Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali known as ‘Algazel’ in the West is one of the most eminent thinkers of Islam. He had the rare distinction of being appointed as the Principal of Nizamiah University of Baghdad, the greatest university in that period at an early age of 34 and later on turned into a skeptic and roamed about for 12 years in search of truth and mental peace, ultimately finding solace in “Sufism.”
Al-Ghazali was born in 1058 A.C. in a small town of Khorasan called “Toos.” His father was a yarn seller, hence he was nicknamed as “Ghazali,” which is an Arabic word meaning yarn maker. Allama Samyani’s contention that ‘Ghazal’ is a village of Toos where Ghazali resided does not stand the test of historical research.
In those days education was too liberal amongst common people. The highest type of education was within the reach of the humblest members of the society and all sorts of facilities for free education were provided for the common man. Out of the lowest societies have risen such intellectual giants of their age, like Imam Abu Hanifa who was a petty cloth merchant, Shamsul Aima who was a sweetmeat seller, Imam Abu Jafar who was a coffin stitcher and Allam Kaffal Morazi who was a blacksmith. Unfortunately, Ghazali’s father was illiterate, and on his death bed, he entrusted his two sons to an intimate friend imploring him to give them proper education. The friend carried on the education for a certain period, but the funds deposited with him by Ghazali’s father were soon exhausted and he was obliged to ask them to make their own arrangements. In those days there was no dearth of private institutions which were addressed by learned men. The expenses of the students including lodging and boarding were borne by the elites of the place, hence, contrary to our times, when higher education is out of bounds of the poor, even the humblest had equal opportunities for obtaining highest education in those days. Ghazali also took full advantage of these golden opportunities and got his elementary religious education from a local teacher Ahmad ibn Muhammad Razkafi. Therefrom, he went to Jarjan where he received education from Abu Nasar Ismaili. An interesting story is related regarding the circumstances which served as an incentive for his educational progress. Once, on his way to his home town, he was robbed of his valuable lecture notes. Ghazali implored the leader of the robbers to return those papers, whereupon he laughed heartily and taunted that he had wasted all his energies if his education depended on a few papers only. These words had a salutary effect on Ghazali and he memorised all his lecture notes within three years.
Ghazali had to leave his home town for higher education. In those times Baghdad and Neshapur were the highest seats of learning in the East, which had the privilege of accommodating the two most celebrated teachers of Islam, namely Imamul Harmain who adorned the literary circles of Neshapur and Abu Ishaq Shirazi who glittered on the literary firmament of Baghdad. As Neshapur was nearer of the two, Ghazali became a pupil of Imamul Harmain.
Neshapur was a great centre of learning and Madrasa-e-Bakiath of Neshapur had the privilege of being the first university of the world of Islam. Nizamiah of Baghdad is wrongly believed to be the first university of the East as, long before its existence, several universities like Bakiath, Sadia and Nasiria founded by the brother of Mahmood Ghaznavi were functioning in Neshapur.
Ghazali was the most brilliant pupil of Imamul Harmain and soon acquired so much knowledge that he used to assist his teacher in his educational pursuits. He left Neshapur after the death of his celebrated teacher and by this time when he was hardly 28 he had acquired so much knowledge that he had no equal in the entire world of Islam.
The Caliphate of Abbasids was tottering, culminating in the formation of several Turkish principalities, including that of Seljuks who had founded the most powerful state of their times. The dynasty of Seljuks was distinguished for a succession of brilliant monarchs like Tughril, Alp Arsalan and Malik Shah who had kept aloft the dwindling candle of Islamic civilization. Malik Shah owed his historical greatness to his far-sighted Minister, Nizamul Mulk Toosi, one of the greatest administrators of all ages–one who was a great patron of learning and had the distinction of being the founder of the celebrated Nizamiah University of Baghdad. More than twenty million rupees were budgeted for education by the wise Minister. Hardly any ancient or modern state can boast of spending such a large portion on education out of the public exchequer. Ghazali’s fame by this time had travelled to the distant corners of the Islamic world and he too attended the grand durbar of Nizamul Mulk whom he knew as a friend of men of learning. He was respectfully received by the eminent Vizier and he proved his mettle in scholastic discussions with learned men who had thronged the court of Nizamul Mulk, whereupon he was appointed as the Principal of the famous Nizamiah University of Baghdad at an early age of 34.
Ghazali was highly respected in both the great durbars of the Islamic World–the Seljuks and the Abbasids, which were the centres of Islamic glory and splendour. In compliance with the request of Abbaside Calip, Al-Mustazhar Billah, who, to some extent, was responsible for the emancipation and reorientation of Islamic religious thought, Ghazali wrote a book in reply to the dogmatic beliefs of “Batinia” cult and named it as “Mustazhari” after the name of the Caliph. Shaikh Syed bin Al Faris, his favorite pupil, compiled the daily lectures of Ghazali in two volumes and it was named as “Majalis-i-Ghazalia.”
Spiritual Pilgrimage: Ghazali was at last fed up with the artificiality and pomp and pageantry which pervaded the social life of Imperial Baghdad. He yearned for something else which was not available in the theoretical knowledge of enormous volumes which he came across in the highly literary circles of the city. He resolved to make a spiritual pilgrimage which, in itself, presents a fascinating story deserving to be better known in its details. He severed his connection with the social and Imperial circles, resorted to partial hunger strike, preserved a forced silence, and even shunned the medical advice. His health began to fail him and rejecting all counsels, he left Baghdad wrapped in a rough blanket. The populace of the great Metropolis which had witnessed the pomp and the costly garments of their learned Imam were wonderstruck to observe him in his saintly attire. Ghazali had renounced his worldly pleasures and his inner self revolted against the futility of human life and the paucity of human knowledge. The story of his conversion to mysticism, as told by himself is a classic of its kind. He was a skeptic in his earlier life, but a mystical experience cured him of this malady and caused him to devote all his powers to the search of absolute truth. He did not get any light in the study of philosophy and scholastic theology, nor did the ‘Talimis‘ with their doctrine of an infallible religious authority, come off any better when put to the test. So he had to turn his attention to mysticism as revealed in the writings of “Harith-al-Muhasbi,” and the earlier mystics, and as he read, the truth dawned upon him. “I saw plainly,” he says, that what is most peculiar to them (The Sufis) cannot be learned from books, but can only be reached by immediate experience, ecstasy, and inward information, in other words, by leading the mystical life. He saw, too, that his own salvation was at stake, but his worldly prospects were brilliant, and it cost him a hard struggle to give them up. His health broke down under strain and at last, he surrendered himself entirely, taking refuge with God, “as a man in sore affliction who has no resource left.” He was not yet forty when he quitted Baghdad with the resolve never to return again.
Earlier, he had studied the works of the great mystic saints like Hazrat Junaid, Shibli, and Bayazid Bustami, but, as this knowledge lies more in practice than in precept, he resolved to undergo the different phases of renunciations practiced in mysticism. It was Ghazali’s personal experience of this truth which he incorporated in his brilliant work “Ihya-ul-Uloom,” that inspired the great religious revival brought about in circles hitherto unfriendly to mysticism. Henceforward, he brought about a definite change in the mystic outlook towards Islam and he insisted that sainthood is derived from prophecy and constantly appealed to the supreme authority of Hazrat Muhammad (PBUH) whose law, according to him, must be obeyed both in letter and spirit.
Leaving Baghdad, Ghazali reached Damascus, the old capital of Umayyads, and retired to a life of seclusion and prayer. He stayed there for two years and at times he returned to mystical topics in Jamai Umayya (the Grand Mosque of Umayyads) which was virtually the University of Syria. Here he became the disciple of Shaikh Farmadi, the greatest mystic saint of his age who was highly respected throughout the length and breadth of Islamic world.
An interesting story is related about the cause of his leaving Damascus. One day he visited the “Madarasa-i-Aminia” of Damascus, where a lecturer who did not recognize Ghazali was profusely quoting from his books in his lecture. Ghazali left the city at once, lest he might not be recognized and bestowed honors which might arouse a sense of pride in him, a feeling which is strongly suppressed by mystics.
He arrived in Jerusalem and, therefrom he visited the eternal abode of Prophet Abraham and by the side of his grave, he resolved to stick to three things. Firstly, he would never attend the durbar of a king; secondly, he would never accept a present from a king; and thirdly, he would never take part in unnecessary scholastic discussions. He actually lived up to his determination and convictions. Therefrom, he set out on the pilgrimages of Makkah and Medina and stayed there for a long time. Leaving Hejaz, he toured Alexandria and Egypt. Ghazali roamed about for more than ten years visiting sacred places scattered over the vast Islamic domains.
According to Ibn-ul-Asir, Ghazali, “during his tour wrote “Ihya-ul-Uloom,” his masterpiece which revolutionized and profoundly influenced the social and religious outlook of Islam in diverse ways. His intense prayers and devotion to God had purified his heart and revealed the divine secrets hitherto unknown to him.”
Despite the incessant messages by the Abbaside Caliph and the durbar of Seljuks, requesting him to guide the literary and educational pursuits in their dominions, Ghazali refused to have any truck with the Ruling class and carried on his teaching activities in his home town till his death. He met a dramatic end in 505 A.H. (1111-A.C.) at Tehran. As usual, he got up early on Monday, offered his prayers and sent for his coffin. He rubbed the coffin with his eyes, and said: “Whatever may be the order of my Lord, I am prepared to follow.” Saying this he stretched his legs, and when people looked at him, he was dead.
Ghazali set himself to study afresh the several systems of philosophy and theology and embodied his results in his works which were later translated into several European languages, especially in Latin. His books on Logic, Physics, and Metaphysics became known through the translators of Toledo in the twelfth-century A.C.
According to Alfred Guillaume, “The Christian West became acquainted with Aristotle by way of Avicenna, Al Farabi and Alghazel, Gundisalvus’s Encyclopaedia of Knowledge relies in the main on the information he has drawn from Arabian sources.”
It is rather strange that Europe has paid greater attention to the works of Alghazali and preserved his invaluable literary and philosophical treasures.
His celebrated work, Makasid ul Falasifa (the purpose of philosophy) in which he has nicely arranged the problems of Greek philosophy is not traceable in Islamic countries. A copy of it is available in the Imperial Library of Spain, which has also been translated in the Spanish language. The book deals with different branches of philosophy namely logic, physics, ethics, and metaphysics. Goshi, a German professor, has written a book about Alghazel in the German language, published in Berlin in 1858, in which he has quoted several pages out of Ghazali’ Makasid-ul-Falasifa A second book, entitled Al Mankad min Alzalal, in which Ghazali has penned the changes of his religious ideas and the facts about prophethood, was published in Arabic along with its French translation in France and M. Pallia and M. Schmoelder wrote commentary on it.
Ihya-ul-Uloom is the masterpiece of Ghazali. It is a classic by itself. Hardly any book can compete it in sincerity and effectiveness. It’s every word, every thought, pierces the heart. Ghazali wrote this book at a time when he was intoxicated with the wine of mysticism and had forgotten his worldly existence, hence he expressed his experiences and sentiments without fear or favor. Allama Naudi writes in Bustan that Ghazali was a prolific writer and despite his exceptionally busy life, he maintained an average of writing 16 pages a day. According to Mohaddis Zainul Abadin, “Thya-ul-Uloom” is the nearest approach to the Holy Quran. Al-Ghazali did not content himself with intermingling philosophy and ethics, but he expounded the ethical science to such an extent that in comparison to it the Greek Ethics pales into insignificance and looks like a drop in an ocean. In “Thya-ul-Uloom”, he has freely dealt with and exposed the so-called philanthropists and social workers whose charitable and social actions are generally guided by selfish motives. He says: “A number of people build mosques, schools, and inns and think they have done virtuous deeds. But the funds out of which the building in question was erected was obtained through questionable means and, even if the money invested was earned through moral sources, the motive behind the construction was popularity and not the service of humanity.”
Ghazali diverted his attention towards the moral reformation of the nation. He tried to find out causes of social degeneration. He had a wide personal experience of the inner life of the ruling class as well as that of the religious heads and he has drawn his conclusions in these memorable words: “The morals of the subjects have deteriorated because the life of the ruling class has much degenerated which is ultimately, the result of the moral weakness of the religious leaders. The “Ulema” have sold their conscience in the lust of wealth and power.”
Islam has laid the foundations of politics, culture and ethics on religion. This is why the religious leaders in the 1st century A.H., used to rule over the diverse sects comprising the Muslim Nation and thus people maintained their high sense of morality.
This high prestige of “Ulemas,” to a certain extent, continued even up to the time of Ghazali and when Nizamul Mulk Toosi tried to obtain from the “Ulema” certificates for his services to Islam, Abu Ishaq Shirazi complimented only so much, “Nizamul-Mulk is somewhat better than other tyrants.” Ghazali tried to infuse the spirit of truth and straightforwardness in people’s hearts. He freely and boldly propagated that it is the duty of the subjects to correct their ruler. Such interference in the affairs of the ruling class is not justified if it imperils the very existence of the state. If it endangers one’s life only, it is virtuous. Such a person is killed for a noble cause will be a martyr.
The entire ethical philosophy of Ghazali rests on the foundation of mysticism. He had himself experienced the different aspects of worldly life, namely scholastic discussions, pride of high office, popularity among people and pomp and wealth. He had realized the effects of such contacts on one’s character. He has described these experiences in Ihya-ul-Uloom. The writings of Ghazali influenced such great writers like Maulana Room, Shaikhul Ashraq, Ibn Rushd, and Shah Waliullah, who have reflected the rational ideas of Ghazali in their works. Even the eminent Persian poets like Attar, Roomi, Saadi, Hafiz, and Iraqi derived their inspiration from the writings of Ghazali and he was mainly responsible for infusing mysticism in Persian poetry and directing it towards right channels. He tried to reconcile the tenets of Islam with the teaching of prevailing philosophy and science. His masterpiece “Ihya-ul-Uloom” was widely read by Muslims, Jews, and Christians and influenced Thomas Aquinas and even Blaise Pascal.
Ghazali, undoubtedly, is one of the greatest thinkers of Islam who has immensely contributed to cultivating the social, cultural, political, ethical, and metaphysical outlook of Islam.