El-Ghazali of Persia

The memorial stone for the 13th century mystic al-Ghazali, outside the Haruniyeh Dome in Tus, Iran.
Memorial stone for the 13th century mystic el-Ghazali, at the Haruniyeh Dome in Tus, Iran.

Muhammad el-Ghazali (1058-1111), who was also known in Medieval Europe by the Latinized name Algazel, was a polymathic scholar, teacher, philosopher, theologian and Sufi mystic. He is best known and still renowned in the Islamic world for resolving the apparent contradictions between reason and revelation, earning him the honorific title "Proof of Islam." El-Ghazali was also a pioneering scientist of the mind and psychologist who not only equated mystical pursuit with the process of psychological refinement, but also made countless intuitive observations of a psychological nature about the human condition that long predated their contemporary discoveries. El-Ghazali thus had an enormous impact on thinking in the West that is seldom appreciated today.


El-Ghazali's Historical Context

While the Normans were consolidating their domains in Britain and Sicily, and the flow of Saracenic knowledge to the West was increasing through Arabised Spain and Italy, the empire of Islam was less than five hundred years old. The top-heavy priesthood, whose functions were prohibited by the religious law but immensely powerful in fact, was desperately trying to reconcile Greek philosophical method with the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet. Having accepted scholasticism as the method whereby religion could be interpreted, these dialecticians yet found themselves unable to demonstrate the truth of their beliefs by intellectual means. Society had, through the circulation of knowledge, outgrown formal dialectic. Excellent economic conditions had produced a large intelligentsia which needed more than dogmatic assurances or the assertion that the ‘State must be right’. Islam was the State. Islam seemed likely to fall apart.

A young Persian of Meshed, known as Muhammad el-Ghazali (the Spinner), orphaned at an early age and brought up by Sufis, was at this time at college in Central Asia. He was destined to achieve two remarkable things, as a result of which both Islam and Christianity bear some of the characteristics which they still have today.

Orthodox Islam was opposed to Sufism, which was regarded as attempting to ignore the Law and substitute personal experience of what religion really meant — a very heretical idea. But Muhammad el-Ghazali it was who proved the only man able to reconcile Islam with intellectualism and ‘fixed the ultimate creed of the Ashariyya and established its dicta as the universal creed of Islam’, as Professor Hitti says. So successful was this heretic in becoming the virtual father of the Muslim church, that even the most orthodox still call him by the highest academic title known, the Authority of Islam.

El-Ghazali's Impact on East and West

A portrait of John Bunyan by Thomas Sadler, oil on canvas, 1684.
A portrait of English writer John Bunyan (1628-1688), author of 'The Holy War' and 'The Pilgrim's Progress'

In under fifty years after their composition, his books were exerting a tremendous influence upon Jewish and Christian scholasticism. He not only anticipated in a remarkable fashion John Bunyan’s Holy War and Pilgrim’s Progress, but influenced Ramón Marti, Thomas Aquinas and Pascal, as well as numerous more modern thinkers.

Such books as the Destruction of the Philosophers, the Alchemy of Happiness and the Niche for Lights continue to be eagerly studied and contain a great deal of his teachings.

Known in the middle ages in Europe as Algazel, Abu-Hamid Muhammad el-Ghazali took up the questions which, as more than one writer notes, the Christian theologians gratefully handed over to the Muslim thinkers; and he returned the answers, arrived at by what Professor Hitti calls the ‘mysticopsychological’ method of the Sufi. The accepted position of Sufism, whereby it is acknowledged by many Muslim divines as the inner meaning of Islam, is a direct result of Ghazali’s work.

The ideas which Ghazali passed on and which influenced both St. Thomas Aquinas the Dominican and St. Francis of Assisi, each in his own way, caused a confusion in the minds of writers on Western mysticism which endures to this day. To the Sufi, the Ghazalian stream in two different emphases is seen plainly in the work of both intellectual Dominicans and intuitive Franciscans. The two influences, separated because of the phenomenon of adaption and specialisation in one Sufic method without the others, are so clearly definable that even if one did not know of any source for the inspiration of these Christian teachers, it would be possible to identify the Sufic stream.

Evelyn Underhill (Mysticism) has managed to convey the underlying unity of the seemingly separate streams of the two Christian schools. Apparently without having heard of the Sufi influences on Christian mysticism, she is able to note that both the Dominicans and Franciscans were basically rooted in contemplation, and ‘because of this were able to interpret to the medieval world the great spiritual traditions of the past’.

The book cover of al-Ghazali's 'The Alchemy of Happiness' published by Octagon Press.
The cover of El-Ghazali's 'The Alchemy of Happiness' translated from the Hindu-Urdu by Claud Field and published by Octagon Press in 1980.

A Short Biography of El-Ghazali

Muhammad el-Ghazali was born in 1058 in Tus, in the Khorasan region of Eastern Iran, an area that produced a number of intellectual and mystical geniuses during the Middle Ages. He was a gifted student in youth, learning theology and jurisprudence under important local teachers in the city of Nishapur.

In 1085, still in his early adulthood, el-Ghazali was invited to join the court of Nizam al-Mulk, the powerful vizier of the Seljuk empire in Isfahan. From there he was appointed to the high position of chief professor in the prestigious Nizamiyyah College in Baghdad. el-Ghazali lectured hundreds of students there, while studying the Neoplatonist philosophies of al-Farabi and Avicenna (Ibn Sina).

It was during this time that he earned his epithet “Proof of Islam,” as a restorer of the faith of the Islamic community (who, according to prophecy, appears once every century). In his case, he was to reconcile Islam with the growing threat to faith of intellectualism.

A few years later, he became disillusioned with the limitations of theology and scholarship for grasping reality. He passed through a spiritual crisis in which he sought the diminution of his ego affected by his intellectual fame. In 1095 el-Ghazali abandoned his career and left Baghdad on the pretext of going on pilgrimage to Mecca. He disposed of his wealth and adopted the life of an impoverished dervish, spending many years wandering as he worked on his inner development.

El-Ghazali later settled back in his native Khorasan where, as a realized Sufi and teacher, he enrolled disciples and spent the rest of his life instructing students and writing.

El-Ghazali died in his hometown of Tus in 1111.

Among the most famous and influential of his many dozen works are The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahafut al-Falasifah), in which he defended Islam against philosophical logicians. His books Niche for Lights (Mishkat al-Anwar ) and The Alchemy of Happiness (Kimiya-yi Sa'adat) contain his mystical, psychological and metaphysical reflections.

El-Ghazali the Mystical Theologian

Ghazali, by using the Sufi concept that all religious and psychological activity is essentially of the same nature, representing a continuing tradition which can be furthered by certain individuals, arrived at the position where he could represent both the mystical and the theological worlds perfectly within their own contexts. In so doing, he was able to demonstrate the inner reality of religion and philosophy in such a way as to appeal to followers of any creed. The consequence was that, although his work was revered by followers of different traditions, there was a mistaken tendency to assume that he had been attempting a synthesis of religion. A Christian theologian, Dr. August Tholuck, puts his work in these terms, while agreeing that Ghazali’s writings should be acceptable to Christianity. Tholuck’s remarks on this subject are well worth noting, for they give an excellent example of the ‘elephant in the dark’ form of thinker, who cannot believe in a single source for all genuine metaphysical teaching, and must try to account for the ingredients in any new appearance of a teacher:

‘All that is good, worthy and sublime, which his great soul had compassed, he bestowed upon Muhammadanism, and he adorned the doctrines of the Qur’an with so much piety and learning that in the form given them by him, they seem, in my opinion, worthy of the assent of Christians. Whatever was most excellent in the philosophy of Aristotle or in the Sufi mysticism, he discreetly adapted to the Muhammadan theology. From every school he sought the means of shedding light and honour upon religion, while his sincere piety and lofty conscientiousness imparted to all his writings a sacred majesty.’

Hardly anything will shake the intellectualising observer in his confidence that everything which he is studying is made up of a patchwork of other things.

El-Ghazali's Scholastic Period

A manuscript page from el-Ghazali's 'Revival of Religious Sciences' or 'Ihya Ulum al-Din'
A manuscript page from el-Ghazali's Revival of Religious Sciences or Ihya Ulum al-Din.

At a time when few divines were considered capable of reciting a tradition of the Prophet correctly unless they were greybeards, Ghazali was appointed a professor at the famous Nizamiyya Academy at Baghdad at the age of thirty-three. His intellect was of such an order as to be unsurpassed in Islam. For him, the real object of education was not merely to provide information, but the stimulation of an inner consciousness — a concept too revolutionary for the scholastics of the time. He propounded this theory in his Ihya-el-ulum. As in the case of Rumi (who spoke of the limitations of poetry only when he had become a great poet) Ghazali could afford to show up scholasticism by the time he had no fewer than three hundred thousand traditions of the Prophet by heart, and was the Authority of Islam.

His intellectual powers were yoked to a restlessness of mind which, as he says in his own autobiographical writings, made him tirelessly investigate every dogma and every doctrine which he came across; and this from his early youth.

While he was still teaching, Ghazali came to the conclusion that canon law (on which he wrote authoritative books) was an insufficient basis for reality, and he lapsed into scepticism.

Embarking on the Inner Sufi Work

Resigning his post, Ghazali spent twelve years — the traditional dervish period — in wanderings and meditation, returning to his Sufi background for the answers which he did not find in the ordinary world.

He confesses that he was an egoist, and craved applause and recognition. When he realised that this was a barrier to real understanding, he did not abruptly demean himself by choosing the ‘path of blame’, the panacea offered to many mystics. He decided that he would use conscious development in order to arrive at objective truth.

During his period of detachment from the world, after he had abandoned his career as a scholastic, which had saved Muslim theology from decay, Ghazali relates how he battled with his Commanding Self. He had been wandering throughout the East, on pilgrimages and seeking enlightenment in the manner of the dervishes, when he entered a mosque. In the sermon, the Imam was ending his discourse with the words: ‘So speaks our leader Ghazali.’

The wandering dervish said to himself, ‘O Commanding Self, how pleasant it is to you to hear this said! Yet I shall not tolerate this indulgence any more. I leave this place forthwith, to go where nobody talks of Ghazali.’

The theologian, accepted master in matters of outer religion, knew that the realisation of what might be meant by the term ‘God’ was something which could only be appreciated by inner means, not accessible through the framework of any formal religion.

‘I travelled to Syria,’ he says, ‘and remained there for two years. I had no other objective than that of seeking solitariness, overcoming selfishness, fighting passions, trying to make clear my soul, to complete my character.’ He did this because the Sufi cannot enter into understanding until his heart is prepared to ‘meditate upon God’, as he calls it.

This period of time was sufficient only to give him sporadic flashes of spiritual fulfilment (foretaste) — the stage which is considered by most non-Sufi mystics to be the ultimate, but which is in fact only the first step.

It had become clear to him that ‘the Sufis are not men of words, but of inner perception. I had learned all that could be learned by reading. The remainder could not be acquired by study or by talk.’

Instead of being bemused by his ecstatic experiences, considering them the be-all and end-all of the mystical quest, Ghazali realised that ‘the so-called absorption in God, considered to be the goal of the Sufi, is in fact only the beginning’.

He had exhausted scholasticism and intellectualism because he realised that they had an end, and so he was able to exhaust the preliminary stages which passed as mystical experience in a final sense. He was able to do this because he attained what he sought — a form of cognition which, like a directing beam, gave him a sense of certitude and a means of reaching the ultimate realisation. ‘It is something,’ he reports, describing this perception, ‘as specific as if one had actually touched an object.’

El-Ghazali's Story of Bayazid

A Persian miniature depicting the mystic Bayazid Bistami speaking with youth, Shiraz, Safavid Iran, circa 1570.
A Persian miniature depicting the mystic Bayazid Bistami speaking with youth, Shiraz, Safavid Iran, circa 1570.

Relating happiness and fulfilment to a process of alchemical transmutation of the human mind, Ghazali gives a story of Bayazid, one of the early classical Sufi masters, in his Alchemy of Happiness, to stress how the amour propre (Commanding Self) must first be seen in its real light before any refining can actually be done:

A man came to Bayazid and said that he had fasted and prayed for thirty years, and yet had not come near to an understanding of God. Bayazid told him that even a hundred years would not be enough. The man asked why.

‘Because your selfishness is working as a barrier between yourself and truth.’

‘Give me the remedy.’

‘There is a remedy, but it is impossible to you.’

The man insisted, and Bayazid agreed to describe it to him.

‘Go and shave your beard. Strip yourself naked, except for a loincloth. Fill a nose bag full of walnuts and go to the marketplace. There cry out, “A walnut for every boy who slaps me!” Then make your way to the court where the doctors of law are in session.’

‘But I really could not do that. Give me some other method.’

‘This is the only method,’ said Bayazid, ‘but I have already told you, there is no answer for you.’

El-Ghazali's Sufi Ideas

Ghazali, like other dervish teachers, maintained that Sufism was the inner teaching of all religions, and he used many quotations from the Bible and Apocrypha to make his points. He wrote an early critical work on distortions in Christian ideals — El Qawl el Jamil fil Raddi a la man Ghayar el Injil. As a consequence, of course, he has been said to have been under Christian influence. He was, in fact, less so than even the British Broadcasting Corporation when it occasionally uses Sufi stories in its morning religious programme, probably deriving them from secondary sources, and using them in their esoteric sense when they accord with nominal Christianity.

Ghazali was widely accused of preaching one thing and secretly teaching another. This is undoubtedly true, if it is accepted that he regarded active Sufism as a specialised undertaking suitable only for a limited number of people with the capacity for Adepthood. The external and doctrinal aspects of Islam which he enunciated with such impeccable orthodoxy were intended for those who could not follow the inner Sufi Way.

The Perfected Man (insani kamil), because of his living in different dimensions at the same time, must appear to follow more than one set of doctrines. A man who is swimming across a lake is carrying out actions and responding to perceptions other than a man walking down a hill, for instance. He is the same man; and he carries with him when he is walking all the potentiality of swimming.

With extraordinary bravery he actually states this in his Mizan el Amal (Balances of Work).

The Perfected Man has three frameworks of belief:

1. That of his surroundings.
2. That which he conveys to students in accordance with their capacity for understanding.
3. That which he understands from inner experience, only to be known among a special circle.

This is an excerpt from Ibn El-Ghazali of Persia, the ninth section of The Sufis by Idries Shah. To continue reading this section, go to The Sufis by Idries Shah.