in Tahafut al-Falasifa (Discussion One, Proofs 1 and 2a)
and the Problem of Divine Immutability and Timelessness
Introduction In the history of ideas, there is no question that the figure of al-Ghazali stands out as one of the greatest thinkers of the West. Touted as the greatest Sunni theologian of all time, his polemic against the Neoplatonic philosophers, chiefly Ibn Sina, dealt a deadly blow to philosophy in the Islamic world.1 Born in 1058 CE in Tus, a city in modern day Iran, al-Ghazali began his studies in jurisprudence, moving on to study theology under the great theologian al-Juwayni. Al-Ghazali was fortunate enough to secure a teaching position in the Nizamiya College of Baghdad, one of a number of seminaries established by Nizam al-Mulk, the vizier for the Saljuk sultan, for the defense of Sunni theology against the Isma‘ili Fatimid caliphate in Egypt. Al-Ghazali soon became a popular teacher and renowned defender of Ash‘arite Sunni theology.2 After five years of teaching in Baghdad, al-Ghazali became disillusioned with his profession and entered a period of wandering, monastic-like travels. His disillusionment was founded, no doubt, in an intellectual and spiritual crisis of skepticism that led him to a study of philosophy, and then into the mystical practice of sufism.3 Al-Ghazali’s prominence as a legalist, theologian, apologist, and then mystic, cast him into the role of religious reformer, the Muslim parallel of Augustine and Aquinas in Christendom. After his travels, al-Ghazali eventually returned to teaching at the Nizamiya College in Nishapur, only to die five years later in 1111 CE.
Written after al-Ghazali’s period of private philosophical study, and finished in January 1094 CE, the Tahafut al-Falasifa had the aim of “pursuing the critique of reason which underlay his bout of skepticism, and was trying to show that reason is not self-sufficient in the field of metaphysics and is unable out of itself to produce a complete world-view.”4 Even though, as Montgomery Watt explains, al-Ghazali personally held certain doctrines that he refuted in the Tahafut.5 Al-Ghazali wanted to show that reason itself “cannot prove that the world has a creator, that two gods are impossible, that God is not a body, that He knows both others and Himself, and that the soul is a self-subsistent entity.”6
Al-Ghazali, in a form reminiscent of Plato and Justin Martyr’s dialogues, created dialogue partners with a group called “the philosophers.” Whether this representation of the Islamic philosophers with whom he was in dialogue with is true or not, is a subject for another essay. This essay will examine al-Ghazali’s argument for the temporal finiteness of the universe, as found in the first area of discussion with the philosophers. It will show that the criticisms given by al-Ghazali’s dialogue partners remain largely unanswered. Given that, this paper will provide alternative philosophical proofs that allow al-Ghazali to uphold his central thesis, while maintaining some air of the orthodoxy he sought to defend.