Al-Ghazali

Biography

(1058 – 1111)

Al-Ghazzali was an important Sufi who was instrumental in making Sufism acceptable to traditional Muslims. He is known to Muslims as Muhyi al-Din, “the Restorer of Religion,” for his synthesis and integration of many seemingly opposing ideas that divided Sufis and other Muslim sects. Al-Ghazzali studied the Asharite kalam (word or discourse, official theology of Islam) and went on to master  the Greek-influenced philosophical theories of Ibn Sina and other Faylasufs, so that he could critique them in his Refutation of Philosophies.

Al-Ghazzali was from a young age driven to find the truth, wherever it may be found. After studying Asharite law and theology, he taught and was made director of the Nizamiyyah mosque in Bhagdad. Dissatisfied with the uncertainty of his faith and the truth of the doctrines of other Islamic teachings, al-Ghazzali experienced a spiritual crisis. How could he believe wholeheartedly in God?  Since His existence could not be proven without a doubt, then the Divine Reality may be a delusion. Al-Ghazzali’s doubts caused in him a spiritual crisis, and in 1094 he could no longer lecture. He left his Bhagdad and traveled to Syria, Jerusalem and Egypt, where he was exposed to the ideas of Judaism and Christianity. During his ten-year travels away from Bhagdad, al-Ghazzali spent two years in Syria with Sufis, where he found an answer. Without compromising his need for truth and certainty, al-Ghazzali found that the mystical experiences of the Sufis included a direct and intuitive experience, through the intellectual intuition, which is objective perception made possible because “the kingdom of God is within us”.  The direct experience of God that could not be denied; it was not opposed to logic and reason, it transcended them. The ability to experience God directly gave Al-Ghazzali the certainty needed to restore his faith.

He returned to Bhagdad where he taught for a short time before retiring to Khurasan, the village in which he was born, where he founded a seminary (madrasa) and “convent” of Sufis. Al-Ghazzali believed that the Kalam was an inadequate expression of the total religious truth; expressions of faith and sincerity and trust in God were not addressed in the legalistic texts of Islam. However, mystical certainty was attained by a chosen few, and for most people law and exoteric traditions were necessary elements of spiritual life, more important for them than the unattainable mystical experience. For this reason, Ghazzali founded a spiritual practice in which awareness of God could become part of the daily life of Muslims. Because of his ability to synthesize the mystic and traditional discourses, his authority became unquestioned and his work was accepted by orthodox Muslims.

 

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