The exterior of the Haruniyeh Dome in Tus, Iran, where the memorial stone for the 13th century mystic el-Ghazali is found.
The exterior of the Haruniyeh Dome in Tus, Iran, where the memorial stone for the 13th century mystic el-Ghazali is found.

El-Ghazali: The Practical Mystic

The twelfth-century philosopher and Sufi el-Ghazali quotes in his Book of Knowledge this line from el-Mutanabbi: ‘To the sick man, sweet water tastes bitter in the mouth.’

This could very well be taken as Ghazali’s motto. Eight hundred years before Pavlov, he pointed out and hammered home (often in engaging parables, sometimes in startlingly ‘modern’ words) the problem of conditioning.

In spite of Pavlov and the dozens of books and reports of clinical studies into human behaviour made since the Korean war, the ordinary student of things of the mind is unaware of the power of indoctrination. (1) Indoctrination, in totalitarian societies, is something which is desirable providing that it furthers the beliefs of such societies. In other groupings its presence is scarcely even suspected. This is what makes almost anyone vulnerable to it.

Ghazali’s work not only pre-dates, but also exceeds, the contemporary knowledge of these matters. At the time of writing informed opinion is split between whether indoctrination (whether overt or covert) is desirable or otherwise, whether, too, it is inescapable or not.

Ghazali not only points out that what people call belief may be a state of obsession; he states clearly, in accordance with Sufi principles, that it is not inescapable, but insists that it is essential for people to be able to identify it.

His books were burnt by Mediterranean bigots from Spain to Syria. Nowadays they are not put into the flames, but their effect, except among Sufis, is perhaps less; they are not read very much.

He regarded the distinction between opinion and knowledge as something which can easily be lost. When this happens, it is incumbent upon those who know the difference to make it plain as far as they are able.

Ghazali’s scientific, psychological, discoveries, though widely appreciated by academics of all kinds, have not been given the attention they deserve because he specifically disclaims the scientific or logical method as their origin. He arrived at his knowledge through his upbringing in Sufism, among Sufis, and through a form of direct perception of the truth which has nothing to do with mechanical intellection. This, of course, at once puts him outside the pale for scientists. What is rather curious, however, is that his discoveries are so astonishing that one would have thought that investigators would have liked to find out how he made them.

‘Mysticism’ having been given a bad name like the dog in the proverb, if it cannot be hanged, can at least be ignored. This is a measure of scholastic psychology: accept the man’s discoveries if you cannot deny them, but ignore his method if it does not follow your beliefs about method.

If Ghazali had produced no worthwhile results, he would naturally have been regarded as only a mystic, and a proof that mysticism is educationally or socially unproductive.

The influence of Ghazali on Western thought is admitted on all hands to be enormous. But this influence itself shows the working of conditioning; the philosophers of medieval Christendom who adopted many of his ideas did so selectively, completely ignoring the parts which were embarrassing to their own indoctrination activities.

Ghazali’s way of thought attempted to bring to a wider audience than the comparatively small Sufi one a final distinction between belief and obsession. He stressed the role of upbringing in the inculcation of religious beliefs, and invited his readers to observe the mechanism involved. He insisted upon pointing out that those who are learned may be, and often are, stupid as well, and can be bigoted, obsessed. He affirms that, in addition to having information and being able to reproduce it, there is such a thing as knowledge, which happens to be a higher form of human thought.

The habit of confusing opinion with knowledge, a habit which is to be met with every day at the current time, Ghazali regards as an epidemic disease.

In saying all these things, with a wealth of illustration and in an atmosphere which was most unconducive to scientific attitudes, Ghazali was not merely playing the part of a diagnostician. He had acquired his own knowledge in a Sufic manner, and he realised that higher understanding – being a Sufi, in fact – was only possible to people who could see and avoid the phenomena which he was describing.

Ghazali produced numerous books and published many teachings. His contribution to human thought and the relevance of his ideas hundreds of years later are unquestioned. Let us partly repair the omission of our predecessors by seeing what he has to say about method. What was the Way of el-Ghazali? What does man have to do in order to be like him, who was admittedly one of the world’s giants of philosophy and psychology?

This is an excerpt from the section entitled "El-Ghazali", under the chapter “Classical Authors", in The Way of the Sufi by Idries Shah. To continue reading this section, go to The Way of the Sufi by Idries Shah.

(1) One of the most striking peculiarities of contemporary man is that, while he now has abundant scientific evidence to the contrary, he finds it intensely difficult to understand that his beliefs are by no means always linked with either his intelligence, his culture or his values. He is therefore almost unreasonably prone to indoctrination.