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Al Ghazali on Piety

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Source: Translator's Introduction to The Alchemy of Happiness, by Mohammed Al-Ghazzali, the Mohammedan Philosopher, trans. Henry A. Homes (Albany, N.Y.: Munsell, 1873). Transactions of the Albany Institute, vol. VIII.


The remarkable treatise, which I introduce to your notice, is a translation from one of the numerous works of the Arabian Philosopher, Abou Hamid Mohammed ben Mohammed al Ghazzali, who flourished in the eleventh century. He was born about the year A. D. 1056, or 450 of the Mohammedan era, at Tous in Khorasan, and he died in the prime of life in his native country about the year 1011, or 505 A. H. Although educated by Mohammedan parents, he avows that during a considerable period of his life he was a prey to doubts about the truth, and that at times he was an absolute sceptic. While yet comparatively young, his learning and genius recommended him to the renowned sovereign Nizam ul Mulk, who gave him a professorship in the college which he had founded at Bagdad. His speculative mind still harassing him with doubts, in his enthusiasm to arrive at a solid foundation for knowledge, he resigned his position, visited Mecca and Jerusalem, and finally returned to Khorasan, where he led a life of both monastic study and devotion, and consecrated his pen to writing the results of his meditations.

Mohammedan scholars of the present day still hold him in such high respect, that his name is never mentioned by them without some such distinctive epithet, as the “Scientific Imaum,” or “Chief witness for Islamism.” His rank in the eastern world, as a philosopher and a theologian, had naturally given his name some distinction in our histories of philosophy, and it is enumerated in connection with those of Averroes (Abu Roshd) and Avicenna (Abu Sina) as illustrating the intellectual life and the philosophical schools of the Mohammedans. Still his writings were less known than either of the two others. His principal work, The Destruction of the Philosophers, called forth in reply one of the two most important works of Averroes entitled The Destruction of the Destruction. Averroes, in his commentary upon Aristotle, extracts from Ghazzali copiously for the purpose of refuting bis views. A short treatise of his had been published at Cologne, in 1506, and Pocock had given in Latin his interpretation of the two fundamental articles of the Mohammedan creed. Von Hammer printed in 1838, at Vienna, a translation of a moral essay, Eyuha el Weied, as a new year's token for youth.

It has been reserved to onr own times to obtain a more intimate acquaintance with Ghazzali, and this chiefly by means of a translation by M. Pallia, into French, of his Confessions, wherein he announces very clearly his philosophical views; and from an essay on his writings byM. Smolders. In consequence, Mr. Lewes, who in his first edition of the Biographical History of Philosophy, found no place for Ghazzali, is induced in his last edition, from the evidenee which that treatise contains that he was one of the controlling minds of his age, to devote an entire section to an exhibition of his opinions in the same series with Abclard and Bruno, and to make him the typical figure to represent Arabian philosophy. For a full account of Ghazzali's school of philosophy, we refer to his history and to the two essays, just mentioned. We would ohserve, very briefly however, that like most of the learned Mohammedans of his age, he was a student of Aristotle. While they regarded all the Greek philosophers as infidels, they availed themselves of their logic and their principles of philosophy to maintain, as far possible, the dogmas of the Koran. Ghazzali's mind possessed however Platonizing tendencies, and he affiliated himself to the Soofies or Mystics in his later years. He was in antagonism with men who to him appeared, like Avicenna, to exalt reason above the Koran, yet he himself went to the extreme limits of reasoning in his endeavors to find an intelligible basis for the doctrines of the Koran, and a philosophical basis for a holy rule of life. His character, and moral and intellectual rank are vividly depicted in the following extract from the writings of Tholuck, a prominent leader of the modern Evangelical school of Germany.

“Ghazzali,” says Tholuek, “if ever any man have deserved the name, was truly a divine, and he may justly he placed on a level with Origeu, so remarkable was he for learning and ingenuity, and gifted with such a rare faculty for the skillful and worthy exposition of doctrine. All that is good, noble and sublime, which his great soul had compassed, he bestowed upon Mohammedanism; and he adorned the doctrines of the Koran with so much piety and learning, that, in the form given them by him, they seem in my opinion worthy the assent of Christians. Whatsoever was most excellent in the philosophy of Aristotle or in the Soofi mysticism, he discreetly adapted to the Mohammedan theology. From every school, he sought the means of shedding light and honor upon religion; while his sincere piety and lofty conscientiousness imparted to all his writings a sacred majesty. He was the first of Mohammedan divines.” (Bibliotheca Sacra, vi, 233).

Sale, in the preliminary discourse to his translation of the Koran, shows that he had discovered the peculiar traits of Ghazzali's mind; for wherever he gives an explanation of the Mussulman creed, peculiarly consonant to universal reason and opposed to superstition, it will be found that he quotes from him.1

This treatise on the Alchemy of Happiness, or Kimiai Saadet, seems well adapted to extend our knowledge of the writings of Ghazzali and of the opinions current then and now in the Oriental world. Although it throws no light on any questions of geography, philology or political history, objects most frequently in view in translations from the Oriental languages, yet a book which exhibits with such plainness the opinions of so large a portion of the human race as the Mohammedans, on questions of philosophy, practical morality and religion, will always be as interesting to the general reader and to a numerous class of students, as the facts that may be elicited to complete a series of kings in a dynasty or to establish the site of an ancieut city can be to the historian or the geographer. I translate it from an edition published in Turkish in 1845 (A. H., 1260), at the imperial printing press in Constantinople. As no books are allowed to be printed there which have not passed under the eyes of the censor, the doctrines presented in the book indicate, not only the opinions of eight hundred years since, but also what views are regarded as orthodox, or tolerated among the orthodox at the present day. It has been printed also in Persian at Calcutta.

In form, the book contains a treatise on practical piety, but as is the case with a large proportion of Mohammedan works, the author, whatever may be his subject, finds a place for observations reaching far wide of his apparent aim, so our author is led to make many observations which develop his notions in anatomy, physiology, natural philosophy and natural religion. The partisans of all sorts of opinions will be interested in finding that a Mohammedan author writing so long since in the centre of Asia, had occasion to approve or condemn so many truths, speculations or fancies which are now current among us with the reputation of novelty. Many of the same paradoxes and problems that startle or fascinate in the nineteenth century are here discussed. He came in contact, among his contemporaries, with persons who made the same general objections to natural and revealed religion, as understood by Mohammedans, as are in our days made to Christianity, or who perverted and abused the religion which they professed for their own ends, in the same manner as Christianity is abused among us. And he engaged with earnestness now truthfully, and now erroneously, in refuting these men. His usual stand-point in discussion is equally removed from the most extravagant mysticism, and literal and formal orthodoxy. He attempts a dignified blending of reason and faith, requiring of his fellow men unfeigned piety in the temper and tone of an evangelical Christian. He reminds his readers, in these discourses, that they are not Mussulmans if they are satisfied with merely a nominal faith, and treats with scorn those who are spiritualists only in language and dress.

It is too narrow a view to adopt, in regard to a man of the sublime character of Ghazzali, that he obtained his ideas from any one school of thinkers, or that being in fellowship with the Soofies, that he was merely a Soofi. He was living in the centre of Aryan peoples and religions. He may have had his doctrine of the future life shaped by Zoroaster, and have been influenced by the missionaries of the Buddhists.

The practical religion taught in these homilies will give a favorable opinion of the state of mind of the more intelligent Mussulmans. They contain not the Mohammedanism of the creed or the catechism, but of the closet and the pulpit. The tenor of the book establishes the truth of Ibn Khallikan's remark in his Biographical Dictionary that “Ghazzali's ruling passion was making public exhortations.”

While perusing these pages, and noticing how much of the language of Qhazzali corresponds in its representations of God, of a holy life and of eternity, with the solemn instructions to which we have listened from our infancy, we may think of the magicians who imitated the miracles of Moses with their enchantments. Tet assuredly a vivid and respectful interest must be awakened in our minds for the races and nations, whose ideas of their relations as immortal beings arc so serious and earnest.

The translation I have endeavored to make a close transcript of the meaning of the Turkish; having especially sought to find appropriate equivalents for native idioms. I have designated the chapter and verse of nearly every passage quoted from the Koran. The omissions in the text, which are made apparent by signs, are limited to digressions of the author, to repetitions and to some of the illustrations; so that there is no interruption of the continuity of thought in the themes discussed. The Turkish edition itself was but a portion of the original work. Two or three notes are added, either explanatory of the text or illustrative of the author, from Oriental sources.

[1]Pallia, Méimoire eur le manuscrit Arabe de la Bibliothèque Royale de Paris, No. 884, contenant un traité philosophique d' Algazali. Mèm. de 1‘ lusiiuu de France. Tome 1, Savants étrangera. Paris, 1841, 4°.

SmÖlders, Essai sur les écoles philosoyhiques chez les Arabes et notamment sur la doctrine d' al Gbazzili. Paris, 1842. 8°.

Sale's Koran, vol. I, p. 326, and note.

Last modified April 13, 2016