commotion. Two significant pieces of work accompanied him. The first to be released was ‘Deliverance from Error’. Often described as an autobiography, the Deliverance was in fact a tract explaining his actions. It detailed how he assumed his position as professor at Nizamiyyah College, his experiences there, his various religious dilemmas, why he left his professorship and why he returned. It served as an autobiography and a uniquely confessional and reflexive piece of work, something largely unheard of in this era of Islamic literature.

The Alchemy of Happiness Ghazali

The first page of a fourteenth century text of Ghazali’s The Alchemy of Happiness.

What came next however was monumental – the ‘Ihya Uloom ad-Din’ or ‘The Revival of Religious Sciences’; it was Ghazali’s summa theologica. It reflected both a lifetime of scholarship but also a decade of experiential worship. The Revival contained forty books arranged into four volumes. The first volume looked at Acts of Worship, the second outlined the Etiquettes of a Muslim, the third volume examined The Paths to Perdition and the final The Paths to Salvation. The book is known for its examination of both the exoteric and esoteric meanings associated with Islam, and the writings confidently oscillated between the two.

The Revival’s influence on Islamic thought through the ages cannot be understated, and its value is immeasurable. It contained theology, mysticism and jurisprudence, and it was articulated and organised in a way that reflected his philosophical expertise.

The Revival was written in Arabic, as would be expected of a significant piece of Islamic theology. Ghazali followed it with a shorter work however, The Alchemy of Happiness, which was published in Persian but acted as a summarised version of his larger Revival.

A final book worth mentioning is ‘My Dear Beloved Son’. The short collection of advice, offered from Ghazali to a student of his, essentially summarises the teachings of The Alchemy of Happiness, thereby creating a further abridged version of his Revival.

These three works are still regarded as invaluable sources of doctrine and guidance. They would also prove to be among his final scholarly endeavours, as Ghazali passed away in 1111 CE.

Modern Influence

Ghazali’s influence in Muslim thought was substantial. He carved out the scope of religious orthodoxy for Islam, revealing the various red lines of heresy he felt needed to be obeyed. He did this for philosophy, as well as what is often called kalaam, or speculative theology, for jurisprudence or fiqh, and for Sufism also.

Despite the fame of Avicenna and Averroes in the West (the latter having been given his own school of thought in Western philosophy – Averroism), Ghazali’s influence should not be discounted.

Descartes philosopher

Descartes was one of many philosophers to be influenced by Ghazali’s ideas.

Thomas Aquinas (died 1274) is perhaps the most appropriate counterpart in Christian theology for Ghazali, both in their historical era, their method and their lasting impact upon their respective religious traditions. Aquinas tackled many of the same questions as Ghazali, and indeed the Christian monk and scholar wrote of his indebtedness to Ghazali’s intellectual contribution.

Descartes (died 1650) too was influenced by Ghazali, particularly Ghazali’s scepticism. They came to radically different conclusions however. Ghazali posited that logic and philosophy have a natural limitation, and that one must use spirituality to see further. Descartes, by contrast, argued that the self was the only certainty to be known, and if the limit of philosophy was the physical, then the physical was all there was to know. Regardless, there is a striking similarity between some of Descartes’ work and Ghazali’s. In fact, the Victorian philosopher George Henry Lewes argued ‘had any translation of it [Ghazali’s work] in the days of Descartes existed, everyone would have cried out against the plagiarism.’ Plagiarism or not, Ghazali contributed to the development of Western thought as much as Middle-Eastern.

In a more modern era, one can look at the ‘Poet of Pakistan’ Muhammad Iqbal and the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna. Both individuals faced the challenges of an emerging post-colonial world, on the back foot both politically as well as intellectually. It is unsurprising that both men turned to Ghazali for inspiration, and found his work to provide a wealth of material that offered instruction and guidance. Iqbal indeed published a series of lectures under the title ‘The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’, an intentional homage to Ghazali’s Revival.

Ghazali’s Revival is slowly being translated into the English language by the Islamic Texts Society, under the careful editorship of Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad (known to some as Tim Winter of Cambridge University). The translation opens up a treasure trove of Islamic thought to the Anglophone world, and may help revive Ghazali’s legacy so that he becomes as esteemed in Western academia as he is by Muslim scholars.

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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