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al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid (1058–1111)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-H028-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 23, 2018, from

Article Summary

Al-Ghazali is one of the greatest Islamic jurists, theologians and mystical thinkers. He learned various branches of the traditional Islamic religious sciences in his home town of Tus, Gurgan and Nishapur in the northern part of Iran. He was also involved in Sufi practices from an early age. Being recognized by Nizam al-Mulk, the vizir of the Seljuq sultans, he was appointed head of the Nizamiyyah College at Baghdad in AH 484/ad 1091. As the intellectual head of the Islamic community, he was busy lecturing on Islamic jurisprudence at the College, and also refuting heresies and responding to questions from all segments of the community. Four years later, however, al-Ghazali fell into a serious spiritual crisis and finally left Baghdad, renouncing his career and the world. After wandering in Syria and Palestine for about two years and finishing the pilgrimage to Mecca, he returned to Tus, where he was engaged in writing, Sufi practices and teaching his disciples until his death. In the meantime he resumed teaching for a few years at the Nizamiyyah College in Nishapur.

Al-Ghazali explained in his autobiography why he renounced his brilliant career and turned to Sufism. It was, he says, due to his realization that there was no way to certain knowledge or the conviction of revelatory truth except through Sufism. (This means that the traditional form of Islamic faith was in a very critical condition at the time.) This realization is possibly related to his criticism of Islamic philosophy. In fact, his refutation of philosophy is not a mere criticism from a certain (orthodox) theological viewpoint. First of all, his attitude towards philosophy was ambivalent; it was both an object of criticism and an object of learning (for example, logic and the natural sciences). He mastered philosophy and then criticized it in order to Islamicize it. The importance of his criticism lies in his philosophical demonstration that the philosophers’ metaphysical arguments cannot stand the test of reason. However, he was also forced to admit that the certainty of revelatory truth, for which he was so desperately searching, cannot be obtained by reason. It was only later that he finally attained to that truth in the ecstatic state (fana’) of the Sufi. Through his own religious experience, he worked to revive the faith of Islam by reconstructing the religious sciences upon the basis of Sufism, and to give a theoretical foundation to the latter under the influence of philosophy. Thus Sufism came to be generally recognized in the Islamic community. Though Islamic philosophy did not long survive al-Ghazali’s criticism, he contributed greatly to the subsequent philosophization of Islamic theology and Sufism.

Citing this article:
Nakamura, Kojiro. al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid (1058–1111), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-H028-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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