By The Economist
Apr 22nd 2015
A THOUSAND years ago, Baghdad presented an extraordinary scene: a city of a million people, the centre of a Muslim realm which stretched from Spain to Central Asia, and an intellectual market-place where people of different philosophical and religious schools met and debated, with unpredictable results. So perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised that some of the controversies which raged in 11th-century Baghdad are resurfacing now.
At the centre of today's disagreements is a thinker called Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, whom many Muslims regard as the greatest philosopher their faith has produced. His life had a worldly, metropolitan phase, and a mystical one. In 1095, he abandoned the top theological job in Baghdad. As Carole Hillenbrand, an Edinburgh University professor puts it, the position he left was equivalent to being archbishop of Canterbury and a senior professor of theology at Oxford University. Over his remaining 16 years, much of his time was spent as a humble, wandering pilgrim through holy places like Damascus and Jerusalem or in solitary prayer. As his mystical life deepened, he became one of the fathers of Sufism.
Especially since September 2001, the name of al-Ghazali has provoked heated reactions, sometimes intelligent and subtle, sometimes less so. Last month, one of Britain's favourite public intellectuals, Melvyn Bragg, invited three Western al-Ghazali scholars, including Ms Hillenbrand, to a gloriously cerebral radio debate in which they teased out al-Ghazali's polemical relationship with the philosophers of ancient Greece. (Yes, British radio is different from American talk radio.) All the participants were admirers of al-Ghazali, in the sense that they considered his work worthy of deep study. But at its worst, argument about the Persian-born thinker descends into name-calling.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, an American astrophysicist and populariser of science, excoriates al-Ghazali as the man who destroyed intellectual inquiry in the Islamic world, comparable in his view to the anti-scientific blockheads of the American religious right. In an otherwise intelligent book, which I review for the current print edition, Ayaan Hirsi Ali calls al-Ghazali the forefather of today's violent fanatics. Richard Dawkins, a British atheist intellectual, is another Ghazali-basher.
In modern Europe, people have been disagreeing about al-Ghazali for a couple of centuries. Eduard Sachau, a German Orientalist who died in 1945, called the Muslim thinker an obscurantist "but for [whom] the Arabs might have been a nation of Galileos, Keplers and Newtons." But George Henry Lewes, a Victorian British historian of ideas, took a different view: he said Rene Descartes, the Frenchman who declared "I think therefore I am" was following al-Ghazali so closely that he would have been accused of plagiarism if the Muslim thinker were better known.
For anyone who, like Mr Tyson, professes to believe in honest intellectual inquiry, it is surely worth delving a bit more deeply into the thought of a man who was credited with one of the greatest minds of his era, and who produced 70 books with a huge variety of style and content. Perhaps the first point to make is that as one of the masters of Sufism, the mystical strain of Islam, al-Ghazali could hardly be further from today's violent fundamentalists; they loathe Sufism. Fundamentalists generally loathe any religious path which promises the believer direct experience of the divine, and hence can undermine religious authorities. Nor would today's Sunni Muslim extremists much care for al-Ghazali's assertion that law is designed to serve a purpose which is greater than any individual precept; violent types tend to be fanatics for the letter of the law as they interpret it.
A more interesting question is where al-Ghazali fits in the history of Western thought. He was wrestling with the exactly same problem as his Christian contemporaries: the fact that there are fundamental differences between Semitic monotheism and the world-view of ancient Greek thinkers, like Plato and Aristotle. It is true that compared with other Islamic thinkers, he was more insistent in asserting monotheism and therefore more critical of Aristotle; but Christians also had some differences with Aristotle, and it can be argued that al-Ghazali was rejecting his fellow Muslims' interpretation of Aristotle, not every single thing the Greek thinker had said.
Thomas Aquinas, one of the giants of medieval Western thought, was wrestling with the same dilemmas as the Muslim sage, and the rich dialogue which had taken place within the world of Islam clearly influenced him. Just like al-Ghazali, Aquinas had a mystical experience which told him that intellectual speculation was much less useful, as a path to God, than examining one's own heart and soul. But unlike the Muslim thinker, Aquinas died soon after his mystical epiphany, so we don't know much about where it took him. Al-Ghazali's spiritual autobiography is still read eagerly in the West as well as the Muslim world.
For today's anti-Islamic polemicists, the next page in the story is a simple one: the Christian West accepted Aristotle, and therefore became enlightened and progressive; the Muslims rejected Aristotle and therefore sank into the mire. But that is just too simple. Today's understanding of space, time and the emergence of the universe is at least as far removed from Aristotle's static cosmological system as it is from any religious narrative; sticking too closely to that system can easily become a form of dogmatism in the worst sense. When the medieval Catholic church was persecuting Galileo and Copernicus, it was doing so in the name of an Aristotelian view of the universe. So accepting Aristotle certainly didn't make the medieval Vatican into a paragon of reason and tolerance.
Al-Ghazali did not stop the Muslims doing science; they were producing decent mathematicians and astronomers for a couple of centuries after his death; and he does seem to have stimulated Western philosophy. When Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) invited people to take a bet on the existence on the God, he was (consciously or otherwise) closely following an argument made by the Islamic philosopher five centuries earlier. (I owe that insight to an unpublished paper by Reza Shah-Kazemi, a scholar with the London-based Institute of Ismaili Studies.)
A broader point is this. If you are really determined to reduce the intellectual history of the world into a simple contest of goodies and baddies, you can certainly find grounds to demonise al-Ghazali. You can also find grounds for burning the entire works of Friedrich Nietzsche because directly or indirectly he may have inspired the Nazis. But to denounce al-Ghazali as an enemy of rational inquiry, and then refuse to investigate in any depth what he actually said, is itself a way of rejecting the spirit of rational inquiry.