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Why Ghazali Matters 16 April 2008

Posted by mecca in Culture, Psychology, Spirituality.

“Ghazalian experience” refers to a drastic turn one makes in life that seems incomprehensible—especially to popular culture—when one utterly discards what others would traffic their souls for. Theologian, jurist, and sage, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali matters today, after nearly a thousand years, because of his scholarship but also because of his crisis. Ghazali had been well-established as the premier scholar in law and theology, occupying the most-coveted seat of academia, at the Nizamiyya University in Baghdad. He had veneration, prestige, status, wealth, and a great mind. He was the monarch of intellectuals.

But there came a moment in the man’s life when inner agitations caused him to wiretap his soul. It turned out that the knife fights secretly going on inside him were over the fact that he was spiritually damaged. The man walked away from it all. He left his position, wealth, prestige, and students. And for more than 10 years, Ghazali wandered the Middle East, often living anonymously and on the bare essentials, to purge from his soul the trained assassin of religious faith and character: arrogance. This he admitted himself. His spiritual ride—his desperate search for sincerity—took him to Damascus, Jerusalem, Madina, Makkah and Egypt.

Ghazali, of course, returned from his “trip,” thus completing the hero’s journey. The revived genius and mystic at last found peace. His spiritual reconstruction imbued all that he was to write, whether iconoclastic treatises or spiritual reams that helped people realign themselves spiritually. By sound historical accounts, Ghazali’s personal triumph stimulated a wave of spiritual vitality and reoriented the goals and aims of religious studies that are felt to this day.

It is good to be wary of the stiff academic view that Ghazali’s impact is a matter of a gifted mind and remarkable scholarship. Rather, what makes Ghazali the standout personality is not merely his layered erudition, but the desperation that nearly destroyed him and his battle to take back what he was courageous enough to discover he had lost. A hidden master moving alone and without the identity of his former glory, a warrior taking his jihad to find certitude during his lost-and-found years—this breathed relevance into his erudition and admitted a more direct route between the secluded realm of scholarship and its inevitable social impact in popular culture.

That’s why Ghazali matters. Crisis, candor, dismantling, and reconstruction: something anyone can relate to.



1. thabet - 16 April 2008

But isn’t humanity always in ‘crisis’?

2. sister s - 16 April 2008

As salaam alaykum

Brilliant post, subhanAllah an amazing view of Imam Al Ghazali (RA).

Jazakallah khayr for sharing this!

wa salaam

3. Why Ghazali Matters « أندلس - 16 April 2008

[…] Why Imam al-Ghazali Matters, radhiAllahu anhu It is good to be wary of the stiff academic view that Ghazali’s impact is a matter of a gifted mind and remarkable scholarship. Rather, what makes Ghazali the standout personality is not merely his layered erudition, but the desperation that nearly destroyed him and his battle to take back what he was courageous enough to discover he had lost. […]

4. Ibrahim A. - 16 April 2008

Thank you, “Sister s.”

Thabet, not sure what you’re asking, and as of this morning, I stopped answering questions I don’t understand…and that has made all the difference.

5. ABD - 17 April 2008


but i’m curious: so what happened this morning?

6. Ibrahim A. - 17 April 2008

A figure of speech, Abd, meaning very recently. The statement was tongue and cheek.

7. Baraka - 17 April 2008

Salaams dear Ibrahim,

This is a stunning piece, as was your last one. I feel humbled in front of a writer whose every essay is a finely crafted and reflective work of art, masha-Allah.

Thank you for the inspiration!


8. Hujjatul Islam Imam Gazzali & his relevance today « M A Q A S I D - مقاصد - 17 April 2008

[…] from: http://www.othermatters.wordpress.com Posted in Biographies […]

9. Ibrahim A. - 17 April 2008

That’s a high compliment, Baraka. Thank you.

10. Mohammad - 17 April 2008

I really enjoyed reading this short striking piece. Its style brought to my mind a kind of bursting sensation, like that of a jet when it hits mach one. Thank you, Ibrahim.

A concern I frequently encounter from others (especially South Asian Muslim males for some reason) who I relate Ghazali’s story to is how it was an expression of devotion to the divine for him to leave or “abandon” his family. I’m wondering how you might respond to the observation that the act was “selfish”.

11. Ibrahim A. - 17 April 2008

Thank you, Mohammad, for the Mach Five comment. As for the question, it’s really impossible to make such an indictment, something so personal as “selfish,” of a person who lived about a thousand years ago. We don’t know the details of how he handled his decision: making sure his family was taken care of, the severity of his situation, etc. So those kinds of assessments (selfish and so on) cannot be part of a fair discussion. They dilute the story and the whole point.

12. electromagnetic - 17 April 2008

That makes sense, Ibrahim. Thanks for the suggested response. I found the way Ovidio Salazar’s film on Ghazali “The Alchemist of Happiness” depicted Ghazali’s departure from his home in a way that didn’t quite do it for me. I just didn’t buy it. I guess it doesn’t serve us well to stay much from Ghazali’s own account of it in the “Munqidh”.

13. electromagnetic - 17 April 2008

Correction: “I don’t think it serves us well to *stray* much from Ghazali’s account of his departure”. [Sheesh. I need a comment spell-checker].

14. Irving - 25 April 2008

A wonderful article, very well-written succinct and inspiring. For such self-honesty, Al-Ghazali paid with the world, but he gained was worth immeasurably more than that bauble.

Ya Haqq!

15. Ibrahim A. - 25 April 2008

Wow, “bauble” bath. Thanks, Irving, for your comment and metaphor.

16. Affected - 26 April 2008

Thank you for this thoughtful piece. However, I have difficulty in understanding why Imam Ghazali chose to deal with his spiritual angst by wandering around by himself for 10 years. He left behind his wife and children for a decade. Spiritual development includes the roles of husband and father. His wife certainly couldn’t have chosen to pack up and leave for 10 years and Im sure his children suffered for the want of a father for 10 long, irreplaceable years (Ive never read what his wife and children had to say about that).
For those who say that the spiritual insight and level of Imam Ghazali was above the mundane life and responsibilities of a family man, should look to the example of the Prophet Muhammed (peace and blessings of Allah upon him). He (saw) could have escaped to the highest heaven if he wished, yet he carried the unknowable duties of Prophethood, husband, father, friend, cousin, uncle, and more with immense respect and responsibility. It is this balance that will help us find our true spiritual states. Though I like what Imam Ghazali has written in the treasures of knowledge he has left for us, I do not feel that emulating him in his wanderings will help the rest of us.
Just ask a wife, child or mother affected by a man who feels he needs to travel to Syria or Yemen etc alone to build himself spiritually, while his family is left behind to fend for themselves. This is not the Islam the Prophet brought us. The Prophet (saw) tells us that bringing two people together or providing for your wife and children is equal or higher to other acts of worship including dhikr.
Yes Imam Ghazali’s story is a romantic one for those who feel that they can drop all responsibilities to find their spiritual bearings but sometimes what we are seeking from is right under our nose at home or in being with our spouses and children. It is irresponsible and even dangerous to pretend that Imam Ghazali’s example is a balanced, Islamic way to elevate our spiritual states.

17. Ibrahim A. - 26 April 2008

Dear Affected, as I mentioned in a previous comment above, we really don’t know the details of Ghazali’s odyssey to pass judgment. Even in his Munqidh, there are things we don’t know. Was his ten-year searching a continuous absence from home? (It’s unlikely.) Were his wife and children consulted? (Probably.) Did they support him? (Unsure, but probable.) Were their provisions taken care of? (Most probably.) Did Ghazali understand sacred law. (Most definitely.) Etc.

The Ghazali narrative does NOT suggest that people abandon their families when confronted with crisis or difficulty. I abhor the thought. I struggle being away from my wife for an afternoon. But again, this was a thousand years ago. And details are lost. So indignation over what we don’t know makes less sense to me than inspiration from what we do know. I agree with the gist of what you’re saying: family responsibility and “finding” what we need as “near” rather than some misty (and convenient and responsibility shirking) distance. Thank you for bringing that up. It’s an important point to make.

18. Affected - 28 April 2008

Thank you for your reply and assurances. I understand that you did not intend your article to imply that individuals need to wander away alone to find themselves. However, I think that we should focus more on the works of Imam Al-Ghazali and not on his apparent wanderings. Films such as Al-Chemist of Happiness and writings on Al-Ghazali like this one zero in on the apparent fact that he wandered for ten years. Lets focus on his best years when he wrote his great works, not on his personal crisis of sorts.
Though this may seem trivial to some, there are individuals that are vulnerable to this suggestion and who do set out to find themselves in this manner, not keeping in mind that a) Al-Ghazali had learned and memorized volumes of texts and b) as you said, we don’t know exactly what his wanderings entailed. This has caused further setback and regret in numerous individuals and wives who wait alone and in despair months and for some, years.

It does not matter whether this was 1000 years ago; the best of examples is that of the Prophet (blessings upon him), who lived the most perfect life possible over 1400 years ago. That stable, balanced life is the one we are to seek to emulate.
The power of suggestion varies amongst different individuals with varying circumstances and writers such as yourself to affect the individuals that read your works.

19. Ibrahim A. - 28 April 2008

I agree with most of what you say. But the reason I mentioned a thousand years was to underscore a blurred sense of the past. The details of Ghazali’s life were not really scrutinized so fully. We simply don’t know the details of his odyssey. As for his crisis, I think it is important to know it. In Ghazali’s own mind, his crisis and reclamation informed much of the energy, spirit, and conviction we sense in his writing. So to benefit from his writing implies, without doubt, benefiting from what the author went through. Simply put: we can’t, nor should we, ignore or underplay his moves. If you want to make a larger point about folks doing stupid things like leaving their families, then a more intrinsic argument is needed. To diminish the experiences of the past makes no good argument at all. Thank you for your post. It adds much to this discussion.

20. Karen - 1 September 2008

Salam aleikum …

I am discovering your site late and had to read the piece on al-Ghazali, whom I have made a topic of personal work and much writing over the last three years. I agree with your fine piece, al-Ghazali is of great relevance today. I am an American convert and he has much to say to the western educated mind. Touching upon the other comments and concerns about al-Ghazali’s leaving his family to “wander,” given the Imam’s great repute and standing, it is unthinkable that he would not have left his family well situated financially and with a strong network of supporters.
As far as his personal journey, we do not and cannot all follow the same prescriptions exactly from our Lord. I do believe al-Ghazali was shaped and sent on his journey by God, to spend a long time immersed a crucible of inner turmoil and spiritaul fermentation, the product of which is such a profound legacy of works that he has left the world. We cannot all follow the same model, and what is critical and necessary for one is antithetical to the other. Yes, family life is critical and important to most people, and was probably important to al-Ghazali as well. But he had another calling which he was commanded to answer. And for many such as he, at-Tirmidhi, Ibn al-Arabi and others, the yeast of solitude was necessary to the rising of the nourishing bread.

21. maji6 - 2 September 2008

We all need to become Ghazzalis, Rumis and Abaubakr and Omars RA.

we read a lot about them but they haven’t come in to us yet.

All of them are about the Prophets ways are these ways in us?

Thats is the question.

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