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al-Ghazali: Rejection and Restoration of Beliefs

Quite commonly one is led to question inherited beliefs, beliefs that one may have adhered to for an entire lifetime. These points in life where such crises arise can cause a person to begin a quest to determine where the truth for oneself ultimately lies. Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111 CE) underwent such an affliction during his lifetime. The crisis he underwent caused him to reject his inherited beliefs in an attempt to remove himself from any conformist views he might have held. This paper will delve into the process of his breakdown of conformist views and subsequent rebuilding of certainty towards knowledge, and critique points in his quest where his rationale and methodology seem problematic. This paper will prove that al-Ghazali was never capable of rejecting all conformity, and was actually heavily reliant on conformity to guide him through his crisis.

al-Ghazali, in Rescuer from Error, was insistent on his pursuit of knowledge from a young age, whereby he claimed to have “attempted to penetrate every obscurity, grapple every problem, tackle every predicament, examine the beliefs of every faction, and investigate the hidden creed of each sect.” This may very well be the basis for why he began his quest. The quest itself is attributed to a Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), where it says, “Every child is born in the natural state; his parents make him a Jew, Christian, or Magian.” This, al-Ghazali admits, was problematic to him, and contrary to what he had observed being raised, where he claims to have seen Christian boys growing up Christian, Jewish boys growing up Jewish, and Muslim boys growing up Muslim. The Hadith caused him to be “inwardly moved to seek out the reality of this original nature, as well as the reality of the beliefs acquired out of conformity to parents and teachers”. This is where it appears al-Ghazali’s quest for truth began.

Initially, al-Ghazali begins his quest for knowledge by seeking out the ‘reality of knowledge’, or ‘certain knowledge’. He defines this to be knowledge so self-evident, that there is no room for doubt, and any thoughts of error or illusion are inconceivable. Any attempts to disprove it or opine error would be futile.

He admits being almost entirely devoid of ‘certain knowledge’, except for two attributes; sensory beliefs, and necessary beliefs. But he even questions his sensory beliefs. He cites shadows, stating that senses perceive it to be still upon observation. Rational thought proves, indisputably, that the shadow moves, and proves sensory belief wrong. In terms of necessary or rational beliefs, he goes one step further than his examination of sensory beliefs. In verifying his certainty, he argues if rational beliefs were behind sensory beliefs and were able to prove rational belief wrong, how does he not know there is another apprehension that can prove rational beliefs wrong? For this, he uses the example of dreams. He states how one may perceive a dream to be reality, until awoken to another reality, far greater, and far realer than the dream; this reality. How can al-Ghazali be sure there is not another state beyond the awoken state that will prove this state to be less real, or less certain? He cannot. Thus, al-Ghazali believes he must reject necessary beliefs as well. By rejecting these two attributes of certain knowledge, al-Ghazali cannot derive a proof to rebut the rejection, since proof requires first principles, and first principles require some level of sensory and necessary beliefs.

Only now does al-Ghazali feel he has eradicated his conformist beliefs. Having eradicated anything that allows him to derive proofs and use first principles, he feels he has gone as far as possible. He describes his affliction and stagnation as “diseased”. Seeking a cure, he turns to Hadith and the Quran for guidance. He quotes a Hadith where God says to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), “God Almighty created people in darkness then sprinkled them with his light.” al-Ghazali understands this to mean he must seek the light God sprinkles. Relieved this is what he needs to go further in his quest, he begins to seek restore his beliefs. In doing so, he studies four seekers of truth; theologians, esotericists, philosophers, and mystics.

In a critique of theologians, al-Ghazali understands them to be too conformist to tradition and too reliant on consensus of community. He does not feel the answers they provide are satisfactory for him on a level that engages answers in both theology and science. So he rejects them.

He rejects philosophy after divulging himself in its study for years. Studying both science and philosophy, he concludes that to prove the error in philosophy, one must study all of science and philosophy, and know more than his opponents in order to prove them wrong. His reasoning is if one does not know everything about science, one cannot be certain he is right about everything. However, this study of philosophy and science also leads al-Ghazali to conclude that philosophers have a penchant for atheism and blasphemy. He argues that naturalist and materialist philosophers are blasphemous atheists based on their views on Judgment Day and afterlife. He cites ibn Sina and al-Farabi as two examples of theist philosophers who have strayed into blasphemous works, by continuing the work of naturalists and materialists. Unable to reconcile the blasphemy, he rejects philosophy, but leaves the capability of delving into the study of the sciences. He also states that the scientific aspect of philosophy is reconcilable with religion, and have roots in mysticism.

Also rejecting esotericism, al-Ghazali, eventually accepted mysticism as his path to certainty, citing

…what was most distinctive about them and what was specific to them was what could not be attained through teaching but rather through ‘tasting’, the ‘state’, and a ‘transformation of attributes.’”

Through the journey that al-Ghazali took, it is necessary to retrospectively critique his path and realize there were problematic steps he took that never totally eliminated conformity. He even foreshadowed his own conformism when he said, “It is a precondition of being a conformist that the conformist not know that he is merely conforming.” This has been concluded from the basis of his constant reliance upon the Quran and Hadiths throughout his crisis. al-Ghazali is reliant upon these two Islamic authorities to guide him towards the faction that will grant him the most knowledge.

al-Ghazali’s journey is supposedly set out to find truth regarding the original state of man; a state acknowledging a person is not born Muslim, Jewish, or Christian. al-Ghazali never rejects his own Muslim identity to study the original state, but rather, uses it to guide him to a faction of knowledge (mysticism), that he feels will allow him to remain non-conformist to any other authority, but the Quran and the Prophet. Thus, he is not truly non-conformist, and is, in fact, falling victim to the precondition that he previously parameterized. In doing so, he is unable to objectively look at the original state of man, and determine where the truth lies. His journey then becomes less about a man who is seeking truth, and more about a man who is justifying his version of the truth as the original state of man.

Regarding all forms truth-seeking that al-Ghazali had set out to study in his rebuilding of beliefs, it is clear that, regardless of what faction he was studying, whether it was philosophy, mysticism, esotericism, or theology, he was always reliant upon conforming to the authorities in those particular fields. al-Ghazali even said it himself during his study of science and philosophy,

“One must become equal with the most knowledgeable of its practitioners, then exceed them and surpass their level…”

For philosophy, he studied all the scientific works. For theology, he studied all the religious works. For mysticism, he studied all the works of the mystics. Thus, his knowledge for proving each faction wrong was reliant upon conforming to the masters of those subjects he studied. al-Ghazali, thus, was never, in his quest to seek truth via non-conformity, ever really non-conformed. His attempts to become non-conformist were actually very conformative, whether it was to his religion during rejection of beliefs, or whether it was to the authorities in the studied fields, during rebuilding of beliefs. Either way, al-Ghazali never totally rejected his beliefs, nor did he totally non-conform.

M. A. Khalidi (ed.), Medieval Islamic Philosophical Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 59-98

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