Remembering Muhammad Al-Ghazalli (1058-1111CE)


And do not think of those who died in the path of the Almighty are dead: indeed they are alive, and receiving their sustenance from their Lord… (Quran 3:169-170)

Brethren, it was previously not in my plan to “sit” with al-Ghazalli today; it was not in my plan to take you back on a journey to that year, 1111 C.E, when Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī bid this world bye. I had thought that was not necessary since hardly would a day pass us bye in our constant interaction with reason and unreason, in our constant interface with reason and revelation that we fail to “listen” to him as he ‘expounds’ upon the text and the texted in the extremely prodigious Muslim culture and tradition.

I remember that I discovered al-Ghazalli early in life, in the plenitude and opulence of my father’s library. I began to read The Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihyâ’ ‘Ulûm al-Dîn) not by force but by choice. I discovered that the voluminous compendium -Ihya- is a comprehensive guide to ethical behavior in the everyday life of Muslims. I discovered that like the four poles of the world, the compendium is divided into four sections, each containing ten books.

The first section deals with ritual practices (‘ibadât), the second with social customs (‘âdât), the third with those things that lead to perdition (muhlikât) and hence should be avoided, and the fourth with those that lead to salvation (munjiyât) and should be sought. I remember my friends in those good old days- all of whom are now scholars and intellectuals in that University. Each time we chanced upon ‘gold’ in our readings, we hastened to ‘market’ it among ourselves at night, on our way from the Madrasah where we were engaged as tutors. The more of al-Ghazalli we read, the more of his works we realized we needed to read. But who was he?

Philosophers in Stanford University have suggested that Abû Hâmid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazâlî was born in 1058 in Tabarân-Tûs (15 miles north of modern Mashad, NE Iran), yet notes about his age in his letters and his autobiography indicate that he was born in 1055 or 1056. He received his early education in his hometown of Tus together with his brother Ahmad who equally became a famous preacher and Sufi scholar. al-Ghazalli later went on to study with the influential Ash’arite theologian al-Juwaynî (1028–85) at the Nizâmiyya Madrasa in nearby Nishapur. This brought him in close contact with the court of the Grand-Seljuq Sultan Malikshah who reigned between 1071–92 and his grand-vizier Nizâm al-Mulk who gained political authority between 1018 and 1092. In 1091 Nizâm al-Mulk appointed al-Ghazâlî to the prestigious Nizâmiyya Madrasa in Baghdad. In addition to being a confidante of the Seljuq Sultan and his court in Isfahan, al-Ghazalli now became closely connected to the caliphal court in Baghdad. He became undoubtedly the most influential intellectual of his time.

However in 1095 al-Ghazalli suddenly relinquished his posts in Baghdad and left the city. He had realized that the high ethical standards of a virtuous religious life are not compatible with being in the service of sultans, viziers, and caliphs. al-Ghazalli had realized that scholars should not be at the doorstep of the politicians; it had dawned on him that an intellectual or a Professor who became a commissioner in the cabinet of a professional politician had lost the ken of intellectualism and the dignity of scholarship. Benefiting from the riches of the military and political elite implies complicity in their corrupt and oppressive rule and will jeopardize one’s prospect of redemption in the afterlife.

When al-Ghazalli left Baghdad in 1095 he went to Damascus and Jerusalem and vowed at the tomb of Abraham in Hebron never again to serve the political authorities or teach at state-sponsored schools. He continued to teach, however, at small schools (singl. zâwiya) that were financed by private donations. After performing the pilgrimage in 1096, al-Ghazâlî returned via Damascus and Baghdad to his hometown Tûs, where he founded a small private school and a Sufi convent (khânqâh). In 1106, at the beginning of the 6th century in the Muslim calendar, al-Ghazâlî broke returned to teaching at the Nizâmiyya Madrasa in Nishapur, where he himself had been a student. He continued to teach at his zâwiya in Tûs until he died in 1111.

Now al-Ghazalli’s image and memory appeared for my contemplation when I chanced upon one of his eternal philosophical statements and sayings which reads: “Your time should not be without any structure, such that you occupy yourself arbitrarily with whatever comes along. Rather, you must take account of yourself and order your worship during the day and the night, assigning to each period of time an activity that must not be neglected nor replaced by another activity”.

“By this ordering of time, the blessing in time will show itself. A person who leaves himself without a plan as animals do, not knowing what he is to do at any given moment, will spend most of his time fruitlessly. Your time is your life, and your life is your capital: by it you make your trade, and by it you will reach the eternal bounties in the proximity of the Almighty”.

“Every single breath of yours is a priceless jewel, because it is irreplaceable; once it is gone, there is no return for it. So do not be like fools who rejoice each day as their wealth increases while their lives decrease. What good is there in wealth that increases while one’s lifespan decreases? Do not rejoice except in an increase of knowledge or an increase of good works. Truly they are your two friends who will accompany you in your grave, when your spouse, your wealth, your children, and your friends will remain behind.”
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Muhammad Al-Ghazalli


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