Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058-1111) was one of the foremost intellects of medieval Islam. Personal discontent with scholastic orthodoxy led him to mysticism and the writing of a monumental work which harmonized the tendencies of both orthodoxy and mysticism within Islam.
The vast area now known as the Islamic world had been quickly conquered by the Moslem Arabs in the century following the death of the prophet Mohammed in 632. The period to 945 had seen a demographic change in Islam, from being a religion adhered to almost exclusively by the conquering Arab minority to the faith held by the majority of the inhabitants of the caliphal empire.
During the period from 750 to 945, however, the empire had disintegrated into petty states ruled by Moslem governors turned dynasts, each only theoretically subordinate to the increasingly powerless caliph in Baghdad, whose chief prerogative came to be the issuing of certificates of legitimacy in exchange for having his name retained on the local coinage and mentioned in the Friday congregational prayers. Beginning with the Buwayh family in 945, who were supplanted in 1055 by the Seljuks, the disintegrating empire of the caliphs was partially restored by secular rulers who took power in Baghdad, eventually claiming the title of sultan while retaining the caliphs of the Abbasid dynasty as useful figureheads.
This appears to have led to a sense of alienation on the part of the influential class of scholar-jurists, steeped in the best of Islamic religion and culture. Al-Ghazali was to point in directions which would relieve this sense of frustration for Moslem thinkers.
Al-Ghazali was born in the town of Tus in eastern Persia, not far from the modern city of Meshed, in 1058. His father appears to have been a pious merchant of modest means. Al-Ghazali was orphaned at an early age, but funds were found for him to pursue the lengthy course of study which led to recognition as a doctor of the sacred law, and to a career as a scholar and lawyer in the well-endowed theological colleges (Arabic, madrasa) which were being established in the Seljuk domains during al-Ghazali's lifetime.
At the age of 27 al-Ghazali moved from eastern Persia to Baghdad and attached himself to Nizam al-Mulk, the powerful minister of the Seljuk rulers and a generous patron of scholarship and letters. Nizam al-Mulk appointed al-Ghazali professor in the chief college which he had founded in Baghdad, the Nizamiya Madrasa, and for the next 4 years he was at the summit of the legal and scholarly profession. But discontent with the general corruption of his professional colleagues and perhaps also political fears of the Assassins (who had killed his patron, Nizam al-Mulk, in 1092) led al-Ghazali to give up his brilliant career very suddenly in 1095.
The next 11 years in al-Ghazali's life are obscure; it is known that he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, stayed a while in Syria, and then retired to Tus. During this period he lived the life of an ascetic Sufi, or mystic, preoccupied with spiritual matters and almost oblivious to the world. He also wrote his most important book during this period, The Revivification of the Religious Sciences.
The last years of his life saw a brief return to teaching, the composition of his autobiography, and the foundation of a retreat for the training of mystics in his native town of Tus.
As a highly educated alim, or scholar (Arabic plural, ulama, popularly spelled ulema in the West), al-Ghazali wrote several works on jurisprudence and on dogmatic theology, as well as polemics against various heresies. These more or less conventional books are overshadowed by his works on philosophy and mysticism. After embarking on his brilliant career in Baghdad at the Nizamiya, al-Ghazali became dissatisfied with the conventional scholarship of the traditionists and jurists and embarked on a deep study of philosophy. This was a subject not widely known, and rather suspect in the view of the orthodox. His conclusions were that the Moslem philosophers al-Farabi and Ibn Sina were too preoccupied with philosophy as such and had virtually placed themselves outside the community of Moslems.
At the same time, al-Ghazali felt strongly drawn to Greek philosophical logic, to which his study of philosophy had exposed him. His major philosophical contributions are twofold: The Aims of the Philosophers, in which al-Farabi's and Avicenna's Neoplatonist ideas were described without criticism, and The Incoherence of the Philosophers, in which the works of these Moslem thinkers were shown to be either impossible to square with orthodox Islam or poorly reasoned from a philosophical point of view. The reason why al-Ghazali presented The Aims of the Philosophers without comment and then demolished their ideas in a second book may be that he felt that philosophy, the logic of which strongly attracted him and which he felt was valuable, had never been explained by a nonphilosopher, that is, by a truly orthodox scholar.
But al-Ghazali's greatest contribution to medieval Moslem thought was his The Revivification of the Religious Sciences, a four-volume work composed in his period of withdrawal from the academic milieu of Baghdad. Its importance—long recognized in the Moslem world—lies not so much in its advocacy of mysticism as in its harmonious fusion of the whole body of Moslem ritual and culture, including mysticism, into a pattern preparing the believer for the world to come. Al-Ghazali's insistence upon intelligent observance of Moslem cultic practices relieved the tension between the stricter orthodox and the majority of those drawn to Islamic mysticism. The antinomians could be rejected without alienating the many who felt the need of both traditional Moslem ritual and of a more personal religious experience.
Further Reading on Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali
W. Montgomery Watt translated al-Ghazali's autobiography, The Faith and Practice of al-Ghazali (1953). The best study of al-Ghazali is Watt's Muslim Intellectual: A Study of al-Ghazali (1963). Also valuable are Margaret Smith, Al-Ghazali, the Mystic (1944); Watt's general work Islamic Philosophy and Theology (1962); and Fadlou Shehadi, Gazali's Unique Unknowable God (1964), which presents a thorough discussion of al-Ghazali's philosophy.