al-Ghazali

Jerusalem_dome_of_rock_2_1880Today we celebrate the life’s work of the Persian jurist and mystic al-Ghazali (d. 18 December 1111), one of the most important intellects in the history of Islam. In his autobiography, Deliverance from Error,1 he describes what we would today call a faith crisis during his youth. Like many who have had such an experience, he began early with a “thirst for grasping the real meaning of things.” He was devout, inquisitive, and quick to observe. He says, “I saw that the children of Christians always grew up embracing Christianity, and the children of Jews always grew up adhering to Judaism, and the children of Muslims always grew up following the religion of Islam.” Al-Ghazali figured that this was because each generation in each different community was basically following in the footsteps of their parents without really questioning. So, he decided to question everything. He wanted to know the truth for himself. But the more he questioned, the less certain he became of everything he thought he knew, eventually reaching a point of doubt so deep that he lost confidence that he could know anything—even the nature of his own existence—with any certainty. He continued to write and speak as always, but inwardly, he wrote, “I was a skeptic.”2


A resolution to this crisis came through divine intervention. Al-Ghazālī reports that, in the end, no proof or other argument resolved the issue, but “a light which God Most High cast into my breast.” This was not a rational resolution to his crisis, but a spiritual one—a divine assurance, which he somehow could not deny, that he could trust in his basic perceptions—both sensory and rational. It was an assurance which he then took to constitute an additional source of certain knowledge: Some truths were available through sense perception, others through logical reasoning, and others by spiritual means.

His confidence secured in these basic premises, he went on to find beauty and truth in the manifestations of God in nature and in the Qurʾan. Over the next period of his life, al-Ghazali had a brilliant career as a legal scholar and teacher based in Baghdad, the most prestigious and intellectually vibrant city of his time. But as he reached the peak of worldly success, al-Ghazali was beset by a new set of misgivings—this time much more personal and ethical.

I attentively considered my circumstances, and I saw that I was immersed in attachments, which had encompassed me from all sides. I also considered my achievements—the best of them being my instructions and my teaching—and I understood that here I was applying myself to sciences that are unimportant and useless on the way to the hereafter. Then I reflected on my intentions in my instruction, and I saw that it was not directed purely to God. Rather, it was instigated and motivated by the quest for fame and widespread prestige. So I became certain that I was on the brink of a crumbling bank and already on the verge of falling into Hell unless I set about mending my ways.3

He became convinced that he would have to free himself of his pride and selfish attachments by actually renouncing them, including his academic position. For some time, however, he could not bring himself to do it, but eventually the inner-conflict became so intense that he had a kind of break-down, unable to speak, let alone to teach. As a result, he finally made arrangements to leave under the guise of going on Hajj. He embarked on a decade-long spiritual quest that led him first to Damascus, where he studied under a Sufi master, and then to Jerusalem, where he meditated in the cave under the Dome of the Rock, and eventually on to Mecca (twice) before returning to his home, now an adept of Sufi thought and practice. He would go on to write a number of mystical works as well as his magnum opus the Revival of the Religious Sciences, a multivolume work that remains to this day one of the most influential treatises on how Muslims should practice their faith with outward ordinances and observances as well as sincere inner intention.

Al-Ghazali’s experience offers us an opportunity to reflect on some important issues. What does it mean to be sincere? How do we know our true intentions? How are they manifest beyond facile words? These are obvious questions that we might consider. But what about the very space in which we ask such questions? It turns out, looking at al-Ghazali’s life, that his ability to even engage in such existential and ethical reflections was the result of a certain luxury that he had that most other men and virtually all of the women of his era did not. What woman of the Islamicate world could have even entertained the notion of leaving her family to go off on her own and practice meditation for months at a time? The practical and social constraints against such a course were all but absolute. As evidence for this being the case we have the profound absence of almost any female writers in the record from this period—and precious few from any period until the modern age. To make this observation is not to condemn al-Ghazali or other learned men in history for what they did. We can be grateful for the wisdom al-Ghazali shared with the world, even as we recognize that his renown—something he secured, ironically, by being willing to give it up—is made the more poignant by the many silent, nameless others, most of them no doubt women, who made his journey of discovery possible. So today, as we honor al-Ghazali, let us resolve to think more often of those silent ones who labor in the eclipses of our lives to make our journeys possible.

mormon_lectionary-100x100px-rgbaMormon Lectionary Project
Collect: O God, deliver us from error; lend us grace to reflect upon our vanities and pride and to repent therefrom. Turn our hearts from our static contentments; cast us forth as bearers of thy light into the heart of humanity; guide us upon the straight path that leads to thy temple. O Father, who has made of us many nations, teach us by thy Holy Spirit to know one another as sisters and brothers for Christ’s sake. Amen.

Scriptures

Jonah 2:2–9 (cf: Qurʾan 37:139–148):
“I called to the Lord out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
You cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
how shall I look again
upon your holy temple?’
The waters closed in over me;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head
at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit,
O Lord my God.
As my life was ebbing away,
I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
Those who worship vain idols
forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”

Qur’an 24:35
Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The similitude of His light is as a niche wherein is a lamp. The lamp is in a glass. The glass is as it were a shining star. (This lamp is) kindled from a blessed tree, an olive neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil would almost glow forth (of itself) though no fire touched it. Light upon light. Allah guideth unto His light whom He will. And Allah speaketh to mankind in allegories, for Allah is Knower of all things.

Revelation 21:3–4
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

2 Ne. 29:11–14
For I command all men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north, and in the south, and in the islands of the sea, that they shall write the words which I speak unto them; for out of the books which shall be written I will judge the world, every man according to their works, according to that which is written.
For behold, I shall speak unto the Jews and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the Nephites and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the other tribes of the house of Israel, which I have led away, and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto all nations of the earth and they shall write it.
And it shall come to pass that the Jews shall have the words of the Nephites, and the Nephites shall have the words of the Jews; and the Nephites and the Jews shall have the words of the lost tribes of Israel; and the lost tribes of Israel shall have the words of the Nephites and the Jews.
And it shall come to pass that my people, which are of the house of Israel, shall be gathered home unto the lands of their possessions; and my word also shall be gathered in one. And I will show unto them that fight against my word and against my people, who are of the house of Israel, that I am God, and that I covenanted with Abraham that I would remember his seed forever.

Recitation: Qurʾan 24:35

Notes
1. al-Ghazali: Deliverance from Error, trans. R.J. McCarthy (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1980).
2. Deliverance from Error, 54–56.
3. Deliverance from Error, 78–79.

Comments

  1. Thank you.

  2. If you are interested in reading something by al-Ghazali that is brief and fairly accessible, the project I direct at BYU—the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative (METI)—has published a parallel Arabic-English text and translation of his “Niche of Lights,” which offers his metaphorical reading of the Light Verse from the Qur’an (included the scripture section and video, above). For more info on that and on al-Ghazali’s more philosophically demanding critique of Peripatetic philosophy, “The Incoherence of the Philosophers,” visit the Islamic Translation Series page at the METI website: http://meti.maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/home/islamic-translation-series/.

  3. Thank you.

  4. Shukran, wabarakatuhu alaika!

  5. Thanks Morgan. How inspiring.

    Let me ask: how can we really be sure of our own intentions? You say that is a simple question, but I’m interested in the answer.

  6. Obvious—not simple; by which I mean, the question occurs as an obvious one. The answer is another matter. I could tell you the answer, but then we would have to shut down the blog.

  7. Great addition to the MLP.

  8. “He embarked on a decade-long spiritual quest”

    Brings to mind the question – how many of us have the patience for this in our own lives and in the lives of others? Do we approach our interactions with “I am right, why aren’t you getting it?” or with genuine seeking to learn, even from those we believe to be wrong in their conclusions?

    Lovely addition, thanks.

  9. This is so fascinating and uplifting. Al-Ghazali’s quest for spiritual/mystical/transcendent enlightenment seems to be emblematic of the period. A number of striking parallels emerge between al-Ghazali’s life experiences and reflections and the experiences and wisdom expressed (in a very different way) in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic poem/grail legend Parzival, from the early 1200s. (In fact, Eschenbach claimed to have Arabic sources for his grail legend as an explanation for why he told the stories differently than Chrétien de Troyes. And Eschenbach even relates that Parzival’s father, Gahmuret, King of Anjou, went on a quest to Africa and conquered the Arabic kingdom of “Zazamanc”, becoming its king.)

    Some truths were available through sense perception, others through logical reasoning, and others by spiritual means.

    If I am remembering correctly, Parzival gains similar wisdom through his grail quest. The search for the grail, for Parzival, is essentially a quest for spiritual illumination or knowledge (or transcendence). This is, I suppose, not too different from al-Ghazali’s decade long spiritual quest on Hajj, in which the ultimate object being sought (through detachment from pride, secular knowledge, material luxuries, and even worldly renoun) is the key to living a ritually devoted life with sincere inner intention. As Parzival leaves a sheltered home to embark on this lifelong quest, he first learns his true name when he arrives in King Arthur’s court (from his cousin) and, after killing the red knight and donning his armor, learns the values of chivalry, which it turns out is only a very superficial first step on this road to enlightenment, in fact becoming a stumbling block to his efforts to find the grail for many years.

    So, he decided to question everything.

    Parzival’s lack of questioning causes the grail to elude him for a long time, becomes the basis for his loss of his honor at King Arthur’s court when he is denounced for his indifferent treatment of the Fisher King Anfortas, and ultimately leads to years of estrangement from God. Separated from King Arthur’s court, he encounters his uncle Trevrizent, a monkish hermit living in a Nirvana of separation from the world. Parzival stays with him for a time, learning mystical secrets of the inner life (and secrets about the grail) but ultimately leaves Trevrizent and the hermit/holy man life behind.

    It is this encounter with Trevrizent that brought Parzival to mind when I read your celebration of al-Ghazali, specifically when you related how he meditated in the cave under the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem for a time on his roundabout Hajj journey. Though such interludes are invaluable for spiritual introspection and communion with the Divine, such experiences are ultimately sterile unless we return to our communities and translate them into something useful for our families and communities. If memory serves, this is what Parzival learned while sojourning with Trevrizent (I don’t have the actual language to hand), and he decides to return to society, and his name appears on the grail.

  10. Absolutely fascinating, john f.! Thank you so much for this really intriguing historical comparison.

  11. Morgan: After eagerly anticipating this entry for a long time, I’m so excited to see al-Ghazali finally honored in the MLP. I’m glad, also, that you draw attention to the social realities that made his 10-year quest possible. It’s a keen reminder that, even today, pursuing spiritual knowledge and engaging in theological work are activities that our social structure makes much easier for men to pursue. As a community that should seek to include both men and women as full participants, we should work to make these activities more available to our sisters. The community as a whole will be blessed immensely when it makes room for women to bring their gifts fully to bear. This is not to dishonor or discredit everything that women already contribute to the cause of Zion, but only to say that I suspect there is a whole lot more good where that came from.

    john f.: your comment is a classic example of all the reasons I love you!

  12. Nice job, Morgan. I like how you incorporated Qur’an 49:13 into the collect. (At least I think you did. Yusuf Ali translation: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other.”)

    I reviewed Niche a few years back before I came to BCC:

    http://www.lifeongoldplates.com/2009/10/review-al-ghazalis-niche-of-lights.html

    Really enjoyed it.

    Great comment, john f.