Al-Ghazali

A Psychological Study of the Man

by John Yehya-en-Nasr Parkinson

Al-Ghazali as a thinker is difficult to class. He was not a specialist gathering and recording facts, but a generaliser, comparing and unifying the whole realm of activity. To say he studied every branch of knowledge, the science and literature and the philosophy of his day, and that he left an indelible stamp on the mentality of the race is, after all, to say very little. Many men have done those things; men smaller than he was; men unable to sit even at his footstool, pigmies beside a giant.

To say that he was the greatest thinker of his day, that he was the greatest of the Muslims, is indeed to say something that carries with it honour and worth. Others may have been abler in special fields, but he was the thinker who most affected the thought of his co-religionists, and whose words had the greatest weight.

He was a force, a power. Where others drew many, he drew multitudes. His grasp of science, his observational knowledge and his world-concept may be inferior to those of either Al-Beiruni or Ibn-Hisham, but where they only in their day made ripples on the surface, he moved the whole ocean of mentality and altered the main currents of thought, changing the whole outlook of the Muslims.

Like many a less distinguished man, and many a less intellect, he wrote his confessions: his final conclusions on the universe — his world-concept; his struggle along the pathway of knowledge; his aspirations, his experiences, his search. Do not all of us seek the truth? Do not most of us imagine we have got it? When we differ from the rest of mankind, is not the rest of mankind wrong? It sometimes happens so. After all, there is a criterion for truth, and it is well for those who find it.

Confessions of men of high intellectual calibre are generally interesting. Of men like Al-Ghazali they are always so, giving a peep into the innermost recesses of the human soul, — a soul tuned to every movement of the universe, and fashioned out of the subtlest thought. The warp and weft of the cosmos in its most fragile, delicate, and artistic form. Instinct with a power unlimited in its possibilities.

The great Imam was earnest and untiring in his search for truth. The world riddle was before him. Many previous thinkers attempted to solve its problems, grappling with its most intricate enigmas. The known flowed around him, and the unknown, awful and mysterious, into whose deeps the lamp of knowledge sent a sickly glare, growing fainter and fainter was ultimately lost in the void and the darkness. But the seeker went on with his search.

In the realm of thought the goal is one, the paths are many. Numerous religions, numerous philosophies, a myriad doctrines, and a myriad sects. Each doctrine, or body of doctrines, being to its devotees the Truth — infallible, omnipotent. Each sect to its followers the only correct path to salvation. Into this vast ocean of ideas, driven by his restless energy, devotion, and fervent zeal, Al-Ghazali plunged amid the flotsam and jetsam so that he puts it,

“rise from the low level of traditional belief to the topmost summit of assurance.”

That after years of deep study, of mental anguish, and severe physical strain he attained to that assurance and found peace is one of the glories of his career and a grand example. No man can do more. He satisfied himself. Many men do that. But how many men draw the multitude after them, not only of their own generation but of many to follow, and by the act elevate them morally and religiously; raise them to a higher plane and imbue them with nobler ideals and grander aspirations than they have ever known before?

Al-Ghazali did not climb to the heights of assurance without bruises by the way. The struggle was a hard one. The goal may have been fair with roses, but the path that led thereto was overgrown with briars and strewn with thorns. Many a day was spent in anguish and many a night was passed in tears. Tortured mentally and weakened physically, he at one period feared his reason would give beneath the strain. He was at that time,

“not, it is true, explicitly or by profession, but morally and essentially a thorough-going sceptic.”

Then came deliverance, even as he says,

“not to a concatenation of proofs and arguments, but to the light which God caused to penetrate into my heart — the light which illuminates the threshold of all knowledge.”

Probably many have gone through a similar experience, when in after years new ideas come into contact and strife with ideas inculcated in youth. Nervous tension, mental anguish. Some of us in the process shed almost completely the beliefs of our fathers, the ideas expounded to us at the knee of our parents or our guardians. Not so the famous Muslim; he arrived practically at his starting point after all the years of labour and the nights and days of suffering. Intuition, the inner light, as the revealer of what Kant called things-in-themselves, was his final solution of the key to the world riddle. He had fallen practically into line with the Sufis, the great mystical poets, thinkers, and teachers of the East. Harith al-Muhasibi, Junayd, Shibli, and Bayedzid Bustami were more attractive to him than Al-Farabi and Ibn-Sina. He smote the philosophers with greater effect than Sameon ever smote the Philistines. He overthrew the whole system of naturalistic speculation, and even the science of his day, save in narrow pathways cut out by himself. He placed Sufism at the highest pinnacle of knowledge, as the only true path to peace, with its varying states of trance, ecstasy, suggestion, sympathy, and asceticism, as the noblest morals and the purest virtues; he gave it a recognised standing in the body-politic of the Islamic church and brotherhood. The shell of his earlier beliefs was stripped off and cast aside, but the kernel was retained: he was still what he was at the beginning of his investigation — an Intuitionist and a Revelationist.

Some men are always extremists. A change of thought on their part — no matter how brought about, although in such cases the emotions are generally the dominating factor — sends them to the other extreme. Al-Ghazali may never have gone to the extreme after the manner of Husain ibn Mansur, but his peregrinations were all on the same plane. He was an ontologist to begin with, and he remained so at the final summing up. The outbreak of the position of the poets against the extreme position of the ontological Sufis, led by such men as Abul-Ala and Abul-Atahiya, left him apparently untouched. As we shall see, his moral bias probably determined the point. We have to note, therefore, that his revolt was an ethical one, his position philosophically was always ontological. He appears to have had a bias on both the ontological and moral side. Psychologically we have to ask the reason why, and attempt an explanation. We know too little about him personally to make a complete synthesis. Our physiological point of view is restricted; even the psychological aspect of his character we can only guess at from his writings.

It has been asserted:

“that the habit of mind, which we may call objective, is associated with a well-balanced and easily working body, which is not constantly calling our attention to it, while the subjective habit of mind is more inclined to be associated with a less smooth and inconspicuous working of the bodily functions.”

That statement may be correct in general, although leaving out the multitude and taking only scholars or exceptionally well-read men, my own experience will not bear it out. The environment may in many cases be the determining factor. Where both factors are present there can be little doubt of the result. Al-Ghazali was reared in an environment where ontological or subjective thought (namely outlook) had predominated for centuries. Realism there was as well as Idealism, but Greek and Indian Idealism coloured the whole mental atmosphere to such an extent that even the naturalistic or realistic poets and philosophers failed to rid themselves of it. Such was the environment. Physiologically we know from his own writings that in 488 A.H., during his teaching at the Nizamiya College at Baghdad, he was struck down by a mysterious illness. He was hampered in his speech, his appetite failed and his digestion became sluggish, his stomach weak. He could neither swallow a morsel of bread nor drink a drop of water. The doctors gave him up, saying his disease was mental, and could only be treated mentally. In his weakness and feebleness the light came and he went out into the realm of the Sufis. As he says in his Confessions:

“Conscious of my weakness and the prostration of my soul, I took refuge in God as a man at the end of himself and without resources.”

Henceforth in his writings his tone is that of a partisan, not that of a seeker. This attitude is due principally to pride in his own powers of intellect. A pride that engendered in him a certain contempt for others, especially those who differed from him. A pride no doubt that is found in many other geniuses; it was strongly marked in Thomas Carlyle.

He is said to have met Omar Al-Khayyam and to have detested him. This is little to be wondered at. The eternal “perhaps” of Omar would have no attraction for him: he was not seeking for “a perhaps”; what he desired was certitude. He was well aware of his own weakness, and in his Ihya-ul-Ulum (“Revival of the Religious Sciences”) he devotes a chapter to the dangers involved in a love of notoriety and the cure for it. It is doubtful if he ever completely succeeded in curing himself, although his final Sufiistic beliefs and practices may have curbed the tendency. Cautious in his criticism, he always admits those truths of mathematics, logic, and physics that cannot intellectually be rejected. He learned long before Burns that:

“Facts are chiels that winna ding.”
[Translation: “Facts are facts and cannot be overturned” — from Robert Burns’ poem, A Dream (1786)].

His insight is deep, showing not only that his researches into the literature of his time must have been encyclopaedian, but that his experience of men in the mass must have been wide and his observational faculties keen. A myriad phrases in his writings go to show this. Speaking of the tendency of weak minds, he says:

“They judge the truth according to its professors, instead of judging its professors by the standard of the truth.”

Of the wise man he says:

“Once in possession of the truth he examines the basis of various doctrines which come before him, and when he has found them true he accepts them without troubling himself whether the person who teaches them is sincere or a deceiver.”

He taught the people of the East to apply that principle to all thinkers. They neglected to apply it to him. Not but what his writings received criticism, especially after his death. His noblest critic, Abu Walid Ibn Rushd, wrote a “Destruction of the Destruction,” but its effect on Islam was practically nothing — it scarcely made a ripple on the surface. The reasons are obvious. Al-Ghazali’s power was over the masses. He wrote for the people in a language the people understood. He brought philosophy and scholastic theology down to their level, and there was sincerity in his every spoken word and every written line. Ibn Rushd, on the other hand, wrote not for the multitude, but for the few, and his writings often lacked sincerity. His opinions were definite enough, but it was plainly evident that his writings were sometimes a compromise. He often understated his own stand point. Some problems he wrote round, instead of dealing with them directly. Not so with Al-Ghazali, he was enthusiastic for the faith that was in him, for the truth he knew, or as he realised it. He was a strong man in earnest, and his enthusiasm and his fire imbued his hearers and his readers with feelings akin to his own. His very strength and personality carried them with him, so that they thought as he thought, and became filled with his every principle. The environment, of course, had a large say in the matter. Ibn Rushd could not at that period, in Spain and Morocco, afford to carry his arguments to the uttermost. Al-Ghazali could; that made a difference. The position of two great Muslim thinkers was far apart, yet Al-Ghazali, although not carrying the process so far, was in the broad sense of the term rational, in so far as he substituted “private judgment” for mere “tradition and authority.” That was the substantial difference between his early and his later positions. While in his youth he relied on what had been taught him — namely, on the authority of others — in his later years he relied on his own experience. What his followers failed to see was that the private judgment of others when they differed from him might be equally as valid as his, and that reliance on private judgment gave an opening to any or all other modes of thought. Such a system was of immense advantage for thought, for mental emancipation and progress. Again, while the Western thinker had a bias for a natural explanation of phenomena — namely, a bias to find an explanation by means of so-called natural law, the Eastern thinker had a distinct bias to seek a supernatural explanation, which may have been due to his early training and to his physical infirmities combined, both factors tending to give him a subjective outlook. The one looked at things “objectively,” the other “subjectively.”

Al-Ghazali speaking of man says:

“The highest faculty in him is reason, which fits him for the contemplation of God.”

“If passion and resentment master reason, the ruin of the soul infallibly follows.”

“The unintelligible can neither be accepted nor rejected.”

Yet he had no hesitation in asserting:

“Man had beyond reason and at a higher level a new faculty of vision bestowed upon him, by which he perceives invisible things, the secrets of the future and other concepts as inaccessible to reason as the concepts of reason are inaccessible to mere discrimination and what is perceived by discrimination to senses.”

In speaking of inspiration we are assured that:

“To prove the possibility of inspiration is to prove that it belongs to a category of branches of knowledge which cannot be attained by reason.”

In dealing with the doubts relative to an individual claiming to be inspired, we are to examine his case on evidence in the light of the facts pertaining to his life, and the truths of his teachings or sayings we are to test by experience. It will be noticed that in spite of his claim that man had beyond reason a higher faculty bestowed on him, the return for proof is always to reason, and in antagonism to his subjective outlook his final test is to experience and is objective. In his summing up he throws overboard his whole case for subjective illumination.

When he destroyed philosophy as then taught by shewing [showing] that philosophy could prove nothing, and that there was no certainty in the method of the philosophers, he left only one path whereby he might travel, that of subjective illumination, as understood and accepted by the Sufis. He was assisted into this position by his moral nature, seemingly the strongest part of his character. He had a distinct moral bias. His whole cry was for the Truth. His every faculty was absorbed in the search. The height of assurance was his aim mentally. Correct thought and correct action was the goal of all his strivings. He wanted to know the right and do it. Sensitive, he must have been of a high-strung nervous temperament. One can imagine him torturing himself over a slight lapse in reasoning or an error in conduct; knowing no rest until he made the matter right. Such men are the salt of the earth.

While the simplicity of his language and demonstration was largely instrumental in drawing people after him, the purity of his life and the ethics he expounded and practised must have been leading factors in the case. A striking personality is one of the greatest forces in moving men. Even at the present day our investigations into the effects of personality on others and of suggestion are only in their infancy, but so far as we have gone we find those aesthetic features of wonderful complexity and vital importance. Although he made lapses of conduct and reasoning equally with all other great men, it shall be well with us if we make no more. I have not been concerned here with either the correctness or incorrectness of his doctrines — philosophical, scientific, or religious — but simply with what they tell us of those traits, both inherited and acquired, which affected his whole outlook on the universe, material and spiritual. We have seen that that outlook was mainly subjective, and he had with it a strong moral bias, and thus his constitution and his environment tended to foster and develop those very feelings which were the determining factors of his character. Not infallible but beautiful, dominant, masterful even in its limitations.

Al-Ghazali stands out an uncommon figure in the ranks of literature and in the firmament of thought. Sincere in every word and act. Devoted to Truth. An intellectual giant filling all the range of the knowledge of his day. A grand personality. A purist in morals. Intense with scorn for wrong, and the thirst for combat with error. Neither a pioneer nor a scholar. Not a specialist in any one field, but the possessor of a wide knowledge that touched every aspect of the science, philosophy, history, and literature of his day. His force of character must have been striking, powerful enough to carry the people along with him and to sweep his opponents away. The love of God, the love of Truth, detestation of wrong and error and the elevation of all that was good and noble, to these add the fire of genius and you have the mastermind which led Islam for centuries, one of the greatest Imams — Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali.