The Scholars of Islam: al-Ghazali
Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali was one of the most prominent Muslim theologians, jurists and teachers who developed many of the ideas of the Ash’arite Kalam school and laid the foundations of the philosophy of Sufism. His views served as the basis for many subsequent philosophical systems and schools, his work underlies many modern doctrines of Islam. Some Muslim scholars, for example, such significant muhaddiths and faqihs as al-Suyuti and al-Nawawi, attribute Imam al-Ghazali to the “renovators of the faith” of the 5th century AH, the Mujaddids, who, according to the Prophet’s word, should appear once every hundred years in order to cleanse Islam of novelty and distortion.
Imam al-Ghazali was born in 1058 CE in Khorasan (eastern Iran and Afghanistan), just at the time when the Suljuk Turks who originated from these parts conquered the Caliphate and seized supreme power in all its lands, establishing their empire here. Al-Ghazali’s father was a wool spinner. He passed away early, leaving Muhammad and his brother in the care of a friend. The father’s inheritance quickly dried up, and the brothers were forced to look for a way to get food for themselves. It was then that the friend of their father advised Muhammad to enter the madrasah in order to make a living this way.
Studying was easy for Muhammad. After the madrasah, he continued to study with major scholars of the Quran and Fiqh in Gorgan and Nishapur (an important scholarly centre in Iran). In Nishapur, Imam al-Ghazali had famous teachers such as Imam al-Juwayni and other prominent teachers of the law and hadith scholars. Soon the scholarship of the young imam was noticed by the Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk, who set up the Nizamiyya madrasah in Baghdad and invited Imam al-Ghazali to head it. Working as the head of the madrasah which had 300 students earned honour, respect and fame to Imam al-Ghazali. However, when in 1092 the vizier Nizam al-Mulk was killed by an assassin, Imam al-Ghazali hastened to leave Baghdad.
Later, he explained this decision by the need to defeat his own nafs (vanity, selfishness). This step revealed the main feature of Imam al-Ghazali, his conviction that a true Muslim should not pursue the acquisitions of this world, but should focus on cogniting God, living in modesty and passing on his knowledge to others. These values were laid down by Imam al-Ghazali as the basis of the doctrine of Sufism. And his departure from Baghdad as an act of combating nafs was the embodiment of one of his philosophical theses, namely that jihad is not a fight on the battlefield, but a fight with one’s own nafs (debased ego). “Not equal are those believers remaining at home and the mujahideen who strive and fight in the cause of Allah with their wealth and their lives.” [Quran, 4:95] The word translated as ‘lives’ (anfusihim) stems from the word ‘nafs’, that is, the inner soul. The battle of the soul was at the heart of the philosophy of Imam al-Ghazali.
The veneration of the Quran and the Sunnah automatically made Imam al-Ghazali a supporter of the philosophical school (kalam) of the Ash’arites and an opponent of the philosophers who argued that everything can be comprehended solely by reason, without attracting faith and revelation, by applying to the Sacred texts the laws of Aristotelian logic, such as al- Farabi and Ibn Sina.
The most important work of Imam al-Ghazali was his book ‘Ihya ulum ad-Din’ (Revival of Religious Sciences), in which he consistently outlined the path of a righteous Muslim, starting from worship (ibadat), righteous custom (adat) and ending with moral qualities like patience, love, asceticism, striving for knowledge of the truth, the use of reason to get closer to Allah with strict adherence to everything that is transmitted to people in Divine Revelation. Imam al-Ghazali had a significant influence not only on the whole of Arab philosophy, but also on European philosophers. His books translated into Latin were widely known in Europe and he himself was a model of a true Muslim.