ḠAZĀLĪ, ABŪ ḤĀMED MOḤAMMAD i

(variant name Ḡazzālī; Med. Latin form, Algazel; honorific title, Ḥojjat-al-Eslām"The Proof of Islam”), born at Ṭūs in Khorasan in 450/1058 and grew up as an orphan together with his younger brother Aḥmad Ḡazālī (d. 520/1126; q.v.).

 

ḠAZĀLĪ, ABŪ ḤĀMED MOḤAMMAD

i. BIOGRAPHY

A man of Persian descent, Ḡazālī (variant name Ḡazzālī; Med. Latin form, Algazel; honorific title, Ḥojjat-al-Eslām"The Proof of Islam”), was born at Ṭūs in Khorasan in 450/1058 and grew up as an orphan together with his younger brother Aḥmad Ḡazālī (d. 520/1126; q.v.). After instruction in Islamic jurisprudence as a teenager in Jorjān, he became a student of the leading Ashʿarite theologian and Shafiʿite jurist Emām-al-Ḥaramayn Abu’l-Maʿālī Żīāʾ-al-Dīn ʿAbd-al-Malek Jovaynī (d. 478/1085) in Nīšāpūr, where he also studied with the Sufi master Abū ʿAlī Fārmaḏī (d. 477/1084-85), a disciple of Abū Saʿīd b. Abi’l-Ḵayr (d. 440/1049, q.v.), Abu’l-Qāsem Qošayrī (d. 465/1072), and Abu’l-Qāsem Korrakānī (d. 469/1076). In 478/1085, after the death of his teachers, Ḡazālī joined the circle of scholars at the camp and court of the Saljuq vizier Kᵛāja Neẓām-al-Molk (assassinated in 485/1092, q.v.), the patron of colleges (madrasas) he had founded. Appointed by Neẓām-al-Molk in 484/1091, Ḡazālī became an influential professor on Shafiʿite jurisprudence for four years at the Neẓāmīya madrasa in Baghdad (Glaasen, pp. 131-75). Overcome by a severe physical illness and plagued by a nagging skepticism born of his intensive self-study of Islamic philosophy, Ḡazālī decided to abandon his teaching position in 488/1095 in favor of his brother Aḥmad. This year signaled a deep identity crisis in Ḡazālī. Shaken by epistemological doubt, he resolved to seek certitude (yaqīn) as the underpinnings of his intellectual knowledge. His crisis occurred only a few years after political rivals, in concert with Nezārī Ismaʿili enemies against whom Ḡazālī had written a refutation on the order of caliph al-Mostaẓher (487-512/1094-1118), had engineered his patron’s assassination. Using a pilgrimage to Mecca as the pretext to escape Baghdad, Ḡazālī gave up his academic career. He was particularly disillusioned by the corruption affecting the scholarly circles of the college in the aftermath of the political turmoil following Rokn-al-Dīn Barkīāroq’s (q.v.) teenage accession to the Saljuq sultanate in 485/1092.

The next eleven years, from 488/1095 until 499/1106, when Ḡazālī returned to his academic career as a professor at the college of Nīšāpūr, were doubtless a period of intense intellectual incubation, although specific details about his life and work in this period remain historically uncertain. According to his autobiography, Ḡazālī first went to Damascus where he taught in the zāwīa of Naṣr Maqdesī (d. 490/1097; Makdisi, p. 45). Then he journeyed from Syria to Jerusalem and visited the tomb of Abraham at Hebron in 489/1096, where he made the vow never again to take money from the government, never again to serve a ruler, and never again to enter into scholastic disputations (van Ess, p. 61). He then went to Medina and Mecca, where he performed the pilgrimage in 489/1096, returned to Syria, possibly after a short visit to Alexandria in Egypt, and finally, after a brief stay in Baghdad in 490/1097, settled down at Ṭūs. During this intellectual exile from organized teaching, Ḡazālī lived in great solitude and poverty, engaged in ascetical exercises and mystical prayer, and composed his most famous work, Eḥyāʾ ʿolūm al-dīn “The revival of the religious sciences,” which advocates Sufi spirituality as the fulcrum of Islamic religion. Although this work bears all the marks of the manual of a great teacher and would thus presuppose Ḡazālī lecturing to students, the sources offer few clues about who his crucial Sufi contacts might have been on his journeys, or, barring a few minor exceptions, who his audience might have been in his hometown.

In 499/1106, Neẓām-al-Molk’s son Faḵr-al-Molk (q.v.), who had become the vizier of Sanjar, the Saljuq sultan of Khorasan, invited Ḡazālī to return to lecturing at the Neẓāmīya of Nīšāpūr. Breaking the vow he had made at Abraham’s tomb, Ḡazālī accepted the invitation and taught in Nīšāpūr until shortly before his death, animated by his belief that it was God’s will for him to function as the renewer of religion (mojadded) at the threshold of the new Islamic century. His autobiography, al-Monqeḏ men al-żalāl “The deliverer from error” (cf. Watt, 1953; tr. McCarthy, pp. 61-143; first translation into French by A. Schmölders, Paris, 1842) dates from this final period of Ḡazālī’s teaching, during the last months of which he retired to the Sufi retreat (ḵānaqāh) he had established for his disciples earlier in Ṭūs. He died there in Jomādā II 505/December 1111. The chronology of Ḡazālī’s biography has been established by Margaret Smith (1944), Maurice Bouyges and Michel Allard, and W. Montgomery Watt, (1963) on the basis of Ḡazālī’s autobiography and a great number of biographical accounts found in the Arabic primary sources (listed in Ḏahabī, p. 115). 

Ḡazālī was a prolific author whose writings, examined chronologically by Bouyges and Allard (pp. 85-170; Badawī), number about five dozen authentic works, in addition to which some 300 other titles of works of uncertain, doubtful, or spurious authorship, many of them duplicates owing to varying titles, are cited in Muslim bibliographical literature. The charge that books were falsely ascribed to Ḡazālī increased after the dissemination of the large corpus of Ebn ʿArabī’s works (d. 638/1240, q.v.). Nevertheless, it is a questionable criterion of authenticity to reject works of Ḡazālī that are highly mystical or esoteric in character as spurious, separating them from works said to be genuine because they are rather rational or exoteric in nature. It is also an all-too simplistic assumption that Ḡazālī’s writings move from exoteric topics to mystical ones as he advances in age, though some of the most esoteric writings attributed to Gāzālī do belong to the last phase of his literary activity. The rule-of-thumb criterion suggested by Watt (1952, pp. 24-45; idem, 1961, pp. 121-31) that Ḡazālī never directly contradicted on “higher” levels what he maintained on lower levels, forces a harmonizing consistency on a highly prolific author who underwent severe personal crises and shifts of intellectual outlook. Already Ebn Ṭofayl (d. 581/1185, q.v.) observed that Ḡazālī wrote for different audiences, ordinary men and the elite (pp. 69-72), and Ḡazālī himself completed the rather moderate theological treatise, Eljām al-ʿawāmmʿan ʿelm al-kalām “The restraining of ordinary men from theology,” in the last month before his death (cf. Hourani).

In addition to the aforementioned autobiography, which is the retrospective story of his religious development rather than a historical account of his life curve, the following are considered to be the major works of Ḡazālī, all undisputedly penned by him. The legal writings of Ḡazālī, who followed the Shafiʿite school of law, include the compendia, known as al-Basīṭ, al-Wasīṭ, and al-Wajīz that still await scholarly analysis and may represent paraphrases of his teachers’ works. The first two are treatises on legal applications (forūʿ al-feqh) written early in his career, while the third one is an epitome compiled in 495/1101. Ḡazālī’s principal treatise on the foundations of Islamic jurisprudence, entitled al-Mostaṣfā men ʿelm al-oṣūl “The essential theory of legal thought” was written in 503/1109 at Nīšāpūr (Ebn Ḵallekān, ed. ʿAbbās, IV, p. 217). This last great treatise, completed two years before his death, examines the rules of law (aḥkām) and their foundations (oṣūl) with unparalleled methodical acumen (Laoust, pp. 152-82). A generation after Ḡazālī, scholars such as Abū ʿAbd-Allāh Moḥammad b. ʿAlī Mazārī (d. 536/1141-42), praised Ḡazālī for his comprehensive knowledge of the legal applications but criticized his grasp of the legal foundations (Sobkī, Ṭabaqāt2 VI, p. 241). High praise was expressed also by Ebn ʿAbbād Rondī (d. 792/1390), who, on account of Ḡazālī’s first half of his voluminous Eḥyāʾ, called Ḡazālī an authority on Islamic jurisprudence (pp. 88-89). Except for Sufism, no other field of the Islamic sciences absorbed so much of Ḡazālī’s time and energy as that of jurisprudence (Lazarus Yafeh, pp. 373-411). He was in the first place a professor of Shafiʿite law.

Ḡazālī’s study of Islamic philosophy received initial motivation from his teacher Jovaynī, but benefited mainly from his self-study of the works of Abū Naṣr Fārābī and Avicenna (qq.v.) during his years as professor at the Neẓāmīya of Baghdad. Ḡazālī approached philosophy in three stages. First (pace Graef, ZDMG 110, 1961, pp. 162-63), he summarized the principal points of philosophy by compiling a systematic exposition, entitled Maqāṣed al-falāsefa “The intentions of the philosophers,” which became a highly acclaimed treatise in medieval Europe upon its translation into Latin (Logica et Philosophia Algazelis Arabis) by Dominic Gundisalvi in the 12th century (Muckle; cf. P. Liechtenstein’s Latin edition, Venices, 1506), and into Hebrew in the 13th century (Steinschneider). Second, in the first fortnight of 488/1095, he completed the Tahāfot al-falāsefa “The incoherence of the philosophers” (ed. M. Bouyges with a summary in Latin, Beirut, 1927), a controversial work of refutation which provoked the great philosopher of Muslim Spain, Ebn Rošd/Averroes (d. 595/1198) to reply with his own refutation (Tahāfot al-tahāfot). In the Tahāfot al-falāsefa Ḡazālī enumerated twenty maxims of the philosophers that he found to be objectionable or inconsistent with their own claims, three of them justifying the charge of unbelief: the philosophers’ claim of the eternity of the world, their denial of God’s knowledge of particulars, and their repudiation of the resurrection of the body. Ḡazālī tended to reject the necessary link of causality since all that can be affirmed is a post-hoc rather than a propter hoc, as shown by his example that the combustion of cotton occurs at the moment of its contact with fire, while it cannot be demonstrated that it occurs because of the contact between cotton and fire. For Ḡazālī human reason alone is unable to attain certitude, though he paradoxically uses his own certain reason to destroy the certitudes of the philosophers by borrowing their method for his arguments! Third, Ḡazālī authored three treatises that prepared the ground for his subsequent systematic writings on theology, his elaborate Meʿyār al-ʿelm "The standard of knowledge” and his brief Meḥakk al-naẓar “The touchstone of thought,” both treatises on logic, as well as his Mīzān al-ʿamal “The balance of action,” a tract on philosophical ethics.

Ḡazālī’s writings on Islamic theology (ʿelm al-kalām) signal a significant stage of development for its rational methodology because he used the Aristotelian syllogism and systematically applied it to theological thought. Ḡazālī’s influence on theological method, noted in Ebn Ḵaldūn’s (d. 808/1406, q.v.) Moqaddema (tr., III, p. 52), is evidenced in his principal work on Islamic theology, al-Eqteṣād fi’l- eʿteqād “The just mean in belief” (Asín Palacios, 1929) completed in 488/1095, the year of his departure from Baghdad. This work weighs traditional theological maxims (maintained by major scholars of law, e.g., Šāfeʿī, Mālek b. Anas, Abū Ḥanīfa, Ebn Ḥanbal) against Ḡazālī’s own opinions and expresses strong reservations about a theology based on faith in authority (taqlīd) and marked by polemics. In the Eḥyāʾ and the Monqeḏ this reserve turns into outright rejection of theology as a reliable way to certain truth and, in the Eljām,into a warning against the dangers hidden in its study. Ḡazālī, however, engaged in theological polemics himself, and his more systematic writings on theology were preceded by his polemical treatise against the Bāṭenīya sect of Neẓārī Ismaʿilism. This refutation, al-Mostaẓherī fī fażāʾeḥ al-Bāṭenīya “The abominations of the sectarians” (Goldziher, 1916), was named after the caliph al-Mostaẓher (acceded to the caliphate in 487/1094), on whose order Ḡazālī wrote the work in Baghdad. Two later works that reflect Ḡazālī’s intellectual struggle with the principle of hermeneutics (taʾwīl), upheld by the authoritative teaching (taʿlīm) of the Bāṭenīya, are the al-Qesṭās al-mostaqīm “The correct balance” (tr. McCarthy, pp. 287-332) and the Fayṣal al-tafreqa bayna’l-Eslām wa’l-zandaqa “The arbiter between Islam and heresy” (tr. McCarthy, pp. 145-74), the latter of which includes an innovative argument for the tolerance of heterodox groups within the Islamic community (Griffel, pp. 34-42). The authenticity of Ḡazālī’s al-Radd al-jamīl ʿala’l-elāhīyat ʿĪsā ṣarīḥ al-Enjīl “The excellent refutation of the divinity of Jesus from the clear evidence of the Gospel” is maintained by Louis Massignon (pp. 491-536), although questioned by others (Lazarus-Yafeh, pp. 458-87).

Ḡazālī’s most important work, the monumental Eḥyāʾ ʿolūmal-dīn, written during his years of travel and retreat between his teaching at Baghdad and Nīšāpūr, represents a moderate form of Sufism, one stressing religious knowledge and righteous action (cf. the analysis of Bousquet). The work as a whole reflects Ḡazālī’s self-perception as one chosen to revive religion, being a complete guide to Islamic piety, divided into four volumes of ten “books” each (ʿebādāt “religious duties,” ʿādāt “social customs,” mohlekāt “faults of character,” and monjīyāt “virtues”). Convinced that in his time the scholars of law and religion (ʿolamāʾ) had debased religious knowledge, making it a business of this-worldly gain, Ḡazālī tried to revive a true religiosity that, in his view, had become moribund. To this end he wrote his work in an eloquent didactic style, addressing himself to the common people yet also adding insights for the mystically attuned elite. A teacher and preacher more than an original thinker, he intended, through clarity of thought rather than brilliance of diction, to convert others to following the path to God. Though Ḡazālī used Abū Ṭāleb Makkī’s (d. 386/996) Qūt al-qolūb and Qošayrī’s Resāla as major sources, and even copied pages of Makkī’s work wholesale, the work is an independent and freshly organized compendium drawn from his broad knowledge of the Islamic sciences. After the completion of his monumental work Ḡazālī wrote a short summary of it, entitled Ketāb al-arbaʿīn "The book of the forty,” compiled the al-Maqṣad al-asnāfī asmāʾ Allāh al-ḥosnā “The noblest of aims,” an exposition of the most beautiful names of God (al-asmāʾ al-ḥosnā) and answered the critics of the Eḥyāʾ with his al-Emlāʾ ʿalā moškel al-Eḥyāʾ (printed in its margin). Among the smaller treatises, written after the Eḥyāʾ, mention may be made of the eschatological tract, al-Dorra al-fāḵera fī kašf ʿolūm al-āḵera. Finally, an extensive commentary on the Eḥyāʾ (Etḥāf al-sādat al-mottaqīn) was compiled by Moḥammad b. Moḥammad Zabīdī, known as Sayyed Mortażā (d. 1205/1791), while in modern times dozens of the “books” of Ḡazālī’s magnum opus have been translated into Western languages (such as, e.g. the annotated translation of Gramlich).

The scholarly analysis of works of Ḡazālī, and his Sufi writings in particular, has been controversial for about a century (Macdonald, pp. 71-132; Carra de Vaux; Asín Palacios, 1931-41; Wensinck; Obermann; Jabre; Watt, 1963; Laoust; Lazarus-Yafeh) because of the predominant emphasis on Ḡazālī as an orthodox rationalist. In addition, his monumental Eḥyāʾ, which deals with Sufi topics for only half the work, has overshadowed a number of smaller Sufi treatises Ḡazālī authored especially in the later stages of his life. The crux of the question about the extent to which Ḡazālī may be interpreted as a mystical philosopher is centered on his Meškāt al-anwār "Niche of lights.” The work was first studied and translated by William H. T. Gairdner (1924; 1914, pp. 121-53), whose attribution and analyses were challenged by W. Montgomery Watt (pp. 5-22), and ʿAbd-al-Rāḥmān Badawī (pp. 193-98) added the observation in 1948 that a collective manuscript of Ḡazālī’s writings, copied only four years after his death (MS Şehit Ali 1712), included the entire Meškāt al-anwār. In a recent study, Hermann Landolt (pp. 19-72) assembled a series of arguments in favor of the authenticity of the work and of the consistency of its ideas with esoteric passages of the Eḥyāʾ. More textual studies on other small Sufi treatises of Ḡazālī, in comparison with the Eḥyāʾ, are needed to clarify our understanding of Ḡazālī’s mystical philosophy. Such small treatises of disputed authenticity are the Menhāj al-ʿābedīn (Bouyges and Allard, pp. 82-84), assumed to have been his last work, and the al-Mażnūn (Cairo, 1303/1885-86; Bouyges and Allard, pp. 51-56), addressed to his brother Aḥmad. Meticulous manuscript study is also required to support the authenticity of the Resāla al-ladonīya (M. Smith, 1938, pp. 177-200, 353-74; idem, 1944, p. 212), which is frequently held to be a work of Ebn ʿArabī (Bouyges and Allard, pp. 124-25).

Because the vast majority of Ḡazālī’s writings are compiled in Arabic, little scholarly attention is commonly given to the books he wrote in Persian. His Kīmīā-ye saʿādat "Alchemy of happiness” is a Persian synopsis of his Eḥyāʾ for his disciples, rather than its popularized version (Pretzl, p. 17). Completed shortly before 499/1106 (Bouyges and Allard, p. 60), the work is a well-organized religious ethics (de Fouchécour, pp. 223-52), enriched by mystical reflections on the heart (qalb) that is “alchemically” purified and empowered to reach God. Succinctly put, the Kīmīā-ye saʿādat finds the solution of Ḡazālī’s own original crisis concerning the human heart, held in the physical body, though fashioned from the substance of angels, as being in the image of God. As the organ of intimate union with God and the locus of the inborn nature (feṭra), it is the seat of the knowledge and love of God as well as the source of moral action. In his brief refutation of the ebāḥīya (Islamic freethinkers) written in Persian in 499/1106, Ḡazālī tries to safeguard his moderate mystical synthesis by attacking antinomian Sufi extremism (ed. Pretzl). It may also be noted that Ḡazālī’s short Ayyoha’l-walad "Oh child” (cf. Hammer-Purgstall), written after the Eḥyāʾ, was originally composed in Persian, and only later translated into Arabic under the title Ḵolāṣat al-taṣānīf (Bouyges and Allard, pp. 60-61, 97-98).

Another Persian work is the Naṣīḥat al-molūk "Counsel for kings” (tr. into Arabic well after Ḡazālī’s death by Abu’l-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. Mobārak b. Mawhūb Erbīlī as al-Tebr al-masbūk; Meier, pp. 395-408), which was compiled about 503/1109 and belongs to the literary genre of “mirrors for princes.” Weaving together anecdotes of Sasanian court literature and stories of Muslim lore, the book is written in a pleasing Persian and divided into two parts, a theological part, explaining the beliefs and principles on which a ruler should act, and an ethical part, including counsels and maxims according to which a ruler should administer his charge. It is generally assumed that the Naṣīḥat al-molūk was written for the Saljuq sultan Moḥammad b. Malekšāh, whose rule (498-511/1104-17) followed that of his brother Barkīāroq (Meier, p. 395; Gāzālī, tr. Bagley, pp. xvii-xviii). In her dissertation on Ḡazālī’s letters and public addresses, however, Dorothea Krawulsky argues (pp. 20-25; Laoust, pp. 144-52) that the book was addressed to the Saljuq sultan Sanjar, the brother of his two predecessors, who, prior to his own rule (513-52/1119-57), administered the eastern half of the sultanate in his two brothers’ stead as “king of the east” (malek-e mašreq). Then again, attribution of the second part of the Naṣīḥat al-molūk has been seriously questioned by C. H. de Fouchécour (pp. 389-412), while Patricia Crone has rejected its authenticity altogether (pp. 167-91). The compilation of the small treatise, Serr al-ʿālamayn “The secret of the two worlds,” also in the genre of “mirror for princes” though written in Arabic, is linked with an often repeated, yet doubtful, story about Ebn Tūmart (d. 524/1130). The Mahdi of the Almohads, said to have copied the book while studying with Ḡazālī in Baghdad, informed the master about the public burning of his Eḥyāʾ in Cordoba and throughout the Almoravid dominions (Goldziher, 1903, pp. 18-19).

Given the great volume of Ḡazālī’s writings, it is difficult to state succinctly the significance and influence of his life and work. Nevertheless, Ḡazālī’s own confession, in the opening pages of his Monqeḏ (ed. Jabre, pp. 10-11), of a thirst to free his inborn intellectual nature (feṭra) from the blind adherence (taqlīd) to inherited religion may reflect the core of his religious quest and provide the key to his work. A more balanced interpretation of Gazālī may well lie in the acknowledgment that his manifold ideas evolved over a long career, rather than in the insistence upon either an objectivist or subjectivist approach to his thought. The richness of Ḡazālī’s legacy embraces not only a systematic study of law and theology that rejects both legal casuistry and scholastic ingenuity, yet includes a polemical fervor against philosophers and heretics, but it also embodies a high standard of morals and a deep mystical insight. Ḡazālī’s influence on the rationalist philosophy of the Islamic West as well as on the scholasticism of Judaism and Christianity in medieval southern Europe has been highlighted for centuries; the study of his impact on the inner life and mystical thought of the Persian-speaking world has barely begun.

 

Bibliography:

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Idem, Ayyoha’l-walad, ed. G. H. Scherer, Beirut, 1936; ed. ʿA. M. A. Qaradāḡī, Cairo, 1983; ed. A. Maṭlūb, Baghdad, 1986; tr. J. von Hammer-Purgstall as Oh Kind, Vienna, 1838.

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Idem, Meškāt al-anwār, ed. A. E. Affīfī, Cairo, 1383/1964; tr. W. H. T. Gairdner as The Niche for Lights, London, 1924.

Idem, Meʿyār al-ʿelm, ed. S. Donyā, Cairo, 1961.

Idem, Mīzān al-ʿamal, ed. S. Donyā, Cairo, 1964; tr. H. Hachem as Critère de l’action, Paris, 1945; tr. ʿA.-A. Kasmāʾī as Tarāzū-ye kerdār, Tehran, 1995.

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(Gerhard BÖWERING)

Originally Published: December 15, 2000

Last Updated: February 3, 2012

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Vol. X, Fasc. 4, pp. 358-363