A study of the Life and Personality of Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Tusi al-Ghazali, together

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A Study of the Life and Personality of
Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Tusi al-Ghazali, together
with an account of his Mystical Teaching and an
estimate of his place in the History of Islamic Mysticism








al-Ghazali's birth at Tus. His early years and education under a Sufi guardian and at Jurjan. His college-life at Nishapur. His travels nd appointment to the Nizamiyya re College at Baghdad. His interest in Sufism. His breakdown and signation.


Hijra International Publishers Mian Chambers, 3-Temple Road, Lahore


The new Ghazali. His conversion and period of retirement. Life as a recluse at Damascus and Jerusalem. His return to active life and teaching in Baghdad and NfshLpur. His final retirement to Tus. His later years and death.


al-Ghazalfs character and personality. His sociability and love of travel. His tolerance and charity to others. His love of animals and birds. His interest in gardens and plants.


al-Ghazali's family relationships. His brother Ahmad. His mother and sisters. His home-life. His friends and students and disciples.


al-Ghazall's literary style. His wide resources. His power of illustration and extensive use of imagery.


al-Ghazall as poet and his views on poetry. His interest in music and its effects. His love of Beauty.




al-Ghazall's Sources. Neo-Platonism. Arab Philosophy. Jud;r The New Testament. Christian Mysticism. Islamic ands I5ufj Sources.

55 67
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al-Ghazali as Mystic. His otherworldliness and recourse to solitude. The life of Prayer and Praise.


FL 480

8 CONTENTS-continued


al-Ghazall's Teaching on the Nature of of Being. . God as Beauty and Light. The human soul, its nature and origin.


The beginning of the soul's ascent to relation to the Creator. The Veils of pentance and Conversion. Asceticism.

Page 133
the Godhead. The Unity The wonders of Creation. God and the soul of Man.

God. The creature in its Darkness and, Light. Re­The Purgative Life.



The Mystic Path. The servant in relation to his Lord. The active life of virtue. The solitary life of Meditation and Recollection. T he llluminative Life.


The end of the Path. Love and its fruits. Fellowship, Gnosis, the Beatific Vision and Union. The lover and the Beloved. The life of the Saints in God.


al-Ghazall's influence. Upon Islam and Sufism. Upon the Religious Orders. Upon Suhrawardf: Ibn al-Arahl: al-Sha'ranl. Upon Jewish Thought. Upon MMediaaval Christian Mysticism : St. Thomas Aquinas: Dante Alighieri. Blaise Pascal.


- 227

Summary of al-Ghazall's Mystical teaching. His original contri­bution to the Sufi doctrine. His place in the history of Islamic Mvsticism.

THIS book owes its origin to the honour done me by the Committee of Manchester College, Oxford, in electing me to a Senior Research Studentship, which I held from 1936 to 1938. During this period I was able to investigate the material which was afterwards used for this book, the publication of which has been delayed by circumstances beyond my control. I owe a debt of deep gratitude to Manchester College for the opportunity thus given of undertaking this study, and also for the opportunity of working in Oxford, where I found much help for my work.

In times like these it is well to turn our thoughts from the things which are temporal to the things which are abiding and eternal. When we study the life and work of the mystics, we see that their inward vision did not make them less capable of serving other men, but rather of living a fuller life for others in the world, while at the same time they sought always to live a life of the closest fellowship with God.





Alai-, 1944.


al-Ghazdlis birth at Tits. His Early Years and
Education. His Travels and Professional Work. His
interest in Sufism.

Abu Ilamid Muhammad b. Muhammad b. Muhammad b. Ta'us Ahmad al-Tusi al-Shafi'i, known as al-N_ishapuri, the Proof of Islam, the Ornament of Religion, the Guide to the True Faith, was born in 450 /1058 at Tifs, near the modern Meshhed, in Khurasan. This district, in the North East of the old Persian Empire, had been chosen by the 'Abbasids as the centre for the propaganda which preceded the establishment of their empire in the eight century A.D., and from that time on­wards it was conspicuous for the number of religious teachers, writers, and especially poets, whom it produced.'

Tus itself, comprising the two townships of Tabaran and Nawgan, was a town of considerable size, well-built and thickly populated, famous for its waters and its trees and the mineral deposits in the neighbouring mountains, and still more famous as the birthplace of some of the most outstanding personalities in the history of Islam. Among these was Abu `All al-Hasan b. Ishaq, known as Ni?am al-hulks, who held this district as a fief, conferred on him by the Caliph Malik Shah, and built there

l two cathedral mosques. The Nipam al-hulk was destined to play a great part in the life of al-Ghazali himself. Two famous poets were also natives of Tus, Firdawsi (ob. 416/1025), author of the Shdhndma, the greatest of Persian epic poems, and the celebrated 'Umar Khayyam,3 who was contemporary with al-Ghazali.

M 1 These included the two great mystics, Abu Yazld al-Bistaml and Husayn b. Alansiir al-Hallaj (cf. Pp. 125 ff z1G below) and the Sufi poet Abu Sa'ld b. Abi'l-Khayr. (cf. R. A. Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mvsncism, pp. 1-76).

• Ob. 485 X1092. Cf. E. G. Browne, Literary Hislorv of Persia, II. Pp. 175 t}.

• Ob. c. 517,11125. Cf. ibid., pp. 252 ff.





al-Ghazali's nisba, according to the most reliable authorities,

was derived from the village of Ghazala, near hus. He was, therefore, a Persian, though most of his books were written in Arabic. Some thirty years before al-Ghazali's birth, the Seljuq Turks had begun';to overrun the North and East of Persia ; in 429 A.A. Tughtil Bey had taken Nishilpilr and in he had established himself in Baghdad. He was ruling A as " King of the East and of the West " at the time of al-Ghazali's birth, and five years later was succeeded by his nephew Alp Arslan.

al-Ghazali was not the first scholar of distinction in his family: there had been another Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, his uncle, a teacher

whose authority was recognised by jurisconsults and savants

from far and wide, who was also a writer. He was buried at

Tus. I al-Ghazali's father, however, like his grandfather, was a

spinner and seller of wool, a poor man but devout. It is related

that when his day's spinning was finished, he used to frequent

the company of the divines, and spent what he could in their

service. After listening to their sermons, he used to beseech

God, with all humility, to grant him a son who should be a preacher

and a divine. His prayer was answered, for he had two sons,

Abu Hamid Muhammad, who became the greatest religious

teacher of Islam, and Abu'1-Futiih Ahmad, surnamed Maid

al-Din (the Glory of Religion), who had such power in preaching

that his congregations were said to tremble with fear at his words,

and he also, like his brother, was a mystic.= Besides this one

brother, al-Ghazali had several sisters.

Their father died when his sons were still young and before

his death he committed them to the care of a Sufi friend, to whom

he stated that he had greatly regretted his own lack of education,

and he wished that his sons should have what he had lacked

therefore, such money as he was able to leave them was to be

spent entirely on their education. al-Ghazali's education at

this stage would probably consist of what he describes later as

the right school course for a boy, i.e., the study of the Qur'an

and Traditions, to which he adds what, in his own case, probably

' Cf. Subkf, Tabagat, III, p. 36. Ibid., Ill, pp, 102 ff Cf. also p, 54,


came from his Sufi guardian-stories of the saints and their spiritual states, " in order that the love of the godly may be implanted within him," He includes also the committal to memory of poems "which contain the mention of passionate

love and lovers." I

This Sufi friend undertook the education of the two boys until the small legacy was exhausted, and then, since he was himself a poor man, he advised them to betake themselves to a madrassa (college or academy), where, as students, they would have rations assigned to them, and this they did. al-Ghazali afterwards said of this period in his life, " We sought learning for the sake of something other than God, but He would not allow it to be for anything but Himself." 2 It was perhaps with the thought of what he owed to this Sufi friend in his mind that al-Ghazali wrote later on : " Let the student be assured that more is due to the teacher than the father, for the teacher is the cause to him of eternal life and the father the cause only of his temporal life. It was for that reason that Alexander, when asked whether he honoured his teacher or his father the more, replied, ' My teacher, most certainly.' " s

al-Ghazali writes also of the right conduct- of the pupil towards the teacher, which may well have been impressed upon him at this age, that the pupil ought to listen attentively to the teacher and not speak except when asked questions, nor should he contradict his master, saying : " So and so said the opposite of what you say." Nor should the pupil give advice to his teacher, in opposition to his expressed opinion, in order to appear more learned than he is. It may well be that in his later years, al-Gliazali's conscience reproached him in this respect, for he was undoubtedly an ambitious, and probably a conceited boy, at any rate fully aware of his own exceptional ability. He adds that the pupil should not discuss matters in class with his fellow­pupils, nor be restless, but should sit silent, with eyes cast down, as quiet and well-behaved as if he were at prayer. A scholar should not pester the teacher when he is tired, nor, when he leaves should the pupil follow him, asking questions along the road, which

' MI. Rida, .4ba Hdmid, p. 32. 2 al-Subki, Tab, IV, p. 102, rblrzini al-':lvual, p. 130.


suggests a personal recollection of his own eager desire for know­

ledge. Nor should the pupil criticise his teacher for outward

conduct which he thinks unlawful, since the teacher is aware,

as the boy is not, of the inner motives for it. I

It is possible, too, that there is a reference to his own boyhood

in his father's house and that of his guardian, in the recommend­

ations which al-Ghazali makes later on for the upbringing of boys.

A boy, he considers, should be brought up austerely and trained

to be hardy, and the mother is responsible as much as the father

for his training in good conduct. His bed should be hard, so

that his limbs may be sturdy and he will not put on superfluous

flesh. His food and clothing should be simple, and he should

take plenty of active exercise, and not be allowed to grow lazy.

He ought not to be boastful in regard to what his father may

possess, but modest and courteous in his dealings with others,

realising that dignity consists in giving, not in taking. Greed is to be regarded as contemptible, and the love of money as a vile

and poisonous thing. A boy should not speak except when spoken to, and should listen to those older than himself and stand in their presence. If beaten by his teacher, he should not cry out or make a fuss, but behave courageously. After school­hours a boy should be allowed to play and enjoy himself, for all work and no play " will deaden a boy's heart and spoil his intelli­gence and make life grievous unto him."

An illustration which al-Ghazali uses later suggests that one of the amusements which he enjoyed as a boy was a marionette show, for he says that the one who relates his actions to himself, because he supposes that what is seen in the visible world has no cause in the invisible world, is like the boy who is looking at the showman's play. From behind a curtain the showman produces puppets, which appear to dance and stand and sit yet they do not move of themselves, but are moved by wires, invisible in the darkness, which are in the hands of the showman. He is hidden from the sight of the boys who watch, and they enjoy the performance and wonder at these bundles of rags which are dancing and playing and standing and sitting. Those who are wiser than the boys know that something causes the

I Bidayat al-Hidaya, p. 40.


movement, the puppets do not move of themselves, but even they perhaps do not know how it is managed, nor understand the matter as the showman understands it. So it is, too, al-Ghazali adds, with the people of this world, who fail to realise that all things and all events are the outcome of the Divine Will. The boy, he holds, must obey both his parents and his teacher and all who are set in authority over him. As soon as he reaches years of discretion, he must learn to fulfil his religious duties and to realise that this world is only a place of preparation for the next. al-Ghazali concludes with the statement that if the boy's upbringing is sound, he will find this rule of life acceptable to him as an adult and it will be as deeply impressed on his heart as the inscription is engraved upon the stone.

He adds a story, which he may have beard from his Sufi guardian, of the Sufi Sahl b. 'Abd Allah al-Tustari (ob. 2831896), who, when he was but.three years old, used to get up at night to watch his uncle M. b. Suwar at prayer. On one occasion his uncle asked the child if he would not also give praise to his Creator. The boy asked how he should praise Him, and his uncle replied : " When you put on your night-gown, say three times within your heart, without moving -your tongue, " God is with me, God is watching me, God is looking upon me." The boy learnt to say it and then his uncle told him to say it seven times each night, and the child did so. Then his uncle said " Say it eleven times. The boy carried out his instructions and, speaking of it afterwards, said that the sweetness of the words sank into his heart. At the end of a year his uncle said, " Bear in mind what you have learnt and continue to do this for the rest of your life." I
While still a boy al-Ghazali began the study of jurisprudence in Tus"under Shaykh Ahmad b. M. al-Radhkani al -Tusi, 3 and then travelled to Jurjan, in Mazardaran, to study under the Imam Abu Nasr al-Isma'ill, 3 of whose lectures he made notes. Returning to Pis, he met with an adventure which is recorded by most of his biographers, on the word of al-Ghazali himself.
i Ihya. III, pp. 63, 64. IV, P. 85­

Sublet, Tab. III, p. 36.

$ Ibid., p. 37. The date here given for Abu Na.5r's-death appears to be

an error.



The party was attacked by highway robbers, who carried off all that the travellers had with them. al-Ghazali went after them, though warned by the chief of the brigands that he im­perilled his life by so doing. He persisted, however, and begged only for the return of his precious note-books, which could be of no value to them. " What are your note-books ? " asked the robber-chief, and al-Ghazali explained that they contained notes of the lectures he had recently heard and represented his knowledge of them. The 'robber laughed and said, " How can you lay claim to this knowledge when we have taken it from you ? Beipg separated from your knowledge, you remain with­out it." Then he ordered one of his men to restore the note-books to their owner. al-Ghazali felt that the words of the robber were to be taken as Divine guidance to him, and when he had reached Tus, he betook himself to study for three years, during which time he committed to memory all the contents of his note-books, so that if he were robbed again, he could not be de­prived of his learning.

It seems probable that it was during these three years that al-Ghazali was studying Sufism under the guidance of Yusuf al-Nassaj. al-Ghazali said later of himself : " At the beginning of my career, I knew nothing of the spiritual 'states' of the righteous and the 'stations' of the gnostics until I associated / with my Shaykh Yusuf al-Nassaj in Tus, but he did not cease to ' polish' me by means of self-discipline until I was favoured with revelations and I heard the voice of God in a dream saying to me, ' Abd Hamid.' My first thought was that perhaps Satan was addressing me, but He said : 'Not so, it is your Lord Who is everywhere present with you. 0 Abu Hamid, abandon your formal rules, and seek the company of those whom I have appointed to be My friends in the earth, who have renounced both heaven and earth, for love of Me.' Then I said : ' By Thy Glory, hast Thou not made me to think rightly of Thee (i.e., as they do) ? ' • He answered : ' I have done so, and that which separates you from them is your pre-occupation with the love of this world : therefore depart from it of your own choice, before you are cast out of it with ignominy. For I have

' Subkf, Tab., IV, p. 103.


shed upon you the radiance of My glorious Presence, therefore, stretch forth your hand and obtain.' Then I woke up, happy and rejoicing, and came to my Shaykh' YCisuf al-Nassaj and told him of my dream. He smiled, saying : ' 0 Abit Hamid, these are but the planks we use at the beginning, which now we have kicked away, but if you continue in my company, your inward vision shall be anointed with the antimony of the Divine assistance, until you behold the Throne of God and those who are round about it. When you have reached that stage, you will not be satisfied until you contemplate what the eye cannot see. So will you be purified from the defilement of your human nature and rise above the limitations of your intellect and you will hear the Voice of God Most High, saying unto you, as unto Moses, ' Verily I am God, the Lord of all created things."' I
111 470/1077-8, al-Ghazali went to Nishapiir, and there, with other students from BS,' joined the classes of Abu'l-Ma'ali al-Juwayni, known as the Imam al-Haramayn, a under whom he studied theology, philosophy, logic, dialectic and natural science, and possibly also heard something more of Sufism, for it is stated that the Imam had been a pupil of Abu Nu'aym al-Isfahani 4 and when he himself was dealing with the doctrines of the Sufis and their mystic states (aAwdl)e he used to draw tears from all present5
al-Ghazali early gave proof of great ability and also of a tendency to scepticism. He engaged in debates with other students and seems to have been successful in refuting their arguments. The Imam al-Haramyn allowed much freedom to his students, and this freedom acted as a stimulus to the genius of his brilliant .pupil. Even at this early age al-Ghazali was lecturing to his fellow-students and beginning to write,-and at this time his health suffered from his over-application to work. Describing al-Ghazali, with two other pupils of his, the Imam al-Haramayn said
M. al-Murtadk, lthdf, p. 9. Al. Ride, Abu Maslid, pp. 22, 23,

• Cf. Ibn ' Asakir, Kitdb Tabyin, fol. 87.

• "Imam of the Two Sanctuaries," so-called because he taught at both

Mecca and Medina. Ob. 478 11085, For a full account of his career cf. Subki

Tab. III. pp. 249 ff.

4 Ob. 430/1038, the author of the great biography of the saints known as

the Hllyal al-Awdhyd.

5 Ibn Khallikan, Biog. Dirt., I. p. 413.



" al-Ghazali is a sea to drown in, al-Kiya is a raging lion and al-Khawafi is a burning fire," He is reported to have said also: "al-Khawafi's strong point is verification, al-Ghazali's is speculation, and al-Kiya's is explanation." 1 While the Imam appeared to be proud of his distinguished pupil, it is said that he was really jealous of him, because al-Ghazali excelled his master in the quickness of his explanations and in his natural capacity, and it was not acceptable to the older man that al-Ghazali, still in his early twenties, should already have won a reputation for writings which showed that he had made himself the master of every subject to which he had applied himself. It is related that when al-Ghazali had written his Kitdb al-Mankhiil, he showed it to the Imam al-Haramayn, who observed : " You have buried me while I am still alive. Why did you not have patience to wait until I was dead ? For your book has thrust my writings out of sight." s
It was during th s, period that al-Ghazali became impatient of dogmatic teaching and abandoned the policy of dependence upon authority (taglad) : "he rose up to free, his mind from that irksome captivity, in order to seek for that which aroused the attention of the rational soul of itself, and thereby to facilitate for the soul the attainment of its happiness and joy." 8 From his boyhood, al-Ghazali tells us, he had been possessed by the
desire to comprehend the real meaning of things for himself
and he had come to'the conclusion that the greatest hindrance
in the search for truth was the acceptance of beliefs on the
authority of parents and teachers, and a rigid adherence to the
heritage of the past. He remembered the traditional saying
ascribed to the Prophet that " Every child is born with a naturally
religious disposition ('ala'i fitra), then his parents make him into
a Jew or a Christian or a Magian," and he was anxious to know
what was that innate disposition before it was affected by un­
reasoned.convictions imposed by others. So he set out to secure
a knowledge which left no room for doubt, and involved no
possibility of error or conjecture, and, finding that none of the
knowledge which he had acquired, except that which was based
s Subkr, T'ab., IV, pp. 103, 1o6. For an account of the subsequent careers of these two fellow-students cf. pp. 6o ff. below. r Yhfi'f, Mir'& al-Janaii, fol. x57 b.

3 Mi'yar al-'Ilm (Tarjamat al-Mu£annaf), p. 2.


on first-hand experience, satisfied these conditions, from this time onwards he became a seeker after absolute truth and was content with no lower standard. He expressed this in a couplet which

became famous
" Take what you see and let hearsay alone,
When the sun has risen, what need have you of Saturn ? " He justified his scepticism by saying : " He who does not doubt, does not investigate, and he who does not investigate does not perceive, and he who does not perceive remains in blindness and error." All kinds of knowledge, he felt, should be investi­gated by the scholar, for all might be a help to him and the true scholar should be hostile to none, " For men are hostile to that of which they are ignorant." He says also that it is the business of the true investigator to embark " on the deep waters of what is obscure (al-ishkdl), from which the common folk should be ,kept away, just as boys are kept away from the bank of the Tigris, lest they should be drowned. But those who are strong may embark upon such studies just as the skilled swimmer is free to dive into deep waters.'

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