The Confessions of Al Ghazzali
Category: Islam
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Al-Ghazali contributed significantly to the development of a systematic view of Sufism and its integration and acceptance in mainstream Islam. As a scholar of orthodox Islam, he belonged to the Shafi'i school of Islamic jurisprudence and to the Asharite school of theology. Al-Ghazali received many titles such as Sharaf-ul-Aʾimma (شرف الأئمة), Zayn-ud-dīn (زين الدين) and Ḥujjat-ul-Islām (حجة الإسلام). He is viewed as the key member of the influential Asharite school of early Muslim philosophy and the most important refuter of the Mutazilites. However, he chose a slightly-different position in comparison with the Asharites. His beliefs and thoughts differ in some aspects from the orthodox Asharite school.






drawing of the sun rising in the eastdrawing of the sun rising in the east

“He who knows himself knows God.”
- Sayings of Muhammed.

Editorial Note

The object of the Editors of this series is a very definite one. They desire above all things that, in their humble way, these books shall be the ambassadors of good-will and understanding between East and West — the old world of Thought and the new of Action. In this endeavour, and in their own sphere, they are but followers of the highest example in the land. They are confident that a deeper knowledge of the great ideals and lofty philosophy of Oriental thought may help to a revival of that true spirit of Charity which neither despises nor fears the nations of another creed and colour. Finally, in thanking press and public for the very cordial reception given to the “Wisdom of the East” Series, they wish to state that no pains have been spared to secure the best specialists for the treatment of the various subjects at hand.


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Birth of Ghazzali

Aboû Hâmid Muhammed Ibn Muhammad Al Ghazzali was born in the city of Tus in Khorassan, A.D. 1058, one year after the great poet and freethinker Abu’ l’ Alā died. He was the son of a dealer in cotton thread (Gazzâl), whence his name. Losing his father in early life, he was confided to the care of a Sufi, whose influence extended through his subsequent career. On finishing his studies he was appointed professor of theology at Bagdad. Here he achieved such splendid success that all the Imāms became his zealous partisans. So great, indeed, was his renown, so ardent the admiration he inspired, that the Muhammedans sometimes said: “If all the books of Islam were destroyed, it would be but a slight loss, provided Al Ghazzali’s work on the Revivification of the Sciences of Religion were preserved.” The following short treatise gives the history of the mind of this remarkable man in his pursuit of truth. It might not inaptly bear the title “Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit.” In its intellectual subtlety it bears a certain resemblance to Newman’s Grammar of Assent, and in its almost Puritanical sense of the terrors of the world to come, it is akin to Bunyan’s Grace Abounding. It is also interesting as being one of the very few specimens of genuine Eastern autobiography.

After describing the difficulty with which he escaped from an almost Pyrrhonic scepticism, “not by systematic reasoning and accumulation of proofs, but by a flash of light which God sent into my soul,” he reviews the various sects whom he encountered in his search for truth.

The Scholastic Theologians, Who Profess to Follow Reason and Speculation.

The Philosophers, Who Call Themselves Masters of Logic and Demonstration.

The Sufis, Who Claim an Immediate Intuition, and Who Perceive the Real Manifestation of Truth as Common Men Perceive Material Phenomena.

After mastering the first two systems and still finding the great problem unsolved, he was forced to pronounce philosophy incompetent, and to seek in some higher faculty than reason the solution of his doubts. The intuition or ecstasy (“wajd”) of the Sufis was to him a sort of revelation. His search for truth occupied several years, in the course of which he renounced his professorship of theology at Bagdad and went into devotional retirement at Jerusalem and Damascus, and also performed the pilgrimage to Mecca.

He returned for a short time to Nishapur, the birthplace of Omar Khayyām, his elder contemporary, whom, as Professor Browne tells us in his History of Persian Literature, he met and disliked. He finally went back to Tus, his native place, where he died, A.D. 1111. Professor D. B. Macdonald, in an article on Ghazzali in the Journal of the American Oriental Society, quotes the following account of his death as related by his brother Ahmad: “On Monday at dawn my brother performed the ablution and prayed. Then he said, ‘Bring me my grave-clothes,’ and he took them and kissed them, and laid them on his eyes and said, ‘I hear and obey the command to go into the King.’ And he stretched out his feet and went to meet Him and was taken to the good-will of God Most High.”

The great service which Al Ghazzali rendered to the Sufis was, as Mr. Whinfield has pointed out, in the preface to his translation of the Masnavi, to provide them with a metaphysical terminology which he had derived from the writings of Plotinus the Neo-Platonist. He also gave them a secure position in the Church of Islam.

In his Development of Muslim Theology Professor Macdonald calls Ghazzali “the greatest, certainly the most sympathetic figure in the history of Islam, and the only teacher of the after generations ever put by a Muslim on a level with the four great Imāms.” He further says of him: “Islam has never outgrown him, has never fully understood him. In the renaissance of Islam which is now rising to view, his time will come, and the new life will proceed from a renewed study of his works.”


The Confessions of Al Ghazzali

Ghazzali’s Search for Truth

In the name of the most merciful God.

Quoth the Imām Ghazzali:

Glory be to God, Whose praise should precede every writing and every speech! May the blessings of God rest on Muhammed His Prophet and His Apostle, on his family and companions, by whose guidance error is escaped!

You have asked me, O brother in the faith, to expound the aim and the mysteries of religious sciences, the boundaries and depths of theological doctrines. You wish to know my experiences while disentangling truth lost in the medley of sects and divergencies of thought, and how I have dared to climb from the low levels of traditional belief to the topmost summit of assurance. You desire to learn what I have borrowed, first of all from scholastic theology; and secondly from the method of the Ta’limites, who, in seeking truth, rest upon the authority of a leader; and why, thirdly, I have been led to reject philosophic systems; and finally, what I have accepted of the doctrine of the Sufis, and the sum total of truth which I have gathered in studying every variety of opinion. You ask me why, after resigning at Bagdad a teaching post which attracted a number of hearers, I have, long afterwards, accepted a similar one at Nishapur. Convinced as I am of the sincerity which prompts your inquiries, I proceed to answer them, invoking the help and protection of God.

Know then, my brothers (may God direct you in the right way), that the diversity in beliefs and religions, and the variety of doctrines and sects which divide men, are like a deep ocean strewn with shipwrecks, from which very few escape safe and sound. Each sect, it is true, believes itself in possession of the truth and of salvation, “each party,” as the Koran saith, “rejoices in its own creed”; but as the chief of the apostles, whose word is always truthful, has told us, “My people will be divided into more than seventy sects, of whom only one will be saved.” This prediction, like all others of the Prophet, must be fulfilled.

From the period of adolescence, that is to say, previous to reaching my twentieth year to the present time when I have passed my fiftieth, I have ventured into this vast ocean; I have fearlessly sounded its depths, and, like a resolute diver, I have penetrated its darkness and dared its dangers and abysses. I have interrogated the beliefs of each sect and scrutinised the mysteries of each doctrine, in order to disentangle truth from error and orthodoxy from heresy. I have never met one who maintained the hidden meaning of the Koran without investigating the nature of his belief, nor a partisan of its exterior sense without inquiring into the results of his doctrine. There is no philosopher whose system I have not fathomed, nor theologian the intricacies of whose doctrine I have not followed out.

Sufism has no secrets into which I have not penetrated; the devout adorer of Deity has revealed to me the aim of his austerities; the atheist has not been able to conceal from me the real reason of his unbelief. The thirst for knowledge was innate in me from an early age; it was like a second nature implanted by God, without any will on my part. No sooner had I emerged from boyhood than I had already broken the fetters of tradition and freed myself from hereditary beliefs.

Having noticed how easily the children of Christians become Christians, and the children of Moslems embrace Islam, and remembering also the traditional saying ascribed to the Prophet, “Every child has in him the germ of Islam, then his parents make him Jew, Christian, or Zoroastrian,” I was moved by a keen desire to learn what was this innate disposition in the child, the nature of the accidental beliefs imposed on him by the authority of his parents and his masters, and finally the unreasoned convictions which he derives from their instructions.

Struck with the contradictions which I encountered in endeavouring to disentangle the truth and falsehood of these opinions, I was led to make the following reflection: “The search after truth being the aim which I propose to myself, I ought in the first place to ascertain what are the bases of certitude.” In the next place I recognised that certitude is the clear and complete knowledge of things, such knowledge as leaves no room for doubt nor possibility of error and conjecture, so that there remains no room in the mind for error to find an entrance. In such a case it is necessary that the mind, fortified against all possibility of going astray, should embrace such a strong conviction that, if, for example, any one possessing the power of changing a stone into gold, or a stick into a serpent, should seek to shake the bases of this certitude, it would remain firm and immovable. Suppose, for instance, a man should come and say to me, who am firmly convinced that ten is more than three, “No; on the contrary, three is more than ten, and, to prove it, I change this rod into a serpent, and supposing that he actually did so, I should remain none the less convinced of the falsity of his assertion, and although his miracle might arouse my astonishment, it would not instil any doubt into my belief.

I then understood that all forms of knowledge which do not unite these conditions (imperviousness to doubt, etc.) do not deserve any confidence, because they are not beyond the reach of doubt, and what is not impregnable to doubt cannot constitute certitude.

The Subterfuges of the Sophists

I then examined what knowledge I possessed, and discovered that in none of it, with the exception of sense-perceptions and necessary principles, did I enjoy that degree of certitude which I have just described. I then sadly reflected as follows: “We cannot hope to find truth except in matters which carry their evidence in themselves — that is to say, in sense-perceptions and necessary principles; we must therefore establish these on a firm basis. Is my absolute confidence in sense-perceptions and on the infallibility of necessary principles analogous to the confidence which I formerly possessed in matters believed on the authority of others? Is it only analogous to the reliance most people place on their organs of vision, or is it rigorously true without admixture of illusion or doubt?”

I then set myself earnestly to examine the notions we derive from the evidence of the senses and from sight in order to see if they could be called in question. The result of a careful examination was that my confidence in them was shaken. Our sight for instance, perhaps the best practised of all our senses, observes a shadow, and finding it apparently stationary pronounces it devoid of movement. Observation and experience, however, show subsequently that a shadow moves not suddenly, it is true, but gradually and imperceptibly, so that it is never really motionless.

Again, the eye sees a star and believes it as large as a piece of gold, but mathematical calculations prove, on the contrary, that it is larger than the earth. These notions, and all others which the senses declare true, are subsequently contradicted and convicted of falsity in an irrefragable manner by the verdict of reason.

Then I reflected in myself: “Since I cannot trust to the evidence of my senses, I must rely only on intellectual notions based on fundamental principles, such as the following axioms: ‘Ten is more than three. Affirmation and negation cannot coexist together. A thing cannot both be created and also existent from eternity, living and annihilated simultaneously, at once necessary and impossible.’” To this the notions I derived from my senses made the following objections: “Who can guarantee you that you can trust to the evidence of reason more than to that of the senses? You believed in our testimony till it was contradicted by the verdict of reason, otherwise you would have continued to believe it to this day. Well, perhaps, there is above reason another judge who, if he appeared, would convict reason of falsehood, just as reason has confuted us. And if such a third arbiter is not yet apparent, it does not follow that he does not exist.”

To this argument I remained some time without reply; a reflection drawn from the phenomena of sleep deepened my doubt. “Do you not see,” I reflected, “that while asleep you assume your dreams to be indisputably real? Once awake, you recognise them for what they are — baseless chimeras. Who can assure you, then, of the reliability of notions which, when awake, you derive from the senses and from reason? In relation to your present state they may be real; but it is possible also that you may enter upon another state of being which will bear the same relation to your present state as this does to your condition when asleep. In that new sphere you will recognise that the conclusions of reason are only chimeras.”

This possible condition is, perhaps, that which the Sufis call “ecstasy” (“hāl”), that is to say, according to them, a state in which, absorbed in themselves and in the suspension of sense-perceptions, they have visions beyond the reach of intellect. Perhaps also Death is that state, according to that saying of the Prince of prophets: “Men are asleep; when they die, they wake.” Our present life in relation to the future is perhaps only a dream, and man, once dead, will see things in direct opposition to those now before his eyes; he will then understand that word of the Koran, “To-day we have removed the veil from thine eyes and thy sight is keen.”

Such thoughts as these threatened to shake my reason, and I sought to find an escape from them. But how? In order to disentangle the knot of this difficulty, a proof was necessary. Now a proof must be based on primary assumptions, and it was precisely these of which I was in doubt. This unhappy state lasted about two months, during which I was, not, it is true, explicitly or by profession, but morally and essentially a thoroughgoing sceptic.

God at last deigned to heal me of this mental malady; my mind recovered sanity and equilibrium, the primary assumptions of reason recovered with me all their stringency and force. I owed my deliverance, 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. To suppose that certitude can be only based upon formal arguments is to limit the boundless mercy of God. Some one asked the Prophet the explanation of this passage in the Divine Book: “God opens to Islam the heart of him whom He chooses to direct.” “That is spoken,” replied the Prophet, “of the light which God sheds in the heart.” “And how can man recognise that light?” he was asked. “By his detachment from this world of illusion and by a secret drawing towards the eternal world,” the Prophet replied.

On another occasion he said: “God has created His creatures in darkness, and then has shed upon them His light.” It is by the help of this light that the search for truth must be carried on. As by His mercy this light descends from time to time among men, we must ceaselessly be on the watch for it. This is also corroborated by another saying of the Apostle: “God sends upon you, at certain times, breathings of His grace; be prepared for them.”

My object in this account is to make others understand with what earnestness we should search for truth, since it leads to results we never dreamt of. Primary assumptions have not got to be sought for, since they are always present to our minds; if we engage in such a search, we only find them persistently elude our grasp. But those who push their investigation beyond ordinary limits are safe from the suspicion of negligence in pursuing what is within their reach.

The Different Kinds of Seekers after Truth

When God in the abundance of His mercy had healed me of this malady, I ascertained that those who are engaged in the search for truth may be divided into three groups.

Scholastic Theologians, Who Profess to Follow Theory and Speculation.

The Philosophers, Who Profess to Rely upon Formal Logic.

The Sufis, Who Call Themselves the Elect of God and Possessors of Intuition and Knowledge of the Truth by Means of Ecstasy.

“The truth,” I said to myself, “must be found among these three classes of men who devote themselves to the search for it. If it escapes them, one must give up all hope of attaining it. Having once surrendered blind belief, it is impossible to return to it, for the essence of such belief is to be unconscious of itself. As soon as this unconsciousness ceases it is shattered like a glass whose fragments cannot be again reunited except by being cast again into the furnace and refashioned.” Determined to follow these paths and to search out these systems to the bottom, I proceeded with my investigations in the following order: Scholastic theology; philosophical systems; and, finally Sufism.

The Aim of Scholastic Theology and Its Results

Commencing with theological science, I carefully studied and meditated upon it. I read the writings of the authorities in this department and myself composed several treatises. I recognised that this science, while sufficing its own requirements, could not assist me in arriving at the desired goal. In short, its object is to preserve the purity of orthodox beliefs from all heretical innovation. God, by means of His Apostle, has revealed to His creatures a belief which is true as regards their temporal and eternal interests; the chief articles of it are laid down in the Koran and in the traditions. Subsequently, Satan suggested to innovators principles contrary to those of orthodoxy; they listened greedily to his suggestions, and the purity of the faith was menaced. God then raised up a school of theologians and inspired them with the desire to defend orthodoxy by means of a system of proofs adapted to unveil the devices of the heretics and to foil the attacks which they made on the doctrines established by tradition.

Such is the origin of scholastic theology. Many of its adepts, worthy of their high calling, valiantly defended the orthodox faith by proving the reality of prophecy and the falsity of heretical innovations. But, in order to do so, they had to rely upon a certain number of premises, which they accepted in common with their adversaries, and which authority and universal consent or simply the Koran and the traditions obliged them to accept. Their principal effort was to expose the self-contradictions of their opponents and to confute them by means of the premises which they had professed to accept. Now a method of argumentation like this has little value for one who only admits self-evident truths. Scholastic theology could not consequently satisfy me nor heal the malady from which I suffered.

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