The “Religious Genius” of Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111 CE)

Timothy J. Gianotti, Ph.D. (U Toronto, 1998)

Director & Principal Teacher



Historical & Biographical Overview (the context of religious genius)

In the centuries that witnessed the dawn of Islam and its first intellectual florescence, the majority of the intellectual zeal – at least among the ranks of the pious – was devoted to the basic systematization and codification of the new religion.  Thus, the early scholars, or ‘ulamā’, began specializing in obvious areas that had practical applications in people’s daily lives, areas such as the proper methods of studying and interpreting and reciting the Qur’ān (‘ulūm al-qur’ān), the gathering and verification of the reports of the Prophet’s words and deeds (‘ulūm al-ḥadīth), the “understanding” (al-fiqh) and codification of the Islamic practice and way of life, based on the sharī‘a, an ideal code of conduct prescribed by the Qur’ān and the Prophetic example, and the assembling of the creed (al-‘aqīda) – i.e., the scholarly authorization of a list of non-negotiable beliefs required of anyone calling themselves a “Muslim.”  Intertwined with the evolution and codification of the creed, a science of dogmatic theology (al-kalām) [1] emerged, utilising logic and dialectical argumentation as it sought to clarify, explain, systematize and defend the creed.

In other words, establishing the specifics of the orthopraxy (“al-islām”) and the orthodoxy (“al-īmān”) consumed the attention of the vast majority of religious scholars in the first centuries of the faith.  Some scholar-practicioners, however, sensing a danger in an increasingly exclusive focus upon the external requirements of the faith, began to elucidate and codify a complementary science that focused on spiritual cultivation and moral beautification (“al-iḥsān”), a science also rooted in the Qur’ān, the Prophetic custom, and the practice of the closest Companions.  This is the science that came to be called “Sufism” (al-taṣawwuf), and it included both a practical, action-oriented knowledge that concerned the purification of the heart and a theoretical dimension that entered into the mysteries of faith.

Acknowledging the ongoing validity and necessity of the this-worldly science of jurisprudence (al-fiqh), these scholars of the inner way argued that legal formalism and ritual observance were not enough as they turned their attention to the scrutiny of inner acts, i.e., to the study of the attitudes, intentions, and mental states that are essential for the purification and governance of hearts striving to make their way toward God.  Thus the sphere in which these “Doctors of the Afterlife” (‘ulamā’ al-ākhira) exercised their judgment and authority was the unseen world of the heart, a subtle domain beyond the perception of physical eyes yet perceivable through experience and the spiritual eye of intuitive understanding.

One of the most celebrated of these scholar-practicioners was Abū Hāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 504 AH / 1111 CE), a renowned scholar of the Shāfi‘ī  fiqh (jurisprudence) tradition and the Ash‘arī school of dogmatic theology (kalām) who abandoned his prestigious professorship at the Niẓāmīya college or madrasa in Baghdad in order to live a life of poverty and walk the path of inner purification and experiential knowledge.  As he matured and advanced in spiritual station, he wrote copiously, and it was during his initial ten year seclusion following his “escape” from Baghdad that he composed his magnum opus, Reviving Religious Knowledge (Iḥyā’ ‘ulūm al-dīn)[2], essentially a forty-volume primer or manual for spiritual education and formation in Islam.  Put more simply and directly, the Iḥyā’ can be seen as a step-by-step manual for making the transition from an ego-centered life to a God-centered life within a traditional Islamic context.

One of al-Ghazālī’s chief complaints recorded in the Introduction to this work is against the religious scholars – thologians and jurists mostly – of his own day, the ones to whom he says the ongoing guidance of the wider community had been entrusted.  Rather than humbly serving God by seeking to enlighten and fortify their brothers and sisters, he comments, they had become enamoured with themselves, setting themselves up as celebrities and authorities in all fields, engaging in public debates for their own glory, seeking to ingratiate themselves with the rich and the powerful.  In the light of these morally disturbing developments, al-Ghazālī forwarded the bold suggestion that real religious knowledge had passed away, even as Islam, as an orthopraxic religion and political force, had come to dominate a vast portion the civilized world.  So, he explains, he was driven to compose a work that would endeavor to resuscitate authentic religious knowledge in Islam.

al-Ghazālī’s Religious Genius

While there are many gleams of genius in al-Ghazālī’s writings, his religious brilliance and “staying power” within Muslim traditions can be attributed to four basic factors: 1) his clear diagnosis of the spiritual pandemic of his time; 2) his insightful, culturally-adapted, and enticing explication of the remedy for this spiritual pandemic, a treatment that involved a rediscovery of the teleological dimensions of Islamic faith and practice; 3) his willingness to embody the transformation he envisioned and the absolute conviction with which he did so; and 4) his courage in boldly breaking the status quo, which for him was a regime of legalism, political usurpation of religion, personality cult, and popular ignorance: all contributing factors to what he regarded as the death of true religion, even as “Islamdom” was enjoying what many today regard as a golden age.


Source 101


TEXT 1:  By my life!  Your persistence in arrogance is due solely to the disease that has now spread to [infect] a large number of people.  Indeed, it has [now] enveloped the masses due to [their] inability to identify the heights to which this matter has reached [and due to their] ignorance of the fact that the situation is so and [that] the calamity is serious, and [that] the afterlife is before [us] and this life is behind, and [that] the moment of death is nigh and the journey is long, and [that] the provisions are slight and the danger immense, and [that] the road is blocked. [They cannot see the fact that] only that which is purified for the face of God by way of knowledge and deeds will [suffice] as a reply before the Examiner of keen vision.  Wayfaring along the path of the afterlife is wearisome and toilsome, [for it] involves a great many dangers, [calamities] for which there are no instructions and no companion.

The guides for [this] road are the learned, who are [said to be] the heirs of the prophets.  However, the age has become empty of them and all that remains are those who follow in their footsteps.  Satan has overcome most of them; tyranny has seduced them; and each one, being enamored [with himself], has started to rush after his own plan.  And so that which is good has begun to be regarded as abominable, and that which is morally repugnant has begun to be regarded as good, so much so that the shelter of religious knowledge is now wiped away, and the light of guidance is now incomprehensible in the quarters of the earth.  [These pseudo-learned] have succeeded in leading humanity (al-khalq) to believe that there exists no knowledge apart from [three things]: (1) government ruling[s] upon which religious judges depend for period[s] of feuding, when the common people riot; (2) disputation with which the glory-seeking [scholar] arms himself in order to achieve supremacy and silence [his opponent]; or (3) the elegant, adorned prose that the preacher uses to string along the common folk and gain favor with them.  [This common misperception of religious knowledge] is due to the fact that they [i.e., the learned] could not see beyond these three [paths of study] as ways to snare forbidden [fruits] and net the vanities [of this world].

COMMENTARY:  Here we witness the beginning of al-Ghazālī’s sharp criticism of the ways in which the scholarly class has misled the public in the guise of religious authority.  They have done this, he says, in order to promote themselves more than God’s cause, and the result has been the total reversal of the good and the bad in popular perception.  Things that were once regarded as being reprehensible had come to be regarded as good and virtuous, and those things that had once been esteemed as virtues had come to be despised and regarded as base.  In short, the world of religious scholarship had degenerated into a self-serving contest of egos, bent upon the pursuit of glory, fame, political influence, and wealth rather than upon the service of God.  Following this sharp criticism, he now turns to the real religious knowledge that he is hoping to bring back to life through the writing of this book.

Source 102

TEXT 2: As for the Science of the Way of the Afterlife and for that which is in keeping with our righteous forebears (al-salaf al-ṣāliḥ), [being] part of what God — be He exalted — calls in His book understanding (fiqh), wisdom (ḥikma), knowledge (‘ilm), luminescence (diyā’), light (nūr), guidance (hidāya), and right direction (rushd), [over time][3] it became a thing folded up [and forgotten] among people, became a “thing utterly forgotten”.[4]  Inasmuch as this constituted a disastrous fissure in [the bedrock of] the religion and an [utterly] dark affair,  I came to view the publication of this book as a [very] important thing, as [a way of] bringing back to life the [true] sciences of religion, revealing the ways of the spiritual leaders (al-a’imma) who came before, and elucidating for the readers[5] the beneficial sciences [that have been handed down] from the prophets and the righteous forbears.

Echoing these sentiments, he says in his autobiography that the spiritual pandemic had reached cataclysmic dimension: “the sickness has become general, the doctors have fallen ill, and mankind has reached the verge of destruction…”[6]

Source 103

  1. THE REMEDY: Making Room for Moral Theology within the Religious Sciences: “The Science of the Way of the Afterlife (‘ilm ṭarīq al-ākhira),” which includes “the jurisprudence of the heart (fiqh al-qalb)”

TEXT 1: The divisions of that by which [the servant] draws nigh unto God — be He exalted — are three: sheer knowledge, which is the knowledge of the Unveiling; sheer action, such as the justice of the sulṭān, for example, and his controlling [his subjects] for [the welfare of] the people; and the composite of knowledge and action, which is the science of the Way of the Afterlife.[7]

COMMENTARY:  The science by which the servant draws nigh unto the Divine and by which the mysteries of faith may be known is the knowledge or science belonging to the awliyā’ (saints) and the prophets:  namely, the “science of the Way of the Afterlife.”  This science includes a praxis-oriented dimension (al-mu‘āmala), which al-Ghazālī says involves perfecting one’s religious practice, reforming one’s actions, and gradually transforming one’s inner character (through the “Science of the States of the Heart”), and it includes a hidden yet undeniable noetic dimension, which he calls the Science of the Unveiling (‘ilm al-mukāshafa).  He refers to this noetic side of the Science of the Way of the Afterlife in many places throughout the Ihya’, and we can be sure he does this as part of a strategy of enticement, a way to awaken a desire for the higher goods within the hearts of his readers.

Source 104

TEXT 2: …the science by which one is turned toward the afterlife divides into the science of Right Practice and the science of the Unveiling.  By the science of the Unveiling I mean whatever is sought exclusively [for the purpose of] revealing (kashf) the object of knowledge, and by the science of Right Practice I mean whatever is sought with [reference to] works[8] in the accompaniment of kashf.[9]  The goal of this book [i.e. the entire Iḥyā’] is the science of Right Practice only, without the science of the Unveiling, for which there is no license [giving permission] for putting it [in] books, even though it is the ultimate goal of seekers, the [ultimate] desire of the eyes of the trustworthy.  And the science of Right Practice is the way to it.

However, the prophets (may the blessings of God be upon them) have only spoken with humanity about the knowledge of the way and the [right] guidance to it.  As for the knowledge of the Unveiling, they never spoke of it save through symbol (ramz)[10] and [indicative] gesture[s] by way of example and [brief] summarization:  a [kind of] knowledge on their part of the inability of people’s understandings to bear [the Unveiling].  But the learned are the heirs of the prophets, and [so] they do not have any means of turning away from the path of consolation and emulation [of the prophets].[11]

Source 105

TEXT 3: …[the Unveiling] is the knowledge of the inner [truth], and that is the apex of the sciences.  Some of the gnostics[12] have said, “[as for] him who does not have a share of this knowledge, I fear for him the evil of the end (sū’ al-khātima).  And [the] least share of it is believing in it and leaving it to its [own] folk (li-ahlihi).”  Another said, “if one has within him [either of] two traits — innovation or haughtiness — then nothing of this science will be opened to him.”  And it is said, “whoever is enamoured with the world or persistent in [following] lustful desire will not ascertain [this science], although he can ascertain the rest of the sciences.  The least punishment for the one who denies it is that he will experience[13] nothing of [the Unveiling].”  In accordance with [this] statement, it is recited, “Be content with the one whose absence escaped you, for that is the punishment built-in to the sin.”[14]

It is the knowledge of the truthful and those who are near [to God]: I mean the knowledge of the Unveiling, which is an expression for a light that appears in the heart upon its purification and cleansing from its blameworthy characteristics.  From that light many things are unveiled, [things] whose names have been heard before and for which many general meanings are imagined, [meanings which] are not clear.  They then become clear so that the true gnosis is attained [regarding] the true essence of God, be He exalted, His enduring and perfect attributes, His acts and His wisdom in creating [this] world and the hereafter, and the mode (wajh) of His assigning [a priority] to the hereafter over [this] world. [Also attained is] the gnosis of the meaning of prophecy and the prophet, the meaning of revelation and the meaning of Satan, the meaning of the expression “angels” and “devils”, the manner of the hostility [harbored by] the devils for the human being, the manner of the angel’s appearance to the prophets, the manner [in which] revelation comes to them, the gnosis of the [realm of] the malakūt of the heavens and the earth, the gnosis of the heart, the manner [in which] the hosts of angels and the devils clash [against] one another in [the heart], the difference between the visit of the angel and the visit of Satan, the gnosis of the hereafter, the garden and the fire, the torture of the grave, the bridge, the balance and the reckoning, and the meaning of the statement of [God], be He exalted, “Read your book; today your [own] soul is sufficient as an account against you” [al-Iṣrā’ (17): 14] and the meaning of His saying, be He exalted, “Surely the abode of the hereafter is life indeed, if they but knew” [al-‘Ankabūt (29): 64]. [Also attained is] the meaning of the meeting with God, be He mighty, sublime, and the glancing upon His gracious face, the meaning of proximity unto Him and coming to dwell in His vicinity, the meaning of attaining felicity in the company of the highest concourse[15] (al-malā’ al-a‘lā) and in association with the angels and the prophets, the meaning of the different degrees [of rank] of the people of the [various] gardens [of Paradise] to the extent that some of them see others just as the pearly star is seen in the middle of the heaven, and [this  goes] on to other things whose elaboration would go long due to the fact that, in relation to the meanings of these things, people have — beyond[16] [their common] belief in the foundations — various stations.  Some of them think that all of these[17] are semblances (amthila) and that what God has prepared for His righteous servants is “that which no eye has seen nor ear heard nor has it occurred to any human heart.”  [They believe] that [the knowledge] concerning paradise is not in the possession of people save [in the form of] attributes and names.  Others think that some of [the afterlife teachings] are similitudes and [that] some of them correspond with their realities [as] understood from their [linguistic] expressions; in this way some of them believe that the highest degree of the [servant’s] gnosis of God is the recognition of the inability to [fully] comprehend[18] Him.  Some of them claim enormities regarding [their] gnosis of God, be He mighty, sublime, and some of them say, “the limit [governing] the [servant’s] gnosis of God, be He mighty, sublime, is the terminus of the dogmatic belief of all the common people: namely, that He is existent, knowing, [all] powerful, hearing, seeing, and speaking.”

By the knowledge of the Unveiling, we mean that the covering is lifted so that the plain truth becomes clear in reference to these things. [This] coming of clarity is in the manner of the eyewitness experience about which there is no doubt.[19]  This would be possible in the innermost part (jawhar)[20] of the human person were it not for the accumulation of the rust and scum of worldly defilements on the mirror of the heart.  And so, by the science of the Way of the Afterlife, we mean the knowledge of how to polish this mirror [thus cleansing it] of these [various kinds of] filth, which are a veil [keeping one] from God — be He praised and exalted — and from the gnosis of His attributes and acts.

Its purification and cleansing is [accomplished] by means of abstaining from the lustful desires and [by means of] emulating the prophets in all of their states, may the prayers of God be upon them.  For, to the extent that [these things] can be purged from the heart and to the extent that the heart comes close to the threshold of the Truth, His verities will glimmer within it.  But there is no way to [get to this station] save through the [spiritual] discipline whose explication comes in its [own, rightful] place and through knowledge and instruction.[21]  These are the sciences which cannot be written down in books and of which nothing is spoken by the one upon whom God — be He exalted — has bestowed His blessings, except with his [own] folk (ma‘a ahlihi),[22] who are those having a share in it.[23] [The communication of these sciences can occur both] by way of oral teaching (mudhākara) and by the way of secrets.  That is the hidden knowledge, which [the Prophet] (may God bless him and grant him salvation) meant by his statement, “verily of knowledge there is [something] akin to the outer shape of the hidden thing; only the folk [possessing] the gnosis of God — be He exalted — know it.  If they utter of it, only those who are deluded about God — be He exalted — will [remain] ignorant of it.  So do not scorn a learned man to whom God — be He exalted — has given [some] knowledge of it, for God — be He mighty, sublime — has not scorned him since to him He gave [the knowledge].[24]


Source 106

TEXT 1: By the time he wrote his autobiography and explained why he returned to teaching after his ten-year retreat, al-Ghazālī explains,

Previously…I had been disseminating the knowledge by which worldly success is attained; by word and deed I had called men to it; and that had been my aim and intention.  But now I am calling men to the knowledge whereby worldly success is given up and its low position in the scale of real worth is recognized.  This is now my intention, my aim, my desire; god knows that this is so.  It is my earnest longing that I may make myself and others better.  I do not know whether I shall reach my goal or whether I shall be taken away while short of my object.  I believe, however, both by certain faith and by intuition, that there is no power and no might save with God, the high, the mighty, and that I do not move of myself but am moved by Him.  I do not work of myself but am used by Him.  I ask Him first of all to reform me and then to reform through me, to guide me and then to guide through me, to show me the truth of what is true and to grant of His bounty that I may follow it, and to show me the falsity of what is false and to grant me of His bounty that I may turn away from it.[25]


Source 107

TEXT 1: Know that whosoever comes to know the Truth by way of men has become perplexed in the labrynths of error.  Know the Truth, and then you will know its folk if you [yourself] are walking the way of Truth.  If it is enough for you to accept [faith] on [the] authority [of your forbears] and to investigate whatever has become well-known concerning the degrees of virtue among the people, then do not neglect the Companions and the sublimity of their rank.  Those to whom I have [already] called attention[26] unanimously agree on their [the Companions’] precedence[27] and [they agree] that their supreme position in the religion cannot be grasped, nor can they be surpassed [by anyone].  And their precedence is not in the kalám nor in Jurisprudence; rather, [it is] in the knowledge of the Afterlife and the manner of walking its path.[28]

Commentary: When faced with the objection that the jurists and the theologians are the most widely renowned of religious scholars and when asked how he dare relegate them and their sciences to such humble ranks among the religious sciences, he cuts to the very heart of these misconceptions by challenging the criteria by which such scholars are judged to be great.

[1] Both speculative and scholastic, kalām is a very difficult phenomenon/movement to translate.  “Dogmatic theology” strikes us as the most appropriate rendering due to the fact that, generally speaking, these “theologians” (mutakallimūn) took the Revelation as their starting point and used reason to explain and defend it, thus constructing a world-view to accommodate it.  In spite of this, “dogmatic theology” has not been very common as an English rendering.  Some (following the lead of the Muslim philosophers) have opted for “dialectical theology” due to the characteristically argumentative (dialectical) nature of a great many kalām texts.  More technically, the philosophers argued that many or most of the views shared by the theologians were based on commonly accepted notions (al-mashhūrāt) that are not necessarily true.  Hence their conclusions, not based on necessary premises, yielded dialectical conclusions rather than demonstrative ones.  Still others have opted for “speculative theology” because of the preoccupation that many of the mutakallimūn had with speculative or theoretical reflection.  Lacking a perfect equivalent in English, I will simply use the Arabic term al-kalām and its nisba adjective kalāmī  throughout this paper.

[2] While this is usually translated more literally as the “Revival of the Religious Sciences”, “Reviving” or “Resurrecting Religious Knowledge” captures the essence of the project more completely.  Throughout this paper, I will be basing all translations on the Arabic text annotated by al-Imām al-Hāfiz al-‘Irāqī (Beirut: Dār al-khayr, 1993).

[3] The temporal lapse is indicated here by the particle ف  (fā’ ).

[4] Literally, “became a thing utterly lost, forgotten.”  His Qur’ānic tone here is worthy of note; the Muslim reader cannot help but notice the apocalyptic tone and the powerful idiom of despair borrowed from sūrat Maryam (19): 23.

[5] This word is somewhat tentative.  Literally, it seems to read “for those who are reached [by the book]…”  I take it to be a broken plural of the rather rare active participle from the passive voice verb nuhiya, which is synonymous with balagha (to come to s.o., to reach s.o., to come to the knowledge of s.o.).

[6] Faith and Practice, p. 80.

[7] Ibid., 35.

[8] Literally, “the act” or “acting” (al-‘amal).

[9] The science of Right Practice and the science of the Unveiling coexist in an interdependent fashion; here, he makes reference to the fact that some aspects of practice cannot be fully understood and properly performed without some limited knowledge of the Unveiling.  This is a point that he makes more explicitly in the Kitáb al-tawḥíd wa’l-tawakkul (Iḥyá’, vol. V).

[10] As stated above, the word ramz, translated here as “symbol”, carries the nuance of “puzzle” and “ruse” in addition to indirect signification.

[11] From the Introduction (al-muqaddima), 10.

[12] I use “gnostic” in the general sense denoting a master of mystical knowledge.  The Arabic term is ‘árifín (genitive here), literally “knowers” in the esoteric sense.

[13] Literally, “he will not taste (lá yadhúqu)…”

[14] More literally, “that is a sin wherein is the punishment.”  The origin of this line is uncertain.

[15] “Concourse” is used here in the Middle English sense of assembly or throng.  This is also true to the earlier Latin form, concursus, the past participle of concurrere, “to assemble”.

[16] As the preposition wará’ also indicates temporal priority here, it could also be rendered “after”.

[17] Literally, “all of that”.

[18] This is a verbal rendering of the term usually translated as “gnosis” in this study.  In Arabic, sometimes the verbal noun carries verbal force, as it does here, and must be rendered in English as a verb.  In either case, it refers to mystical noesis, which is both theoretical and experiential for al-Ghazálí.

[19] In the original, this second sentence is actually an adverbial clause (hál), modifying the manner in which “the plain truth becomes clear”.  I have altered the structure for readability.

[20] In the context of his kalám writings, al-Ghazálí — like all of the Mu‘tazilí and Ash‘arí mutakallimún of his day and before — uses this term to denote “atom”.  This is not likely to be his intention here, however, where the nature of the discussion is esoteric Unveiling rather than exoteric kalám, about which more is said in chapter two.  Still, it is well worth noting here that he seems to equate the “heart” with this “jawhar” in this context.

[21] It is worth commenting that he does not mean education in the everyday sense of the term.  Rather, he means formation, which is both moral and intellectual and can only come through a master who is both teacher and spiritual director.  As is becoming clear, we must be wary of the ways in which ordinary lexical items are employed in this extraordinary context.

[22] This could also be rendered “its [own] folk”, i.e. the people who are naturally suited for and initiated in the ways of mysticism, which seems to be al-Ghazálí’s usual usage of ahl in conjuction with a possessive pronominal suffix.

[23] Literally, “he is the one who shares in it.”  I render it in the plural because the pronoun “huwa” here refers to ahl, which is grammatically masculine and singular although its meaning is clearly plural.

[24] Al-‘ilm, 30-1.

[25] Faith and Practice, 82-83.

[26] Literally, “those whose mentioning I have [already] indicated” (alladhín ‘arradtuhu bi-dhikrihim).  This seems to refer to all of the various kinds of conventional religious scholars, including (of course) the jurists and theologians.

[27] This precedence or priority (taqaddum) carries both a temporal and a moral nuance.

[28] Al-‘ilm, 34.