AL-GHAZALI (1058-1111): CONFESSIONS, SUFISM AND SUNNI ISLAM

AL-GHAZALI


Al-Ghazili

Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058-1111) is arguably the greatest scholar and thinker in Muslim history. A theologian, logician, jurist and mystic, he spent much of his life lecturing in Baghdad or leading the life of a wandering dervish. His celebrated works exercised a profound influence on Muslim intellectual history by exploring the mystical significance of the practices and beliefs of Islamic orthodoxy, and earned him the title of "Hujjat al-Islam", the "Proof of Islam". His ideas contributed a great deal towards shaping Sunni ideology.

Al-Ghazali made great contributions to Islamic theology, philosophy, literature, science and legal scholarship. In Baghdad in 1095 he suffered a nervous breakdown due to questions about his faith that left him paralyzed and unable to speak. He went to Jerusalem and recovered by doing Sufi exercises and concluded that God could not be found in reason and rationality but was more likely to be discovered using the rituals of Sufi mystics who aimed to have a direct relationship with God. He returned to Iraq 10 years after his breakdown and wrote his masterpiece The Revival of Religious Sciences, which became the most quoted text after the Qur’an and the hadiths.

Al-Ghazali was sort of like of a Muslim equivalent of St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas: someone who wrote beautifully and was able to bring religion down to earth so that it could be understood by ordinary people. In addition to writing about deep philosophical issues he also wrote about music and what heaven is like and argued the only infallible teacher was Muhammad. Al-Ghazali wrote: “Gleams of the truth will shine in his heart. In the beginning it will be like the rapid lightning, and will not remain. Then it will return and it may tarry. If it returns it may remain, or may be snatched away.”

In “The Revival of Religious Sciences”, al-Ghazali offered insight into prayer and knowledge of God and provided spiritual justification for Muslim rules on ordinary activities such as washing, eating and sleeping so that Muslims could feel they were doing something more than just following rules. Other works include “The Deliverer of Error” and “The Incoherence of Incoherence” .

On Disciplining The Soul, Al-Ghazali wrote: “"If his aspiration is true, his ambition pure and his concentration good, so that his appetites do not pull at him, and he is not distracted by the hadith an-nafs (discourse of the soul meaning egotism of the soul) towards the attachments of the world, the gleams of the Truth will shine in his heart. At the outset, this will resemble a brief, inconstant shaft of lightening, which then returns, perhaps after a delay. If it returns, it may be fleeting or firm; and if it is firm (thabit), it may or may not endure for some time. States such as these may come upon each other in succession, or only one type may be present. In this regard, the stages of God's saints (awliya) are as innumerable as their outer attributes and qualities". (Translation by Shaykh Abdal-Hakim Murad).

See Music, Heaven

Websites and Resources: Islam Islam.com islam.com ; Islamic City islamicity.com ; Islam 101 islam101.net ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/islam ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Patheos Library – Islam patheos.com/Library/Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts web.archive.org ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam britannica.com ; Islam at Project Gutenberg gutenberg.org ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs web.archive.org ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary pbs.org frontline ; Discover Islam dislam.org ;

Qur’an (Quran, Koran) and Hadith:
Quran translation in English alahazrat.net ; Quran in Easy English, Urdu, Arabic and 70 other languages qurango.com ; Quran.com quran.com ; Al-Quran.info al-quran.info ; Quranic Arabic Corpus, shows syntax and morphology for each word corpus.quran.com ; Word for Word English Translation – emuslim.com emuslim.com/Quran ; Digitised Qurans in the Cambridge University Digital Library cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk ; Sunnah.com sunnah.com ;
Hadith – search by keyword and by narrator ahadith.co.uk;

Islamic, Arabic and Persian Literature Islamic and Arabic Literature at Cornell University guides.library.cornell.edu/ArabicLiterature ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/islam/islamsbook ;
Wikipedia article on Islamic Literature Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Arabic Literature Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Persian Literature Wikipedia ; Persian literature at Encyclopædia Britannica britannica.com ; Persian Literature & Poetry at parstimes.com /www.parstimes.com

Al-Ghazali’s Life

Abu Hamid Ibn Muhammad Ibn Muhammad al-Tusi al-Shafi'i al-Ghazali [Ghazali in Persian, Al-Ghazali in Arabic) was born in A.D. 1058 A.D. in Tus in Khorasan, (a region of Iran). His father died while he was still very young but he had the opportunity of getting education in the prevalent curriculum at Nishapur and Baghdad. Soon he acquired a high standard of scholarship in religion and philosophy and was honoured by his appointment as a Professor at the Nizamiyah University of Baghdad, which was recognised as one of the most reputed institutions of learning in the golden era of Muslim history. After a few years, however, he gave up his academic pursuits and worldly interests and became a wandering ascetic. This was a process (period) of personal mystical transformation. Later, he resumed his teaching duties, but again left these. An era of solitary life, devoted to contemplation and writing then ensued, which led to the author- ship of a number of everlasting books. He died in 505 AH/1111 A.D. at Tus. [Source: Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111 CE): “The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife”, from “The Revival of the Religious Sciences” (Ihya ulum al-din), Islamic Texts Society, translated by T.J.Winter, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]

In Baghdad in 1095 Al-Ghazali suffered a nervous breakdown over questions about his faith that left him paralyzed and unable to speak. He went to Jerusalem and recovered by doing Sufi exercises and concluded that God could not be found in reason and rationality but was more likely to be discovered using the rituals of Sufi mystics who aimed to have a direct relationship with God. Al-Ghazali returned to Iraq 10 years after his breakdown and wrote his masterpiece “The Revival of Religious Sciences” , which became the most quoted text after the Qur’an and the hadiths.

Al-Ghazali's influence was deep and everlasting. He is one of the greatest theologians of Islam and his influence penetrated Europe, influenced Jewish and Christian Scholasticism, and several of his arguments seem to have been adopted by Thomas Aquinas in order to similarly reestablish the authority of orthodox Christian religion in the West.

Al-Ghazali’s Works


Alchemy of Happiness

Al-Ghazali was a prolific writer. His books include Tahafut al-Falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers), Ihya al-'Ulum al-Islamia (The Revival of the Religious Sciences), "The Beginning of Guidance and his Autobiography", "Deliverance from Error". Some of his works were translated into Latin in the Middle Ages, where he was known as Algazel and via the translation of a truncated work, the Maqasid al-Falasifa [The Intentions of the Philosophers.]

In “The Revival of Religious Sciences, al-Ghazali offered inights into prayer and knowledge of God and provided spiritual justification for Muslim rules on ordinary activities such as washing, eating and sleeping so that Muslims could feel they were doing something more than just following rules and that the only infallible teacher was Mohammed.

Other Al-Ghazali works included “The Deliverer of Error and “The Incoherence of Incoherence. Al-Ghazali wrote: “Gleams of the truth will shine in his heart. In the beginning it will be like the rapid lightning, and will not remain. Then it will return and it may tarry. If it returns it may remain, or may be snatched away.”

On Disciplining The Soul Al-Ghazali wrote: “"If his aspiration is true, his ambition pure and his concentration good, so that his appetites do not pull at him, and he is not distracted by the hadith an-nafs (discourse of the soul meaning egotism of the soul) towards the attachments of the world, the gleams of the Truth will shine in his heart. At the outset, this will resemble a brief, inconstant shaft of lightening, which then returns, perhaps after a delay. If it returns, it may be fleeting or firm; and if it is firm (thabit), it may or may not endure for some time. States such as these may come upon each other in succession, or only one type may be present. In this regard, the stages of God's saints (awliya) are as innumerable as their outer attributes and qualities". (Translation by Shaykh Abdal-Hakim Murad).

Al-Ghazali’s Contributions in Religion, Philosophy and Sufism

Al-Ghazali's major contribution lies in religion, philosophy and Sufism. A number of Muslim philosophers had been following and developing several viewpoints of Greek philosophy, including the Neoplatonic philosophy, and had lead to conflict with several Islamic teachings. On the other hand, the movement of sufism was assuming such excessive proportions as to avoid observance of obligatory prayers and duties of Islam. Based on his unquestionable scholarship and personal mystical experience, Ghazali sought to rectify these trends, both in philosophy and sufism. [Source: Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111 CE): “The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife”, from “The Revival of the Religious Sciences” (Ihya ulum al-din), Islamic Texts Society, translated by T.J.Winter, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]

In philosophy, Ghazali upheld the approach of mathematics and exact sciences as essentially correct. However, he adopted the techniques of Aristotelian logic and the Neoplatonic procedures and employed these very tools to lay bare the flaws and lacunas of the then prevalent Neoplatonic philosophy and to diminish the negative influences of Aristotelianism and excessive rationalism. In contrast to some of the Muslim philosophers, e.g., al-Farabi, he portrayed the inability of reason to comprehend the absolute and the infinite. Reason could not transcend the finite and was limited to the observa- tion of the relative. Also, several Muslim philosophers had held that the universe was finite in space but infinite in time. Ghazali argued that an infinite time was related to an infinite space.


Al-Ghazali by Khalili Gibran

In religion, particularly mysticism, he cleansed the approach of sufism of its excesses and reestablished the authority of the orthodox (i.e. Sunni) religion. Yet, he stressed the importance of genuine sufism, which he maintained was the path to attain the absolute truth.

“Many people consider the Imam to be the fulfilment of the hadith found in Bukhari: 6.420: Narrated Abu Huraira: “While we were sitting with the Prophet Surat Al-Jumu'a was revealed to him, and when the Verse, "And He (Allah) has sent him (Muhammad) also to other (Muslims).....' (62.3) was recited by the Prophet, I said, "Who are they, O Allah's Apostle?" The Prophet did not reply till I repeated my question thrice. At that time, Salman Al-Farisi was with us. So Allah's Apostle put his hand on Salman, saying, "If Faith were at (the place of) Ath-Thuraiya (Pleiades, the highest star), even then some men or man from these people (i.e. Salman's folk) would attain it." Anyone who is aquainted with the work of the Imam would unhestitatingly agree with this statement, as Imam Ghazali deals primarily with issues of faith (Aqidah) as well as other Islamic issues and is of Persian descent. Imam Nawawi has said that "if all the books of Islam were lost, the Ihya would suffice them all", such is the depth and detail of this remarkable work.

Al-Ghazali’s Confessions

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111) wrote in “Munkidh min al-Dalal” (“Confessions, or Deliverance from Error”, 1100). It is a sort of intellectual autobiography. A relatively modern translation can be found in W. Montgomery Watt, The Faith and Practice of Al-Ghazali,(London: 1951).

According to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “At the age of 36, Ghazali experienced a profound crisis, provoked by the problem of intellectual certitude. He abandoned his professorship and his position as rector of Nizamiya University of Baghdad. During a period of ten years, clothed in the characteristic wool garment of the Sufis and completely absorbed in spiritual practices, he made solitary pilgrimages throughout the Muslim world, to Syria, Egypt, Mecca, and Medina. What he conveyed in his doctrines cannot be separated from this pathetic experience. He solved the problem of knowledge and certitude by affirming a degree of comprehension that left the heart no room for doubt, a comprehension that is the essential apprehension of things. The thinking soul becomes the focus of the universal Soul's irradiations, the mirror of intelligible forms received from the universal Soul. This theme dominates certain characteristic short treatises (the Monqidh or "Preservative From Error," [this text], the Risalat alLadoniya, etc.) as well as the great synthesis entitled Ilya Ulum ad-Din ("Revival of the Religious Sciences"). But this theme had already been treated, undoubtedly without his knowledge, by the Imams of Shi'ism, and it does not differ essentially from the Ishraq of Sohrawardi. This very theme led Sohrawardi! to advance philosophy on a new basis rather than destroy the efforts of philosophers as such. Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan, 1967),

“It is principally this aspect of Ghazali's work, developed in his Tahafut al-Falasifa ("Autodestruction of the Philosophers") that Westerners have been inclined to emphasize. An attempt has even been made to read into it a more incisive and decisive critique or metaphysics than that of Kant. In fact, Ghazali strove vehemently to destroy the demonstrative range that philosophers, Avicennians as well as others, accorded to their arguments regarding the eternity of the world, the procession of the Intelligences, the existence of purely spiritual substances, and the idea of spiritual resurrection. In general Ghazal! strove to refute the idea of any causality, of any necessary connection. According to him all thatean be experimentally affirmed is, for example, that combustion of cotton occurs at the moment of contact with fire; it cannot be shown that combustion takes place because of the contact between cotton and fire. Nor can it be shown that there is any cause whatsoever. From this bursts forth the paradox of a thinker who professes the inability of reason to attain certitude while maintaining the certitude of destroying, with massive doses of rational dialectic, the certitudes of the philosophers. Averroe s clearly discerned this self-contradiction and replied to it with his celebrated Tahafut al-Tahafut ("Autodestruction of the Autodestruction").

Passage from Al-Ghazali’s Confessions


St Augustine (AD 354-430), here coverting in a painting by Fra Angelico, also wrote a work called Confessions

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111) wrote in “Munkidh min al-Dalal” (“Confessions, or Deliverance from Error”, 1100): “ You wish to know my experiences while disentangling truth lost in the medley of sects and divergencies of thought, and how I have dared to climb from the low levels of traditional belief to the topmost summit of assurance. You desire to learn what I have borrowed, first of all from scholastic theology; and secondly from the method of the Ta'limites, who, in seeking truth, rest upon the authority of a leader; and why, thirdly, I have been led to reject philosophic systems; and finally, what I have accepted of the doctrine of the Sufis, and the sum total of truth which I have gathered in studying every variety of opinion. You ask me why, after resigning at Baghdad a teaching post which attracted a number of hearers, I have, long afterward, accepted a similar one at Nishapur. Convinced as I am of the sincerity which prompts your inquiries, I proceed to answer them, invoking the help and protection of God. [Source: Charles F. Horne, ed., “The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East,” (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VI: Medieval Arabia, pp. 99-133. This was a reprint of The “Confessions of al-Ghazali,” trans. by Claud Field, (London: J. Murray, 1909)

“Know then, my brothers (may God direct you in the right way), that the diversity in beliefs and religions, and the variety of doctrines and sects which divide men, are like a deep ocean strewn with shipwrecks, from which very few escape safe and sound. Each sect, it is true, believes itself in possession of the truth and of salvation, "each party," as the Qur'an saith, "rejoices in its own creed"; but as the chief of the apostles, whose word is always truthful, has told us, "My people will be divided into more than seventy sects, of whom only one will be saved." This prediction, like all others of the Prophet, must be fulfilled.

“From the period of adolescence, that is to say, previous to reaching my twentieth year to the present time when I have passed my fiftieth, I have ventured into this vast ocean; I have fearlessly sounded its depths, and like a resolute diver, I have penetrated its darkness and dared its dangers and abysses. I have interrogated the beliefs of each sect and scrutinized the mysteries of each doctrine, in order to disentangle truth from error and orthodoxy from heresy. I have never met one who maintained the hidden meaning of the Qur'an without investigating the nature of his belief. nor a partisan of its exterior sense without inquiring into the results of his doctrine. There is no philosopher whose system I have not fathomed, nor theologian the intricacies of whose doctrine I have not followed out.

“Sufism has no secrets into which I have not penetrated; the devout adorer of Deity has revealed to me the aim of his austerities; the atheist has not been able to conceal from me the real reason of his unbelief. The thirst for knowledge was innate in me from an early age; it was like a second nature implanted by God, without any will on my part. No sooner had I emerged from boyhood than I had already broken the fetters of tradition and freed myself from hereditary beliefs.

“Having noticed how easily the children of Christians become Christians, and the children of Muslims embrace Islam, and remembering also the traditional saying ascribed to the Prophet, "Every child has in him the germ of Islam, then his parents make him Jew, Christian, or Zarathustrian," I was moved by a keen desire to learn what was this innate disposition in the child, the nature of the accidental beliefs imposed on him by the authority of his parents and his masters, and finally the unreasoned convictions which he derives from their instructions.

“Struck with the contradictions which I encountered in endeavoring to disentangle the truth and falsehood of these opinions, I was led to make the following reflection: "The search after truth being the aim which I propose to myself, I ought in the first place to ascertain what are the bases of certitude." In the next place I recognized that certitude is the clear and complete knowledge of things, such knowledge as leaves no room for doubt nor possibility of error and conjecture, so that there remains no room in the mind for error to find an entrance. In such a case it is necessary that the mind, fortified against all possibility of going astray, should embrace such a strong conviction that, if, for example, any one possessing the power of changing a stone into gold, or a stick into a serpent, should seek to shake the bases of this certitude, it would remain firm and immovable. Suppose, for instance, a man should come and say to me, who am firmly convinced that ten is more than three, "No; on the contrary, three is more than ten, and, to prove it, I change this rod into a serpent," and supposing that he actually did so, I should remain none the less convinced of the falsity of his assertion, and although his miracle might arouse my astonishment, it would not instil any doubt into my belief.

“I then understood that all forms of knowledge which do not unite these conditions (imperviousness to doubt, etc.) do not deserve any confidence, because they are not beyond the reach of doubt, and what is not impregnable to doubt can not constitute certitude.

Al-Ghazali on Math and Science in A.D. 1100


location of Tus, al-Ghazali's hometown, near Mashad, Iran

Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058-1111) is arguably the greatest scholar and thinker in Muslim history. A theologian, logician, jurist and mystic, he spent much of his life lecturing in Baghdad or leading the life of a wandering dervish. His celebrated works exercised a profound influence on Muslim intellectual history by exploring the mystical significance of the practices and beliefs of Islamic orthodoxy, and earned him the title of "Hujjat al-Islam", the "Proof of Islam". His ideas contributed a great deal towards shaping Sunni ideology.

In “Confessions” (1100), al-Ghazali wrote: “These sciences, in relation to the aim we have set before us, may be divided into six sections: (1) Mathematics; (2) Logic; (3) Physics; (4) Metaphysics; (5) Politics; (6) Moral Philosophy. (1) Mathematics. Mathematics comprises the knowledge of calculation, geometry, and cosmography: it has no connection with the religious sciences, and proves nothing for or against religion; it rests on a foundation of proofs which, once known and understood, can not be refuted. Mathematics tend, however, to produce two bad results. The first is this: Whoever studies this science admires the subtlety and clearness of its proofs. His confidence in philosophy increases, and he thinks that all its departments are capable of the same clearness and solidity of proof as mathematics. But when he hears people speak of the unbelief and impiety of mathematicians, of their professed disregard for the Divine law, which is notorious, it is true that, out of regard for authority, he echoes these accusations, but he says to himself at the same time that, if there was truth in religion, it would not have escaped those who have displayed so much keenness of intellect in the study of mathematics. [Source: Charles F. Horne, ed., “The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East,” (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VI: Medieval Arabia, pp. 99-133. This was a reprint of The “Confessions of al-Ghazali,” trans. by Claud Field, (London: J. Murray, 1909)

“The second evil comes from the sincere but ignorant Muslims who thinks the best way to defend religion is by rejecting all the exact sciences. Accusing their professors of being astray, he rejects their theories of the eclipses of the sun and moon, and condemns them in the name of religion. These accusations are carried far and wide, they reach the ears of the philosopher who knows that these theories rest on infallible proofs; far from losing confidence in them, he believes, on the contrary, that Islam has ignorance and the denial of scientific proofs for its basis, and his devotion to philosophy increases with his hatred to religion.

“(2) Logic. This science, in the same manner, contains nothing for or against religion. Its object is the study of different kinds of proofs and syllogisms, the conditions which should hold between the premises of a proposition, the way to combine them, the rules of a good definition, and the art of formulating it. For knowledge consists of conceptions which spring from a definition or of convictions which arise from proofs. There is therefore nothing censurable in this science, and it is laid under contribution by theologians as well as by philosophers. The only difference is that the latter use a particular set of technical formulas and that they push their divisions and subdivisions further. It may be asked, What, then, this has to do with the grave questions of religion, and on what ground opposition should be offered to the methods of logic? The objector, it will be said, can only inspire the logician with an unfavorable opinion of the intelligence and faith of his adversary, since the latter's faith seems to be based upon such objections. But, it must be admitted, logic is liable to abuse. Logicians demand in reasoning certain conditions which lead to absolute certainty, but when they touch on religious questions they can no longer postulate these conditions, and ought therefore to relax their habitual rigor. It happens, accordingly, that a student who is enamored of the evidential methods of logic, hearing his teachers accused of irreligion, believes that this irreligion reposes on proofs as strong as those of logic, and immediately, without attempting the study of metaphysics, shares their mistake. This is a serious disadvantage arising from the study of logic.

“(3) Physics. The object of this science is the study of the bodies which compose the universe: the sky and the stars, and, here below, simple elements such as air, earth, water, fire, and compound bodies-animals, plants, and minerals the reasons of their changes, developments, and intermixture. By the nature of its researches it is closely connected with the study of medicine, the object of which is the human body, its principal and secondary organs, and the law which governs their changes. Religion having no fault to find with medical science, can not justly do so with physical, except on some special matters which we have mentioned in the work entitled, The Destruction of the Philosophers. Besides these primary questions, there are some subordinate ones depending on them, on which physical science is open to objection. But all physical science rests, as we believe, on the following principle: Nature is entirely subject to God; incapable of acting by itself, it is an instrument in the hand of the Creator; sun, moon, stars, and elements are subject to God and can produce nothing of themselves. In a word, nothing in nature can act spontaneously and apart from God.

“(4) Metaphysics. This is the fruitful breeding-ground of the errors of philosophers. Here they can no longer satisfy the laws of rigorous argumentation such as logic demands, and this is what explains the disputes which arise between them in the study of metaphysics. The system most closely akin to the system of the Muhammadan doctors is that of Aristotle as expounded to us by Farabi and Avicenna. The sum total of their errors can be reduced to twenty propositions: three of them are irreligious, and the other seventeen heretical. It was in order to combat their system that we wrote the work, Destruction of the Philosophers. The three propositions in which they are opposed to all the doctrines of Islam are the following: (a) Bodies do not rise again; spirits alone will be rewarded or punished; future punishments will be therefore spiritual and not physical. They are right in admitting spiritual punishments, for there will be such; but they are wrong in rejecting physical punishments, and contradicting in this manner the assertions of the Divine Law. (b) "God takes cognizance of universals, not of specials." This is manifestly irreligious. The Qur'an asserts truly, "Not an atom's weight in heaven or earth can escape his knowledge" (Qur'an x. 62) . (c) They maintain that the universe exists from all eternity and will never end. None of these propositions has ever been admitted by Muslims. Besides this, they deny that God has attributes, and maintain that he knows by his essence only and not by means of any attribute accessory to his essence. In this point they approach the doctrine of the Mutazilites, doctrines which we are not obliged to condemn as irreligious. On the contrary, in our work entitled, "Criteria of the Differences Which Divide Islam from Atheism," we have proved the wrongness of those who accuse of irreligion everything which is opposed to their way of looking at things.

“(5) Political Science. The professors of this confine themselves to drawing up the rules which regulate temporal matters and the royal power. They have borrowed their theories on this point from the books which God has revealed to his prophets and from the sentences of ancient sages, gathered by tradition.

“(6) Moral Philosophy. The professors of this occupy themselves with defining the attributes and qualities of the soul, grouping them according to genus and species, and pointing out the way to moderate and control them. They have borrowed this system from the Sufis. These devout men, who are always engaged in invoking the name of God, in combating concupiscence and following the way of God by renouncing the pleasures of this world, have received, while in a state of ecstasy, revelations regarding the qualities of the soul, its defects and its evil inclinations. These revelations they have published, and the philosophers making use of them have introduced them into their own systems in order to embellish and give currency to their falsehoods. In the times of the philosophers, as at every other period, there existed some of these fervent mystics. God does not deprive this world of them, for they are its sustainers, and they draw down to it the blessings of heaven according to the tradition: "It is by them that you obtain rain; it is by them that you receive your subsistence." Such were "the Companions of the Cave," who lived in ancient times, as related by the Qur'an (xviii.). Now this mixture of moral and philosophic doctrine with the words of the Prophet and those of the Sufis gives rise to two dangers, one for the upholder of those doctrines, the other for their opponent.

Al-Ghazali on Sufism


A Sufi in Ecstacy

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali wrote in his “Confessions” (1100): “When I had finished my examination of... doctrines I applied myself to the study of Sufism. I saw that in order to understand it thoroughly one must combine theory with practice. The aim which the Sufis set before them is as follows: 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. [Source: Charles F. Horne, ed., “The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East,” (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VI: Medieval Arabia, pp. 99-133. This was a reprint of The “Confessions of al-Ghazali,” trans. by Claud Field, (London: J. Murray, 1909)

“As it was more easy to learn their doctrine than to practice it, I studied first of all those of their books which contain it: "The Nourishment of Hearts," by Abu Talib of Mecca, the works of Hareth el Muhasibi, and the fragments which still remain of Junaid, Shibli, Abu Yezid Bustami, and other leaders (whose souls may God sanctify). I acquired a thorough knowledge of their researches, and I learned all that was possible to learn of their methods by study and oral teaching. It became clear to me that the last stage could not be reached by mere instruction, but only by transport, ecstasy, and the transformation of the moral being.

“To define health and satiety, to penetrate their causes and conditions, is quite another thing from being well and satisfied. To define drunkenness, to know that it is caused by vapors which rise from the stomach and cloud the seat of intelligence, is quite a different thing to being drunk. The drunken man has no idea of the nature of drunkenness, just because he is drunk and not in a condition to understand anything, while the doctor, not being under the influence of drunkenness knows its character and laws. Or if the doctor fall ill, he has a theoretical knowledge of the health of which he is deprived.

“In the same way there is a considerable difference between knowing renouncement, comprehending its conditions and causes, and practicing renouncement and detachment from the things of this world. 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.

“The researches to which I had devoted myself, the path which I had traversed in studying religious and speculative branches of knowledge, had given me a firm faith in three things—God, Inspiration, and the Last Judgment. These three fundamental articles of belief were confirmed in me, not merely by definite arguments, but by a chain of causes, circumstances, and proofs which it is impossible to recount. I saw that one can only hope for salvation by devotion and the conquest of one's passions, a procedure which presupposes renouncement and detachment from this world of falsehood in order to turn toward eternity and meditation on God. Finally, I saw that the only condition of success was to sacrifice honors and riches and to sever the ties and attachments of worldly life.

“Coming seriously to consider my state, I found myself bound down on all sides by these trammels. Examining my actions, the most fair-seeming of which were my lecturing and professorial occupations, I found to my surprise that I was engrossed in several studies of little value, and profitless as regards my salvation. I probed the motives of my teaching and found that, in place of being sincerely consecrated to God, it was only actuated by a vain desire of honor and reputation. I perceived that I was on the edge of an abyss, and that without an immediate conversion I should be doomed to eternal fire. In these reflections I spent a long time. Still a prey to uncertainty, one day I decided to leave Baghdad and to give up everything; the next day I gave up my resolution. I advanced one step and immediately relapsed. In the morning I was sincerely resolved only to occupy myself with the future life; in the evening a crowd of carnal thoughts assailed and dispersed my resolutions.


al-Gazali manuscript

On the one side the world kept me bound to my post in the chains of covetousness, on the other side the voice of religion cried to me, "Up! Up! Thy life is nearing its end, and thou hast a long journey to make. All thy pretended knowledge is naught but falsehood and fantasy. If thou dost not think now of thy salvation, when wilt thou think of it? If thou dost not break thy chains today, when wilt thou break them?" Then my resolve was strengthened, I wished to give up all and fee; but the Tempter, returning to the attack, said, "You are suffering from a transitory feeling; don't give way to it, for it will soon pass. If you obey it, if you give up this fine position, this honorable post exempt from trouble and rivalry, this seat of authority safe from attack, you will regret it later on without being able to recover it."

“Thus I remained, torn asunder by the opposite forces of earthly passions and religious aspirations, for about six months from the month Rajab of the year A.D. 1096. At the close of them my will yielded and I gave myself up to destiny. God caused an impediment to chain my tongue and prevented me from lecturing. Vainly I desired, in the interest of my pupils, to go on with my teaching, but my mouth became dumb. The silence to which I was condemned cast me into a violent despair; my stomach became weak; I lost all appetite; I could neither swallow a morsel of bread nor drink a drop of water.

The enfeeblement of my physical powers was such that the doctors, despairing of saving me, said, "The mischief is in the heart, and has communicated itself to the whole organism; there is no hope unless the cause of his grievous sadness be arrested."

“Finally, conscious of my weakness and the prostration of my soul, I took refuge in God as a man at the end of himself and without resources. "He who hears the wretched when they cry" (Qur'an, xxvii. 63) deigned to hear me; He made easy to me the sacrifice of honors, wealth, and family. I gave out publicly that I intended to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, while I secretly resolved to go to Syria, not wishing that the Caliph (may God magnify him) or my friends should know my intention of settling in that country. I made all kinds of clever excuses for leaving Baghdad with the fixed intention of not returning thither. The Imams of Iraq criticized me with one accord. Not one of them could admit that this sacrifice had a religious motive, because they considered my position as the highest attainable in the religious community. "Behold how far their knowledge goes!" (Qur'an, liii. 31). All kinds of explanations of my conduct were forthcoming. Those who were outside the limits of Iraq attributed it to the fear with which the Government inspired me. Those who were on the spot and saw how the authorities wished to detain me, their displeasure at my resolution and my refusal of their request, said to themselves, "It is a calamity which one can only impute to a fate which has befallen the Faithful and Learning!"

Al-Ghazali's Travels


shrine in Tus

Al-Ghazali wrote “At last I left Baghdad, giving up all my fortune. Only, as lands and property in Iraq can afford an endowment for pious purposes, I obtained a legal authorization to preserve as much as was necessary for my support and that of my children; for there is surely nothing more lawful in the world than that a learned man should provide sufficient to support his family. I then betook myself to Syria, where I remained for two years, which I devoted to retirement, meditation, and devout exercises. I only thought of self-improvement and discipline and of purification of the heart by prayer in going through the forms of devotion which the Sufis had taught me. I used to live a solitary life in the Mosque of Damascus, and was in the habit of spending my days on the minaret after closing the door behind me.

“From thence I proceeded to Jerusalem, and every day secluded myself in the Sanctuary of the Rock. After that I felt a desire to accomplish the pilgrimage, and to receive a full effusion of grace by visiting Mecca, Medina, and the tomb of the Prophet. After visiting the shrine of the Friend of God (Abraham), I went to the Hedjaz. Finally, the longings of my heart and the prayers of my children brought me back to my country, although I was so firmly resolved at first never to revisit it. At any rate I meant, if I did return, to live there solitary and in religious meditation; but events, family cares, and vicissitudes of life changed my resolutions and troubled my meditative calm. However irregular the intervals which I could give to devotional ecstasy, my confidence in it did not diminish; and the more I was diverted by hindrances, the more steadfastly I returned to it.

“Ten years passed in this manner. During my successive periods of meditation there were revealed to me things impossible to recount. All that I shall say for the edification of the reader is this: I learned 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. The intelligence of thinkers, the wisdom of philosophers, the knowledge of the most learned doctors of the law would in vain combine their efforts in order to modify or improve their doctrine and morals; it would be impossible. With the Sufis, repose and movement, exterior or interior, are illumined with the light which proceeds from the Central Radiance of Inspiration. And what other light could shine on the face of the earth? In a word, what can one criticize in them? To purge the heart of all that does not belong to God is the first step in their cathartic method. The drawing up of the heart by prayer is the key-stone of it, as the cry "Allahu Akbar' (God is great) is the key-stone of prayer, and the last stage is the being lost in God. I say the last stage, with reference to what may be reached by an effort of will; but, to tell the truth, it is only the first stage in the life of contemplation, the vestibule by which the initiated enter.


al-Ghazali's pen case

“From the time that they set out on this path, revelations commence for them. They come to see in the waking state angels and souls of prophets; they hear their voices and wise counsels. By means of this contemplation of heavenly forms and images they rise by degrees to heights which human language can not reach, which one can not even indicate without falling into great and inevitable errors. The degree of proximity to Deity which they attain is regarded by some as intermixture of being (haloul), by others as identification (ittihad), by others as intimate union (wasl).

But all these expressions are wrong, as we have explained in our work entitled, "The Chief Aim." Those who have reached that stage should confine themselves to repeating the verse—What I experience I shall not try to say; Call me happy, but ask me no more. In short, he who does not arrive at the intuition of these truths by means of ecstasy, knows only the name of inspiration. The miracles wrought by the saints are, in fact, merely the earliest forms of prophetic manifestation. Such was the state of the Apostle of God, when, before receiving his commission, he retired to Mount Hira to give himself up to such intensity of prayer and meditation that the Arabs said: "Muhammad is become enamored of God."

“This state, then, can be revealed to the initiated in ecstasy, and to him who is incapable of ecstasy, by obedience and attention, on condition that he frequents the society of Sufis till he arrives, so to speak, at an imitative initiation. Such is the faith which one can obtain by remaining among them, and intercourse with them is never painful.

Al-Ghazali on Death and the Afterlife

Al-Ghazali wrote in “Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife”: “An exposition of the grave's discourse to the dead, and of their utterances, either on the tongue of common speech, or that of the Spiritual State (lisan al-hal) (from Chapter Seven): “Now, the tongue of the Spiritual State (lisan al-hal) is even more eloquent in communicating with the dead than that of the speech when communicating with the living. The Emissary of God (May God bless him and grant him peace) said, 'When the dead man is laid in his grave it speaks to him, saying, "Woe betide you, O son of Adam! What distracted you from contemplating me? Did you not know that I am the house of trial, the house of darkness, the house of solitude and the house of worms? What distracted you from me? You used to pass me by, strutting on!" Now if he had worked well, then someone will reply to the grave on his behalf, saying, "Do you not see that it was his practice to enjoin the good and forbid the evil?" And the grave replies, "Then for him shall I turn to verdure [a condition of freshness or healthy growth.], and his body shall become radiance, and his spirit shall soar up to God (Exhalted is He!)".' (According to the narrator, 'strutting' [faddad] is to take large strides.) [Ref: al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi, 161; Abu Nuaym, VI. 90; Abu Ya'la, al-Musnad (Haytami, Majma', III. 45-46)] [Source: Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111 CE): “The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife”, from “The Revival of the Religious Sciences” (Ihya ulum al-din), Islamic Texts Society, translated by T.J.Winter, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]


Grave of Ghazali in Tus

“Said Ubaid bin Umayr al-Laythi 'Not a single man dies without being called by the pit in which he is buried, which declares, "I am the house of gloom, and of loneliness and solitude! If you were obedient to God during your lifetime then today I shall be a source of mercy for you, but if you were rebellious then I am an act of vengence against you. The obedient who enter me shll come forth joyful, while the rebellious who enter me shall emerge in ruin".' Said Muhammad ibn Sabih 'I have heard that if a man is laid in his tomb to be tormented or afflicted by something which is odious to him, his dead neighbours call out to him, saying, "O you who leave your bretheren and neighbours behind you in the world! Was there never a lesson for you in us? Was there no clue for you in our preceding you? Did you not see how our actions were servered from us while you still had some respite? Why did you not achieve that which passed your bretheren by?" Then the regions of the earth call out to him, saying, "O you who were beguiled by the outer aspect of the world! Did you not take heed from your relatives who had vanished into the earth's interior? Those who were beguiled by the world before you and then met their fate, and entered into their graves? You watched them being borne aloft [To the cemetary], availed nothing by those they loved, and taken to the abode which they could not escape."'

“Said Abd Allah ibn Ubayd ibn Umayr at a funeral, 'I have heard it said that the Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) once declared, "The dead man sits up and hears the footsteps of those that are present at his funeral, but none addresses him save his tomb, which says, 'Woe betide you, O son of Adam! Did you not fear me and my narrowness, and my corruption, terror and worms? What have you prepared for me?" [Ibn al-Mubarak, (riwaya Nuym ibn Hammad), 41; Ibn Abi'l-Dunya, K. al-Qubur (Zabidi, x.397; Suyuti, Sharh, 114).

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018


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