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Imam Al-Ghazali's ‘Wasatiyyah’ (Moderation) Theology and His Synthesis of the Role of Reason and Revelation in Divine Knowledge






By Prof. Henry Francis B. Espiritu, New Age Islam

15 June, 2015

1. Historical Facts on the Life and Times of Imam Al-Ghazali

         Hazrat Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad Al-Ghazali, known in the writings of Western medieval philosophers as Al-Gazel, was one of the famous Islamic philosophers in the medieval era. His name Muhammad al-Ghazali, means “Muhammad from Ghazal” (a town near Tehran, Iran, when it was yet a country of classical Sunni learning before the onslaught of Safavi Shi’ism on Iran). From Ghazal—early in his teenage life and his career as a theologian—he migrated to Baghdad, Iraq in order to teach the orthodox Sunni faith and to escape from what he perceived as the growing hold of heretical and fundamentalist brand of Shiite Islam in his native country, Iran. From this early episode of his life, we can already have a glimpse of Al-Ghazali’s fierce commitment to the mainline, orthodox, conformist and moderate Sunni Islam.

         Al-Ghazali is often called by the majority Muslims, “Imam-ul-Mutlaq”; i.e., “paramount teacher-leader”. He is always respectfully called as “Hazrat Imam Al-Ghazali (Venerable Teacher/Leader, Al-Ghazali). He is often grouped with Averroes (Ibn Rushd), Avicenna (Ibn Sina), Al-Farabi, Al-Kindi, and Ibn Khaldun as the classical philosophers in the medieval era.  He was the most religiously conservative among these famous medieval philosophers of Islam. Al-Ghazali was born in 1055 A.D and died at around 1111 A.D.  He has written more than a hundred theological and philosophical treatises, the famous of which is his works synthesizing the demands of Islamic Shari’ah (jurisprudence) with Islamic mysticism (Tasawwuf), which is entitled The Alchemy of Felicity; as well as his books upholding the centrality of revelation over and above reason, e.g., The Incoherence of the Philosophers and The Folly of Unaided Knowledge [For further information regarding Al-Ghazali, please refer to Oliver Leaman, A Brief Introduction to Islamic Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1999), pp. 1-12; under the heading “A Short History of Islamic Philosophy”].

        In my own estimation, Al-Ghazali is one of the most interesting philosophers and theologians of Islam in the medieval period. Among medieval Islamic philosophers, he was the most prolific writer. Likewise, he is often seen as the most conservative since he unequivocally upheld the priority of revelation as found in the Qur’an, over and above reason and philosophy. His book, The Incoherence of the Philosophers uses philosophical arguments as arsenals to uphold the foundational priority of revelation over reason (See Leamann, op. cit., pp. 1-12.  See also Mohammed Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy. New York:  Columbia University Press, 1983; pp. 74-87.). During his lifetime, he saw the decline of the Abbasid Caliphate, since it was burdened with sectarian revolts, wars of succession from within, as well as the Turkish and Seljuk influx of Baghdad, the capital of the Caliphate, which made the Turks the real power behind the throne of the Caliph.  With his very eyes, he saw the varying opinions of the sects within Islam (e.g., Shia, Sunni, Asharites, Mutazilites, Rationalists, etc.). He also saw the coming of various nationalities (Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Mongols, Slavo-Balkans, Armenians, etc.) into the Islamic Empire with their diverse ethos, belief systems and social customs. The expansion of Islam in the West, particularly in Greater Asia Minor (Anatolia), saw the ever-growing influence of Greek philosophy among Muslim thinkers and theologians.

        More than anything, Al-Ghazali became very much concerned over the sway of Greek philosophies in the minds and hearts of Islamic intellectuals who were now beginning to disparage and dismiss the primacy of Divine Revelation as found in the Qur-an, and replace its authority with their emphasis on Reason. Being a religious lawyer and a spiritual master of Islamic mysticism (Sufism), Al-Ghazali was likewise burdened—to the point of psychological exhaustion—by the incessant demands of Islamic ritualism and formalism propagated by doctors of Islamic Law (Shari’ah) and the equally formidable challenge of the Sufis for an emotive, and sentimental Islam devoid of legalist strictures. Al-Ghazali’s epoch was therefore a good example of an era when pluralism in the midst of diversity is truly manifest; therefore, Al-Ghazali, as a philosopher-theologian committed to the centrality and priority of Islamic Revelation cannot help but reflect on his religious and ethical beliefs vis-à-vis other belief systems in the midst of such pluralities and disparities of views (Fakhry, Ibid., pp. 89-90.). It was during these challenging times that Al-Ghazali wrote and reflected on how Islam can effectively address the pluralistic situation, but at the same time faithful to its creedal tenets and tradition, which he was truly committed to uphold.

2. The Theology Of Wasatiyyah (Moderation): A Quick Overview Of Imam Al-Ghazali’s Literary Works And Their Thematic Contents

        Imam Al-Ghazali is indeed a very complex thinker and theologian that one can out rightly misunderstand Al-Ghazali if one simplistically and naively judge him as a “fideist” (i.e., concerned only with faith to the exclusion of Reason) and “anti-philosophy”. I believe that the strength in Al-Ghazali’s treatises lies in their complexity of thematic contents. This complexity of thematic contents allows him to establish strands of philosophical nuances/distinctions marking him as conservative, yet a very tolerant Islamic theologian capable of developing philosophical syntheses and convergences among divergent philosophical persuasions.

         One recurring theme of Al-Ghazali’s writings is his persistent call for Muslims to become an “Ummatan Wasaatan” (community manifesting balance or moderation; Wasaat, in Arabic, has many strands of meaning: viz, normalcy, balance, mean/average, prudence, moderation, modesty). Although this phrase is originally Quranic since the Prophet Muhammad himself used the term “Ummatin Wasaatan” (community of moderation) to describe the ideal Muslim society, when Almighty Allah through the Prophet Muhammad exhorted the Muslims: “We have indeed made you, a community of moderation (Ummatan Wasaatan) so you will be the exemplar among the nations… therefore establish justice and moderation (Wasaat) [See Holy Qur-an, Surah Baqarah: 143. See also Surah Shuraa:38]; however it was Al-Ghazali, who in his writings constantly exhorted the faithful to adhere to moderation and likewise explained fully the intricacies and components of what this Islamic “moderation” (Wasatiyyah) meant to him.

         During his time, Imam Al-Ghazali perceived that many elements in the Muslim society had already deviated from the Prophetic exhortation to moderation and each sectarian groups showed tendencies of extremism (Ghulu) in one form or the other. The doctors of Islamic laws (Faqih or Quazi) emphasized on the Shari’ah (Islamic jurisprudence) with its rigid rituals and legalistic formulations at the expense of the spirit that animates the forms and rituals of Islamic worship. Some Sufis, on the other hand, went to the antinomian extreme; they denied the efficacy of Islamic Law and the established forms of worship and exaggerated emotionalism, mysticism, sentimentalism, emotivism and unbridled disregard for Islamic laws under the name of freedom, mysticism, enlightenment and spirituality. These pathetic extremist (Ghulat) tendencies had weighed on Al-Ghazali’s heart, which made him write treatises promoting understanding, balance, syntheses, and moderation and tolerance among disparate sectors of Muslim society.

        At this juncture, I would like to describe at least three important books of Al-Ghazali (among hundreds of treatises) to show his sincere concern for moderation in order to achieve Prophet Muhammad’s vision of a normal (Wasaat) Islamic society (Ummah). His book, The Incoherence of the Philosophers strives to establish Divine Revelation as the primary source of all knowledge, be it metaphysical, epistemological, or ethical. However, Al-Ghazali likewise maintained that despite the primacy of Divine Revelation, Reason, if it is employed in coordination and in conjunction with the truths of Divine Revelation, could be a secondary basis of knowledge. Reason as per Al-Ghazali, is not contradictory to Divine Revelation, rather supports and supplements it. It is also very interesting to note how Al-Ghazali in this book, Incoherence of the Philosophers utilized philosophy and philosophizing to expose what he called philosophy’s “pretensions of the ego” (Riyaa-un-Nafs in Arabic, it means “boastings of the self”) and to prove the need of humankind for divine guidance as found in Divine Revelation. Here, it is very clear that Al-Ghazali seeks to delineate, delimit, and to put boundaries on philosophy’s claim to knowledge; and not to out rightly dismiss philosophy as useless.

        Al-Ghazali’s book, Revival of Religious Sciences shows the need for both Islamic Law (Shari’ah) and Islamic mysticism/spirituality (Tasawwuf/Sufism). He shows that Islam is founded on the “forms” (Arabic, Rukn, which means formal rubrics or structures of worship) established by Divine Law as well as the “spirit” (Arabic, ruhaniy, which can mean piety or emotional bliss in worship) established by sincerity and spirituality. A formalistic Islam devoid of emotion, spirit, sincerity, and spirituality, is a dead Islam; while a sentimental, emotive, and ecstatic Islam devoid of moorings coming from the Shari’ah is divisive, anarchic, and bereft of foundations and is thereby open to deviations and heresies. It is in this book that Al-Ghazali shows the balance between Shari’ah and Sufism, and the synthesis between matters of formal law and the spirit emanating from the law.

        Al Ghazali’s book, On Deliverance from Errors endeavours to show that Islamic society can steer away from errors only by adopting an attitude of prudence and balance (at-Taqwa Wal Wasatiyyah) in all good things in religion; because all good things in religion, if practiced to the extremes and if applied without moderation can be virulent sources of heresies and errors. For the Islamic Ummah (community) to be delivered from errors and heretical exaggerations, it has to follow the inner law of prudence (Taqwa) and moderation (Wasaat). Errors and heresies that divide Islamic society come from extremism, exaggerations, and spiritual scruples (Dhalalat). In this book Al-Ghazali proceeds to show the synthesis between the spiritualities of love and fear, hope and prudence; while making distinctions between obedience and scruples, faith vs. presumptions, spiritualities of the heart (emotive expressions of worship) vs. reasons of the mind (creedal pronouncements); with a view of establishing working balance/normative mean between these seemingly opposite dispositions of spiritualities. Interestingly, as Al-Ghazali strives to establish the synthesis of the disparate spiritual tendencies found within Muslim societies, he was able to show the need for tolerance and toleration in the midst of these pluralistic differences.              

3. Imam Al-Ghazali’s primary source of knowledge: Divine Revelation

         Contrary to the secular approach to philosophy that strives to diminish the importance of religion, Al-Ghazali insists that a religious grounding of knowledge is imperative. As per Al-Ghazali, the ultimate foundation for all principles of knowledge is Divine Revelation as found in the Qur’an.  Al-Ghazali argues that the metaphysical and philosophical principles found in the Qur’anic revelation—“its utter comprehensibility and wisdom for the simple and the sophisticated men alike”—is one of the primary evidence for its comprehensive and universal value. For Al-Ghazali, one can have absolute confidence in the wisdom of the Qur’an because of its timeless value, relevance, and trustworthiness—and this is because of its Divine origin. Indeed, Al-Ghazali is uncompromising in his view on the primacy of Divine Revelation as the primary source of knowledge such that any orthodox Muslims (or even an orthodox Christian for that matter) will be able to identify or sympathize with him in this starting point of his philosophical system.

         In the same vein, Al-Ghazali’s foundational methodology in ascertaining principles from the Quran-an is uncomplicated.  For him, to discover philosophical truths is simply to ascertain what the Divine Designer and Lawgiver says and commands to us. The will of God as the Divine Lawgiver is found in the Quran-an, and it is our incumbent duty to hermeneutically deduce metaphysical, moral, and epistemological principles as found in its pages and apply these insights to our respective situations in life.

         This principle articulated by Imam Al-Ghazali that one who is in need of divine guidance from the Quran-an must personally consult the holy scriptures for such guidance is based on Al-Ghazali’s Sufi conviction that religious experience should come from direct experiencing of guidance (Zauq-ul-Hudaa). This means that for Al-Ghazali, in order for one to know God in an intimate manner, one must experience or taste (Zauq) God’s presence and personally perceive God’s divine favour (Ni’mah); for the knowledge of God cannot be mediated by another—the person himself must develop this loving relationship with God in his inner life (See, his book, Al-Jawahir al Qur-aniyya wad Duraruh Ilahiyya [“The Jewel of the Quran-an and the Pearl from the Divine”]; pp. 32-36). For divine guidance in our personal life, Al-Ghazali strongly encourages us believers to perform our own individualized Ijtihad—which is striving for our own interpretation of the Holy Quran-an using our own unique contexts and personal circumstances—by delving into the revelations in the Quran-an and utilizing our own rational faculties and existential situatedness to ascertain God’s will for our life (See Al-Jawahir al Qur-aniyya wad Duraruh Ilahiyya; pp.45-47). This above point clearly shows that personal ijtihad (striving individually to know God’s will using the Qur-an and Sunnah) as well as Zauq-E-Huzur-Ilahi (personal experiencing of God’ presence), far from being heretical innovations (as they are considered today by some newly formulated Islamic sects like the Wahhabi and Salafi) are in fact firmly affirmed and prescribed by one of the greatest theologian of classical orthodox and normative Sunni Islam, namely Hazrat Imam Al-Ghazali!   

 4. Al-Ghazali on the cooperative role of Reason and “natural philosophy” as sources of knowledge next to the Quran-an

         Al-Ghazali’s granting epistemological primacy to Revelation does not mean that he already dismissed the philosophical value of Reason as a source of knowledge. Let us take for example some insights in his book, Adabiyyah fil Islam (Morality in Islam), Al-Ghazali made use of reasons to validate a divine command. For him, the revealed injunction as found in a divine command is thoroughly compatible with rational reflections on what is right or good. Al-Ghazali, by his validation of the divine injunction using natural reason, implicitly recognizes that human reasoning complements our understanding of divine principles in revelation as made known to us by the Holy Qur-an (See Albert Malcolm, Principal Philosophical Themes among Islamic Medieval Philosophers. Washington D.C.: Academic Council for Islamic Philosophy, 1969; p. 111.).

         Understandably, Al-Ghazali would insist that one should still follow Qur’anic injunctions even if one cannot see its apparent wisdom.  But the point is, his “natural-law” presupposition is that given, the Creator desires the best for his creatures, then one can expect to find rational justifications for all Qur’anic injunctions, if one sincerely reflects on the logical reasons and implications of these injunctions. In Al-Ghazali’s methodology, rationality is compatible with revelation, although reason takes on a subordinate position to Divine Revelation; and by reflecting on the divine injunction; reason can intuit the rationality of a particular divine command. This is indeed an encouraging aspect in Al-Ghazali’s theology. Despite his religious conservatism, he still insists on the importance of rational explanation and places this rational justification as confirmatory basis of Divine Revelation’s ethical relevance, without of course taking away the centrality of the divine injunction.

         Furthermore, Al-Ghazali’s implicit allusion to human rationality that underlies all ethical reasoning affords a pluralistic venue in the midst of diversity. This implies that non-Muslims too can know what is good or right and by reflecting on this rational endowment, their judgment can likewise coincide with the divine injunctions set-forth in the Qur’an. Moreover, our rational endowment as a reflection of an inner ethical principle allows Muslims and non-Muslims to converse with each other using our own common rationality and moral intuition (Albert Malcolm, Ibid., pp. 112-114.).  Therefore, the attacks made by some philosophers on Al-Ghazali as “anti-philosophical” and as a “fideist” (a believer in faith to the exclusion of Reason) crumble in the light of the abovementioned point regarding his valuation of Reason as subordinate yet complementary to Divine Revelation.

 5. Epilogue: Assessment of the Relevance of Al-Ghazali’s “Wasaatiyyah” Theology to the Contemporary Situation of the Muslim Ummah

         Taking into consideration his philosophico-theological milieu, Hazrat Imam Al-Ghazali needed to articulate his defence of the orthodox Islamic views of faith and conduct, in the midst of the imminent danger of disintegration of the once stable Sunni Abbasid Caliphate as an aftermath to the onslaught of Shi’ite rebellions against it, the divisive quarrels between formalistic doctors of the Shari’ah law and antinomian Islamic mystics (Sufis), as well as the growing fascination of Greek philosophy among Islamic intelligentsias. He stood his ground against any dilution of what he perceives as the orthodox Sunni understanding of faith and morals from the onslaught of scepticism and agnosticism that characterized the works of other Islamic philosophers (e.g., Al-Farabi, Al-Kindi, Averroes, Avicenna, etc.) [See Leaman, An Introduction to Medieval Islamic Philosophy, op. cit., pp. 186-189.].

        What is perceived by some scholars as apparent conservatism in Al-Ghazali’s theology serves his double aims of preserving the values and ethos of Islam as found in the Qur’anic revelation and informing the Islamic believers regarding the coherence, rationality, and beauty of the orthodox Islamic faith (Ibid., pp. 190-191.). Al-Ghazali’s works should be understood as addressing the abovementioned dual aims.  It is in this sense that I therefore consider Al-Ghazali as performing the very crucial role of preserving the classical Sunni Islamic faith-tradition during the precarious times characterizing his day and age. 

        In our contemporary times, it is indeed imperative to have a philosophical and theological framework that is grounded on the truths of faith-traditions but it must likewise be a framework that incorporates its commitment to pluralism and diversity.  What we find in the medieval Islamic philosopher-theologian, Al-Ghazali is an exemplary and inspiring philosophy that is clearly grounded in his own faith-tradition, yet simultaneously, committed to synthesis, moderation, pluralism, and tolerance for diversity.

        It is beneficial therefore, that both Muslims and non-Muslims reflect on the synthesis that Al-Ghazali undertook with respect to his commitment to orthodoxy and to his openness to moderation, pluralism and tolerance. Taking into consideration his circumstance as an Islamic philosopher in the Medieval Era, he was able to come up with some interesting ways of synthesizing his faith with other faith-traditions, as well as clarifying what he thinks to be the relationship between faith and ethics, reason and revelation, creedal pronouncements and emotive spirituality, etc. Al-Ghazali was both a philosopher and a theologian, so his metaphysics is strongly grounded in revelation, and yet can be known to anyone willing to use his rational facility and moral discernment.  He insists on the truths of the revealed faith while acknowledging the legitimacy and limitations of natural philosophy. He knows how to acknowledge the validity of reason in philosophy, but simultaneously, he is also very brave to question its intellectual pretensions and arrogance.

        Taking account of our present global situation, Al-Ghazali’s work is indeed profitable to both Western and non-Western scholars, Muslims and non-Muslims alike; for indeed, he has many relevant things to say to us on the issues of pluralism, tolerance, moderation from all forms of extremism, and of bridging the secular and theological foundations of ethics. Al-Ghazali can be a relevant source of inspiration and a fruitful conversation partner to contemporary thinkers, who are still willing to uphold the view that philosophy can be grounded in the theological claim of Revelation; and who are likewise cognizant of the need for dialogue, pluralism, moderation, and tolerance in the midst of diversity in our present contemporary milieu.

 Prof. Henry Francis B. Espiritu is Associate Professor-VI of Philosophy and Asian Studies at the University of the Philippines (UP), Cebu City. He was former Academic Coordinator of the Political Science Program at UP Cebu from 2011-2014. His research interests include Islamic Studies particularly Sunni (Hanafi) jurisprudence, Islamic feminist discourses, Islam in interfaith dialogue initiatives, Islamic environmentalism, the writings of Imam Al-Ghazali on pluralism and tolerance, Turkish Sufism, Muslim-Christian dialogue, Middle Eastern affairs, Peace Studies and Public Theology.

URL: https://www.newageislam.com/islamic-ideology/prof-henry-francis-b-espiritu,-new-age-islam/imam-al-ghazali-s-‘wasatiyyah’-(moderation)-theology-and-his-synthesis-of-the-role-of-reason-and-revelation-in-divine-knowledge/d/103504



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