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



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During this period al-Ghazali was also studying under the Sufi Abu 'Ali al-Fact b. M. b. 'Ali al-Farmadhi al-Tiisi, 2 a pupil of al-Ghazali s uncle and of al-Qushayri, 3 who had established a circle for instruction, held, we are told, in a garden full of flowers, at Nishapur, where he enjoyed the patronage of Ni4am al-Mulk. His teaching attracted large numbers of Sufis and strangers from other parts, since he was considered to be the greatest leader on the mystic Path. He died in Tus in 477 /1084. From al-Farmadhi al-Ghazali learnt more of the Sufi " Way " and followed his directions in regard to observing the daily duties of good works and works of supererogation, while engaged in frequent devotions and earnestly striving the while to attain to salvation. Passing beyond this stage, he took to asceticism and self-mortification, but did not find that these brought him
r al-Muagidh pp. 3 ff. Miran al-'Aural, pp. 164, 165. 74. at-Risalat

al-Wa'izlyyat, p. iso.

a Cf. J3ml, Nafahft al-Uns, pp. 422, 419.

* Ob. 465 X1074. His Risdla is one of the earliest and most valuable treatises on Sufism, in Arabic, and was later one of al-Ghazklf's chief sources for the

study of Sufism.

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z8 AL GIIAZALI'S LIFE AND PERSONALITY



to his goal. I It was probably to this period that al-Ghazali was
referring .when he stated: "When I desired to set forth upon
the Sufi Path, and to drink of their wine, I considered my soul
and saw that it was encompassed by many veils. So I retired
into solitude and occupied myself with self-discipline and self­
mortification for forty days, and I was given knowledge which
I had not possessed before, purer and finer than. I had yet known,
and I considered it, and lo, it contained a legalistic element.
Then I betook myself again to solitude and occupied myself
with discipline and self-mortification for forty days, and then
I was given other knowledge, still finer and purer than that I
possessed at first, and I rejoiced in it : then I e,Lamined it and
behold, it contained a speculative element. So I returned
to solitude a third time, for forty days again, and I received other
knowledge, still finer and purer, but when I examined it, behold
it contained an admixture of knowledge acquired by human
means ('ilm) and so I had not yet overtaken those possessed of
knowledge from on high (al-'alum ai-Laduniyya).' So I realised
that writing over what, has been erased is not like writing on what was originally pure and clean, and I had not really separated myself from speculation except in a few matters." .3 No doubt the increasing attraction of the Sufi teaching, with its insistence upon a direct personal experience of God added to Ghazali s critical dissatisfaction with dogmatism: „ .
The Imam al-Haramyn died in 478 /io85', after teaching in Nishapur for nearly thirty years, and his biographer records that at the moment of his death, his .students, who numbered four hundred and one, broke their pens and ink-horns and allowed a full year to elapse before they resumed their studies.' Alp Arslan. had been succeeded by Malik Shah in 467/1072, and al-Ghazali now betook himself to the-.royal camp, where Malik Shah's great Vizier Nizant al-Mulk had gathered around him a circle of the most distinguished scholars of the time, who frequented his levees and dedicated their books to him. The Vizier had a great regard for the $fifis, and had received visits

' Subkr, Tab.. IY, p. log,

' Cf. at-Rujjrr a -Ladunivya, pp. 22 ff.

' Subkr,' Tab., IV. pp. 9, so. At. Rica, op. Cit., p. 23. Mi.rfatis, rtlrdf, p. 9.

' Iba KhalikLn, op. cit,, II. n. 122.

AL-GHAZALI'S LIFE AND, PERSONALITY 19


from both the Imam al-Haramayn and al-Qushayri. to whom he showed great honour. Of him, after his death, his son-in-law wrote

'" Niram al-Mulk was a precious pearl, formed of pure nobility by

God the All-Merciful,

So fine was it that the age did not realise its worth, and its' Maker,

jealous for its honour, restored it to its shell."'

Nizam al-Mulk not only encouraged the scholars of the age to come to his court, but he also founded a number of colleges, Sfifi monasteries, and mosques, in different provinces, building colleges in Baghdad, Balkh, Nishapur, Herat, Isfahan, Basra, Merv, Amul (in Tabaristan) and Mosul, so that it was said of him that there was a college founded by him in every city of 'Iraq and Khurasan.2

al-Ghazali, whose fame as a scholar had preceded him, was received with much favour by the Vizier, who honoured him and made rnuch of him. NiZAm al-Mulk held frequent assemblies for debate and discussion and al-Ghazitli soon made his mark at these and was conspicuous for his skill in debate. He assumed the leadership among his fellow-scholars, as he had done in Khurasan, and his fame became widespread. Travellers came from afar to hear him and, as his biographer says, "he was one of those whom men pointed out."

al-Ghazali's reputation as a scholar and especially his pro­found knowledge of Muslim theology and philosophy led Niz, am al-Mulk to appoint him to the Chair of Theology at the Nizamiyya College at Baghdad,- in 484 lrogr, when al-Ghazali was only thirty-four. These Colleges or Academies had taken the place of the mosques, as centres of instruction, because of the increasing numbers of students devoted to learning, who needed some means of maintaining themselves. A madrassa had been founded in Baghdad as early as 383/993 and before long most of the larger cities possessed such schools of learning. To found such a centre of knowledge was reckoned a pious deed and the endowments were made sufficient to cover the general costs of maintenance, the stipends of professors and lecturers,

I Cf. Ibn Khallikan, I. p. 413. Similar verses were also inscribed over the tomb of Suhrawardi alJlagtul (ob. 58711rg11. 2 M. Rid.. op, cit., p. io.

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zn AL-GHAZALT'S LIFE AND PERSONALITY



and to provide scholarships for students. The buildings were
made of stone and over the door was carved a dedicatory in­
scription, while the interior included an open courtyard, contain­
ing a large tank, and behind was the oratory. Round this court­
yard were arcades and small rooms opening into the court, ,together with lecture-rooms and libraries. The upper storey of.the building consisted of an open hall, furnished with circular, arched windows, with a pillar in the centre. Every encourage­ment was given to 'scholarship and learning by the authorities, and the poor scholar, travelling in pursuit of learning, could find free board and 'lodging at these colleges. There were libraries, both public and private, available for the use of students, the first to be established in Baghdad being Ma'mnn's " House of Wisdom" (Bayt al-Hikma), founded in 2x5/830. In the thirteenth century Baghdad possessed no fewer. than thirty-six libraries.
At Baghdad, not only theology, but medicine and.philosophy were taught, and the School of Baghdad was characterised from the first by its scientific spirit, accepting as valid only what was confirmed by experiment. There was complete freedom to peach for any teacher who was competent and knew his subject, and the lectures at Baghdad were attended by Muslim scholars from all parts of the Empire. While there were fixed days and hours for individual lecturers, there was no time-limit
to lectures, nor any limit to the number of lectures that might
be delivered on a given subject. The lecture usually took the
form of a prepared treatise and was taken down verbatim by
the class. The lecturer could not use the work of other scholars
except by written permission, nor could members of the class
make use of the substance of the lecture without the lecturer's

leave. F I

The Nizamiyya College, to which al-Ghazali was appointed, had been built by Nizam al-Mulk in 457 /ro65, the first Director being Abu Ishaq al-Shirazi, who died in 476 /io83. 2 His biographer states that when al-Ghazali arrived to take up his

' Cf. Ku. Bukhsh, Islamic Civilisation, 11, pp. 51 ff. J. Hell, The Arab

Civilisation, PP. 79, 8o. F. Wastenfeld, Die Academien der Araber & ihre Lehrer, pp. 8 if.

' Cf. Subkl, jab., 111, pp. 88 ff. for a detailed account of Abu Ishaq's career.

AL-GHAZALI'S LIFE AND PERSONALITY 21

appointment at the Nizamiyya, the jurists came to him and said " We have been told that it has been the custom for everyone who teaches in this building to invite the jurists to be present and listen, and we wish you to invite us to your lectures on theolo' ('ilm)" al-Ghazali replied : "Most willingly, but on one of -tVo conditions, either you shall provide refreshments for the day, and I shall fix the date, or the other way round." They said " No, you shall provide refreshments, and we wish to be invited for to-day." He rejoined : " Then the food provided must be what I can manage, and it will be bread and vinegar and herbs." Then thdy exclaimed : " No, by God, but you shall fix the day, and we will supply provisions : we intend to have a supply of chicken and of sweetmeats." Then al-Ghazali said, " Very well, then, the day shall be two years hence." So they admitted that they were baffled and left it all to him.'

But, none the less, al-Ghazali received a warm welcome in Baghdad. We are told that he astonished the Baghdadis by the excellence of his lectures, his fluent delivery, the extent of his learning, the subtlety of his allusions, and the lucidity of his explanations, and they conceived a great regard for him and treated him " as the apple of their eye. His lectures attracted large classes, which included the chief savants of the time. His wealth and position became such that his household and the number of his followers were said to exceed those. of the great nobles and Amirs and even the court of the Caliph himself. He became the Imam of 'Iraq, as he had been Imam of Khurasan.2 In addition to lecturing, al-Ghazali was called upon to give legal decisions, based on the Canon. Law (falawa), e.g., Yusuf b. Tashfin, chief of the Almoravides, who had conquered Spain in A.D. io88, formed an unfavourable opinion of the independent Muslim chiefs who exercised authority there, and referred the matter to al-Ghazali, among others, for his opinion and al-Ghazali, in consultation with Abu Bakr Turtishi, a well­known authority on law and tradition (ob. 520 /1126), addressed letters of advice to Yusuf, urging him to govern with justice, and at the same time sent decisions with regard to these Muslim

1 Subkt, Tab., IV, p. 113.

+ Subkt, op. cit., IV. p. 1o7. Jam!, Nafahdt al-Uns, p. 327. Ibn 'Asakir,

op, cit., fol. 88a.

22 AL-GHAZALI'S LIFE AND PERSONALITY

chieftains, authorising him to execute upon them the Divine sentence, and- this YUsuf did, depriving them of their dignities and replacing them by his own relatives' al-Ghazali was also engaged in writing throughout this period, to which his earlier works belong.


But in spite of the exacting nature of his work " the fire of his burning intellect was not quenched," says one of his biographers, " nor his eagerness to unveil the truth in its-entirety." He began to doubt even the evidence of his senses and for two months was a complete sceptic, but gradually, by the help of God, as he be­lieved, his mind recovered its equilibrium and his power of reasoning returned, and he then applied himself resolutely to the search for truth, by an exhaustive study of the writings of the scholastic theologians, the philosophers, and finally, of the Sufis, believing that the truth must have been attained by one of these groups of thinkers. His_ investigations led him to reject the first two, though he did not fail to make use of their met o s and, to some_ ex eat, of_ffieit co: ncTus , nn Tis racer wnFrigs, 2 but he was Ted to concentrate his attention on Sufism, eing convinced that the mystics, and they alone, among the seekers for truth, had really attained their purpose.'
Meanwhile his classes continued to attract increasing numbers, and at this time included three hundred of the most distinguished students of the time, and one hundred of the sons of the princely families. At the height of his reputation, with a brilliant future' before him, and all that the world could offer at his feet, the young professor suffered a complete physical breakdown, and for a time was incapable of lecturing. When he recovered, he announced that he was going on pilgrimage to Mecca, appointed
his brother Ahmad to take his place in the Nizamiyya College,
gave away all his wealth, except the small amount necessary
to maintain his family, and in 488 Jro96 he left Baghdad, with
the intention never to return thither.

Ihn Khalduu, Histoire des Berberes, pp. 79, 82.

' It was as a result of his pre-occupation with philosophy at this time that he wrote his Magasid al-Falasifa (The Aims of the Philosophers) setting forth their position, without criticising it, and this was followed by his Ta/afut al-Falasifa (The Destruction of the Philosophers), a refutation of their teaching.

+ a1-Mungidh, PP. 4 ff.

CHAPTER II

The new Ghazali. His conversion and period of retirement. His return to active life. His later years and his death.

The reasons for the abandonment of his career and for the rejection of all that the world had to offer him-a decision which astonished and perplexed all who, heard of it-al-Ghazzll sets forth in his apologia pro vita sua.1 In this he states that through his study of Sufism, he had come to realise that knowledge of the way to God was not.the same as experience of that way that to know the meaning of the renunciation of worldliness.was not the same thing as actually to renounce this world and all its gifts. From his study of the writings of the $uf-is and their lives, he saw that Si fism consisted not in words but-in actual experience. The attainment of the world to come, for which he sought, depended upon his detachment from this present world' and the directing of his whole concern towards God. This could only be accomplished by abandoning reputation and wealth and fleeing from worldly pre-occupations and ties. As he reflected upon his position in Baghdad, it seemed to al-Ghazali that he was fettered on every hand : his best work consisted of his studies and his teaching and he felt that he was giving his time to what was of no real importance or help in his purpose of drawing near to God, for the real motive of his work was the desire for fame and self-glorification. It must have been of this time that he was thinking, when he wrote later on : "The strongest ties which fetter the soul are those of the creatures and the love of position, for the joy of exercising authority and control and of being superior to others and of being their leader is the joy which in this world most prevails over the souls of the intelligent. And how should it not be so, since its object is one of the attributes of God Himself, namely, Lordship (rububiyya) ? For domination is naturally loved and desired by the heart, because it is related to what is

r al.Mungidh min at•Dalal (The Deliverer from Error).

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24 AL-GHAZALI'S LIFE AND PERSONALITY



Divine-the search for power on the part of men is not blame­

worthy, worthy, but power is of two kinds, the power which is alloyed

with all kinds of cares and quickly vanishes, for it is transitory

and belongs to this life, and the power which is eternal and

belongs to the next life. Man has been created subject to death

('ajul), desirous of what is transient, and so he is tempted by what

is only temporal."'

al-Ghazali felt at this time as if he were standing on the edge of

a precipice whence he would be hurled to destruction, unless he

drew-back in time. He reflected for some time on his position,

unable to make up his mind ; one day he resolved to leave

Baghdad and to cut loose from all these hindrances to spiritual

progress, and the next day the resolve weakened. " I put one

foot forward," he writes, "and withdrew the other." In the

morning he felt a sincere desire to seek the things pertaining to eternal life, in the evening worldly and sensual desires got the better of him. The love of this world urged him to remain where .he was, while at the same time the voice of conscience was calling insistently to him : " Set out, set out, for but little of life remains and the journey before you is long. All your actions and all your knowledge are nothing but hypocrisy and pretension. If you do not prepare now for the life to come, when will you prepare ? If you do not detach yourself now, when will you do it ? " So al-Ghazali wrestled with the temptations of the world, the flesh and Satan for nearly six months, and it was to this inward struggle that his breakdown was due. He was probably thinking of this illness when he wrote : "We have sometimes seen a learned man fall sick with some infirmity which affects the head and the breast, so that-his soul shuns all knowledge, and he forgets what he has learnt and it becomes confused to him, and all that he has acquired in the past remains hidden within his memory and his recollections." 3 The Caliph, hearing of the Professor's illness, sent his own physician, among others, to treat him. When the doctors had done their best for him and

t zhyA, IV, pp. 67, 68.

• Cf, St. Pau's description of a similar state of spiritual conflict Romans VII. 15-24, and St, Augustine's Confessions, Bk. VIII. Chap. ii. Cf. H. Frick. Ghazdlis Selhstbiographie ; ein Vergleich mil Auguslins Konfessionen.

• al-Risalal al-Laduniyya, p. 48..

AL-GHAZALI'S LIFE AND PERSONALITY 25

were baffled, admitting that the cause was spiritual, not physical, al-Ghazali tells us that he surrendered himself to the mercy of 'God, and in Him found the salvation' which he had sought so long for himself.

He had asked a Sufi friend whether he should not devote himself to studying the Word of God (the Qur'an), but the Sufi did not advise that, saying :»" The Way (to God) consists in perseverance in cutting off all hindrances and healing the soul of the evil that afflicts it, and in concerning yourself with that until it becomes habitual to you, The most effective means of ensuring that is to leave your native land and your own country, to depart from 'Iraq, and betake yourself to a life of seclusion and avoidance of sin. Then when that state is established in your heart, you should give yourself continually to solitude, for the purpose of reflection and meditation upon the kingdom of heaven and earth, until your attributes are made perfect, and you are adorned with the virtues after being thus set free from the vices. When that has come to pass, you will be fit to become an Imam and make it your sole concern to call men unto God."'

In this way, al-Ghazali says, God made it easy for him to abandon position and wealth and family ties and friends. Fearing lest the Caliph and his personal friends should prevent him from carrying out his real purpose of going to Syria in order to follow the Sufi Path and live a life of devotion, he stated that he was going on pilgrimage and so departed. s

It was not the case that al-Ghazali now discovered that mysticism, that is, Sufism, was the way of spiritual progress, he had been realising that fact over a period of years, by his theoretical study of it, but now he consecrated himself to it, to make it part of his own personal experience. So he left Baghdad and went to Syria, and remained there for nearly two years, occupying himself, as lie tells us, " simply in retreat and solitude, self-discipline and self-mortification, being pre­occupied with the cleansing of the soul, the amendment of character, and the purification of the heart for the recollection of God Most High," in accordance with what he had learnt

.11i'pa, al-'11m (Tarjanm), pp. io, ii. a al-Mnngidh, pp. zo ff.

26 AL-GHAZALI'S LIFE AND PERSONALITY

from his study of Sufism.' It was no doubt in reference to this period that he wrote afterwards in his Rawdat al-Tilibiu (The Garden of the Seekers) : " True happiness and everything else that is worth while, which remains with you when your ship is wrecked, consists in two things, one of which is peace of mind, with the heart's freedom from all save God, and the other is the filling of the heart thus freed, with the knowledge of Gnel Most Glorious, for it was to this end that all things were created. The result of combining these two things is a fine personality." 2


al-Ghazali went to Damascus, where he arrived in 489/ro96. It is related that he entered the city in the garb of a poor man and sat at the door of the Khangah al-Samisatiyya, a until an unknown faqir gave him leave to enter and he then busied himself in sweeping the court for ablutions attached to the monastery, and in doing the work of a servant there. Then, one day, when he was sitting in the court of the 'Umayyad mosque, where a number of muftis were sitting talking together, a villager, came to them, seeking a legal decision (fatwa), but they gave him no reply. al-Ghazali, engaged in meditation, saw that no one gave the man any answer and that he was troubled thereby, so he called the rustic to him and gave him a reply. The villager, however, scoffed at him, saying : " The muftis gave me no de­cision and how can this ignorant fagir tell me what I want to know." The muftis, meanwhile, were observing them and when
al-Ghazali had finished speaking, they called the villager and
asked him what that common fellow had said to him. When
the peasant explained the matter, they came to al-Ghazali and,
recognising him, surrounded him, requesting him to establish a
discussion circle for them. He held out the hope of meeting them
the next day, but instead he left the city that night.' Sdme of
his biographers says that after his stay there, he visited Jerusalem
and then returned to'Damascus, though al-Ghazali himself does
not mention such a visit to Jerusalem, but only the fact that he
settled down to a life of seclusion in Damascus, in the mosque
of the 'Umayyads, where he spent much time in prayer and

I al-Alungidl, p. 22.

1 Op. Cit., p. 234­

3 The monastery belonging to the people of Samis3t, on the Euphrates. ' Subki, Tab., IV, p. 104.

AL-GHAZALI'S LIFE AND PERSONALITY 27

meditation in the minaret of the mosque, which is now called the Minaret of al-Ghazali.' There he shut himself in, so that he might be free from interruption. This place of retreat is said to have been the cell of Shaykh Nasr al-Maqdisi, and it is related that al-Ghazali originally set out, with the idea of joining Shaykh Nasr, and reached Damascus on the day of the Shaykh's death. It happened that he went into the mosque, wearing the garb of a faqir, and came upon Shaykh Nasr's seat in this place of retreat (zawiya). While he was there, a group of students arrived and entered into conversation with him, after they had considered him and looked at him for a long time, and as they talked with him, " they found him an ocean, inexhaustible." Then he asked them what Shaykh Nasr was doing, and they replied : " He is dead and-we have just returned from his funeral. When his end was approaching, we asked him who would be his successor and teach his followers, and he said: ' When my funeral is over, return to my cell and you will find someone there, a stranger,' and he described you to us. He told us to give that stranger his greetings, for he would be his successor." al-Subki, who relates this story, is doubtful whether it can be accepted as true. He points out that Shaykh Nasr died in 4904097 and 'that if this did occur, it could not have been when al-Ghazali first arrived in Damascus, but after his return from Jerusalem. He thinks, however, that al-Ghazali may have joined Shaykh Nasr when he first reached Damascus in 489 /1096, and it would have been natural enough for him to return to his former place

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