By: Norani Abu Bakar (04/29/2010)
Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali’s is a legendary Sunni thinker and writer who made a significant contribution to scholarly work in Islamic religious sciences in the eleventh and twelfth century. His renowned systematic works cover multiple areas; philosophy, theology, law and Sufi mystics. Al-Ghazali is well reputable in the Muslim and the non-Muslim world, but he was an extraordinary man who undergone phases of crisis in life and continuous evolution of thoughts, just like others. After the journey of self-discovery and healing, al-Ghazali prolifically authored great volumes of writing which reflected the renewal of his thoughts. His work, especially on Sufism, carries significance scholastic values and is highlighted until today.
This paper discusses how al-Ghazali’s life contributed to his personal crisis, causing him to pursue about two years of intentional isolation in order to seek deliverance from his doubt. This writing is divided into three sections. The first section presents an outline to his biography. The second section discusses his personal crisis and the last section presents an evaluation on the recovery from his crisis after the retreat.
Outline of the life of Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (d. 1058–1111)
The biography of al-Ghazali is often expounded based on two main primary sources; Abd al-Ghafir al-Farisi’s (written in 1113) and al-Ghazali’s own autobiography, Deliverence from Error (written in 1108).The former was about 13 years younger than him and was known as his fellow student and teaching assistant. His writing was based on several of his interviews with al-Ghazali and the report he gathered from others. There is slight inaccuracy in his account and this will be explained later. However, Griffel and McCarthy agreed that al-Ghafir’s writing is the one that stands out the most among the classical biography written on al-Ghazali.
Other writings on al-Ghazali’s biography in Arabic language can be retrieved from al-Karim al-Uthman publication of Sirat Ghazali, a compilation of the principal Arabic biography on al-Ghazali by various authors such as Ibn Asakir (1175), Abu l-Faraj son of al-Jawzi (1200), al-Subki (1369) and al-Zadibi (1790). Among them, the more recent biography tends to be longer and in most cases the less informative. The chronology of Ghazali’s biography can be found from various writings such as of Margaret Smith (1944), Watt Montgomery (1963) and Frank Griffel (2009).
Al-Ghazali was born in Tabaran, in the district of Tus in northeast of Iran around 1058 AD. When his father died, he left his two sons and daughters in poverty. Having his own dream to raise his sons to be Sufis, he confided his Sufi friend to take care of Muhammad and Ahmad. Both then stayed with him and received their education from Imam Ahmad al-Radhkani. There was no date given for the earlier part of his education but as the normal age to school was eleven, one may assume that he was eleven in 1069. During this period, the teaching of the instruction in the “Islamic Science” in the mosques that was given at no cost to the Islamic community was shifted to institutional learning called Madrasah. Many of the Madrasah gave free food and lodging to the students. Ahmad and Muhammad then left for Madrasah in Gurgan in 1073 when the financial support left from their late father was depleting. Ghazali was around 15 years old then.
After their education in Gurgan, Ahmad and Muhammad al-Ghazali and a few youths from Tus went to Nishabur in 1077. Gurgan was about 300 miles from Tus while Nishabur was fifty miles away, and was on the road passing to Gurgan. During his studies at Tus, Gurgan and Nishabur (i.e. prior to attending Nizammiya Madrasah), Ghazali followed the standard curriculum of Islamic higher education which carried mainly legal viewpoint from the study of the Quran and Traditions and their commentaries. The emphasis was on Traditions and jurisprudence.
The first Madrasah was founded in Nishabur before 960. The movement of religious education through Madrasah was actively supported by Nizam al-Mulk, the great Seljuq wazir (in power from 1063 to 1092). Al-Mulk first came in power during the reign of Alp Arslan and later during Malik Shah. He founded at least nine Nizamiyya Madrasahs which scattered in various cities including Baghdad. Al-Mulk offered al-Juwayni, the most outstanding Muslim scholar of his time, an authoritative scholar in the Muslim law and theology to become the main chair of Nizammiya Madrasah in Nishambur. Being the first Muslim theologian who studied the works of Muslim philosopher Ibn Sina or Avicenna in 1037, his fame attracted many youths, including al-Ghazali. After being acquainted with the teaching of Al-Juwayni, also known as Imam al-Haramayn as he was the Imam of the sanctuaries in Mecca and Medina, Ahmad and Muhammad al-Ghazali began to attend Nizamiyya Madrasah in 1069. Al-Ghazali’s initial motivation in studying philosophical began here as the studies of philosophical literature was apart of the al-Juwayni’s higher curriculum.
In that period, it is to be expected that the level of education attained in Nishabur would be the highest in the Islamic world. While al-Ghazali was acquiring the best theological education in Nizammiya and was considered by al-Juwayni as a very intelligent student, he commented that al-Ghazali tend to rush towards judgment. He was often observed as being imprecise in his quotation and use of the Traditions. His knowledge in the Traditions was influenced by his teachers in Traditions whom al-Juwayni considered as ordinary people who were well informed in their faith but rather simple. Al-Ghazali’s first book, The Sifted (al-Mankhul) was composed in 1080, and it was most likely written when he was studying at this school. Al-Ghazali was a faithful student to al-Juwayni and left the Madrasah only after his death in 1085.
In 1091, al-Ghazali appeared in Mu’askar, a political and military base in Isfahan, Seljuq capital and was officially welcomed by al-Mulk. The Mu’askar military base was also a stopping place of the ulamas. There al-Ghazali had many encounters tough adversaries and had many debating with the distinguished that his name became known. His teaching delighted many people. Al-Mulk was also one of al-Ghazali’s students and he appointed him to teach at the Nizammiya Madrasah in Baghdad. In 1091, at about the age of 32, al-Ghazali attained one of the most distinguished positions in the academic world of his day.
The information on what he did for about six years, from 1085 to 1091, after leaving Nishabur to the time he arrived in Isfahan was very little. Al-Ghafir’s account gives only a single sentence covering the period from the time al-Ghazali stayed with al-Juwayni to his death, and that he left Nishabur afterward and then became part of the traveling court and of the assembly of scholars that Nizam al-Mulk kept around him. Al-Ghafir wrote that al-Mulk took interest in al-Ghazali because of his excellence in disputation and his command of expression. He was also the Imamate of Khurasan and later became the Imam of Iraq. During this period, his interest in philosophy continued and from late 1091 to 1094, Ghazali fervently self-studied philosophy. Nizam Al-Mulk was assassinated on October 1092 by his political rival, the Ismailis.
In November 1095, a few months after he completed his second book, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, his identity crisis became more apparent. It began with speech impediment which he thought was primarily caused by religious matter, and occasionally led to inability to eat and to drink. He intensely continued self-studying in Islamic philosophy and Sufism but doubt began to take over his life. This struggle went on for about five months until he reached a point that he decided to pull back from the academic scene around the end of 1096. Al-Ghazali needed to seek certitude as the underpinnings of his intellectual knowledge. Blessed by Ahmad, he left secretly by saying that he was going for Hajj and gave-up his academic career. With the assurance and the peace that his family financial needs would be taken care off when he is gone, he left for Damascus.
Al-Ghafir wrote that al-Ghazali went for intentional isolation in Damascus for about ten years long. He was actually there from November 1095 to May-June 1097, about two years. The word “uzla” or seclusion was used by al-Ghazali when he described about his life after 1095. The fact that he taught at the zawiya, travelled around and published his book indicated that he was not fully separated from the outside world. He was also not alone when travelling, as Abu Tahir al-Shabbak who studied with al-Juwayni together with him too often accompanied him. Occasionally, al-Ghazali did isolate himself in the minaret of the mosque in Damascus, a dwelling place for the Sufis, to pursue the mysticism of the purifying his soul. Griffel explained in great length that the word isolation or seclusion that was used by al-Ghazali merely means not serving in a public office or not being engaged in state-sponsored school such as Nizammiyas.
In Damascus, al-Ghazali was hosted by Abu l-Fath Nasr, a well known Sufi and taught at al-Fath’s Madrasah called Zawia al-Fath, which name was later changed to Ghazaliyya Madrasah. During this isolation period, he went to Jerusalem, Mecca and Medina and did his Hajj. On his way to do his Hajj in 1096, he stopped in Hebron and visited the tomb of Abraham, where he vowed not to take any money from the government, never again to serve a ruler and never again to enter into scholastic disputations.
During this period he composed his most famous work, Ihya ulum al-din “The Revival of the Religious Sciences,” which advocates Sufi spirituality as the fulcrum of Islamic religion and other books that branch from this teaching such as The Forty (Chapters). Al-Fath passed away in January 1097, and a few months after that, al-Ghazali left Damascus and went to Baghdad somewhere between May to June 1097. There he stayed at a Sufi convent right opposite of Nizammiya Madrasah and read his book The Revival of the Religious Sciences. Abu Bakr ibn al-Arabi who documented his second visit in Baghdad wrote that many people came to listen to him and the content of his book was unusual in his time. He was there for about six months and used similar reason to leave as two years before to avoid others from following him.
After Baghdad, he went to Khorasan and on is journey, al-Arabi who was now his student, met him. He recorded in June 1097, that al-Ghazali was already a practitioner of Sufism for five years and that he accepted Sufi path roughly in 1093 and renounced all groups and put himself in seclusion. The questions that are raised from al-Arabi’s account will be discussed later. Eventually, Al-Ghazali’s went back to his family after they waited for him in Tus and pledged him to come back home. There, close to his house, he taught at a private Madrasah (zawia) and built a place of dwelling sojourn for the Sufis (kanqah). The latter was a relatively new concept at this time. The place was for the Sufis to stay there and pursue ascetic lifestyle in the company of likeminded peers.
Al-Ghazali settled down in Tus until 1106, and according to him, he was ordered by the Seljuq Sanjar and his wazir, Fakhr-al-Mulk, to teach at the Nizammiya of Nishabur. He wrote that he had consulted with a group of people with pure heart who advised him to leave uzla or isolation to lead the much needed religious renewal and the temptations of false belief. Al-Ghazali “was taken” to Nishabur and had no choice then to break the vow he made at Abraham’s tomb. Some scholars commented that he wrote Deliverance from Error around this period, summer 1106, to explain his stance. Later in the same year, the Ismailite assassinated Fakh al-Mulk.
During this period he was also accused for refuting the founding figure of a Hanafite’s school, Abu Hanifa. A fatwa was released demanding his execution and since Sanjar was a Hanafite, this accusation took him into Sanjar’s court trial. His students defended him. In 1110, al-Ghazali was offered the same teaching position in Baghdad that he left fifteen years ago but he declined in a widely publicized letter. Al-Ghazali continued teaching at the Nizammiya of Nishabur occasionally while he continued staying in Tabaran and centering his life on tawba and studying hadith. Shortly after that, he died in peace in the kanqah witnessed by his brother, Ahmad and was buried in his hometown in Tabaran, Tus in 18th Dec, 1111.
Al-Ghazali’s Personal Life Crisis
Al-Ghafir described al-Ghazali’s crisis simply by saying that “he was overwhelmed” and that “he began to battle against own self.” His writing on al-Ghazali’s crisis does not differentiate its significance compared to other episodes in his life. In fact, the bitter relationship between al-Ghazali and al-Juwayni carried greater volume in his account. Al-Ghazali’s emphasized on his crisis and self-analysis in Deliverance from Error, written years after the retreat, was possibly because of his intention to maneuver the audience towards certain conclusion. He wrote what he wanted the readers to read. Indeed, he was quite successful as many scholars attributed the uniqueness of his scholastic work to his identity crisis and self-imposed isolation from the fame of a celebrated scholar’s life in Baghdad. Nevertheless, his identity crisis is historical fact beyond doubt with no evidence on the contrary.
The contribution factors to his crisis won many debates. One’s well is a consequence of accumulated factors over his or her life time and it cannot be analyzed subjectively. For simplicity and systematic approach, this paper speculates the internal and external influential factors to Ghazali’s personal crisis. The internal factors are matters related to one’s soul; the heart, the spirit and the body, consistent to what he elaborated in his book “The Book of the Marvels of the Heart”. The external factors are the political, social and economical environment.
Internal factors influencing his crisis – The soul: heart, spirit, mind and body
Al-Ghazali was deprived from a normal childhood life due to circumstances. His biography did not mention anything about his mother, whom one would assume will care for the children upon the death of her husband. The “militant” approach of academic pursuit where children were separated from their parents and immersed into a strong academic discipline without parental care can easily exhaust the youth emotion. There is very little chance that the children who outnumbered the numbers of teachers or guardians while living at the boarding rooms provided by the Madrasah will receive the equal amount of love that their parents can give at home.
Al-Ghazali did not object Madrasah life for many reasons, such as peer pressure, life style and basic needs. A quotation from al-Ghazali himself said that they went to Madrasah, not for the sake of God but for the sake of food. His recollection of memoir on his conflict in the purity in life with God obviously went as far as his early childhood period. His difficulties to embrace life circumstances during his early childhood may have increases his susceptibility to life crisis during adulthood.
Al-Ghafir and al-Ghazali did not write much on al-Ghazali’s personal relationship that could have contributed to the needs and the wellness of his emotional being. The absence of such information could also mean that these elements were not highly valued in their cultural context. Al-Ghazali’s emotional and material impoverishment built-up years back since his father’s death could have inflicted his adult’s life. It is justifiable then to say that al-Ghazali’s lack of experience in quality family life and values too caused him not to hesitate to leave his wife and daughters for two years during his isolation period. He did express that his family’s matter pressured him to quit, nevertheless, he remained. This questions his view on the relationship between one man with the other, the responsibility to one’s own family and how that relate to the purity and the holistically of one’s soul? With his childhood and militant pursue of academic life and scholarly fame, al-Ghazali could be diagnosed as someone who suffered lack of emotional support and after many years, this led to his burn-out.
Al-Ghafir was al-Ghazali’s Sufi student, so one can assume the tendency for him to side on al-Ghazali. However, he disqualified this hypothesis by writing on al-Ghazali’s excessive pride. His disrespectful attitude towards al-Juwayni as written by Ibn al-Jawzi also confirmed the quality of his character was not a rumor. Engaging in heated discussions to defense his theological and philosophical work was unavoidable. Al-Ghazali was described as having many arguments with others and in spite of his great achievement; he occasionally exaggerated on his work. Prior to giving up his teaching in 1095, he wrote a letter to Sanjar informing him that he had finished writing seventy books. Many historians, such as Maurice Bouyges and George F.Hourani who worked on the dating of this writing, are skeptical on this claim. In his other letter to Sanjar in 1091, he boasted by saying that ‘he has dived in the sea of religious scholarship and reached a point where his words are beyond the understanding of his contemporaries”. It is unbiased then to say that with his success and intellectual brilliance, comes accumulation of miserable dispute and pride in personal achievement, which is conflicting with his own consciousness. This inner conflict was akin to his crisis.
External factors influencing his crisis – political, social and economical
Being a scholar, one would presume that al-Ghazali’s bears no special role with politics and his involvement was very minimal. This is not quite true. No historical record evidenced his involvement in any military or frontline warfare, but his writing and religious activity brought direct impact to the political environment especially after the assassination of Nizam al-Mulk. Sixteen month after his assassination, many deaths and upheaval followed. The disorder and confusion were the result of failed attempt by Terken Khatum, one of Malikshah’s widows, to bring her son, who was at minor age, to come into power. The instigation by the so-called Nazimmiya, also added to the political chaos in that time. Al-Ghazali who supported Caliph’s position that Islamic law did not allow a minor to take-up governance power read this in a khutbah, whereby the highest military office and wazir position was also spelt out. None of the scholars supported the novel of such khutbah reading. Al-Ghazali was so involved in this matter that he was sent by the Caliph to meet Terken Khatum to explain the law. Surprisingly, she agreed with him and together with her son left for Isfahan for good.
How would al-Ghazali reflect his involvement as a religious person and an Islamic scholar in such political affairs? In a letter he wrote ten years later to Mujir al-Din, who was a wazir to Sanjar, he cited that the death of the four wazirs; Nizam al-Mulk, Taj al-Mulk, Majd al-Mulk and Muayyad al-Mulk as a lesson from which to learn. He bluntly informed the wazir that those who collaborate with tyrants will themselves be judged as evildoers in life hereafter. His personal conviction after own self reflection for intermingling religious with the state and political affairs must have been lingering in his mind prior that he vowed not to work with the government and to isolate himself from the state affairs at Abraham’s tomb in 1096. This should explain the source of his fear over divine matter which he encountered during his identity crisis as written by many biographers.
Another political factor that captured the most debate on the cause to his crisis was the fear of assassination from the Ismailis. This theory came from D. MacDonalds in 1899. Many scholars relate his fear to the assassination of Nizam Al-Mulk and Fakhr al-Mulk’s to the Ismailis. Al-Ghazali’s main political involvement with the Ismaili was his writing on the instruction of Caliph al-Mustazher (1094-1118), refuting to Nizari Ismaili who engineered the assassination of al-Mulk in 1092. He studied their doctrine and wrote “The infamies of the Batanites and the virtues of the Mustazhirites” clearly indicating his stance on the hidden dangers in their deception and their dupery, and their slipping out of the noose of Islam and their abandoning and being stripped of Islam. After the released of this writing to the leaders of the Ismailis, Al-Ghazali neither escape nor hide his family, instead he continued teaching in Baghdad until he left in 1095 for retreat, alone. He continued to oppose Ismailis’ doctrine (also called the Batanites’ doctrine or Talimism) in Deliverance from Error which he wrote after his two years retreat. Other writings of al-Ghazali refuting the Ismailis were “The weak position of the Esoterics” and “Straight Balance” and one his work was written after the assassination of Fakir al-Mulk. Had there been real fear to Ismailis’ reprisals that may lead to assassination from his writing and activity, he would have stopped. This then brought us to the conclusion that it was not Ismailis’ threat but the fear to the divine for not keeping the religious purely free from political agendas that led al-Ghazali to his retreat.
Al-Ghazali wrote in the Deliverance from Error on his observance that faith of the children were molded by parents and claimed that this was not the case for him. He had broken from such fetters of tradition and freed himself from hereditary beliefs since childhood. Such profession (i.e. breaking from religious traditions) was supported through his confession in his later writing, The Jewels of the Quran, that he was once part of the followers of philosophy who rejected the duties of Islam, namely the acts of worship and ritual purity, and belittling the devotions and ordinances prescribed by the divine law. This writing evidenced that at that point of life, al-Ghazali was not very fearful towards the judgment from God. His realization on his failure frustrated him. He failed in finding the fundamental truth and to live that truth out with full conviction, in spite of being a great scholar in theology and philosophy and someone who was well versed with Quran and Traditions.
Al-Ghazali wrote in his autobiography that in July 1095, he began to study the writing of Sufis as al-Junayd, al-Shibli, al-Harith al-Muhasibi, Abu Yazid al-Bistamani, and Abu Talib al-Makki. He learnt though their work on individual experiences of having their soul being completely soaked in mysticism and was convicted that religious tenets are irrelevant as life after counts after one’s action. This made him He realized that his application of sciences were useless if it was not directed fully to God and confessed that he was motivated by the quest of fame and prestige and was about to fall into Hell unless he mend his ways. During this period, al-Ghazali lost the ability to speak and later in ability to have regular dietary.
The reflection he had from reading the Sufis work as mentioned earlier may have triggered disturbing thoughts that needed to be processed in solitude. Leaving the prestigious and busy life in Baghdad was the solution. The mystical Sufis’ life can only be fully experienced by doing and this could have been viewed as a promising path for al-Ghazali to achieve an esoteric relationship with God and to receive healing. Abd al-Latif Tibawi, a Palestinian historian suggested that al-Ghazali also went to Damascus to seek guidance by Abu l-Fath Nasr whose reputation was well known in the area of austerity, asceticism and Sufi teachings and was a prominent Shafiite and a Sufi. His departure to live with him could also well explain al-Ghazali’s character that love to pursue greater experience and knowledge, in addition to his determination live fully as a Sufi.
Abu l-Fath Nasr was also known for refusing gifts and payment from teaching. He lived on the income from the land he owned in Nubulus and was known for earning his living legitimately according to Islamic law. Abu l-Fath commitment in trying to live a pure life, including in the area of finance to the point that he ate only a loaf of bread a day had challenged al-Ghazali’s integrity. His tension on the subject of purity in income was enhanced by the fact that some pious scholars refused to teach in Nizammiya of Baghdad due to the sources of finance that supported the school. By isolating himself in Damascus and living with l-Fath, he could resolve his fear of such impurity. This also allowed him to disconnect from the Seljuq government’s Madrasah system in the most peaceful way.
Al-Ghazali’s recovery from crisis after the retreat (1105 – 1107 AD)
Some scholars argued that al-Ghazali did not fully recover from his doubt and crisis after the isolation but continued to live with episodes of doubt and crisis. Others argued that his transformation is evidenced by the changes in his teaching content and writing after 1095. He did have numerous positive changes. His writing work continued to flourish. In his later life, Al-Ghazali was more interested in tawba or repentance, being close with his family, studying hadith of Muslim and al-Bukhari and having solitude in kanqah. He was able to decline the reputable teaching position in Baghdad even though he could not escaped from being forced to teach at Nizammiya of Nishambur and continued teaching at zawias. Al-Ghafir described that the late al-Ghazali had completely changed and had recovered after “he had been mad”.
Watt did not consider his crisis as valid historically, but accepted that his conversion to the mystical life as genuine. Some critics questioned that the fact that he found answer on this renaissance through Sufism after using theological and philosophical was a pretense to illuminate Sufism? Al-Arabi wrote that al-Ghazali was already a Sufi in 1093. This means that most likely had presumed that Sufism was the eventual solution to his life misery. However, his two years time in Damascus gave him the opportunity to justify himself by exploring the result of bringing his exoteric versus and esoteric life together. It is possible that this was attained under the guidance of Abu al-Fath. As a result, his practice of ascetic life in Sufism became more apparent after 1097 even though he might have knowledge on Sufism much earlier. The establishment of kanqah close to his house was a significant indication in the evolution of his Sufism practice. Al-Ghazali definitely had found what he was looking for when he left for Damascus and this discovery had healed him.
Al-Ghazali’s legacy is unique due to his adventurous move in turning his life crisis into a journey of life learning. He pursued the challenge to prove his own faith and implement his own theoretical discovery into a life style. The merging of his exoteric and esoteric life through his Sufi experience, his study of philosophy, theology and above all, his authentic heart of a seeker, led him to become a leading scholar in Islamic world. Al-Ghazali had bravely altered the course of his life and had his soul healed and perfected. One can only be perfected by walking through an imperfect journey but the greatest achievement is to bring out the best throughout that experience. Al-Ghazali’s life was an exemplary to this.
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