AL-GHAZALI HAS THREE CHARACTERISTICS BEYOND BRINGING PHILOSOPHERS TO THEIR KNEES: ASH’ARI THEOLOGIAN, SHAFI’I JURIST AND SUFI.
It is not a coincidence that Imam al-Ghazali is called “Hüccetü’l Islam” (the Proof of Islam). Al-Ghazali beat the philosophers. As a matter of fact, hüccet means ‘the proof that predominates over a discussion’. As regards the dispute between the philosophers and al-Ghazali, the superiority of al-Ghazali still holds true although many things have been written down against him and a thousand years have passed over that period. Of course, this is the most famous one of the four distinctive characteristics of the master, but it is not the most important one. You will find that many orientalists and the Turkish branches of orientalism have accused al-Ghazali of disrupting the ideal of Islam Do not believe them. What was thrashed by al-Ghazali was the power of spreading the Greek philosophy among Muslim scholars.
Taking sides with wisdom against rationalism
Al-Ghazali has three more characteristics beyond bringing philosophers to their knees: Ash’ari theologian, Shafi’i jurist and sufi. It is necessary to explain these in a few sentences. Imam al-Ghazali was a significant Ash’ari theologist. To put it in another way, he was an important scholar within the school of theology established by Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari.
According to the Ash’ari theology, human reason is not sufficient in itself so as to achieve the truth. What is important is religious belief and commitment. Imam al-Ash’ari attached importance to especially refuting the opinions of the Mu’tazila sect which had a kind of Islamic rationalism. One of the most important disputes between them was the issue of the titles of Allah. While the scholars of Mu’tazila worked diligently to establish a rationalist theology, they dismissed the idea that Allah had titles separately from His entity. However, al-Ash’ari separated the entity from titles and put forth his famous formula as to the effect that the titles of Allah were separate from the entity of Allah or, in other words, Himself. The current acceptance and belief of the majority of Muslims which is also called Ehl-i Sunnah originates from the analysis of al-Ashari as specified in this formula.
The innovation brough by al-Ghazali to the science of theology is rather one of methodology. Although the first theologians also called “Mutakaddim” avoided the logic which they considered to have belonged to the Greek thinking, they decided that the logic of al-Ghazali could be utilized. Thus, this attitude is single-handedly sufficient to refute the libel about al-Ghazali as to the fact that “he caused a downfall in the ideal of Islam”. How could a man that benefitted from philosophy and recommended it to others cause a downfall in the ideal?
Star of the Nezamiyeh Madrassah
Considering other contributions of al-Ghazali; belief in the tradition of Islam and Islamic law were not two separate notions. In other words, the sciences of theology and Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) have ended up being a single entity. In the simplest terms, the reason for it is the existence of a dichotomy of theory-practice in the Islamic thought. A muslim does not occupy himself/herself with abstract ideas that do not have any influence on life and avoids behaviors, prayers and practices that do not depend on any sound basis of thought. A muslim is not a person of dichotomy, but unity.
Abu Hamid al-Ghazali who was born in 1058 studied in Nishapur Nezamiyeh Madrassah until the age of 28. It is necessary to say that this education was the best theology education of the era. Under the rule of the Seljuk dynasty, madrassah training achieved a technical subtlety. The poor youngster Abu Hamid who was nicknamed as Ghazali as he was born in the village “Ghazaleh” or Ghazzali as his father was a thread chooser (ghazzal) was educated as good as possible in the era at one of the madrassahs under the auspices of Nizam al-Mulk.
Al-Ghazali who was rapidly promoted due to his ambition and ability was appointed as the chief mudarris of Baghdad Nezamiyeh Madrassah in 1091 at the age of 33. It is possible to consider this post as the rector of the most prominent university at the time. Al-Ghazali came out victorious from many debates, read and contemplated for many long hours before peaking up. As an outcome of these studies, he penned many books.
The most famous books of al-Ghazali were his responses to the philosophers. After he examined the opinions of philosophers in an imperturbable way in “Maqasid al-Falasifa” (Aims of Philosophers), he put forth the inconsistencies of philosophers in his book “Tahafut al-Falasifa” (The Incoherence of the Philosophers). This is the most important and most commonly-debated book of al-Ghazali. The libel as to the fact that “he caused a downfall in the ideal of Islam” also originates from this book. Orientalists who attached an excessive importance to this book think that Aristotelian philosophy would have survived if this book had not existed and continue to hold al-Ghazali solely responsible for the decline of the Greek philosophy in the Islamic world. This delusion and libel which does not have any scientific basis has turned into a model which is also believed by the followers of orientalism in Turkey without giving it any thought.
Let’s clarify it by telling it once again: Al-Ghazali is the man who put a stop to the Greek philosophy and to the fake philosophy that emerged in the Islamic world with the effect of this philosophy. On the other hand, if al-Ghazali had not stopped it, the Greek philosophy would have lost its impact on the Islamic world and stopped at one point. As a matter of fact, the ethical principles of the Greek philosophy were contrary to a Muslim’s world. Hence, al-Ghazali owes his impact to asserting ethical ideas that were suitable for a Muslim’s world.
Crisis and revival
Indeed, al-Ghazali also severely criticized Batiniyya, but Batiniyya continued to survive in the Islamic world in one way or another. Mu’tazila and philosophy would have ceased to survive even if al-Ash’ari and al-Ghazali had not existed. On the contrary, it is more reasonable to think that the attacks of al-Ash’ari towards Mu’tazila and of al-Ghazali towards philosopy fulfilled the general requirements of Muslims and that therefore, these two scholars have a fame that is still alive.
Al-Ghazali is known for his refutations as well as his effort of revival. What kept his books criticizing philosophy and Batiniyya from uni-lateralism is his extensive work called “Ihya’ Ulum al-Din”. In this book, al-Ghazali prioritizes ethics, prayer and dervish-like prudence while he brings new approaches to Islamic jurisprudence and theology. In a nutshell, “ihya” (revival) can be considered as the effort of a single scholar to encompass the entire science of Islam. If we take into consideration the meaning of “ihya” as revival and awakening, we can say that al-Ghazali was the first mujaddid to put forth the idea of the revival of Islam.
During all these official scientific works, al-Ghazali succumbed to a great depression while he was at the zenith of his fame and career as the Chief Mudarris of Baghdad. He could not stand never-ending debates and his soul was almost moving heaven and earth for salvation. He felt a craving for retreating to seclusion. However, he never satisfied this craving due to the tense political environment of the era. The master who found a way to go from Baghdad to Damascus and to Hecaz therefrom for pilgrimage finally returned to his place of birth, Tus.
In his autobiographical work called “al-Munqidh Min al-Dalal (Rescuer from Error)” which is the product of this journey that amounted to ten years, he talks about his own spiritual journey and gives a final summary of his opinions on Theology, Philosophy, Batiniyya and Sufism, his life-long themes. Al-Ghazali’s final verdict is that the life of Sufis is ethically chaster than the life of those who go astray. Sufism revitalized the chief mudarris who went through a crisis.